Monday, February 28, 2005

Jenny Diski writes

in the Guardian that snow

apparently has a magnetic power to draw cliche and sentiment. I found it was impossible not to start this article with the phrase 'blanket of snow'. Well, it is, isn't it? Duvet would have done: a better image even, floatier, but blanket is precisely the right word if, like me, you think of duvets as new-fangled 70s' arrivals. Blankets are what we snuggled under as kids, were wrapped in when we were ill. Fur blankets covered the Snow Queen when she collected little Kay in her sleigh, to take him off to her ice palace in Spitzbergen. We listened to Hans Christian Andersen's tale of frozen intellect versus the life-enhancing warmth of the heart, toasty ourselves under our blankets, but, if you were me, pretty disappointed that Gerda melts Kay's icy blood and makes him forget that he was supposed to be trying to make the word eternity out of the jigsaw of a broken, frozen lake. And we know that under the blanket of snow it is warm and sappy.

I love the Snow Queen, and I love Jenny Diski. Her novel Nothing Natural was one of the most mesmerizing books I've ever read, and I like her others a lot too, though they're difficult to get hold of in the US.

I was very pleased

with Michael Simon's Dirty Sally: good-quality noir fiction, set in Austin in the late 80s--I hope that this is the first in a series, I will avidly await the next one.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Over the course of

a staggeringly unproductive weekend that involved mostly excessive sleeping I did read a couple of novels: Hari Kunzru's Transmission (a talented writer, but this book's not so much my kind of thing; too satirical and flashy; there were some things I really liked, but my own life is conducted SO FAR from this glitzy globalized media-ey world that it all seems rather beside the point; reminiscent of Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century, only Andersen has the gift of making characters you really care about); and Greg Bear's Dead Lines (I enjoyed it, though I think the main character could have been more fully and attractively fleshed out, so to speak; probably inferior to Tim Powers, whose books leave me feeling genuinely queasy). I want to write an all-out horror novel sometime.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

And also

I just got back from seeing J. B. Priestley's play I Have Been Here Before at the Pearl--good fun--VERY old-fashioned, but in a good way--also b/c it's sort of about spiritualism I felt that it vaguely counted as research. (Am waiting in agonized anxiety to find out what further revisions my agent thinks are needed on the novel.)

And this morning I went and ambled around a few of those Gates so all told it was a day of art--and my friend Nico bailed me out on a mysterious Edgeworth-related emergency. I'm teaching the book on Monday and I looked twice each at home and work to find it & it's nowhere in sight (though I did find, to my great shame, a library book--George Gissing's peculiar book about Charles Dickens--that I swore I'd returned--not just swore metaphorically but have been hounding the library staff to take the $90 fine and replacement fee off my record--I am going to have to skulk in with it & grovel.... I foresee trouble and shame....). Fortunately I've got Nico's now, and the law of lost objects says that tomorrow I will find my own copy sitting in plain view and kick myself for not seeing it before. However that doesn't matter one way or the other...

Though I don't know much at all

about small press publishing I am (for better/worse) one of those people who's ready to give advice about almost anything under the sun, and I will have the opportunity to join the far more knowledgeable and eminent David Rees and Richard Eoin Nash on a panel discussing "the present state and likely future of indie publishing" on March 10 at 6pm at the Small Press Center.

Friday, February 25, 2005

This morning I finished reading

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was every bit as good as I'd hoped. It is a spectacularly fine novel! Her writing is really, really good--at first this was almost a problem, the language is so witty and wise-cracky and bitter that it distracts you from the more complex emotional stuff that's being built up, but by about 100 pages in I was completely immersed. Eva is such a mix of the impossible and crotchety and annoying and real.... A great, great unreliable narrator novel. Everybody should read it. It's great.

I have this longstanding desire--really I must make this happen, it's silly I haven't done it already--to teach a course that's combined lit-writing called "The First Person" that uses short passages of all the great first-person stuff over the years (things like Montaigne and Bacon and Defoe and Richardson and Hazlitt and Dickens as well as 20th-century things like Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov and various other favorites--and I'd have to squeeze in some Ken Bruen for sure...). Mostly the students would be reading lots of excerpts and writing every week (pastiches, experiments with different first-person voices, etc. and trying to develop things like their own version of a first-person private investigator narrator or a memoir-narrator or a personal essay voice) but then I would have them choose one of two or three great recent novels to read in full & write about the style. And one would be Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled which as far as I'm concerned is one of the great great novels of the 20th century. And one would be this.

