Saturday, April 30, 2005

This afternoon

on the Small Press Center writing panel someone asked about a query letter & I instantly thought of Jennifer Weiner's excellent advice to writers. The whole thing is well worth checking out, but here's the relevant bit, in case someone looking for it comes this way first--in my memory, it actually had the whole of the "pitch" letter, but actually it's just this description:

Step four: I wrote a kick-ass cover letter. It began with a paragraph from the opening pages from GOOD IN BED, ending with the line where Cannie reads the phrase 'Loving a Larger Woman' and realizes, with a sinking heart and M&Ms stuck to her teeth, that the larger woman is her. It went on to say who I was, and what I'd done - that I'd published short stories in Seventeen and Redbook and written non-fiction pieces for Mademoiselle and It said that I was currently a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, that I'd finished my novel, and was seeking representation. I sent off about two dozen of these cover letters, sat back, and waited.

(Good In Bed is a great book, by the way. I enjoyed her subsequent two as well, but I think it's one of those cases where the first one was just really spectacular and the next couple are very good but without the special thing that made Cannie such an appealing character. My grandmother loved Good In Bed--I have been sending her books for the last couple of years since she got sort of bedbound and could no longer stagger to the public library, novel-reading runs in the female line of the family--I think it was her favorite new book she read in the last few years. She liked In Her Shoes as well, plus the extra point of interest that my brothers were working on the set for the movie...)

Dipping into

my friend Steve Burt's book about Randall Jarrell, I found this most amazing passage by Jarrell (from an unpublished lecture for librarians), which pretty much sums up my feelings only in more poetic language:

A shrew or a hummingbird eats half its weight in twenty-four hours; when I was a boy I read half my weight in a week. I went to school, played, did the things the grown-ups made me do; but no matter how little time I had left, there were never books enough to fill it--I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.

I still live on the ragged edge of having nothing to read. It's the reason I could never live in a very remote location or a non-English-speaking country. Book supply problem.

There's an excellent

essay by Jonathan Coe at the Guardian site, about his demented long-term obsession with a film called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Really, a must-read. (I am not at all an obsessive on this level--leave that to the Lethems and the Coes--but I am reminded of the many hours I spent during my freshman year at Harvard trying tracking down the cheap paperback book called The Velvet Underground that provided the name for my then idols; nowadays you could get it on the internet in about 2 minutes, but back then it required ingenuity and a mastery of Interlibrary Loan. Other obsessions of the teenage years: the novels of Anthony Burgess; those Del Ray science-fiction paperbacks that you used to buy at mall bookstores like Waldenbooks in the days before Barnes and Noble. The collector's bane: misleading packaging, especially the annoying habit of publishing novels under different titles in the UK and US. It all seems long, long ago... though I suppose the main difference now is that if I read a novel and want, say, to read the 5 other novels that person has published, I am reasonably likely to be able to get them all within a week or so, often at no expense to myself. My favorite thing, really, if I had to pick one, is a service called BorrowDirect that links Columbia's library to the libraries of Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Penn and Yale. And more generally I live 2 blocks from the Columbia library so I don't have to get too anxious about not having pretty much any books pretty much as soon as I want them.)

Friday, April 29, 2005


I'm speaking on a panel at the Small Press Center First Annual New York Round Table Writers' Conference:

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Writing Process But Were Afraid to Ask (Saturday 2:00 - 3:30 pm; B Session)

A diverse group of talented authors discuss the writing process in a free-form session in which they field attendees' questions about practical matters of concern to writers, including work habits, time management, networking, dealing with agents and publishers, and more.

Jenny Davidson, Heredity
Robert Polito, Director of The New School Writing Program
Rachel Resnick, Go West Young F*cked Up Chick

Should be interesting...

Thursday, April 28, 2005

I love

the Chronicle of Higher Education: their reporting is great, they've got an excellent website which I check daily for its advice columns & general stories. And even better, you sometimes catch a story like this one:

An 81-year-old professor of English at the State University of New York at New Paltz has been arrested and charged with sexually assaulting and abusing a female student.

Wade C. Thompson, who has taught at New Paltz for 40 years, has denied the charges, saying that he did have sexual relations with a 41-year-old student but that the encounter was consensual.

