Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"When he was on a job he could spend as much as he liked"

Richard Vinen has a wonderful piece (more essay than review) in this week's TLS on a demented book about its author's lifelong James Bond obsession and the cultural significance of Bond as an avatar of Britain's post-WWII trauma: that's Simon Winder's The Man Who Saved Britain. This might just have to be another Amazon UK order, it sounds like an amazing book that I must read as soon as possible and I see that though FSG is publishing it here which is excellent, the release date is October and I do not think I can wait nearly so long. . . .

I can hardly believe it

but I've got wonderfully good news, the best possible news (well, you know what I mean, of course the world is in a dire way & it would be nice to stop global warming/the war in Iraq/childhood mortality etc., but from a strictly selfish point of view I cannot think of anything better): it's now definite and I can say it here, HarperCollins Children's Books will publish Dynamite No. 1. I will be working with a most wonderful editor, Ruth Katcher (aside from her general excellence she also edits one of my favorite writers ever, and a ton of other great stuff too); and my agent is the amazing Liz Gately at Anderson Grinberg. The book will be published in 2008, with a sequel called The Snow Queen to follow.

It occasionally impinges on my consciousness that I am overly book-obsessed, I would not think it at all sound if someone told me that their happiness was almost entirely dependent on whether they (a) got a decent amount of writing done that day and (b) had a publisher for their novel. I would tell that person that she should have a better sense of proportion, that it's bad enough to care so desperately about the work--at least that's in your control, more or less, and surely it's inevitable that how much work you get done will affect how you feel--but it's completely insane to let your state of mind depend on something as out-there-in-the-world as what happens to your novel once you've written it. It is important to have a good balance between different elements in life, and after all other things are valuable too (can you hear how half-hearted I sound as I say that?).

So despite the sensibleness of this advice I have completely neglected to follow it myself, and there is no doubt that I have spent part (sometimes a quite large part) of every single day over the last two years worrying about this novel, either (profitably) in terms of actually working on revisions or (less sensibly) fretting about what its worldly fate would be. It is therefore particularly if not very moral-example-ly delightful to have this happy, happy outcome.

(In fact, this blog was born of my desire as I was finishing the first good draft of the book to chronicle its path towards publication, only I realized in a mortifying but funny vanity-of-human-wishes-type vein that I had been ludicrously premature and that a day-by-day chronicle of the book's path to publication would at that point have been a shameful exercise in self-flagellation! NB since I wrote that post I un-quit smoking, then properly re-quit and have not smoked since the beginning of September, but have consumed vast amounts of very strong coffee in the intervening months....)

Monday, May 29, 2006

Thoughts on late style

Sort of: you know how writers who get really successful often end up producing these books that are like strange unedited self-parody? I've just read two, both very enjoyable though. The first was the insane Patricia Cornwell's latest Scarpetta novel, Predator (Nico brought it for a house-rewarming present, we share an obsession with Cornwelliana). The first few in that series were so good, and then they got all crazed and paranoid and high-tech (though the anthrax threats in the months following September 11, 2001 made me feel retroactively that I had been too hard on the one where she's got those smallpox aerosol thingies, can't remember what it was called), and then--much worse--she moved to writing them in this third-person present-tense voice that moves waywardly from one point-of-view character to another and that is definitely not a good thing. But I found this one better than the last couple, it's got a very intense mood and all of the demented stuff we've come to expect (lesbian bar pickups! main character gets brain tumor! Marino yet again with completely different personality and physique than in previous iterations!); it's got a Cornwell-on-acid kind of feel, none of it really makes sense and yet she gets that insane paranoid mood so right.

The other was the long-awaited Wicked! from Jilly Cooper, which I just finished with great pleasure and yet of course it is not really a very good book (and it includes flippant and politically incorrect handling of race stuff & also pedophilia that is frankly bizarre). The book's politics can be summed up in this sentence (Emlyn is the Welsh history teacher, love interest for Janna who's the feisty young headmistress of the failing school which offers the main plot--of course I like it that it's set in a school!): "Brought up to loathe the Tories, it confused Emlyn that, for some ulterior motive, it was Tories who were coming to Janna's aid and New Labour in their sharp suits, quite unrecognizable from his dad's beloved cloth-cap party, who'd palled up with the beige, open-toed-sandalled Lib Dems to grind the faces of the poor." (This book follows closely on the "Will Venturer get the TV franchise?" model from that earlier one....)

Herewith a few more samples of the inimitable Jilly Cooper style. In the first one, the delinquents from the comprehensive are having their first encounter with the posh public-school kids at Bagley:

Feral, to appear more menacing, had, like Paris and Graffi, left up the hood of his black tracksuit. Then he clocked the three Bagley Babes, who looked as though they'd been fed on peaches and fillet steak all their lives, who had glossy hair cascading from side partings to below their boobs and gym-honed bodies in cobalt-blue tracksuits and pale ochre T-shirts, which evoked the sea and sand of endless holidays.

Peaches and fillet steak--it's not really good descriptive writing at all and yet there's something so appealing....

Here's a funny description of another Bagley pupil (and the book is filled with flippant but also somehow quite heartfelt quotations and literary inclusions, including the inevitable joint school production of Romeo and Juliet):

Anatole was in fact very clever and loved Pushkin, Lermontov and Shakespeare as much as vodka and Marlboro Lights.

And here's another one of Emlyn, this is pretty much exactly the Cooper style in a nutshell (all characters are sex-mad and fairly beautiful or else quite revolting if they are villains):

Hands shoved into his pockets, he showed off a surprisingly taut, high, beautiful bottom. He had terrific shoulders too and the bulldog face had charm if you liked bulldogs. Janna longed to throw herself into his arms and tell him how Ashton and Crispin had warned her off. Instead she said, 'I've got a school to save.'

I am not sure that these sentences really conjure up the book's undeniable charms, but I really did enjoy it very much & in fact I think I will make an offer, I want someone else to read it & enjoy it after I paid for that wretched Amazon UK shipping and all: if you would like it, drop me an e-mail at jmd204 at columbia dot edu with your regular mailing address and I will send it to you, I like my books to go to a good home where they will be enjoyed....


If you didn't read it when it was first published in Granta, do go now and take a look at Kathryn Chetkovich's painfully brilliant essay "Envy" (about her relationship with a never-named successful writer who is actually Jonathan Franzen). I was reminded of it by a book I'm reviewing which treats similar issues, went back just now and re-read and it is stomach-wrenchingly good. Oh, I feel so grateful that I have been fortunate both in my life & my temperament so I am almost entirely spared this soul-corroding emotion, when I do get a shot of it now and then it is absolutely the most horrible thing in the world (because you are ashamed of yourself as well as feeling awful in the first place).

The Martian perspective

Hadley Freeman interviews Mark Haddon at the Guardian. I must say that I loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I thought it was ingeniously conceived & beautifully executed & in parts so funny I cried.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Brooklyn's indie publishers

Jessica Winter at the Voice on Brooklyn's thriving small-press scene (including some good stuff about my beloved Soft Skull).

On late style

Jackie Wullschlager reviews Edward Said's posthumous work at I am fascinated by the idea of late style, I must get this one and read it....

(Several more things have to happen before I feel quite at home again: [1] the cat is arriving this afternoon courtesy of my excellent mother; [2] I must hit the library and take a lot of books out--I haven't set foot in Butler this whole week, I have been too busy and tired--perhaps I can stop in briefly this afternoon and check out a few books by Lionel Shriver, my new obsession.)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

On Being a Twin and the Idea of Union

A rare personal post at Light Reading: on Saturday, May 20, 2006, at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia, my brother Michael Colin Davidson married the lovely Jessica Zenquis. The legal vehicle of the occasion was a Quaker marriage license, in which the witnessing of the group renders the marriage legal, so I was not technically the officiant although I conducted the ceremony; what follow below are my remarks for the occasion.

Out of many true things about Mike and Jessi--including the facts that (a) she is just the kind of person you want for a sister-in-law and (b) I have never seen him so happy as he has been in the last year since they started going out--the relevant one here is that they are both identical twins. Here's the family group (from left to right, Jean Zenquis, Jennifer Zenquis, Jon Davidson, Jenny Davidson, Michael Davidson and Jessica Zenquis Davidson):

On Being a Twin and the Idea of Union

Can there be any better preparation for marriage than being a twin?