I am an Ishiguro maniac

and this summing-up of UK reviews of his latest at the Literary Saloon at the complete review is just making my mouth water. I can hardly stand to wait till this book is out in the US... tempted to spend ridiculously large amounts of money on shipping costs from Amazon UK (and the last time I did that was for a book that I secretly loved and read about four times, but can't seem to find anyone else who reads or has basic respect for....)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Late last night

I read Medicine Road, by Charles de Lint, who I've been meaning to read for some time. It was nice but on the slight side. I will get his other books, though. Any recommendations?

How long can you wait before sewing a severed body part back on?

I do like the Slate Explainer feature--this one by Daniel Engber is especially good (and who knows, potentially very useful...)

The best severed-limb novel I know of is Colin Harrison's spectacular
Afterburn. A must-read if you like crime fiction; it's got a truly memorable scene involving an emergency-room visit and a cooler with an unexpected surprise inside...

Some pretty lame

late-nite trashy reading (but then it's my own fault for not reading better-quality stuff instead). Truth or Dare by Jayne Ann Krentz (flimsy as well as trashy; I already read one book last week in which a controlling husband faked his own death, and this was one too many...); The 37th Hour by Jodi Compton (completely lame; looked promising, but turned out to be incredibly weak; RIDICULOUS plot--in fact, there's no real story at all... and various gross implausibilities); the latest Matthew Scudder novel from Lawrence Block, All the Flowers Are Dying (well, he's a good writer, and those early Scudder books are so excellent, but this one has a RIDICULOUS serial-killer thing going down and I can't help but feel that Scudder should have been gracefully laid to rest some years ago); and a mixed bag of an essay collection called Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy (a few good essays, several of which I'd read elsewhere; on the whole, though, it is extraordinary how formulaic the essays ended up being. You would have a funnier and more revealing collection if you did a volume called "Writers on Dentistry").

ENOUGH! Now I am going to read some non-trashy novels for a change. Also must finish getting ready for the talk I'm giving on Thursday. I'm giving another talk next week too, and that one's more or less open to the public, if anyone's interested.

Monday, February 21, 2005

In an alternate universe this could be a back-cover blurb

but not in this one, I'm afraid. My friend Nico and I share an obsessive love for the novels in The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. This is his comment on the latest version of Dynamite No. 1:

I have always felt that those Susan Cooper lacked a certain something, and now I realize that, of course, it's epilepsy, lobotomy, bondage, and naked dead ladies.

So there! (Quoted without permission.)

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Making and unmaking

Last night I saw a superb production of Endgame at The Irish Rep. I urge you to see it if you get the chance--it is an amazing play of course but the acting here is really magnificent. It's funny and touching and bleak and pretty much everything you could hope for. I do love Beckett--there is something about his sensibility that calls to me. Writers like Woolf and Joyce and Conrad leave me pretty much cold (isn't that an awful confession? I am full of admiration for the technique but ...)--my heart is much more with the novelists of older generations, Dickens and Austen and Burney, and then further back with the prose of Burke and Swift and such. Highly experimental writing is something I don't often turn to--while I do have a soft spot for Gertrude Stein and Georges Perec and a few others, I don't miss it if I'm not reading it. But Beckett is the one for me--I would kill to have written his novels and plays! Must go and reread the trilogy soon, it's years since I last looked at it.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

There's a great piece

in this week's New York Review of Books by Gabriele Annan about Richard Wollheim's memoir Germs, a book I must get & read as soon as possible. Here's a taste:

The Waverley novels became the scene of an imaginary life and [Wollheim] would sit on the lavatory as on a throne, being 'a king, King Canute, or a great prince, though also a bard' while he waited for someone to come to wipe his bottom. This phase ended when he was at last allowed to do that for himself; and one of the poker-faced comic high spots in his memoir is the detailed lesson in paper tearing and folding that preceded his new freedom. 'This small incident was probably the greatest increase in personal responsibility that my childhood had in store for me. It is what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility.'

