Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Taming the everyday

At the Guardian, A. L. Kennedy on writing in chaos versus writing in peace:
Some writers I know thrive on emotional cataclysms and can barely wait for their next divorce, plummet into infatuation, flirtation with ridiculously violent criminals or encounter with rabid shrews. Some authors can only work when surrounded by inspiring volumes, delicate prints and a selection of antique spinets. Their perfect house with kind prospects must be miles from the irritating coughs of barrow boys, or the dreadful possibility that someone socially unsuitable might drive past playing something urban on a chip-scented stereo or simply loiter while looking dowdy. Most of us bounce along in the fatter section of the bell curve.

The post-Christian Grey world

A few weeks ago I ran into a very dear old friend of mine at a party.  It was good to catch up, but it was great to learn that she'd just published a pseudonymous erotic novel!  I devoured The Heartwood Box: A Fairy Tale
a day later; it's a great read, highly immersive and extremely well-written.  "Lilia Ford" was kind enough to answer some interview questions....

JMD: When I wrote The Explosionist, it was partly because I’d read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books; I found myself haunting the Bank Street Bookstore and looking in vain for more books exactly like those, and when I realized there weren’t any I thought I had better write one myself.  What were your models, in that sense, for The Heartwood Box?

LF: I wrote the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find.  When you talk about erotica, it’s probably most helpful to distinguish between brows—high, low, middle.  We’ll forget high-brow—no one is going to read my book and think “it’s just like Anaïs Nin!”  Low-brow is porn or so incompetently edited that I feel like I’m grading an expos paper when I read it.  

That leaves the middle, where I’d place my own book.  Critics keep bashing Fifty Shades of Grey, but E. L. James might as well be the Henry James of this genre.  The number one book on the Kindle erotica list as I write this is Training Tessa: Hot Texas Bosses BDSM Erotica, about two brothers who try to one up each other spanking and humiliating their secretary—I highly recommend checking out the cover.  The brothers are billionaires, and Tessa desperately needs money to keep her mother in a special-care facility.  Over the course of the story, she starts to have feelings for one of the brothers, who also falls in love with her.  I read it in less than an hour and for the genre it’s not terrible—the author has a sense of humor, it’s properly edited, it only costs $.99. 

Romance is different: I think in some ways we’re going through the golden age of the romance and paranormal romance genres, with some very talented people working in it.  But those writers (or their publishers) adhere to some pretty hard limits on what they’ll depict.  They’ll dip a toe in the BDSM waters—it’s next to impossible to find a hero who is not portrayed as an “Alpha”—but it’s no more than a toe.  I’m interested in how differences in actual power, whether social, physical, financial, magical, play out in a relationship.  I think those conflicts are very erotically charged, and that’s what I want to read about (as opposed to things like nipple clamps).  But I also want characters who are not completely clichéd, a plot largely free of inane rom-com contrivances, clever dialogue, and a strong sense of the connection between the lovers—why they truly belong together, why their lives would be empty apart.  That’s the book I tried to write.

JMD: The Heartwood Box is such a striking and appealing title.  Did you have the title and/or the concept early, or did it come late in the game?

LF: They were both part of the original idea.  Every piece of fiction I’ve written has started the same way: I have a sudden idea which starts playing out in my head almost like a movie.  Either I type as fast as I can or I sketch it out as an outline, but either way, I have about fifteen pages of material that forms the core of the story.  The seed of Heartwood was the idea of a young woman who has desires that she is unaware of and wouldn’t accept if she were; then the idea of a magical box which could somehow sense and then expose those desires; and most disturbingly, a male who was very happy to take advantage.   
JMD: You’ve published this book under a pseudonym.  I like the novel very much and wonder how you can resist the temptation to get more glory from and for it!  I know it’s erotica, but do you see yourself in future integrating your private persona and the Lilia Ford author-persona, or do you guess you will prefer to keep them separate?

LF: I have two parts to this answer, which I’ll call before and after Christian Grey. 

There is nothing simple, mentally speaking, about writing under a pseudonym, and I have no doubt this issue alone will end up making my psychiatrist a lot of money over the next few years.  I initially chose to use a pseudonym because I have a YA novel that I spent years writing and I have been trying to get published.  I’d just had a set back, so I threw myself into Heartwood as a kind of escape.  Next thing I knew, I had an almost finished novel that I could publish myself, in a genre where that is not a disadvantage.  It just made sense to publish it.

