Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Chaos reduced to order

(more or less): I'm moving at 10am tomorrow and have hardly had a moment to read, but yesterday I picked up a used copy of an Agatha Christie novel called Towards Zero to run my eye over while I ate a bite of lunch, and finished it later because those books are tiny and it seemed justifiable. I'd read this one before, but not for a long time; classic Christie super-stylized country-house thing, complete with the unthinking class prejudice that makes them seem like they're from a different planet. Almost like science fiction, really.

The most charming thing is that it's a little paperback from the early 70s, and there's a hilarious ad in the middle on glossy paper. "What a good time for all the good things of a Kent," says a small slogan at the top of the page; then a crazy photo of a Partridge-family-style blonde lounging with a book in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other and a really demented smile on her face. "Cozy 'n Kent!" Those were the days. The wallpaper in the background is excellent too.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Patricia Cornwell

is not obsessed with Jack the Ripper. (Link via Bookslut.)

In other news (someone asked me last week, in mild horror at the cumulative effect of my blog, "Do you ever read any news?" In fact, I do. Sometimes. When I have to. Just to say that I am aware of the impossible frivolity of my daily activities...), I did squeeze in a few novels over the weekend, purchased at the airport bookstore on my way to a bacchanalian wedding in Toronto: Zandru's Forge (which has pretty much the trashiest cover of any book I've read for a long time, it's one of these "co-authored" books, Deborah Ross taking up some material left unfinished by Marion Zimmer Bradley when she died--I do rather love those classic 1970s fantasy novels and this was pretty decent, but although I am shameless about my reading choices it makes me feel sheepish to be seen in public with a book that looks like this from the outside); and two Terry Pratchett ones I hadn't read before, Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies. I always hit the sf/fantasy section in those rather pitiful airport bookstores: I've usually read almost all of the ones in the crime section already, at least the ones I have any interest in reading, and am more likely to discover something new and palatable and entertaining in the other.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

"The Wiles of Nice Women in a Civilised Society"

Just read Barbara Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment, which was about the lightest thing to hand--I got it at the library last week (NO MORE LIBRARY BOOKS ALLOWED TILL AFTER THE MOVE). I read some of her novels as a teenager, didn't like them much, but my attention was arrested by Barbara Everett's TLS piece on the unexpected affinities between Pym and Philip Larkin, who was her champion and wrote a preface to this particular novel, which was unpublished in her lifetime. (Here are some interesting further excerpts from and comments on the Everett essay.)

It's a reasonably enjoyable read, but there's something impossible dreary and mean-spirited about it at the same time--though the dreariness of middle-class mores in England in the 50s is generally not to be underestimated, by all accounts; no wonder there are all these depressing little novels about that milieu. The author seems to have found some of these characters charming (or is she writing a kind of satire in which it doesn't matter that the people are so unattractive? I can't see this being the case), but from my standpoint they're pretty much altogether offputting, without exception. Too self-aware, not enough warmth, and without the kind of intellectual or intuitive force to make up for that lack.

Larkin's preface is interesting, though: he tells the story of the book's rejection ("To have one's seventh book turned down by a publisher who has seemed perfectly happy with the previous six is a peculiarly wounding experience, and she felt it as such"--Larkin channeling Pym channeling Austen), then reflects on its strengths and weaknesses. Here's the paragraph that particularly caught my attention, given recent discussions about the term "self-indulgent" and its place or lack thereof in the reviewer's arsenal:

"[I]t is a somewhat self-indulgent book, full of echoes. Sophia and her sister Penelope recall Jane and Prudence, or even Dulcie and Viola from No Fond Return of Love; Sister Dew resembles Sister Blatt from Excellent Women; but other parallels are even more explicit. Barbara Pym was always given to reintroducing characters she had used before, and sometimes this is fully justified (the conversation between Wilmet and Rowena in A Glass of Blessings about Rocky Napier is only fully meaningful if we have met him in Excellent Women), but the concluding chapters of An Unsuitable Attachment are a real omnium gatherum: Esther Clovis and Digby Fox from Less Than Angels, Everard Bone from Excellent Women, Wilf Bason from A Glass of Blessings, and perhaps most extravagantly of all an older but otherwise unchanged Harriet Bede (complete with curate) from Some Tame Gazelle. It is all rather like the finale of a musical comedy."

It's an infelicitous passage for Larkin, I'd say; it's too campy (in a bad way) to assume everyone knows all of these characters, bad enough when people (I myself have been known to fall into this unfortunate habit) talk like that about Austen's. (I am so familiar with Austen's novels that I genuinely find it shocking to think that this is not the case for everyone I talk to. I suppose it is possible that Larkin feels the same about Pym, but from the reader's point of view, it sounds rather affected--I think he really loses me with the rather arch italicized omnium gatherum.) But it's an interesting observation--shelving for the moment the question of whether "self-indulgent" can ever be used fairly, you can see that Larkin singles out two related things for his mild disapproval, characters with different names but similar properties appearing in successive novels (on the one hand) and the same character appearing by name in a different novel. Neither of these things seems to me in itself problematic--after all, the first applies to everyone from Charles Dickens to Philip Roth; and the second is something you see very often too, in many novels that I like a lot. (Madeleine L'Engle did it all the time.)

A very cool novel

that's sort of about the Wizard of Oz but more about fantasy and child abuse and the American West--what a strange and interesting book--Geoff Ryman's Was. Ryman has a remarkable gift for writing characters that you care about in spite of their off-putting qualities. This isn't so much my kind of book as Lust, but it's really very good indeed.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Oh, a most mesmerizingly good novel

Geoff Ryman's Lust, or No Harm Done (actually the American subtitle seems to be "Four Letters. Infinite Possibilities"). I really loved this--I think I first heard about Ryman at Shaken & Stirred, then thought of him again when I saw his recent short essay about the people who died in the London bombings last month (Ryman's interactive novel 253, which I haven't read, is about the passengers on a Tube train, thus the essay assignment). I was in the library last week and grabbed a few of his books off the shelf (note to self: STOP CHECKING BOOKS OUT OF THE LIBRARY).

