Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shauna's Playlist

Hey, look: it's W6 chum Shauna Seliy, posting over on Largehearted Boy. We posted about Shauna last month when her terrific book When We Get There came out, and now she's offering up a short essay about the music she listened to while writing the book, complete with playlist. A sample:

In movies, there’s often a single defining moment when a character seems to be asked, “Are you going to give up?” Maybe in a hard driving rain on an obstacle course, late at night, and the character lets loose a kind of primal shout at the dark sky. No! we understand, no he won’t give up! If the thing you are trying to do is write a book, and if you’re accompanied by the kind of bloodthirsty self-doubt that beset me throughout that process, the question presents itself more on the order of every few minutes. And you are more likely sitting in a crowded coffee shop wondering if your computer will get stolen while you’re in the bathroom. Or thinking, taking a look at a nearby homeless man writing messages on napkins, that the only thing that separates you from him is your laptop. Or maybe the question will present itself to you in the form of roiling night sweats caused by the deep tissue knowledge of your credit card balance that your body seems to have acquired. Or it’s possible that you read a little Alice Munro the night before, maybe a few lines of Chekhov. In the clear light of day, you know you’re screwed. They’ve done it all, and done it better than you ever could even if you were to stay at the coffee shop 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

Read the post, listen to the music, buy the novel.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Didn't I Read That?

Reshelving books at our new place today, I marveled at how many books I bought and never got around to reading. Some of them, like Mann's Doktor Faustus, I started but got hung up on somehow. (That one was a post-Magic-Mountain mellow that got harshed. I will have to try it again, though.) Some are recommendations from friends, which I was assured I would like but then took a gander at, post-purchase, and kinda went meh. (Example: Catherine Scheine's To The Birdhouse.) Most, however, are books by authors I was reading through on a tear, and so I bought everything by them I possibly could, and then got sick of them from overreading. There is a lot of unread Stanley Elkin because of this phenomenon.

I got wondering about literary taste in general--how unpredictable it is, even your own. Not just taste, but the impulse to read. There are times when I couldn't imagine not wanting to read, say, a crime novel by a favorite writer of mine--and then, days later, with one in my hands, feeling disappointed, not just by the book itself (in fact, perhaps not at all by the book itself) but by the experience.

I guess what I'm saying is that the experience of thinking about, buying, owning, and holding a book has a lot to do with whether I actually read it or not. A good book will always sink in, even if the start is rocky, if I push myself. But I've gotten all the way through bad books because I was having a good time reading them, and I've thrown aside excellent ones because I wasn't. Faustus is a good example there. The trappings of reading will forever cause Jim Crace's Quarantine to, in my mind, be associated with the inside of an airplane; the heist novels of Richard Stark will always remind me of my grandmother's apartment in Florida; and whatever I read tonight might well always put me in the mind of wondering why I never read all those books I bought.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New Office

I never know whether a writing space will work out or not -- it's a hoodoo thing, or Feng Shui, or something. One summer I built myself a nice cozy nook in the corner of my bedroom, and then spent four months banging my head on the cute little desk. When I moved my operations downstairs, into the living room I shared with two other people, both of whom were having life crises, suddenly I could work.

One winter in Montana, I borrowed a studio in an old grain elevator. It was the coolest office ever: you could see the place on the wall where years of falling grain wore away the wood. However, it was cold as Mars, and I didn't write a single word there, but just stared out the window at the trains backing up and moving their cars around.

Another bad place was my parents' basement one winter term. I still remember the smell: failure, desperation, and cat pee.

The best office I ever had was one I rented from an artist friend who owned an old Victorian railroad hotel. Mostly she rented the rooms to artists, but one of the rooms was too small for art, so I got it. The window looked out over a parking lot where I could watch the guys who worked at the investment firm I used to temp at as they went out the door and into the bar next door. The smell of frying chicken wafted in. God, it was so great: the room was small but full of light, and not once did anyone ever knock on the door. I wrote tons there.

The office I moved out of today was in an old clock factory converted to shops and offices. My room was above a musical instrument repair shop and a pet grooming studio. I enjoyed listening to the sounds of french horns and dogs barking, and it was a good place -- I got more done there than I had in recent years. But we're moving out of town and the commute would be too much, plus, there's a nice little room I can have for my own in the new house. We'll see how it goes.

I suspect there's not much behind my superstitious reverence for certain Good Writing Places -- possibly they work only because I need them to work. I also got a lot done in my college snack bar, because that's where they sold the giant cookies I lived on in those days.

Monday, May 28, 2007

War Books

Since today is Memorial Day, and since thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have given their lives over the past four years so that an alcoholic, semi-literate rich prick can impress his father, it seems a good time to bring up the topic of war novels. It occurs to me that, in effect, most good war novels embrace the theme of the utter shittiness of war. Am I wrong about this? Some may glorify it a bit along the way, but even The Iliad ends with a horrifying desecration.

So The Iliad, that's sure one. And now the ones that leap immediately to mind: The Things They Carried, Regeneration, Slaughterhouse-Five, When We Were Orphans, War and Peace (duh), The Magic Mountain. Yes, I do consider that a war novel--the ending, when Hans Castorp goes tramping off to his inevitable death, is flawless, and casts its eerie light back over the rest, revealing its bloody secrets.

But my favorite war novelist has to be Virginia Woolf, who, though she didn't write much explicitly about war, wrote a hell of a lot that was implicitly about it. Jacob's Room, To The Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves...that whole glorious run consisted entirely of World War I novels--and Woolf killed herself at least in part so that she wouldn't have to see her city destroyed by the next one.

Of course London survived, but there were more wars waiting to be fought, more lives to be idiotically wasted, more violent urges to be acted out, for no good reason. Indeed, the war that drove Woolf to her death, the only "sensible" America's fought since the Revolution, seems to have poisoned us; so glorious was our victory, and so correct our decision to fight, that we can't help believing only violence will get back that delicious sensation of moral authority.

