Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Two really very good one-acts

at the Workshop Theater Company, Pineapple and Henry. (Which is the name of an intersection in Brooklyn. Not, as I first [off-puttingly] thought, something along the lines of a play I don't like that has another fruit in its title.)

The other night

I read an advance copy of Reginald Hill's forthcoming The Stranger House. I liked it a lot, though it wasn't at all what I was expecting (and it's a bit kitschy, to tell the truth--not sure what I really think about inclusion of occult elements in crime thrillers--and I am sure that writers should think long and hard before invoking reincarnation, religious persecution in sixteenth-century England, etc. etc.). But it's a very enjoyable read: appealing main female character (Australian), good setting and so on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Barbary apes

in the New York Times:

Legend has it that as long as the Barbary apes roam the rock of Gibraltar, the territory will remain safely under British rule.

The British have embraced this particular piece of folklore for centuries; not even Churchill, in the throes of World War II, dared to disregard it. In 1944, with British morale battered by the war and the Rock's monkey population dwindling, he took no chances. He ordered a shipment of Barbary macaques from Morocco, a short hop across the strait.

Little did Churchill envision how big the monkey population would grow, nor the shenanigans that would come along with it.

There are now nearly 230 tailless Barbary monkeys on Gibraltar, and they do not merely live on the Rock so much as dominate it. As the last free-ranging monkeys left in Europe, the macaques happily milk that privilege, oblivious to the consternation they provoke among the Rock's other set of primates, their human neighbors.

The pictures are adorable, though...

Monday, June 27, 2005

Self-indulgent and reprehensible behavior

One of my favorite litblogs links today to an obituary of William Donaldson, better known to me as the author of a very strange and very funny book called The Henry Root Letters. For some reason my parents had this when I was a kid, and I read it with fascination and some perplexity at the age of ten or so. It's sort of Ali G avant la lettre: one of those mystifying but enthralling books you keep coming back to when you're too young to really understand it (and even now I expect most of the references would be a mystery to me). I'm pasting in the whole obituary, since it's so striking:

William Donaldson
January 4, 1935 - June 22, 2005
Womanising satirist and novelist who squandered several fortunes on wild living

WILLIE DONALDSON was a man of parts - among them Talbot Church, Liz Reed, Jean-Luc Legris and, most famously, Henry Root, the wet fish merchant and eccentric right-wing bigot who wrote to prominent public figures offering comment, advice and support - often in the form of a one pound note. Root's outrageous yet deadpan missives succeeded in provoking a range of often embarrassingly positive responses from the likes of Esther Rantzen, Larry Lamb, Lord Grade, Sir David McNee (the then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police), and Root's personal and political heroine, Margaret Thatcher. The resulting book, The Henry Root Letters (1980), was a bestseller for months.
The Root letters spawned a number of sequels, one of which was made into the television programme Root Into Europe (1992) starring George Cole (of Minder fame). They made Donaldson rich, not for the first time in his life, and secured his place as a cult figure among 20th-century satirists.

His other works included further forays into celebrity ridicule, a number of autobiographical works and some impressively researched (if at times factually dubious) reference books: Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics - an A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages (2002) and I'm leaving you Simon, you disgust me. . . - A Dictionary of Received Ideas (2003). None achieved the same degree of acclaim as the Root letters, but all displayed their author's cultivated cleverness and the captivating, if rather destructive, roguishness by which he lived.

Charles William Donaldson's privileged background had set him up for a life of self-indugent and reprehensible behaviour. There was also, however, a subtle intellectual competitiveness which manifested itself in his witty and biting attacks on bourgeoise values. A man who empathised with Flaubert’s disgust at his brainless peers — his Dictionary of Received Ideas was intended in part as the realisation of a project Flaubert had not been able to complete — he claimed that he felt more at home with thieves and prostitutes than intellectuals.

But he could also be self-effacing and charming. He said that his own writing “is all about showing off, it’s not serious. It’s why my journalism was so rubbish”. He was at various times a columnist for The Independent, a diarist for the Mail on Sunday, restaurant critic and book reviewer.

His charisma was such, that even some of his lovers, who he treated abominably, continued to speak of him with affection. The singer Carly Simon described him, years after he had taken up with another woman while she was in the US preparing for their wedding, as a “wonderful, wonderful person: the funniest man I have ever met”. Not everyone held him in such high regard.

His sexual depravity and nefarious lifestyle were notorious. He had attended Winchester College, which instilled in him, he believed, his intellectual insecurity and his sexual immaturity. His recollections of his time there are published in From Winchester To This (1998) — for which, he said, the libel report was longer than the published book. Among other things, the institution had taught him that “sex is a dirty and embarrassing thing,” for which reason prostitutes suited him far more than conventional relationships. He lost his virginity to a Parisian whore when he was 18.

Before going up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, he did his National Service as an officer in submarines and spent a year teaching at a London crammer. His mother died in a car crash when he was in his teens, and his father, chairman of the Glasgow-based Donaldson Shipping Line and an alcoholic, died two years later. Donaldson, by then at university, was left an inheritance of almost £350,000.

His money went on literary ventures and theatrical productions; he spent little time studying for his English degree. After university he was the lucky impresario who, as co-producer, launched Beyond the Fringe, bringing together Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in 1961. He was also the first serious promoter of Bob Dylan in the UK. Nevertheless, despite these successes, a series of theatrical flops soon brought bankruptcy. He did not suffer the ignominy of this setback for long, however, as another large inheritance in 1968 meant that he again found himself more than comfortably off.