In a written statement, the New Paltz Police Department said that Mr. Thompson had struck the woman repeatedly around the body with a blunt object and had subjected her to unwanted sexual contact during the early-morning hours of April 19.

Mr. Thompson, who is married, resigned from the university on Tuesday and was released from police custody.

He said that the student, who was taking one of his courses, had been 'pursuing him in a sort of weird way,' sending him candy and flowers. He said that during the April 19 encounter, they did engage in 'sadomasochistic' sexual behavior, involving 'spankings and whippings with a belt,' but he said that there was 'no coercion of any kind' and that it was entirely voluntary on her part.

While the former professor acknowledged that his behavior was unprofessional, he said there was nothing illegal about it.
Mr. Thompson said the woman had walked out of his house 'very happy.' 'She kissed me goodbye,' he said. He plans to fight the charges.

A spokesman for the university declined to discuss the matter in detail, citing privacy concerns, but he said that Mr. Thompson has been barred from the campus.


my review of Dutch sexologist Jelto Drenth's book about the vagina. I thought this book was excellent, but I'm afraid it's not going to reach its proper audience. It's written in a very smart and slightly demented version of a Guinness-Book-of-World-Records type thing, and I strongly suspect that male readers will be more attracted to the tone and methodology than female. (It's an informative and sensitive book, no reason female readers shouldn't like it too, but the style leans the other way.) But the publishers have made a perplexing decision to put it into a lurid hot-pink jacket that is seriously going to stop many or most men from even picking it up and looking at it. Well worth checking out, though, if you like the "strange and interesting facts" kind of book.

In the cracks

of a ridiculously busy week I did read a few novels. Most amazing is Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, a magical fairy-tale-retelling on the same level as the gold standard for this sort of thing, Robin McKinley. I spotted this when it came out but felt it was excessively extravagant to buy in hardcover, bought it on Friday while purchasing several presents at the Bank Street Bookstore
for sort-of-family-related kids my mom wanted to send Passover gifts to, then forgot about it, and seized on it with delight at midnight this evening when I'd reached my limit on work. It is so good! I can't wait to read her others.

Also read Stephen White's Missing Persons, a loan from my friend M., who (to my great good fortune) buys lots of mysteries in hardcover & is generous about loaning. I like these ones, though I think that using the rule of the psychologist's patient confidentiality obligation as the main source of suspense is slightly maddening. These are like a much better version of Jonathan Kellerman's books (Kellerman's early ones were good, but of late they've become ridiculously narcissistic).

Actually, now I come to think of it, I read a couple other novels too, on the way to and from Philadelphia: Margaret Mahy's Alchemy (YA real-world fantasy, very good and well worth reading but not as good as her best ones) and my old favorite Dick Francis For Kicks. I have largely given in to my novel-reading addiction, occasionally resolve to forgo them due to pressures of work (as I did last week) but then often find they slip in anyway without me noticing. Fiction is certainly a dangerous drug. I am constantly amazed that there are such things as free public libraries. Nobody's lining up to give you free (a) alcohol (b) cigarettes (c) delicious meals (d) movies etc.; how very lucky it is that we can get books that way....

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

An interesting interview

with Ahdaf Soueif at Guardian Unlimited Books. A small taste: "It is quite interesting how people can be sympathetic to a character in a novel and indifferent to people in life. I think I have always looked at life as though it were a novel. As to how I would have felt or what I would have been writing if I weren't writing in English, I'm sure my subject matter would have been quite different. The core, the heart would have been the same, but things would be seen from a different angle. I might not, for example, have been so concerned with how the west perceives the Arab world." There's lots more good stuff there about the current situation and other matters. I have loved the novels of hers that I've read: The Map of Love was wonderful, and In the Eye of the Sun one of the best novels I have read in the last four or five years (very nineteenth-century in its conception; Hollinghurst: James :: Soueif: George Eliot).