Poor, stupid us. We've never been farther from moral authority. So today, after your burgers and beer, take an hour or so to kick back with a good book about the baddest desire. And remember that, if novelists ran the world, we'd never manage to get any decent killing done.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Overheard at the Food Co-op

Young nouvelle-hippie woman: I've been trying to teach my son not to say "I want," but to say "I choose" instead. So if he wants a cookie, or whatever, he has to say "I choose a cookie." I just think, you know, he shouldn't want things.

There is something very deeply strange about this. It reminds me a bit of the experiments my own kids have proposed in case we ever get a new baby: "Let's have a baby and only talk to him backwards" or "Let's have a baby and tell him lots of lies." I'm pretty sure that calling desire "choosing" won't change the fact that it's still desire, but what will it do? Will it teach the child that words have a strange and dangerous power? (Actually, they do.) Will it teach him that there is shame in something as simple as wanting a cookie, or just that his mother is a controlling freak?

As I write this I remember that when my kids used to say, "I want something to eat," I would say, "Really!" or "Do you, now?" and wait for them to say, "May I have something to eat?" or "Please get me a snack," before I'd take out the cookies. I thought I was teaching them to be polite, but maybe that's not all that different from what the food-coop woman was doing: teaching that direct language is offensive to some ears. Hmm, food (organic, cooperatively owned) for thought.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Are Lit Blogs Your Bag?*

They should be. Look at what I found in my mailbox today (I ordered it maybe two days ago):

Syntax of Things is responsible. Yes, those are maggots. On the reverse you will find that sad/funny Richard Ford quote JRL mentioned a few days ago. You too can get a magg-bagg, or a tee-shirt, here. I don't, by the way, have any idea who the Syntax of Things guy is -- no kickbacks! -- but I do like his blog. And his bag.

* A couple of years ago, Megan Daum wrote an essay called, I think, "Music Is My Bag." It was about how she gave up music as a teenager because of music-geek culture -- because of the "music is my bag" totes and piano key scarves and so on. I don't remember much about the essay, but, in the weird way certain phrases can stick with you for no good reason, I've thought of "________ is my bag" about once every two weeks since I first read it. It's really annoying, actually. Maybe using it as the title of the blog post will finally purge it from my mind.

Friday, May 25, 2007

New Haruki Murakami

Rhian tells me that she read a few middling reviews of the new Haruki Murakami, but I just finished reading it and I think it's terrific. It's my favorite thing of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in fact. Like that book, it's weird and full of great coincidences, intersections, and unexplained events; unlike that book, it's very simple: four people spend a strange night in and out of one another's company. There's an unplugged television displaying a mysterious room, a girl who has been asleep for months, an amateur jazz trombonist, a threatening phone call, a businessman who attacked a prostitute, and a room from which there is no exit. The narrative voice is wry and detatched, referring constantly to the point of view; yet the book is almost entirely dialogue. It's enigmatic, and you are never really informed of what the whole thing was about.

How does he get away with that? A student of mine suggests that it's his status as an "international" writer; he straddles two cultures without being really of either, and so can be himself alone, for better or worse. On one hand, you could say that this allows his mistakes to appear, to either Japanese or English readers, as merely a quirky product of the other culture; but on the other hand you could say that it frees Murakami to take risks.

Or maybe he's just having fun. I would be happy to watch him do this all day long. In perhaps my favorite scene, the trombonist finds a cell phone in a refrigerated case at a convenience store; it belongs to the prostitute who was earlier beaten by the businessman, who left it there. The phone rings; it's a gangster vowing violent reciprocation against the guy he thinks has the phone. The trombonist listens, and the phone feels "uncomfortably cold" in his hand. Not sure why I like that so much--it's the coldness of the refrigerated phone that makes it good. Elsewhere, the self-aware narrator is describing the sounds of the waking city, and says that if we strain our ears, "We might even be able to hear bread toasting."

Ultimately, though, what I like about this book is that it doesn't all fit together. I like books that don't fit together. That's one of things that bugs me about, say, Ian MacEwan--every novel ends in such a fitting way, loose ends tied up, metaphors locked tight (and in the most egregiously awful ending ever, that of Enduring Love, the charaters diagnosed, in an actual medical paper). This book is quiet and relaxed and in no hurry to go anywhere.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Now, Go Trash a Book; Or, Why Negative Reviews are Good

There are lots of different reasons for writing a positive review of a particular book. Maybe you like the book and want other people to read it. Or maybe you don't like it that much but it was okay, and you like the author. Or you owe the author because the author invited you to his wife's gallery opening and you drank an awful lot of the free wine, or you like the author's agent and you want the author's agent to like you, or maybe you work for a bookstore and your job is to sell books, dammit, not put people off books.

But why write a negative review? You might have a Consumer Reports kind of conscience, and don't want people to be disappointed or waste their money or be somehow permanently damaged by a book. That would be very thoughtful of you. But if you do trash a book, it means you're doing something that might thwart a writer's career -- and if you're a writer yourself (as many if not most reviewers these days are) then you're sabotaging a colleague... or a competitor. You will likely be suspected of jealousy, or worse.

(And it's true that some negative reviews come across as positively gleeful. A rare few are so fantastically venomous they make me wish I knew the stories behind them, even compel me to invent some. Did Writer A kiss Reviewer B's boyfriend behind the bowling alley at Yaddo? (Does Yaddo have a bowling alley? It ought.) Was Reviewer C in the constant shadow of Writer D at Prestigious Workshop E?)

