Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Gautam Hans

on criticizing the culture of criticism in the Columbia Spectator. Gautam is a very regular reader and commenter here, a well-read Columbia senior who has interned at the Village Voice and Soft Skull, two institutions (can I call Soft Skull an institution?) dear to my heart; expect great literary things from him in the future. (Thanks to the Literary Saloon for the link.)

Monday, February 27, 2006


Nick Mamatas interviews Poppy Z. Brite at the Voice website.

The limbic system stands up for its rights

Last night I felt strangely weary and determined on going to bed much earlier than usual (i.e. midnight rather than 3am, sleep is not my happiest topic), and yet it was clear I wouldn't be able to fall asleep at once so I picked up a random non-fiction book someone recently loaned me (I needed to read it so as to give it back, and in general I find non-fiction better bedtime reading than novels as being easier to pick up and put down again rather than reading all at once). It was both the wrong book and the incredibly right one, I read for several hours last night and have just now finished it and am again illicitly and decadently blogging during what should be real work hours (this is part of the point of having a sabbatical, I tell myself guiltily, that one should be able to indulge oneself like this) because it was so wonderfully good and stimulating--everyone who writes or for that matter does any other kind of imaginative work like painting or composing should read it at once!

The book is The Midnight Disease : The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty. I remember reading about this when it came out in 2004 and making a mental note that it sounded interesting; it's really remarkably good. It's not a self-help book for writers, it's not a popular science book about writer's block, it's a grippingly interesting and highly stimulating book by an appealingly intellectual and scientific-minded neurologist whose personal experiences radically overturned her understanding of the relationship between reason and the emotions.

She remains the intellectual and science-minded person she was before, in other words (perhaps more than she realizes), but her understanding of her own relationship with language and perception and writing is remarkably enriched by a painful personal history of bereavement and mental illness. In this sense the book is reminiscent of others I have also liked very much, most obviously Kay Redfield Jameson's An Unquiet Mind (and all of KRJ's books are very good reading though sometimes uneven) and The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (if you haven't read the latter, do get it and read it, it is fascinating and excellent for many reasons and somewhat unexpectedly includes a really stellar chapter on poverty and depression in which Solomon hits on the kind of stuff you more readily associate with writers like Katharine Boo and Adrian LeBlanc).

Flaherty isn't a miraculous sentence-writer, I think this book is rather less well-written at that level than, say, Oliver Sacks's stuff, and the first half of the book has a few too many paragraphs that sound stilted and textbook-like; but she is a clear and interesting and extremely engaging writer who is really visibly thinking with every sentence, and in my opinion these are the best books of all, these ones where the energy and mental stimulation carry you along with the writer through a huge range of important topics. (She does have that slightly annoying sense of humor I associate with Steven Pinker--introducing the throwaway Woody-Allen-type line as an aside at the end of a paragraph, to illustrate a point--but then this is always a blind spot for me, it made me have to stop reading a book I should have loved, Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers--Roach is a smart and imaginative investigator but her jokes struck me as intolerably whimsical--on the other hand sometimes jokes become so genuinely awful they are funny again, I am thinking in this case of a book I adore that is studded with the most truly awful and groan-worthy jokes, a book I also recommend on topics related to the main ones at hand in this post: V. S. Ramachandran's wonderful Phantoms in the Brain.)

I had a slight superstitious sense that it would be unwise to pick up a book about writer's block when I wasn't obviously blocked myself, but that quickly vanished as I found myself immersed in Flaherty's imaginative world. (Though she perceptively points out that writer's block and hypergraphia are less opposites than symptoms of a more generally disordered relationship with writing, I am obviously--at least 90% of the time, there's always the other 10% when things are considerably more difficult--more afflicted with the too-much of reading and writing than the too-little. This entry is going to be excessively long.) I don't think I can do anything better here than provide some of the passages that most struck me, and encourage you to get hold of a copy and take a look for yourself.

Here's one from early on where I was laughing with the sense of self-recognition (and Flaherty is appealingly self-conscious and humorous even when it's at her own expense, you see the tone here):

[A] sense of vocation doesn't guarantee happiness at work. Nor does it guarantee being good at the job. Perhaps it merely gives its possesor a subtle feeling of megalomania, a sense of being in some manner chosen for a higher goal. Sense of vocation as disease. How is vocation related to workaholism, and is hypergraphia a special case of either? To some extent "workaholism" is a term others use to describe people who prefer to describe themselves as having a vocation. The others are saying that he doesn't enjoy himself as much as he thinks, that he works to relieve anxiety, not for pleasure or a goal. Yet even those with a true vocation never feel only the joy of work without occasionally feeling its terror. When your work is part of who you are, and you feel you are working badly, you become foul to yourself. This is part of the tight link between hypergraphia and writer's block. (57)

And again:

When others' obsessions are not ours, we are sad for them, and we talk of how empty their lives will be if they don't achieve their empty goal: the gymnastics prize, the firm partnership. But there is a monomania in which it is the focus, the sense of transport, that is the real pleasure. The kind of compulsive reading in which you lose yourself, which brings no medals or talk-show appearances, is one example of that. (177)

As part of a reflection on disordered relationships with reading among different populations:

Whether compulsive reading in normals is related to hyperlexia in autism is not clear. Most likely it is a combination of innate predisposition and learning and, occasionally, the desire to escape into a different world. One writer tells of seeing a four-year-old boy who tried to climb inside a large picture book. He opened it to his favorite page, spread it open on the floor, and stepped in. When nothing happened, he cried in bewilderment. Some of us spend our lives trying to climb inside books, often rather successfully. It is a passion that can extend from nearly the cradle to the grave. The poet Leigh Hunt said he "wanted to be caught dead while holding a book." He was. (175)

On writing and gender (or more generally the way that personal experience may or may not feed into more obviously impersonal forms of scientific writing):

Why was I writing a female-style book full of unsolicited personal confessions about how emotions and childbirth and PMS and choosing daycare centers . . . had changed my writing? Why couldn't I have written a purely objective scientific treatise, or chosen a less female topic--fly fishing, perhaps? Of course, it's possible for women to write like men; my own first book was clipped and distant. Yet I have the disturbing feeling that something has been turning me from a writer into a woman writer. Is it the hormones in the pregnancies? The activity of raising young children? Part of me wishes that whatever is doing it would stop. But part wonders why scientists are uspposed to hide the reasons why they care about their reseaech. And why fly flishing is considered of general interest, anyway. (133)

(Elsewhere, though, she admits that the dry neurology textbook is itself a record of three joyful years as a neurology resident; and this rings true for me, that the pleasure of a particular project may not always be evident in the form it takes.)

And after a set of reflections on reason and the emotions that covers ground from Paul Ekman and Darwin on the emotions to William James, Antonio Damasio and Martha Nussbaum on emotions and decision-making:

Decreasing the exaggerated opposition between "rational" and "emotional" writing might make scientists write differently. An economist who cloaks his deeply felt personal beliefs in dry technical prose might be at once more honest and rhetorically more effective if he let some of his passion show through. Would the reverse cross-pollination help writing in the humanities? It might not benefit lyric poetry, with its explicit concern for "true for me" rather than "true." But in other genres, even the most devoted disciple of someone like Lacan (and I admit to a secret fondness for him) must sometimes wish for a thread of logical argument in his writing. (195)

And the passage from which I drew the title for this post:

Before my postpartum break I saw the unnaturalness of scientific thought as beautiful, a way to escape the limitations of the messy brain not only by the discoveries that the brain generates, but through the way the very activity changes the brain's shape, like a dancer going en point. Now that my limbic system stands up for its rights more, I suppose the same image still applies, but part of me draws the opposite conclusion. Who would want to do that to her poor feet? (227)

The deliberate bloodlessness of scientific writing now seems less a necessary imperfection in the search for objectivity than a crime against humanity. (235)

And in conclusion, the book's credo:

The scientist in me worries that my happiness is nothing more than a symptom of bipolar disease, hypergraphia from a postpartum disorder. The rest of me thinks that artificially splitting off the scientist in me from the writer in me is actually a kind of cultural bipolar disorder, one that too many of us have. The scientist asks how I can call my writing vocation and not addiction. I no longer see why I should have to make that distinction. I am addicted to breathing in the same way. I write because when I don't, it is suffocating. I write because something much larger than myself comes into me that suffuses the page, the world, with meaning. Although I constantly fear that what I am writing teeters at the edge of being false, this force that drives me cannot be anything but real, or nothing will ever be real for me again. (266)

About Octavia

Ed has a really wonderful musing about Octavia Butler at Return of the Reluctant; and if you scroll down to the bottom, you'll find a lot more links.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Oh, I was really hoping this terrible news

would be fictitious, like I was just imagining I'd seen it, but now Justine as well as Ed have blogged it (and the original report comes from Steven Barnes's blog). Octavia Butler is dead. But she was much too young! It is an injustice. Butler is one of those special writers for me, I remember first reading Parable of the Sower and being just startled with a sense of recognition: this is my kind of writer. I don't have it that often, actually; I mean, obviously, I love a ton of different kinds of books, but what I'm talking about here is different, it's seeing something (I don't know what to call it; perhaps some combination of intellectual energy and storytelling and sensibility?) that is exactly, exactly what I aspire to get myself in my writing. The idea that we will not have the five or six or seven more novels that surely Butler would have written--oh, it is too sad to contemplate.

