Monday, October 31, 2005

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.


  1. Stumbled across your blog and was wondering if you've ever read Wendy Lesser's wonderful "Nothing Remains the Same"? She rereads books from her past (childhood, grad school).

    Hope you are enjoying Cambridge (again). I'm a grad student at Harvard and also have English roots and lived in Philly for six years.

    Am looking forward to more posts.


  2. I haven't read "Nothing Remains the Same," but I had already made a mental note that I must get it and your comment now will spur me to take action--thanks...