But erotica is a tricky genre.  I read a lot of it, so the sex in my book doesn’t seem particularly extreme to me, but it shocked the first people I gave it to who never read that genre.  I’m proud of the book: I wrote the best book I could, but it’s still about a woman with three partners, with spanking and bondage and a lot of power play that does not necessarily reach a politically correct settlement.  As I got closer to publishing, I talked to my husband and teenaged son about it.  My whole family has been extremely supportive of my writing, and I felt like I owed it to them to take their views into account.  We all agreed about the benefits of publishing under a pseudonym. 

And all of this was before Fifty Shades of Grey.  The bottom line is that nothing will ever be the same with the genre.  I’m still glad I went with the pseudonym, but I quickly became much more lax about it. 

JMD: It’s inevitable, I fear, and probably a question you will grow very tired of: but what do you think of the Fifty Shades of Grey books?   Many of the usual literary pundits have read very little erotica and don’t have much context for the whole phenomenon.  Do you have any insights or observations on the basis of having read pretty widely in the field of contemporary American erotic fiction?

I have no problem at all talking about Fifty Shades of Grey—I only wish that someone close to me had read the damn book.  I find the punditry a lot more painful and stupefying than the book itself.  From what I can tell, it is impossible for a critic for The New York Times to write about a book like this without the most insufferable condescension to the book and the people who liked it.  You don’t have to admire or enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey, but talking down to people who do, privately or openly pitying their lack of taste or education, bemoaning whatever you think this says about American culture—all of that to me feels like a failure of imagination on the part of the critic.  It would be the same if I tried to write about NASCAR: I don’t get it, so I probably shouldn’t write about it. 

You work on the 18th century novel, so you are very aware that there is a long history of cultural leaders attempting to police popular writing through ideas of taste or morality—and excoriating the (usually female) readers who consume it.  I don’t want to make some kind of fancy academic point here—or even argue that I think the novel is “good.”  But when 20 million people love a book, I think critics need to stretch themselves to understand why. 

In purely selfish terms, I think the book is the best thing that could have happened to writers in this genre.  It’s more than just the attempts to coattail on its success.  The closet door on this kind of reading hasn’t just cracked opened—it’s been ripped off altogether.  E. L. James finished the job the Kindle started.  Arguments that the novel is politically regressive are beside the point: this is fantasy.  People should be able to indulge without feeling like they’re guilty of unmaking civilization.

JMD: What advice do you have for novelists considering digital self-publishing?  Is there a site or two that you’ve found especially useful?

I’ll probably be better able to answer that question when I figure out if I can make this work: self-publish a novel that finds its readers—those who like this genre. There is no question the publishing landscape is changing at a dizzying speed.  I wouldn’t put any weight on my own predictions of where it will be in ten years, except to say that those people who wax nostalgic about paper books sound a little like my husband when he talks about his vinyl collection.  I’ll throw out three things that I think are key. 

1.      Understand the genre you want to publish in.  Read a lot in it, buy a lot of books in it, read the reader reviews, have a sense of the upper and lower ranges of both success and quality (which in erotica are not necessarily the same).  Pay attention to how you make your buying decisions, why you think a book succeeds or fails, and what the general expectations of the readers are.

2.      The single most important thing will always be the quality of the book you write.  The great thing about digital self-publishing is that time is not the same issue that it was.  Your book will stay available—you’re not dependent on Barnes and Noble giving you some of their precious shelf space.  You will have the chance to find and grow your audience if that audience is out there.  But that will only work if you have a good book to begin with.

3.      For God’s sake edit it properly and hire a proofreader—please. 

As far as resources go, I’ll single out Lindsay Buroker’s blog.  She self-published a fantasy series called the Emperor’s Edge and blogs with remarkable candor about her experiences: advertizing, sales numbers, proofreading, kindle, Goodreads—you name it.  She’s extremely generous with her hard-won knowledge, and we can profit from it—and she wrote a great series also, which gives her opinions a lot more weight for me. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Getting out the protractor

Kira Cochrane at the Guardian on the history of the British Board of Film Classification:
In 1916, the board's president, TP O'Connor, drew up a list of 43 grounds for deletion. These included indecorous dancing, unnecessary exhibition of underclothing, subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls, the effects of vitriol throwing, and materialisation of the conventional figure of Christ.