Most of the time, negative reviewing is a quagmire for the critic as well as for the writer (though usually a delight for the reader). No one will call you up to thank you for that awesome skewering in last week's Binghamton Gazette. Writers have photographic memories for these things, and who knows if one day you'll find yourself abandoned at a cocktail party with the victim of your hatchet job, or -- and this is the real, secret fear behind all those middling, non-committal reviews -- maybe one day your career will be in that writer's hands, and that writer won't be in the mood to grant you mercy.

So for all these reasons I periodically decide that I'm against negative reviewing. I've been on the receiving end, too, and it hoits: you think, Other people liked my book, lady, so who makes you the big fat boss? Struggling writers need our help, right? Right?

I'm not so sure. A jealous, spiteful, insincere rant is as useless as a log-rolling softball blurb, albeit much more fun to read. But a good negative review kicks all of us in the pants. A good bad review is an attempt to keep criticism from turning into marketing, in spite of great forces pushing it in that direction. Book reviewing should be a conversation, not a sales pitch.

Those reviewers who studiously ignore the books they don't like aren't doing anyone any favors; they're pretending the world of literature is a big garden full of Easter eggs instead of the mess of complicated, controversial, and engaging arguments that it really is. Criticizing a fellow writer in a public venue is not easy and comes with actual risks -- suddenly, some people who didn't even know you before now hate your guts. But somebody's got to do it. So, on with the chainmail!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My End Table

I glanced over at my table at the end of the sofa last night and thought, that's a nice little pile of books there. I have plenty of good stuff to last me over the next few weeks. On top there, open and facedown, is the new Haruki Murakami--I like it, and I'll post about it in detail in a couple of days. Next is the latest from Kjell Eriksson, the Swedish crime writer I posted about a few weeks back--I'm looking forward to that one in a big way.

Under that is Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, which I got started on, then dropped for some reason. Gotta get back to that soon, it was good. I liked Quarantine. Next, two NYRB Classics, crime stories, one by Georges Simenon, the other by Kenneth Fearing. I don't even know what they're about--I like that series, and I liked the covers.

Below them lies Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits, a memoir about her friendship with the poet James Merrill. Alison's a friend of ours here in Ithaca--she gave me a copy when I asked her something about Merrill at a dinner. Her husband Edward Hower also gave me one of his books, a collection of fables, which is underneath.

Then there's the first Kjell Eriksson, and then a couple of web design books I bought to try and revamp my website. Mission accomplished, but I must say, they are not engaging reading. Finally, we have a home repair manual, which I can tell you is seriously coming in handy this week, as we fix up this old house we bought; and finally there is a book of sheds, complete with plans. Our old house has a writer's studio shed out back, and I miss it--so I will be building a new one, eventually.

What's on your end table? Or, better yet, in your bathroom?

EDIT: Whoops, Rhian just informed me, I forgot two of the books. There's a Hard Case Crime paperback by David Goodis--I haven't read it yet, but the series is beginning to bug me a little. There's been a run of lousy stuff. The other one is Ellen Baker's Keeping The House--Ellen is a former student of mine, and this is her first novel. I've been meaning to plump for it here, so there it is: go read it!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Straight to Paperback

The least pleasant part of working in a bookstore is the moment when I have to tell the customer what the total is. Unless he or she is buying a kid's book or a magazine or Dover edition, the total is always a lot. And in our New York county, sales tax is 8%. Yow! People almost always recoil or cringe or turn the book over to check the price or ask to see the receipt. Twenty-seven dollars is too much to pay for a book. It just is!

So, okay, it's great that Lydia Davis's new book is going straight to paper. I will save some bucks and won't feel bad when I convince someone to buy it. And maybe she wanted it that way; maybe she requested it. But if not, I can't help but feel it's a bit of a smack in the face. Davis is serious and good, truly an original, ambitious voice, and this book which is marketed as a piece of fluff, as being "like a comfy chair in a sunny window: soft, warm..." FSG gives the hard covers? A book about dogs in New York deserves the hardwearing format, and Lydia Davis does not?

It's a little hard to take.

Monday, May 21, 2007

This Week In Stinginess

A few bloggers got themselves worked into a fairly justifiable tizzy not long ago, when this article about book reviewing ran in the New York Times. The article is about the peril that literary culture finds itself in, but there's quite a humdinger of a quote right at the end, that has been much reprinted over the past couple of weeks:

Of course literary bloggers argue that they do provide a multiplicity of voices. But some authors distrust those voices. Mr. [Richard] Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

It is unfortunate to see a writer as good as Richard Ford betray his insecurity in the face of the teeming literate masses. Of course he likes the literary establishment; the literary establishment likes him. But does he really think that decent criticism still needs to be vetted by the big boys to mean anything? Has Richard Ford actually read the newspaper book reviews lately? They are crap--and nobody is to blame but the establishment itself. The Times Book Review has long indulged in the bizarre tactic of only assigning intelligent reviewers to challenging books, then assigning swooning newbies to quasi-populist hackery; the result is that shitty books get great reviews and interesting books get nitpicked.

The fact is, the literary establishment has discovered it likes making money. Ford is one of the few writers who makes it money because he can actually write. But I can promise that, if his novels quit selling, his institutionally-backed admirers would quit admiring him right quick, and those of us who write online about literature for fun will keep on feeling the same way about him we used to, and who would he be grateful to then?

Anyway, the Ford flap isn't so terribly irksome, not in the face of the latest odious screed from Mark Helprin, which appeared in the Times over the weekend. It seems he would like copyrights to extend forever, thus allowing Disney to get rich off its stale creations for eternity. Here, though, is the money quote:

Were I tomorrow to write the great American novel (again?), 70 years after my death the rights to it, though taxed at inheritance, would be stripped from my children and grandchildren.

Can you see the mistake? No, no, not the parenthetical "again?", which is almost too pathetic to mention. The mistake is that the rights to his imaginary masterpiece would not be "stripped" from his heirs--in fact, his heirs would keep all their rights. They would just have to share them with everybody else.