Monday, April 25, 2005

Some insanely good music

I've been listening to a pair of albums by Antony and the Johnsons ("an utterly genderqueer musical sensation"),
the album of the same name and
I Am A Bird Now. This is ridiculously good music, really quite indescribable (sort of gospel-y and lushly orchestrated, but imagine a weird combination of the Benjamin Britten-Peter Pears sound plus the Smiths of The Queen is Dead plus Tom Waits plus... well, I think you just have to listen to it). My new favorite song is "Cripple and the Starfish," which is equal to the Velvet Underground "Venus in Furs" as best masochistic love song of all time ("I am very very happy / so please hurt me").

As often with good things, this has come my way via Nico, whose own Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis don't seem to be available yet on his website but were broadcast (as performed by Girton and Clare College choirs, Cambridge) on the BBC Choral Evensong program in February. Really beautiful stuff--I was just listening to it again recently and marveling.

Another musical post to follow later in the week.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Musical entertainment

Despite pressures of work, I saw a couple of good things this weekend. First of all, a sort of musical revue called Flight, done by David Jackson (a family friend) at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It's shaped as the story of how a black kid in West Philadelphia fell in love with the Broadway musical and went on to have a career singing & dancing on Broadway, performing in shows with his idol Tommy Tune and many others. David's a warm and attractive performer with a lovely voice and it's a very enjoyable evening--includes some interesting historical stuff as well as a nice mix of songs (my favorites are the Duke Ellington Orchestra ones).

On Saturday, thanks to the generosity of a former student with an extra ticket, I saw one of my very favorite things in the world, The Magic Flute at the Met. It was quite excellent (barring only a weak performance in the part of Sarastro, who was singing so flat it was almost unbearable). The dancing Julie Taymor animals are really incredible--the dance with Papagena is quite extraordinary--the female singers are particularly strong, too, with Pamina making a strong showing as well as the Queen of the Night (can't remember anyone's names, can't be bothered to link). The music of this opera is the most magical thing in the world, it is really quite an experience. I saw the David Hockney production years ago--could it be more than ten years ago?--and the sets for that were gorgeous but I think this one adds up to more of a whole. It is a fable of enlightenment that resonates with my academic stuff too; an excellent, excellent evening.

I've been listening to some good other music recently, will post soon. Meanwhile I will just express my perplexity that there is no equivalent for "light reading" when you're talking about music. Light reading, trashy novels, these are on the whole celebratory phrases, and I think you can say something is "eye candy" without it being necessarily disparaging. But "easy listening" is always an insult--I wonder when it came into use as an actual genre category?--and if you said "ear candy" it's sort of like "bubblegum pop," you could deliberately use it positively but its natural affiliations are all negative. Is there any phrase that I'm missing that would work as a musical analog?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Human plus

I've got a great group of four non-fiction books to review for the spring VLS; I must restrain myself on the novel-reading front meanwhile. They're loosely grouped around ideas of human bodies and genetic and technological enhancement: Michael Chorost's Rebuilt : How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human; a collection edited by Marquard Smith and introduced by William Gibson, Stelarc: The Monograph; Ramez Naam's More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement; and Pete Shanks, Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed. This is just my kind of thing. It's going to be fun.

Female noir

A friend loaned me Susanna Moore's In the Cut; why didn't I read this book before?!? (Well, I see it was published in 1995, and there were a few years in the middle of grad school where I was so immersed in, ah, you know the kind of thing, Shakespeare-Milton-Locke-Swift-Hume-Burke-type stuff, that light reading was for once in my life severely curtailed.) It's great. Sort of a perfect book for me--bleak, well-written noir with an emotionally repressed but slightly decadent female narrator who is obsessed with non-standard English words and syntax! Seriously... Opening lines: "I don't usually go to a bar with one of my students. It is almost always a mistake." Another early paragraph that delighted me: "The wrong words are sometimes so close to a truer meaning that they are like puns. Many of the words have to do with the body, or disease. For example, Old Timer's Disease, rather than Alzheimer's. Abominal for stomach. Athletic fit for epileptic fit. Chicken pops. Very close veins. The prostrate gland." It's a great novel. Don't read it unless you have a pretty strong stomach and like gruesome and gory developments, but I loved it.

