Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fun Home Revisited

I just wanted the opportunity to weigh in on Fun Home, which I bought last week and Rhian swiped (and posted about!) before I got a chance to read. I read it, and I have to agree with Rhian, it's fantastic.

I always thought DTWOF was a pretty good strip--Bechdel's drawing style has always appealed to me, and her characters are strong. But the strip was always a little too relentlessly contemporary for my taste, tending to focus more on the intersection of character and politics than that of character and memory. The latter being the milieu I hold most dear.

Wow, the book certainly gave me what I wanted. It's brilliant--the perfect blend of reminiscence, analysis, erudition and inspiration. Plus there's lots of stuff about Proust and Joyce in it, not to mention some hot and heavy lovin'.

There is one drawing of Bechdel's family sprawled out in their museumesque living room, sloppily going about their lives--playing with cars and Tinkertoys, watching TV, and so on. Her detached, aesthete father is scrunched up between the fainting couch and the bookcase with a big bucket of fried chicken in his lap, and I find this image amazingly moving--the kind of perfect character detail that literary fiction is supposed to be providing for our culture, but hasn't bothered to for some time. At the same time I was reading the new Acme Novelty Library and the latest from Paul Hornschemeier, and while they're both good (particularly the Ware, whose Jimmy Corrigan is one of the greatest examples of the form ever), Bechdel has them both beat. Fun Home is pretty much perfect, right down to the last panel.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why I Will Never Do Another Reading

Yesterday I forgot to post because I spent the day whipping Casa W6 into shape before a post-reading dinner party we held for our friend Jeffrey Frank, whose Trudy Hopedale was published this month. It was a great, fun reading, but it reminded me of my vow to never read out loud to people on folding chairs ever again. (Jeff said he had made the same vow, but broke it. Not me!)

Mostly it's because I get really, really nervous, and the anxious fallout from such an event more than cancels out whatever pleasure I might get from it. Forget it! But it's also because I don't really like most readings. I love going to friends' readings because I love my friends, and it's incredibly fun to see how the friend I know shows up in the work when they read it out loud. (Not so for spouse readings, which are generally too close for comfort.)

But I still subscribe to the idea that literature is a private pleasure. I know, I know -- I'm supposed to appreciate the storyteller-around-the-campfire thing, and I do. (Looking forward to the annual Jersey Shore trip with JRL's anecdote-laden family.) That's something different, though. A novel or a short story written by a person alone in a small room is meant to be read by a person alone, possibly in a small room, or else in a library carrel or in a park or on the bus. But definitely alone. A book is written from one mouth to one ear. That's an illusion, because there are thousands (or millions) of copies of each book printed. But when you read it, it's you and the writer, alone in a perfect intimate space. No laughing at the wrong places, no espresso machine cranking up, no surprising accent or mannerisms. Just the work.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Books About Music, Music About Books

No post yesterday, because we lost phone, internet, and power for a spell. Looks like a phone pole got struck by lightning--NYSEG came out and fixed it pronto, but the window of bloggertunity had closed. The break did allow me to do some reading, though, and listen to some music--and the reading was about music, and the music was about reading.

The book is Joe Boyd's new memoir, White Bicycles. Boyd was the manager and producer of a lot of great acts over the years--I first learned his name, when I was teenager, from the liner notes of R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs records, but before that he was responsible for launching the careers of such great artists as Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and The Incredible String Band. Boyd has a wry, knowing tone and a deep understanding of the complexities of musical culture, and he seems to have had run-ins with every great musician on two continents over the past fifty years. I haven't finished reading it yet, but two standout anecdotes are his "rediscovery" of Lonnie Johnson, resulting in the bluesman's first gig in eight years; and the story of how Walter Annenberg and Dick Clark drove black music off of "Bandstand." Great stuff--and how many books do you know of that have been blurbed by Brian Eno?

The music about books is the CD anthology Zoe sent us, Ballads of the Book, which pairs Scottish bands with lyrics by Scottish writers. The project is reminiscent of One Ring Zero's As Smart As We Are, and is as entertaining--there are words here by Ian Rankin, A. L. Kennedy (there she is again!), and Ali Smith...but it's the singer, not the song, and the standout tracks are those where the performers seemed to find something in the lyrics that isn't obvious on the page. To my surprise, I am digging the more sentimental material--like Norman Blake's setting of John Burnside's "Girl," and Karine Polwart's of Edwin Morgan's "The Good Years." Go figure.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home

My friend Norah told me to read this months ago, but it was still in hardcover so I didn't. Now that it's in paperback I thought I'd give it a try. It's terrifyingly good -- terrifying because it's a graphic novel, and, er, I can't draw. During the last couple years I've had the unnerving sense that far more exciting things are happening in the world of graphic novels than in regular fiction. Cartoonists have found ways to express truth, beauty, and surprise that make traditional, non-visual narratives seem flat. Worst of all: any fool can type up a page of prose, but only handful of us can draw. I ain't one of them, and that hurts.