Think of the intimacy of twinship, the remarkable combination of sympathy and obligation and love and complementarity in difference that defines the relationship between a pair of twins.

Of course there are also many differences between twinship and marriage. Identical twins come about because of an act of splitting, the division of one into two and the subsequent unfolding or flowering of two quite separate individuals who share a great deal but whose uniqueness we also affirm. Marriage depends in contrast on the idea of union, a coming-together of two into one, the joining of a pair into a new unity that's exactly what we've come here today to celebrate.

Plato's Symposium includes a lovely speech by Aristophanes that resonates so deeply with our ideas about love that it's taken on a kind of life of its own: you don't need to read Plato to feel the truth of these observations. Aristophanes tells a fable about human nature in which the original nature of humans was quite different from what we're like now. "The primeval man," says Aristophanes, "was round, his back and sides forming a circle; he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike. . . . He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air." But after these four-legged four-footed men with faces on both sides of their heads made an attack on the gods, Zeus decided to punish them by cutting them in two. "After the division," Aristophanes continues, "the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one": "when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, . . . the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment." This is our idea of the soul-mate: Aristophanes refers to "this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two," and calls that desire to become one the expression of man's "ancient need."

We're here in honor of that impulse: to witness and affirm the joining of Michael and Jessica, each bringing to this union a rich and complex web of love and obligation that has been a kind of training for marriage but that will also continue to support them in their new life together. I welcome a new twin to the Davidson family, then, but I also welcome a new kind of twinship: the union of body and soul we call marriage. And finally I want to borrow some words that will be familiar to everyone who's a child of the 1970s and say that today's show has been brought to you by the letters J and M and the number two.

(Here are some more photos.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"I will be correct or bust"

Gillian White on Elizabeth Bishop at the LRB.


I love these stories about monkeys and the origins of language. (That putty-nosed monkey is remarkably handsome as well--Cercopithecus nictitans.) And here is the abstract of the original research published in Nature. One day I am suddenly going to start subscribing to a lot of science magazines and writing science fiction--all that stuff in the last week or so about the human and chimp lines splitting and then combining again would be a really good one....

Monday, May 22, 2006

Amazingly good things at the VLS

The absolute highlight is an essay by Ed Park called "Mehta Fiction: Enjoying the source of the latest plagiarism scandal" (do go and take a look, even if you're sick of that story); but you will not go wrong if you just start with the table of contents and go from there as your taste moves you.

I haven't commented here on all that Opal Mehta stuff, I don't have much to say really except that (a) there's a "live by the sword, die by the sword" element that nonetheless (b) does not excuse the cruelty and glee with which everyone seized on the story, doubtless motivated in large part by (c) the national obsession with Harvard; (d) I believe that plagiarism is a character issue and that Viswanathan definitely plagiarized and yet (e) I also was reminded of why I like Joyce Carol Oates so much when I saw that when asked recently what she thought of the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal, she said, "Leave the girl alone. She’s a teenager," and then wondered why the Times had published so many articles about the whole thing: "Don’t they have more pressing things to write about?" (Thanks to Mary Louisa and Lisa Coutant for the details.)

My piece on five recent books by Joyce Carol Oates is also in this issue of the VLS; I was pleased with how it came out. The books in question are High Lonesome: Selected Stories 1966-2006 (indispensable); Missing Mom (one of her very best novels to date, also indispensable); The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (good clean fun, but somewhat peripheral); Blood Mask (a thriller published under the name Lauren Kelly); and Uncensored: Views & (Re)views, a collection of Oates's criticism that I found wonderfully enjoyable and stimulating and wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in contemporary American fiction. I love Joyce Carol Oates, she is a very special writer for me, so it was a particular treat to get the chance to write this one.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Rosie Blau interviews Jilly Cooper

at (the title of the piece is "Size matters for the queen of bonkbusters"):

There are other firsts in this book: a condom ("I was told to put it in by my editor"); dumping by text; and Cooper finally had to ditch the word "bonk" for "shag" to keep up with the times ("Bonking is rather wholesome, isn't it?").

So has Cooper lost her fizz? Not at all, she says, but her previous books were set in wilder times: the 1960s and 1970s rather than the puritanical 2000s. "And I'm much older now. I'm nearly 70 and so you do have much less recent experience to draw on."

Cooper is still learning about the darker side of sex, however. "I didn't know what STDs were before this book. There was no reason that I should because I'd been writing about the art world." Is the art world really immune to sexually transmitted diseases, then? "Well no, but . . . " Jilly Cooper pauses. "Tell me what are STDs, really?"

Proclaiming herself "too old" for feminism, she argues that: "If you discredit men so much, sexually he won't be able to perform. I think this is happening. The sperm count is plummeting and it's about the male ego. Partly, anyway."

But the bonkbuster lives on, even if we're not allowed to "bonk" any more and men can't manage it. In contrast, the stars of the growing chic lit genre lack charisma, says Cooper. Writers now are "very funny and clever but I do think they've added far too much water to their men. I hope mine are more fun. They're more attractive. You probably wouldn't want to marry them, though."

Oh, I really can't wait for this book, perhaps I should go downstairs & see if the Amazon UK box is lurking in the mail area (but really I am going to fall apart if I do not sleep for a long time tonight, I had better resist because if it's there it will kill me not to stay up and read it tonight). In any case, I feel sure you'll be hearing more from me about Jilly Cooper in days to come (English readers are rolling their eyes at this point, American ones just puzzled, but you must trust me when I say that while I can't exactly recommend these books to readers of, say, dark contemporary noir or interesting young-adult fantasy or for that matter beautifully-sentenced literary fiction they are certainly amazingly addictive, and in a strange way quite distinctive and appealing).


but happy: I am back in New York for good (well, for the foreseeable future at any rate), and my brother's wedding this weekend in Philadelphia was quite lovely. I'll do a longer post later in the week once I've got a few pictures.

Meanwhile I will only say that I did indeed buy The Hard Way at the airport in Boston and it was just as delightful as I hoped. In my opinion Lee Child is a complete genius. Seriously, these books are the perfect escapist reading and yet they're done so intelligently and so appealingly that they ascend to the very highest tier of light reading. I really, really love them; the lightness of Child's touch, the insane appeal of Reacher (I am still saying Russell Crowe for the film version), the intelligence and sureness and imaginative-tv-producerish-scenario-making brilliance of the writing are just perfect. Smart, self-aware and quite compulsive reading (in fact I will say what for me is a huge thing which is that these books are considerably better than even the very best novels of Dick Francis). And after I finished I handed this one on to my non-married brother because he has been just as addicted as I am, ever since I gave him a copy of One Shot last year.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Christopher de Bellaigue on Edward Said at the TLS.

It pains me to say it, but there will be no new posts here until Sunday evening or possibly Monday (I have remembered with mild horror that I have only a dial-up connection in my New York apartment--that must be remedied, there is no going back now that I've had high-speed this year--I am not sure this computer even has a dial-up modem, although surely it must...).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

James Lasdun has won

that big short story prize; I haven't read the story but it seems to me most just on the basis of what I know, which is that Lasdun should be MUCH MUCH more famous and lavishly rewarded with money and acclaim than I suspect he is in the actual world we live in--I thought his two novels were absolutely excellent. (See here and here if you missed these the first time round and care to follow up.)

And if I make it out of here on Thursday

without having had a total nervous breakdown my reward is going to be that I will rashly buy Lee Child's new book The Hard Way at the airport bookstore (surely it will be available by Thursday? I think the official release date is tomorrow--Tuesday) & greedily read it at the departure gate because I am a neurotically punctual traveler & with luck will have just time to finish the whole thing by the end of the flight, otherwise I will be unfit for human companionship until I have read the remaining pages. And if I cannot get it I will be heartbroken, except that I will be carrying at least ten other books as well--just in case, you know.

The texture of lives

Seems fitting the last two library books I'm likely to get to here (there are a few others I might squeeze in, except that today at the office I got my Amazon UK haul--Alan Warner! Jenny Diski! Mo Hayder!) are both by James Sallis, the last two (I think--these books have so many temporal vagaries it's hard to follow the sequence) in the Lew Griffin series: Bluebottle and
Ghost of a Flea (which has a very sad ending, I was startled and moved).