Amazing Wyndhamesque link via Brent.  All of the pictures are amazing, but the one I've given may be my favorite.


Seems like novel is really finally off my desk for a while!  Will come back at copy-edit and proof stages, no doubt further tinkering will be in order, but this is a huge relief.

Finished rereading In the Woods last night.  There are some tonal instabilities (plus implausibility of narrator being so literary in his tastes), but it really was an unbelievably good debut.  Next up: The Likeness.  I vaguely think I read this one first, the first time around (order is non-essential).  In the tradition of Brat Farrar and The Ivy Tree, but quite different in tone.  Much looking forward to it.  (And also to Megan Abbott's Dare Me, whose official release is tomorrow but which I am hoping will appear magically on my Kindle at midnight, as preordered ebooks are wont to do.)

Much to do in next week and a half.  Revisions on Austen essay, a book review for a new venue (I know I said I wasn't going to do any more reviewing, but I'm doing this one as a test to see if I enjoy it more when it's a nonfiction book during a non-teaching time of the year!), course books to order (delinquency - this should have been done already), some work to read for students and colleagues.  Most significant task is beginning to delve back into the style book and finding what library stuff I need, as I'll be in Cayman for a couple weeks in mid-August and need to bring whatever books I might want with me. 

Seem to be quite busy, too, with physical therapy for my back, the meditation class and ongoing triathlon training.  Summer is not infinite!  (Really this is a good thing.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Closing tabs

Why it's a good thing our ancestors didn't floss their teeth.

Tim Parks's life in writing.

An amazing video of the butterfly stroke.

Britt Peterson on Leanne Shapton's swimming memoir.  Long excerpt at the Guardian if you want to sample it for yourself; I don't think I liked the book as much as Britt did, but it's certainly worthwhile (don't read it on Kindle as the pictures are much less evocative than they would be in the print edition!).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Magic circles

This amazing set of pictures by my colleague Taylor Carman notates in a very different idiom the same sort of place and feeling I wanted to capture in my novel.  (Which, by the way, I am still wrestling with; there's one little penultimate scene that isn't right, and a couple other tweaks, but I am going to have to wait and have another crack at it in the very early morning.  Tomorrow is the day I'm hoping to do a long endurance workout starting at 10am, so if I don't write first, it's hopeless: the pleasant post-exercise brain fog will neutralize intellectual activity later in the day.)

Closing tabs

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

An unusual literary mash-up.  (Courtesy of Brent.)

Jordan Ellenberg on graphs and networks.

End-of-week update

Have still been editing frenetically all week, but have just sent what I hope is near-final (it would be rash to say final) novel version to my editor.  I wrote an ending that I am really happy with, it happened yesterday, it felt amazing! 

Up since 6:30 for marathon last editing session and have had very little sleep this week, but need to refocus now and write one other thing I promised to get out today.  Possible/probable good news related to style book, but it will be a couple months before I know anything for certain, so I will wait to give details at a later stage.  I have been working too hard...

Read a stunningly good book over last couple days, Tana French's Broken Harbor.  I think it's her best yet.  (Sorry to see I don't have the others on my Kindle, as I am now extremely keen to reread them all - will have to stop by the library...)  I am probably on the record elsewhere on the topic of how much I dislike Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, but imagine all the genuinely chilling aspects of that haunted-house story (perhaps Kelly Link's amazing "Stone Animals" is a better comparison) in a realistically rendered psychological thriller about the fallout of the financial crisis in Ireland.  IT IS AMAZINGLY GOOD.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I have been working pretty much at capacity; I had to sort of just skip my birthday on Saturday, it would have been too disruptive to switch over to human contact mode!  Finished my last-hundred-pages-from-third-to-first-person rewrite by midday Monday, got a round of comments by the end of the day and sent off a next version a few hours ago.  Will have one more chunk of work on it again tomorrow.  I know the ending isn't quite right, I have a tack to pursue...

