Monday, October 31, 2005

Paul Collins

has a very moving short essay in the New York Times about deciding to give Prozac to his autistic son.

So I'm back from LA

and it was a great little trip: the Clark Library is beautiful (imagine eating lunch out on the lawn of an Italianate villa set in a formerly elegant but now slightly down-at-heel Southern California neighborhood, in bright sunlight and mid-60s balm), the conference was excellent (met a bunch of great people I'll definitely stay in touch with) and the Doubletree Westwood is an extremely well-located hotel (on Saturday night I wandered over to the UCLA campus, ate sushi and then ambled through the Persian neighborhood on the other side of Wilshire, plus a quick and extravagant visit to a Borders where I bought a lot of light reading for the trip home--I was worried about whether I would feel trapped without a car, but it's totally a pedestrian neighborhood, in fact probably more convenient for pedestrians than most of Cambridge, at any rate the streetlight system is much more transparent). The travel all went smoothly although it seems a long way to go for a two-day conference.

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges. The night before I left, I reread for about the millionth time Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, which I had plucked from the shelf at the library the week before. It's an enjoyable read, but mostly I was laughing at my younger self--when I was ten or eleven I thought this book was the most romantic and exciting novel of all time (well, that's an exaggeration, but I certainly read it again and again, I liked the English-history aspect and the plot hinges on clues in old books and mazes and things), whereas I can't really say now that I think it's one of her best: the little interludes with the nineteenth-century lovers are pretty cheesy, and the whole psychic-bond-between-lovers and evil-twin thing seems overblown though tastefully handled. When I was little my enjoyment of the book was given an added fillip because the title is the motto of the Scottish Clan Chattan, which my dear Scottish-and-also-Scotland-besotted grandfather insisted was the Davidson family clan. However Mary Stewart is definitely on the short list of most readable and likeable novelists, she shares with Dick Francis and only a few others (I'd put Robin McKinley in this category) the gift for really appealing first-person narration. I think these writers are sensible to choose to write books whose protagonists/narrators are similar to each other rather than identical: series can get tired, but this way you get to work up a really good first-person voice and then see whether the particular incarnation of it in that year's book is more or less appealing than usual. (Georgette Heyer wrote in the third rather than the first person, but it's a similar thing, playing with a set of types rather than trying to develop a single character over multiple books.)

On the plane to California, I read an excellent true-crime book, not a genre I usually read but my friend A. kindly procured it for me and it caught my attention: On the Run: A Mafia Childhood by Gregg and Gina Hill, the children of Henry Hill (the mobster whose story formed the basis for Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy and Scorsese's Goodfellas--and Hill wrote his own memoir with a little help, though his children's book offers a completely different perspective). It's really pretty great; the writing's nothing special but it's an amazing and horrifying story about bad, bad parents and the awfulness of being a child. I have always had a minor obsession with the Witness Protection Program--I no longer think about it so much, but for some reason when I was younger I was secretly convinced that I should be prepared to go completely underground and start a new life somewhere. If I had to, I thought then, I would run a copy shop. (You can't do anything that's too much like what you really do, so no children's librarian/fifth-grade-teacher/bookshop owner-type stuff.) And start a new undergraduate degree in science and train to become a vet or something like that. Of course it starts to seem more and more perverse as life goes further along, now I think I would have to go and live in Australia or something like that (this is ludicrous, I realize, and will make me sound like a crazy person, but the way academic conferences work, I have met an awful lot of professors from schools all over the place, so if I actually wanted to get a degree and not be recognized I don't think it would be wise to be on an American college campus. Canada, maybe).

This book was a bit too gritty and depressing (those poor children!) to be really escapist reading, so my Borders trip was very supernatural/fantasy/horror oriented. In my hotel room late Saturday night I sucked down Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom by Julie Kenner, a very charming Buffyesque novel I first heard about at Martha O'Connor's blog. My only complaint was the frivolity and implausibility of the backstory: it is rather delightful to learn that this suburban soccer-mom was an orphan raised in the Vatican by the special demon-hunter training squad but I think in that case there should have been more comic incongruities between her past and present lives, I mean with a bit more psychological depth. It is not sensible to think that she could sound so much like a regular old suburban soccer-mom, you would have to develop the backstory about something like those "sleepers" (surely a function more of the Cold War-era spy novel than of real spycraft, though of course the real spy stuff has come to sound like fiction as well because it is so fanciful, all the equipment when you see it--fake tree stumps with radio transmitters hidden inside, that sort of thing--looks ludicrously stage-prop-like) and them getting trained to sound American and suburban rather than peculiarly Vatican-raised.

More plausible on this front was the rather excellent Bitten, a werewolf novel by Kelley Armstrong. Much more psychologically plausible, very well-written. Why do I find this kind of book so appealing? I want to write something like this myself, only set in New York; but I haven't yet come up with exactly the right premise or tone (light-hearted but also serious; I wouldn't want to write super-serious S&M-type vampire novels, it would have to be something a little more tongue-in-cheek but serious enough that they don't just seem silly). Hmmmm... this has been a very dull blog post, I must go and get some real work done. (I still haven't finished that Fielding essay, I should have been working on the plane yesterday but succumbed instead to the charms of Kelley Armstrong and Poppy Z. Brite, about whom more anon.) I hate being away from e-mail and computer while I travel; blogging works best day-by-day rather than in an indigestible lump like this.