By then he was already married to his second wife, with numerous colourful liaisons behind him. He first married Sonia Avory, a debutante who seems to have interested him little, in 1957, but he left her and his infant son for the then wife of the journalist Jeffrey Bernard; she stood him up the night he terminated his marriage, explaining three days later that they were “ships that passed in the night”. He had a love affair with a dancer in Summer Holiday, moved in with the actress Sarah Miles, then with Carly Simon and then, in 1968, married another actress, Claire Gordon.

It was at this time that he discovered cannabis. The parties he hosted became famous for their extravagance and excess and were populated by the eccentric and uninhibited. The steady flow of drugs and call-girls was expensive to keep up, however, and in 1971 Donaldson fled to Ibiza. There he spent his last £2,000 on a glass-bottomed boat. It brought him no luck, and he was forced to scavenge for food on the beach. He decided to return to England when he heard that a former girlfriend had opened up a brothel on the Fulham Road. She supported him for a while, and his time there was the basis of his first novel, Both the Ladies and the Gentlemen (1975).

Within a few years, the phenomenal success of the Root letters had put him back in funds. The Further Letters of Henry Root (1980), Henry Root’s World of Knowledge (1982), Henry Root’s A-Z of Women: “The Definitive Guide” (1985), The Soap Letters (1988), Root into Europe (1992), and Root about Britain (1994) further mined the same lucrative seam.

To the end, Donaldson’s personal life continued in shambolic vein, some of its more lurid aspects documented in his 1987 novel Is This Allowed? In the 1990s a girlfriend introduced him to crack cocaine, and he became addicted. It failed to kill him, but it reduced him to bankruptcy once more. Yet he was always both stylish and curiously efficient when it came to his work. Despite the parties, the drug-taking and the complicated love affairs, he rarely missed a deadline. Whatever the damage he inflicted on himself and others, he saw it as a saving grace that he could write. Donaldson is survived by his third wife, Cherry Hatrick, from whom he was separated, and by the son of his first marriage.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A funny post by Lee Child

about a recent reading in Arizona from his new Jack Reacher novel, One Shot: "120 folks there, in 110-degree weather. Great event. Probably 80% of the crowd were women, and we really got into a discussion of why women like Reacher. Very interactive. Top reasons were: a) women hate injustice and like to see Reacher setting things straight; b) women get vicarious anger- management release from seeing Reacher kick ass; c) women like that Reacher respects women; d) Reacher's hot."

These books definitely have the Dick Francis vibe, where something about the male protagonist makes women go crazy. I am going to go to the library and check out all of the Reacher novels & reread them in order from start to finish. Decadent summer pleasures.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Jury duty

is good mostly for reading novels (also they showed a remarkably funny video, in its middle stages it included Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer solemnly lecturing about the importance of trial by jury even if it seems like a lot of waiting around, but it opened with a Monty Pythonesque dramatization of Trial by Ordeal as done in some conjectural Middle Ages where everybody wore robes with hoods, involving ponds and stones and such--one of the more outrageous things I've seen recently). Mercifully I wasn't put on a jury, though the two days of waiting around pretty much thwarted me on the work front. But I had a run of really good novels to read.

First of all, Valiant : A Modern Tale of Faerie by Holly Black. It is superb--I love books of this kind (call it young-adult urban fantasy, though the label doesn't do it justice), and it is impossible to imagine a better one. I won't write more now, as I'm contemplating a longer and more essayistic post on the subject, but it is really spectacular. It prompted me to reread Tithe, which I loved when I read it last year and enjoyed just as much when I read it again yesterday. I am surprised to see that the general drift of the Amazon reviews for Valiant are that it's not quite as good as the first one--I thought Valiant was even better, or perhaps just more exactly my kind of book. But maybe people get antsy when they think they're going to get a sequel and don't--the main characters of Tithe make only brief and oblique appearances in Valiant. Anyway, read these books! They're amazing!

Courtesy of Lauren, the next book in the pile was The Untelling by Tayari Jones. I liked her first novel very much too (it's a good novel about childhood framed against the story of the Atlanta child murders--I think I must be pretty much exactly the same age as Jones, though growing up in Philadelphia rather than Atlanta, so this stuff all really resonates with me). The new one's even better. It's a perceptive and memorable novel about secrets and lies, modest in its scope but powerful in its impact; it also runs just the right line between the expectations set by "literary" and "popular" fiction, managing to be beautifully written and gripping in its "what happens next" aspect. I liked it a lot.

And I've just finished Fire Sale, the latest V.I. Warshawski novel by Sara Paretsky. It's excellent! I have always really liked and approved of these books, they're very much the best of what you can do with female narrator/private investigator/city setting/business crime stuff. The last few were interesting but a little whacked-out: you got a post-9/11 obsessiveness about international politics that again I approve of--I like seeing a writer well into a series try something different, and it gave the books a kind of passion that is not always present in best-selling series--but they weren't as well-plotted as usual. This one is really great--it combines some of the complexity of the more recent ones with a return to the old form on crime-solving. Highly recommended.

Actually, all these books are highly recommended, it is nice to get such a good run of high-quality novels. Very more-ish... must get serious work done this weekend, though.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Fags and Lager

The good people at Serpent's Tail sent me the book I've been dying to read for months, Fags and Lager by Charlie Williams. And it is spectacular! If you like any kind of noir, read it at once (or better yet, read the first installment Deadfolk, and then check out this one). Serpent's Tail have a great deal with free international shipping so there is no Amazon UK shipping extortion bother. Here's a taste of the narrator Royston Blake, a genuine charmer (and also Head Doorman at Hoppers, the premier drinking establishment of Mangel, a shit town in the west of England):

He were quiet for a bit, then I heard him mumbling summat. Then the line went dead.

I called him back.


'You hang up on us again, you fuckin' wanker,' I says nice and calm. 'You hang up again an' I'll--'

He only hung up again, didn't he.