Another good haul

at the public library. If I get $$$ for a book deal I am so going to write a check to the public library--for the branch libraries--they are a most excellent thing. First of all, a very high-quality Dublin crime novel, Ingrid Black's The Dead. Don't read it if you're sick of serial-killer thrillers, but the writing here is excellent: a really vividly characterized first-person voice, good settings etc. I much enjoyed it. And then I read Divided in Death, by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb. I find these books very enjoyable--the best kind of light reading--this woman is a consummate pro, I doubt she would claim that her fiction has the intensity of the most memorable novels but her novels are still super-well-written and the characters very vivid. I haven't read any of the straight romantic ones, not so much my cup of tea, but it is really a pleasure to see someone so prolific hold herself to a high professional standard in the writing.

A nice short notice

in the Independent for Heredity (the reviewer's Emma Hagestadt):

Noirish, fast-talking and slightly pervy, Jenny Davidson's transatlantic fertility farce reads like Fay Weldon on a hormonally-charged high. The novel's moody heroine, New Yorker Elizabeth Mann, is in London researching a travel book. Within days of arriving she's had sex with her father's best friend, the bizarrely named, and slightly asthmatic, Gideon Streetcar. She wants a baby, but doesn't want to pass on her family genes. Her solution? To take DNA from the skeleton of 18th-century criminal, Jonathan Wild. A dark and fantastical novel about medical curiosities, curious Englishmen and in vitro love affairs.

I am glad of the Fay Weldon reference, I love her books and of course I secretly had in mind The Cloning of Joanna May when I was writing my novel.

Friday, February 18, 2005

It's that time of the year

when all I want to do is sleep and read trashy novels. So I pretty much gave in to the impulse--went to the bookstore after work the other day and got a pair of Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley that I hadn't read before (Darkover Landfall and Two to Conquer--very enjoyable) and Catherine Asaro's Charmed Sphere--PURE fluff, really the lightest of light reading (too much so), but a pleasant read. Also some cut-rate Valentine's chocolate. Clearly I was in an uncharacteristically romantic mood. Also read Oliver Goldsmith's novel The Vicar of Wakefield, which features an appealingly unreliable narrator.

I must get some serious work done this weekend...

A great essay about motherhood

by Lionel Shriver at the Guardian. Here's a taste:

How we came to conceive of children as passive objects upon which adults act is beyond me. From my earliest years, I remember being a conscious agent. I knew when I was not supposed to do something, and sometimes I did it anyway.

A random example? When I was 10, my father had given my mother a Russell Stovers assortment box for her birthday, and after a Sunday lunch my mother offered each of us kids one chocolate. But we weren't allowed to pick the cream-filled sort (the round ones), which were her favourites, only a caramel (the squares). But I preferred the cream-filled kind, too. I flew into a tantrum. I screamed. I wailed. I flopped about the floor.

I must read We Need to Talk About Kevin as soon as possible!

(For the record, I will note that I had the other kind of mother--the kind who literally will give you the shirt off her back if you casually tell her it looks nice ["No, really, wouldn't you like it? Here!"]. So I am not-so-secretly horrified by the mother's behavior in this case! And daunted, too, by the model of the completely self-sacrificing mother.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I never blog about music

b/c basically I'm incredibly lazy and hew to my preferences of the distant past (will reserve this for some future post, but think Velvet Underground--wholesale Lou Reed obsession, then and now--Big Star, Camper Van Beethoven, Pixies--typical late-80s fare, I'm afraid--that's just the short version, but I don't know that further listing will fill out the picture). However I do have a few recent favorites. Thea Gilmore kicks ass: Avalanche and Rules for Jokers are both ridiculously good. (Thanks to Neil Gaiman's blog for this excellent recommendation.) I am embarrassingly and ridiculously in love with the songs of Elliott Smith. Yes, the first album (just titled "Elliott Smith") is the one that kills me--it's amazing--all the others are great too, but the combination of tunes & sparse instrumentation & lyrics of the first album really can't be surpassed. And another relatively recent album I'm totally in love with is Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator). Background listening, of a particularly satisfactory kind: Manu Chao's Esperanza and Clandestino. And a gym favorite (insofar as I ever get any exercise--this album is great, though, and is about the most likely thing to get me out late-nite to the Columbia underground inferno of a gym--MOST AMAZING LYRICS AND WORDPLAY HERE): Mos Def, Black on Both Sides. One more shout-out: the best alt-country plus academic job market combo, Florence Dore's Perfect City.

And here

is the NYT account of the same faculty meeting:

'It's as if the business of the university has ground to a halt until this matter is resolved,' said Prof. Henry Louis Gates, the chairman of the African American and African studies department, adding, 'It is clear that much of President Summers's legacy will be determined by how he deals with this crisis.'