Monday, October 24, 2005

More on the Paradise Lost film script

Philip Pullman comments at the OUPblog. And he's very polite about it too, really. (Link via Bookslut.)

Paradise Lost is basically one of my favorite things ever, it is insanely good. I didn't read it--didn't read any Milton--until grad school and the only thing that spoiled my enjoyment was the voice in my head screaming "Why didn't anyone ever TELL me that I had to read this book because it's insanely and dementedly great?!?" Seriously, I don't think I'd ever been asked to read a single poem by Milton--I'd read Areopagitica but not even Lycidas, Milton was deeply unfashionable in the places I spent my time in the 80s and early 90s. That opening sequence of the first few books is the most amazing science-fiction-y spectacle you can imagine, and the language is sublime--I also like Milton's general crankiness--the only other book that ever made me feel exactly this way I read around the same time, Melville's Moby Dick. I had been avoiding it for years on the basis of a strong dislike for sea fiction (I still don't really like Conrad, though I make an exception for The Secret Agent and was ultimately won over by Patrick O'Brien and so forth). I thought it would be almost exactly like one of those Conrad sea ones. Rarely have my preconceptions been so thoroughly exposed as ignorant and prejudiced....

Sunday, October 23, 2005

"Double Wedding, 1615"

My dear friend Jane Yeh has a poem in the Guardian this week. I am notoriously intolerant of new poetry whether or not it is written by friends--so often you read a poem that doesn't even seem to have been copy-edited to the standard of prose...--but Jane is a miraculously good poet and this is a really amazing book, a must-read in my opinion. Here's Jane's site, and here's one of my favorite poems from the book:


I could beg but I don’t have to. What it is
I couldn’t say. A chronic incidence

Of cringing from the light in elevators,
Night trains, doorwells: if this heart, it clatters

Into the bin like a handful of change, if this tatty
Muzzle, it fits the crime, if strapless

Were to ‘having it’ as bang-up is to ‘done that’,
Would my position be worth a flutter?

Darkness, debt, a peep, the thrill: possession
Is theft from, proof is knowing where, love

Is blind they say, but I’m having none of it.
I’ve an eye to the main chance.

I look better in the dark.
Even if the phone rings now I won’t stop.

I can't believe what she does with those words--I am just completely in love with the sequence "if strapless / Were to 'having it' as bang-up is to 'done that.'"

And here's the first stanza of a poem titled "Cumbria":

It seems unfair to the sheep.
Now that the cull's on, they haven't a chance.
They can't help being round, contagious, and woolly.
Ghostly herds bobble slowly down the track.

Here's the link if you want to order it from Carcanet; and here's the Amazon UK link. I think this edition is going to have some kind of distribution in the US, or possibly be reissued by a publisher here, and I will post when that happens. This is a book everyone should read.

When I am really

living in New York I am massively lazy and only go to things if someone else tells me when & where to be & arranges for tickets, I would be completely misrepresenting myself if I said that I am missing NY particularly because of cultural events, and yet being away it certainly becomes wildly more appealing to line up some good stuff when I'm in town, and I have just had the most idyllic visit. Lots of my favorite people in the world, plus excellent arts-related things (not nearly as book-oriented as I usually tend to be).

Most sublime and delightful were Nico Muhly's amazing settings of passages from Strunk and White's Elements of Style (and Maira Kalman's paintings for the illustrated version are quite extraordinary, the originals were on display in the reception room before and after the concert and they are really some of the most beautiful things I've seen for a long time). Here was the link for the event, and here was the lovely piece in the Times (which includes a perceptive description of the music, which the author of the piece heard in rehearsal the week before). It was completely amazing, sitting with perhaps five hundred people in the seats along the tables in the main reading room at the New York Public Library and listening to the miraculously elegant and intelligent and haunting music Nico had written. The performers were superb, the place was perfect (I felt as if I was uncannily listening to something written for me and me alone, it was so exactly what I love--Nico's music has this Benjamin Britten-esque thing that I adore, the phrase "popular music" has quite different connotations but you really feel that the best name for what he writes would be a defamiliarized version of popular music, it is so accessible and appealing and yet distinctly his own & not at all what anyone else would have written--and in a library of all places!). A recording was made, and I'll link if it goes up online--also there may be a segment on NPR sometime in the next week or two. I think my favorite settings were of the lines beginning "Do not use a hyphen between words that can better / be written as one word: water-fowl, waterfowl" and "Nice"; but my favorite single piece was "Chicago (Duet)," which has the most enchanting music but also the wittiest use of language and setting together ("Without a friend to counsel him, the temptation proved irresistible").

Then on Friday I saw the spirit photography exhibit at the Met, it is pretty great though not actually sublime: the ectoplasm photographs are the most grotesque, especially given the general depressingness and weird class stuff about the women who are the professional mediums (I think this may be more or at least differently resonant now than even at the time, because of how much we think now about bodies and eating disorders and matter and words and stuff, you really have almost to choke when you look at these things, stretches of supposedly ethereal but really all-too-bodily cheesecloth ectoplasm streaming out of mouths and--I am afraid to say--vaginas and so on). The most appealing photos are the deliberate hoaxes; I am very much looking forward to getting the exhibition catalog, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, and examining it more closely.