I called "Fun Home" a "graphic novel," but actually it's a graphic memoir. Bechdel, of "Dykes To Watch Out For," (I have to admit that the title of that comic always bugged me -- why "watch out for"? Are they going to become famous, or just, like a mean dog, bite me on the thigh?) writes and draws about her childhood in small town Pennsylvania and her coming of age as a lesbian, and the simultaneous realization that her father -- who died in a suspicious, possibly suicidal, accident -- was probably gay too. Bechdel's art is less "arty" and self-conscious than that of Daniel Clowes, and more like Marjane Satrapi's -- frank and straight-forward and wordy. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses of Bechdel's college life. Hey -- isn't that my alma mater?

She has a fun blog, too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A. L. Kennedy's "Wasps"

Who'd've thought I'd be blogging twice in a week about A. L. Kennedy? She's this week's New Yorker fiction writer, though, and thus the subject of the latest post in my Magazine Reading Project.

This is actually quite handy, because I wondered, in the previous post, if the things that bothered me about Kennedy's first collection were the result of youth, or of something inherent to her work. I complained about the narrative stasis that seemed a hallmark of her stories, and about her tendency to rely too heavily on victimhood as a topic. And indeed, this new story, at least in those respects, is just like her early ones--a cuckolded mother of two stays cuckolded, and does nothing about it, and everything remains the same.

However, Kennedy has gotten a lot better at it, and I like the story a lot. I felt a little funny complaining last time, because I know that a story doesn't require strong narrative drive to be good; nor does its protagonist have to "change" or experience "redemption." Here, though, Kennedy's immersion in the details of the character's life--and her superior ability to choose and refine those details--makes the piece worth reading. Of particular power is her portrayal of the protagonist's sons, who at the ages of 7 and 4 have learned to channel their anger at their absent father upon each other. There is a great moment where the older boy "washed his own hands very thoroughly, theatrically, with the air of a weary surgeon. As she watched, the weight of an older brother's responsibilities and trials hardened his jaw enough for him to look very much like his father."

The really excellent bit here, however, is a scene in which the father subtly, quietly, transfers the blame for his absence and infidelity onto the younger boy. "That's why I go away, Jimbo," he says. "For you."

Ouch. In the wake of this scene, the father leaves again, and the mother again lets him, and once again I longed for something other than stasis, true to life as stasis might be. But there's no accounting for taste, and no denying that, judging by this story, anyhow, Kennedy has gotten really good. It's a better piece of writing than anything in her first book. Here's hoping somebody someday says the same thing about me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Waiting for Books By...

So, yeah, I should have published my second book like five years ago. I try to make myself feel better by thinking about other, much much better writers who are also mysteriously silent. Hey, I'm sure all of these people will come out with something awesome very soon, and maybe I will, too. Right?

Lorrie Moore hasn't published a book since the incredible Birds of America, in 1998. I wouldn't want to have to follow that book up. In fact, if I were Lorrie Moore, I might just quit altogether. I'm pretty sure I've seen a few stories of hers since then, but maybe not enough for a collection. Perhaps she's working on a novel. A big long one?

And how about Bruce Duffy? His The World As I Found It, as I think I mentioned here, is possibly my favorite novel ever. It came out in 1987. He published a coming of age novel maybe ten years later, and now: silence. I'd kill to read another book like TWAIFI -- well, not a person, but I'd kill something.

Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint came out in 2004, not long ago at all, but he used to publish quite regularly in Harpers and other mags and I don't think I've heard a peep from him in a very long time. Last I heard he'd moved to a small town in New England and established a newspaper repository to preserve hard copies of newspapers that libraries are copying digitally and pulping -- an admirable endeavor that JRL and I heartily support. I wonder if his silence has anything to do with the state of the union. Checkpoint is a Bush-era Vox, a kind of cri de coeur that revealed genuine anguish. I loved his long, obsessive essays, and I do miss watching his mind work.

Jo Ann Beard is a wonderful writer and terrific person. I met her once, on my own front porch, where she brought an elaborate dessert in a box, but then she moved out of town before I ever got to know her. Her work is the same way -- a real delight that I want more of. I can't imagine it's easy to follow up a memoir, especially one like Boys of My Youth, but it would be a shame if we never got to hear from her again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Defense of the Comma Splice

If you spend any time on internet messageboards--the subject of the forum is immaterial--there is always one very uptight hypergrammarian in the bunch, who cannot bear the relaxed diction that is the rule online. I can hardly blame such people--I used to be like that, too. I remember, back in the day, the way "alright" used to drive me up the wall (perhaps that's why it took me a lot longer to appreciate The Who than it did The Beatles and The Stones).

But, I dunno, maybe it's that I'm older, or that I've gotten accustomed to internet discourse, but grammar errors just don't bother me so much anymore. In the newspaper, sure--but in casual correspondence and fiction, no. Increasingly I regard grammar and punctuation as arenas of artistic achievement, open to broad usage and interpretation. And the one issue I've come around furthest on is the comma splice.