Copyright law is odd in that it codifies the egalitarian idea that ideas themselves cannot be owned, at least not forever. An idea changes the moment it enters somebody's head. You may publish the book you wrote, but the book your readers read is never the same one; their interpretation of your prose is unique to them, the characters altered, the themes personalized. And when they go to write their own books, your book will inform their style, their approach, their execution. Students all over America are right now sketching copies of your painting out of Artforum. Amateur actors are mangling your play. The ambulating whistler is adding trills and arpeggios to your hit single.

Writers ought to be rewarded for their work, even Mark Helperin. But after a while, they have to let go, to let the world have what they wrote. Helprin's heirs could publish their own "definitive" editions of his books after he's gone, if they wanted; and more readers than not, if Helprin actually has readers after his death, would choose them over the other editions published under the public domain. The Helprin Touch can still feel special, even once his personal claim to the material has weakened. It's just that his heirs would have to actually come up with a worthwhile edition to make money. In other words they would have to, you know, earn it.

The alternative is a world in which ideas will forever belong to people like the people who now own Happy Birthday To You, a song the Hill Sisters simply ripped off in 1893, by changing a single note of an already popular tune. For this little appropriation, Warner Chappell owns your aging ass until 2030. Sorry, grandad!

As for Helprin, I suspect his bloated tales of triumphalist self-actualization will be about as popular after he's gone as the neocon horseshit he's been ghostwriting for the past decade or two. But what do I know, I'm just a guy writing on the internet.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Teaching Reading Without Fiction

Ann Althouse, a legal blogger who can be found here, caused a furor by suggesting that teachers should use non-fiction instead of fiction to teach reading and thereby kill multiple birds with one stone (learn science and history facts, say, while practicing reading), and let kids explore storybooks outside of school.

Because I've made fiction my life's project, my first reaction was a bit of knee-jerk outrage -- but then I realized I don't completely disagree with her. Fiction doesn't appeal to every kid, and drawing practice materials from a variety of sources is a fine idea. Rich vocabulary and sentence structure can be found in all kinds of books, and even on the internets. And I don't remember encountering a decent piece of fiction in an English class until at least 8th grade. I wouldn't have minded missing all five volumes of that execrable "Adventures in Reading" textbook.

But I do object to leaving fiction out of reading lessons entirely, and for very specific reasons. Some kids, if not introduced to written narrative and storytelling early in their education, may never acquire a taste for it, and might be denied a huge source of cheap pleasure for the rest of their lives. Reading fiction when you're young teaches you to read it when you're an adult. I was lucky enough to have library-loving parents and shelves of Ray Bradbury at my disposal, but if I hadn't, would high school have been too late to uncover a love of reading? I think it might. I wouldn't be surprised if lots of kids I went to elementary school with thought literature began and ended with "Adventures in Reading" -- and who could blame them? After years reading no fiction except for that, The Scarlet Letter would seem even more impenetrable than it was for those of us who liked reading. (I had to open my window to the January night and stick my feet out of it in order to stay awake by the end.)

(Could the latest trouble the publishing industry is in have anything to do with the fact that the current crop of potential book-buyers were taught to read with truly horrible textbooks? There's hope for the future, then, once the whole-language kids move on from Harry Potter and start buying books on their own.)

And fiction teaches some excellent, if subtle, lessons. There's the basic one: Other people have some of the same thoughts and feelings as you do, and its relative: Other people have lives that are incredibly different from yours. Ann Althouse would no doubt think these pretty weak, namby-pamby lessons (one of her objections to reading fiction is that "it's not tied to economic success in life" -- can't argue with that!) but if our culture is lacking in one thing, I'd say it's empathy. I could be wrong, but I can't help but think that if GWB were a big reader of fiction, he might have a few qualms about such things as Shock and Awe. But that's another post.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Makes A Good Story Collection?

Story collections are funny things. Unlike novels, they don't really benefit from any established structural or thematic models on which the writer can rely. They are generally whatever short stories the writer has written since the last collection. Sometimes this makes for a lovely, unified whole, as in the case of some Alice Munro collections (they're all terrific, IMHO, but a few seem more of a piece than others), or perhaps Salinger's Nine Stories, which I still love, perhaps for sentimental reasons.

Some collections are really disguised novels, like Munro's Lives of Girls and Women--which come to think of it used to be officially designated a collection, and is now designated a novel. Her collection The Beggar Maid is just as unified, though, with a recurring character, and that one's still called a collection. Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is another collection with a recurring character, known only as "Fuckhead." I love that one--it still seems fresh and new to me, after fifteen years.

Anyway, I'm trying to put one together--or rather, I've been putting one together stealthily for ages. Since my novel-in-progress needs a break before I launch into the third draft (Rhian and our neighbor Bob had lots of suggestions), it seems like a good time to take the endeavor more seriously, and see if my agent can drum up come interest in these stories. I like the bunch, and think it reads pretty well, but what do I know? It's what I spent the last five years thinking about, in easily digestible chunks. It's kind of interesting to see what ideas keep occurring to me, after I've forgotten I already wrote about them--shlumpy men married to crazy women who are smarter than they are, is one of them; another is secret rooms. There are a lot of long drives to distant places undertaken on a whim, and the supernatural pops up in one story out of three.

Time will tell if there's even a market for collections anymore--that is, non-first-book collections. It seems like a story collection by an established, and not terribly great-selling, novelist is pretty low on the hipness scale these days. That's a shame, and not just because I've got a collection to sell--I love to see what crazy stuff has been on my favorite writers' minds, stuff they didn't deem worthy of an entire novel. Sometimes these are the best ideas of all.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tillman's American Genius and the Project of Human Consciousness

I'm only about a third of the way through Lynne Tillman's American Genius but I'm seriously thinking of starting a fan club. I can't even remember the last time I chose a novel randomly off a shelf in the bookstore (I liked the title) and was so taken with it.