And then this afternoon I did indeed see the truly enchanting Moscow Cats Theatre. I was laughing so much I had to wipe the tears from my eyes, it is quite an amazing show (and so Russian, too, that's partly what I love). Here's my favorite cat, and here's another cat doing a handstand--pawstand--literally it held this position for at least 10 seconds.

Light reading round the edges, mostly on the bus, was three novels by Terry Pratchett: Equal Rites, Guards! Guards! and Men At Arms. I find Pratchett's novels extremely funny but I also read them feverishly with an eye to how the hell he does it--he makes it look really, really easy but there is something extremely cunning going on to make these books so enjoyable to such a large number of people.

Not much going on here blog-wise over the next week or so, as I've got a massive amount of work to do between now and Wednesday evening and then a trip to a conference on Thursday. But air travel always licenses light reading for me, so expect more book-related commentary at the end of next weekend. Meanwhile a few trivial posts may come this way, although I can't promise anything much.

There's an excellent long interview

with Jonathan Lethem by Robert Birnbaum at the Morning News. Lethem's reading at MIT on Nov. 3, I think I must go. (Thanks to Conversational Reading for the heads-up.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

There's a great

NYT piece today about Maira Kalman's illustrated Strunk & White Elements of Style and Nico's music for the book release party/concert thing at the New York Public Library. I am SO excited for this...

The most decadent and delightful

and baroque-but-also-somehow-aesthetically-stringent novel I've read for some time is Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by my literary idol Wayne Koestenbaum. (The excellent and energetic Richard Nash, now blogging for Soft Skull, sent it to me after reading my previous raves about the demented Koestenbaum genius.)

I haven't finished reading it yet--I gulped down about fifty pages (or five "notebooks," in the book's unorthodox scheme of organization) and then realized I was wasting the pleasure of it if I tried to have it all at once. The prose is remarkable, truly like nothing else I can think of and also much funnier than you would expect from something so stylized. The book beggars description, but I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to see what can be done with words and a twisted aesthetic and a morbid sense of humor. Here is the opening paragraph, which I love:

Thirty-five years ago I lost my red beanie cap. I accidentally left it in the unheated third-grade classroom. The fickle hat never reappeared. Pigeons alighting on a dung-splattered Roman Catholic church (I see it out my bedroom window) are more important than my cheap cap, worn once.

And here is the paragraph describing the narrator's encounter with one of the local hustlers, his consorts:

I met Friedman for a session: beyond oral, beyond anal: a practice we call '"detente," or "fracture." Diplomatic, visceral, frightened of the law and yet expert at evading it, he specializes, as hustler, in unknown, painful positions (ads call him "The Wrecker"), positions he renames after legal cases, physical ailments, political maneuvers. Sex's purpose is nomenclature. Friedman is more interested in words than in sensations.

(Aside from his other talents Wayne is a punctuater of great subtlety and originality.) There is something about the quality of the prose that I find absolutely irresistible. I have written before about how much I loved being a teaching assistant for Wayne's version of the Daily Themes class at Yale. If I was in New York I'd dig out the exact text of the best assignment he gave that semester, but I'll have to reproduce it: one week (with diction as one of the rubrics, as opposed to others' more ordinary topics like "point of view" or "character") he told the students all about Perec's novel "A Void" (which denies itself the use of the letter 'e'), then gave them an assignment that involved picking five letters and writing a short piece (one of the 'daily themes' of the title--I think the terminology dates roughly from WWI...) on some topic I don't remember in which they only used words without any of those five letters.

This assignment led to the most amazing results in terms of diction (and has always stuck in my mind since then as the perfect example of how stringent artificial constraints can lead to a real sense of freedom, like some kind of a fetish-y chastity belt thing): even students who usually wrote fairly workmanlike prose were coming up with really incredible consonants bumping up against each other and strange missing articles (like Russian-speakers run wild--try and write a paragraph without using "the" or "a" and you will see how odd and appealing the effects can be) and a sense of distinctiveness that they could then often recapture when they returned to writing prose the usual way. This is the feeling Wayne's sentences give me: as if they have been written according to the dictates of some set of rules undisclosed and impossible-to-be-deduced and altogether arcane and occult and esoteric. Mmmmm....

On a more mundane note I hit the Henry Weston Farnsworth Room at Lamont Library the other day; officially devoted to non-curricular leisure reading, the Farnsworth Room is a fantastic place in theory but in practice rather down-at-heel, too many empty places on the shelves and too many students studying like crazy in spite of its being a no-laptop zone. (Don't get me wrong, I approve of studying, but this room was originally a study-free zone and I did think it would have been nice to see one or two people frivolously reading novels instead of sitting hunched over books. Also you feel like a real pest when you have to inch around the corners of the studiers to access shelves.) Though it all looks a bit chaotic, I did spot some great stuff that I would have seized upon if I hadn't read it already (new novels by Ken Bruen and Gwyneth Jones, for instance--the collection is particularly strong in crime and fantasy and science fiction--and by the way if you have not been reading Bruen you must take it up, it's a better habit than smoking, I particularly recommend White Trilogy but you can't go wrong).

So last night (Farnsworth-procured) I reread my least favorite Mary Stewart novel, Wildfire at Midnight (which I picked because I've read it so many fewer times than the others which I like more--this is the way that favorites get equalized, I am always doing it for Dick Francis too where I have to resort to the less good ones I haven't already reread in double digits & then fall for their charms); and tonight I read the latest novel from Henning Mankell, Before the Frost, which I thought was excellent. (I read too many of these all at once when I first discovered them, and was too attuned to their repetitiveness though I liked them very much; but this one very appealingly breaks the mold. Very good.)