I'm finding True Believers slow going; it feels too long, and the voice is unpersuasive in certain respects.  Impatient to get to the big reveal, but not so much so that I don't keep on putting it aside in search of a more immersive read!  It is locally enjoyable but cumulatively puzzling.

Lydia Netzer's Shine Shine Shine is just a hair too whimsical to be perfectly suited to my tastes, but I thought it was excellent: it definitely lives up to the advance hype.  Cheryl Strayed's Wild is also very immersive, though it seems to me that it's a good book because she's an interesting person rather than because of anything about the writing as such.  (It caused me to think with nostalgia for two other memoirs of self-examination and pilgrimage I have read recently that are written by people who clearly think much more as I do about life, the universe and everything, namely Tim Parks's Teach Us to Sit Still and Gideon Lewis-Kraus's A Sense of Direction!)  Strayed's book has interesting things in common with Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water; I gather they are both in the same writing group, it would be an odd experience to be workshopping drafts with someone who had so much in common with oneself.  I am not sure it would be entirely enjoyable!  Other obvious comparables for Strayed would be Elizabeth Gilbert and Alice Sebold, whose memoir Lucky deserves the widest acclaim.

Then the other night when I truly was in the pit of absolute fatigue I downloaded and reread The Hobbit.  I have a stronger attachment to this book than to the Lord of the Rings trilogy as such; as a very small child, I had The Golden Treasury of Children's Literature, and I believe this was where I first encountered an excerpt from Tolkien's novel, though I don't have the volume to hand to check.  The narrative voice is perhaps less capably rendered than Lewis's in the Narnia books, but it is a delightful book regardless.

Tonight I am going to the theater with G. (we're seeing this).  We will undoubtedly have a good dinner afterwards, which will be a welcome reprieve from excessive computer time!  My back was doing quite a bit better, after swearing off yoga and boot camp, but I had a physical therapy appointment yesterday that has totally done it in.   That is counterintuitive...

Closing tabs:

Margaret Mahy has died.  (Read The Changeover if you don't know it already.)

Interview with a very young Neil Gaiman.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The literary treadmill

At the TLS, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has a great piece on Peter Clarke's new book about Winston Churchill's literary career (the tax details are especially fascinating!):
It was when installed in a government office that Churchill discovered the delights of dictation to a shorthand-typist, and thereafter all his work was dictated. This gave, as it happened, a kind of homogeneity to everything he produced “by tongue or pen”. His speeches were first dictated and then typed before being delivered in public, his books were dictated and set in galley proof to be endlessly amended at outlandish cost. And he also soon learned the value of enlisting the help of others: his first private secretary, at the Colonial Office, was (later Sir) Edward Marsh, who would follow Churchill from one ministry to another and then serve him with personal devotion, reading his proofs, ghostwriting his articles, and even compiling his tax returns.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Have just read, in one sitting, an advance copy of Benjamin Anastas's extremely unsettling memoir Too Good to Be True.  It is a book about a true unraveling and an only partial reknitting; the parts about debt are too disturbing for me to excerpt here as I have a Dickensian horror of financial insecurity!  But here is an also very chilling description that will strike fear into the hearts of many of you:
I had a routine all that fall that I stuck to in a dogged search for regularity: I woke up on the early side, somewhere in the sevens, made a pot of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal in the kitchen, then I brought my laptop out on the screened-in porch and "wrote" for the next two hours.  I have put "wrote" in quotation marks because I didn't actually manage to do much writing--instead, I rewrote everything I had started on the computer screen over and over until the spark of life had been extinguished and the paragraphs had a perfect, sculptural look.  No uneven line breaks; no stacks of "the" or "and"; no repeated words.  It is a kind of obsessive polishing made possible only by the computer, and it burns the hours just like real work does, but in fact it is the opposite: a fail-safe system for killing off writing with maximum effort.  Once I had toggled the piece I was working on to death, I would file it away in FALSE STARTS and open up a new file in Word to begin the process all over again.

Everything's coming up roses

Just a quick post to say that I started my first-person rewrite of BoMH part III on Monday night and I'm incredibly excited about it!  It's totally turned around how I feel about the book: there's always been a claustrophobic hothouse-type aspect to the story that I have disliked, and this opens things up in a funny and interesting way that I am very much enjoying.  Haven't been so interested and engaged by something I was writing since a day I stole in February to reimmerse myself in a piece I wrote a while ago about the 'minute particular' in life-writing and the novel.  (It's one of my projects for August to get that out as a real article.)