This novel is metaphysical and sexy and sweet and funny and sad and pretty much exactly what I most like. I was reminded a bit of Jonathan Carroll and also strangely of aspects of Neil Gaiman's forthcoming Anansi Boys--I have always been fond of the alternate selves/twin conceit--only really this book is like nothing but itself. I'm pasting in a description from Publisher's Weekly via Amazon, but it doesn't at all do the book justice (I hate the word wacky--it's second only to whimsical for most annoying book-review adjective, when I see either of them I know that either I'll loathe the book or else I thoroughly disapprove of the reviewer's sensibility):

"Reality's got a hole in it." That's what runs through Michael Blasco's head when he discovers that he has the uncanny ability to bring his fantasies to life in this wacky, inspired third novel by Ryman (Was). The 38-year-old gay protagonist is a government scientist experimenting on baby chicks and has a flat in London's West End with Phil, his passionless boyfriend. While seething on a subway platform, he imagines the beefy trainer at his gym stripping naked right in front of him-and poof-it happens! Terrified at first, Michael quickly regains his composure and wills into action a series of characters like Tarzan and cartoon diva Taffy Duck; narcissistically, he also conjures a copy of himself. His reunion with a long-lost high school sweetheart nicknamed Bottles proves to be touching and funny, but his meeting with Mark, a victim of AIDS, turns sad when Mark rebuffs his plea to revive him. In an effort to inject passion into his stagnant relationship, Michael "calls up" a younger version of Phil paired with a younger version of himself. When this scheme backfires, he returns to the anonymous "speedy, functional sex" that has long sustained him. A night out with feisty Billie Holiday, passionate sex with Picasso and dalliances with Lawrence of Arabia on Viagra reinvigorate him and make for some funny, titillating reading, but as Michael's notebook of his wild adventures begins to overflow, the story's whimsical tone changes, revealing more of his true character as well as some particularly troublesome personal problems. Among them is a disturbing boyhood fixation on his father, which mutates into a wincingly unnerving incestuous sequence. Ryman's "careful-what-you-wish-for" message is artfully packaged in this quirky, offbeat, entertaining novel.

Get it and see for yourself. I wouldn't say it's a careful-what-you-wish-for novel, or an allegory, or anything like that, just a very good novel about redemption. Amazing stuff.

Other light reading, around the edges of insane packing and planning: Carol Plum-Ucci's The She (not bad, a bit too young-adult-y for my taste--perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but the best books for this age group can compete with any adult fiction on their own terms while this one reminds you in various ways that it was written "for" teenagers) and Jan Burke's Remember Me, Irene (very good).

Posting will be sporadic over the next week and a half, but I expect I'll pop in now and then.

An excellent new blog

about the pros and cons of deciding to do an MFA degree in creative writing. Check it out if this is something you're thinking about--it's run by Tom Kealey, and he's taking questions as well as providing various useful links. (Link via Maud Newton.)

Saturday, August 20, 2005

My apartment

is astonishingly emptier than it was a week ago, though I've still got massive stacks of papers to sort through and organize; still rather chaotic, in other words, but I've soothed myself with a really excellent novel, Bloodlines by Jan Burke. I really like these books, and I think this one was the best yet--a complex narrative with a number of different time periods and interweaving stories, all completely mesmerizing. A most enjoyable read. And this afternoon on the train back from Philadelphia (I was getting my cat settled in at my mom's house, she is kindly taking him for the year as I can't have pets in my Cambridge sublet), the ritual Dick Francis reread, this time it was Hot Money. In Philadelphia we also dumped a ton of my stuff at the amazingly named Whosoever Gospel Mission, poured roughly 10 years' worth of coins (mostly nickels and pennies, some dimes, the quarters get picked out for laundry) into one of those supermarket machines ($126 and change even after the nine percent service deduction), I helped her sort through all the books in her house & packed up ten boxes to take to a place whose name I can't remember. All very useful. Now I must get back to the real work I have to finish between now and the end of the month. I'm having increasingly violent pangs regarding fiction-writing, I've been heavy on the academic stuff this summer and I am DYING to get to my novel revisions, but it will have to wait till September; on the train this afternoon I was also musing about a frivolous other novel I'd like to write (vampires and lots of sex, first-person narrator, slightly futuristic New York), but I'm psychologically locked in on a sequel to Dynamite No. 1 that I think I must write first. We will see. It is possible that if I work like a maniac I can write both of those this year plus the remaining two chapters and revisions for my academic book, but that has the sound of overreaching.

A funny essay about novel-writing

by James Hamilton-Paterson at the Guardian. Here's the best paragraph:

Hitherto, to the despair of publishers, agents and readers alike, I have tried never to write the same kind of book twice, my entirely selfish reason being that I don't wish to bore myself. Now, for the first time, I am breaking my vow and have been induced to write the one thing I had always promised myself I never would write: a sequel. Sequels are surely dread things, because if they meet with any success something still dreader lurks ahead: a series. And, of course, once one has launched into a series the iron law of the marketplace takes over, and suddenly that interior mill-owner is cracking his whip. Being by nature a lotus-eater, I hope to avoid this fate.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The "new" books shelf

at my local public library must be visited sparingly--it is a scant resource--but I hadn't been for a few months and then I went and got some good stuff, first and foremost Absent Friends by S. J. Rozan. I've been looking forward to reading this ever since I first heard about it, and it did not disappoint: an excellent novel in every way. (It also did what I think crime fiction is particularly good at, which is show how small or medium-sized choices by well-intentioned if not necessarily likeable people can lead to major disaster.) Then I read a novel by Marian Keyes, not quite my cup of tea but on the whole decent, The Other Side of the Story. It's got some pretty funny vaguely satirical stuff on publishing, but the characters were a little fuzzy and the writing is fine but not as sharp as it needs to be to carry something like this off.