I'm in New York Wednesday to Saturday, so no posts until late Saturday or Sunday, but I should have a good combination by then of things to post about, including the elements of style, the Moscow Cats Theatre and whatever I end up reading on the bus.

Monday, October 17, 2005

An aside from the eighteenth century

about comic writing and similes. I'm just typing up my notes on Fielding's The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, and I can't stop thinking about Neil Gaiman and the long long long history of the simile in English comic writing. Gaiman shares with Terry Pratchett and a number of others (in the twentieth century you can see it going back to P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne and Alan Coren, as
Gaiman pointed out in an interview with Andrew Lawless at Three Monkeys Online, and perhaps to Oscar Wilde as well) a talent for tweaking similes so that they deconstruct themselves in a peculiarly witty and enjoyable way; the gift's especially in evidence in Anansi Boys, a novel so delightful that I wish everyone would read it. (Here's my previous post on similes and Anansi Boys. Do not be put off by the strange and really rather perplexing negative-ish review in the NYTBR, which began with these words: "There is something about running into the words 'banyan tree' near the beginning of a novel that makes you dread all the pages to come, in the same way that you would dread the meal to come if your host for the evening announced that he or she had been taking lessons in Moroccan cuisine - that is, of course, unless that person happened to be Moroccan." If anyone can sensibly parse this for me, please leave word in the comments!)

Don't get me wrong, when it comes to Fielding and similes Tom Jones is really much funnier than Jonathan Wild, which has other charms. But Jonathan Wild has its simile-related moments nonetheless. This one comes just after the narrator (imprisoned in Newgate) catches his best friend in the arms of his lovely wife:

As the generous Bull, who having long depastured among a Number of Cows, and thence contracted an Opinion, that these Cows are all his own Property, if he beholds another Bull bestride a Cow within his Walks, he roars aloud, and threatens instant Vengeance with his Horns, till the whole Parish are alarmed with his bellowing. Not with less Noise, nor less dreadful Menaces did the Fury of Wild burst forth, and terrify the whole Gate. Long time did Rage render his Voice inarticulate to the Hearer; as when, at a visiting Day, fifteen or sixteen, or perhaps twice as many Females of delicate but shrill Pipes, ejaculate all at once on different Subjects, all is Sound only, the Harmony entirely melodious indeed, but conveys no Idea to our Ears; but at length, when Reason began to get the Better of his Passion, which latter being deserted by his Breath, began a little to retreat, the following Accents leapt over the Hedge of his Teeth, or rather the Ditch of his Gums, whence those Hedge-stakes had by a Pattin been displaced in Battle with an Amazon of Drury. (IV.xi)

Fielding turns what might be a by-now-standard mock-heroic simile, with its clear gesture towards Homer, into something much funnier and sillier: Wild and the bull have too much in common for it to be a really decorous choice of image, and the second simile of the 15-32 schoolgirls chattering at the tops of their lungs ("ejaculate" doesn't have a strong sexual sense in eighteenth-century writing, but it's hyperbolic diction for the subject) is juxtaposed to the ludicrously elevated language of "Accents [leaping] over the Hedge of his Teeth" (only he doesn't have any teeth, and the over-literal correction of "Ditch of his Gums" again heightens the comedy). The Amazon of Drury is a whore, the diction again comically elevated.

All right, back to the salt mines....

Saturday, October 15, 2005

My friend Marco Roth

is writing interesting dispatches from Rome at n+1. He's got a great essay-writing voice, and interesting stuff to say; check it out.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Surely this news of a film adaptation in the works

is a joke?!? I am very, very curious to see what the screenplay looks like.

The thing about the laundromat

is that I feel it justifies light reading, I couldn't quite face the no-doubt-exemplary-and-admirable Ronald Paulson life of Henry Fielding (I will read it tomorrow, I expect) and so I brought one of the other books I got at the library this afternoon instead. And it was fabulously good, a sad and moving and painfully well-written novel called Touching Earth Lightly by Margo Lanagan. Sort of young-adult, sort of not: in a good way. I have seen her recommended by (I think) Justine and Gwenda for some months now, made a mental note to get hold of her stuff but only now acted on it. I must get more as soon as possible...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Harold Pinter

wins Nobel literature prize. Very exciting--seems an excellent choice to me, though I'm sure that many will be disappointed it's gone to an English-language writer. Personally I prefer Tom Stoppard, his plays are so much more immediately enjoyable and likeable and intellectual, but I think the case can certainly be made that Pinter's the more major figure. (Also depressing plays/novels always trump funny ones for this kind of prize, some of those poets that have won the Nobel are pretty playful but otherwise it's a more dour scene...)

The thing that's amazing

about these Harvard libraries is that they have even things I couldn't get by tapping the shared resources of seven of the best university libraries in the country, including Yale and Princeton. I am going to get tons of other stuff too, it's good, but one of the things I was most excited to request from the book depository was the last of Peter Temple's novels that I hadn't yet read, Jack Irish novel #3 Dead Point. Darker, bleaker, less out-and-out funny than some of the others, but excellent nonetheless: the last fifty pages or so are superb, including an extremely well-written sex scene.