I felt a mite aggrieved at that, and I don't mind telling you I took it out on the blower. Weren't long before I calmed down, mind. A professional keeps his place tidy, so I went downstairs to get the broom from under the stair. After I'd swept all the bits of blower up I went looking for summat with a hood to wear. There were nothing like that in me wardrobe or under the stair with the other coats, but I found an old parka in Fin's room. It were well tight round the shoulders and gut and chest and arms and head and neck but otherwise it were a good fit. I zipped it right up and clocked meself in the mirror. You couldn't hardly see through the snorkel bit at the front but that's how I wanted it. I didn't want no one recognising us in town, things being as they was, and this were spot on for that. Right smart I looked. Bit like an Action Man. You know, the one with the parka. Only thing letting us down were the trousers. So I went and put some on.

It's one of the best first-person voices I've seen for ages: these books are on my top-ten list from the past year, seriously. I am not sure if Charlie will be able to keep the title for the US release (fags is bad enough, but "lager" is a weirdly meaningless term here). I think he should stick by his guns and get it published exactly as is, but my alternate (equally English but more respectably misleading) title is BOILED SWEETS. Anyway, I hope there will be at least one more coming to round out the trilogy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A friend has sent me the link

for what must truly be the most horrible thing in the world. (The real one is here.)

Heat wave

London was insanely hot, especially because nobody there has air-conditioning (except for the British Library). I hadn't a minute to read while I was there, it was all family stuff. There was a good memorial tea-party for my grandmother at the Arts Club (very, very hot, though), but the best thing was this crazy lunch at the place where my grandmother lived for the last few years before she died. When she was really ill last summer, she said that she wanted there to be what she called a "slap-up meal" for all the old people in the home and the staff as well--she even said that she wanted there to be pheasant on the menu, and everything really nice. (The food in the home was her main complaint.) And indeed it was lovely. Seriously, a lavish catered lunch for 60 people--all set up at huge long tables with real tablecloths etc.--prosecco and various wines and canapes and everything like you'd have at a really fancy party. One of the old ladies was practically in tears of surprise and delight that they were actually going to have cloth napkins instead of the usual paper ones. The family members were scattered all over the place, one at the end of each table, to make conversation--I was full of dread as I sat down, but I ended up having a really good conversation with the two old ladies I was sitting next to, and you could see that getting a chance to talk with someone from the outside world was in its way as good as the food. It was just what my grandmother would have approved of, and my aunt had found excellent caterers etc.

I did read quite a few novels on the plane (god, flying is unredeemably awful). Light reading as follows:

The two Phil Rickman mysteries I hadn't read yet (it took immense self-control to leave them in the plastic when they arrived from Amazon at the beginning of last week, but of course they're excellent travel reading, being rather on the long side as well as very good): Midwinter of the Spirit and Crown of Lights. I'm sad I've come to the end of these, I really like them--I see there's a new one coming out in November, The Smile of a Ghost; must see if I can get an advance copy.

A really weak crime novel by Leslie Glass, A Clean Kill. I've read the earlier ones in this series, they're not fantastic but not at all bad. This one read as if it was written by a completely different person, one who understood the technical requirements of the form but had missed its essential appeal. Seriously, it reads more like a synopsis than like a novel! I can't quite explain it, but it was astonishingly slight, and virtually no characterization whatsoever--I don't know what happened, but this is definitely one to avoid.

The thing I really love is the high quality of the airport bookshops at the English end, and particularly those "airport exclusive" editions, often large-format paperbacks. The trip back was an ordeal, that's just a long flight, but fortunately I had two excellent books to get me through it. First of all--I'd REALLY been dying to read this, and it completely lived up to my expectations--Lee Child's One Shot, the new Jack Reacher novel. Child is an astonishingly gifted writer. Really not since Ian Fleming's early Bond novels has someone come up with such a genius concept and executed it in such stylish and pitch-perfect prose. There's something almost tongue-in-cheek about these books, they are certainly wish-fulfillment or fantasy reading, and yet the character of Reacher is so appealing--and his MacGyveresque genius for improvisation and force so convincing--that you really can't put them down. I loved this one. It makes me want to go back and read all the other ones from start to finish. Last year's installment was particularly good as it went and filled in Reacher's back-story, how he became disillusioned with the army and ended up the weird nomad walking-the-earth type. In my dream world, there would be a ton of books as good as Child's; in the world we live in, they are few and far between.

And then I read Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close, which was already available in a mass-market paperback. Very good, as you would expect. A bit more political/polemical than Rankin's usual (I was reminded of Sara Paretsky), but that's all for the good. I was struck by how much Rebus has changed since the early books--in this one he's actually quite respectable, not particularly drunken and altogether sympathetic. It's sort of like The Simpsons: if you watch the early shows, Homer is a complete drunken boor and angry father, but the edges are softened by the second season and he's pretty cuddly by the end of it. Not sure I find this psychologically convincing, but it didn't stop me enjoying the novel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An interesting piece

by Tayari Jones, on the difference between being packaged as a "southern" writer and as a black one, now up at Conversational Reading. I haven't yet got hold of a copy of The Untelling, but it sounds really excellent; I read Leaving Atlanta when it came out, and absolutely loved it. (Link via Tingle Alley.)

Music, literature, knitting

After my grandmother died in May, I posted a brief excerpt from her "memoirs." I'm leaving tomorrow for London, for various memorial events this weekend (no new posts until Tuesday, BTW, unless I slip something in tomorrow), and I had to write some kind of a toast for this tea party thing on Sunday. I started reading through the letters and cards she'd sent me over the past few years--all since she moved into an old-folks'-home-type place--and came up with some pretty funny things to put into the toast. She was such a good & real person, with a perceptive and sharp and humorous and self-deprecating voice that came through just as strongly in her writing as when you were actually with her. She was a great novel-reader, aside from everything else, as you will see below....