I have been thinking in the last few days about a
great post about writing at Elizabeth Bear's blog. (Link via Shaken & Stirred.) This is what Bear says there:

I talk about--and think about--craft a lot. An enormous amount, really. And as I can only speak for myself, in my case, it's not a search for the magic get-published button. I've got that, after all. What it is for me, actually, is an attempt to break away from the magic get-published button. To move away from what I do by rote, automatically, and into a wider space. To hone the craft that makes the most of my talent, in other words.

Here's what I think about talent. It's true: some people have more than others. And I suspect if one is going to make it as a writer, one walks in with a free card. One thing you can do coming out of the gate. One aspect of the tremendous interwoven craft of writing that you're naturally good at. It may be worldbuilding or plot or voice or language or structure or theme. Something you do right, from day one.
I got characters for free. I earned pathos next. Grounding detail. Then I learned how to plot. Theme after that. Then voice. Started selling stories about then. What's that, six?

Worldbuilding... um... still working on that one. Sentences too. Getting better at sentences. Worldbuilding. Heck. This is complicated by the fact that "you can't cut one clean." Like a cobweb, every thread affects the shape of every other thread. Cut one, they all shiver.

This seems to me completely true but I'd never thought about it in those terms before. I tend to think that the things that come easily to me are just plain easy in themselves, and same for the hard ones, but Bear's are the opposite of mine. I got sentences for free, and I got worldbuilding pretty easily too. (I am afraid to say I don't really care that much about plot or theme, isn't that awful?) What I have been intensively working on this past year as I revise Dynamite No. 1 to make it as good a novel as I can are voice and the linked thing of character (these two seem to me completely bound up with each other). I realize that my very favorite novels, the ones I read again and again, are the ones where those two things are what's really special. I would love to write a book that works like that myself.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Good books and monastic apartments

Sarah Weinman's introductory post about David Bowker (who was guest-blogging at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind last week) made his books sound extremely appealing, so I got hold of a couple immediately, and they were indeed a great pleasure to read. The Butcher of Glastonbury is an interesting police-procedural/horror hybrid (the main detective can travel in his astral body), a bit over the top in its final pages but on the whole very good. And The Death You Deserve is absolutely delightful if you like extreme violence, dark and insanely funny but also serious at the same time (the character of Billy is particularly well-drawn). I am very glad to have read this, can't wait to get the sequel.

My friend M. pressed Jeffery Deaver's The Twelfth Card on me a few weeks ago--I told him I don't much like Deaver's novels and he said that this one included such cringe-makingly awful representations of "Ebonics" (which I have an academic interest in) that I would be very sorry if I didn't read it and glory in its awfulness. And indeed this was right. Deaver is a good story-teller, I can quite see why he's a bestseller though he doesn't seem to have a sense of humor and his representations of forensic techniques are woefully implausible (in fact, he has a sort of genius for implausibility), but the speech of the black characters in this novel is truly outrageously and embarrassingly and offensively absurd. Read it and see. Painful in an almost enjoyable way.

At the public library I found a few things I wanted to read; first off was Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street. I wasn't going to take it out, I was on the whole underwhelmed by The Sunday Philosophy Club, but I flipped it open and came upon a conversation about my beloved North Berwick, the town outside Edinburgh where my Scottish grandparents lived, and after that I had to take it home. Quite a pleasant read, anyway; I think I like it better than the other, and the serial form (it was written in 110 daily installments) is interesting to see in action.

I've finished my chapter, which is a very good thing except that it means I have to deal with all the other stuff I've been putting off doing to get ready for my temporary move to Cambridge (Mass., not England) on Sept. 1. My apartment is in chaos, but I have bagged a huge amount of stuff for charity-shop donation--seven bags of clothes (I don't know what possessed me when I moved here five years ago to think that I would possibly want, you know, every pair of shoes I owned over six carless hard-walking years of grad school, etc. etc.). I have a monastic ideal, I realize I will always be thwarted in this because it's impossible not to have a lot of books and papers but I would really like to own nothing at all otherwise, or nothing more than I could carry myself in a couple of bags. So my subletter will most immediately benefit from this but then it will be lovely and spartan when I come home again in May. A particular favorite former professor of mine (one not known for sparing scathing words--I remember being crushed once long ago when I ran into her after my orals and babbled about how happy I was to get back to writing and talking as opposed to simply reading in a fois-gras-forcefed-goose kind of a way; she just looked at me and said something along the lines of "It seems scarcely possible for even quite intelligent young people today to speak without using 'like' in every sentence"--those weren't the exact words but it was certainly rather chilling) stopped by here for a visit recently and commented on the apartment being awfully spartan. I took it as a compliment.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

And then this afternoon

I saw the best play I've seen for quite a while, Terence McNally's Dedication. It's funny and sweet and really rather moving, and both Nathan Lane and Marian Seldes are absolutely spectacularly good (though the whole cast and direction are excellent--the dialogue is very, very funny in particular, it's worth going for that alone). I really think Seldes is a genius, I don't think I've ever seen anything else to match the Beckett/Albee thing a couple years ago.

This cast is only on till Sept. 4 so do go and see it soon if you get a chance.

Lightest of light rereading

Two children's books by Eva Ibbotson, Which Witch? and Island of the Aunts. I really love Ibbotson's books, she should be much more widely known in the US than she is; the adult novels are my favorites (A Company of Swans is a good one to start with), but her recent children's ones (Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan) are as rich and satisfying as the adult ones and even more fairy-tale-like.