In the past week, Dr. Summers has invited prominent female professors to meet with him, and asked their advice on how to repair his relationships within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Several months ago, many of these professors met with Dr. Summers to voice concerns over the sharp decline in the number of offers of tenure to female professors since he became president.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The latest from Cambridge, Mass.

I was tipped off earlier this evening about this episode, and its coverage in the Harvard Crimson:

University President Lawrence H. Summers faced the biggest challenge to his leadership of his three-and-a-half year tenure this afternoon, as faculty members assailed him for intimidating professors and tarnishing the Harvard name.

The criticism came at the first full meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since Summers' controversial Jan. 14 remarks suggesting that 'innate differences' may help explain the scarcity of female scientists at top universities.

Today's meeting, which lasted nearly 90 minutes, ended with a unanimous vote to hold an emergency meeting of the Faculty next Tuesday so that professors can further discuss their discontent with and lack of confidence in Summers' leadership.

While many of Summers' most outspoken critics led today's charge, they were cheered on by large sections of the approximately 250 professors in attendance. Monthly faculty meetings typically draw less than half that number, but at this meeting, professors found themselves sitting on the floor, standing in doorways, and spilling out into the halls to watch the anticipated showdown with Summers.

It's the detail about eating birds of paradise

that's really memorable in this NYT obituary of Ernst Mayr:

Dr. Mayr went on to fulfill what he called ''the greatest ambition of my youth,'' heading off to the tropics. In the South Pacific, principally New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, Dr. Mayr collected more than 3,000 birds from 1928 to 1930. (He had to live off the land, and every bird, after being skinned for study, went into the pot. As a result, he is said to have eaten more birds of paradise than any other modern biologist.)

The South Seas experience, he once said, ''had an impact on my thinking that cannot be exaggerated.'' For it was his detailed observations of the differences among geographically isolated populations that contributed to his conviction that geography played a crucial role in the origin of species.

Though Darwin titled his book ''The Origin of Species,'' little in the book, in fact, addresses the question of how new species arise. Dr. Mayr determined that when populations of a single species are separated from one another, they slowly accumulate differences until they can no longer interbreed. Dr. Mayr called this allopatric speciation and detailed his arguments in his seminal book ''Systematics and the Origin of Species,'' published in 1942. Today allopatric speciation (''allo,'' from the Greek for ''other,'' and ''patric,'' from the Greek for ''fatherland'') is accepted as the most common way in which new species arise.

''Organic diversity had at last received a convincing explanation,'' Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, wrote of Dr. Mayr's arguments. Dr. Coyne called the book ''one of the greatest achievements of evolutionary biology.''

Similarly, the most commonly held view of what constitutes a species remains the one that Dr. Mayr promoted more than 50 years ago, known as the biological species concept. First explicitly defined by Dr. Theodosius Dobzhansky, it states that populations that can successfully interbreed are the same species and those that cannot are different species. While numerous other species concepts have been proposed and debated, this one continues to reign supreme.

Dr. Mayr's focus on species, both their nature and their origins, appears to have derived from his experiences in the South Pacific. When he went to New Guinea, Dr. Mayr once explained in an interview with Omni magazine, there was a popular school of thinking known as the nominalist school of philosophy that held that species did not, in reality, exist. They were merely arbitrary categories, little more than names.

''But I discovered that the very same aggregations or groupings of individuals that the trained zoologist called separate species were called species by the New Guinea natives,'' Dr. Mayr said. ''I collected 137 species of birds. The natives had 136 names for these birds -- they confused only two of them. The coincidence of what Western scientists called species and what the natives called species was so total that I realized the species was a very real thing in nature.''

Monday, February 14, 2005

Cannot the NYT

just give up its faded etiquette and start naming names? This is the latest coy circumlocution, in an unfortunately titled review of a new book called "On Bullshit," "Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity": "Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called 'On Bull - - - - .'"

I just don't agree

with this LA Times piece in which Charlotte Allen attributes the lack of female public intellectuals to the ascendancy of feminism. Here's her argument:

Still, there is no shortage of well-known male intellectuals. Besides Wolfe and Wills, we have Richard Posner, Louis Menand, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Buruma and Henry Louis Gates Jr., to name some, along with scientists who write provocatively for a general readership: Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. In books and magazines, these intellectuals, who represent a wide variety of ideological perspectives, debate a broad spectrum of topics: science and politics, high and low art, literature, evolution, the Iraq war, campus sexual mores, the origins of the universe.