I absolutely love Temple's books, he's on my short list of particularly favorite crime writers (and the really criminal thing is that all his books haven't been published in the US). For my previous raves, in chronological order, see here, here, here, here and here. The thing I really can't believe is that it's less than a year since I first read one of Temple's books, they have so thoroughly entered my fictional landscape.

Bonus (and this is the only link in the whole post you really need to click on): Temple's amazingly sharp and funny review of John le Carre's recent novel Absolute Friends. This is a short excerpt:

It is not a pleasure to say that ABSOLUTE FRIENDS joins the list of recent le Carre novels that resemble Zeppelins: huge things that take forever to inflate, float around for a bit, then expire in flames. This one's theme is the awful fact that, for the moment, J.R. Ewing and Southfork run the world. It is a windy polemic dressed in le Carre's well-worn tweedy garments.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to the author was being told he had transcended the spy genre. A self-consciousness of being a storyteller began to creep in - bad pathology in a novelist - and a sense that he saw his audience as captive and captivated. His plots became more and more convoluted, the writing sometimes an irritating Muzak of plummy voices uttering Pythonesque phrases. Each book took longer to wind up to the point where it begins to tick, let alone chime.

All these failings are evident in ABSOLUTE FRIENDS. The pace has become absurdly languorous, the plot sags like a boarding-house mattress, and there is a pervasive and sticky sentimentality.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

There's an odd

plagiarism thing going on at Penn: read here for the latest. Reading an article like this always makes me want to know the real inside story--it seems to me so infrequent that reporters can really get across the subtleties of a case. In this instance (though I have no first- or second-hand knowledge of the situation, meaning that I haven't looked at the books in question) it sounds completely persuasive that Elijah Anderson's work was cited without appropriate acknowledgment by another scholar, and that race played into the way the department then handled the plagiarism (or "undercitation," to use a more precise term) issue. (Anderson's classic book is A Place on the Corner, and though it's ages since I last looked at it, it's a pretty amazing work of scholarship.) But the subtleties of the personal and intellectual interactions, and the dynamic of a department, and the configurations of a discipline: this is the kind of thing that even the very best reporting will have a hard time sorting out into a coherent narrative.

UPDATE: Here's a longer piece by Anderson (who does not use the term plagiarism), including a detailed list of passages displaying unacknowledged overlap and repetition.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A cool NYT article

about the new Gretchen Worden room at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. If you've never visited this museum, you're missing out: it's amazing. (I remember when I was working at Let's Go a million years ago as an assistant editor trying to persuade the real editors that one of the "Did you know . . .?" blurbs on the back of the USA guide should be "Did you know that you can see the tumor removed from President Grover Cleveland's jaw for [an admission price of some modest kind]?" However this was not the Let's Go sensibility, the suggestion was greeted with horror and dismay.) Thanks to Lynn for the link.

Interesting piece

at Inside Higher Ed, on two bloggers turned down for tenure at the University of Chicago. (Neither of the bloggers is suggesting that the blog was a crucial reason for denial of tenure, BTW.)

Monday, October 10, 2005

I made a massive incursion

this afternoon on Widener Library, having realized that I will not feel at home until I surround myself with a much, much larger number of books than I initially brought with me to the sublet-of-mushroom-colored-walls. A lot of books about Fielding for work, but a collection of others for immediate reading, most pressingly Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays The Disappointment Artist, which I have just finished reading. I really, really liked it--I'd read "13, 1977,21" and "The Beards" in the New Yorker, and these remain the two richest essays for me here, but the essay on Philip K. Dick is excellent (it's called "You Don't Know Dick," and it includes the useful irv as an alternative for oeuvre) as is the piece titled "Lives of the Bohemians."

And yet as much as I liked every single piece in here (with the possible exception of the essay on Cassavetes), I would have to say that Lethem is finally a novelist rather than an essayist. I love various novels by (for example) George Orwell and James Baldwin, and yet reading either man's essays you see that for this particular writer the essay is the perfectly suited form for the maximum distillation of intelligence and voice and humanity, the novels always falling slightly short of that standard. Lethem is the opposite: it's not that I wasn't moved by various revelations in these pages, I was, but The Fortress of Solitude does things of which these essays are wholly incapable. Interesting.

What I like most here--it's personally very compelling to me, and part of what I'm trying to work out as I revise my novel-in-progress--is the force of the reflections on the appeal of what Lethem calls "dripless, squeakless art" (JL as a kid asks his mother why there are drips on his father's paintings, and she offers the analogy that the paint drips are like the squeak of acoustic guitar strings audible in folksingers' recordings) to the adolescent in the grip of unbearable feelings. In "The Beards" Lethem describes himself asking works of art "to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family," then plumbing them so deep that "many perfectly sufficient works of art would become thin, anemic":

This was especially true of anything that assumed a posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly, intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick, Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The artists who'd seemed to promise the most were the ones who'd created art that stirred me while seeming to absent themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones capable of failing my needs most violently. When I discovered their imperfections, my own hope of absenting myself from emotional risk seemed imperiled. It was as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my oversized needs and turned away, flinched from what I'd asked them to feel on my behalf.