American Genius
is about a woman in a psychiatric hospital (or maybe an artist's colony) who, so far, has spent the book eating meals and thinking. The narrative is a chain of ideas instead of a chain of events, and lately, I find no plot more compelling than a character thinking deeply and originally about ordinary things. This is what the narrator has to say about friendship:
One such friend, someone I liked but didn't know long, to whom I was indifferent for a period of time, unaware of her own anguish in a time of my own trouble, disappeared, not only from my own view but from others', and when I searched for her, but could not locate her, but then finally did, she would have nothing to do with me. I expect I am an enemy of hers now, while she will always be someone I like whom I may have hurt inadvertently, and those are the saddest enemies to have.

Which is great, but she goes on:
Although, since I didn't know her well, she may be a shallow, thick-skinned, insensitive character, an opportunist or someone so damaged as to be incapable of love and compassion. The saddest enemy is her kind, and I don't want to dwell on it, so I never mention her, because for one thing she was never vital to my life, and also it's usually better not to say anything, especially about subjects plagued by illegibility.

The narrator turns from rueful self-examination to defensiveness, as if she had to chase away her creeping depression with anger.

I read a quote by Philip Roth recently that said something to the effect of (sorry, I tried googling, no cigar) that the only project left for the novelist is delineating human consciousness. And he has a point: movies do plot better; poems do language; reality teevee takes care of relationships. But the novel is where you find out what it's like to be inside someone else's skull.

Speaking of skulls: this book was published by Soft Skull Press, which specializes in novels that no one else will publish. (As the shoe store down my street specializes in "hard-to-fit sizes.") And that is admirable -- Soft Skull publishes some great stuff -- but it's also a goddamn shame, because they only pay their authors an advance of $300 to $1000. I hope at the very least this book has earned her some new readers and the attention of wealthier publishers, because I want to live in a world that gives Lynne Tillman some real money.

More later, when I finish.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Wow, how lame is this? Posting about bookcases after Rhian's presentation of actual content.

But it's on my mind, because we're moving, starting next week. And most of the bookcases in our house are built-ins that I made over the years...a neat triangular one under the staircase, one that covers an entire wall of the bedroom, and a kind of CD case slash stereo table in the living room corner...and those will not be coming with us. So now we need bookcases.

There's the old cinderblocks-and-planks thing, which I thought was super cool for about five minutes when I was in graduate school...I had never had bookshelves like that before, having been too tidy and uptight as an undergraduate, at which time I had some laminated pressboard thingers my mom bought me; so those shelves had a certain frisson, a gesture toward a charming, shaggy intellectualism that I never really got around to actually embodying. In Missoula, when we were first married, I had a couple of cases I hammered together out of number 2 pine, and we still have those today--they will probably go into our office, where they will occupy the corner of the room and be painted white. (One of the two presently suffers from a hideous oaken stain that looks more or less like somebody soaked it in orange juice for three weeks.) And in my office at school there are these terrific industrial-strength wall brackets covering two walls, and bearing pretty decent stained boards--but that look is a little too institutional for home.

I have never been into those glass-fronted dealies. They are a bit too fetishy for my taste (although I didn't enjoy blowing the dust off of all my old books, either, as I was packing them today). Rhian's got her eye on one at the antique store...but even if it was worth the money, what would we honor with placement there? Our own books? Lord help us. Rare volumes? Not many of those in our place. I don't think old science fiction paperbacks would really look quite right there...though, if we bought the thing, that's what I would want to put in it.

I could do built-in shelves in the new place, but we don't have the time--I don't know if we can stand living with cardboard boxes everywhere for much longer. So I think it'll be readymade cases from the Unfinished Furniture Store, which we'll paint. A good solution, but maybe not the best one.

Unless you, readers, know a source for good, cheap, attractive, painted bookcases...?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Final Thoughts on Don DeLillo's Falling Man

One of the most significant parts of my experience of 9-11 -- comfortably far away upstate -- was reading the little biographies of the victims in the Times. I tried to read all of them. Every single person seemed so interesting, and every life so complex and full, that the hugeness of the loss (3000 of those big rich lives) was made real.

So I couldn't help but wonder why DeLillo chose his main character, a numb, zombied-out businessman named Keith. All those potential characters, plus of course the imagination's limitless offerings, and he chooses this guy? Keith copes with the death of his friends and his own narrow escape from the towers by first returning to his ex-wife, then having an affair with another tower survivor, and then going to Las Vegas and playing poker. There is definitely something right about these ways of dealing with what happened to him (retreating to the past, seeking connection, then trying to exploit his good luck -- sounds like post 9-11 America all right) but it's not that interesting, mostly because he is just an empty suit.

I tried and tried to engage with this book, but I couldn't. I even found it hard to stop seeing the words on the page, to sink into the consciousness of the novel. It remained, stubbornly, an intellectual exercise. The writing, though of course brilliant at times (it is DeLillo!) is stylized and conscious of itself, and the dialogue is exactly like a David Mamet play. Everyone sounds the same.

In Michiko Kakutani's review of the book, she asks if maybe it's just an impossible literary task to "grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary testimony (from newspaper articles, television footage and still photographs) still freshly seared in readers’ minds." True enough. But is that the only problem? Because I can imagine a 9-11 novel succeeding as a specific character's interpretation of those events -- something incredibly personal and idiosyncratic. I couldn't write it (God forbid) but someone could, and maybe someone has. I'm still looking, though.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Making Publishing Predictable

This piece in Sunday's Times was, like all newspaper articles about the publishing industry, deeply depressing. Here's a sample:

The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

I'm not so sure about this. Does anyone really want the publishing industry to give readers what they want? I know that I don't want what I want--I want what I don't yet know I want. Sure, I'm always happy to sink my teeth into a nice crime novel when I know it's going to satisfy me in a particular way. But the whole point of literary fiction, and really the only thing that separates it from commercial fiction, is that it provides a new way of seeing. You're not supposed to know you want to read it. You're supposed to be surprised.