I am having only lightest rereading because I'm very, very close to finishing the new chapter of my "Breeding" book. It has gone surprisingly painlessly--for once I'm actually on schedule. It was originally going to be called "Husbandry and the Idea of Improvement," but it turned out not really to be about that at all. Currently I'm deciding between "The Problem of Culture" (slightly jargony?) and "The Trouble with Culture" (too hipster-academic-y? I dread nothing more than seeming to aim for trendiness in my academic writing; the thing that always makes me cringe is when decidedly NON-sexy academics use the word "sexy" to describe academic writing that really has nothing sexy about it in any sense that a normal person would recognize).

More Heyer

It has strangely been the summer of Georgette Heyer, and a really interesting post and comment thread at Justine Larbalestier's blog sent me back to reread just one or two more. Cotillion is Heyer writing slightly against type--the heroine ends up with the sweet and good-natured and reliable and rather silly guy, not the handsome rake (I was reminded of a whole series of eighteenth-century novels that take positions on the truth or falsehood of the old adage "a reformed rake makes the best husband"--Samuel Richardson was really the one who started it off...). I enjoyed it very much but I think I don't like it as much as the best of the others; I find Heyer is at her best with the livelier and more intelligent heroines, these characters seem to me slightly tiresome (the male protagonist's father is actually rather more like the usual Heyer hero, he only makes a couple minor appearances but they are quite refreshing) and I find the handling of the "imbecilic" Lord Dolphinton character actually not funny at all. Then I read The Nonesuch, which has always been in my mind as among the better ones but not as good as the very best (also it is marred by the hero having the ridiculous name Sir Waldo Hawkridge and an implausible subplot about orphan asylyms), no reason to change my opinion on this. It is strange how few other writers have been able to write romances as captivating as Heyer's, though; I don't really read many mainstream romance novels, it's not the way my taste takes me (I prefer crime and science fiction and fantasy as far as so-called "genre" stuff goes, although of course a good novel is a good novel and the labels largely irrelevant), but I would read more if there were more like this. Other authors who have some of the same charms, and whose books I'd highly recommend: Victoria Clayton; Eva Ibbotson; some of Joan Aiken (though on the whole her writing for children is so brilliant that the variable quality of the adult fiction really stands out, I have always been a huge fan of all of her stuff, I was pretty upset when I randomly read an obituary many months after she'd died, it felt like a betrayal not to have known sooner); Mary Stewart.

Friday, August 12, 2005


I read a book sort of by mistake, Turning for Home by Sarah Challis. It's good in its way, but it's not my kind (I think the name came up off an Amazon UK recommendation based on the fact that I'd ordered books by Victoria Clayton, whose novels I adore; I got it through my beloved BorrowDirect, but it wasn't what I was expecting). The thing that really gave me a pang is that while the book is itself about a bond between a twenty-something drifter and an old lady who she comes to work for as a carer, which resonates with me greatly, it is SO much a book that my actual grandmother would have loved. It is just her kind of book. It pains me that I don't know whether she read these books or not, though I can't help but feel she must have. I have had this several times recently, as you do for someone you really love who's died: I don't care about my birthday, but she always sent me a birthday card, and it was very kind that my mother stepped in and made sure to send me one to arrive on the day because I was so much thinking about my grandmother and missing her. And I recently went to a quasi-bachelorette party that she would love to have heard about, the hostess was a former southern belle in her 80s who knew Zelda Fitzgerald (who came to afternoon tea when she was on furlough from the asylum or whatever) and Harper Lee and generally the evening would have provided much grist to my grandmother's mill (I was dying to send her a description of the dinner entree, Chicken Hong Kong, which is indescribable but may have included Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and canned water-chestnuts; we washed it down with vast amounts of Veuve Cliquot).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I felt quite sad

reading Ed McBain's latest (last? but internet rumor says he wrote one in advance that would finish off the series after his death) Fiddlers : A Novel of the 87th Precinct. It feels curiously inconclusive, knowing that Evan Hunter is dead now and will not write any more novels. In the last few, the best drama for me has been in following Fat Ollie's romance, the latest development of which provides the cliffhanger ending here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Two really first-class crime novels

by Andrea Camilleri, The Terra-Cotta Dog and The Snack Thief. They're set in Sicily, and they're pretty much the perfect police procedurals--interesting characters and settings, really well-written (and the translations by Stephen Sartarelli seem excellent, they are at one and the same time learned and elegant). Thanks to K P Harris for the recommendation.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

In general

it is of course true that patience is a virtue. And I am a great believer in deferred gratification (the part where you're working like crazy is always more fun than the part later on when you get the rewards) and I also hate asking for favors. However although I have been restraining myself for months now I suddenly realized that I was going to DIE if I didn't get hold of a copy of Anansi Boys AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Waiting till September seemed absolutely out of the question. (Teasers like this make me completely crazed.) And fortunately the altogether excellent Ginger Clark was not immune to my desperate pleading; galley no. 17 is temporarily in my custody, I've just finished reading it and am still in an agony of satisfied pleasure.

Everything about Anansi Boys is lovely; I am not a laugh-out-loud reader, but it is impossible not to have a huge smile on your face the whole time you’re reading a novel that is this delightful and funny and just plain painfully endearing. (Also there are some scary parts, especially if you saw The Birds at an impressionable age.) It’s got some of the same charms as Michael Chabon's Summerland and Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky (and it harks back in various ways to American Gods, which is the best hybrid road-novel-small-town-serial-killer-mystery-ghost-story-grifter-coming-of-age-tale you will ever read). And yet it is also like no other book I can think of, it’s just its own thing. And a very good thing too.

There's a thing I particularly love about the style here, I think of it as a very English feature although I suppose it's not so much inherently English as it is a distinguishing characteristic of British sketch comedy from the 60s and 70s. It's a kind of joke that works by calculated repetition and by subverting the proper forms of similes and metaphors so that they fold back in on themselves (if you're not sure what I mean, check out the Blackadder scripts; I've pasted in a chunk below because this novel brought that dialogue so strongly to mind).