Here's Ed's recent podcast interview with Butler, anyway, which I haven't listened to yet but seems to cover an amazing range of topics. Here's me loving her last novel Fledgling in December, and here's the Amazon link for Fledgling (which has my highest recommendation, it is a wonderfully good novel--with vampires).

Amazing recollections of Samuel Beckett

at the Guardian. Here, for instance, is the actress Billie Whitelaw ("In Not I (1973) she was covered in a hood, shrouded in black and placed high up in a chair on a podium. It was a very demanding role and on one occasion she collapsed"):

Sam and I used to work in the afternoon at my home. We used to go back and say [the play] together all the time. I'll tell you what, in my emotional memory, happened when I collapsed at rehearsal. It was nothing to do with Sam, nothing to do with Not I; it was to do with sensory deprivation. If you are blindfolded and have a hood over your face, you hyperventilate, you suffer from sensory deprivation. And I hung on and hung on until I couldn't any longer. I just went to pieces because I was convinced I was like an astronaut tumbling out into space. That's when I fell down; I couldn't go on. They lifted me down and, I think Jocelyn [Herbert, the designer] or Robbie [Hendry, the stage manager] or somebody, got me a brandy and milk, and I remember Sam walked down the central aisle of the Royal Court saying, 'Oh Billie, what have I done to you, what have I done to you?' And I drank the brandy and milk and said, 'OK, that's another barrier cracked. Back up in there, but can we have a little slit in there and a little blue light so that I know I'm here, because I can see that?' So the reason for the breakdown had nothing to do with the play or the rehearsal, it had to do with the pure technicality of being blindfolded, hooded, speaking at great speed and hyperventilating.

Three things:

1. Something like that once happened to me when I was acting (only less dramatic of course), it was a two-person play written by my friend David Gammons and loosely based on Jeffrey Dahmer's story with cross-gender casting. Tanya Selvaratnam played the killer, I played the victim; in an ideal world, we would have switched off on alternate nights, but in the actual world we had only a couple weeks for rehearsals and the killer had the lion's share of the lines and Tanya has an uncannily good memory (of the read-it-over-twice-even-if-it's-thirty-pages-long-and-she-can-say-the-lines type) whereas I have a normal one and am lazy about memorizing, so it was obvious we would do it that way. I spent most of the first half tied to a chair with my mouth duct-taped shut, and on the opening night I really had a scary fit of hyperventilation (I have never experienced such a thing before or since, normally I am ridiculously sturdy), I was afraid I was having a stroke or something (the intense heat and lights, the claustrophobic over-populated underground theater space--yes, it was the Kronauer Space in Adams House, if you happen to know it)--and when the duct tape came off, I could barely speak, my facial muscles were temporarily paralyzed. Very scary; but very effective on stage, I am told, and even at the time I was aware that it was playing well.

2. I saw the altogether amazing Marian Seldes as Mouth in Not I and was blown away by it, it was my very favorite part of the superb Beckett/Albee show a few years ago. The thing you don't think of when you read it on the page: that you will get to see so much of the dental work of the performer. Seriously, though, the glinting metal and the voice and the bit of mouth that you can see through the hole in the curtain: completely mesmerizing. That night was on my short list of best theater experiences ever. Aside from everything else, there's a fun moment in Albee's Counting the Ways, which was performed as the second half of the evening, where the performers step forward and speak out of character and off the top of their heads. Marian Seldes modestly introduced herself and spoke for a minute or so, then handed over to Brian Murray, who gloweringly tore into an audience member whose cellphone had unfortunately rung at a particularly exposed moment at the end of Murray's performance of A Piece of Monologue (another one of the Beckett shorts in the first half). Then he got a demonic grin on his face--it was the day of the California recall election--and said, "And I've got two other words for you." We all waited somewhat in terror--he really had seemed very angry with the cellphone guy, who was no doubt cowering in his seat (he had audibly exclaimed "Shit!" when it started going off). "GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER!" And the play resumed. (Addendum: I think Marian Seldes is the best actress in New York; and Kate Valk is the other best actress in New York. I would like to see the two of them perform together.)

3. I am promising myself a good long Beckett-reading session in the not-too-distant future. I've been thinking of him a lot recently, especially his fiction but also his plays (I saw a wonderfully funny and moving production of Endgame last year at the Irish Rep, I think that remains my favorite). Maybe not this calendar year, I've got too much other stuff lined up, but next. Promise.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

It gives me a pang to let them go

but I have spent my spare time over the last few days immersed in the world of Naomi Novik's Temeraire trilogy, and regretfully have now finished volumes two (Throne of Jade) and three (Black Powder War), they are lovely but of course they make me want more. It's a series, really, rather than a trilogy (I hope they will publish these three together in a boxed set--I am very fond of that format, and really it's appropriate here because LOTR-style they're sort of like one long book split up into three parts); the ending of the last one is quite provisional though temporarily satisfying, and the story is clearly far from over.

The first one in the series is His Majesty's Dragon, and it will be released in late March (with the second and third to appear in April and May respectively, it's a lovely and ingenious publishing scheme whose genesis is described in a fascinating pair of short essays by Novik and her editor Betsy Mitchell at Writer's Digest (no subscription required).

Here was me a few weeks ago basically going crazy with love for the first one (everybody should read it!). The second and third are very enjoyable too, Novik is a remarkably confident and articulate writer who manages the global sweep of the narrative (Laurence and Temeraire and crew travel by sea to China, overland to Turkey, then on to Jena and the massed armies of Prussia meeting Napoleon's, etc. with culminating grand battle scenes) with impressive skill, but if I can for a moment resuscitate the Anne McCaffrey-meets-Patrick O'Brian conceit (which Novik must be completely sick of by now, though the sheer genius of the "Napoleonic Wars--with dragons!" thing makes it irresistible), I adored the first one partly because the McCaffrey was outweighing the O'Brian, and here the balance tips the other way. Which is undoubtedly in better taste, and O'Brian is addictive too (god, I remember reading those books my fourth or so year of grad school, I had been postponing it because I knew they would hook me at once and then I got the first two from Cross-Campus Library and basically for the next four days all I did was read, race back to campus to the library, check out the next four or five, read them all very quickly and race back for the next, until really about five days later I had read them all, it was a slightly sickening but very enjoyable experience), but I missed the charms of the dragon-inflected bildungsroman thing that you get in the first one. Also there is rather a shortage of female characters, though I trust they will be more prominent again in subsequent volumes. I will eat my hat, though (if I had a hat, and if it was edible), if this trilogy isn't the hugest thing for a long while--they are such good books, and the potential audience is enormous. Highly recommended.

The New Yorker cover

that wasn't. Take a look; it's beautiful and very moving. (Link courtesy of Neil's blog.)

Mitsuko Uchida

started collecting eighteenth-century porcelain in order to get a feel for the great classical composers (interviewed by Erica Jeal for the Guardian):

Apart from her pianos - three Steinway grands, plus a couple of 18th-century instruments - she has few obvious indulgences. She has a passion for English porcelain but doesn't let it gather dust. Visitors sip the finest Darjeeling, gingerly, from irreplaceable 18th-century cups. Her first piece was bought as an attempt to draw nearer to the world of the classical composers. 'I wanted to handle it day after day, to get the feel of 1758. And of course it didn't help at all!' As so often, her voice begins in a conspiratorial whisper before shooting off the scale into an exclamation, and then a bellow of laughter: Uchida talks as she plays, conscious of sound rather than self.

The angel at his back

John Banville at the Guardian on the footage (from Blunt's press conference the day after Margaret Thatcher outed him in parliament as the fourth member of the Philby-Burgess-Maclean spy ring) that inspired his novel The Untouchable:

Blunt, in tweed jacket and corduroys, was seated on a small chair at one end of the room, while at the other a scrum of journos was getting itself ready with pens and notebooks and flashbulbs. It was obvious that Blunt did not know that a camera off to his right was already rolling, for although he remained for the most part motionless and impassive, at one point, as he watched his interrogators fussing with their implements of persuasion, the faintest ghost of a smile passed across his face. What the smile said was: Do these people really imagine they will get anything of consequence out of me, a man who has spent decades being grilled with scant success by the best spycatchers in the land? It was at that moment that I knew I would have to base a novel on this man.