More than most these books are really made out of language, at moments I get annoyed with them being so existential and self-reflexive and yet it totally works, the aesthetic is quite amazing. I've got a passage of prose for you, after a couple of other links (a passage that pains me with the desire to read some Albert Murray, which can soon be satisfied too, that's at the top of my list for what I'm getting to back in New York): here's a link to Blake's "Ghost of a Flea" picture, for instance, if you don't know it; here's a page of earlier Sallis posts on Light Reading, too many to paste in the links separately (I actually hadn't realized how much I've been thinking about him, that's interesting--these books really speak to me); and here is the Amazon link for Sallis's more recent novel Cypress Grove, the first one of his I read (on the basis of a recommendation by Ken Bruen) & fell for.

This comes from the middle of the last novel in the series, Lew Griffin now almost completely unanchored from the time & place he's in:

"Lew. Do you hear me? Lew?"

I drifted up slowly, all the time in the world. World up there waiting for me. Patient as grandfather's hand when we'd walk down by the river. I was four, maybe five, and he'd come up alongside the house, up the hill, hobbling, to fetch me. As a young man Grandfather had broken his leg. With no doctors around, his father built a box, a small tailored coffin, around it. He was a carpenter, this was what he knew. The leg healed, but forever afterward Granfather listed to port and starboard with each step. As Grandfather came he'd be reciting some poem he'd learned back in school forty or more years ago. More like ninety, now, I guess. Longfellow, Whittier, William Cullen Bryant. The whole of "Thanatopsis" or "Snowbound," Booth led boldly with his big bass drum. Not just reciting the poem, but declaiming it as had been the fashion in his youth, an auditory equivalent of Palmer penmanship. Lines, stanzas, rhymes spun and leapt like dancers, like high divers, from his tongue, providing my earliest intimation that words might do more than simply express needs or convey information: that they could transform the world, recast it. Down we'd go then by the river, this hobbling old man and upreaching, diminutive me, past tar paper shacks and along the levee as barges lugged their tedious way upriver towards Memphis or down to Vicksburg and New Orleans, barrel-like pipes running out above and across (carrying what? I never knew), cement slabs piling up crisscross by the hundreds as trucks ran over legs and wood risers collapsed, burying workers paid $3.50 a day, at the slab field just south, the sandbar at river's center growing ever wider through the years.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Brooklyn noir

Michael Wilson profiles Reed Farrel Coleman in the New York Times. Coleman's a fantastic writer--here are my previous raves one, two and three. They're great crime novels and Coleman has a particularly lovely way with a sentence.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Syrian filmmaking

The piece isn't available online (though there's an interesting slide-show at the website), but Lawrence Wright has a great article on dissident filmmaking in Syria in this week's New Yorker. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's the paragraph that especially stuck with me:

Although the filmmakers often talked about freedom, they revealed a perverse desire to romanticize the artistic constraints of dictatorship. "The most beautiful Soviet films were produced in the era of Stalin," Abdulhamid told me. "When the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly you could say whatever you wanted, the Russians began producing the most trivial films. Nobody should be forbidden to say what he wants, but it is a phenomenon that dazzles me: when you're suppressed, you think better."

How perverse is this really, though? I have no desire to romanticize the artistic constraints of dictatorship: indeed I was reading this piece and thinking with huge gratitude of the fact that I do not really have to worry about such things in my own life. (Another article that gave me the same piercing sense of my own not-often-enough-remembered good fortune was Laura Secor's excellent piece in the magazine last year about young Iranian bloggers.) I don't know much about film, but it's not just a glib truism to talk of literature's succumbing to near-oblivion in Russia and former Eastern bloc countries after the fall of communism. That older generation of Russian readers and writers are really, really depressed thinking about the way that now you can read them without penalty the writings of (fill in your favorite dissident writer) hold little appeal for the young. So that the quotation in the article may include components of rationalization or self-justification or consolation and yet have an element of truthfulness as well.

Jane Yeh's poems

get a wonderfully glowing review from William Wootten in the TLS (but I am not confident that link will work if you're not a subscriber). Jane has excerpted it on her site, so take a look; and here and here can be found earlier posts in which I rave about Jane's poetry and give samples (click on the second one and read the poem called "Adultery," seriously). Here's where to get her book Marabou at Amazon UK; I promise you that you will not go wrong with this one, it is a most wonderful book.

Lionel Shriver on fictions about immigration


Friday, May 12, 2006

On being adapted for television

Alan Hollinghurst in the Guardian Review (Hollinghurst really is on my very short list of most accomplished and extraordinary writers, & this essay is not surprisingly extremely perceptive & thought-provoking):

I realise in retrospect that when I'm creating a character, though I need to be able to hear them, and to have some sense of their scale and magnetism, I never really see them very precisely. It is the quality of their presence that seems to matter most. I have a feeling for, say, Nick's size (about 5ft 6) and I know that he has curly blond hair and blue eyes, but I've no idea what his nose or his hands are like. Similarly with Gerald Fedden, the wealthy Tory MP in whose house Nick spends the four years of the story, whose only particularised features are a large mouth and a hawkish nose. I see him clearly from the corner of my eye, but when I look at him full face he is a blur. It's not a calculated strategy, but I realise that such blurs, probably common to most writers, invite the unconscious participation of the reader in imagining the detail of a character; they are also very easily filled and animated by actors.

Other good things too, including reviews of a number of books I desperately want to read: Nicholas Lezard on Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation (co-authored with Catherine Johnson); Niall Griffith's on Alan Warner's new novel (which is almost certainly waiting for me in a box at the office, only I haven't made it in there for the last few days because I'm in a chaotic/haphazard world of packing and editing); and (oh, I really wish I had this right now!) Joanna Briscoe on Jilly Cooper's latest ("Wicked! is as long as Anna Karenina and that, surely, is a mistake").

Hmmm... my mail-forwarding only stops on the 15th, I'm afraid if I order it it will get forwarded to Cambridge & then lost... but perhaps it is safe & I can just do it, it would be well worth it to get back to my apartment on the evening of Sunday the 21st and find it waiting for me, it would be exactly what I would most want to read. Worth a shot, perhaps (or I could get it sent to the Columbia office and go in and pick it up, only even that would take a spot more energy than I'm likely to have after the weekend of wedding-ing).

You know what? I am going to order it, and damn the consequences! Sooner or later it will come to my hands & then I will devour it....

The sublime and the ridiculous

It was strange to the point of surreal sitting & listening to last night's poetry reading at the Harvard Advocate, the small-to-medium-sized room was full which I suppose means about thirty-five people or something like that but those people disconcertingly included in the front row (I may be forgetting one or two) Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart.... Happily the readers (Steve Burt and Dan Chiasson) seemed unintimidated, but surely it was a bit nerve-racking.

Afterwards I felt very very weary (not the fault of the readers, both of whom were extremely good--I must get Dan's books, they've got some natural-history things going on that sound rather what I'm interested in these days) and drifted into the bookstore (yep, it was one of those nights) and purchased (rather to my shame--I couldn't find anything more interestingly light!) Sophie Kinsella's novel The Undomestic Goddess, which proved soothing but understimulating.

The first forty pages or so were very good, well-written and really pretty funny (especially if you are undomestic--there is a good part in the beginning where the corporate-lawyer heroine gets a message from her cleaning lady asking where she can find a vacuum-cleaner bag and asks "Why does the vacuum cleaner need to go in a bag?" The vacuum cleaner in my NY apartment was purchased for me by my mother who gave me at the same time about a hundred bags for it in full knowledge that I was never, ever going to go and buy bags for it myself--as I don't vacuum very often it's sort of a lifetime supply), but then the whole rest of the novel is only about half an hour's worth of material eked out for 374 pages. Pleasant enough, but too slight.