Granny on a musical entertainment:

We had a Xmas Carol concert with brownies (you know part of Girl Guides) last night—it was fairly awful as they giggled on & off. The pianist was a butch* lady—beefy & hung about with key chains & mobile phones. Not much of a player. It was rounded off with white wine & mincepies just before our supper of soup etc. Took the edge off our appetites!

Granny on another musical entertainment:

[Unfortunately the first part of this is unprintably insulting about the host for the evening, who with her “henchwomen” led the other old ladies “from A to B . . . like a school girls party”--don't want to type it up here and risk offending anybody] The actual concert was rather a trial. It began with three trumpets full blast and continued with odd items—singer who blasted out One Enchanted Evening mixed with Toreodor’s song. A party of very exuberant adults with children from a school on percussion. Not really your normal run of programmes. It was about a million degrees of heat & I was like a boiled beetroot, they kept offering me chairs! Not used to the sight.

Granny on photography:

All quiet here after the excitement of the wedding [of my cousin Nick]. I still can’t quite believe it is real. From the few photos they took with me in them I look as if I was viewing it all with horror. Really it was fun & I enjoyed it. They say the camera does not lie but it had a good go on me.

Granny on literature, culture and knitting, writing in this instance on a card with a very sentimental nineteenth-century picture of a child with a St. Bernard dog holding an umbrella in its mouth:

My dearest Jenny, I am sending you this utterly inappropriate card for the 14th with all my love and many thanks for the box of books that arrived yesterday morning. I could have chosen two white ducks but it was smaller and not much room to write. . . . I have been reading this book that is the rage in the U.S. the ‘Leonardo Plot’—(know that’s wrong) too abstruse & clever for me all these tantalising hints for the people to think out. I had a busy day yesterday, went up to town to take my new & expensive hearing aid back. It was giving off sounds like the morse code. It’s no better today so am sending it back again—awful waste of money on mini-cabs but a nice ride, sunny day & not much traffic. . . . Have been involved in knitting a blanket for the future Rathbone [the first great-grand-child, born last year]. Just finished the knitting, now for the sewing a more tricky proceeding. As I hadn’t knitted since Patrick [another cousin] was born I hoped I would be able to. It’s like riding a bike—you don’t forget.

*There is a chance that word "butch" is "Dutch," I spent some time mulling it over, but am 98% sure it's the former...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Andrew Vachss' Two Trains Running (with a few Burke spoilers--not Edmund...)

The first ten pages or so of Andrew Vachss' Two Trains Running were so clunky in the writing that my heart sank; I'd been dying to read it, and even pestered Ed to get me one, and it would have been a great waste of his time if it ended up being unreadable.

(On an unrelated note, check out Ed's secret history of literature. There's something dementedly Georges Perec about it--and if you have never read Perec's short piece "Some of the things I really must do before I die," published in English translation in the volume Species of Spaces, get it at once! Especially if you teach writing--it makes a great model/exercise in autobiographical listmaking.)

Here's a list of the phrases from Two Trains Running that made me worry, all drawn from pages 1-10: "a man in his mid-twenties, with a wiry build and a narrow, triangular face"; "A lantern-jawed man" who "held a double-barreled shotgun in his right hand like an accountant holding a pencil"; "a short, bull-necked man wearing a threadbare gray flannel suit," his "perfectly rounded skull ... covered by a thick mat of light-brown hair"; "a massive man in a wheelchair" with "a large, squarish head, with wavy light-brown hair, combed straight back without a part, going white at the temples," ears "flat against his skull, without lobes"; "a broad-shouldered man hunched over a typewriter," with hair "as black as printer's ink" and "raptor's eyes"; "a doughy man wearing half-glasses on the bridge of a bulbous nose," his scalp "fringed with thick mouse-brown hair"; "a thin man with a sharply receding hairline and long, yellowing teeth"; "an older, broad-faced man with eyes so heavily flesh-pouched that it was impossible to tell their color." Seriously, all in the first ten pages.... it makes you think you never want to hear about a character's hair color or body type again.

But I am happy to say that the novel is excellent! The New York magazine header is "A Pulp Novelist Goes Literary," which I find a bit weird, but whatever... The Burke novels were definitely played out, the last few in particular felt extraordinarily forced--when Vachss killed off the lovely Pansy (sorry, spoiler... but it was some volumes ago, so anyone who reads these books probably already read that painful scene) and apparently Burke too, then has him come back to NY unrecognizable after plastic surgery, you really had to cringe. (I was still awaiting the next installment with excitement, so obviously I don't mean this as a rejection, just to say that there was a falling-off in quality several books ago).

But this is a departure in the best possible way, and Vachss has definitely pulled it off. The texture is reminiscent of T. Jefferson Parker, the ambition and scope of James Ellroy. I did think with a pang, though, of how much I like Pete Dexter (Brotherly Love is my absolute favorite, but all his books are great), especially because of the way he's a brilliant prose stylist on top of all his other good qualities. But not everyone can be Pete Dexter, and this really was a good read.

(NB I am glad to see this book tastefully doesn't have an author photo at all, Vachss definitely gets my vote for creepiest author head shots ever. It's the eye-patch....)


