Thursday, September 30, 2004

The craziest book I've read for a while

And it's not by Ken Bruen, either! No, I'm talking about Robinson Crusoe. Words can't explain it, you've simply got to read some of the book. But here is a small taste:

I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure, (tho' mixt with my other afflicting Thoughts) to think that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as compleatly as any Lord of a Mannor in England. I saw here Abundance of Cocoa Trees, Orange, and Lemon, and Citron Trees; but all wild, and very few bearing any Fruit, at least not then: However, the green Limes that I gathered, were not only pleasant to eat, but very wholesome; and I mix'd their Juice afterwards with Water, which made it very wholesome, and very cool, and refreshing.

I must write about this book...

Monday, September 27, 2004

In which I get a flattering compliment

Well, the internet surely does feed the lowest forms of narcissism, but a friend just forwarded me this link in which I learn that Susanna Clarke and her husband--novelist Colin Greenland--found my review of Jonathan Strange the most "perceptive and erudite" so far... I am ashamed of myself for being so pleased!

Sunday, September 26, 2004

This week's teaching

In my drama course, it's Etherege's The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter (a ridiculously good subtitle for a play). In my graduate seminar, it's Robinson Crusoe and various criticism, including an excerpt from Robert Young's book Colonial Desire.

Extras for this week: a seminar for high-school teachers on Sheridan's The Rivals, to prepare them for an upcoming production at Lincoln Center Theater. A talk at Yale on Thursday: the first time I'm trying out the "Shibboleths: Breeding and the Elocutionists" piece. And on Friday morning, a talk on Jane Austen to parents of Columbia first-year students.

My review of Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis and The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes is due tomorrow as well.

Must get some sleep...


I've been working way too hard to read anything much, but just detoured from work stuff to race through Deborah Crombie's Now May You Weep. I've got a soft spot for her books, though they are truthfully (as the friend who loaned this one to me says) awfully in the category of "British-procedurals-written-by-Anglophilic-Americans." This one's in the Highlands, with lots of color about whiskey distilleries: you can imagine the tax writeoff that year for a big trip to Scotland...

Monday, September 20, 2004

The worst thing I've heard all day

Well, it's almost certainly not, but words can't express my horror at this revelation from a piece on fund-raising in The Chronicle of Higher Education.. Says Mark Drozdowski, writing about the reports university fund-raisers write after talking to potential donors, "I've written my fair share of call reports, and have seen plenty more. Along with relaying the facts of the meeting (such as the date and the nature of the visit), the reports feature fund raisers' interpretations and recommendations. We might comment on a person's home, noting items that imply affluence. We might convey bits of conversation that we feel give insight into someone's capacity to give. We might suggest strategies such as invitations to certain campus events or membership on some committee. Or we might outline a solicitation plan involving key members of the administration. "

Items that imply affluence?!? BITS OF CONVERSATION?!?!?

Friday, September 17, 2004

On a totally different note

Just finished Caitlin Kiernan's really wonderful new novel Murder of Angels. It's a sort of sequel to Silk, but I don't think you'd need to read the first one in order to enjoy this, which recapitulates crucial elements from the first from an almost wholly different point of view. Great writing, great imagination. Though I agree with a few of the amazon reviewers that I prefer the real-world parts of the book to the sheer fantastical ones, which are reminiscent of the most fanciful parts of Jonathan Carroll's books, also most enjoyable (to me, at any rate) when they concentrate on the uncanny elements of the real world rather than making up alternate ones out of whole cloth. (Thanks BTW to the generous Ginger Clark for sending it to me.)

Book cover

Just checked Amazon UK and found what I hope will be the final cover for the UK edition of Heredity. I saw a lot of different ones--I liked them all, in different ways, but it was amazing what a wide range they included. There was a rather lovely Bridget-Jones-in-a-good-way one, with just the face of a depressed-looking girl; there was a slightly surreal department-store-mannequin-clone one in black and white; there were a set of three that responded to a certain book chain's interest/request for emphasis on the historical-crime thing by having Jack-the-Ripper-type dark alley and shady figures and London maps. If I was higher-tech, I'd paste these all in, but it's basically beyond me, and some I only saw in hard copy. Pretty exciting, though... I'm going to e-mail the folks at Serpent's Tail and see what's going on, if anything.