Increasingly, the publishing industry can't stand surprise. It is bad for the bottom line. And the idea that the Times would suggest that the industry's unpredictability is a problem really makes me want to give up, and just scawl my novels on bar napkins and staple them to phone poles.

What the publishing industry really needs to do is to give up the idea, cooked up at some point during the buyouts of the 1990's, that putting out books can be as profitable as any other business. Perhaps it can, but dammit, it shouldn't. Books should be a labor of love, and a decent way to make a decent living, at best.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Crazy Mom Novels

I love books that have crazy mothers in them. One of my favorites is Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson. The mother isn't exactly crazy, but she's self-absorbed and flighty and obsessed with steak -- a great, unforgettable character. Do people still read this book? I think of it as the Jennifer Jason Leigh of novels -- its excellence ought to have transcended the hype it got in the 80's, but somehow, it didn't.

A much less charming mother is the one in Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher. She refers to her thirty-eight-year-old daughter as "the child," and is hellbent on controlling, thus destroying, her offspring's life. She's just awful -- the embodiment of purely selfish love.

Portnoy's mother Sophie is overbearing and overpowering; Garp's mother rapes a dying soldier in order to get pregnant. The mother in Housekeeping kills herself and leaves her daughters to be raised by a succession of relatives. And of course the list of memoirs with nutty mothers is even longer -- Mary Karr's Liar's Club springs to mind first.

When I was a teenager, a male friend of mine told me I should consider never having kids, because every single mother he knew was crazy. I remember being a bit startled by the truth of that: most mothers are at least a little bit crazy. But think about it -- you're going through life as an autonomous individual, and then suddenly from your body emerges another autonomous individual whom you love more than anything in the world but who, frankly, can't wait to move out and get his own apartment. Christ! Maybe I need to be writing a crazy mother novel myself.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another Swedish Mystery!

OK, you know what? I'm gonna keep on posting about these Swedish crime novels until you commenters start readin' 'em.

The latest one I've discovered is The Princess of Burundi, by Kjell Eriksson, which won the Swedish Crime Academy's best novel award in, apparently, 1992. Why did it take so long to translate this book? I don't know. The translator is the able Ebba Segerberg, who translates the Henning Mankell novels, which I also like, but not as much as this one. The book is a rambling murder mystery; its point of view is roving, sticking mostly with a small cast of detectives, including the brooding Ola Haver and the regretful, obsessive Ann Lindell. It feels very much like it was plucked from the middle of a series, and indeed, there's another one out in English, which I've got on order.

Eriksson's writing is straightforward, dry, and egalitarian; the lives of the criminals and their pursuers are weighted equally, to fine effect. I usually hate the "mind of the killer" nonsense that most crime writers feel obliged to include in their books--it is almost invariably presented opportunistically and in direct violation of the rules of narrative, so that the bad guys just happen not to be thinking of all the vital facts of the case that you're not yet supposed to know--but when Eriksson does it, it's great, and it also isn't quite what you think it is, anyway. Plus it doesn't break the rules.

Henning Mankell has been called the heir to my favorite crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, but I think Eriksson, at least judging by this book, is closer to their ideal--like them, he is concerned with life as it is actually lived, and the idea that mystery is an inherent part of it, rather than with mystery as an aberration.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Black Garterbelt

The other day I picked up a copy of The Believer, falling prey again to the allure of the colorful matte cover and the nice square shape of it. When I say "picked up" I mean I took it off the magazine rack and looked through it. I never buy it, because every single time I start to read it, something in it manages to piss me off. Every time without fail. The other day it was this.

If you don't want to follow the link, I'll tell you about it: the mag asked its readers to list their Top Books of 2006, and the winners are listed in latest issue. Not so horrible. But what is horrible -- cringingly so -- is that where a book by one of the writers associated with the magazine would appear, they replaced it with a blank. And in their coy, faux-abashed way, they told you that the blank space represented a writer associated with the magazine. As if everyone who reads that isn't going to guess, correctly, exactly which books those are, and thereby pay ten times as much attention to them. They layers of disingenuousness here are baklava-esque.

I wasn't going to mention it, but then one of the bloggers (Black Garterbelt, formerly at Rake's Progress) on our list down left did, and that emboldened me. Sometimes I think that my feelings about that crew approach the irrational, like my old friend Heather Diamond's feelings about balloons (she hated them). But no matter how obscure or distasteful your opinions are, someone on the internet is bound to share them, which is both scary and comforting.

We like Black Garterbelt.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Terrific New Yorker (with Zadie Smith)

While Rhian goes mercilessly hacking at my book, I'm sitting back and enjoying the latest New Yorker, which they're calling the INNOVATORS ISSUE.

I'm not much for themed anything, but especially dislike themed New Yorkers. Not that they're usually so bad--it's just that I find the normal ones so comforting. They are the artifact of just another regular week, with a variety of mildly interesting things going on, and being written about. I find the theme issues to be hostile to the concept of averageness, especially the ones that are packed with short fiction by people younger and more famous than I.

But I digress. This issue turns out to be great--almost as if it were made especially for me. There's a piece on the Large Hadron Collider, which is either going to change science as we know it by proving various things, or change science as we know it by failing to. There's an annoyingly long bit about Banksy, annoying not because it's poorly written but because it's written about Banksy. (Don't get me wrong--I quite like Banky's stuff. But his earning-fame-by-pretending-to-disdain-it attitude, the literary analog of which we have had quite enough of thank you, is a bit hard to bear.) We have a fine little article about the Antikythera mechanism, the best-named artifact of all time, and another great piece about uber-geek luthier Ken Parker, of Parker guitars (I find the famous Parker Fly a bit too fussy for the exertions of rock and roll, but I like Parker's way of working).