And another great one, Liz Jensen's The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. This one's more unusual than Susanna Moore's, and both stranger and more suspenseful than I'd anticipated. It's really well-written and the plot is most gripping as well. But the best thing about it is the voice of Louis Drax (who reminded me a bit--the whole novel reminded me, a little, though they're really nothing alike--of a particular favorite novel of mine, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, which is a book that absolutely everyone should read BTW). Here's Louis early on: "There are laws and you go to prison if you break them but there are secret rules too, so secret no one ever talks about them. Here's a secret rule of pet-keeping. If you own a small creature, say a hamster called Mohammed, and he lives for longer than a small rodent's lifespan, which is two years, then you're allowed to kill him if you want to, because you're his owner. This secret rule of pet-keeping has a name, it's called Right of Disposal. You're allowed to do it with suffocation, or with poison if you have any, say weedkiller. Or you can drop something heavy on him, like volume three of the encyclop'edie m'edicale or Harry Potter et l'Ordre du Ph'enix. Just as long as you don't make a mess." This is a really memorable and unusual novel, also a very good read.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Monkeys redux

I think Slate has had its Explainer feature for quite a while, but for some reason the guy who's doing it recently (or perhaps I'm wrong, and this is new) always catches my interest. Here, Daniel Engber talks about monkeys: "A police SWAT team in Mesa, Ariz., has applied for $100,000 from the federal government to buy a capuchin monkey and train it to perform law enforcement duties. Until now, monkeys have only been on the other side of the law, but officers say a police monkey could search buildings, find bodies, and gather information with a video camera and two-way radio. The officer who wrote the application says the monkey itself would cost $15,000, with the rest of the grant going toward equipment and upkeep. Are monkeys really that expensive?"

And there's lots more...

Monday, April 18, 2005

An interesting NYT article

by Tom Zeller about employees fired for blogging, "When the Blogger Blogs, Can the Employer Intervene?":

Mark Jen, who was fired from Google in January after just two weeks, having made some ill-advised comments about the company on his blog (Google would not comment on Mr. Jen's dismissal, but confirmed that he no longer works for it), is now busy helping to draft a blogging policy for his new employer, Plaxo, an electronic address book updating service in Mountain View, Calif.

'It was a very quick education for me at Google,' Mr. Jen said. 'I learned very quickly the complexities of a corporate environment.'
With Plaxo's blessing, Mr. Jen is soliciting public comment on the new blogging policy at

Most of the points are the kinds of common-sense items that employees would do well to remember, particularly if they plan on identifying themselves as employees in their blogs, or discussing office matters online: don't post material that is obscene, defamatory, profane or libelous, and make sure that you indicate that the opinions expressed are your own.

The policy also encourages employee bloggers to use their real names, rather than attempting anonymity or writing under a pseudonym.

Bad idea, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Two weeks ago, the group published a tutorial on 'how to blog safely,' which included tips on avoiding getting fired. Chief among its recommendations: Blog anonymously.

'Basically, we just want to caution people about how easy it is to find them online,' Ms. Newitz said, 'and that they are not just talking to their friends on their blogs. They're talking to everyone.'

Just finished

a crime novel I liked a lot, The Dead Sit Round in a Ring by David Lawrence. It's really good--at first I couldn't shake the feeling of how similar it is to other recent grungy London law-enforcement underworld novels (think Mark Billingham, Simon Kernick, Mo Hayder) but it's really well-written, both in terms of style and plot, and it is set apart from those others by having an appealing and persuasively characterized female detective as its main protagonist. This should be a really good series--I expect the next one must be out by now?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

I reread two favorite books,

Lirael and Abhorsen by Garth Nix. I can hardly believe these books were only published a few years ago, the Sabriel trilogy is so much a part of my reading landscape. (I am excited to see that a related collection of stories, Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories will be published this summer. I must see if I can get an advance reading copy.) These books are the very best kind of young-adult fantasy. I find it heartening that there are such good new ones, really just as good as those favorite books of my childhood, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence (which I ritually reread every few yeras). You expect the books you read when you're little to cast you in a magic thrall, but it is very delightful to find that new ones like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials do exactly the same thing. For a wonderful book about childhood reading, take a look at Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Just got back

from seeing Marivaux's The False Servant at the Classic Stage Company. Bad play, good everything else.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