Here's what Gaiman does with the thing, in a few sample passages taken almost at random (the pace of the narrative is gentle and the outright comedy usually catches you slightly off guard):

It was sort of like Macbeth, thought Fat Charlie, an hour later; in fact, if the witches in Macbeth had been four little old ladies, and if instead of stirring cauldrons and intoning dread incantations they had just welcomed Macbeth in and fed him on turkey, and rice and peas, spread out on white china plates on a red-and-white patterned plastic table cloth, not to mention sweet potato pudding and spicy cabbage, and encouraged him to take second helpings, and thirds, and then, when Macbeth had declaimed that nay, he was stuffed nigh unto bursting and on his oath could truly eat no more, the witches had pressed upon him their own special island rice pudding and a large slice of Mrs Bustamonte’s famous pineapple upside-down cake, it would have been exactly like Macbeth.

“I’m Fat Charlie Nancy,” said Spider.
“Why is he saying that?” asked Rosie’s mother. “Who is he?”
“I’m Fat Charlie Nancy, your future son-in-law, and you really like me,” said Spider, with utter conviction.
Rosie’s mother swayed and blinked and stared at him. “You may be Fat Charlie,” she said uncertainly, “but I don’t like you.”
“Well,” said Spider, “you should. I am remarkably likeable. Few people have ever been as likeable as I am. There is, frankly, no end to my likeability. People gather together in public assemblies to discuss how much they like me. I have several awards, and a medal from a small country in South America which pays tribute both to how much I am liked and my general all-around wonderfulness. I don’t have it on me, of course. I keep my medals in my sock drawer.”

The world was his lobster, his bib was round his neck, and he had a pot of melted butter and an array of grotesque but effective lobster-eating implements and devices at the ready.

It's the second repetition of the word "lobster," stuck into the phrase "an array of grotesque but effective lobster-eating implements," that I find utterly charming. I am completely incapable myself of this kind of humor.

Anyway, here's the novel's first chapter online. Go and see what you think. But I highly recommend that you preorder a copy from Amazon or--assuming you're a more energetic and socially responsible person than I am--get one from your good local independent bookstore. There's a bit here about a lime that picks up on a thing with wax fruit near the opening that is one of the most adorable things I've read for a long time, also a very funny minor aside about one character's roommate, who blogs anonymously in the persona of a scandalous Royal. Lots of cool wind-ey twists and turns in the plot. And great characters. All right, I will stop now, I don't know why these books make me go on with such evangelical fervor....

*And here's the opening of my particular favorite Blackadder episode, Ink and Incapability--the site above has all the scripts, if I am infringing someone's copyright just tell me and I will delete it;

Prince Regent: (wakes, shouts) Oh, oh, oh, Blackadder! BLACKADDER!

Blackadder: (enters) Your Highness.

P: Wha--wha--what time is it?

B: Three o'clock in the afternoon, Your Highness.

P: Oh, thank God for that; I thought I'd overslept.

B: I trust you had a pleasant evening, sir...?

P: Well, no, actually. The most extraordinary thing happened. Last night, I was having a bit of a snack at the Naughty Hellfire Club, and some fellow said that I had the wit and sophistication of a donkey.

B: Oh, an absurd suggestion, sir.

P: You're right, it is absurd.

B: ...unless, of course, it was a particularly *stupid* donkey.

P: You see? If only *I'd* thought of saying that...

B: Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one *should* have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance -- burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism -- must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, "I recant my Catholicism."

P: Well, yes, you see, only the other day, Prime Minister Pitt called me an "idle scrounger," and it wasn't until ages later that I thought how clever it would've been to have said, "Oh, bugger off, you old fart!" I need to improve my mind, Blackadder. I want people to say, "That George, why, he's as clever as a stick in a bucket of pig swill."

B: And how do you suggest this miracle is to be achieved, Your Highness?

P: Easy: I shall become best friends with the cleverest man in England. That renowned brainbox, Dr. Samuel Johnson, has asked me to be patron of his new book, and I intend to accept.

B: Would this be the long-awaited Dictionary, sir?

P: Oh, who cares about the title as long as there's plenty of juicy murders in it. I hear it's a masterpiece.

B: No, sir, it is not. It's the most pointless book since "How To Learn French" was translated into French.

My friend Jane's friend Chuck

has a cool website (still in its early stages, but definitely lots of good stuff there already) called Chapterlog--take a look if you're interested in the ways the web has affected book-promotion and changed people's experience of choosing the books they want to read...

Monday, August 08, 2005

Finished off

the last two of these Steve Hamilton novels, North of Nowhere and Ice Run (the second was particularly good, very dark and Alex gets beaten up even more than usual). It makes me sad that I've read them all now, I guess I'll have to wait a while for the new one to come out.

Also read an advance copy of John Harvey's Ash and Bone, the second in his new series featuring Detective Frank Elder. Very good, really, only not so much my kind of book as the Hamilton ones, which are written in a really excellent first-person voice.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Some books are just plain great

in a way that's beyond rational explanation, and I'm happy to say I've just read one of them, Prime by the lovely Poppy Z. Brite.

I really, really like her stuff--I missed out on the early horror books when they first came out because I was in the thick of the grad school thing--not to say I didn't read a lot of new fiction while I was doing my PhD, because I did, but my reading skewed very heavily towards what I could get at the public library (that big, rather beautiful one in downtown New Haven, a place I remember very fondly) because (a) I was incredibly broke and (b) I'm just a library kind of person, the first thing I do on moving to a new place is get a public library membership, that's what makes me feel at home, and I would die without a major university research library as well and you can get a huge number of novels that way too (in fact, this one I just got through interlibrary loan) but it's not the same as going and seeing the shelf of "new" (actually, year-old) hardcovers in the front of a decent public library branch.

One of the noticeable failings of public libraries, though (and I applaud the ones that are moving away from this outdated model), is that they purchase very conservatively--not a lot of paperback originals (though this is starting to change) or horror or alternative-y type stuff, much more skewed towards the main lists at the established houses. So you were not likely to come across a Brite book that way.