To wit, a sentence like this...

She stood up, she brushed herself off, the audience applauded.

...which is technically incorrect. The proper punctuation would be...

She stood up; she brushed herself off; the audience applauded.

...because you're supposed to separate independent clauses with semicolons, not commas, as any high school English teacher will tell you, and probably has, in red Flair pen.

But one legitimate use of the comma is to separate items in a list, and in my view, an independent clause could be considered an item. So what we have in the first example is a list of clauses (or, specifically, of actions and events) separated by commas. Now, this may seem like a stretch, but it allows the writer to acccentuate the separateness of those events without losing the impression of brisk narrative flow. In other words, in sentence #1, these three things occur in a kind of rolling fashion--we perceive them as one event with three parts, rather than merely as three related events, as the second sentence would suggest. The words are the same, the connotation is different. Depending on the context--who the woman in the sentence is, what she's doing, who is watching--a writer might want to choose one over the other.

I suppose I support anything that allows the writer a greater range of expression. With this greater range, of course, comes greater difficulty, since you're undermining the foundations of written language--you have to be more skillful at creating a believeable, sustainable universe for the reader, without relying as much on the basics. But the tradeoff is worth it, in my view.

So there you go. Comma splice good. Take that, Miss Peachtree!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter Hell

So I'm finally up for air after the bookselling insanity that is Harry Potter. I missed most of our party because I was too busy reading tarot cards (damn, I had fun: possible career change in my future? Must consult the cards...) but I was up bright and early to sell books. Harry Potter books, of course. ONLY Harry Potter. Okay, one woman came in and bought a collection of Leonard Cohen's poetry, but that's about it.

It was a lot of fun to watch people's faces as they came in the store. People were very excited. No one wanted a bag: "I'm going to start reading right now!" I've never seen such a thing.

I read the first two books (or three? They run together) out loud to my son, but when he stopped wanting to hear them, I stopped reading them. I edited my reading heavily, because he was pretty young at the time, and the books are violent and scary. They're also Hollywoodish, in my opinion -- the violence feels gratuitous and the characters are not so great. However, the world Rowling describes is quite interesting and undeniably entertaining.

The Harry Potter mega-phenomenon owes only a little bit to the quality of the books, and much more to people's desire to be part of something big and fun and literary and positive. And I think, on the whole, it IS positive. It's not such a good thing that the publishing industry is encouraged to put all its dollars into a few big hits rather than many small hits. It would be nice if all that dough was spread around a bit. However, I'm a sucker for the sight of a kid reading a big, thick book. I can't help but think that those kids whose faces lit up as I passed them the book over the counter -- the ones who started reading before they left the store -- are going to remember the excitement they felt when they opened that book. And there were a LOT of kids in the store yesterday, in spite of the fact that B&N undercut us by like fifteen bucks. Those kids are going to have good associations with books and book stores for the rest of their lives, and that is a truly excellent thing.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A. L. Kennedy

So I'd been asking W6 frequent commenter Zoe what's good out of Scotland, and a few weeks later what should show up in my mailbox but a puffy airmail envelope marked Scotland Cultural Delivery. Inside were a couple of books and a CD compilation of Scottish bands singing about books. The CD I'll get to another time, but I just read one of the books--A. L. Kennedy's first collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains.

I had heard of Kennedy but hadn't read her. I'm glad I did--she's good. Her narrative style is deceptive--these stories seem to ramble aimlessly, before they suddenly reveal themselves to have been headed straight for their target all along. A few of them ("Translations" springs to mind) leave out so much information that you wonder for a long time what the hell you're even reading--but they always add up to something, however convinced you are that they won't.

One thing that irks me, though--and I'm speaking here only of this collection, which remember is her first--is how unrelievedly victim-oriented these narratives are. The first four stories, for instance, feature, respectively, a disease victim, a rape victim, an infidelity victim, and another rape victim. I certainly regard this kind of material as legitimate fodder for fiction--who wouldn't?--but I found myself longing, by the end of the book, for the characters to do something about their plight. I'm not talking about happy endings, or pluck, or "redemption," Lord help us, but agency. It's a truism that abuse begets misery, and while I don't expect or desire literary characters to find clever and satisfying ways around their unhappiness, I certainly would like to see them give it a shot, and fail interestingly. Ultimately I find these stories a little static--in each one, the tone is glum, and you sit back and wait to see what the dark secret is, and then it's revealed, and then you're glum too.

Like I said, though--it's good anyway. Kennedy isn't going in for the lurid, smeary lyricism that afflicts a lot of writers of "serious" material; her stuff sounds like something worth reading.

Who's read her books since? There are a bunch. Personally, I would be mortified to be judged on some random blog by a dude who's only read my first book, so weigh in on the comments if you're a fan (or not).

(And Zoe--thanks again for the package!)

Friday, July 20, 2007


I'm posting a little early today because tonight I'll be reading tarot at our bookstore's Harry Potter party. If you're in the area, stop by the Bookery and let me tell you your (fake) future! I've never done it before, but I'm sure I have a knack for it.