outrageously excellent crime novel by Peter Temple, The Iron Rose. (Curiously, this one was in the Columbia library, though none of his other Australian-printed ones seem to have been bought either by Columbia or by the other libraries in the BorrowDirect consortium. My main thought on finding it on the shelf is that it's amazing what a small stretch of shelving is devoted here to Australian fiction. Hmm...) This one even more than the others I've read made me think of a Dick Francis novel died & gone to heaven & transmuted into something that is pretty much my dream light reading. Funny, violent, sexy. My favorite part is a game in the middle that I'm about 90% sure is rugby, sports being one of my huger pockets of ignorance. The characters, the plot (hinging on the trauma of a job fucked up and the satisfaction of a job well done, plus betrayal and loyalty and all that stuff as they carry over from a life in one line of work to life in another, or from childhood to adulthood), the immensely appealing first-person narrator (drug cop turned blacksmith), most of all the amazing prose style... seriously, if I were an editor at a big publishing house, I would sign this guy up as the new Dick Francis and make sure that millions of people were reading his novels... (And if you only know the not-so-good recent Francis novels, it's well worth checking out some of the older ones. There are lots that I particularly love, but two especially good ones that also have an Australian connection are In the Frame, which I see you can buy used for twenty-five cents, and For Kicks.) I'm going to go ahead and order Temple's other Jack Irish novels from Amazon in Australia. I hear he's writing a new one, too. Which makes me very happy.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Fred Vargas is great

I just read Have Mercy on Us All, which might be described as a thriller about the black plague; I liked it even more than Seeking Whom He May Devour, though that was very good too. Strengths/commonalities of both books: an attractive detective character, a sort of anti-Sherlock Holmes because he works intuitively but with the Holmes-style ability to see things everyone else can't; excellent writing style (slightly marred in the translations by the occasional very-English weird Anglicism, but that's OK; I imagine the American editions will be newly translated, or at least revised?); cluster of working-class characters from widely divergent backgrounds, persuasively characterized; interest in the dynamic of a small society under threat from superstition as much as from violence, and in what makes certain people resist superstitious belief and group mentalities rather than succumbing to mass panic. Also, plague and werewolves; who wouldn't like them? I will look forward to reading the others, though I'm too lazy to read them in French: I'll wait for the translations.

Monday, April 11, 2005

There's a quite agonizing

piece up at the Chronicle, by a writer called Nicholas Hengen who got an MA degree in English and comments on the nature of the MA "racket." Here's some of it:

Two years earlier, when one of my rejection letters from doctoral programs arrived with a kindly worded offer to join the master's program, it seemed like a good idea. I was weak on theory and pretty much the entire 18th century. The program would groom me, I thought, into a great candidate for any university's doctoral program.

Sitting at the bar with Jake, I don't feel groomed. I feel bruised. Since arriving on the campus, my life has been a race to keep up. In my first year, I worked 20 hours a week. I was a secretary, I tutored in the department's writing center, and I did some grading for a professor's course. I also took three classes a term and wrote a conference paper.

I read tons of theory, but much of it was gulped while making photocopies. Between collating someone's tenure packet, fielding departmental phone calls, and grading undergraduate essays about Allen Ginsberg, I would hurry through Kant and Adorno and Herbert. I would run to class feeling underprepared, get the frisson of academic engagement for an hour or two, then rush off to tutor. By the time I got home most nights it was dark. I'd kick back with Ibsen -- the lightest reading I had all year.

By May, I was embittered, exhausted, and much more qualified to discuss poststructuralism. The few hours I spent in the classroom reminded me of why I was living this life, but once I stepped outside of those doors, I was back into a rush, running to my next job, dragging my bag of library books behind me.

Although I was never paddled or forced to drink more than I should have, the parallel with hazing floated into my mind frequently. If I was willing to take on this colossal debt, run myself ragged with nonacademic work, then stay up all night to perform academically, I would be allowed to join -- after I reapplied witwith the new writing samples and the letters of recommendation I had worked so hard for.

Life would still be busy and stressful, but at least it wouldn't cost as much. I would get my Ph.D. from a good university, get a tenure-track job in a place I wanted to live, and help students understand and enjoy literature. I just had to keep working, keep reading, keep writing. Everything would be fine.