And there's a new Zadie Smith story, which might possibly be part of a Zadie Smith novel that isn't finished yet. It's pretty OK, but Smith's OK is everybody else's brilliant masterpiece, and I enjoyed it enormously. It contains a lot of little self-referential asides, of the sort that people of Smith's generation (by which I suppose I mean, broadly speaking, myself) can write in their sleep, but again, I would rather watch Zadie Smith sleep than just about anyone else dance the macarena. She drops in sentences like "It was 1956, as mentioned above" without batting an eye, and offers this wonderful take on contemporary dying:

This is reminiscent of all the dutiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren lingering over deathbeds with digital recorders, or else maniacally pursuing their ancestors through online geneaology sites at three in the morning, so very eager to reconstitute the lives and thoughts of dead and soon-to-be-dead men, though they may regularly screen the phone calls of their own mothers. I am of that generation. I will do anything for my family except see them.

That may not make her an "innovator," but, like everything else she does, it makes her awesome.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

On Editing the Work of Others

Editing other people's stuff is something I've come to really enjoy, and no one is more surprised than I am to hear me say that. For the longest time I couldn't do it. In college workshops I was the person who said, "Yeah, it was great! I really liked it, especially that part with the chicken," if I said anything at all.

Maybe it's about developing empathy, or maybe it's just practice, or maybe it has to do with becoming confident in one's own vision. You have to be open enough to the writer to get what he's trying to do, while keeping enough distance to see where he fails to do it. It's much easier when you know a person well (when you're married to him) to have a sense of he's aiming for, but when you live with a person, you also have to know how to tell the bad news gently. No one wants to wake up next to a cranky-face.

You have to know how much to push your vision for change, and how much to hold back. Don't overwhelm the writer with your fantastic ideas for improvement, and don't lie about liking something when you don't, but don't all-out trash it, either, even if you hate it. It's like a freaking square dance!

I have two big fears before sitting down with the spouse's new book: 1)What if it's so good I die of envy? and 2)What do I tell him if it's awful?

Time to pour a stiff drink.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Fog of Revision

I don't know how it is for other writers, but for me, there comes a moment in every new draft of a book where everything just begins to run together, and every sentence appears equally good, or more likely, equally bad, and no edits make any sense anymore. One's ability to make simple decisions begins to wane, and the infinte number of possible arrangements for a given sentence all present themselves at once, and suddenly the entire concept of expressing oneself via the written word seems deeply flawed, on account of its horrible imprecision.

That's where I am right now, with this novel I'm writing, and I actually feel it's going well. I had been planning on posting yesterday--it was officially my turn--but shirked my duty, as the task felt akin to doing brain surgery with a broadsword. In fact, I can't believe this post has lasted so long! Does this make any sense? Hello? Is this thing on?

While I have you, let me refer you to an article posted in a recent comment by Amy Palko--it's from The Guardian and is about a 92-year-old man who is only now learning to type. I've added Amy's blog to our roll--thanks for the tip! She's presently got a post up featuring paintings of women reading, hubba hubba.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Grammar Police

I used to be a member of the squad. I got passionate about apostrophes and gave detailed lectures to my students on dangling participles and semicolons and I really believed them. I once spent a long time telling a class why the difference between "every day" and "everyday" was deeply important. They looked at me like I was nuts (pardon: as if I were nuts). I might even have said something along the lines of, If the only thing you learn this semester is why "every day" is not the same as "everyday," I'll die happy. Maybe I was nuts.

Somewhere along the line I turned in my badge. What happened? I don't really know. I think it started with the phrase: I could care less. Technically, of course, it should be I couldn't care less, but a few years ago I realized I like I could care less better. It's more carefree, somehow; it sounds like someone tossing her beret aside. I couldn't care less sounds full of denial, full of thou dost protest too much.

And I began to enjoy seeing misplaced apostrophe's on menus' and poster's.

I guess I stopped believing in correctness. I still think good, clean writing is better than sloppy writing, but only because it's good and clean, not because it's correct. If I use my smaller fork to eat my salad these days, it's because I truly want the bigger one to tackle my entree, not because someone decided it was the correct one.

Now that I think about it, you know who I blame? George Bush. No, really! Six and a half years ago, I abandoned my last shreds of respect for unearned authority. And though it's true that Bush personally uses execrable, positively criminal grammar, and one might feel it a form of protest to use only the most correct English as a response, that would be buying into his game. Because he's deliberately trying to piss us -- those of us who care about things like language and literature and beauty and truth -- off.

It's just too easy to be correct, to take refuge in correctness. Correctness has come to feel like complacency, these last few years. It feels like fussing over where the dessert spoon belongs when people are being murdered under the table.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


Odd dream last night--the semester was just beginning, and I was supposed to be teaching a class on...handwriting. Except that I was woefully unprepared for it, and only five students registered, and they all looked really bored before I'd even begun speaking. To make matters worse, the textbook, which was about three inches thick and far wider than it was tall, was actually on the subject of "What We Mean By 'Home'." And the editor of this textbook was a writer I kind of knew back in the day, whose husband ritually trashed my first novel in the local paper.

What the hell's all that about? Anyway, I got thinking about handwriting today. I have really never written anything longhand (see the typewriter post for the one exception) save for checks, notes, and grocery lists. There's something about seeing my own handwriting, at least in the context of creative endeavor, that makes me discount whatever content the words represent. It just doesn't look serious to me, somehow.