Anyway, I wanted to mention Literary Rejections on Display, an awesome blog. It reminded me why I got into this business in the first place: my love of rejection. I mean, it must be, when you think about how much failure and misery and rejection I've collected over the years. By middle school, at least, I was assiduously reading Writer's Market and collecting addresses and names of editors. My first rejection was from Cricket magazine; almost thirty years later (!!) I can't look at the cover of that mag without a pang of humiliation and regret. My first rejection with writing on it was from Seventeen -- I still have that one.

But mysteriously, perhaps because of all the moving I've done, I can't find a single other rejection note. God knows I've collected plenty. I hope one turns up because I'd like to submit to LRoD. Chances are I threw them all out in a depressive blackout or something.

I've always been vaguely disappointed at how wishy-washy rejection notes are these days. Writers of old always had some stunningly cruel rejection to hang on the wall, but I've never received anything worse than bland dismissal and dishonest good wishes. Editors today are savvy enough to cover their buns -- the writer they reject today has every chance of garnering a million-dollar advance elsewhere, and that writer has a long memory. Or maybe editors are just nicer these days.

There's probably a direct relationship between how sturdy a writer is in the face of rejection and his or her likelihood of overcoming it. I'm not particularly sturdy myself -- I recall many weep-fests alone in my room when I was sending my book around to indifferent agents -- but for some reason I keep popping up to take more blows. I think it's because I feel like I owe something to that incredibly misguided twelve-year-old who read Writer's Market like the Bible. That can't be the world's best reason for writing. Oh, well: you work with what you got.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Antonya Nelson's "Shauntrelle"

I guess I was expecting more out of this New Yorker story, as its premise is right down my street--a middle-aged woman divorces her husband for a younger man, who then rejects her; and she is forced to live in "corporate housing" with a weird roommate for a spell. Out of such a setup, great things can come. I don't think they do here, though.

Now, there's nothing less fair to a writer than to compare her unfavorably to Alice Munro. But I've got Munro on the brain thanks to "Fiction," and I can't help it. One possible way of summing up Munro's work is: people aren't what you think. Or, more specifically, people are more than you think. This is what I like in fiction--surprise. A new way of seeing the familiar, if you will. Munro's characters are deceived by their preconceptions, and are shown, time and time again, the uniqueness of others. But in this story, the rule seems to be that people are nothing more or less than they seem. Mysteries remain mysteries; the way things look is the way things are. Nelson's protagonist, Constance, is never surprised by anything, although she has done something rather unsavory and is due for some kind of awakening. Her roommate, Fanny Mann, is a grotesque neighbor-lady kind of character, blowsy, loud, and vain, and that's the way she stays, right to the end. The husband and boyfriend remain murky, though consistently so. And then, later, Constance moves on and resumes her life.

The title comes from a running motif--people keep calling and knocking, thinking somebody else lives in the apartment. One of these people bangs on the door, demanding "Shauntrelle." Oh God, how I wish Constance had opened that door and something had happened. Instead, she lies in bed, thinking. "The woman's determination to find Shauntrelle had made Constance aware of her own desire to be found, to be sought after."

Really? Didn't we already know that? The unknown, I am afraid, is a tabboo in this piece, and I wish to hell it weren't. My feelings on this matter are all uncomfortably jumbled up by the fact that, aside from Constance and Fanny, this is a black neighborhood, and blackness, and urbanness, and poverty are all things waiting outside the story, demanding to be let in. The woman seeking Shauntrelle is black, and we're to assume Shauntrelle is too. But they stay outside, and so do these issues, which seem to me far too weighty to be used as mere engines of personal narrative, rather than mirrors of morality and character.

Nelson is not a bad writer at all, but this story feels half-baked. I kept wanting both character and author to break out of it and sprint to the finish. They never got around to it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michael Martone's Double-wide

It's hard not to be impressed by the strangeness and originality of Michael Martone's literary project: fictionally documenting life in the state of Indiana. And though I'm on record stating my view that the best fiction is about the human mind, reading Double-wide makes me reconsider. Martone is brilliant at showing what it's like to be alive, physically, in the world. His stories are full of details, sensations, and surprising connections. One story's narrated by James Dean's first drama teacher; Alfred Kinsey tells another. I haven't gotten to the Dan Quayle stories yet, but I can't wait. Other stories are told by regular anonymous Indianans. Martone's introduction is worth reading, as well. He explains how changes in the tax laws in 1979 altered the nature of publishing, and what it's like being a "regionalist from a region-less region."

What I love about this collection is how it is simultaneously modest and incredibly confident. There's nothing showy about his language, yet the particularity and sureness of Martone's vision -- when writing about Colonel Sanders or a woman collecting the free dish each week at the movie theater -- is truly one-of-a-kind. It is also hilarious.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Lay Of The Land

Whew! Just finished the new(ish) Richard Ford, and though I have had, from time to time, my issues with the man's work (including The Sportswriter, which has always seemed half-baked to me), this book is exactly what I've been dying to read lately. I think it's gotten me off my only-crime-novels-and-recording-magazines kick.