Rejection letters from graduate programs have become a reality for an increasing number of would-be scholars -- especially in the humanities. Consider my own university. This year, my English department accepted 62 students: 18 Ph.D. candidates and 44 M.A. candidates. More than half of the M.A.'s had applied to the Ph.D. program and been denied.

For those students, a terminal master's program at a prestigious university was a beacon, a way of buying entree into academe.

Seen from the outside, M.A. and Ph.D. candidates look a lot alike. But from the inside, the two are quite different. M.A.'s are departmental cash cows. Outside of federal loans, the only financial aid that most master's students get comes in the form of work-study jobs. I was granted the maximum allowance: 20 hours a week. Work-study grad students are, I soon learned, a boon to the department.

I have devoted much energy this year to making the MA program (I'm currently "director," for what it's worth) in my department as valuable as possible for the students enrolled in the MA-only option, but I fear that some of them will go away feeling rather like this guy about the whole enterprise.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Just got back

from the really excellent Wooster Group House/Lights. It's demented and quite gripping to watch. Kate Valk is an extraordinarily good actress--seriously, she should be a household name, she is both very beautiful and perhaps the best actress I've ever seen perform (well, I'm also remembering Marian Seldes last year in that Beckett-Albee thing, which was the other best in recent years). I was particularly there to see my old friend Tanya Selvaratnam--I'm amazed to think of the days when Tanya and I used to act together (esp. one memorable production of No Exit--Tanya was Estelle of course, I was Inez and Sean Gullette was Garcin, with David Gammons directing). I do have a pang for the theater days, but it wasn't where my talent specially lay I'm afraid. But sometime I am going to write a play...

Friday, April 08, 2005

I read a quite OK

British crime novel by Jim Kelly, The Water Clock (my only comment is that the protagonist has extremely peculiar taste in drinks); more enthrallingly, I'm halfway through a crazy great book I'm reviewing for the Village Voice. I won't say more now, except that it's WELL worth reading: The Origin of the World: A History of the Vagina, by a Dutch sexologist called Jelto Drenth....

Thursday, April 07, 2005

I have had

extraordinary good fortune for next year--I've got two fellowships that I will hold jointly and that will let me finish my new academic book, barring unforeseen calamity. One's in the Visiting Scholars Program at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. (I'm looking for a sublet, Sept.-May; if you're reading this and you know of anything promising, drop me a line at jmd204 at columbia dot edu? My aspirational sublet is a furnished studio or one-bedroom in an apartment building not more than 25 minutes walk from the American Academy, costing not more than $1200/mo.; but I'm flexible on details. Cheap and sort of horrible but with a reasonable location is preferable to lovely & lavish & expensive. A furnished apartment, of course, is capable of being horrible in ways that even a quite unattractive unfurnished apartment can't match. And since it's Cambridge and not NY, it is about a hundred times more likely that an apartment will be in a house than a building. But you get the idea.) And the other is this, which I can still hardly believe....

And also

I just finished Peter Temple's Black Tide, which I read most of before going to Las Vegas but couldn't justify bringing to read on the plane given that I'd read most of it already. And then it had sort of vanished in the heaps of other books and magazines and unread newspapers when I got back...

It's great. Why, oh why are all these Jack Irish novels not published in the US? Temple writes angelically good prose; I find it almost painful to read because of my conviction that though I would like to, I am never going to be able to write something like this myself. Here's a taste, though I am not sure it will seem quite as alluring in excerpt as it is in the context of the extraordinarily appealing narrative voice. (And I have an obsession with expert knowledge/terminology and also a perverse, powerful but wholly theoretical interest in carpentry.) But check out this amazing prose. In his spare time, to calm himself down, the narrator works for a genius woodworker called Charlie:

Against the righthand wall were the clamp racks: at the bottom, the monster sash clamps; above them, the lesser sizes; in the next rack, the bar clamps, the infantry of joinery, dozens of them in every size; then the frame clamps, the spring clamps, the G-clamps, the ancient wooden screw clamps that Charlie loved best, and flexible wooden go-bars arranged by length. Finally, an assortment of weird clamps, many of them invented by Charlie to solve particular clamping problems.