I read the first of the Shopaholic novels a few years ago, Confessions of a Shopaholic I think it is; I was staying with my friend A. in Cambridge for a conference, she has a million books but they are more in the Eliot and Hardy vein & I was desperate for a light read; I begged & pleaded for something appropriate & I really think Shopaholic may have been the only trashy novel in the house, I sat down & read it with great enjoyment (augmented by a large quantity of wine) though I felt the book was marred by its complete lack of financial realism--I can't remember now, but I think the shocking credit-card debt the Shopaholic accidentally racks up is something like fourteen hundred pounds whereas in real life if you were that kind of girl you could get through tens of thousands, really, in a matter of months. (And I find it very strange that Sophie Kinsella is also Madeleine Wickham, I read one or two of those Wickham books when they were first out & they are more like what my grandmother liked, this mid-career or actually quite early career swerve into chick-lit seems not so much regrettable as sensible given that the bubbly first-person style is something Kinsella/Wickham has something of a talent for. Sub-Bridget Jones, but what can you do....)

The trouble with the whole reading-as-self-medication thing is that it's difficult to get the right mix, there I was around midnight & just desperate now for something a bit more substantial to take the domestic-goddess-y taste away (because of course the corporate lawyer after being framed in a corporate scandal flees to the countryside, takes a job as housekeeper & decides that life in the country with gardener paramour is infinitely superior to fast-track urban lawyer life, clearing her name also before retreating to the countryside again with a classic "she changes her mind at the last minute, but she and the gardener reunite on the train station platform" finale), so I knocked off a very small library book, one of the few remaining that I must read before I leave, Jonathan Lethem's Men and Cartoons.

Some of these stories I like very much indeed, especially the ones whose worlds exist sideways but still in close proximity to real life ("The Vision," "The Spray," "Super Goat Man"); the more obviously science-fiction-inflected ones I don't think I like so much ("Access Fantasy," "The Dystopianist..."). In many cases there's a very clear connection between a story and one of the novels, i.e. "Access Fantasy" is perhaps too much an echo of Gun, With Occasional Music, though the super-hero allusions don't strike me as problematic in spite of their obviously coming to full fruition in Fortress of Solitude--but the super-hero strain runs deep in Lethem's writing & he makes it do lots of different (to me all quite satisfactory) work.

But taken as a whole, the collection made it clear what I like so much about Lethem: the way his sentences (or often those of his first-person narrators, in this case) manage to be very funny & very serious at the same time, and with an ultra-distinctive sound/rhythm, a kind of verbal patterning that is just physically pleasurable to read; the way he uses the story form as a way of working out an idea (though I still think the essay in some cases would be a better mode for this purpose--I understand that's debatable, though, & most people do not agree with me on this); and most of all the anti-metaphoric nature of his thinking.

The strange things in his fictions are never reducible to symbols, I find that very appealing: it's one of the reasons I often find a good piece of essayistic prose more satisfactory than a poem or a short story, the way that prose-writers are more likely to leave things really (not just in-the-end-readably) non-symbolic. I still feel that certain books were ruined for me by the kind of "read-for-symbols" thing you have to do in high-school English classes, and also that metaphor is a powerful but not-mostly-to-my-taste mode; The Great Gatsby in particular (that awful green light!) is something I cannot revisit without a shudder, though really I think Fitzgerald is a genius (but give me "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" instead).

Earworm alert: I have not been able to get that song "Cinnamon Park" out of my head for thirty-six hours, it is making me crazy! Do not click and listen to it....

An amazing piece on translation

by J. M. Coetzee, it appeared in January but I must have missed it at the time, if you did not read it then you must click on this link and read the whole piece! Everything in it is fascinating (it's basically his reflections on the actual experience of having his novels translated, including amazing excerpts from his correspondence with translators into Serbian, Korean, etc.), here's a taste though:

My novel Waiting for the Barbarians presents an unusual problem for the translator. It is set in an unspecified space at an unspecified time in history; it would be hard to maintain that this milieu is Western, yet, despite allusions to barbarians, to an imperial palace, and to such items as lacquered armour, it is as hard to fit it snugly into the Far East.

All of its dialogue can be conceived of as translated by an invisible hand from an unspecified foreign tongue into English. Its language is more or less bare of allusion to the past of the English language and indeed to the history of Western thought. Furthermore, within this invented discourse there are passages of what may be conceived as translation from a hypothetical barbarian tongue into the language of the narrator and thence into English. Such passages are marked by a simplified syntax and lexicon.

The principal character in the novel, and its narrator, is called simply the Magistrate and is addressed as 'Magistrate'. His principal duty is to officiate over the system of justice in this part of the frontier, but in the absence of a bureaucracy he seems to oversee the day-to-day operation of the neglected frontier town.

Since there is no term in English for someone who is in effect judge and mayor and town clerk, since a magistrate in this book would not be a magistrate in any other book, does it matter what one calls the man in the target language? Perhaps not; but there are good approximations and bad approximations. If magistrate is the authorial approximation in English, what would be a good approximation in German, for instance?

(Thanks to Ben for the link.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Birnbaum interviews David Mitchell

at The Morning News. It's a fascinating & quite revealing interview, go take a look if you're still trying to work out what you think about Mitchell's fiction. He says one thing I completely disagree with, and that actually helps me articulate an aspect of my own (relative) lack of sympathy for his fictional practice:

I think all novels are actually compounded short stories. It’s just the borders get so porous and so squished up that you no longer see them, but I think they are there. And I do structure my novels in that way. One of the commandments of Black Swan Green was to write a novel made of chapters that are theoretically extractable short stories.

All novels are not actually compounded short stories! In fact I feel that the texture of the short story and the novel are both in theory and in practice almost always quite different; Joyce Carol Oates is an interesting writer to look at in this respect, and a perceptive commenter on such differences as well. But Jonathan Lethem could do you just as well--he writes great short stories and great novels & they're quite different from each other in terms of the texture of the language, the pacing and so forth. I am out of sympathy with something about much or even most short fiction (I think it's related to the fact of being a fast reader); I do now & then read a collection of stories that makes sense to me (I really, really liked Nathan Englander's a few years ago for instance; and of course the short stories of Chekhov, James, etc. etc.), but I find the appeal of the novel quite different and (for me personally) much more powerful. It's partly a question of momentum, and that's what Black Swan Green lacks--a good sense of where it's going. Even if you prefer, as I do, character- and voice-driven fiction to plot-driven, it matters that there should be a destination, and that the momentum should be built up over several hundred pages.

One other moment in the conversation confirmed my existing impression (Birnbaum, it is possible I am being quite unfair to your interviewee, and you must correct me in the comments if Mitchell was actually, oh, I don't know, making silly hand gestures and a funny face to show that he was making fun of himself) that Birnbaum has a better sense of humor than Mitchell:

RB: So sitting here in your youthful late 30s, you have scoped ahead in your life to think that your writing is—everyone says they can’t do anything else.

DM: No I really can’t. I know everyone else says “I really can’t do anything else” as well, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

RB: Everybody doesn’t say that. Is it hard for you?

DM: No. Yes and no. No, in that nothing is more fulfilling. Maybe I enjoy sex more. But that only lasts for an hour or so.

RB: Good for you.

"Maybe I enjoy sex more. But that only lasts for an hour or so": it's like those tips they have in management self-help books for job interviews ("What's your biggest weakness?" "I'm a workaholic and perfectionist, and I become obsessive about doing everything to a very high standard"). I am completely shuddering in horror when I read this! However I expect I am being quite unfair....

Janet Maslin reviews Lee Child

in the NYT. I am delighted, I have been eagerly anticipating this one (The Hard Way) since the moment I finished last year's one but for some reason thought it wasn't coming out till June. It is a ludicrous admission, but this & the new Jilly Cooper are the two books I most want to read in the world right now, both of them keep up popping up in my head at distracting moments. Ah, it is possible I can even buy this at the airport next Thursday as a reward for getting out of Cambridge more or less unscathed....

Short story & novel

An interesting and polemical piece by Elif Batumann at the n+1 website. I've been thinking about very similar questions this year, though I certainly take a more optimistic view of the contemporary American novel (if we can even speak about such a thing). Glad to see her single out Joyce Carol Oates for praise. . . .

I assume this is excerpted from the new issue of the magazine, which I'm very much looking forward to reading; but I let my subscription lapse because I was about to move, and then I borrowed issue three from a friend, and then there was no way to re-subscribe starting with issue four as opposed to three, and now I can start with issue four but I have to wait till I'm back in my New York apartment so that it doesn't go to the black hole of mail-un-forwarding land.