But the first year I was in NY I picked up the usual pile of $2 used paperbacks from the guy with the book table on Broadway at 113th St. and one of them was Drawing Blood. Nothing about the outside tipped me off to its quality, but as soon as I hit the first page I sat up and started paying attention, it was clearly something quite out of the ordinary run of middling-OK horror stuff. Brite is a smart and original and highly effective writer, and her real subject (the horror stuff was a bit of a red herring, it's great but it's far from being the only thing she can do) is chronicling relationships between two men who love each other. So what seemed like a "turn" (from horror to food mystery--the earlier two before Prime are The Value of X and Liquor--haven't read either, but can't WAIT to get them now) doesn't really seem that surprising, it's only the superficials that have changed.

Seriously, if you don't like horror (strange as it may seem, I do realize that some people just don't go for that stuff) and associate Brite with that genre only, you must reconsider & get these books--on the basis of this one, anyway, I can say that they are really funny, lovely, affectionately handled portraits of two guys living an ordinary but also remarkable life in New Orleans. (NB there is the occasional touch of the old Brite here--I particularly enjoyed one description of a celebrity chef as "a young man with a slightly unfinished look, pink and soft, rather like a large, unusually handsome fetus".)

One final thought--for some reason Brite is one of only a tiny handful of writers that I experience a super-strong identification with. She can't be more than a couple years older than I am, although she's published a truly enviable number of novels, and whenever I read something by her I get this strong sense of paths not taken. I would like to have written her books, and I also would like to have been the person who wrote those books instead of the person that I am--not that I'm not extremely happy with my life, I am, but I catch this glimpse of the different person I'd be if I was less of a school person and more of a world person, living in a small- to medium-sized city in the south and fully immersed in music and books and comics and the whole alternative (though that's a silly word--I always feel ridiculous using "indie" or "alt" or whatever) kind of thing and ... oh, it's hard to explain. If I was a person who went to the comic store and the used record place instead of to the public library, is another way of putting it. (Caitlin Kiernan's books give me something of the same feeling, a longing for that other life that my separated-at-birth twin might have; try Silk, if you haven't already.)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

There's a very interesting

(and surprisingly sympathetic) profile of V. S. Naipaul by Rachel Donadia in the New York Times. Among other interesting insights, the following (and I am STRONGLY reminded of a certain friend of mine...):

In conversation, another dynamic becomes apparent, in which the more dismissive Naipaul is of a writer, the more likely it is that he has engaged deeply with that writer's work. Sitting a few feet away from a bookshelf of French novels, Naipaul called Proust ''tedious,'' ''repetitive,'' ''self-indulgent,'' concerned only with a character's social status. ''What is missing in Proust is this idea of a moral center,'' he said. Naipaul also had little respect for Joyce's ''Ulysses'' -- ''the Irish book,'' he sniffily called it -- and other works ''that have to lean on borrowed stories.'' Lately, he has found Stendhal ''repetitive, tedious, infuriating,'' while ''the greatest disappointment was Flaubert.''

It will be a blow

but also a bit of a relief when the summer is over and I can no longer indulge in so much late-night novel-reading. I read Steve Hamilton's Blood is the Sky, just as excellent as the others (I get more and more taken with Hamilton's writing with each of these books); then, for a change of pace, Clouds Among the Stars, the only book of Victoria Clayton's that I hadn't yet read (it fortuitously arrived via interlibrary loan this afternoon, I picked it up while getting other more worthy books from the library). It is about 80% very enjoyable, but unfortunately the other 20% is a ludicrous murder mystery that sits ill with the frothy and funny country-house comedy-romance vibe. The charm of Clayton's books (aside from her most attractive first-person voice, her narrators are always immensely appealing though of course almost identical to each other, but that presents no problems--think of Dick Francis) is that though they are all set in a kind of fantastical upper-crust 1970s England they have the feel of a much earlier period. This one in particular is written under the star of Georgette Heyer; the narrator's mother (and indeed the narrator herself as well) uses all sorts of Heyeresque expressions and the owner of the country house they all end up in for the holidays has a corset and is compared to Prinny, etc. etc. Also the love object is particularly like one of Heyer's Regency heroes, even more than usual (though they are all built on Mr. Darcy-esque models, I must admit).

Friday, August 05, 2005

Two more excellent books

by Steve Hamilton, Winter of the Wolf Moon and The Hunting Wind. I really liked both of them, but the character stuff is more appealing in the first one and the plotting's better in the second, it's got lots of good noirish twists. These books are charming in various ways, I like the Upper Peninsula settings and the baseball backstories (I don't care about baseball but somehow it leads to a lot of good writing). Great first-person narration. More tomorrow...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Various interesting details

in this Observer piece about famous people's summer reading, so check it out. Here's a sample:

Jonathan Franzen, writer, The Corrections
I've just finished reading the second issue of the new journal n+1 basically cover to cover--something I almost never do with any magazine. I especially enjoyed a novella-length, terrifically funny essay on Isaac Babel and modern Babel scholarship by a woman named Elif Batuman, and a smart, affecting riff on J.M. Coetzee by the smart, affecting young novelist Benjamin Kunkel. Just when you're thinking you're intellectually alone in the world, something like n+1 falls in your hands.

Good blurb there for the n+1 guys--on which note, their website is maybe even better than the journal itself, they've got regular new content of consistently high quality. Check it out if you haven't already. (Link via Bookslut.)

Button men

Just read James Lee Burke's latest Dave Robicheaux novel, Crusader's Cross. A super-enjoyable read. It's funny, these books are 95% sublime but every twenty pages or so descend into a kind of silliness that I find perversely endearing--I think the books would be better with a really ruthless editor (I am notoriously intolerant of lyrical writing), but obviously this is all weirdly part of their appeal. Rather than try to explain further, I'll give a few of my favorites:

Her hair and skin smelled like the ocean, or the smell a wave full of seaweed gives off when it bursts on hot sand. Then somewhere down below a coral shelf a mermaid winked a blue eye at me and invited me to come and rest inside a pink cave where she lived.