Banville wins the Booker Prize

This is very cool. I was rooting for Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which I adored (and in my oft-stated and dogmatic personal opinion, Ishiguro is probably the best novelist writing in English today), but Banville is a great writer too. Haven't read this one, but I especially liked his recent thoughtfully negative review in the NYRB of Ian McEwan's latest; my favorite novel of his is the altogether excellent The Untouchable, I've read three or four others that I'm not so crazy about but there is no doubt that Banville is a superb stylist with an interesting and distinctly intellectual sensibility which I approve of without necessarily always enjoying. It was a good short-list, too.

I am determined next year to do a Booker long-list stunt-blogging thing (someone did that this year and I was consumed with envy, I can't seem to find the link though). It would take someone helping me get all the books, it would cost a fortune to buy them esp. since a number are either published only in England or else not yet published, but if I didn't have to do all the footwork obtaining them I would definitely be up for reading everything on the longlist between the first announcement and the shortlist one. You know, you could read a few things in advance on spec, that sort of thing (probably about half the list can be predicted in advance, most years). It is one of my not-so-secret ambitions to be a Booker Prize judge one day, wouldn't it be fun? (Of course I would also like to write a novel that would make it onto at least the longlist, but that seems a more vainglorious ambition. Both are probably equally unlikely.)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I have just lost

a long post titled "Sunday-evening spleen," a rant that I cannot now be bothered to reconstruct (especially as I am now more annoyed than ever; I have hardly had any blogger-related problems, but when something does go wrong, of course it's quite maddening). The long amplified-and-cleaned-up version vanished and I was left with only the bare links and a few relatively calm sentences.

Suffice it to say that I just finished reading The Enemy of God by Robert Daley. Not bad, rather humorless (and the last bits of plot at the end COMPLETELY implausible), but by the last hundred pages I was going crazy with irritation and swearing that never again would I read a novel about manliness and choices and male friendship. Of course there are lots of good crime novels in this vein, I am thinking for instance of ones by Pete Dexter and S. J. Rozan and more broadly it could describe some particular favorite books of mine like David Copperfield or Baldwin's Just Above My Head or Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. But I actually hated Lehane's Mystic River (heresy in crime fiction circles) and generally respond badly to this kind of book when it takes itself too seriously.

It's published in Otto Penzler's new Harcourt imprint, and I think I just have to mark a huge difference of taste here. Here's Penzler's picks, a list of his favorites for 2004 (I won't link to each book, partly because I'm lazy but more because I wouldn't recommend most of these myself):

Night Fall - Nelson DeMille
At Hell's Gate - Ethan Black
The Bookman's Promise - John Dunning
Best American Mystery Stories 2004 - Nelson DeMille
Take Me, Take Me With You - Lauren Kelly
Double Play - Robert B. Parker
Hark! - Ed McBain
Wolves Eat Dogs - Martin Cruz Smith
The Road to Ruin - Donald E. Westlake
Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality (reissues) - John le Carre

I actively dislike the novels of Nelson DeMille and John Dunning; I've read 2-3 by each and find them wanting in terms of character and voice, my two top criteria for all fiction. Ethan Black is entertaining but lightweight (the sheer implausibility and wish-fulfillment-ness of the Voort books just gets to me). Robert B. Parker and Ed McBain are classics but these particular ones are far from great books (actually I haven't read the Parker, so this is prejudice rather than the authority of first-hand experience--it has been several decades in my opinion since he wrote a really good book). Haven't read the Martin Cruz Smith, liked his earlier ones, same for Donald E. Westlake, but taken with these other names it all starts sounding incredibly unimaginative in terms of choices. Particularly you sense that these are books written by people reproducing old successes & not really writing at the top of their game.

John le Carre is highly overrated; I reread a few of his early novels several years ago (including A Murder of Quality) and don't think they're great, and his more recent ones are marred by incredible pretentiousness (I think The Night Manager was the worst, but The Constant Gardener was pretty dreadful too; he is second only to P.D. James on my list of most embarrassing writers, a few of her earlier ones are classics & amazingly good--esp. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman--but the last few Dalgliesh novels are almost unreadably stiff and pretentious, not helped by the fact that Dalgliesh should really be in his 70s by now). Haven't read the Lauren Kelly but very much want to, as I only recently read an article in which I learned that this is a new pseudonym for Joyce Carol Oates, whose Rosamond Smith books I adore.

But the feel of the whole list is backward-looking, cautious, inattentive even to the great popular/mainstream names I expected to see here--Lee Child, Laura Lippman--let alone to the demented and brilliant writers who make me so excited about the genre (James Sallis, Charlie Williams, Ken Bruen--yes, I don't really expect to see a list like this one representing the demented writers I love most, but still...).

Now I must go and see if I can find something to read that will either make me happy by being completely delightful or make me even angrier by stoking the flames of my taste-disapproval. (The latter is more what I'm in the mood to do, and also more immediately attainable--another Penzler-edited book is sitting right here next to me!--only then I will never be able to go to sleep, I will be so consumed with aesthetic self-righteousness.)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Superhuman Tinkerbell energies

I have just read a most absurdly excellent novel, Cintra Wilson's Colors Insulting to Nature (that's the BARGAIN Amazon price of $6.99, or else if you prefer you can get the paperback). I had vaguely heard of this when it came out without really registering it (here's a page with book review links). Then Nico e-mailed me to ask me whether I'd read it. (Nico has a very cool style-related event coming up that everyone in NY should come to if they're free that night, BTW.) I said I hadn't read it, and should I? This was his response (e-mail dated 26 Sept. 2005, quoted entirely without permission):

Jenny Oh my god. You must read it like immediately. It had never crossed my radar before ever, and a friend gave it to me for my birthday, and I started it on the train, and literally was convulsing with laughter and had to put it down. When I alighted, a man came up to me and was like, 'is that a funny book' and I couldn't even speak to tell him that it was I was laughing so hard.