There are female intellectuals with stellar credentials and bestselling books: Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Deborah Tannen, Natalie Angier. But there's a big difference between these women and their forebears. They are all professional feminists. They don't simply espouse feminism; they write about little else. Feminist ideology forms the basis of their writings, whether it's Greer on the infantilization of women by a patriarchal society, Tannen on how the sexes are socialized to communicate differently, Faludi on how white men have reacted to women's progress, Ehrenreich on how the male medical establishment intimidates female patients, or Angier on how humans ought to be more like bonobos, the female-dominated, sexually liberated cousins of chimpanzees.

These lists of names seem to me highly tendentious. (And they also beg the question of why there are so many more high-profile male writers than female in prestigious places like the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, etc.) What about--on the more academic side of things, anyway--Elaine Scarry and Martha Nussbaum? What about Katha Pollitt? What about Anne Fadiman, surely as perceptive if not as high-profile a cultural commentator as Menand? What about Toni Morrison and Anne Carson and Diane Ackerman and Margaret Atwood (counting North American more generally, rather than US only)? What about Jamaica Kincaid and Lani Guinier and Patricia Williams and Amy Gutmann? What about Leda Cosmides? Yes, this list skews rather more towards writer-intellectuals than towards commentators on public policy. But it's roughly commensurate with that list of male intellectuals, no? The argument just feels like a depressingly familiar knee-jerk anti-feminism. And anyway, what if "best-selling" and "high-profile" aren't the best test of who's doing really interesting commentary? What if publishers give bigger contracts to men writing on gender-neutral subjects and women writing on woman-related subjects than to women writing about gender-neutral subjects? What if this kind of skew is reproduced when it comes to assigning reviews or topic pieces in the more intellectual magazines like Harper's and the New Yorker? (Link via Maud Newton.)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Instant Messaging

Up now at the Village Voice, my review of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.

I have a soft spot

for a certain kind of fantasy novel that is admittedly fairly trashy--a word that when used in the phrase "trashy novels" for me implies a kind of compliment--but that features good story-telling and appealing characters, and I picked up a few used PBs by Mercedes Lackey the other day and read them with great enjoyment this weekend. The lightest of light reading... The better of the two was The Serpent's Shadow, a sort of Conan Doyle-Wilkie Collins-Dorothy Sayers pastiche with some ridiculous orientalist-type Hindu content, but a very enjoyable read nonetheless. The other was Magic's Pawn, the first in another of the (seemingly endless string of) Valdemar trilogies. There is something admirable about the way that so many of the best-selling female fantasy novelists of the 70s and 80s began to write about same-sex relationships between men without making a big deal about it. I'm not sure why this happened, or exactly what motivates it, but surely it was a progressive thing that writers like Anne McCaffrey and (even more) Marion Zimmer Bradley and so on made sex between men a central part of their fiction? And you can see it continuing in a more interesting way in some more contemporary horror/dark fantasy fiction, Caitlin Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite and so on--a much more expansive notion of sex than you usually find in noir crime fiction, for instance, which is often aesthetically superior but rather less unexpected in its sexual permutations and combinations. (But this is partly why I loved Ken Bruen's Hackman Blues, which gleefully breaks all of the noir conventions about the narrator's sexuality.)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Idle moments

I did manage to squeeze in a little light reading: John Mortimer's Rumpole and the Primrose Path (I rarely read short story collections, crime or otherwise, but I make an exception for Rumpole, it's "for old times' sake"-type reading as I loved the Rumpole stories when I was a teenager); and Elizabeth Hand's Black Light (I liked this very much--it's got a more traditional narrative structure than Mortal Love, and the obsession with this Preraphaelite-y/Illuminati-type/weird bohemian/sex through the ages stuff is balanced out here by a really excellent combination of artsy NY suburb/sordid downtown art scene stuff--the novel's narrated by a wholly persuasive teenager with a really great voice--definitely a good read).

Mostly I've spent the last couple days at 2 really great Columbia events, a conference on Edmund Burke and another one in memory of Carolyn Heilbrun about women academics writing memoirs (the list is here). The memoirs I am most immediately going to get are Shirley Geok-Lin Lim's Among the White Moon Faces, Deborah McDowell's Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin and Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage: From Cairo To America--A Woman's Journey. I was also especially proud and happy to see Charlotte Pierce Baker (who I was lucky enough to have as my tenth-grade English teacher) present a piece from her harrowing and powerful book Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape.