The Untouchable is a remarkably good novel, the only one of Banville's that I really have loved (I read two or three all in a rush in 1994 or so on the recommendation of someone whose judgment I think very well of, and concluded with reluctance that they were just not for me--there is an attenuated quality to the worlds he makes which in conjunction with the heightened language leaves me relatively unmoved--and I don't like very much of Michael Ondaatje either, for some reason I associate the two of them, the Ondaatje book I love is Running in the Family and I did like Anil's Ghost but I actively disliked The English Patient with its awful lushness--oh, and there's the link that made me associate them, I was just thinking "Wait a minute, why on earth did I get Banville and Ondaatje connected in my head, their prose styles could hardly be more different?" but it is the thief Caravaggio who reminds me by association of Banville's art-obsessed protagonists): something dramatic happens here, something to do with character and voice that I haven't seen in the others and that made me really fall for this one. I've got The Sea here waiting to be read, I'm looking forward to it, and yet it is never quite the book I want to pick up next. Perhaps this will spur me to read it this weekend?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

All right

now I'm at home & followed up on that link I mentioned below, it is really the funniest thing I ever saw (all right, perhaps not literally, but worth a click), really adorable and slightly bizarre and not at all pornographic: Japanese Cat Feeder.

I don't usually link

to things over at BoingBoing because I figure that everyone who likes that stuff's reading it already, but I couldn't resist this story about a Japanese TV show about a cat that loves human milk (my computer crashes when I try to link to the video, but I'm going to try again later at home)--it resonates bizarrely/appealingly with all my eighteenth-century stuff about animals and humans and the blurry lines between them (Monboddo! I love that guy, he really believed that what he called orangutans and we would call chimpanzees were human--homo sylvestris) and also with my increasingly strong desire to write a novel in the Cat People vein. I've been accumulating books about cougars recently, I think that's the specific subspecies of great cat that it's going to have to be; upper Manhattan setting, c. 2015. Not sure quite where I'm going to find the time for this project....

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

An interesting literary interview

Robert Birnbaum talks to Andrew Delbanco about his recent biography of Melville; here's a short excerpt:

AD: I have always been finicky about my prose. I just think-this sounds corny-I reached deeper into myself and found ways to express sensitive matters, and I had some nuance, and most of all, I think I gave the book some momentum, some drive. And that is really hard to do when you write about the sorts of topics I tend to write about. History of ideas and cultural history. Another editor whom I greatly respect and said something to me many years ago, when I told her I was writing a book about the theme of evil; she listened respectfully and she seemed to think that was OK, and then she said to me, 'How are you going to tell this as a story?'

RB: Right.

AD: And ever since she asked me that question, I realized I had been kind of groping for that insight into writing-that no matter what you're writing, you really have to find way to turn your subject into a story if you expect anyone to read it.

RB: Which is basic to having talented teachers present subjects-they bring those subjects alive with stories and their own passion.

AD: That's right. And there is a great hazard of academic life. I love the academic life in some ways, and I am very lucky to have a job that can't be taken away from me, but there is a temptation to just write for people who already know a lot about the subject and are going to read whatever you write because they need to, not because it's pleasurable or exciting. But that is not exactly writing. Writing is a form of communication that persuades people to keep on reading. So, I felt I did that better in this book than I had ever done, and I am not sure I could do it again to the same degree. But maybe I'm just feeling drained at the moment.

And here's the link if you want to buy the book at Amazon; Andy is my colleague at Columbia, I've got the book and it looks excellent and I am feeling rather remorseful for not having read it yet, but I think it is going to have to wait a while & then I will read it and use it as a prompt to reread Moby Dick, which is a novel I loved when I read it (I was like "How come nobody told me to read this book before?!?" I was twenty-three or -four and an obsessive & wide-ranging novel-reader who mistakenly thought it was some kind of a dull sea story and as soon as I actually picked it up and started reading--the summer after my first year of graduate school, out of the sense that as a graduate student in English literature this really was a book I should be ashamed not to have read--I was fuming that nobody told me how great it was!) but have only read once, and in this case once is clearly not enough.

Actually I have been having a yen to reread some other classics I don't know well from multiple rereadings (as opposed to the novelists like Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Trollope that I have read over and over again), especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Maybe this summer?

Cool NYT piece

about a new dictionary of historical statistics (though I secretly wish that in the paragraph below the author of the piece had picked less politically loaded facts and more just plain old peculiar ones, that's what I really like; this is a bit Harper's-Index-y):

Fewer than 1 in 10 black children under 5 live with both parents; workers with the highest hourly wages now work the longest hours; there are more religious workers (also bartenders, gardeners and authors) than ever recorded, and more shoemakers than at any other time since the Civil War; only half of Americans have access to fluoridated water; a growing share of poor people live in the suburbs; philanthropy compared with the gross domestic product has been declining since 1960; more Protestants and Jews say they attended religious services within the last week than at any time in the last 50 years; the nation is producing record amounts of broccoli; it took four days on average to travel between New York and Boston in 1800; attendance at horse-racing tracks peaked in 1976, but rodeo attendance is at an all-time high; and the proportion of people who have no opinion in presidential approval polls is the lowest in a half century.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

An obituary for Sybille Bedford

in the Guardian: "One remembers a sturdy, trousered figure, bright blue eyes, effective and observant, the clipped voice quickening at an ungenerous remark or deference to some fashionable fraud. Always she treasured 'that sense of lighter heart, deep-grooved pleasures, daylight and proportion'. Her memoir, Quicksands (2005), revived interest in the writer, and her elegant, insightful work. Sybille Bedford, novelist and writer, born March 16 1911; died February 17 2006." I really love Bedford's writing, this will prompt me to go and get all her books from the library and read them through again (and I haven't read the memoir yet, either). She is a remarkable writer; Alan Hollinghurst had a great essay about her last summer in the New York Review of Books, not online I think, but here was my post about it.

Bedford notwithstanding (I think I can make an exception), my real resolution is not to let any more books into my house that I have no immediate plans to read for work or pleasure. Usually I unscrupulously accumulate books and do not worry about buying new ones when I haven't read all the ones I have already, but the temporary nature of my current circumstances mean that I must start reading up the things I have, as you might eat up the canned food in the cupboards before a move. I've got three more months here--that sounds blissfully short!--twelve and a half weeks--something like ninety days which is good because that means I will get a lot of work done before I go. But I must read some of these library books and return them, and read and then give away the books I've bought. My father kindly helped me move up here and will drive me and my stuff back down to New York when the time comes, but it was a pretty tight fit in his Golf GTI coming up here and it will not be good if I'm trying to fit in a lot more books. So I am due a period of stringent book-consumption; I've also got a lot of work reading to do in the next couple months, I'll post the occasional quotation from that stuff that I think may be of broader interest but it is possible that reading-related posting may be lighter than usual for the next little while. Hard to say, really.

I like getting anticipated books in the mail

but getting a really good and unexpected one is even better, the latest instance of this was on Friday when I opened up a small package (forwarded from my New York address) that turned out to be Bust, the noir collaboration by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr that will be released in May by Hard Case Crime. It's very violent and very funny, more Starr than Bruen I'd say but with the occasional unmistakable Bruen touch (the Irish hitman is all Bruen, as is the NYPD detective whose child has Down Syndrome and the one-off old indented four-adjective thing as a wink to the faithful and most of all the epigraphs).

The epigraphs make it clear how playfully self-conscious the whole enterprise must have been; of course it's impossible to know if something really was enjoyable to write, I enjoy almost everything I write but occasionally have to sweat something out in blood & grit my teeth afterwards when some reader says "Oh, it must have been so fun to write, I can really tell you were enjoying yourself," but in this case surely it really was a very good game for them fitting in all the (what will I call them?) peer-group noir writers. Charlie Williams, Ray Banks, Charlie Stella, Vicki Hendricks, Victor Gischler, etc. etc.: they're all here (even Charlie Stella's Average White Band gets a shout-out), I don't think not knowing this inside stuff would mar the reader's experience but it undoubtedly adds a fillip of something. Very fun.

My only complaint, admittedly completely arbitrary and unfair, is that the picture on the cover--a red-tinted image of the adulterous couple within the round lens of a camera, very appropriate for the book's theme and plot and classic noir-pulp cover art in the Hard Case style--strangely reminds me of the red uterus in which tiny-upside-down-naked-Steve-Coogan is suspended in Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story.

Anyway, look out for this book when it's published in May, it's very enjoyable. (And in the meantime you can whet your appetite by reading some Bruen, maybe The White Trilogy or one of the Jack Taylor novels. Ken Bruen is one of my favorite writers in the world, the appeal of his fiction is powerful--irresistible to me--it's got a great combination of intellect and humanity and unbelievably perverted violence, his books aren't like anyone else's. I've only read one of Jason Starr's books, Cold Caller, and was impressed with his skill and style but almost physically pained by the unlikeableness of the main character--it's very funny, though, if you like that extremely dark thing. I think I must be a sentimentalist at heart, really I like the noir heroes who are secretly soft-hearted and mess everything up by accident rather than because they are morally contemptible.)