The book gets off to a slow start--it seems only to consist of Frank Bascombe driving around thinking--but the rambling narrative gradually draws several disparate threads into focus: the nature of love, of mortality, of community. Ford has done his homework on the subject of New Jersey (Bascombe has left the Haddam of the last book and has moved to The Shore), to the extent that he actually overindulges the use of characteristic personality types, cultural signifiers, and place names. But one's sense is that the preoccupation is Bascombe's, not Ford's, such is our immersion in Bascombe's voice.

This same phenomenon obtains in one of the book's oddest qualities--it manages to make the spectacularly implausible not only forgiveable, but somehow more convincing than real life. The plot shakes off its langour after 200 pages or so and gradually comes to seem like a wild, eventful dream; and Bascombe's narrative simultaneously less trustworthy and more authentic. It's mesmerizing, really--by the end, you're perfectly willing to accept the bizarre agglomeration of motifs (including a car crash, Russian teen gangsters, and a time capsule) that back on page 50 you would have sneered at.

I don't think I've ever known of a writer whose various approaches to fiction result in such wildly uneven results--there are stories of Ford's I really cannot stand, particularly the ones in Women With Men, a book I thought marked the expiration of his prodigious talents. But, go figure, I adore this novel. There's something about Bascombe that turns Ford into some kind of genius--the character leads the writer to his deepest, funniest, and most human places.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Alice Munro's "Fiction"

I always read with extra care those Alice Munro stories that don't end up in the New Yorker. What did they find wrong with this one? is the question I ask myself. Too discursive? Too familiar? Too long? This is probably not worth doing, I know--maybe the only reason she goes elsewhere is that the New Yorker already has one of hers in the pipeline. In any event, this new story is in Harper's, and while it isn't the kind of knockout shocker that her last story was (that would be the one, I forget the title, about the woman who almost reconciles with the man who murdered their children), it's superb: wry, knowing, and heartbreaking, with all the seemingly effortless detail that she uses to create such a thoroughly imagined reality.

The story opens with a marriage being ruined--the protagonist's husband has an affair with his wood shop apprentice, whose nine-year-old daughter is the protagonist's violin student. Jump twenty years into the future: the protagonist, Joyce, is having a party with her second husband, an academic, and various family, colleagues, and students are in attendance. A young woman in a black skirt catches her eye: Joyce doesn't like the look of her. Turns out she's a writer, and her first story collection has just come out. (In a comic aside, we get Joyce's reaction to the idea of a story collection:

This fact by itself is disappointing. It seems to diminish the book's authority, making the author seem like somebody just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

Ho ho!, that Alice!)

Lo and behold, one of the stories is about her, Joyce: turns out the writer is her first husband's apprentice's daughter! Joyce is moved by the story, and goes to the book signing at the store where she bought the collection...where she is unceremoniously (actually, come to think of it, ceremoniously) snubbed by author and bookseller alike. The story ends with a casual dismissal: "This could turn into a fairly funny story someday."

In the comments from a couple posts ago, W6 chum 5redpandas wrote, "the writing was terrific, but the plot was a bit- eh." I sympathize--a lot of the usual Munrovian elements are there, marriages, affairs, huge leaps in time, subverted epiphanies. But I dunno, that's a bit like hearing a Beethoven sonata and groaning, "E-flat again?" Personally, I could listen to Munro play this tune all day long. It's the details of lived live that make the story great--Joyce's cheerfully semi-antagonistic closeness with her gay son, Tommy; the way her second husband snorts with derision at what he's reading in bed; the wood shavings that cling to the apprentice's thick sweaters. And the way Munro uses unspectacular but unexpected words, so that descriptions cleave more powerfully to their antecedents: the first husband's wine-making method as "strict and successful," or this description of the way, after the separation, Joyce's drunken confidences to friends grow sour: "All that drunken insight, the exhilaration, had been cast out of her, like vomit."

So while I understand where 5RP is coming from, I can't help but love this story...it might not be new ground for Munro, but I have no complaints about watching the master crack her knuckles and get to work.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dangerous Book for Boys

My mother bought our sons a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys when she was in Britain a while back, when it was a huge best seller over there. It's a great book, full of the kind of stuff I spent all my time with when I was a kid: codes, treehouses, constellations, paper airplanes, ancient history, magic tricks. But hey, wait! I was a girl! And the book specifically states that it's for boys. Was I some kind of weirdo? Nope, not even a budding lesbian. All the girls I played with liked to build forts and go karts, pretend to be spies, and send flashlight messages between our houses. I also liked unicorns and sewing. (Okay, I loved unicorns.) But it's just plain not true that certain kinds of fun are "hard-wired" into one gender or another. One wonders why some adults want to tell girls and boys what kind of fun they should have, just because of their gender.