Five-letter one-word titles using Scrabble letters

Just read two more Bruen Brixton novels, Blitz and Vixen. I am desperate to find out what will happen to Falls! I guess the point of this noir thing is that the characters you like often come to a bad end. I'm not sure if there are more yet of these Brixton books, must investigate. I still can't believe I hadn't heard of this guy before I saw him mentioned on Sarah Weinman's site. Genius. They're so literary and funny and sad, it's ridiculous. My only complaint: why do small presses do such a terrible job proofreading? There is a typo or a misspelled word or a punctuation glitch on almost every page of these books, it's super-annoying--surely there are lots of people in the world like me who would proofread for free if it was for books this good. The Do Not Press is admirable but should take care of this problem!

I've just read Kevin Wignall's first novel, People Die. I will get his next one ASAP! This is a wonderfully well-written book, and filled me with envy that someone else done what I wholly failed to do with mine, which is start out publishing your first novel with everything already working seamlessly well & sounding like a pro. The main character is appealing--I like these low-key charismatic largely amoral guys in their late 20s or early 30s--and the settings & psychological stuff all very compelling, but I was especially impressed by what an elegant and short book this is. The spy thriller has in its past some elegant thrillers--in fact pretty much up until the 60s international thrillers were as likely to be short & well-crafted as any other kind of novel--but the Ludlum-Clancy model involves many, many hundreds of pages and the writing ranges from competent to clunky. This book has none of that feel, yet it captures the appeal of, say, Ludlum at his best. I'm thinking chiefly of The Bourne Identity, which always seemed to me far superior to any of his other novels--I read all of Ludlum in an obsessive fit at age 16, on the recommendation of my dearly beloved boyfriend Anton, murdered in 1998. I hadn't been in touch with him for some years before he died, but certain things always make me think of him very strongly--his literary tastes in high school ran chiefly to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kurt Vonnegut and Peter Matthiesen, but he was a passionate devotee of Robert Ludlum and pressed on me one after another those battered paperbacks that could be found in basements all over America in the 1980s, The Matarese Circle and ... but I won't go on. I have no doubt that Anton would have loved People Die. In fact, I'm tempted to send his parents a copy and tell them how much it made me think of him.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

A dingo ate my baby

Brixton Bruen: A White Arrest, Taming the Alien, The McDead. About halfway through the first, I thought: well, not so much my cup of tea as the Jack Taylor novels. (I especially like first-person narratives. And those Guards books are really insanely good that way.) However, by the third here I was wholly won over. More to come...

Saw an interesting dead puppet show this evening. Puppet part good--very elegant, very creepy--but awful voiceover thing by Bill Irwin just pretentious. Obvious insights cloaked in academic prose. Why do they stick this stuff in? The music and the puppets were really great otherwise...

Sunday, September 12, 2004

What I'm teaching this semester

I'm doing a lecture course on Restoration and eighteenth-century drama and a graduate seminar on the idea of culture.

What I'm teaching this week: Dryden's Marriage A-la-Mode, Shakespeare's Winter's Tale and David Garrick's peculiar mid-18th-century adaptation of the same play, Florizel and Perdita.

Now the semester's underway, it is going to be more difficult for me to indulge my light reading compulsion to such an extreme degree. However, I'll see what I can do...

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Philip Roth in the Guardian

This profile has just fanned the flames of my already very strong desire to read Roth's new novel, an alternate history called The Plot Against America. Must get hold of a copy ASAP.

The saddest one of all

So I did just now read The Dramatist and it is terribly depressing, especially the ending. Will go and read the stack of other ones soon, but perhaps best to alternate this with something a little less bleak.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Ken Bruen

This man is a total genius! Beautiful, beautiful sentences, weird literary sensibility, sort of like the perfect cross between Dick Francis and Derek Raymond (all right, that's a bit of a joke, but not really--there is something very appealing about this Jack Taylor character). I've just read The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers and The Magdalen Martyrs; the voice of reason tells me now to go to bed, but I have a strong feeling I'm going to stay up and read the fourth one instead.

Cost of Insuring Workers' Health Increases 11.2%

I don't know that it would really suit me to be a full-time writer as opposed to a teacher-researcher, but the finances of health care are one obstacle to me even contemplating it. I never go to the doctor, but I believe I must have insurance in case of catastrophic accident, and the cost of getting coverage is crazy. (Too lazy to link, but NYTMag had an article in their health issue about two obviously pretty healthy upper-middle-class professionals--journalists who went freelance--who couldn't then get coverage.)