Monday, February 20, 2006

My dear friend & college roommate

Amy Davidson (no relation, but it's fun having the same last name) interviews David Remnick at the New Yorker website; the conversation covers a wide range of topics related to his piece on Hamas in this week's issue of the magazine.

Elizabeth Young's Pandora's Handbag

left by a commenter on an earlier entry of mine: the obituary in the Guardian from March 2001. Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail gave me a copy of Pandora's Handbag, Young's remarkable posthumous collection of critical essays, and I basically devoured it & fell in love with its author and her personality and critical intelligence. (I gave the book away immediately and then bought several more copies and gave those away too, I think I am going to buy it again & give it away again as soon as I find the right person.) It's very much like the collection I would want to write myself, indeed; I realize that I may cheapen my recommendations here by my very free use of superlatives, but this book really is one that you must look at if you want to write about contemporary literature and are interested in seeing a supreme example of the critical voice and mind in perfect harmony in prose. It's fascinating and funny and highly readable. Young should be much, much better-known and more widely read, in the US (she had a particular passion for American literature, especially the Dennis Cooper-A. M. Homes-Poppy Z. Brite sort of nexus--the literature of decadence) as well as the UK. (Buy Pandora's Handbag at Amazon US or Amazon UK.)

And here's a host of other links: John Sears on the book at PopMatters; Roz Kaveney; Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian on Young as "a critic who was funny as well as right"; and a sort of meta-roundup of links that includes truly gorgeous pictures plus Will Self and Boyd Tonkin in the Independent.

The diary of a misanthrope

Adam Mars-Jones on John Fowles' journals in the Observer.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Truth, love, sex, death

are the things Leslie Farber was interested in, I've just read back through his essay collection The Ways of the Will and am basically just staggered by its force and perceptiveness, it's one of those rare truly mind-blowing books, recommended to me a year and a half ago by a person who saw much sooner than I did or could that my new academic book is really about the will.

There aren't many books like this around--this one has my very highest recommendation--books whose authors are not afraid to leap in and talk about really important things: its satisfactions are like those of the best novels, or at least of the kind of novel I love most (it has come clear to me in the last few years that my love for novels by Rebecca West, James Baldwin, George Orwell has a lot to do with their being essayists as well, there is a certain intellectual temperament that all these writers share that is what I most like & aspire to emulate when I am older & wiser than now). Farber shares with those writers the deep & rich condition of being both of & against the enlightenment in a particularly pressing and painful and yet productive way.

A few bits of Farber, in any case, the ones that just shake me with their insightfulness (there are essays here on jealousy and envy that are quite startling in what they see and say, and a scathing essay against the culture of death that makes him sound like he's channeling Swift and Burke only for the 1970s, he really hates Kubler-Ross and Masters and Johnson and the desire for scientific mastery of nature, I really cannot recommend this collection highly enough):

The realm of causation is treacherous ground for a man interested in the truth about himself. Although it is certainly probable that most phenomena of this world, human and otherwise, do have causes of one sort or another, an absorption with the role of causation in human affairs may lead to an habitual reduction of any human event to its postulated cause. It is apparent how such reduction promises refuge to a man beset by the necessity to "confess": once he turns his attention to cause, his personal responsibility (whether he acknowledges it or not) is diminished, along with any undue stress or discomfort he may have felt in facing what he believes to be his absolute worst. No matter what scandalous detail about himself he may reveal, he follows such revelation with "I am this way because . . .," and everyone relaxes.

Most of us, I imagine, can recall the times when we talked rather than had the sex we wanted, such talk concealing our true desires, and, in the same spirit, the times when the poverty of real talk provoked us into sexual consolation--or, to put the matter simply, when the lust for talk was obligingly transformed into sexual lust.

And a tiny parenthetical aside like "(what causes humiliation and the fall of self-esteem in the jealous person is not the wound of his loss, but his jealousy itself)" gives you the feel of his style as a thinker and observer and writer. Or his conclusion about envy, very much in line with the first quotation above (and here he has a bit the flavor of Judith Shklar): "[In] his absorption with historical origins, [the patient] may find it all too easy to locate a 'first cause' for his envy somewhere outside himself; this established, a few simple operations of logic can lead him to a deterministic reconstruction of the whole development of envy in him, guaranteeing his escape from the responsibility with which possible freedom of choice, past and present, would burden him. It seems to me that the most pressing concern, for the patient or for ourselves, in regard to so damaging and disturbing an affliction as envy, is not so much to ponder when, or even why, it may originally come into being, as to discover it now where it is, to outwit its distractions and disguises, to measure its fear of being called by name."

There's one essay here that really bothers me, "He Said, She Said." It contains many things I agree with and yet depends on a set of assumptions about men and women and the ethical centrality of the man-and-woman relationship that seems to me dated at best and actively poisonous at worst. This isn't just kneejerk political correctness, I am in many ways in sympathy with Farber's sadness about the fallout of the 1960s, but he says things here that make me very unhappy. Its inclusion in the volume--and yet of course I would rather know he wrote this than not...--gives a more polemical cast to the collection than I think it could have in its own time; I hate the idea that Farber is closed off to many readers because of his alignment (I'm not talking here of his intentions or of his politics, just of how the book seems to be oriented towards a variety of contemporary positions) with a certain strand of dogmatic cultural conservatism.

And yet this is supremely a book about listening: LF's widow Anne quotes another of his essays in the afterword, an essay on Martin Buber and psychoanalysis that includes the sentences "'listening requires something more than remaining mute while looking attentive--namely, it requires the ability to attend imaginatively to another's language. . . . Actually, in listening we speak the other's words. Or, to put it another way, the analyst is able to hear only what he, potentially at least, is able to say.'" Words to live by, eh?

Also recommended: Emily Fox Gordon's Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy, a wonderfully well-written and intelligent memoir that includes an account of, really, her salvation by way of therapy with Farber (but she doesn't gloss over the impossibility and violence of the whole enterprise, either; seriously, this book is a must-read, in some ways it's more accessible than Farber's and is certainly a great way into his stuff). And here was me a year ago raving about Farber and Gordon (and Peter Temple also, I can't believe that was only a year ago that I first read him).

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Paul Collins has uncannily good taste

in books, or at least taste highly congruent with my own: check out his essay in the Voice on Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. This is actually a book I haven't read but have been trying to get hold of for a while now (I can't remember where I first saw the recommendation, but it was from someone on the Derek Raymond/Iain Sinclair axis of likings), now I can just order this lovely Europa reissue from Amazon (here's the Europa site)

Novels novels novels

Working through the haul from Porter Square Books. First I read one I quite liked except for my feeling that really it had originally been written as second in a series and somehow hastily edited into being first but with references to backstory only awkwardly integrated, then one that I actually had to stop reading, it was so much not my kind of book (I was in a mass-market-paperback dark-fantasy kind of mood, it looked just right, but it was written in these long wordy blocky paragraphs like you would not believe, Tom Clancyesque almost, with such flat characters that I couldn't stomach it).

I have sometimes thought that if I ever have a much larger readership for my blog than I do now (i.e. if I moved from hundreds to thousands), I will have to stop saying bad things about books I don't like; meanwhile I continue to indulge the critical streak, but I have no urge to put a small bad thing into the day of the author idly googling her own name so when I really have nothing good to say I think it is better to hold my tongue. But I link in case you're curious. And I reserve the right to say bad but true things about books that I think have been treated unduly kindly by reviewers and/or throngs of purchasers.

Then just now this evening a really lovely novel, a novel of brilliance and of consolation, Mockingbird by Sean Stewart. I've read one or two of his others & really liked them, but this one blew me away: it's great. It's been reissued by the excellent Small Beer Press, I must get a lot more of their books and read them. (Actually I have a fantasy of them publishing my novel, but I think they only publish a pretty small amount of stuff so that is not likely.) Anyway, here's the link if you want to order it directly from the press which I strongly recommend.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Alan Hollinghurst on Lytton Strachey's letters

in the New York Review of Books (no subscription required):

The letters throw some light on historical usage in this vaguely embarrassed matter. When such love dared to speak its name, it was not always quite sure what to call itself. The word 'homosexuality,' newfangled in 1892, and spread by the burgeoning literature of psychology, makes its first and only appearance in these letters in 1929. 'Sodomy,' with its resonance of biblical anathema and perhaps of the Wilde trials, is the preferred term at the Cambridge stage; the blunter 'buggery,' as a metonym for the whole homosexual condition, comes later, and has a certain Bloomsbury defiance to it--cheerful, straightforward, but with some residue of awkwardness in its bluntness. (Virginia Woolf gives a revealing account of 'the atmosphere of buggery' around Lytton, which made on her 'a tinkling, private, giggling, impression. As if I had gone in to a men's urinal.')