A biographer's tale

An interesting essay in the Guardian by James Campbell on the difficulties he experienced (as the biographer of James Baldwin) dealing with restrictions on use of Baldwin's letters:

At a celebration in New York a few years ago, the drama critic of the New Yorker, Hilton Als, drew attention to 'one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published, and that is a volume of his letters'. Does this 'masterpiece' belong to Baldwin's family, or to his readership (a readership forever in danger of shrinking)? Few writers have come out so publicly in favour of full disclosure, in both public and private affairs, as Baldwin. 'There is no refuge from confession,' he had scribbled on a piece of paper pinned to the noticeboard in his study. Confession, bearing all its soul-cleansing overtones, was practically his artistic criterion. The refusal of the estate to permit an edition of the correspondence might be judged to go against the writer's wishes, given his own appointment of a biographer in the person of Leeming.

I would buy a volume of Baldwin's letters in a second. I hate the idea that his readership is in danger of shrinking. He and Rebecca West have something in common, it seems to me; I hadn't thought before about the reasons that they're two of my most favorite twentieth-century writers, but they both were people who wrote truly superb novels on occasion but who were more generally engaged with an intellectual and political project that of necessity had to be scattered across lots of different kinds of writing and real-world interactions. Baldwin's very much read in colleges and universities; not sure about outside, and there are things that slip through the cracks, like my most favorite novel Just Above My Head.

Friday, February 11, 2005

A (very belated) shoutout to Philadelphia-dwelling library-lovers

Here's the info. Go if you can. And a link:

RESTORE FUNDING NOW so that ALL library branches are OPEN for FULL DAY SERVICE 6 days per week and are staffed by accredited Librarians.
19th and Vine Street
State Senator Shirley Kitchen
City Councilman Michael Nutter
Tom Cronin, President, AFSCME District Council 47
Sally Reed, Director, Friends of Libraries USA
Judi Baker, President, Friends of Bushrod Branch
Peggy Dye, Author, Friends Liaison of Brooklyn Public Library
Dramatic presentation by Ryan Baker and Brian Miranda
HOST: Amy Dougherty, Director, Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia
FREE School Bus Service available on a first come- first serve basis at these locations: loading at 9 AM
Bushrod Library at 6304 Caster Ave.
Fox Chase Library at 501 Rhawn Street
Northwest Regional at 68 W. Chelten Ave.
West Phila. Regional at 125 S. 52nd Street
McPherson Square at 601 E. Indiana Ave.
Contact: Amy Dougherty or Monique McCallister at 215.567.4562
*will be held inside if weather is prohibitive

This is a really good cause. (I am personally much indebted to the good offices of the Philadelphia public library system. A life-saver in the impossible thing that is childhood.) The system's threatened right now with really disastrous cuts; insane layoffs, shorter opening hours in branches, all kinds of bad stuff. As I've said before, if I was a billionaire philanthropist, this would be my cause.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

"Hard question, to be posed to Manhattanites: would you rather have a lover or an extra room? The answer being, a lover with his own apartment"

Just finished a really superb novel, The Furies, by Fernanda Eberstadt. I loved this book! (With the reservation that I wish the ending hadn't worked quite like it did--too much of the avenging furies, not enough of the real-life muddling along of people in the world.) But this is a really great read. It's one of those rare novels that manages to combine the charms of the most readable kinds of fiction with the substance of the most intellectually ambitious. Aside from everything else, I liked the way that this novel about love is also very much a novel about work--the Russia/think-tanky work of Gwen is just as realistically conjured as the indie puppeteer Lower-East-Side stuff of Gideon's. There's a bit of (the good old-school Bonfire of the Vanities-style) Tom Wolfe here, and even of Dickens; and the satisfactions of a novel by Jennifer Weiner; great sympathetic imagination; sort of like a sharper and better constructed version of The Corrections; anyway, it's great.