I was unusually frenzied in my work life from December through May, and then in the aftermath of that I was uncharacteristically grumpy from May pretty much right up until now.  I'm hoping this marks a real turning point. 

I had one of those days yesterday where everything just seems to go right (clearly this follows in the psychological aftermath of  near-magical Monday-night and Tuesday-morning writing sessions).  I walked down a block I don't usually traverse and found myself in the amazing surrounds of the flower market, which is really like something out of a fairy story; I had an amazing lunch (best conversation ever!) with my editor at the hyper-palindromic Ilili (the space is beautiful and the food is very good; I recommend the prix fixe lunch - we shared grape leaves and hummus for appetizers, then I had the grilled chicken salad and the "Ilili candy bar" for dessert); I generally avoid crosstown buses, as they are often slower than walking, but heat changes the equation and the M23 - I had known this but somehow forgot it - actually goes all the way to Chelsea Piers; I had an enjoyable run workout on the indoor track at Chelsea Piers followed by a dip in the pool; then I took the M23 again to the first meeting of a mindfulness-based stress reduction class I found online and that seems exactly what I've been looking for.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nine red herrings

Via Alice, two good Encyclopedia Brown links: Tom Scocca on nine red herrings; Kathryn Schulz on the desire to be Encyclopedia Brown.


Following "Encyclopedia" Brown-related thoughts, I am reminded that as a young person I thought this book a pinnacle of human literary ingenuity - I am surprised to see the Amazon reviews are all so negative!...

Closing tabs

Amazing interview with Ed Park, who is basically currently serving as the angel on my shoulder coaxing me not to stop until the novel is as good as it possibly can be!  I have a slightly insane project now for the next week, which is to rewrite the final hundred pages in the first person and see if that solves various lingering difficulties...

In loosely related news, the perpetrator of the "'Encyclopedia' Brown" books has died.  (I do not endorse the punctuation of the series title in that obituary.)

Why Pauls Toutonghi uses a wireless keyboard when he writes.  (This piece and the interview with Ed both contain a good amount of useful advice for writers.)

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges: on the plane home, James Meek's forthcoming The Heart Broke In, which I enjoyed a good deal but which made me wonder how any author can stand to write in this present day and age a novel so thoroughly indebted to George Eliot in its basic approach (same slight problem with Franzen and Eugenides!); Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night, which I am sorry to say I found much weaker and less enjoyable to read than the first installment (that first one fell on the right side of silly, but this one does not); Eva Ibbotson's One Dog and His Boy, which I loved though it is designed for younger readers than myself and which I will send on to my young nephew in Austin (it is sorrow-inducing to think of Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones both being dead).  Halfway through Kurt Anderson's True Believers, which I like quite a bit (teen spies!) although it strikes me as a fact-checker's nightmare - and I am still not altogether convinced that the narrator is actually female....

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The ecstatic lash

I must confess that I was a little nervous about reading Maureen McLane's My Poets: it is roughly commensurate with my style book in many respects, and I was afraid I was going to find myself so thoroughly preempted and outdone that I might lose heart for my own project!  However I am very happy to report that it is a lovely and intriguing book, beautifully well written and quite unlike anything I ever would or could write myself. 

I found the chapters on Marianne Moore, Louise Gluck and Shelley particularly satisfying (and slightly lost patience with the one on H.D., though it is full of interesting observations), but there is much here that will interest anyone who's keen to make and chronicle an inner life of words.  Am shortly going to Amazon some volumes of verse that I now have a yen to steep myself in (I especially recommend the chapter "My Impasses: On Not Being Able to Read Poetry," which made me realize I have never owned a volume of Frank O'Hara!)....

In other news, two good swim bits: portrait of the swimmer as a young writer; Britain's paralympic swimmers (FT site registration required).

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges: Lavie Tidhar's steampunk The Bookman, which aficionados of nineteenth-century British literature will especially enjoy; Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan's delightful Team Human; Rae Carson's appealing The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

(The timing of publication of Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night is opportune with a view to fast passage of my airport and flight time later on this afternoon and this evening!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cryptic zoology

Two markedly different book-naming protocols.