In Strachey's letters, actual sexual descriptions are greatly outnumbered by hints and fantasies about young men seen on the train or in the street. Levy prints a rapturous letter to Leonard Woolf describing sex with Duncan Grant on Hampstead Heath: 'I had hardly believed so much was possible; to be embraced so passionately, to be kissed so often, and not to know whether one was buggering, or being buggered!' One feels one would, as a rule, have a pretty clear idea about that, but perhaps he is using the word in some looser way, or referring to a commonplace uncertainty about sexual roles. The rapturous note is only heard again in the letters to Roger Senhouse, the much younger boyfriend of Strachey's last years ('Dearest Monster,' 'Dearest angel,' 'Dearest of divine creatures'), with whom sex was sadomasochistic, and again with an uncertainty about roles, the dominant and donnish Strachey gratefully submitting to various mild tortures and an apparently enjoyable crucifixion.

Here's the Amazon link for Paul Levy's edition of Strachey's letters; and here's the link if you feel like buying a copy of Eminent Victorians, which I found entertaining but slight the last time I read it. (And I am sorry to confess that at home I have Michael Holroyd's updated biography of Strachey but found it almost unreadably dull. But then I am out of sympathy with the Bloomsbury thing in general--all that ridiculous self-dramatizing!--so this shouldn't stop you from getting and reading it if you feel that Strachey may have been a fascinating figure and all that. That's not sarcasm, by the way, just an acknowledgment that tastes differ.)

I read this last week

and loved it, but wasn't near a computer to link at the time: so belatedly, if you haven't read it already, let me commend to your attention a really lovely story about names and love and monkeys, Haruki Murakami's "A Shinagawa Monkey" in the New Yorker.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

An absolutely delightful book

definitely it will be on my best of 2006 list, Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. It's funny, I don't often read novels about love (in order, I am definitely more likely at any given moment to be reading about murder, depression, suicidal teenagers, twisted sex, the eighteenth century, the future, magic, dragons, etc. etc. with love coming about fourteenth on the list well after sport and substance abuse), but as soon as I read something about this one and sampled the first chapter online I could see it was exactly what I would like. Even though really noir is the literature of my heart it is occasionally good for the health to read a life-affirming book with really endearing and good characters and a heartwarming ending. Also this one is beautifully well-written, the author is a poet as well as a novelist & the attention to language shows in the best possible way. The first-person voice of the main character is particularly well-done. (The opening paragraph: "My life—my real life—started when a man walked into it, a handsome stranger in a perfectly cut suit, and, yes, I know how that sounds. My friend Linny would snort and convey the kind of multipronged disgust I rely on her to convey. One prong of feminist disgust at the whole idea of a man changing a woman’s life, even though, as things turned out, the man himself was more the harbinger of change than the change itself. Another prong of disgust for the inaccuracy of saying my life began after thirty-one years of living it. And the final prong being a kind of general disgust for the way people turn moments in their lives into movie moments.")

I have now forgotten where I first saw mention of this book, surely it was either The Lipstick Chronicles or else Joshilyn Jackson's very funny blog (and this novel definitely has an air of Jackson's also-very-appealing gods in Alabama). It's got even more of the feel of Eva Ibbotson, whose novels I adore with unmatched fervor. I picked a copy of Love Walked In up (that's picked up in my hands, not picked up in the metaphorical shopping sense) a week or two ago at the Harvard Bookstore and put it down again with some reluctance feeling it to be an unjustified extravagance to buy a hardcover novel I would read in a couple hours. Then last night, unexpectedly free after my Boswell-related engagement evaporated at the last minute, I realized that I was under a mysterious and on the whole unstoppable compulsion to go and buy things at Porter Square Books. The Harvard Book Store is my favorite bookstore ever, I have loved that store ever since I was a literary-theory-and-Pynchon-obsessed maniacal seventeen-year-old, but the Porter Square one really nicely complements it and is a particularly good one to go to if you are wanting really thoughtfully chosen fiction esp. on the fantasy/young-adult end. (And now is a good time to stop by and buy something, horrifyingly an SUV crashed through the front of the store this weekend which must have been quite awful.) And I couldn't resist this second time round, it had been lingering with me as an obscure object of desire.

Also en route I saw Becca and her daughter waiting for the bus, and we had a very satisfactory conversation about matters literary and un-. (There is an E. L. Konigsberg zeitgeist thing going on right now.) So it was all good.

Backwards novels

are a thing I love, and Jenny Turner's LRB essay "Charging about in Brogues" confirms the sense I've already gotten that I can't wait to read Sarah Waters' The Night Watch:

Because the novel tells its story backwards, its point of origin comes right at the end, in a short series of little explosions, moments of compressed heat and intensity, during the first, apocalyptic Blitz of 1941. These explain the condition we found our protagonists in at the beginning, wandering in circles, picking at broken pieces. The backwards movement also allows what might otherwise have been a formless and depressing story to close on a moment of joy, as something 'fresh and unmarked' is discovered, miraculously, at the centre of one horrible big bang. There is something of Mrs Dalloway in this ending; something, too, of Cornelia Parker's exploded shed. There is nothing at all of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, although both novels share an interest in seeing broken things swooshed back and made whole.

I must see if I can get an advance copy from the US publisher, it is only being published in late March here....

Giving new meaning

to the cliched phrase "whippet-thin": "An extensive dog hunt was begun yesterday at Kennedy International Airport when a prize-winning whippet from the Westminster Kennel Club show escaped from her cage yesterday afternoon, officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said."

Thiswas the travel-and-animal story I really liked, from the beginning of December; I'm pasting in the whole thing cause it was so cool, there was a good little picture in the print edition too.

A cat from Wisconsin who disappeared two months ago and wound up traveling across the Atlantic boarded a flight at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and flew home. The cat, Emily, flew business class after Continental Airlines offered her a ride home and provided a company escort. An airline spokeswoman said the cat passed up peppered salmon filet and "opted for her French cat food." Emily apparently wandered into a paper company's distribution center near her home in Appleton and crawled into a container of paper bales. The container went by truck to Chicago and by ship to Belgium before the cat, thin and thirsty, was found on Oct. 24 at a laminating company in Nancy, France. Workers there used her tags to phone her veterinarian. Her owners, Donny and Lesley McElhiney, greeted Emily as her flight landed in Milwaukee. "She seems a little calmer than she was before," Ms. McElhiney said. "Just a little quieter, a little, maybe, wiser."

The last Shelter column

from Toni Schlesinger in the Voice. Thanks to The Dizzies for the link. Her book Five Flights Up (a collection of Shelter columns) will be published in May; I will have more to say about it elsewhere, so content myself for now with observing that if I were teaching a writing class next year, I'd use it as the textbook.

I spent the day

reading Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides With Samuel Johnson for a discussion this evening that was then canceled, leaving me with an unexpected chunk of light reading time. Boswell is rather delightful, though ("I was elated by the thought of having been able to entice such a man to this remote part of the world. A ludicrous, yet just, image presented itself to my mind, which I expressed to the company. I compared myself to a dog who has got hold of a large piece of meat, and runs away with it to a corner, where he may devour it in peace, without any fear of others taking it from him. 'In London, Reynolds, Beauclerk, and all of them, are contending who shall enjoy Dr. Johnson's conversation. We are feasting upon it, undisturbed, at Dunvegan'").

So I had an excursion to the bookstore (about which more shortly, it's a really nice store) and bought some stuff that seemed irresistible but really just ended up coming home and finishing a library book I had begun the night before, The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham. This book is of a kind I like but don't love--a very dark London police procedural series, of the mainstream rather than whacked-out indie kind (of course I secretly prefer the latter, I can't explain the difference other than to say you know it when you see it, the bestseller kind can be very good too but it is constrained by rules of decorum both stylistic and violence-wise and the indie ones aren't)--but I was marvelling throughout at what a good writer Billingham is. Really, really excellent writing here. I thought this was up to the standard of the very best few of Michael Connelly's Bosch books, in a similar vein only darker.

I have been smitten with Billingham's writing ever since I got his first one (I am 95% sure it was one of those 3-for-2 specials in the WH Smith shop at Kings Cross where I often drop in en route to the British Library, I remember at any rate reading it with dropped jaw & general enthrallment). It's a great book, but more particularly it's set in lots of parts of north London I know especially well. I think it's that one (or possibly the next one) that features multiple scenes in a place I know and hate, the Whittington Hospital just up the hill from the Archway tube station. My grandmother spent a lot of time there, it's got a Dickensian workhouse sort of Gustave Dore-type feel; I am sure the staff are all very good, but it is a chaotic and Kafkaesque place (I remember once racing round the hospital--it really could take you half an hour from one end or another--trying to find my grandmother, she was no longer where I had last seen her and not on the ward they subsequently sent me to and I was of course secretly convinced she had died and been whisked away elsewhere and when I finally found her--really perfectly OK--visiting hours were almost over and I could only stay for a few minutes...). And Billingham particularly well brings to life those seedier elements of the Kentish Town-Archway-Finsbury Park nexus. Book-biz readers will be interested to know that a number of important scenes in this one happen only minutes away from the Serpent's Tail offices.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A funny and rather appealingly bizarre essay

by William Leith in the Observer, on abs, the Atkins diet and relations between the sexes.