I definitely don't feel that way about other people's handwriting, however. Indeed, there is something singularly thrilling about seeing a page of manuscript by a writer I love (the pic above is a page out of Finnegans Wake). There's the obvious reason for this--the frisson of knowing the writer's actual hand touched this page, etc etc. But there's a deeper interest as well--a manuscript page seems to reveal the act of writing as a form of work, as an inherently flawed endeavor that requires reconsideration and reshaping. This is how I like to think of art--as a form of work, not of divine intervention--and how I like to think of my favorite artists operating.

Perhaps I don't like seeing myself operating this way, though. I'm not sure how come--you'd think I'd be delighted to do what my heroes have done, the way they did it. In any event, I'm in the final stages of the submission draft of my next book, and maybe I feel a bit nervous about it. (The narrator is always saying things like "In any event..." Is this annoying?) Maybe I dreamed of handwriting, and unpreparedness, and poor attendance, as expressions of my fear that I have penned a dud.

Typed a dud, I mean. Penned! God forbid.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Page 69 Test

I've been thinking about writing a post on Books About Reading, but I can't really get worked up about the topic one way or another. However, in my half-hearted research I came across references to John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel in which he describes Marshall McLuhan's method of choosing a book to read: turn to page 69, read it, and if you like it, buy the book.

So I've tested it a few times, and you know what -- it really works.

On page 69 of my Penguin Don Quixote, Don Quixote has just attacked a windmill with his lance and been dragged off his horse. "O my goodness!" cries Sancho Panza. "Didn't I tell your worship to look what you were doing, for they were only windmills? Nobody could mistake them, unless they had windmills on the brain."

That's a great bit.

On page 69 of Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, the main guy is talking about shoelaces, which he has just bought at the CVS (before he proceeds to spend the whole book on the escalator). He says, "Another thing I did even into adulthood was to retie my shoes on the escalator -- making it a little challenge: How late in the ride could I successfully tie both shoes without seeming rushed before I arrived at the top?"

It does seem as if page 69 is the point at which the book moves from preliminaries to real substance.

I haven't read Martin Amis's Money, but should I? Let's see what page 69 advises...

"What was all this take-me-back stuff? What were those terrible things I was supposed to have said? Not for the first time I tugged myself back to the eve of my departure for New York. What happened? I took Selina out for an expensive dinner. We had a vicious row about money. Back home, there followed a detailed bout of valedictory lovemaking ... I might have given her a bit of lip last thing, but that was pretty standard too. When I woke at noon the next day Selina had taken her leave. I didn't give that a thought either."

Hmm... so the narrator's a self-deluded jerk. Maybe I'll reread Don Quixote instead.

Book By Its Cover

Quickie post here--from the comments of this post, Burl Veneer informs us of a blog, Book By Its Cover, that features lots of lovely lit pr0n. The entire first page consists of beautiful stuff I have never seen in my life...I've added it to our blogroll. Thanks a lot, Bill!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Plugs For New Books

Back when I was complaining about book covers a couple weeks back, I said something in the comments about my friend Shauna Seliy's new novel. (I was snarking about the cover, in fact.) Well, let me give it a plug here, because I just got my copy in the mail, and it's a marvelous piece of work.

The book's called When We Get There, and is a family drama set in a coal-mining town near Pittsburgh in the seventies. Shauna was my best pal in college, and a fellow wannabe writer--there were lots of people I could discuss books and writing with at the time, and who would nod politely and smile and wish me luck. But Shauna was the only one who actually took the whole thing seriously, as though it were something we were actually gonna do. Well, she has really done it. This novel has been a long time coming, and it's just fantastic--I can't recommend it highly enough. It's beautifully written, and not in the way you think I mean. It is simultaneously exuberant and restrained, dark and wry, much like Shauna herself. Plus it's packed with crazy Eastern Europeans! What more could you want!

I also want to toss in a plug for a new anthology of short-short stories I'm in, called The Flash. We have an unofficial non-self-promotion policy on this blog, but the editor of this book, Peter Wild, is a cool guy, the book has a completely insane and hilarious cover, and proceeds from its sale go to Amnesty International. Peter is also editing the forthcoming Sonic Youth literary anthology I mentioned in a recent post.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

And We Thought We Were Snarky

The latest New Yorker has an informative and entertaining article by Dana Goodyear about the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, a writer I haven't read but about whom I've wondered: how do you say that last name? (co-EL-yoo) When customers at the bookstore looked for copies of The Alchemist I could only say, Oh, yes, the book by... that guy. I did look it up, several times, but it didn't take.

Anyway, he seems to be an inspirational/allegorical writer who writes things like "When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it" (ahem -- still no letterpress). Goodyear quotes a Brazilian critic and history professor named Mário Maestri about Coelho, and it's a quote so good I'm going to repeat it here:
In spite of belonging to different genres, Coelho's narratives and self-help books have the same fundamental effect: of anesthetizing the alienated consciousness through the consoling reaffirmation of conventions and prevailing prejudices. Fascinated by his discoveries, the Coelhist reader explores the familiar, breaks down doors already open, and gets mired in sentimental, tranquilizing, self-centered, conformist, and spellbinding visions of the world that imprisons him. When he finishes a book, he wants another that will be different but absolutely the same.
The most intriguing word here is "conformist," a word we in the US generally don't use in conjunction with words like "sentimental, self-centered" and "spellbinding" -- adjectives that we might apply to New-Agey writing -- because we still think of New-Agey stuff as being nonconformist. It isn't. Like any fashion, it adheres to its own cliches.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

More Book Arts

Whoa! Via Makezine, here is a fantastic gallery of book art. These are by Cara Borer (left), Robert The (center), and somebody who isn't identified--but whose work (right) reminds of that Bjork video, you know the one.

This is a lame post, but I'm tired as hell. I "finished" my novel today! Which means, basically, that I started revising today. Feel free to read up on my ambivalence about this achievement.

Also, today is the first of May--don't forget to celebrate it the Jonathan Coulton way!