Not often that happens!

This is completely and literally true. Funniest book I've read for years, funnier even than my favorite very funny books of the past year or so, Charlie Williams' Deadfolk and its sequel Fags and Lager and Anansi Boys by the #1 NYT bestselling novelist Neil Gaiman. (Terry Pratchett is also of course ridiculously funny, but this has been known for some time.)

Most of this stuff won't work being quoted out of context, so I won't. Also it's incredibly raunchy. (It's really nothing like it, but for some reason I was very much reminded of a particularly favorite novel of mine, Geek Love by my hero Katherine Dunn.) Go to the Amazon link for the plot summaries. But I don't especially like picaresque or post-modern or satirical novels so I might have been put off by those descriptions; and I would have missed out on one of my favorite books ever!

The funniest thing in the book is the series of scenes describing the Normal Family Dinner Theatre's production of The Sound of Music. This you will really just have to read for yourself; the second half of the novel gets more moving and less laugh-out-loud funny and that seems entirely suitable. But here's a random taste of the style of the prose, which may well be off-putting taken like this but is genuinely hilarious and heart-warming and painful in context.

Liza Normal and her friend Lorna get wrapped up in a theatrical project sponsored by the Cock-A-Zoids called Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! in which Joan Crawford (played by a transsexual called LaTuna Canyon) is "a nymphomaniacal motorcyle-hellcat . . . who sexually brutalized big Hollywood moguls in order to secure film roles" ("Liza's mandate was to act like she relished being beaten by her famous mother. 'Look, Mommie Dearest! I used a wire hanger to hang up my beautiful clothes again,' Christina would provoke, writhing with perversion"):

At Cape Horn, Liza and Lorna found a play zone in which everything ordinarily considered to be depraved, criminal, or depressing was hysterically funny, including them. The Cock-A-Zoids were loud and tragically amusing people, who lived action-packed crisis-fueled lives filled with squalor, drugs, betrayal, mild violence, evictions, injustice, promiscuity, theft, and vermin, glossed over with cheap makeup and clad in loud, oversize banquet-wife finery from Thrift Town. The tiny backstage area was a breeding ground for the most hair-raising gossip Liza had ever been exposed to, either in life or on television: a nonstop Tijuana opera of jealous rage provoking hypodermic stabbings, perpendicular 'T-bone' auto collisions, cosmetic surgery malfeasance, and sectional couch arson.

Friday, October 07, 2005

And in a follow-up to my previous post

here's a very cool essay by Peter Weiss about Feynman diagrams. And David Kaiser's book Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics also sounds curiously appealing.

I run hot and cold

on the New York Review of Books; sometimes it's great, and then there are weeks and weeks where it's this to-me-completely-offputting-heavy-duty-only-male-authored-mostly-foreign-policy-related thing and the issues pile up and greet me reproachfully as a reminder of my own frivolity. I am more the TLS type--I like the combination of eclecticism and eccentricity and sometimes misdirected intellectual firepower you see in their pages--but both tend to pile up in any case, to tell the truth.

The latest NYRB, though, is a particularly rich and enjoyable one from the literary-and-humanities-and-science point of view. I found almost everything grippingly interesting as I read through it earlier this evening at the laundromat: Joyce Carol Oates on Cormac McCarthy, and an interesting essay by Alma Guillermoprieto about Hugo Chavez, and John Leonard on Joan Didion's new book (I'm not a Didion fan but the book really sounds heartbreaking), and Richard Lewontin on a book by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd called Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution that I'm dying to read--just shopping-carted it, could swear I'd already bought a copy but evidently not, or if I did it's locked away from me in my temporarily unavailable NY apartment--and a good piece by Avishai Margalit about Stuart Hampshire's last Spinoza and Spinozism book.

But the most engaging essay by far--and the book I most immediately want to read, it sounds completely amazing--is Freeman Dyson's piece on Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. Here's Dyson introducing one particularly excellent quotation from Feynman:

Every one of the letters is personal. He responded to people's personal needs as well as to their questions. As an example of his personal response, here is the last paragraph of the letter to Koichi Mano which I have already quoted. Koichi was unhappy with his life as a scientist because he was not working on fundamental problems. Feynman replies:

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself—it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of the na├»ve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher's ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.


Richard P. Feynman

Good, eh?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

And this

show of spirit photography at the Met is the other thing I must see in NY later in the month, I really can't wait (the slideshow there gives you a taste of it, there was a good one in the Times last week too). It even counts as professional research, in a way, since I've got a whole spirit photography sequence in my novel.

In other news, I belatedly realized that I was trying to do a million too many things at once and made the tough decision to postpone novel revisions until early November. Which is frustrating but sensible--I've got a number of other projects due later this month, including an essay on this for one of these (only it's Fielding not Austen) and working out exactly what I'm going to say for this (both of these must be done by the end of October) and figuring out my title if not my actual argument for a January talk on this at Yale and dealing with an article that got a "revise and resubmit" letter over the summer from a major journal in my field. In fact now that I'm listing all of these things, I see it's no wonder that I haven't been working properly on the novel revisions--madness, really, to have even tried.