That afternoon I was at Wal-Mart and had one of those experiences that make me wonder if our commonality lies less in our humanity than the simple gravitational pull of the earth and a grave that is already dug and numbered.

Those who live with insomnia and who consider sleep both an enemy and a gift will understand the following. Some of us cannot comprehend how anyone except the very good or those who have no conscience at all can sleep from dark to dawn without dreaming or waking. We hear William Blake's tiger padding softly through a green jungle, his stripes glowing, his whiskers spotted with gore. Psychoanalysis does no good. Neither does a health regimen that induces physical exhaustion. The only solution that is guaranteed is the one provided by our old friend Morpheus, who requires our souls into the bargain.

As he stood framed against a washed-out sky, his eyes devoid of any humanity that I could detect, his nose wrinkling slightly, I wondered if he wasn't in fact the liege lord of Charon, his destroyed voice box whispering in the blue-collar dialect of the Irish Channel while he eased his victims quietly across the Styx.

It's just the kind of writing that makes me so dissatisfied with certain classic noir fiction, a kind of over-the-top high seriousness that seems to me unsustainable in the first-person voice. Yet the books are spectacularly well worth reading, I seize upon every one that comes my way. (Or if you're a purist you could get James Sallis's Cypress Grove instead, it's got a similar vibe to Burke's books only it's written in the most beautiful prose you will ever see--pretty much exactly to my tastes, anyway.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

One qualification

for being an avid lit-blogger is apparently staying up till 4am (unwonted personal confession: I have deliberately not changed the time-stamp on my blog to the right time zone because shaving three hours off the posting time usually makes it a less insanely non-respectable hour). See the excellent interview with Traver Kauffman of Rake's Progress, one of my favorite blogs. (Link via Old Hag.)

Last night I reread two more

Georgette Heyer novels, Arabella and Frederica (it was Justine's post that made me go back to the well after what should certainly have already been indulgence enough).

Earlier in the day I had a funny moment--one of those ones where for about one minute you feel that you've discovered your ideal future writing project, the one you were meant to write, before seconds later realizing it's the most ridiculous idea in the world. I was reading an interesting TLS piece by Matthew Reynolds about an ehibition on Stubbs and the horse at the National Gallery--and here's the book linked to the show, which I think I must get although it is rather expensive--and it hit me with a blinding flash. I would combine my obsession with Heyer with my much more longstanding and more genuinely obsessive love for Dick Francis and write a series of crime novels set in the horseracing worlds of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. I have a very complicated set of feelings about historical mysteries, though--in short while they are sometimes very good I feel they are usually written in much less admirable prose than the best crime fiction, there's something kitschy about the whole idea--and also I know absolutely nothing about horses other than what I've read in novels over the years. So it doesn't really seem like a sensible idea. I wish someone else would do it, though...

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Convenience trumps principle

I am ashamed to admit that when I went to the corner news/cigarette kiosk just now for stamps, I said absolutely nothing when Rose handed me these. I have just sent off a round of bill payments with the uncannily cheery and plastic-looking face of Ronald Reagan on the upper-right-hand corner. Aside from the political problem, I think all stamps with large human faces are grotesque--I had some other ones recently from the same source, I think they were Moss Hart, there's something very nasty about the effect. They are also the wrong size for bill-paying, which along with letters of recommendation is about the only thing I use stamps for these days. Really the best stamps have things like wildflowers or model trains on them, flags aren't my cup of tea either but it is too much trouble to wait in line at the wretched post office for the good ones.

There's one really endearing detail

in Jonathan Franzen's essay in the New Yorker this week (the essay itself isn't online), I especially liked these sentences because they sound affectionate rather than self-lacerating:

My father was a saver of string and pencil stubs and a bequeather of fantastic Swedish Lutheran prejudices. (He considered it unfair to drink a cocktail at home before going to a restaurant, because restaurants depended on liquor sales for profits.)

European police procedurals

Last night I read a very good Dutch crime novel called DeKok and Murder by Melody; the author is A. C. Baantjer, who is incredibly widely read in the Netherlands but virtually unknown here. I was full of remorse at how little fiction I read in translation, I must start setting an arbitrary quota and making sure I lay hands on good stuff not originally written in English: one novel a month, say, would not be an excessively high goal. (Last week I read the first few chapters of Karin Fossum's He Who Fears the Wolf, but somehow it was too muted and tasteful to hold my interest and I skipped the whole middle and just read the end to see what happened.)

Anyway, the Baantjer book is excellent, I will certainly read more of these. My only reservations concerned the translation, which is by H. G. Smittenaar. Obviously I don't know Dutch, but I questioned his choice to use so many of those awful verbs of speaking that should really just be "said," "asked" and a handful of simpler permutations. Too much grimacing and grinning and growling and murmuring and exclaiming and shrugging and muttering and nodding and so forth. One low-life character absurdly talks like a gangster in a 30s film ("Word on da street is dem guys was knocked off because they wasn't using"). Perhaps most horrifying of all, the translator shows no awareness of the difference between "lose" and "loose"--Barbara Wallraff wrote about this problem in this month's Atlantic, though the relevant part of the column is accessible only to subscribers.

I'm sort of poking fun at myself here, I realize I am obsessive about this stuff (and BTW see Laura Demanski's recent post about the Chicago Manual of Style, plus the amazingly lovely website she links to) and maybe some of this will be corrected between the advance reading copy and the printed book but surely it is not too much to expect professionally published books to be more or less error-free? I am relatively forgiving when it's a small press like this one, but it really gets my goat when I read a book from a major imprint and find typos throughout. Seriously, get a grip! Or at least a decent copy-editor! It is incredibly distracting otherwise--I don't search them out deliberately, but it just happens that I was born with that thing where if there's one misspelling on the page my eye will be drawn to it even if I only catch a moment's glimpse of the whole page, it is convenient for work but rather a curse in terms of light reading....