I don't want to make too much of a big deal out of this. Clearly part of the book's appeal (and marketing success) lies with its being politically incorrect. But why not make it "The Dangerous Book for Kids"? Sure, no one's stopping any girl from reading the book, and I know I read a lot of old "boys' annuals," but how many grandmas out there will buy this book for their grand-daughters? Damn few. And how many girls will crack it open, have a few moments of delight thumbing through it, and then have the sinking feeling that actually, the book is not for them so maybe they ought to go look at something else?

It's hard to believe that after all this time, we're still telling girls these kinds of lies. It is damaging -- it's crushing -- for them to hear this stuff all the time: that they should like clothes and gossip and that smart, serious stuff (ancient history!) is for boys.

Anyway, The Dangerous Book has staked out so much kid-fun for boys, I can't help but wonder what's left to go into the Dangerous Book for Girls, if that ever happens. Maybe tampon crafts?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Anti-Lameness Measures

My last few posts have been sorta crappy, so I'm embarking on a new project: I'm going to actually read every short story that comes out in the New Yorker and Harper's over the next few months, and blog about them.

Wait what? You're not already reading them? I know, I know. It's awful. As a writer myself, and one brimming over with aesthetic scarring, moral confusion, and professional jealousies, it's very easy for me to skip the story, or sneer in disgust at the first sentence, or pretend the magazine doesn't actually contain any fiction. So for a few months, I will be reporting on The State Of American Letters, as seen from my porch.

Which brings me to the new Harper's, which is giving this new project a very easy start, on account of a new Alice Munro story--called, appropriately, "Fiction." I'll post about it on Sunday, if Rhian doesn't beat me to it. There are also new poems by Frederick Seidel and a nice letter from Wyatt Mason, on the subject of Cynthia Ozick's recent despairing piece about lit crit. In it, he reassures us on the subject of man's hunger for stories, but reminds us of how rarefied an act reading is: "Books, it seems to me, were never the interest of the majority." He goes on to say:

All that has happened to our "literary culture"...is that, lately, we have seen the rise of a better technological approximation of the campfire--the passive, story-absorbing state we have long preferred.

I am not 100% in Wyatt's bunker here, as I think there's a big difference between a "story" and "literature," the latter being, at its best, a sometimes difficult but exquisite refinement of the former, and thus inherently more challenging to appreciate. And it's the latter I think Ozick was talking about. But I will agree that the dissolution of the critical establishment is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think of this blog as a small part of its broader, less carefully vetted, and more egalitarian fledgling replacement.

And to this end, I will be posting enraptured words about Alice Munro in a couple of days. Natch.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

Here's a blog that takes note of our society's need to wrap all kinds of words in quotation marks, particularly when making signs. Some people must have the idea that quotation marks are just another kind of underlining. Well, they're not! And you know what else -- it's not charming anymore either, so cut it out!

Thanks, Mr. Inertia, for the link.

You know, if I was walking down the street with a friend, I might point out some misused quotation marks, but chances are I'd be having a conversation with this friend and I wouldn't want to interrupt it. In regular life, misused quotation marks are just not that interesting. But on the internet, they're a perfectly legitimate subject for a blog and make for an absorbing three to fourteen minutes of reading. Television and newspapers ignore the small stuff (or anyway, purport to) and focus on the big and exciting and new stuff. But the bar for blogs is much lower -- lower, even, than the bar for casual conversation. There's a blog about the misuse of the word literally, one about dogs tied to things, and well of course I need not go on. All thanks to the cell phone camera and infinite bandwidth!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What Makes A Writer?

I was talking to Rhian about this today--how the hell did we end up being writers? Our parents, though quite literate, are not very literary--my folks are not big fiction readers, and Rhian's read mostly nonfiction, or genre fiction. My running joke about my childhood was that my mother was always telling my brother to come inside and read, and telling me to put down that book and get some exercise.

In my case, I think it's a combination of my father's love of the amusing anecdote, and my mother's obsessive need to set things straight. Because of Dad I appreciate a good story; because of Mom I'm able to actually finish writing one. Rhian claims she gets her love of character from her mother, a British expat who is always analyzing the way people are different from one another (Britain vs. America was a big topic in Rhian's house, back in the day); I would imagine her gregarious psychologist father has something to with it as well.

The first writing experience I remember is typing a poem on a big manual that sat in our basement, on top of a salvaged school desk, the kind with the inkwell on the corner. I've got that poem somewhere among my papers (I once planned to write a "review" of my juvenilia and extracted all the old stuff from my mother, but never got around to doing it...too self-indulgent, I guess, even for me), but I remember the last line: "Upon his tombstone yonder."

I've actually published several things--a novel and a short story that I can think of--which actually contain a tombstone yonder. Some things never change. I never have gotten around to writing any science fiction, though--the genre that made me love reading. I will, though, someday yonder.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Happy Birthday Alice Munro

This afternoon at the pool I was trying to read a literary novel about the breakup of a marriage. The writing was all right, but I was finding it to be kind of a slog, and not just because of all the "Mom, look at me dive!" stuff. The book was suffused with wistful lyricism, which struck me as subtly wrong and psychologically inaccurate. There was no anger, no freaking out, no confusion, no passion -- well, maybe that happened later, but I didn't get that far. I sighed, shut the book, and guiltily took out a true crime paperback.