Larkin tapes discovered

The story's in the Guardian: "The tapes date to the early 1980s, when Larkin had lived in Hull for about 30 years. Born in Coventry, he retained an accentless 'received pronunciation' voice, with no trace of the broad Yorkshire vowels."

There really is something uncanny about the fact that we can listen to the voices of the dead.

My heart was hardening

for the first half or so of Stephen Booth's The Dead Place; I read all of Booth's mystery novels in a fit of great enthusiasm a few years ago (before I was blogging I think), liked the characters and the high-quality writing and the good Derbyshire landscape stuff & recommended them to various friends including M. who recently loaned me this one. But somehow it didn't win me over at first--I found myself wondering whether it's weaker than the others, or if my tastes have changed & I wouldn't like the earlier ones now either, or if perhaps I have just hardened my heart in general against series crime fiction (like Tod Goldberg).

Two minor details symptomatic of my irritation, each given twice rather than once which drew my ire:

(1) "personal stereo." Yes, this book is written in fairly impersonal third-person narration, with two point-of-view characters we alternate between. But in this case (and of course there are always exceptions, this is just the basic rule) the language needs to be fairly close to the way the characters are perceiving things, and both of these two are, say, latish twenties or early thirties. "Personal stereo"--ah, that's completely out of date! Maybe it was once standard usage in England, surely it never was in America (you always would say walkman or discman even if it was the off-brand), and now wouldn't you say iPod or MP3 player or whatever? It is the way an older person might speak of something completely foreign to him, it is hardly the phrase a 28-year-old English cop uses to name/conceptualize the thing the teenager's got on his head or whatever. Dowdy.

(2) I am admittedly a hyphenation freak, I love hyphens and have inflexible theories as to how they should be used, but not only is the phrase fine-tooth comb a cliche, it should NEVER be given (especially not TWICE!) as "fine tooth-comb." That shows someone just not attending to the meaning of words.

And there are a few other continuity glitches of a kind that particularly annoy me (a woman's wearing jeans on one page, corduroys on the next, that sort of thing).

However I found the second half more gripping than the first, so perhaps it really was just my mood? Or perhaps the second half is a return to original form. We will never know, but other opinions on Booth are welcomed in the comments.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A fascinating table

of details about what various (romance) publishers pay, Show Me the Money! at Brenda Hiatt's site. (Thanks to Gwenda for the link.)

I have strong opinions

and this is a vice as well as a virtue; I had decided of this book (as I have of, oh, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas--though I keep on having second thoughts about that one too and feeling I must read it even if I am sure I won't like it) that it wasn't the kind of thing I would enjoy, these very cerebral-sounding novels never produce rabid drooling book-desire in me. And yet there I was in the bookstore & I idly picked this up and as soon as I saw how it actually looked and read the first few sentences I was absolutely hooked.

The book is Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman, and I completely loved it. It is a page-turner/novel-of-ideas hybrid and really highly readable and not nearly as pretentious as the title led me to imagine. (It's not the title I would have picked, especially as I'm not sure it's really apt either, for the reason sketched out below.) Here's Tyler Cabot's review for Esquire (via Powell's Review-a-Day, here's Keith Gessen absolutely hating it in New York Magazine, here are Daphne Merkin loving it in the Times and Kate Kellaway loving it even more in the Observer.

So I found the book pretty gripping, and it also gave me that great buzzing-in-the-back-of-the-head feeling I get when I read certain things (a little voice that's saying "oh, cool, i can't believe he did that this way, i bet i could do something sort of like that but even better--what if...." even as you're also completely immersed in the narrative). But almost everything I have the urge to say about the book is a criticism or cavil! I urge you to buy and read it if you like long philosophical thrillers at all. My reservations should not stop you, it really is an excellent book.

First off, things you might want to know as context for my list of complaints. (Not too many spoilers, I hope.) Seven sections narrated by seven different characters. Main story concerns Simon--obsessed ex-boyfriend of Anna, who is now married to Joe--kidnapping Anna and Joe's son Sam. Narrators (in some cases it's mainly transcriptions of conversations between the particular character and the shrink, etc., and in each case the addressee matters almost as much as the speaker): Alex Klima, Simon's psychiatrist and a central player in events (the "you" voice in which he addresses Simon in the opening chapters is particularly sinister and striking, I believe a version of this was published in Granta); thuggish stockbroker Joe; prostitute 'Angelique', farfetchedly (a) obsessed with Simon (b) sleeping with Joe for money (c) diagnosed with MS and (d) later love object of ....; Dennis Mitchell aka Mitch, a stock analyst who works with Joe; Simon himself; Anna; and Dr. Klima's grown-up daughter, who is in love with Sam.

1. I do not see why all these reviewers trumpet the Rashomon aspect! Frankly, these characters all understand things more or less the same way. We're not getting any of the thing that, say, Susan Howatch does so well, with interlocking perspectives that can't be reduced to a single narrative. (Howatch is better known in the UK than the US, deeply unfashionable I think for her Christianity, but really a superb novelist of character and point-of-view. Just an aside.) In any case, here it is always fairly clear what happened, and (see title for this post) I had no trouble deciding who was right and who was wrong and losing patience with the "oh, but those actions are justifiable if we approach them from another point of view" thing.

2. The voices also all really do sound pretty much the same; this wasn't a stumbling-block for me, for various reasons that have to do with Perlman's intelligence & unobtrusive prose style & the general satisfyingness of the book. It's more painful when it comes to the female characters, though; I thought he'd have been better off sticking with male voices.

3. Which leads me to my central objection. I absolutely hated Simon, and I found Alex almost equally offputting. Simon in particular comes across as creepy, unintelligent, self-satisfied, controlling, in short absolutely horrible. It is another one of these books where we are told of a character's charm (like Zadie Smith's Howard Belsey) without seeing it. It is true, I particularly hate this type of guy, and in that sense am not the ideal reader for book. But I couldn't stop wondering whether any of this ambiguity was calculated or whether really the text had spun out of Perlman's control. I feared the latter, obviously it is fruitless to speculate but I can't say I thought that Perlman would be very happy to hear what I thought of his dear Simon. The book also seems to let Simon completely off the hook. The man is a STALKER. And a KIDNAPPER. It seems absolutely implausible to me that Anna would not be ready to KILL him after that. (Anomalously confessional aside: I found myself at the receiving end of stalking-type behavior at one point and it was certainly the most unpleasant experience of my adult life, uniquely unpleasant in ways you cannot begin to imagine unless it has happened to you. So this seemed personal to me, this novel's failure to reckon with the creepiness of men stalking women in the manner of Simon's fixation on Anna.) I am not a huge fan of Ian McEwan's, but I thought Enduring Love really was an excellent depiction--much more psychologically plausible--of stalking from the point of view of the stalkee (in that case male on male); this novel has something of the feel of Enduring Love, only much larger in scale.

4. Just to give a more general example of the awfulness of these two guys (so smug in their liberal-humanist anti-market-critique self-satisfiedness, their conviction that having good taste and reading William Empson and Allan Ginsberg and such makes up for completely nightmarish behavior in every other respect & feel a messianic urge to educate beautiful lower-middle-class young women & inculcate these tastes in them in ways that make them painfully insecure), I especially hated the scene where Alex and Simon talk about Empson and Derrida and deconstruction. This is obtuse, not intelligent; it reproduces a particularly annoying version of the liberal-humanist argument against deconstruction in a way that makes me actually hate both of these characters.

5. Perlman's writing strongly reminds me of George Eliot, for better and for worse. This novel would be readable by a nineteenth-century novelist even though the techniques (the multiple narrators, etc.) would be unfamiliar. It's got a grand social critique going, a sometimes slightly forced set of connections between the rise of the ideology of the market and a stock-trading plot about managed care that is heavy-handedly integrated with the personal fates of various characters major and minor and while I don't mind that, I'm also not convinced it's the best way to put things together. (I thought of Kurt Andersen's novel Turn of the Century for instance which I really liked but which had a slightly ephemeral or dated quality almost even as it was published.) George Eliot always sounds sort of the same even when she's talking about different characters--no, I'm not a philistine, I do really love George Eliot but there is something a bit deadening about the way her prose sort of plumps up the characters into the same stocky roundness. Perlman has some of this quality. Interesting, striking, stimulating; not perhaps altogether appealing.

I am told I have been blogging too prolifically recently! So will stop here, if you have made it so far. Plus one afterthought below. Don't let all this stop you from getting Perlman's book, though. It really is pretty great. Look how riled up it got me....