Quick for faces

It is a sorrow to finish a long and very good novel!  Middlemarch, book 8, chapter 81:
Rosamond's eye was quick for faces; she saw that Mrs Casaubon's face looked pale and changed since yesterday, yet gentle, and like the firm softness of her hand.  But Dorothea had counted a little too much on her own strength: the clearness and intensity of her mental action this morning were the continuance of a nervous exaltation which made her frame as dangerously responsive as a bit of finest Venetian crystal; and in looking at Rosamond, she suddenly found her heart swelling, and was unable to speak - all her effort was required to keep back tears.  She succeeded in that, and the emotion only passed over her face like the spirit of a sob; but it added to Rosamond's impression that Mrs Casaubon's state of mind must be something quite different from what she had imagined.

The mass of mystery

Middlemarch, book 7, chapter 71:
But this vague conviction of indeterminable guilt, which was enough to keep up much head-shaking and biting innuendo even among substantial professional seniors, had for the general mind all the superior power of mystery over fact.  Everybody liked better to conjecture how the thing was, than simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incompatible. Even the more definite scandal concerning Bulstrode's earlier life was, for some minds, melted into the mass of mystery, as so much lively metal to be poured out in dialogue, and to take such fantastic shapes as heaven pleased.

Fine comparisons

Middlemarch, book 6, chapter 59:
News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.  This fine comparison has reference to Fred Vincy, who on that evening at Lowick Parsonage heard a lively discussion among the ladies on the news which their old servant had got from Tantripp concerning Mr Casaubon's strange mention of Mr Ladislaw in a codicil to his will made not long before his death.

Monday, July 09, 2012


Middlemarch, book 5, chapter 48:
When Dorothea was out on the gravel walks, she lingered among the nearer clumps of trees, hesitating, as she had done once before, though from a different cause.  Then she had feared lest her effort at fellowship should be unwelcome; now she dreaded going to the spot where she foresaw that she must bind herself to a fellowship from which she shrank.  Neither law nor the world's opinion compelled her to this - only her husband's nature and her own compassion, only the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage.  She saw clearly enough the whole situation, yet she was fettered: she could not smite the stricken soul that entreated hers.

A folded paper

Middlemarch, book 4:
Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?  If it happens to have been cut in stone, though it lie face downmost for ages on a forsaken beach, or 'rest quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests', it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago: - this world being apparently a huge whispering-gallery.  Such conditions are often minutely represented in our petty lifetime.  As the stone which has been kicked by generations of clowns may come by curious little links of effect under the eyes of a scholar, through whose labours it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions, so a bit of ink and paper which has long been an innocent wrapping or stop-gap may at last be laid open under the one pair of eyes which have knowledge enough to turn it into the opening of a catastrophe.  To Uriel watching the progress of planetary history from the Sun, the one result would be just as much of a coincidence as the other.

Against public crying

Jenny Diski has a good rant that all Olympic competitors should read!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Elegant accomplishments

Middlemarch, book 3, chapter 27:
But Rosamond was not one of those helpless girls who betray themselves unawares, and whose behaviour is awkwardly driven by their impulses, instead of being steered by wary grace and propriety.  Do you imagine that her rapid forecast and rumination concerning house-furniture and society were ever discernible in her conversation, even with her mamma?  On the contrary, she would have expressed the prettiest surprise and disapprobation if she had heard that another young lady had been detected in that immodest prematureness - indeed, would probably have disbelieved in its possibility.  For Rosamond never showed any unbecoming knowledge, and was always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date.  Think no unfair evil of her, pray: she had no wicked plots, nothing sordid or mercenary; in fact, she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide.  She was not in the habit of devising falsehoods, and if her statements were no direct clue to fact, why, they were not intended in that light - they were among her elegant accomplishments, intended to please.