It is ridiculous, I have behaved this year as if my entire life was on hold just because I was not living in my own real apartment. Enough of that nonsense! Every day is real life!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This week's TLS website offerings

most notably include M. John Harrison on David Mitchell's latest (fact-checker has missed several obvious errors in this one): makes me think how unusual it is for a major novel by a British writer to be published some weeks earlier in the US than the UK, it is disconcerting only now to be getting the big guns coming through at the British periodicals--in the age of internet book-reviewing and book-purchasing, it would make much the most sense for big books to get simultaneous release in the major English-language markets.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Library-book countdown

Desperate situations, desperate remedies: I did some extreme triage, now there are only six or seven more library books at home that I feel I really must read before I leave next Thursday. I was able to rule out many, many others (it's a huge stack that I must somehow get back to the library) on the grounds of (a) unattractive font or page layout (b) boring-looking insides (c) bad writing (d) checked out with three or four others by an author unfamiliar to me in a fit of enthusiasm but reading one book was enough to let me know I didn't much want to read more (e) mood changed since I thought I wanted it or (the only cheery reason on the list) (f) it being something I want enough to be willing to buy when I'm at home again (ex.: Geoff Ryman's Air).

I whiled away the evening with Wendy Lesser's Nothing Remains the Same : Rereading and Remembering, which I found enjoyable but not entirely satisfactory. I read Lesser's book The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters a few years ago and loved it (pre-blog, no link), but didn't find this collection quite so satisfying. It's a real mix, a handful of excellent essays but the quality of the others is variable (Lesser is an intelligent and thoughtful writer with an appealing expansive intelligence & yet opinionated enough to give some salt to it, it's never bad, but some of the material is a bit plodding).

Part of the problem, perhaps, is with the premise. It's too free-floating and vague (actually I find it rather perverse that Lesser approaches rereading as such a novelty, I reread books all the time & found her perhaps too startled with the insights of rereading--it came down too often to an argument about her greater appreciation from an older vantage point of books whose nuance or power she may have failed to apprehend at a younger age); it never reaches the power and coherence of the book I can never praise enough (I wish I had written it myself), Francis Spufford's truly enthralling The Child That Books Built which also involves a premise of rereading, or of Anne Fadiman's essays on reading.

On the other hand, while her prose style isn't really as evocative as theirs, Lesser has something going for her that Spufford & Fadiman don't, which is that she has spent her entire adult life practicing the art of criticism, and the best points here show her really getting traction on various books by using those skills. The piece I enjoyed the most is an early one called "Adolescence" about Lesser's two favorite books at age thirteen, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim; that's pretty much exactly what I was reading and loving at that age, and her appreciation for Dodie Smith in this particular is enough to send me into a frenzy that I don't have that novel (which I must have read at least ten times) here right now to reread again.

I like the points when the act of rereading prompts questions or puzzles: in an essay on rereading Anna Karenina and Middlemarch, for instance, Lesser finds herself surprised by the fact that neither book seems life-transforming in the ways it seemed on a first reading. The fact of this being true for both books helps Lesser begin "to realize I had a problem--the good kind of problem, I hope, the kind that is susceptible to inquiry and analysis, perhaps even yielding a solution. Possibly it will sound more enticing if I call it a mystery, or a riddle. At any rate, the question that lies behind the problem or riddle, baldly put, is: Why am I now so unsympathetic to these ywo young women, Anna and Dorothea, whose fates once meant so much to me?" I can't say I really sympathize with this--though I like George Eliot very much I have always found Dorothea very annoying--but it's well-put, if a bit wordy, and shows Lesser's strength as a critic (honest, perceptive, the kind of person you would like to enter into a long conversation with about books).

There are other bits I like a lot too (especially her reflections on having had Christopher Ricks as a teacher, and some wry thoughts on her present-day self having now come to agree with Ricks's rather disparaging comments on the thesis she once wrote on Orwell). But the essays suffer, in a sense, from the seriousness of their goals; Lesser's talking about works like Don Quixote or Shakespeare's late plays or Wordsworth's Immortality Ode or Paradise Lost but she's not really equipped for the heavy lifting (in other words--and I do not mean this at all rudely, it is just an observation--the critics she most admires are Empson, Orwell, Trilling, Ricks etc. and she's a very good and smart reader of literature, each of these essays has something to offer, but it does her no shame to say that she falls considerably short of those guys' standard).

I think she's much better, then, once she gets onto the contemporary stuff: the essay on Ian McEwan is very interesting and quite subtle in its orientation towards his fiction, and the final essay on Vertigo is excellent (& richest when it turns into a meditation on the lost San Francisco of Lesser's own childhood).

One final note: the other book Lesser had me dying to read is John Buchan's The Three Hostages. I must get and read this as soon as possible!

The new issue

of the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism is now available (click on the link and scroll down to the bottom of page, and you can download it as a PDF file).

The CJLC was founded in 2002 by a group of Columbia undergraduates with a serious interest in literary criticism, with the first issue appearing in spring 2003; I was the faculty advisor that year, and am looking forward to serving in the same position again during the coming school year.

This issue's got lots of good stuff (including interviews with Slavoj Zizek and Elaine Scarry); it also makes me terribly nostalgic looking back to the table of contents for the first issue, it happened (and all essays were considered anonymously, this is not fishy at all!) that a large number of the authors were former students particularly precious to me--of course I love all my students, it is the same way I feel about novels & they each have something special & enjoyable about them, but some students (just like certain books) loom larger than others in your life & imagination (it's more that they choose you than that you choose them).

I also highly recommend the exceptionally good essay in Volume 3 by Ramsey McGlazer, "Primo Levi's Language Lesson." You will have to download the whole issue but I assure you it's well worth it.

So hungry I could eat a book

My brain is not made for lyric-poetry-reading, I am not a dipper-in but a start-to-finisher with a longer-and-faster-the-better kind of attitude; but it was with shame that I realized that my friend Stephen Burt's reading in Cambridge was coming up this Thursday and I still had not read his new book of poems, Parallel Play. Which he personally gave me a copy of in January so I had absolutely no excuse.

(Here are the details on the readings, including this Thursday's at 7pm at the Harvard Advocate, 21 South Street, Cambridge but also various subsequent ones in New York, Washington and Storrs, CT.)

I sat down with the book this evening & while I must revisit it to really get the whole thing (I like the way it's organized, though, with these little lyrics "After Callimachus" at the end of each of the four sections) I totally fell for some of the poems. Three definite favorites:

(1) "Paysage moralis'e," for sure (this one's superb--here's an earlier version that's slightly different from the one in the book, scroll down to get to it).

(2) "Six Kinds of Noodles," very clever and funny and rather moving (also the source of the title of this post). Here's the first bit:

You would have to have been reading John Ashbery
to have seen anything like this in a book,
and yet here it is in real life:
an almost already intelligible tangle
of verities, and an intimidating menu,
disfigured, almost, by all the things you can have

at once, though all are noodles. Have
you, too, been trying to keep up with John Ashbery?

(3) My very favorite one, though, is definitely "At the Providence Zoo," which is happily available at the Academy of American Poets site though I am going to paste it in since I like it so much:

Like the Beatles arriving from Britain,
the egret's descent on the pond
takes the reeds and visitors by storm:
it is a reconstructed marsh
environment, the next
best thing to living out your wild life.


Footbridges love the past.
And like the Roman questioner who learned
"the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg,"
flamingos are pleased to ignore us. It is not known
whether that Roman could learn to eat upside-down,
by dragging his tremendous head through streams.


Comical, stately, the newly-watched tortoises
mate; one pushes the other over the grass,
their hemispheres clicking, on seven legs
in toto. Together they make
a Sydney opera house,
a concatentation of anapests, almost a waltz.


Confined if not preserved,
schoolteachers, their charges, vigilant lemurs, wrens
and prestidigitating tamarins,
and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare
at one another, hot
and concave in their inappropriate coats.

Having watched a boa
eat a rat alive,
the shortest child does as she was told--
looks up, holds the right hand
of the buddy system, and stands,
as she explains it, "still as a piece of pie."