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Smell of Old Books

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian was messengered over to my apartment from Little, Brown with accoutrements suitable for a big-budget summer blockbuster, in this case a dull-gold portfolio that includes snapshots whose handwritten album-style captions identify some of the book’s locations—Bulgarian monasteries, Amsterdam canal houses—and a coy missive from the publicity manager, all parchment and italics and supposedly nineteenth-century locutions: “Your initial feelings of delight when you read the first few pages will quickly morph into a terrible obsession, keeping you up for nights on end, as you imagine (or do you?) seeing shadows darting in the corners of your vision” (and whoever let that word “morph” survive in the faux-Victorian copy has no ear for period lingo).

I love the lavish, all-out, over-the-top publicity thing, at least when it’s mobilized in aid of a book so well worth reading as this one. I was most impressed by Kostova’s handling of a complex narrative frame which includes stories within stories, letters and manuscripts set in several different twentieth-century time periods plus medieval material and a huge range of geographical settings and all sorts of other things besides. It’s disorienting at first, but by a hundred and fifty pages in, I was entirely won over, particularly by the extremely convincing portrait of Yale’s Sterling Library: the incident in which a defenestration turns a librarian into one of Dracula’s henchmen is surely based on the story I heard about a long-ago archivist's suicide when I worked at the Yale Boswell Editions in graduate school.

You won’t find here the more accessible charms of some other recent vampire fiction (Charlaine Harris, Robin McKinley, Laurell K. Hamilton). But Kostova has written a better novel than Bram Stoker. The first Dracula looks pretty trashy next to the greatest sensational fictions of nineteenth-century Britain—compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s pretty shabby story-telling, and even at the top of his form, Stoker’s not as good as Wilkie Collins. Dracula’s treatment of ethnic stuff is off-putting and the novel’s propositions about women and female sexuality really pretty revolting. Van Helsing is particularly odious, with his annoying broken English. Here’s Van Helsing on Dracula’s plans for Mina Harker near the end of the novel:

At present he want her not. He is sure with his so great knowledge that she will come at his call; but he cut her off—take her, as he can do, out of his own power, that so she come not to him. Ah! there I have hope that our man-brains that have been of man so long and that have not lost the grace of God, will come higher than his child-brain that lie in his tomb for centuries, that grow not yet to our stature, and that do only work selfish and therefore small. Here comes Madam Mina; not a word to her of her trance! She know it not; and it would overwhelm her and make despair just when we want all her hope, all her courage; when most we want her great brain which is trained like man’s brain, but is of sweet woman and have a special power which the Count give her, and which he may not take away altogether—though he think not so.

And yet Stoker’s novel remains ridiculously compelling, mostly because of the phenomenal appeal of the vampire myth. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stoker’s novel concerns tensions between the modern and the primitive. His characters are enmeshed in up-to-date technologies (“I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder,” writes Mina Harker; “I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary, just as I had done with all the rest”) which they use as talismans for warding off against ancient fears. Here’s Jonathan Harker, immured in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle:

Here I am, sitting at a little oak table where in old times possibly some fair lady sat to pen, with much thought and many blushes, her ill-spelt love-letter, and writing in my diary in shorthand all that has happened since I closed it last. It is nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.

Or, more comically, Dr. Seward:

‘Good God, Professor!’ I said, starting up. ‘Do you mean to tell me that Lucy was bitten by such a bat; and that such a thing is here in London in the nineteenth century?’

The Historian is this summer’s counterpart to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—coverage of both books has focused on the massive advances, the phenomenon of the forty-something first-time novelist, the ten-year gestation periods. The two books have a certain amount in common. Both are massive and intelligently researched novels of the fantastical past, though Clarke’s novel is no less English than Kostova’s is European.

(As an aside, can I just say that while Neil Gaiman got a ridiculous amount of flak for calling Jonathan Strange "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years", it seemed perfectly clear that the seventy-year figure was meant to invoke Hope Mirrlees’s fine novel Lud-in-the-Mist [first published in 1926--the ten-year discrepancy is presumably because we never think of ourselves as living really in the present, instead counting from some milestone year in our past when it felt like real life began--and a direct influence on Gaiman’s Stardust] and the national adjective to accentuate the novel’s Englishness. Yes, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d written “the finest novel of the English fantastic.” But his meaning was perfectly clear, and to say otherwise is either pedantry or obliviousness. For more of my thoughts on Jonathan Strange, click here.)

Clarke is a better (and a funnier) prose stylist than Kostova. There are few individual sentences here worth singling out, and the more poetic flights often sound more than a little clunky. Kostova aims for a magical Borgesian tangle of books and symbols and unknown languages but the unsympathetic reader will find some of the effects excessively whimsical or affected:

Listening carefully, I realized that she must be speaking Hungarian; I knew at least that Romanian was a Romance language, so I thought I might have understood a few words. But what Helen was speaking sounded like the galloping of horses, a Finno-Ugric stampede that I could not arrest with my ear for even a second. I wondered if she ever spoke Romanian with her family, or if perhaps that part of their lives had died long before, under the pressure to assimilate. Her tones rose and fell, interrupted sometimes by a smile and sometimes by a small frown. Her aunt Eva, on the other end, seemed to have a great deal to say, and sometimes Helen listened deeply, then broke in with those strange syllabic hoofbeats again.

“Strange syllabic hoofbeats” is all very well, and I am as fond of the adjective “Finno-Ugric” as the next person, but “arrest with my ear” is classic historical-novel-speak. Nobody ever really talked like this—or if they did, the person on the other end of the conversation rolled her eyes in disgust. But the novel’s pan-European scope, its imaginative heft and the ambition and control of the narrative frame make it a strikingly memorable and enjoyable read.