Saturday, July 07, 2012


Read two good cycling-related books today, quite different from one another.  The first is very strongly recommended - David Millar's Racing through the Dark.  In the first third or so I felt I saw a few suspect rhetorical gestures, but I had lost all doubt by the time I reached the main flow of the narrative - it is a mesmerizing book about the culture of professional cycling, the factors that tipped a young rider to dope or not to dope and the ideas about our own identities and selves (often misguided ideas) that are likely to affect decision-making in one's early twenties.  Anyway, a great read, and then I read Chris Cleave's Olympic cycling potpoiler Gold.  My English grandmother would have liked this book - it's second-rate, but in an agreeable way (it made me miss the best of Jilly Cooper), and it does something earnest in its attempt to make an argument about the kinds of life we choose to lead.

Miscellaneous other light reading: Karin Slaughter's Criminal: A Novel, which I thought was excellent (and admirably ambitious); a European crime novel called Lorraine Connection was illuminating but did not satisfy all my narrative desires fully; two serial-killer books by an author who displays the most frustrating combination of good-voice-and-character with absurd-notions-about-how-psychopaths-and-bureaux-of-investigation work.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Fine ends

I am fascinated by Eliot, but I do not love her novels like I do those of Austen and Dickens, and it is partly because her sentence-writing seems to me significantly inferior to theirs, even aside from the lovability factor.  Here's my pick from book 2 (chapter 20) - the moral insight is superior to the wording (Adam Bede is my favorite novel of hers, though I think I will reread Deronda this summer also):
The excessive feeling manifested would alone have been highly disturbing to Mr Casaubon, but there were other reasons why Dorothea's words were among the most cutting and irritating to him that she could have been impelled to use.  She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity.  She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.  In Mr Casaubon's ear, Dorothea's voice gave loud emphatic iteration to those muffled suggestions of consciousness which it was possible to explain as mere fancy, the illusion of exaggerated sensitiveness: always when such suggestions are unmistakably repeated from without, they are resisted as cruel and unjust.  We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions -- how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness!  And this cruel outward accuser was there in the shape of a wife -- nay, of a young bride, who, instead of observing his abundant pen scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference.  Here, towards this particular point of the compass, Mr Casaubon had a sensitiveness to match Dorothea's, and an equal quickness to imagine more than the fact.  He had formerly observed with approbation her capacity for worshipping the right object; he now foresaw with sudden terror that this capacity might be replaced by presumption, this worship by the most exasperating of all criticism, -- that which sees vaguely a great many fine ends and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them.
 I might have to put this in the style book - something in these sentences makes me cringe, and yet the observation is extremely striking...


Middlemarch, book 1, chapter 6:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs Cadwallader's matchmaking will show a play of minute causes producing what may be called thought and speech vortices to bring her the sort of food she needed.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Swim lit

From Leanne Shapton's Swimming Studies:
When I read in an obituary that Cy Twombly's father was a prominent swim coach, I start to see Twombly's paintings as thrashing laps, as polygraphs, as pulse rate.  I wonder if I'm drawn to his work because he might have had an athletic habit he metabolized then rejected.
Devoured Shapton's book this morning in a single sitting (well, actually two sittings, with a short walk from one location to another); it is odd, off-kilter, but in a way that's suited to its subject, loss and the relationship between past and present selves.  NB I made a conscious decision to buy it on Kindle, as I wanted to read it as soon as I could lay my hands on it and I knew I'd be out of the country on pub date, but this is one to buy in hard copy, as the watercolors (and appealing photographs of bathing suit collection!) do not show up well on the small gray screen of the Kindle.  I had a pang that I won't be able to put this book into Wendy's hands, as the Nepean Sportsplex makes several appearances, including in a watercolor!

I am somewhat off-kilter myself today, as the date for receiving editorial comments has been pushed back, and with it my final deadline; I was really hoping to be well and truly done with the wretched creature by the end of the day tomorrow, but it is no longer an option!  Unsettled without proper work tasks.  Haven't brought real other work with me, barring one or two minor things (i.e. reader's report on a journal article or two), as I am still waiting for second report on the style book and the other article I'm working on notionally this month needs a lot of library books that I didn't want to cart down here on spec.  Not really in situation for 'vacation,' though, either, with this hanging over me, and curiously slow internet connection today is further contributing to the feeling that I am on the verge of exploding.  Exercise and projected Middlemarch reread will have to tide me over....

Read the other night: Sheila Heti's intriguing and often comically Socratic How Should a Person Be?; it is a sort of companion piece to The Chairs Are Where The People Go, which I think I found more intensely engaging.  Both volumes are recommended on the grounds that they are not really like anything else and they will stick with you.