Last night I read Locked Rooms, the latest installment in Laurie R. King's series about Sherlock Holmes and his wife Mary Russell. These books are really excellent--King's playing around with narrative voices in this one, and I'm not sure the third-person interludes work quite as well as the first-person main narrative, but it's always good to see a writer well into a series (I think this is the eighth book) take a chance on mixing things up. King is an exceptionally good writer--I really like this series, her Kate Martinelli series is very good too but I am particularly impressed with the standalone novels she's written in the last few years: Folly, Keeping Watch and (my particular favorite) A Darker Place, an intelligent and surprising novel about religious cults. King has an excellent feel for character and a set of intellectual interests that motivate her fiction without ever making it didactic or heavy-handed: I love it, for instance, that she has this longstanding interest in theology that crops up here and there where you wouldn't expect it.

I still haven't read A Slight Trick of the Mind (Mitch Cullin, sitting on the pile of books to be read--I extravagantly splurged on the hardcover but eyeing its short length thought that however good it turns out to be, it looks like a book that would have been better served by being published as a paperback original) or The Final Solution (Michael Chabon, I will have to get this from the library, I love Chabon & am sure I'll love this one too but can't pay that much for something that was actually already published & is essentially a long short story). But will hit both soon, as I love everything to do with Sherlock Holmes. The modern world & modern fiction are in some bizarre sense unimaginable without him. I did find it slightly odd that with all the blog attention to Chabon and Cullin's books last year, there was not so much mention of King--she is such a good writer, it makes you think that the unfair and shortsighted combination of people putting literary over "genre" fiction plus generally preferring men's writing to women's (and King is constantly playing with the implicit misogyny of a certain kind of Holmes fetishization in her novels) must have blocked their access to these excellent books. I see Caleb Carr has a Sherlock Holmes story out now too, I'll definitely read it but I bet it won't be as good as King's....

(And King has a great blog, too: up now are musings on San Francisco in the 1920s--the setting for the latest novel--and various interesting writing-related matters, including a desperate struggle with a paper-cutter to make the fortunes for Mary Russell fortune cookies for the book party next week....)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

This afternoon

I saw The Paris Letter at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Two words only: not recommended. Further detail would be gratuitous, but it's got the most over-the-top melodramatic ending that I've ever seen. The acting is quite good.

Haven't had a minute

to read a novel in the last few days, very annoying, but I did see the latest Star Wars movie. And a lower-energy, more stilted s-f epic have I rarely seen. The worst is when Natalie Portman talks about politics, the second-worst is when she bats her eyelids to signal that she's having emotions, and more generally I was cracked up by the last 20 minutes or so where poor Lucas has to compress a million iconic scenes into a short time period for an audience who he can assume know every details of the trilogy to come. Had to see it for old times' sake, of course: I am so totally the Star Wars generation, the first one (1977) was the first movie I remember seeing by a long shot & it's the mythology of childhood. (I was rather too young to understand a lot of what was going on, and had nightmares for years afterwards about the scene where the trash compactor walls are closing in...) In those pre-video days, you didn't watch movies again and again, but that didn't stop us from having a minor obsession, pitiful plastic toy light sabers etc. Someone--it seems unlikely to have been my mother, it's not her kind of present--gave me and my brothers each a Star Wars action figure, and we played with them extensively. Curiously we each had one that suited some aspect of our personality (I'm slightly exaggerating here, BTW, and hoping my brothers won't read this with horror)--the delicate worrier (well, delicate by our family's standards...) had C3PO, the strong silent brother had Chewbacca and I had R2D2, the short & reliable one.

Friday, June 10, 2005

I'm definitely still on a Phil Rickman bender

but The Cure of Souls wasn't as good as the others in the Merrily Watkins series. Much of the book is taken up with the Deliverance Ministry/exorcism stuff (in a hop kiln!), and the other plot is about teenage girls dabbling in spiritualism, and the evil things from the past that are making bad things happen in the present only date back to the 1960s, not the mythic long-ago past which is Rickman's real strength. Not bad, but not his best. It sent me to reread The Heartbreaker, by Susan Howatch--not her best either, but the only one I had lying around the house--Howatch handles some of the spiritual/Anglican stuff rather better than Rickman, and her novels are happier being "modern" than his. His are so grounded in a sense of place, and place with a really long history, that you miss it when he focuses mostly on recent stuff.

A great article about Serpent's Tail

in The Independent Online Edition. Just like the story says, Pete Ayrton (the press's founder and publisher) is ridiculously cool. Serpent's Tail has a great deal if you order books over their website--free international shipping, anywhere in the world--none of that Amazon UK extortionate shipping fee thing. (Link via Charlie Williams.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Lionel Shriver wins Orange Prize

Here's the Guardian story. I'm really pleased about this--I loved We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is a spectacularly good novel, & it is also nice to see someone who was toiling away for years writing novels finally get a ton of media attention.

Nocturnal reading

I refrained from posting at 5am when I finished this last night, because sitting at the computer is rarely a good sleep aid: the book was excellent, though, I really couldn't put it down, it's The Wine of Angels, the first in Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series. I really like these books! They verge on junky but are actually very high-quality. Good characters. It's amazing how much material this guy can get out of the "creepy old village on Welsh border" theme, BTW; I've just read 5 (6?) of them all in a row & will happily read the others the minute I get my hands on them. I don't know, Britain has this thing that's hard to get away with in American horror fiction unless you are really steeped in Native American lore and natural landscapes; that long history of Celtic stuff and ancient Roman days and Norman Conquest and religious persecution in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries etc. etc. makes it plausible to write about haunted places and ancient legends with a creepiness that is more likely to become kitschy in the American context.

Before that I read Bram Stoker's Dracula, good but just as trashy as I'd remembered. Prompted by my reading of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which I loved. I'm going to blog about these elsewhere, and will link when the time comes.