Frivolous & inappropriate (further) thoughts:

(1) When I read the lines "Above the New York Eye / And Ear Hospital, the dawn / Breaks promises, its coffee turns to cream" I could only think of the unfortunate Olivia Goldsmith (although that was the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, come to think of it).

(2) I haven't had a candy necklace for many, many years, but it seems like it would be a nice thing to get one of ("A girl sprints over the bridge in a Superman sweater, / her candy necklace tight around her throat"). And eat.

I particularly must thank Steve for introducing me to some words by Randall Jarrell that have since echoed through my head on many occasions, this is probably one of my very favorite quotations of all time:

A shrew or a hummingbird eats half its weight in twenty-four hours; when I was a boy I read half my weight in a week. I went to school, played, did the things the grown-ups made me do; but no matter how little time I had left, there were never books enough to fill it--I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.

The ragged edge of having nothing to read....

I will also share my first memory of Steve (this was fall of 1989 or thereabouts): it was quite late at night and on the steps outside Lamont Library I was accosted by a most peculiar guy wearing a most extraordinary tie-dyed t-shirt who proceeded to treat me to a long discourse (he seemed to assume I knew who he was) on why the production of No Exit he had seen me in a few weeks earlier was aesthetically admirable. It was very strange, but fortunately turned out to be the first of many, many long & aesthetically stimulating conversations in years to come.

Monday, May 08, 2006

An odor of speech

Sorting through various xeroxes--I meant to blog about this piece months ago--it sunk to the bottom of a pile of papers--partly because of chaotic paper-accumulating habits on my part and partly because although I love serious intellectual things I always want to keep Light Reading a bit lighter than it tends to get (fear of being pretentious?)--however I must pack this away in a box now, so here goes.

The essay is by Roland Barthes, it's called "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers" & is well worth a look if you fall into one or more of those categories; originally published in Tel Quel in 1971, here given in Richard Howard's translation in The Rustle of Language. This, I think, is my favorite passage:

As soon as you have finished speaking, the vertigo of the image begins: you exalt or regret what you have said, the way you have said it, you imagine yourself (you consider yourself as an image); speech is subject to remanence, it smells.

Writing has no smell: produced (having accomplished its process of production), it falls, not like a collapsing souffle but like a meteorite disappearing; it will travel far from my body and yet it is not a detached, narcissistically retained fragment, like speech; its disappearance is not disappointing; it passes, it traverses--no more. The time of speech exceeds the act of speech (only a jurist could make us believe that words vanish, verba volant). Writing, though, has no past (if society compels you to administer what you have written, you can do so only in the greatest tedium, the tedium of a false past). This is why the discourse in which your writing is discussed has a much less striking effect than the discourse in which your speech is discussed (though the stake is higher): I can objectively account for the former, for "I" am no longer in it; the latter, however laudatory, I can only try to get rid of, for it intensifies the impasse of my image-repertoire.

(How does it happen, then, that this particular text preoccupies me, that once finished, corrected, released, it remains or recurs in a state of doubt--in a state of fear, as a matter of fact? Is it not
written, liberated by writing? Yet I see that I cannot improve it, I have arrived at just the form of what I wanted to say: it is no longer a question of style. Whereby I conclude that it is the text's very status which bothers me: what troubles me about it is precisely the fact that, dealing with speech, it cannot, in the writing itself, altogether liquidate speech. In order to write about speech, whatever the distances of writing, I am obliged to refer to illusions of experiences, memories, feelings occurring to me when I was speaking--occurring to me as a speaking subject; in such writing as that, there is still a referent, and it is what smells to my own nostrils.)

The funny thing

about some of John Crace's "digested reads" for the Guardian is that they are in a style virtually indistinguishable from the original, because the original is already almost self-parody: delightfully, this week he digests Wicked! by Jilly Cooper. Oh, I want this book so badly! Last week I almost threw fiscal responsibility to the winds and ordered it from Amazon UK, but it wasn't shipping until May 3 and I actually got worried about whether it would arrive before I left (and also, seriously, I just do not need another book that will then have to be shipped back to NY). Now I wish I had just pre-ordered it and taken my chances!

The hardboiled wonderland

of Charlie Huston has had me in thrall this weekend: I've just read the first two volumes of the Henry Thompson trilogy, Caught Stealing and Six Bad Things, and they are wonderfully good. Very, very high body-count wholly justified (in my opinion) by the way the violence seems real--just because we like someone doesn't mean he/she isn't going to get unpleasantly killed in the next scene or two.

This is noir taken just about as far as it can go while still remaining stylish rather than absolutely existentially bleak; the thing that makes it work is the beauty of the writing, Huston is an absolutely angelic sentence-writer & the voice of the main character (who narrates the books) is unbelievably well realized, with a light touch that makes the painfulness of the whole business much more striking. Huston's got a great way with dialogue, too.

Here and there, I found myself questioning the plausibility of the books' set-ups (I have never met a cat, for instance, who was nearly so ready to get into a bag as the one that accompanies Hank for all of the first novel & the first part of the second one--really that cat would have been lost to him early on, though of course it is very enjoyable that he's around for all those scenes), but the whole thing gets more and more effective as we go along; the second half of the second one is spectacularly good, I have just read it on the edge of my seat (cliche, cliche--but really I did mean to try and go to bed early for once but I couldn't stop until I got to the end) and am already scheming as to who will send me an advance copy of the final volume of the trilogy, A Dangerous Man, which will be published in September.

(Despite their excellence, these books haven't displaced from my heart my most-favorite introduction to Huston's writing, the vampire-zombie-alternate-Manhattan noir Already Dead--here's me in the grip of it this past fall, I remember hearing about it some months before it was published & just being consumed with longing for it, I could not rest until it was in my hands because of my conviction that it must be the perfect book. And it was.)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Freakanomics guys

are always coming up with the kind of glib yet ingenious formulations that make me first read the piece with enjoyment & then dig in my heels & feel like a scrupulous and nit-picking academic, but they've got a thought-provoking article in this week's NYT magazine on the idea that "the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated":

Or, put another way, expert performers - whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming - are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of cliches that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular cliches just happen to be true.

[Anders] Ericsson's research [on talents and learning] suggests a third cliche as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love - because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't 'good' at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

This seems to me pretty much right (in the full article they do make allowances for what I always in my head though I am a non-believer call "god-given talent," cf. Michael Jordan).

I was particularly thinking about it this afternoon (this is a ludicrous but apt example) because I had a surprisingly stimulating afternoon at the gym on the elliptical trainer; the first and more familiar part of the stimulus was the Prince Hits/B-sides stuff I've been listening to a lot recently, but the second (I am the product of long-term television self-deprivation, thus my jaw-dropped enthrallment) was the truly amazing PBA Skills Challenge.

It was extraordinary!

Seriously, it's a little bit goofy of course, watching these guys (for example) use a pin instead of a bowling ball to do their strike, or having to bowl up over a ramp, or having to bounce the ball off two chairs halfway down the lane. But the thing that's amazing about it (aside from the fact that it's so much more playful than real professional bowling) is that you just can see when one of these guys gets it totally right on some completely absurd and farfetched bowling stunt that (a) he has an amazing talent and (b) he has spent a GAZILLION hours under the artificial light of the bowling lanes doing the same thing again and again. You have to love it to be that obsessive, and it's the obsessiveness that makes it all work. I always take pleasure in seeing something done well; you know how it is a great pleasure when you get your hair cut by someone who really cares about and understands how to cut hair well? (It can be somewhere very modest, this is not a thing about fanciness.) This is the pleasure in seeing a really beautifully decorated cake, or even on a more minor note watching someone tie up a parcel with string in a particularly accomplished & elegant way. Most delightful.

(In a more literary afterthought, I will add that as I watched the stunt bowling I couldn't stop thinking about Charlie Williams' protagonist Royston Blake, narrator of the Mangel trilogy--here are my thoughts on the first volume, here's a good one on the sequel Fags and Lager--just now available in the US--and here is my "all good things come to an end" post on volume three, King of the Road. This bowling thing is very Blake, I couldn't get the idea out of my head of him having a very serious opinion about how the regular professional bowlers were low-class, this "skills" bowling thing would be the sort of thing that Blakey would turn his hand to & make his name on television, but only in a high-class way and donating all the proceeds to a charity of some doormanish sort.)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Julian Barnes on Flaubert

at the New York Review of Books (it's a superb piece, Barnes at his very best--only a bit scathing to Flaubert's latest biographer--a little too long to read comfortably online, but print it out & read it if you're at all interested).