I can't quite explain why I love this so much, but it's something to do with the dashing repetition & the light touch of the humor & the affection that comes through from the narrator. The language is just gripping. And the plot is difficult to follow in just the right way, there's horse-racing stuff and former-CIA-drug-arms-money-laundering-type intrigue and it's all sort of confusing in the way that REAL intrigues are confusing (the reason that white-collar crime's so hard to prosecute and that even very good journalism has a hard time narrating the details of drugs-for-arms CIA-type deals, because they are full of redundancy and too many different villains to make up a proper list of dramatis personae and all that). This is an exceptionally intelligent and appealing book.

Just saw

On Golden Pond, with James Earl Jones and various others. Not my kind of play at all, but it's very funny and JEJ is superb.

Light reading: two very enjoyable novels by Victoria Clayton, Past Mischief and Dance With Me (the second is particularly delightful; I like the weird gothic touches in these otherwise very frivolous books; not quite as much to my taste as Eva Ibbotson's novels, but in a rather similar vein and very stylish in the writing); and the long-awaited Magic or Madness, by Justine Larbalestier. I enjoyed the last very much--she's got a great prose style--the only frustration was the inevitable one of reading the first volume in a trilogy and finishing it & being extremely disappointed that it will be a long wait till the next one's out. It rather reminded me of a particular favorite book of mine that I must get and read again, Margaret Mahy's The Changeover.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Check out

my friend Marco's fun but harrowing essay "On Torture and Parenting" (about training your six-month-old to fall asleep without parents in attendance) at n+1. Here's a taste: "If parenting, even responsible parenting, made me feel like a torturer, it wasn't exactly because I'm melodramatic or overwrought, but because the official torturers now conceive of themselves in the same terms as the parenting manuals. They, too, are technicians of the naked human personality. The 'Human Resource Exploitation Manual,' a formerly classified government document used to instruct 'anti-communist' Latin American security forces in the bad old 1980s, puts the theory of torture in terms that any reader of the 'Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child' can easily understand."

Sunday, April 03, 2005

I got home last night

at 5am after a super-delayed flight kept me in the Las Vegas airport on the way back from this eighteenth-century studies conference, held at this "premiere all suite non gaming resort"--my word would have been "down-at-heel." It was a surprisingly relaxing trip, all told, and I am thankful to have done temporarily with the attractive-but-insane Maupertuis so that I can take care of everything else that's piled up in the meantime. I read a few novels while I was away: the new Elizabeth George (I don't know why I still read these, I sort of hate them but some nostalgia makes me pick them up and of course it's convenient for a long plane ride. An excessively long, humorless book); an OK crime novel by Marcos Villatoro called Home Killings; and a work of pure genius, A. L. Kennedy's Paradise. This is the one of the most beautifully written novels I've read for ages--each sentence is perfect, and the whole thing adds up to something unbelievably sad and bleak and moving. And often very funny, too. My favorite sequence in the novel begins with this set of paragraphs:

You are now approaching forty and have already spent far too long washing underwear in a theatre, stacking shelves, cleaning rental power tools--which are, I would mention, often returned in revolting states. You have slotted together grids of doubtful purpose, you have folded free knitting and/or sewing patterns into women's magazines, you have sorted potatoes (for three grotesque hours), you have telephoned telephone owners to tell them about their telephones and you have spent one extremely long weekend in a hotel conference suite, asking people what they found most pleasing about bags of crisps. Every prior experience proves it--there is no point to you.

At least at the end of the crisps job, I got to take some home. But selling cardboard was a godsend: flexible and satisfying in a way that involved no pressure at any stage, because--after all--what sane person could possibly care about who might be buying how many of which kind of box. The job actually managed to be more trivial than me, which seemed to produce this Zen glow across my better days and enabled me to lie my head off in a consistent, promotional manner with hardly a trace of nauseous side effects.

At the moment, though, there's nothing doing: not in cardboard. Nobody wants me any more and yet, for the usual reasons, I continue to want cash. So, on a sodden Tuesday lunchtime, I'm forced to admit I've been driven to make the drinker's most conventional mistake. I've started working in a bar.

The scene that follows is hilarious and also incredibly depressing. This is an exceptional novel.