Weapons and funerals, they'll do for you every time

All right, I have heard much about Ken Bruen at Sarah Weinman's website and got a stack of his books from the library and have just read Her Last Call to Louis Macneice. THE MAN IS A GENIUS. I'm adding his name to Chester Himes and Derek Raymond as my two favorite demented comic noir novelists. With beautiful and funny prose styles. I am very excited about now reading a whole bunch more... This is an EXCELLENT book.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004


There's now been some back-and-forth commentary between
Maud Newton and Terry Teachout. About this piece by Gal Beckerman about author Stacy Sullivan. I am more in agreement with TT than with Maud; in fact, I thought he could have been even stronger in his remarks. Here's the thing though (and I hope I am not going to sound disrespectful of the author, because of course it's heartbreaking when you pour your soul into a book & then it doesn't get the huge amount of recognition you dreamed of getting). As far as I can tell from the article, the author should have been more realistic to begin with about what a moderate-sized advance meant for the house's commitment to the book. But it's more than that. The following quotation speaks for itself: this isn't a story about the fact that publishers no longer properly edit, it's a story about an author who must have been quite difficult to work with: she missed her first deadline by a mile, probably missed other deadlines, changed her mind a number of times about what book she was writing, then handed in an inappropriate and overly long manuscript that she thought someone else would just take care of for her. It's hardly surprising that things went as they did--again, I don't say this to disparage Sullivan, just to suggest that it sounds to me like there were serious misunderstandings going BOTH ways. Here are the relevant paragraphs, anyway:

"Sullivan signed her book deal in mid-2001, and her first deadline was September 15 of that year. She realized, a month before the date, that she would have only half ready. Then came September 11. It had taken her time to focus and settle into the writing, but after spending a few weeks transfixed, like most New Yorkers, in front of the television, she began to feel completely incapacitated by the shift in the world’s attention. The book just didn’t feel relevant anymore. When her idea was sold, the war in Kosovo had seemed to be a key for understanding future U.S. foreign policy. Her book was to be a ground-level account of this new era of humanitarian intervention. In a matter of minutes, this storyline had been eclipsed by terrorism and holy war, and all her journalist friends were rushing off to Afghanistan. Adding to Sullivan’s woes, she had also grown disillusioned with her book’s heroes. Once the NATO bombing ended and the Serbian paramilitary was forced to leave Kosovo, the Kosovo Albanians quickly began harassing the small Serbian population. From once being the victims, they had become the perpetrators of the violence. “I felt sort of betrayed and distraught and I started hating all my characters and I just had a hard time writing it,” Sullivan says.

"She sent the first half, waited for feedback, and says all she got back was a note saying, “Excellent work. When can you be finished?” Discouraged by the lack of substantive response, she nevertheless kept working.

"Her new deadline was July 2003. After two more years of work, she managed to turn in a sprawling 600-page draft that she hoped her editor would then slice in half. It was all the material she had amassed, including a long digression in the form of a travelogue of her time on the road with the war photographer Ron Haviv. In short, nothing that was ready for publication.

"A few weeks later, waiting for a call from her editor, Sullivan got a package in the mail containing her 600-page ramble — copyedited and with an attached index. She panicked. “I had turned in what I thought was a draft and I had gotten back this copyedited manuscript,” Sullivan says. “They were just going to print that. And it was so rough. There was no way.” But the book was already on the conveyor belt. It was listed in the next season’s catalogue and the sales representatives had begun pitching it to booksellers. Everyone, including her agent, told her there was really nothing to be done. But Sullivan insisted they pull the plug. “It wreaked such havoc,” she says. “They had to take it off the production train, where it takes on a life of its own.”"

On the whole, more cautionary to publishers buying first books on the basis of a proposal than to authors! However, I really do wish Sullivan the best of luck with her book--which sounds quite interesting.

Mark Billingham

is a must-read, and here's a review at January Magazine that makes the case. Read his first three eagerly (off of copies from the WHSmith at Kings Cross, coming from the British Library to visit my gran in Highgate). But why don't these books come out simultaneously in UK and US? He would have a huge US following if those books had all been available in trade and/or mass market PB in same time frame, surely...

Simon Dumenco's Glossies: Hollywood and Magazines

A fascinating look into the sinister relationship between magazines and Hollywood that makes me extremely glad I have little to do with either; link from tmftml.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

It totally lived up to the hype

Here's my review of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and MR Norrell. It is one of my resolutions for 2005 to write more reviews. Since I read so many novels anyway...

Scottish detectives

I came home exhausted last Friday & lounged about all evening reading Val McDermid's The Distant Echo. It's excellent: her writing has just gotten better and better, the first novels are a bit clunky in retrospect but this and her last are both superb.