Alice Munro writes about complicated human relationships better than anyone. Her insights into how people fall in and out of love are so startling and correct, it can spoil you for other writers. Here's just a tiny thing, from one of my favorite stories, "Lichen," in The Progress of Love -- a man and his new girlfriend go to visit his ex-wife:
As David turns the car into the lane, Stella steps out of these bushes, holding a colander full of berries. She is a short, fat, white-haired woman, wearing jeans and a dirty T-shirt. There is nothing underneath these clothes, as far as he can see, to support or restrain any part of her.
"Look what's happened to Stella," says David, fuming. "She's turned into a troll."
Catherine, who has never met Stella before, says decently, "Well. She's older."
"Older than what, Catherine? Older than the house? Older than Lake Huron? Older than the cat?"

The writer of the novel I failed to read at the pool would probably have had David thinking sentimentally of Stella's former beauty, or feeling sad about how she's let herself go, or something. But Munro has him mysteriously angry -- personally offended by her sagging boobs. It's surprising, absolutely believable, and about a thousand times more interesting than the reaction most writers would resort to. Later in the story, David leaves Stella a naked photo of Catherine. It's a weird thing to do, but again, it's perfect.

Alice Munro has churned out an astounding body of work in the last decade -- she's writing more and better the older she gets. If every writer followed her arc, we'd be drowning in great books.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Predicting Popularity

I must admit that I really quite like James Surowiecki's business column in the New Yorker--he's a highly cogent writer, getting across the broad outline of his subject, however complex, in two and a half columns. I'm not much interested in business, but it seems important to know about; so it's nice to have the subject channelled to me through the mind of a writer I like.

That said, my God, this week's column is depressing. It's about trying to predict who will buy what, using as a springboard Simon & Shuster's decision to partner with Media Predict, a marketing firm that claims to be able to learn, via online polling, which books will sell. It does this through the presentation of a proposal, excerpt, or brief bulleted description of the book, and of course a nice big photo of the author. In other words, online polling as a basis for deciding what gets published.

I don't think I have a single writer friend who considers his/her career to be doing terribly well right now, but if this works--that is, if it makes S&S money--it bodes awfully ill for anybody who'd like to write something odd, disturbing, oblique, difficult, challenging, or unlike what they've done before. Which means, of course, almost every writer friend I have. Not to mention every writer I like.

I am not one of those writers who thinks the reading public are a bunch of idiots who "don't understand me." I realize that I am not going to please everyone. All the same, I am always pleasantly surprised when I do please somebody, or when somebody turns out to like the same obscure writer I do. Those people are definitely out there. The problem is that online-book-poll participants are a self-selecting group--they are people who want to get what they want, instead of what they don't yet know they want. They're people who are not terribly interested in being surprised. These aren't the people who are going to like me much, or the writers I like. And personally, I have never really enjoyed a book that didn't surprise me. Everything I love is something I would never have imagined existed, until I read it.

Polling, in other words, is the opposite of what literature needs, at least as I choose to define it. I once heard a teenager being interviewed on NPR about the presidential election. He said, of the process, "It's not a popularity contest." The joke of course is that a popularity contest is precisely what it is--a president must try to please as much of America as he can.

A writer, by definition, should not be seeking popularity. She should be seeking to discover something about herself, and the world around her, and offer that up to whomever might want it. Which might be almost no one, and if so, more power to her.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


No post yesterday, because we have houseguests. These visitors are a pleasure, luckily--but many a good story comes from that old template, A Stranger Comes To Town. (Its opposite, Someone Goes On A Journey, is not precisely opposite--in fact, I wrote a novel based on the idea of packing both models into the same story. In it, someone goes on a journey, and when he comes back to town, he's a stranger.)

So what are your favorite Unwanted Guest books? Amazon coughs up a hell of a lot of fiction with "visitor" in the title, including stuff from Anita Brookner, Lee Child, W6 Ithaca neighbor Roger Stern, and, my goodness!, Thomas Kinkade.

Wait, you mean The Painter of Light? That's right, there is a series of novels based on the super magical sparkly world of his paintings. Here's the blurb for A Christmas Visitor, which the arteest wrote with Katherine Spencer:

Molly Willoughby-Harding has a beautiful home, a husband, family, and friends, and a blossoming new business-so why is she unhappy? Just as her life is starting to take off, she's pregnant again-and she's going to have to confront her previous notions of what she truly needs to be happy, in order to recapture that elusive Christmas spirit...

Meanwhile, Miranda Potter has found an injured man who's lost his memory. As she nurses him back to health an unexpected attraction develops. Can Miranda let uncertainty back into her life just as things finally start making sense?