The two major writers I have scarcely revisited since reading them when I was a Young Person & who I am burning to read seriously & all the way through again properly & to really engage with are Beckett and Flaubert. I'm not sure if I'm going to have the mental space for it this summer, I'm definitely going to reread some of those great nineteenth-century Russian novels in the good new translations but that's more compatible with what I really need to concentrate on, which is meeting a Sept. 15 deadline for my academic book manuscript. I think Beckett and Flaubert might have to wait till after that. But I'm really, really yearning for them....

Three good things for free

at the London Review of Books: Ian Hacking on two new books about autism (this one's going to get a lot of distressed letters in response to his opening paragraph); a rather lovely piece by Thomas Nagel on Bernard Williams; and a rich long essay by Colm Toibin on Borges. It's a very thorough report on the recent biography and on Borges's life itself, and includes appealing quotations from others who've written about the Argentine writer:

The real world came to Borges in the guise of the young men who visited his apartment to read to him. Buenos Aires is now full of them. The best account of that experience is by Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading (1996) and With Borges (2004):

In that sitting-room, under a Piranesi engraving of circular Roman ruins, I read Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, several entries of the Brockhaus German encyclopedia, verses of Marino, of Enrique Banchs, of Heine (but these last ones he knew by heart, so I would barely have begun my reading when his hesitant voice picked up and recited from memory; the hesitation was only in the cadence, not in the words themselves, which he remembered unerringly) . . . I was the driver, but the landscape, the unfurling space, belonged to the one being driven . . . Borges chose the book, Borges stopped me or asked me to continue, Borges interrupted to comment, Borges allowed the words to come to him. I was invisible.

Paul Theroux in The Old Patagonian Express (1979) remembered reading Kipling ballads to the blind old man, being stopped after every few stanzas as Borges exclaimed how beautiful they were, his favourite being ‘The Ballad of East and West’. Evita, he told Theroux, was ‘a common prostitute’, as the writer, taking a more benign view than Naipaul, went back to see him again and again.

He stayed up late, eager to talk, eager to be read to; and he was good company. By degrees, he turned me into Boswell . . . There was something of the charlatan in him – he had a way of speechifying, and I knew he was repeating something he had said a hundred times before. He had the beginnings of a stutter, but he calmed that with his hands. He was occasionally magisterial, but he could be the opposite, a kind of student, his face elfin with attentiveness, his fingers locked together. His face became aristocratic in repose, and when he bared his yellow teeth in the exaggerated grin he used to show pleasure – he laughed hard at his own jokes – his face came alight and he looked like a French actor who has realised that he has successfully stolen the show.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Labrador pact and the Springer uprising

A tedious but scrupulous accounting of recent book consumption....

I finished The Idea of North on Monday evening so that I could return it to the library, and the rest was just as excellent as the first half, Peter Davidson is a wonderfully good descriptive writer and I thought it was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking non-fiction books I've read for quite a while. Probably more interesting to people with some slight foot in the academic world, but it's very beautifully written & accessible so if you've got a passion for the north, you do really need to get it and read it.

Then I finished another half-read volume (this one from the bookstore a few weeks ago), a collection of stories by Diana Wynne Jones called Unexpected Magic. The short stories in the first half are very good (personally I feel that every word that drips from the pen--or more likely emanates from the word processor--of DWJ is wonderful & sacred & preferable to almost anyone else's stuff) but the novella at the end was disappointing, rather conventional and heavily Narniaesque with an overlay of those Elizabeth Goudge kinds of book, however I felt more kindly towards it when I saw an author's note at the back (it would have been better as a headnote--and though I don't in general see the need for headnotes in story collections that were conceived more or less as a whole, with only a few pieces published elsewhere, I like it when the kind that collect miscellaneous stories over a stretch of the author's career have headnotes explaining anything that might be interesting or important or funny about the story's composition etc.) that said although it was only first published in 1995, "Everard's Ride" was written in 1966. A very respectable journeyman piece, just not up to the usual standard.

It was a bit of a mystery what prompted the subsequent light reading binge: I guess I was feeling like I'd made serious headway with the non-work-related library books, but that it was really too much serious fiction and not enough light, and then I gave my big talk on Tuesday afternoon at the Academy & went afterwards to the library to return these recalled books and (yes, it's ridiculous) check out a few novels, four that I'd requested from the off-site storage facility (all brand new, never read by anyone else before, which is especially pleasing) and that were waiting for me at the circulation desk and then four or so more plucked (targeted plucking, though) from the shelves.

(And I seriously had to restrain myself from grabbing tons of others as I was in the contemporary British fiction section--my hand grasped desparately for Sebastian Faulks's new novel and John Fowles's Journals until I firmly commanded it to cease and desist--oh, and I was rather enchanted by the shelfside juxtaposition of Helen Fielding and Eva Figes, the latter makes various appearances in Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson book and it reminded me I wanted to read more of her books. But this was not the kind of light reading I coveted.)

The first one I read was on the whole rather delightful, Matt Haig's The Last Family in England. It is beautifully narrated by a black Lab (the Labrador Pact=Duty Over All) and though I didn't love it as much as Charlie Williams did (there was a muddled-sort-of-alluding-to-1 Henry IV thing going on that didn't do anything for me, and at times the dog's voice wasn't quite convincing), it's a very enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone who's interested in checking out some high-class dog noir--the coinage is Charlie's, not mine. Matt Haig has an extremely appealing imagination, I will look forward to his next book. (BTW in the meantime I want to reread 101 Dalmatians, though, that is a book I must have read twenty times when I was a kid; and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite novels of all time.)

Colleen Mondor heard me bemoaning the lack of light reading & made a few helpful suggestions, so part of my haul was four books by Katie Fforde, though I have to say my response is mixed. I quite see why Fforde at her best would be very appealing & especially soothing if you were in the thick of too much non-light reading; but this kind of book is not so much my thing. That said, I've just read three of them and half of the fourth (I laid it down in disgust when I realized that not only was the point-of-view-character thing being seriously mishandled, it was also shaping up to include much, much more interior decorating than I possibly wanted to hear about. What is this fantasy of English village life? I do not understand it. I do not want to live in an English village and beautifully renovate by hand a small Georgian house and vacuum dog hair off the couches).

So anyway first I read Practically Perfect & found it pretty weak (worst line of dialogue I've read in the past year: "'Quite frankly Max,' she hissed, 'I don't really care. We're over! I loved you so much for so long but I realise now I was in love with a person I didn't really know'"). Along the lines of the "What awful food they serve here, and such small portions!" joke, however, I then read Flora's Lot (this one was much better, the main character far more appealing & the milieu a bit more interesting) and then Paradise Fields (hmm, not so good again, annoying main character) and then got halfway through Restoring Grace before suddenly realizing with absolute disgust that I couldn't face reading another page of this stuff. Sorry, Colleen! Only after I'd checked these out did I get Colleen's e-mail with some more specific suggestions about Fforde's best three or four--however these were the only ones they had at the library, what can you do.... I think Victoria Clayton does a rather better version of this kind of thing, I highly recommend hers; but will give Fforde another chance especially if I can come across one of the recommended ones.


(1) I love the novels of Jane Austen, in fact if I could only have one novelist it would almost certainly be Austen (unless I caved at the last minute and chose Dickens instead), but the author of Pride and Prejudice has a lot to answer for in terms of the wretched plots of this kind of book. Seriously, couldn't they for once not have it be that the hero and heroine hate each other on first sight but experience a strong mutual attraction etc. etc.?

(2) Novelists should also be banned from showing the surly but handsome male protagonist being kind to animals as a way of showing he'll be a sweet boyfriend despite anger management problem and bad manners.