In contrast, Linda Fairstein's The Kills is very thin fare indeed. Fairstein is a highly competent writer, whose background gives her the material for smart and persuasive crime fiction; on the down side, the plot here is pretty flimsy, and--worse--the narrator (prosecutor Alexandra Cooper) is unpersuasive. She's too princessy--why all this rich girl background?--and the voice never really comes clear.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Britain Grants 'Dolly' Scientist Cloning License

Yep, it's reported in the NYT: "The British government gave the scientist whose team cloned Dolly the sheep a license on Tuesday to clone human embryos for research.
Dr. Ian Wilmut, who led the Dolly team at the Roslin Institute in Scotland in 1996, and Dr. Christopher Shaw, a motor neuron expert of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, plan to clone embyros to study how nerve cells go awry to cause motor neuron diseases. The experiments do not involve creating cloned babies."

Monday, February 07, 2005

Guilty pleasures

It was a good haul again at the public library yesterday (finding myself on the verge of complete insomniac nervous breakdown from stress and overwork, I for once decided I'd better take the weekend off, barring a few pressing tasks), and the first book I read off the pile was Laurell K. Hamilton's Incubus Dreams. Linking to Amazon just now, I'm startled by how negative the reviews are. I think this one is better than the last couple and even when things devolve into one sex scene after another, this woman is a really gripping writer. Highlights: Anita finally has a threesome with Richard and Jean-Claude (long overdue); Anita embraces B&D; Anita explains why a push-up bra is better than a sports bra if you want to be able to draw your gun quickly from your holster. The charms of the very compelling first-person voice continue to work for me. And I like the feminist emphasis on weaponry and female dominance.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

I finally read

T. Jefferson Parker's California Girl. Something of a disappointment, I'd say. I couldn't get into it--I kept on picking it up and putting it back down and finally had to make an effort to finish it rather than just skipping to the end and seeing what happened. He's obviously a very skilled writer, and this Southern California setting (and the Vietnam and John Birch Society and Nixon and orange grove stuff) is compelling. Good feeling for families, brothers in particular. But my dislike for the novel's construction outweighed all of these things. There's a present-day frame that didn't seem to add enough to make it worth it, and it took forever for me to keep track of which brothers were which, and all in all it felt very draft-like to me, like an experiment with structure that should have been written out in the final version. He's a compelling writer, obviously, but he doesn't have the really sure feel for language that you see in (for example) Reed Farrel Coleman.

Friday, February 04, 2005

But there should be a ban on the overused title "Flesh and Blood"...

Just finished an excellent crime novel, Flesh & Blood by John Harvey. It's really, really good (and rather reminiscent of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, only without the same level of psychological complexity--but then that was an exceptionally good book). I liked it better than the Charlie Resnick ones--there are only so many times you can read about a guy eating weird sausages and mustards out of his fridge. But I highly recommend this one. (The others are good too, don't get me wrong, only a little more formula-following, partly just because of being a series.)

I spotted this

and now can't stop thinking about it--Michael Chabon says on his website that he's written an introduction to one of my most favorite childhood books: "I also completed an introduction to a reissue, by NYRB, of one of the most important books of my childhood, that dark and luminous compendium, the D'Aulaires' Norse Gods and Giants, which has somehow, shockingly, gone out of print." This book really was stupendous, I can't wait to get a copy. For some reason I only had D'Aulaires' Greek Myths at home and had to check the Norse Gods one out from the library. Basically I would just renew it week after week and pretend that I really owned it. I'm not surprised MC likes it, you can see that kind of thing in his wonderful novel Summerland. Neil Gaiman's American Gods also surely owes something to the same book, unless he had a totally different compendium of Norse stuff (entirely possible). These are two novels I suddenly have the urge to reread as well, though as with most books I really love, I've given away my copies to people I thought must read them.

The NYRB book reissues really have been excellent. They also republished one of my very favorite novels of all time, a novel I must really have read 20 times, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West.

This evening

a really terrible play, about which the less said the better. It included a moment that has my vote for inadvertently funniest stage episode of 2005: the wife comes back in from the garden, having picked vegetables for dinner, and finds her dying husband has fallen out of his hospital bed onto the floor. The basket of vegetables falls from her arms, and a large number of plastic asparagus stalks rattle across the stage... I was hard put to restrain myself.

However a very good dinner afterwards more than made up for it. The West Bank Cafe is really excellent--I was especially pleased with an entre that was a scallop "chowder" (really sort of deconstructed heap of stuff with a little sauce around it) that had delicious seared scallops, pancetta-type bacon, fingerling potatoes and braised leeks, it was quite exceptional... Appetizers of duck confit and sashimi-style tuna also memorable.... Ah, the pleasures of gluttony....