Worm prods

There is a really excellent story in the New Yorker fiction issue! (I know, I know, it's not polite of me to sound so surprised, but I am neutral to negative about almost all short fiction other than science fiction/fantasy/horror stories, which seem to me to have a unique appeal, and usually find the magazine's nonfiction pieces far superior.) It's Justin Tussing's "The Laser Age," and it's really fabulous; the story's not online, and he doesn't seem to have a website, but I see that it's part of a forthcoming novel. (Thisbe Nissen says this: "I go to the airport and start reading my friend Justin Tussing's yet-unpublished-but-undoubtably-soon-to-be-snatched-up novel, The Low Home, which, now 50 pages in, I adore. It's 1973 and Alice, Thomas and Shiloh flee an Ohio town for the wilds of Vermont where they seems to be planning to homestead or somehow make their way. The descriptive voice and the dialogue are so incredibly good, and there promises to be much sex and hippie-dom, and I am dying for some more time to keep reading." And here's an Amazon link for The Best People in the World, but with absolutely no information about the book. Annoyingly tantalizing....)

Other good pieces include an interesting brief memoir by Edmund White (this one's online) and a good essay by Janet Malcolm about Gertrude Stein. Malcolm is illuminating about Stein's difficult and little-read The Making of Americans, but the real gems come when she homes in on Leon Katz, whose unpublished dissertation on Stein (which mines Stein's notebooks, their meaning unpacked with the help of Alice B. Toklas) made a huge contribution to Stein studies but never appeared as a book--now in his 80s, Katz is still working on the book and guards his material closely. Another Stein scholar tells Malcolm "a story about Katz's dissertation which cleared up a minor mystery for me":

In his prefatory acknowledgments, after citing Toklas and Gallup and various academic eminences, Katz writes, "Beyond all others is my debt to Mother Adele Fiske of Manhattanville, to whom it is impossible to express adequately my gratitude for her ministrations on behalf of this labor. Her devotion and her generosity were overwhelming and humbling." I wondered what the nun had done to merit such gratitude. What had her ministrations been? Dydo related that Katz had had to leave Vassar because he had not finished his dissertation. "The rules are that if you don't finish your dissertation within three years you have to look elsewhere for a job. Leon then went to teach at Manhattanville College, and the Mother Superior there understood what was going on with that dissertation. He was not writing it. And she gave him orders. "You will leave at my door every night a certain number of pages"--I don't know how many, it doesn't matter. And he did. A mother--a real mother--is no good for that. A girlfriend, a boyfriend, an anything friend is no good for that. But a Mother Superior is excellent for that. I had tried--a bit. All of us had tried one way or another. But she was the one who got the Ph.D. out of him."

Monday, June 06, 2005

Monkeys learn to budget, exchange money for sex

My only complaint about this article by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt is that it could have been a bit more serious. They describe two psychologists at Yale who have trained capuchin monkeys to use money, despite Adam Smith's belief that the ability to understand exchange value sets people apart from all other animals:

The essential idea was to give a monkey a dollar and see what it did with it. The currency Chen settled on was a silver disc, one inch in diameter, with a hole in the middle -- ''kind of like Chinese money,'' he says. It took several months of rudimentary repetition to teach the monkeys that these tokens were valuable as a means of exchange for a treat and would be similarly valuable the next day. Having gained that understanding, a capuchin would then be presented with 12 tokens on a tray and have to decide how many to surrender for, say, Jell-O cubes versus grapes. This first step allowed each capuchin to reveal its preferences and to grasp the concept of budgeting.
During the chaos in the monkey cage, Chen saw something out of the corner of his eye that he would later try to play down but in his heart of hearts he knew to be true. What he witnessed was probably the first observed exchange of money for sex in the history of monkeykind. (Further proof that the monkeys truly understood money: the monkey who was paid for sex immediately traded the token in for a grape.)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

An essay about reading

My mom (who teaches at the school I went to) asked me to write something on the occasion of my third-grade teacher's retirement. I'm posting it here because of the way it turned out to be an essay about reading. Here goes.

For Miss Corson’s retirement
May 15, 2005

I can never think of Miss Corson as Carol, though I am not so very much younger now than she must have been in the school year 1978-79, when I spent third grade in her 1-2-3 classroom in the back corner of the Lower School building at Germantown Friends. The smell of gingko fruit always takes me back to that year; so does the sight of those little milk boxes that used to come on a plastic tray from the lunchroom (regular milk came in red boxes, skim milk in blue, chocolate milk in brown—a twice-weekly treat—and small cartons of orange juice only one day a week, to my chagrin as I was not then, as I am not now, a milk-drinker).

What surprises me most is how much I remember about that year. Miss Corson was a truly exceptional teacher, the perfect teacher for me at that particular point in my life: she shared my passion for books and animals both. I remember her introducing me to a magical novel by Ursula Nordstrom called The Secret Language, a book about eight-year-old girls and their complicated alliances, uniquely appealing to me and my two best friends Debby Stull and Dara Rossman that year we were all eight, the three of us (I am ashamed to admit) a tight clique who played an elaborate game of witches in the Live Graveyard, illicitly slipping through the hedge during recess when we were supposed to be on the playground.