(I haven't read Empson's book of the same name since graduate school, but I did reread the appealingly titled Some Versions of Pastoral a few years ago and had the disconcerting experience of finding it not at all the same book I thought I remembered. In short, it is written in an idiolect so peculiar as to be almost surreal; while reading you are fully persuaded of its brilliance, and yet I found its insights exceptionally un-portable, which is to say they resisted me using them for my fell purposes which are of course altogether different from Empson's.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I dragged several companions with me

to see Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and while I'm not sure how much either of them liked it, I really loved it: it's fluff, sure, and Sterne's novel isn't at all my favorite of the eighteenth-century biggies, but the adaptation part is delightful and the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon stuff is absolutely hilarious. (Alice has a better post than this one about the film's charms that includes a segue onto a particularly favorite topic of mine, the Ink and Incapability Blackadder episode, which I always show to the students in my "manners & morals in the 18th century" lecture course as a reward for their having seriously read the preface to Johnson's Dictionary.)

Just got back from an extremely good if in the end rather snowy (but I must have a several-months-moratorium-at-least on complaining about Amtrak, it was true the 7:15am train was delayed by almost 3 hours but I had a ticket on the 10:00am and was able to use it on the earlier-one-that-was-actually-now-leaving-at-the-time-I-expected and got back here around 4:15, very reasonable) few days in NY. Columbia stuff was very good, Rutgers workshop absolutely excellent (what a great place; there must have been eighty people all thrilled to be there to discuss Swift!).

I hit the excellent Barbara's Bestsellers kiosk/mini-store in South Station on the way down, which meant that I was lugging around more books than is really sensible but I enjoyed E. L. Konigsberg's The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place on the train ride down to NY (oh, and I see it is a sort of prequel, can't wait to read the one that came before--I am surely overdue a spending spree in a really good children's bookstore). Konigsberg is basically a total genius, I look back through the list of all her books & think I must have read my favorite four or five of them literally hundreds of times when I was a kid; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler remains the absolute classic (and a reason the name Claudia is a particular favorite of mine), but A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver was another favorite at one point and also About the B'Nai Bagels and most especially Father's Arcane Daughter, a genuinely haunting novel that every mystery writer would do well to read. It's her first-person voices that are really so exceptional, plus the fact that the children in the books are fully plausible (and intelligent) in a way that even many of my most-loved children's and young-adult's fiction can't live up to.

The other novel I got there has mesmerized me in every spare moment between Wednesday afternoon and right now when I've just finished it, and so it deserves its own post (above).

In the TLS

Daniel Karlin has a scathing but very funny (and also rather informative for the would-be historical novelist, these are questions I have thought about many a time...) essay in the TLS on D. J. Taylor's Victorian mystery, no subscription required. It concludes with this sentence: "The real mystery of this 'Victorian mystery' is - as Trollope might have said - Why Did He Do It?" (No sign of this book on US Amazon, I guess it is having UK release only for now?)

I must take issue

with this generally entertaining profile of Ayelet Waldman by Regis Behe: "When Waldman decided to quit her job as a public defender in Los Angeles in order to raise her children -- more evidence that she's not the evil mother as portrayed by her detractors -- she sought another outlet for her talents." So, uh, it is evil for a woman to have children and also a demanding full-time job?!? Some editor should have caught this, how awful.... (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

More posts to follow later this evening.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


I've been working like a maniac, thus relative lack of posting round here; and I'm off shortly to New York for more work stuff, so no posts till Sunday evening.

Miscellaneous minor announcements:

I'm not sure this is exactly open to the public, but I'm speaking on Thursday evening at 7:30 at a small event sponsored by the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism (511 Philosophy, if you're a Columbia person inclined to stop by). My (half-joke, half-serious) title, whose provenance I will explain at the beginning of the evening: "Living the life of the mind--for sixty hours a week." Autobiography and advice for aspiring writers and critics.

On Friday I'm participating in a workshop at Rutgers (New Brunswick campus) (click on the link for details, it starts at 9:30--I'm actually on the morning panel rather than the afternoon one), open to the public as far as I know, that is a day-long discussion of one of my favorite works of English literature, Swift's Tale of a Tub.

Book recommendation of the week (I'm reviewing this elsewhere, so won't say more, but I am seriously planning on buying at least five copies of this for various people who I think must have it, it's really something exceptional & you should definitely preorder it or keep an eye out for its publication in April): Five Flights Up by Toni Schlesinger; it's a collection of her Shelter columns for the Village Voice.

One other book recommendation: I'm only half through it, but am absolutely loving a novel I saw recommended at Jeff VanderMeer's blog, London Revenant by Conrad Williams. It's very good indeed, a bit Neverwhereish but with a prose style more reminiscent of my absolute-favorite Iain Banks, sort of a horror-noir hybrid. (And on a related note, have you seen the Derelict London website? Link courtesy of Weekend Stubble.) I've got the attractive Do-Not Press edition; when I checked it out from the library the young woman at the desk did a double take as she stamped the book and spotted the words "The Do-Not Press, Fiercely Independent Publishing" on the facing page, it was pretty funny.

Monday, February 06, 2006

This is gruesome and non-book-related

(except that I bet at least a dozen people are writing novels somewhere inspired by it, no?) but compelling: French Woman Shows Off Her New Face. I can't believe they actually have a picture!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I am still not quite sure

what I really think about James Sallis. I just finished reading Eye of the Cricket (the fourth Lew Griffin novel, I believe? though it is difficult to tell their order; I'm just reading them by the dates on the spines of the library copies, I can't seem to find a chronological list).

Sallis must be one of only a handful of writers I can think of who write better second halves than first ones; the jumping-around-in-time in which Lew (narrator as well as protagonist) indulges is at the very least disorienting and sometimes quite maddening. But just as I'm most annoyed & feeling that the philosophical stuff is verging on pretentious (i.e. I've partially disassociated from the reading experience & am thinking too much "well, I like Sallis, this must be good" rather than actually feeling about the sentences I am reading that they are the thing gripping me) he totally turns it round; the last third or so of this novel is exceptionally good. There's a self-conscious chapter about this problem exactly (it's chapter 20, if you're curious, and includes the rather charming sentence "Moments ago I pulled out a legal pad and, reading back through these two hundred-some pages, tried to plot out, tried to untangle and write down sequentially, the sequence of events"; inevitably the narrator gives up and calls it instead "a kind of temporal plaid"). And near the end Lew calls the book his autobiography and says he "quit trying to finesse the failures and forfeitures of [his] life into fiction": "Quit trying to force patterns, however comforting and fetching and artistic these patterns might be, onto the catch-as-catch-can of what I actually lived, the rigorous disorder of my days." I still can't decide if this is a cheap trick (a way to avoid rewriting the manuscript!) or an entirely consistent narrative gambit for this particular narrator. A bit of both, I suppose: and will refrain from speculating about authorial intention and that sort of thing.

Oh dear, I have had a failure of sensibility

Just finished Stona Fitch's Senseless. It seems to have been absolutely glowingly reviewed, it was sent to me by that brilliant man of impeccable taste Ken Bruen (who sends the best packages, full of good books and just plastered with cool Irish stamps--in this case a lot of Song Thrushes), cool premise about a man held hostage and deprived of his five senses one at a time by terrorists broadcasting the whole thing over the internet (vaguely Videodromesque only more about politics and the EEC and American economic imperialism and less about sex). And yet I found the whole thing overblown and humorless and silly! Actually it's--presumably inadvertently--pretty funny (best line: "Removing an eye is easy. All it takes is a confident man and a coffee spoon"). A goodish read, but not perhaps in quite the way intended.

Reading Delany on writing makes me more able to say what didn't work for me than I might have been otherwise. There's a very artificial flashback structure--man in captivity reflects back on his life story!--and the language is curiously abstract; the book's failure to provide particular detail thus makes the torture scenes silly instead of profound. My fact-checker-type brain objected, too, to the mechanics of several of the torture scenes. I don't think the cauterizing thing described here would really work to deprive a person completely of smell; I didn't believe that Fitch had really clearly thought through or visualized the physiological mechanics. Even if you're a torturer you don't pop the glass eye into the socket right after you've taken the eye out with a coffee spoon; you have to wait for it to heal a bit. This kind of distracting inconsistency detracts from the force of the would-be-Kafkaesque fable. It's not stylized enough to make you stop caring about accuracy. And perhaps the most serious problem: not much of a sense of the ridiculous on display here.

Anyway I am clearly in the minority on this, so don't let this stop you reading it if it sounds your cup of tea. (Yeah, yeah, I know I've just given a ton of "spoilers," but I couldn't help myself, I really am interested in the gory mechanics of this stuff. On which note, let me say that Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin has what is surely the best eye-gouging-and-glass-eye thing EVER.) It did remind me of Ian McEwan, it's just that I don't really like Ian McEwan; and it also reminded me (rather too much--they seem to have been published the same year, must have been the zeitgeist) of a novel by Rupert Thomson I sort of half-read and then had to return to the library (not very regretfully) before I could quite finish it, The Book of Revelation.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some thoughts on Samuel R. Delany's About Writing

Justine Larbalestier has posted several times recently about the excellence of Samuel R. Delany's About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, and so I requested it from the library and began salivating at the thought of its arrival.