Thursday, February 03, 2005

I am not sure

why I remain fascinated with Patricia Cornwell after how awful her last few books were--Blowfly's truly unredeemably bad, and the Jack the Ripper book was truthfully the most outrageous thing I've read in a long, long time (I'm not a historian, but I'm a professional scholar & have a historical temperament and I simply couldn't believe the sort of conjecture that passes for historical argument in this one--it is interesting like Howell Raines's Atlantic story was interesting, because of how much it inadvertently reveals about the author despite the author's apparent intention to present the story as straight historical truth). At any rate I descended on Trace when I spotted it on the New Books shelf at the public library. And as I'm completely knackered and altogether brain-dead by this point it provided a surprisingly enjoyable read. It's certainly much better than her last few. True, it shows signs of Cornwell's impatience with Scarpetta and the whole Richmond scene she's worked for all these years (Scarpetta's old building is literally being torn down, and you get the same feeling about the novel, that it's a partly disassembled version of the pattern). There are all kinds of weird plot gaps, the usual wild implausibility by which one case gets connected to a completely separate one, the almost psychotically disconnected interludes where you watch an examination of paint flakes under the microscope, etc. But you know what? It's good fun, in a perverse way. Cornwell remains a more stylish writer than many others, and there's something about Scarpetta that continues to appeal to me, even as the fantasy and wish-fulfillment aspects wear thin.

This short online biography includes the strange episode which makes Cornwell second only to Anne Perry for curious real-life tie-ins to crime fiction (I'm quoting from the site): "In June 1996 her name came up in the wake of a bizarre real-life drama. A then 41 year old ex-FBI agent Eugene Bennett had repeatedly claimed that his ex-wife was a lesbian and that she had an affair with Patricia Cornwell in 1992 when the now 42 year old Marguerite Bennett worked as an instructor and hostage negotiator at FBI's Quantico facilities. Eugene Bennett did some rather bizarre things ending on June 23, 1996, when he took his wifes minister hostage and planted pipe bombs at the Northern Virginia Community College where Marguerite Bennett worked as a police lieutenant. For this he was found guilty of attempted murder (and several other accounts) by a jury on February 11, 1997, (despite an insanity claim) and recommended for 61 years in prison. On May 15 1997 he was sentenced to 23 years in prison."


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

It's finally done

I've just e-mailed what I hope will be a sort-of-final draft of Dynamite No. 1 to my agent. It's a great relief. There are about a million other things I'm meant to be working on, and I must move on. Also I can now stop editing and leave it alone until I hear something back. Cross your fingers...

And in a happy coincidence, my friend Nico took advantage of the Restaurant Week thing and booked a table for a few of us this evening at the new Aquavit Cafe. Previous experience of Restaurant Week has persuaded me that you either (a) pay the great low price that's advertised and get a most peculiar and unsatisfying meal and feel that you can't order a coffee because it will add $10 to the check or (b) end up spending almost as much as you would on a regular meal. However we will see if we can find some better accommodation this evening. (We also have a 9:30 reservation, which is as it happens most convenient--it would have killed me to go out with only a few hours of work left on the novel--but might not be ideal for everybody...) I am in the mood to splurge, a feeling with no immediate negative consequences in the age of generous but ultimately evil credit-card companies.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Neal Pollack's reading list

This observation at Neal Pollack's blog just caught my eye: "I'm also reading another book in the Hard Case Crime series, the creation of which is one of the great unsung stories of contemporary publishing. Out of one man's mania for the genre, pulp has been reborn, and it's authentic. Genre fiction is where it's at, people. And I don't mean postmodern re-interpretations of genre. I mean genre in its purest form, written for nearly no money by obscure people with day jobs. I feel privileged to have taken a peek inside the noir community, and am humbled and excited by what I've found. A writer like Ken Bruen can hold his own with any Booker Prize nominee. I often wonder what literature would be like if the noir people ran the show....."

I am sort of obsessed

with this stuff about cognition in different animals, and there's a crazy article in the Times today about recent research on bird brains. Here's a taste: "At a university campus in Japan, carrion crows line up patiently at the curb waiting for a traffic light to turn red. When cars stop, they hop into the crosswalk, place walnuts from nearby trees onto the road and hop back to the curb. After the light changes and cars run over the nuts, the crows wait until it is safe and hop back out for the food."