(3) I'm curious about the pros and cons of writing books in which each new hero/heroine is extremely similar to the last versus series in which the main character (i.e. usually a detective) stays consistent. The latter can get very tedious (Adam Dalgliesh! Spenser!), but the former suffer from the fact that some of the characters inevitably come out more appealing than others. It's very noticeable in Georgette Heyer, for instance, but also in Dick Francis. On the whole, I'd have to say that if you can do it well, carrying the same main character over from book to book is the best bet. (Two words: Jack Reacher. I love those Lee Child books, they are pretty much the perfect light reading.) But you obviously can't do that for these man-and-woman-happily-ever-after kinds of book, unless they got surreal & bizarre and had the woman psychotically killing the man off so that she could find a new one in the next book. Structurally problematic, in any case.

Now I am only going to do things that are either useful (clean the bathroom) or intellectually stimulating (read Swift) for a little while. Or perhaps, actually, I will scour the apartment to find whatever the next-lightest reading may be--something like a compass needle in my head infallibly directs me to such things....

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

If you buy only one book this year

it should be Toni Schlesinger's Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories.

I know I am prone to hyperbole, but trust me on this.

It's a collection of her Shelter columns for the Village Voice, and whether you're interested in (a) becoming a (better) novelist (b) learning how to capture voices on the page as a playwright (c) getting the urban anthropology-cum-archeology of New York (d) indulging your nosiness about how much rent people pay for their apartments (e) learning how formally extreme works of art can also be highly accessible (f) contemplating the human condition (g) laughing a lot (etc., etc.; I'm writing a longer piece about this for another publication, so will not say more now but will link if/when the time comes) then you must have this book.

Also it has an exceptionally attractive cover; I am fond of black cats, so it particularly appeals to me, but I defy anyone not to be charmed. (Here's a nice large-scale reproduction at the Observer's real-estate blog.)

So here's my "review" of the book at the Voice. We did it in the form of one of Toni's columns (i.e. demented interview), which might be puzzling if you've never read them, so check out a few first if you like: here is one of my favorites, with the snakes we talk about in the interview; and here are parts one and two of another one I especially like, about the housing activists Pauline and Barnard Goodman.

The cumulative effect of reading all these pieces bound together in book form is quite staggering and uniquely delightful.


Edward Ziff and Israel Rosenfield on some new books about evolution at the New York Review of Books, making me wish I were doing developmental biology (and I'm halfway through a great book by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb called Evolution in Four Dimensions that I'm really loving, it's super-thought-provoking and interesting though specialized enough that it may not appeal to the very general reader). I feel I have recommended these before, but if you're wanting something highly readable--i.e. relatively free from technical stuff except where it can be made extremely interesting and engaging--a wonderful recent book was Armand-Marie Leroi's Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body; and surely there is no single more appealing & important book on the idea of heredity than Francois Jacob's The Logic of Life.

I love the way

the TLS has reorganized its website; they put up an appealing selection of the new issue's stuff every Thursday, available without a subscription, only they seem to be outrageously on top of things & it's often all there by Wednesday, I can never resist looking even though I feel I'm cheating & that I should save it for the next day.

Lots of good stuff this week, in any case: Benjamin Markovits calls Philip Roth's new book "more novella than novel"; a great piece by Peter Parker on the evolution of biography (oh, this is the stuff I love; it's a review of a bunch of the volumes edited by Richard Holmes for this new short biography series, Defoe on Jonathan Wild and Johnson's Life of Savage and Godwin's Wollstonecraft etc., these little books are very attractive and I highly recommend them especially if you're not already familiar with these eighteenth-century English biographies; and he also praises a volume that I definitely need to get, Javier Marias's Written Lives); and best of all, Joyce Carol Oates on Norah Vincent's year as a man (I am curious to read Self-Made Man, I tend not to read that kind of new non-fiction mostly just because I don't want it quite enough to buy it & yet those new books are difficult to get from libraries, they are always checked out immediately by people more anxious to read them than I; but this one really does sound interesting, worth a look).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

On paper engineers

and pop-up books. Very cool. I am out of the loop on all this stuff, I haven't seen any of the books they're talking about. Will remedy this.... (Thinking of that Allen Kurzweil story-novel about a man married to a paper engineer--what was it called? The Grand Complication?)

Monday, May 01, 2006

A nasty shock

reading Deborah Solomon's interview with Carlos Fuentes in the Times Magazine: Natasha Fuentes is dead, she died last summer. I can't say I knew her well enough to think of her as a friend exactly, she was beautiful & elusive in a way that made her hard to pin down, but she was the kind of person it was easy to love (and also the kind of person to whom love hardly mattered, she was so bent on extinguishing herself). I remember her well, though, from hanging out in Cambridge and New York in the winter of 1991-92 and during the year or so following. It is a melodramatic expression, I don't know what else to say, but I hope she rests in peace.

Ultima thule

Reading priorities rearranged this weekend--fortunately--by a series of recall notices from the library. In graduate school in particular I remember just cursing whoever was recalling books--though I am not in general prone to paranoia, it is impossible when you are writing a dissertation not to take the 6 random recall notices which in all likelihood have been submitted by six completely different people (you know, a political science professor who wants the standard edition of Hume, a undergraduate philosophy major who doesn't have the money to buy the assigned book by Sissela Bok, a sociology graduate student refreshing her memory of Erving Goffman's early work, another English graduate student who wants Leslie Stephen's history of English thought in the eighteenth century because she's writing about Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, etc. etc.) and do an insane connect-the-dots in which some evil person is thwarting you by taking all of the books you need for your chapter and using them to write their own book which will inconveniently appear before yours. (I am somewhat exaggerating, but not about the connect-the-dots part, and in fact looking at it from the opposite point of view I often will recall five or six related books at a time & I feel sure that they mostly have been checked out by the same person who is no doubt cursing my name as s/he hauls them back to the library.)

But given the book problem round here, having a few choices made for me was helpful. (Thus Danzy Senna yesterday also.) And today I read the collection edited by Wendy Lesser called The Genius of Language : Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue. It's a very good volume, on the whole, with an impressive lineup of writers & all the pieces interesting in terms of content and well-written too (especially interesting pieces, for instance, by Bharati Mukherjee, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nicholas Papandreou and M. J. Fitzgerald; but I found Ariel Dorfman's footnote-thing in his contribution quite maddening).

In another sense, though, a disappointment: the essay that drew me to the volume (here is when I read it for the first time & fell in love) was Luc Sante's "French Without Tears," and it is still the absolute standout essay in the volume. Brilliant, funny, sweet, and beautifully well-written, one of those times where you really feel that a good essay is better than anything but the very best novels. And I of course had hoped that several of the other pieces in the volume would be just this good; but I feel it stands alone, nothing else quite matches it. The piece was originally published in the Threepenny Review, and is available on line; do go and take a look, it's pretty spectacular in a modest and appealing way.

And then I picked up Peter Davidson's The Idea of North and though I'm only halfway through I can't keep quiet about it, it is a most excellent book! (My Scottish grandfather was convinced that all Davidsons are related, he would have loved this book & I can super-easily imagine him going through some enjoyable-to-him-but-terribly-dull-and-yet-endearing calculations as to the nature of the genealogical relationship in this case.)

All I can say is that Peter Davidson has a lovely mind & I would like to sit down & have a long conversation with him about the frozen north. It is really quite a remarkable book. Not without flaws: at times I felt (though he is a very good sentence- and paragraph-writer) that the style rambles too much & that the material would be better served by way of a highly eclectic exhibit or even a really good website. But it is a ravishing and enchanting read, and Davidson has an extraordinary feel for all the different sorts of material he describes--poetry and the visual arts in particular, perhaps, but his passion for topography animates his writing about geology and all sorts of other things as well, so that some of the most poetic passages come where he talks about the "fundamental marvel of the earth itself having an idea of north, a northern memory." Also he is remarkably good on Auden, and perceptive about my beloved absolute-favorite Andersen story "The Snow Queen."

Oh, and there is an amazing section about the ice hotel, my longtime obsession--if I ever get a lump sum that I really can blow on something useless & decadent I am so going to the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland (but I learned from Davidson that there's one in Quebec as well, possibly that would be more affordable to get to). And he's got all kinds of other fascinating stuff in this bit about the ice sculpture sites in Finland; and on glass that looks like ice; and . . . but both premise and execution are altogether transporting.

(Here Mark Thwaite interviews Davidson at Ready Steady Book. I must stop reading now & try to get some sleep, in spite of the pull of the north. Also make a note to get Francis Spufford's polar exploration book, which I have meant to read for a long time now.)