And then it came in at the library and I rushed there and picked it up and rushed home and sat down with it at once assuming that I would be immediately transported (I suppose I was vaguely thinking of Stephen King’s On Writing—which is very good indeed, a really gripping read, more memoir than manual).

Fifty pages in, though, I realized that not only was I not being transported, I was full of irritation.

At the book designer who thought it was a good idea to print the text in a small typeface with narrow margins and a non-standard page size that didn’t seem to me to augment the reading experience in any way.

At Delany for being undeniably brilliant but also far from concise (and actually, my advice is that while I think you will be well-advised to get this book and read it if you’re a fiction-writer of any ambition, there is no reason to start with the introduction and plough through the book from start to finish; you will be better off dipping in here and there and seeing what catches your eye, then going back to read the introduction afterwards). In other words, I didn’t sufficiently attend to the collection’s subtitle. Which makes it quite clear that this is a miscellany or hodgepodge or whatever you want to call it. Fair enough.

Most of all I was ready to kill the proofreader who fell down on the job. I quite see why Delany (I assume it’s his choice rather than just house style) would have wanted to print the dates of lifespan and/or publication after names of authors and books. I’ve done this myself in my academic writing, I think it makes a lot of sense. But once you make that choice, you set yourself up for a whole extra level of fact-checking that just didn’t happen here. I was fuming (I am a proof-reading maniac, my eye jumps to the error before I’ve even read the page; that said, my novel had a number of embarrassing typos that I can’t believe I didn’t catch, including the awful “deep-dried” for “deep-fried," so let me not imply I am immune from this awful problem, it is rampant among small-press publications and only really inexcusable in a big-budget corporate blockbuster which this is clearly not). Amy Hempel was not born in 1851. The last name of the novelist who edits The Believer is Julavits rather than Julawitz. Balzac’s first name is Honoré, not Henri. The last name of the author of the excellent High Cotton is Pinckney, not Pinkney. Beckett’s novel is Molloy, not Malloy. And so on and so forth.

However another fifty pages in, the book was bristling with post-its and I was in the grip of intellectual excitement and writerly stimulation of a kind that made me want to liken this to a favorite book of mine that is also invoked by Delany, another must-read: Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. That book and Confucius to Cummings were my bibles when I was fifteen or so (a book having been published by New Directions was enough to make me buy it—the bookstore at my school weirdly had almost all their books & as they had been printed in most cases several decades earlier and I suppose just never returned to the publisher, the cover prices were remarkably low, indeed astonishingly and implausibly affordable).

So let me give you the lowdown on what really struck me here (the book is full of useful and interesting things and each person who reads it will have their own commonplace-book-like mini-anthology of wise observations).

Delany is very good on the three things most likely to afflict the beginning fiction-writer (clutter, thinness and cliché) and on the way that when a writer has internalized models enough to use them in his or her writing he/she doesn’t remember that model any more in terms of a particular example or text “but experiences it, rather, as a force in the body, a pull on the back of a tongue, an urge in the fingers to shape language in one particular way and avoid another,” something experienced “through the body.”

He gives lots of appealing and irascible sound-bites, including a short and effective explanation of why reviewers shouldn’t use the rhetoric of “transcending the genre” when they discuss science fiction (or more broadly any kind of ‘genre’—Delany calls it “paraliterary”— fiction).

What I most appreciate is the strength of the case Delany makes for writers’ need to be wide-ranging readers. I am deeply devoted to this ideal, which seems to me generally ill-realized both among literary scholars in the academy and among contemporary fiction-writers and teachers of writing. I strongly identify with the readerly self on display here, and I have noted a number of Delany’s arguments for use the next time I get into an argument about this.

Delany says that “[i]t is only relatively wide-ranging readers who can respond to writerly talent, because they alone can experience what it is different from”: “People who read only mysteries, or, indeed, only eighteenth-century novels, are not likely to have much input into the contestatory dialogue about which contemporary works are worthwhile and which works aren’t.” YES! I can’t remember the last time I read something I so strongly agreed with.

And here’s his amplification of a related idea in another essay in which he explains what he means when he says he wants “to see academic critics approach the new and the old.” He doesn’t want works by, say, Walter Pater and Djuna Barnes and John Keene to be “judged by the same ‘objective’ standards”:

I want to learn, rather, what kind of education is necessary to form an aesthetic sensibility (or, what kind of political savvy it requires, should you be more comfortable with that idea: as I said, on the level I’m speaking about, they’re all but the same thing) that can appreciate, enjoy, and be deeply moved by all three. I think, today, I’m probably more likely than not to find this from a writer who has had some affiliation with the academy. As a reader, I’m probably going to be able to hear it a bit more easily from a writer who feels at least somewhat comfortable with the ideas, if not the rhetoric, of the theoretical developments in criticism since (arbitrarily) 1968 broadly called critical theory. But the fact is, I don’t find it with any regularity. And the academics who never sharpen their analytical teeth on a current work that speaks to them seem to me somehow to be shirking the full employment of the sheer power (constituted as largely by disinterest as by bias; by both blindness and insight) their position and their concomitant educations bestow.

He also gives the best description I have ever seen of what it feels like to revise a novel (this is actually uncannily close to the way I was formulating it to myself as I worked on the latest version of Dynamite No. 1, which involved some fairly substantial re-imagining of various plot and character points). I love the idea of writing as notation; it seems extraordinarily apt to me, and he amplifies the idea in several different places here:

When writers get (from readers or from themselves) criticism in the form “The story would be more believable if such and such happened” or “The story would be more interesting if such and such . . .” and they agree to make use of the criticism, they must translate it: “Is there any point in the story process I can go back to, and by examining my visualization more closely, catch something I missed before, which, when I notate it, will move the visualization/notation process forward again in this new way?” In other words, can the writers convince themselves that on some ideal level the story actually did happen (as opposed to “should have happened”) in the new way, and that it was their inaccuracy as a story-process practitioner that got it going on the wrong track at some given point?
In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it. Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can’t be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.

Other highlights:

Best advice: “It is almost impossible to write a novel any better than the best novel you’ve read in the three to six months before you began your own. Thus, you must read excellent novels regularly.”

Funniest footnote (on a sentence in which Delany has used the construction “any writer faced with explanations to be gotten across in dialogue may find themselves in the midst of something like [the following]”): “The official term for the lack of agreement between the singular ‘writer’ and the plural ‘themselves’ is ‘the sexually aspecific demotic exemplary’—if anyone ever asks.”

Best description of writing one of his early novels: “Getting it down on paper was like pulling three of your own abscessed teeth at four on a February morning with nothing but a pair of pliers, a hammer, an ice pick, and a flashlight, using a shard or [sic] mirror nailed to an outhouse wall behind a barn.”

Most outrageous (but also apt) opinion: “All civilized people write poetry from time to time. Both its reading and its writing are necessary to a civilized mind. But, in most cases, we should be civilized enough to keep it—at least the writing part—to ourselves.”

Best critique: an absolutely scathing (but also very fair) account of why Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is “a bad book.” It includes all sorts of extremely-useful-to-the-novelist tips about detail and accuracy as well as an amazing and no doubt extremely controversial statement about identity politics:

Morrison’s novel aligns itself with the Fantasy Police. Reading it, I find myself asking: What’s wrong with wanting to be different from what you are? The assumption that wanting to be other than you are means that you hate yourself is pathological and patently absurd. A much clearer and more articulate argument might be posed that to desire effectively to be different, actually to expend energy to bring that difference about (to become surgically a woman if you are born a man; to become surgically a man if you are born a woman; to reconstruct your foreskin if you were circumcised before you could consent to it; to straighten your hair if you don’t like it kinky; to wear blue contact lenses if you have brown eyes and dark skin; to wear dreadlocks if you were born with straight blond hair; to pierce, or tattoo, or decorate your body in any way at all; to exercise or diet or contour your body toward whatever ideal you set yourself) requires much more self-confidence and a clear sense of who you are than those who never question or wish to adjust their bodily reality at all.

(On a related note he elsewhere offers a powerful demonstration of the problems with Helen Vendler’s reading of Rita Dove.)

The thing of which I am most immediately persuaded is that I must get hold of whatever’s the best translation of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale and reread it; I read it in French a long time ago, but perhaps for that reason it hasn’t stayed with me and Delany convinces me that it is absolutely essential.

And the other thing he’s persuaded me of is that I have been a complete idiot always to have thought so poorly of Walter Pater without having read him properly; Plato and Platonism sounds like an absolutely delightful book that I must also get and read at once.

Finally, it’s many years since I read one of Delany’s own novels; I was a great fan of his as a teenager, but haven’t picked one up since then. That must be remedied at once.

In sum, an extremely stimulating read. Highly recommended.