Bonus links: Roland Barthes on Cy Twombly; my top five book recommendations for the swim-obsessed.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Red light, green light

Just read what is probably my favorite novel of the year.  It is incredibly good, and not yet published in the US unfortunately (it is going to be hard for me to put it evangelically into people's hands): Alan Warner's The Deadman's Pedal.  Aside from the fact that it includes all sorts of elements I particularly like, the prose is unbeatably perfect, and with a very different set of political and cultural alignments than Alan Hollinghurst, whose books I love but who is coming at things from a point of view that is frequently off-putting to me. 

In a curious way I was much reminded of Alan Garner, whose name is only different by one letter, the Garner of Red Shift rather than Weirdstone.  Geology, place, history, above all language and the particular vocabularies associated with various forms of expert knowledge; I can't think of another book whose idiom quite so precisely and magically as this one captures a whole world with all of its dimensions.  Stuart Kelly's review at the Guardian fortunately saves me the trouble of trying to write a better description here!

Not sure if the feel will translate in a short excerpt, but here are a few sentences I especially liked (they are unusual in the context of the novel as a whole, there is almost an aphoristic quality to the final sentence - not Warner's usual habit - which is why it stood out, though it is quite distinct from the Flaubert-Hollinghurst-St. Aubyn lineage of satirical summing-up):
The bike struggled with their combined weights on the hairpin corner at the top of the King's Way and he had to turn the handlebar gear down to second with the bright headlight of an impatient car behind them before he indicated left and pulled in.
This lay-by, so insignificant in their previous lives, had now become their place of meeting.  The need was less furtive and romantic than that the engine on the new bike struggled to take them both up the longer and steeper hill within the Brae Estate -- as Simon had discovered on his birthday.  Almost all Simon's comments on any future Nikki and he would share involved reference to a more powerful, anticipated motorbike.

Piece of ----

"Apes with Apps": an amazing story by Ken Schweller at the IEEE site.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Locked-in syndrome

A very different approach to the production of quota.

Dream novels

I spent the morning gnashing my teeth over the fifty-millionth edit of the first two-thirds of my novel (I'm waiting on editorial comments for a final iteration due Friday, but wanted to do what I could on my own first): it was clear I was only doing minor verbal tweaking, and that really it's done, but I couldn't not go through it again before getting to the last third. 

(It was not time wasted, as I did notice a couple things more clearly than I have before that may help me write a new final page to supersede the current one, which still isn't working.) 

This afternoon's work session was more satisfactory: I did a lot of new writing last week in that final third, and I felt as I went through both that the new stuff had largely fixed remaining narrative problems and that my interest was more thoroughly and therefore much more happily engaged here by the need to do substantive clean-up and streamlining. 

All in all, a useful day's work that also primed me to be perfectly appreciative of the last few paragraphs of Michael Chabon's NYRB on what reading Finnegan's Wake over the course of a year taught him about novel-writing.  Here is a bit I especially liked:
The Wake’s failure to render up a true account of the experience of dreaming, of the unconscious passage of a human consciousness across an ordinary night, was only a figure for a greater failure, a more fundamental impossibility. All the while that I was reading Joyce’s night book, I was busy at my day job: my Wake year was also my last spent at work on a novel whose composition had occupied me, on and off, from conception to completion, since the late 1990s.
As I groped my way toward the point at which Joyce’s hoop snake sinks its fangs into its own tail, the book that I was writing came ever nearer to its final state, and inevitably, habitually, as I came down the home stretch I began to look back, to compare the book at hand, four-hundred-plus pages of English prose sentences, in Times 12, double-spaced, to the book as I had first glimpsed it: that lovely apparition, hovering and beautiful as a vision of the New Jerusalem, wordless, perfect. Set alongside my original vision—that dream novel—the book I’d managed to carry across the span of years and drafts was at best, as always, a mere approximation, an unruly neighborhood into which had crowded the ganse mishpoche of nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives. The idea for a book, the beckoning fair prospect of it, is the dream; the writing of it is the breakfast-table recitation, groping, approximation, and ultimately, always, a failure. It was not like that at all.