The great lesson of academia in particular and of writing more generally is to pay attention to what your body's telling you about work--if you can't settle down to something (and in my case if you fall ill with a respiratory virus that takes you out of action for days & leaves you stewing about work undone; the last time this happened, actually--not the last time I got sick but the last time I got sick in a way I could only understand in relation to a work impasse--it was on a truly massive scale and I horrifyingly got pinkeye and severe bronchitis as well as an evil cold and sanity-threatening cough, this was January 2004 but I still have fond memories of the clarity of the revelation the illness earned me: I had to have a few months of full-time fiction writing. Common sense also told me to keep the $100+ eyedrop antibiotics and asthma inhaler so that the next time I wouldn't even have to go to the doctor; the pinkeye was so bad I seriously felt like a complete pariah, it would have been better not to have to set foot out of doors), it usually means you haven't yet thought through exactly what you need to do in what order of priority. I ritually relearn this lesson every six months or so; it's never enjoyable (I pride myself on always being able to take a deep breath & pick up the piece of work at the top of the pile and plunge in without getting daunted by the size of the heap, so it is humiliating as well as painful-in-the-regular-way-of-not-doing-work), but it strikes me with new force each time.

Attractive light reading

Just finished the altogether satisfactory Dating is Murder (it jumped at me out of the PS section at the Harvard library the other day when I was looking for something else) by Harley Jane Kozak of Lipstick Chronicles fame. It's excellent, frothy & funny crime fiction but with a really likeable first-person narrator (she has an expert-knowledge-about-frogs thing going on, appealingly odd for a warmhearted six-foot-tall blond & buxom contestant on a low-budget reality-TV show called Biological Clock) and some genuinely creepy parts too.

Monday, October 03, 2005

It is ludicrous

but true that the one thing I'm really upset to be missing in NY is the Moscow Cats Theater. It's partly the name that I find so enchanting, I think I am going to borrow it for the sequel to Dynamite No. 1. Oh, I've just checked; it actually looks like it's running till the end of October, maybe there is a chance I can go when I'm in town later this month...

I usually wait

to comment on books I'm officially reviewing until the review actually runs, but in this case I'm too enthusiastic to wait. The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine is exactly my kind of book--lots of skeletons and weird medical-history facts, aside from its other charms. The author is Paul Collins, editor of the McSweeney's Collins Library imprint. I'll post a link to my review once it's up, but for now let's just say "highly recommended."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

It is hard to believe

but August Wilson is dead at age 60.

I have only an attenuated version

of the usual light reading supply in this Cambridge apartment, I hit the shelf earlier this evening (I'm down with a wretched cold) for the least demanding thing I could find and was rightly punished for laziness with a novel so bad it wasn't even enjoyable to read (and though I've linked to it, I'm not naming it, some weird scrupulousness makes me chronicle all my non-work-related reading here but I am not such a sadist that I need to ruin in a minor way that author's day the next time she googles her own name; and you know, the Amazon reviews are absolutely glowing, though I did find one review online that said pretty much what I thought).

(The badness of this book reminds me how delighted I was to see earlier this week that Anansi Boys has made the #1 position on the NYT bestseller list. That list is often a torment to someone like me who cares about all kinds of novels, especially really entertaining ones that everyone should read: it so often has what I would call non-books on it, not to name names but a certain book whose name my late and dearly lamented grandmother misremembered as "The Leonardo Plot" springs to mind. Here's the hardcover list, which actually includes a number of quite decent books and several really exceptional books as well as a bunch of pretty trashy ones: I'm glad to see Jennifer Weiner's up at #2, I'm definitely looking forward to reading her new one although personal canons of taste mean that I wish they would stop putting women's legs on the covers.)

Chastened, I approached the shelf again and found something much more to my taste, Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear (don't click on that link, though, it gives you a truly horrifying sample of the audio-book). There are some anachronisms and minor diction glitches--it's set in England c. 1930--but it was a very enjoyable read; haven't read the first two in the series, will certainly seek them out. (I've read those Charles Todd ones, which I think are very good; this is in a similar vein. Though it's true that if you wanted a really major-literary-and-highly-readable thing along these lines, you might be better off with Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and--my favorite of his books--Charlotte Gray. I can't wait to read his new one, Human Traces, but the Amazon page suggests it hasn't been released yet--perhaps it's only having UK release for now?)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Tom Stoppard

on his recent visit to see underground theater in Belarus, at the Guardian:

A young man put in: 'I had 10 friends at school. Now only three are alive. The rest died from overdoses. Should I not write about it?' Later he said: 'I am listening to you, and I feel there is a vast gulf between us. My mother is 51. My father is 52. They have never been abroad and probably never will. They live on 100 dollars a month. Everything they earn goes towards food. They don't go to the theatre or cinema. They have worked all their lives only to feed themselves and us children. I wanted to describe their life. When my mother read my play she told me she didn't like it, because she has enough darkness in her life. But I wanted to show her how bad her life was.'

My take on this doesn't play well in Belarus: 'Theatre is firstly a recreation, it doesn't score points for subject matter, for intention. If you write about your mother, you better be good. Isn't that the point?'

Not really.