I remember Miss Corson’s promise to give a real grown-up fountain pen to anyone who mastered the elementary stages of the Richardson handwriting method; I spent hours and hours practicing the rows of joined c’s, right-side-up and upside-down in a pattern like a stylized drawing of waves, and when I got the Pen (we all thought of it with a capital letter, like a kind of award) it was my proudest moment. I remember drawing a picture of myself in explorer’s gear (my idol that year was Jane Goodall, and I was absolutely mesmerized by In the Shadow of Man) with an explanation of how I wanted to become a scientist and study chimpanzees in the wild. I remember painting a huge picture of my toy chimpanzee Jim, becoming terribly upset when the blue of his pants dripped in a way that made several classmates jeer that Jim was peeing, and Miss Corson coming up with the solution of painting over the drip so that Jim was sitting on a kind of blue throne. I remember learning to put together the map of Africa—the continent another obsession of mine by way of the chimpanzee preoccupation—and memorizing all the names of the countries and being puzzled by the switch from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe (written on a label in Miss Corson’s distinctive handwriting) without being old enough to know how to find out what it meant or why it had happened. I remember writing a huge long story in which all my stuffed animals (Jim the monkey at their head) came to life secretly when people weren’t watching and had adventures, and Miss Corson asking me to read it to the whole rest of the class; it was my first taste of how enjoyable it is to write something to entertain an audience.

I remember an extraordinarily exciting thing, Miss Corson (well aware of my fixation on primates) inviting me to come with her and her grown-up friends to an evening lecture by a woman who studied orangutans (in retrospect I am sure it must have been Biruté Galdikas, though I couldn’t swear to it). We met up at her house to travel to West Philadelphia together, and Miss Corson made sandwiches for everyone for later—cream cheese and sprouts on black pumpernickel bread, which she handed to us in little plastic sandwich bags—and I embarrassed myself by taking a bite of my sandwich then and there, as it was 6:30 or so, my usual dinner time. Miss Corson placidly said, “What a sensible idea! Let’s all eat our sandwiches now,” thereby saving me from mortification.

I remember the large and handsome rabbit called Fuzzy traveling home for the weekend with Miss Corson on Friday afternoons in a large canvas L. L. Bean bag. Fuzzy had a taste for crayons, and if anyone accidentally left them lying out, he would eat them during the night, his diarrhea greeting us the next morning in smelly colored splashes throughout the room. I remember the way Miss Corson’s classroom had the best book collection, even better than the Friends Free Library (I’d already read an awful lot of the books at the library), and that she would let you borrow a book if you filled out a card. I remember that at the end of the year, Miss Corson took the whole class over to Browser’s Bookstore and let each of us choose a book which she actually bought and paid for; I agonized over what to choose, finally picking Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Witches of Worm, which I devoured when I got home—it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a book I read again and again, and years later when I actually got to know a real Abyssinian cat I realized that the cat in the story, Worm, isn’t just strange-looking, he’s an Abyssinian (a revelation I rank with the belated insight that Scooby Doo’s a Great Dane).

I knew Miss Corson outside of school as well as in. At that time we lived near her in Chestnut Hill, and I sometimes took care of Fuzzy while she was away. The book collection in her house is the thing I particularly remember and associate with Miss Corson. It was an extraordinary trove which she treated like a library, lending freely and providing me with many, many hours of most magical reading. (I can still smell that attic-y hot smell you get at the top of a house with wooden floors in the middle of summer.) She had a huge number of those English Puffin paperbacks—the child’s counterpart of Penguins—that you couldn’t get in libraries or bookstores in America. I read Noel Streatfeild’s novel The Growing Summer and Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown and Leon Garfield's novels about Dickensian children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London and Oliver Twist and a novel whose name I can’t remember about an evil doll and my very favorites, the novels I permanently associate with Miss Corson, Alan Garner’s remarkable and evocatively named fictions: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service.

I still adore young-adult fantasy fiction; there is something magical about these books, as if they represent the essence of reading distilled. All novels transport you, in other words, but these ones are so very explicit about children traveling from an ordinary world to a magical one, they represent a very special kind of solace (one I was reminded of when I read Francis Spufford’s recent memoir The Child That Books Built, which perfectly captures that experience). Miss Corson transported me to other worlds with her kindness, generosity and imaginative grace in those years of my childhood.


It's Curfew, by Phil Rickman. I do like well-written horror novels; these ones of Rickman's basically make me want to move to a backwards area haunted by evil spirits and have dangerous encounters that will provide good material for fiction. (Not really. But it's definitely the kind of fiction that gets my brain spinning around trying to think of how I could write something like this.)

Friday, June 03, 2005

Fruit fly sex

Crazy little article in the New York Times about the mating habits of fruit flies:

When the genetically altered fruit fly was released into the observation chamber, it did what these breeders par excellence tend to do. It pursued a waiting virgin female. It gently tapped the girl with its leg, played her a song (using wings as instruments) and, only then, dared to lick her - all part of standard fruit fly seduction.

One gene, apparently by itself, creates patterns of sexual behavior in fruit flies.The observing scientist looked with disbelief at the show, for the suitor in this case was not a male, but a female that researchers had artificially endowed with a single male-type gene.
That one gene, the researchers are announcing today in the journal Cell, is apparently by itself enough to create patterns of sexual behavior - a kind of master sexual gene that normally exists in two distinct male and female variants.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that females given the male variant of the gene acted exactly like males in courtship, madly pursuing other females. Males that were artificially given the female version of the gene became more passive and turned their sexual attention to other males.

What I really love are those electron microscope pictures of fruit flies, especially the ones where they inactivate a gene and you end up with a fruit fly with two front ends or no eyes or other sinister permutations....

One more Phil Rickman novel,

they're definitely super-addictive: Prayer Of The Night Shepherd. Very good. Now I must get the earlier ones in this series (they're already in the shopping cart...) and then wait for the brand new one to come out: I'm afraid it won't be released until November, very annoying.