Then I read the first two novels in the Enlightenment series by Paul Johnston, Body Politic and The Bone Yard. (Thanks to Donna at Sarah Weinman's site for the Scottish crime recommendations, BTW.) I love the idea of these, but I'm ambivalent about them in actuality. Will read the next two and see what I think. The one thing I really can't stand is the fact that there's an awkward simile on every page! Sample first sentence: "The weather set its trap with all the cunning and skill of a poacher who invites his extended family round for a New Year's banquet thenr ealises his cupboard is bare." It all depends how you feel about this sort of jokey style, I guess...

Monday, September 06, 2004

the Literary Saloon says....

Trying to figure out this Man Booker betting thing for the last paragraph of my Susanna Clarke review. Not sure about this...

Thursday, September 02, 2004

I want to be the recipient of this package

This article titled Sorry, E.T., but Parcel Post May Beat Phoning Home rings true to me--I have a fixation on Fed Ex, and send everything important that way because it's so much better than anything else....

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Extreme Visions of Fantasy

Just read Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. I got it because I felt that I absolutely HAD to read Neil Gaiman's story "The Problem of Susan." Which did not disappoint; and which also hinged on something from the Narnia books that always perplexed me many years ago. I particularly love the word nylons.

My thoughts in sum: I prefer real-world fantasy to completely made-up (i.e. a story that begins with lots of names that bear no resemblance to names in any known language has to be extra good not to put me off); I prefer novels to stories. So in many ways I'm not the ideal reader for this book. (I'm a few stories into the Michael Chabon
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Both are well worth reading, I think, particularly as a way of finding some new writers to read more extensively. But for me even a quite trashy novel is always more compelling than a high-quality anthology. I do have fond memories of a few story anthologies from childhood, including one "Golden Treasury" or something like that that had all KINDS of stuff in it; but then again the appeal of the "sampler" aspect of it is much stronger when you are quite young. By now I know more about what I like, and what I like is long novels & the sustained development of character and relationships that you get there.


Just read Kathy Reichs' latest, Monday Mourning: A Novel. This series isn't bad, though there is something curiously unsatisfactory about the protagonist (particularly compared to the Kay Scarpetta of the early Cornwell novels). And the mannerism of writing in very short paragraphs becomes rather grating! It's a lesson to me, since I always end up breaking up everything I write (fiction, that is) into ridiculously short paragraphs--there is something very artificial and old-fashioned about the long paragraph, I often feel. (The kind that Monica Ali and Alan Hollinghurst write, I mean; they're both wonderful prose stylists but it's as if, oh, Rothko had painted paintings that were indistinguishable in colors and brushstrokes etc from a nineteenth-century painter like Ingres.)

Two bad things and a lot of other good ones

Well, I've just had a really weird day. The good things: some very satisfying and productive meetings at school that reminded me how much I enjoy administrative work; a haircut; the interesting though not-exactly-my-cup-of-tea Slava Snowshow and a pleasant dinner downtown (checked out demonstrators at Union Square but I am afraid extreme dislike of crowds prevents me from demonstrating myself, though I am wholly in support, of course...). Bad thing #1: got to my office this morning & discovered weird power outage had taken down the dehumidifer--introduced in aftermath of second toxic mold infestation; unfortunately the "bucket" fills up in less than twelve hours so it is virtually useless; in this case the office had become so humid that I used up a whole book of matches trying and failing to light the scented candle I bought to remedy the basement smell, they were nothing more than limp cardboard--and also my computer. Everything came back on once I turned on the power strip again, EXCEPT MY COMPUTER. Verdict of tech guy: it's totally defunct, short-circuit inside, and must be thrown in the trash. Hardly could happen at a worse time of year. Will have to obtain a discarded one from the computer graveyard in the English dept., since have no funds to purchase a new one. Bad thing #2: got in a cab about an hour and a half ago at 17th and Park, heading uptown. Caught short in a nasty fender-bender around 30th and Lex--my head slammed into the partition, b/c of course I wasn't wearing a seatbelt... All fine, really, but I hate to think what the bruise is going to look like tomorrow. Fortunately the cop & the driver peacefully let me leave the scene without putting my name in the accident report, and I decided to walk across town and get on the 1/9 for rest of journey home--only of course this took me into the heart of the "weirdly-roped-off-for-the-republicans" part of town, which I'd meant to avoid at all costs. Got the train at Times Square, now safely home. It is a testament to the good mental health induced by my sabbatical that I am not much more upset than I actually am... Lesson for the day: wear a seatbelt in cabs, even if you think the driver will take it as criticism of his driving...