Sunday, November 06, 2005

I'm snatching a few moments

to blog about the three books I read late last night when I couldn't sleep, all great (short, though, it wasn't a marathon reading effort of any kind, just minor insomnia). First of all, The Value of X and The Devil You Know by Poppy Z. Brite. (NB judging by the huge long Amazon listings this second seems to be an excessively popular title--not the Brite book itself but the title "The Devil You Know," there are at least a dozen novels or maybe more that have it. Perhaps it's best avoided in future; however I can see it's tempting, in fact I'm giving a talk in January with the title "The Devil's in the Details" [it's about Johnson and Boswell and how realist writers use detail and the relationship between biography and the eighteenth-century novel, but also I was thinking of Thea Gilmore's song "Rags and Bones" (and Avalanche is an outrageously good album, just go ahead and buy it if you like Elvis Costello and Gillian Welch and in general great highly literate songwriting, you will not regret spending the money)]. As a further aside, let me say that in both my fiction and my academic writing I have long since and almost entirely weeded out such self-indulgent habits as parenthesis, long hypotactic sentences, digressions and so forth, and one of the great pleasures of blogging is that I abandon my almost moral grammatical stringency and write however the hell I want to, digressions and parentheses and all. So there.)

The stories in The Devil You Know are almost all extremely engaging, though I think my favorites are the morbid and funny ones narrated by Doc Brite, Poppy Z.'s alter ego, who happens to be a pathologist/gourmet in the city of New Orleans. I'd love to see a whole novel written in this voice, though I don't know if it's sustainable: I picture it coming out something like John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, or what Hannibal could have been if it were a lot more brilliant and demented and funny.

The Value of X is a kind of prequel to Liquor and Prime, and it's absolutely delightful, the story of how Rickey and G-man (friends since childhood) got together and realized they were in love. It's sweet and also very funny: one of the great charms for me of these books is the way Brite (who is presumably aligned with Rickey in terms of her own personality) is so perceptive and funny about each boy's strengths and weaknesses. G-man is the more immediately endearing character, and yet Brite handles Rickey and his impossibleness in a way that makes you really feel for him too. Here's a brief passage from one of the letters Rickey writes to G-man from his exile at the Culinary Institute of America, where his parents have sent him in the hope that his cooking obsession combined with the separation from G-man will persuade him not to be gay any more. G-man is really upset with Rickey for leaving, Rickey misses him terribly, and yet because he's a totally cooking-obsessed and self-absorbed guy this is the letter he actually writes:

Intro to Gastronomy is great. At first I thought it was going to suck too, because we started with etiquette. Who cares? I'm going to be in a kitchen all my life. I don't need to know how to use fingerbowls. But then the teacher started talking about the history of the chef in French cuisine and that was really interesting. Did you ever hear of Antonin Car^eme? He was the father of haute cuisine. He invented the "pi`ece mont'ee," which is a dessert shaped like a famous statue or building. Napoleon loved to have them at his royal banquets. We also learned about Plato, who was a philosopher in olden times. He said there is a perfect version of every dish and the cook's job is to find it.

And the other one was the remarkably enjoyable Dating Dead Men, by Harley Jane Kozak of the Lipstick Chronicles. These books have a great, great first-person voice, very appealing narrative persona. The plot's kind of all over the place, too twisty and confusing and a bit silly, but it really doesn't matter: plus this one has a very charming ferret called Margaret.

And then this afternoon I got to hear a piece of Nico's played at the Boston Conservatory (the whole program was excellent, new and newish music for saxophone and percussion played by the Yesaroun' Duo; Sam Solomon as well as being a brilliant performer substance-wise is also particularly pleasing to watch, he is so elegant in his handling of the percussionist's tools). If you click here and scroll down, you can hear a recording of Nico Muhly's piece "Time After Time" for soprano saxophone, marimba and percussion.

So it was all good, and that Fielding essay that's been plaguing me is fully drafted and should be properly finished and sent off within twenty-four hours at which point I hope to feel like a normal human being again.

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