Went to a couple of Book Expo parties this evening, the Litblog Coop one at the Slipper Room (very nice, huge turnout, only flawed by the fact of no nametags! So I am assured that many of my favorite litbloggers were in the room, including some I've corresponded with by e-mail, only I have no idea who they were and didn't get to meet them in person) and the Soft Skull one at the Bowery Poetry Club. Lauren Cerand says come to see Stephen Elliott and Dallas Hudgens read on Thursday, June 9 at Lolita on Broome Street; more details if you follow the link. I think it will be really good.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Supernatural crime

I've just read two books by Phil Rickman, recently described to me as a must-read supernatural crime writer. I checked out as many books as I could get of his from the library, only four unfortunately; the more recent ones looked best, but past experience has taught me that you must start with the earliest one, otherwise you read the really great recent ones where the writer's perfected the technique and the early ones look flat in comparison, whereas you would have liked them a lot if you'd just read them in the order they were written. So first I read Rickman's first novel Candlelight, atmospheric horror in Wales, quite good but a little clunky in the writing (and surely very annoying to read if you happened to be Welsh!). Enjoyable, in other words, but nothing exceptional. Then I read Lamp Of The Wicked, which is probably the (I'm guessing) third or fourth in the series featuring Merrily Watkins, Anglican vicar and exorcist. And it's really excellent! Including a very sinister fact/fiction blend in the invocation of the Fred West case.... Rickman's not the most striking stylist in the world (he's got a habit I particularly dislike, though I see how it's tempting & I expect I fall into it myself, of marking a character's regional accent with the token stereotyped verbal tic, popping an "anyroad" into the Yorkshire guy's speech and a few "wivs" and such into the Cockney guy's and ... etc., without really having the characters speak in different patterns). But aside from that, this book's really excellent, very exactly the kind of novel I like. Creepy, persuasive, great story-telling, extremely compelling characters. I still in this vein most love Susan Howatch, but I can't wait to read all of Rickman's others--I foresee an Amazon splurge coming on after I read the other two I've got from the library.... (Thanks to Alexis Soloski for the recommendation.)

An extremely exciting announcement from Hard Case Crime

I've got an appealing stack of Hard Case Crime books waiting to be read--wasn't in the mood for noir so much these last few months (weariness of spring semester makes me like more contemplative books preferably with happy endings), but now the school year's over, I'm more likely to plunge into them and read them in a frenzy. And I'm super-excited about this announcement:

Award-Winning Authors
Team Up For Hard Case Crime

Authors of THE GUARDS and TWISTED CITY to Collaborate on BUST

New York (June 3, 2005) – Hard Case Crime announced today that acclaimed crime writers Ken Bruen and Jason Starr will collaborate on an original novel titled BUST, to be published in Spring 2006. Ireland-based Bruen is the author of more than a dozen celebrated novels, including THE GUARDS, THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS, and THE MAGDALEN MARTYRS. New York City-based Starr has won raves for novels such as HARD FEELINGS, TOUGH LUCK, and TWISTED CITY. Between them, the two authors have been nominated for almost every major award in the mystery field, including the Edgar, the Shamus, the Barry, the Anthony, and the Macavity Awards. (THE GUARDS won the Shamus in 2003, TOUGH LUCK won the Barry in 2004, and both men are again up for the Anthony and Barry Awards this year.) BUST tells the story of sleazy New York businessman Max Fisher, who hatches a plot to kill his wife with the help of his Irish-American executive assistant and an ex-IRA hit man of her acquaintance. Naturally, things go horribly wrong.

Launched in September 2004 by novelists and pulp mavens Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, the Edgar Award-winning Hard Case Crime imprint revives the storytelling and visual style of the great pulp paperbacks of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The line features an exciting mix of lost pulp masterpieces from some of the most acclaimed crime writers of all time and gripping new novels from the next generation of great hardboiled authors, all with new painted covers in the grand pulp style. Authors range from current best-sellers such as Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Ed McBain, and Donald E. Westlake to Golden Age stars like Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of “Perry Mason”), Donald Hamilton (creator of “Matt Helm”), Wade Miller (author of TOUCH OF EVIL), and Charles Williams (author of DEAD CALM). In October 2005, Hard Case Crime will publish THE COLORADO KID, a new book by Stephen King, who has said, “This is an exciting line and I’m delighted to be part of it.”

Since its debut, Hard Case Crime has been the subject of enthusiastic coverage by a wide range of publications including The New York Times, USA Today, Vanity Fair, Playboy, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Houston Chronicle, New York magazine, the New York Post and Daily News, Salon, Publishers Weekly and USA Weekend, as well as numerous other magazines, newspapers, and online media outlets. In The Stranger, Neal Pollack wrote, “Hard Case may be the best new American publisher to appear in the last decade.” The Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Hard Case Crime is doing a wonderful job…These modern ‘penny dreadfuls’ are worth every dime.” And Publishers Weekly wrote, “They do write ‘em like they used to.”

“Ken and I have been looking for an excuse to work together and the chance to collaborate on an old-fashioned pulp crime novel for Hard Case Crime was just too good to pass up,” said Jason Starr. Ken Bruen added, “We had a blast writing this book and have already started talking about a sequel.”

“Bust is a simply terrific book that will not only satisfy existing fans of Ken’s and Jason’s work but should bring them legions of new readers,” said Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime’s editor. “These guys are well versed in the pulp tradition and know how to tell the sort of story that grabs you by the throat on the first page and doesn’t let you go until the last. This is definitely a stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it sort of book.”

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Fish shack vibe

Just got taken out for a lovely dinner in the upscale fish-shack downstairs place at BLT Fish; decadent and delicious, oysters and cocktails and scallops and shrimp and peach cobbler, very tasty, a reward for some proofreading last week. More on light reading shortly. I've discovered a delightfully trashy new author, on a friend's recommendation, supernatural thrillers that I'll post about soon. Horror has never been the main genre I read in, but there's something that good horror fiction does that nothing else quite touches--I want to try my hand at it sometime. Maybe even something with vampires....