And when Reverend Ben finds a wooden angel statue, word spreads that it holds miraculous powers, turning his peaceful church into a tourist attraction-and making it seem more of a burden then a blessing. But what he discovers is that he's given the people of Cape Light the best Christmas gift of all.

What gift is that then? The gift of childish self-delusion!

My favorite visitors, of course, are aliens, the earth-invading kind--the stealthier, the better. But most of the books on that topic are not terribly awesome, as I've lamented here before. It's the other kind of aliens, though--foreigners, I mean--who seem to scare us the most, so perhaps what we need is a thriller about some Mexicans who are creeping over the border bearing the secret communist health care plans that will destroy America.

I'm not gonna write it, though--I've got houseguests.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Egg and I

When I announced to some friends and coworkers that I was now in the chicken-raising business, I had pressed upon me Betty MacDonald's postwar classic, The Egg and I. This was one of those books I had seen in the library when I was a kid, but had avoided: the graphics on the cover and title reminded me of that Carol Channing show -- was it Carol Channing? -- with the sheep puppet named Lambchop. That self-satisfied, 50's-ish, cute cleverness put me off. I was a kid in the 70's and 80's, and the images of the 50's made my skin crawl. There was something decidedly creepy about that era's obsession with grooming and its hollow emphasis on the wholesome.

Anyway. I enjoyed the book quite a bit at first. Aside from my own technical interest in chickens and farming, MacDonald was a whiz at the over-the-top metaphor: about Mrs. Kettle, she remarks, "From this dainty pretty head cascaded a series of busts and stomachs which made her look like a cooky jar shaped like a woman. Her whole front was dirty and spotted and she wiped her hands continually on one or the other of her stomachs..." There's a good deal of this sly but good-natured ragging on her neighbors, and all very entertaining. But about 3/4 of the way through, there's a shocking chapter about how much she hates the dirty, alcoholic Indians. Whoa! Good-bye, good-natured ribbing! And at that point it occured to me that actually, the "sprightly," "breezy" attitude that MacDonald strikes thinly disguises a genuine misanthropy. She hates everyone and everything, but can't admit it. She feels she is the only reasonable and sane person in the book, and has no sense of humor about that at all.

The Egg and I was published in the latter half of the 40's, but it really is a 50's book, filled with disgust for the unconventional and the sloppy and unable to look at its own dark heart.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


I've really come to hate the Fourth of July, as the range of permissible expressions of love for country have gradually narrowed to a tiny collection of empty, self-indulgent rituals which are generally geared more toward proving to those around you how patriotic you are, rather than actually doing things for the nation's betterment. I'm talking about speechifying, president-supporting, terrorism-fearing, and the inexhaustibly classic flag-waving. As opposed to, you know, trying to prevent actual Americans' asses from being shot off. It's as though, instead of planting a tree on arbor day, we printed a picture of one over and over on endless sheaves of nonrecyclable paper and dropped them out of a helicopter over a national forest.

But the thing is, I am a patriot, and a fairly intense one at that. I love the diverse and bizarre American landscape, the comically broad range of possible ways we have of living; I love our national drive and ambition (though God knows it goes off the rails from time to time), our sense of humor, our wacky-ass cuisine.

Is there a way to express patriotism in fiction without sounding like John McCain? All the best books that tackle America, The Subject end up being rather critical of it, or certain aspects of it, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that criticizing America (or certain aspects of it) is, in fact, the noblest, most refined kind of patriotism. Or let me revise that--what counts is seeing America for what it is. Enormous, deluded, beautiful, hideous, brilliant, retarded--the place is incomprehensible, and addressing it in fiction, in all its beastly, smeary unencapsulatable wholeness, is a task that only its greatest admirers bother undertaking.

Which books are those then? Are we talking about, say, Underworld? Independence Day? The Border Trilogy? Big thick books by award-laden dudes? Maybe. But I think we're also talking about Lorrie Moore's self-deprecating comedies, and Colson Whitehead's wry examinations of American self-definition, and George Saunders' whacked-out parallel worlds, and Jane Smiley's rambling epics. Maybe I'll spend the rest of my rainy Fourth reading some of them--stealth patriots.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

You Write Like A Girl

For all of you who haven't seen this yet, it's a thingy that analyzes your writing and tells you what gender you are. The friend who told me about it said it didn't work for her, but when I plugged the last month's W6 entries into it, it was creepily accurate at distinguishing my womany posts from JRL's guy ones. Most weird is the algorithm it uses, which is based just on the use of certain key words. Apparently "around," for example, is masculine, while "with" is female. If you put a piece of writing and let the machine analyze it, you can scroll to the bottom of the page and see the whole list. Most of the words seem completely neutral to me.

I wonder if these differences are integral or just accidental. Would it be a simple matter for a woman writer to ditch her "girly" key words and take up masculine ones, or would it mean a whole different way of thinking?

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Great Brain

I'm not one to get all mushy about kids' books--I'm of the opinion that the vast majority of them are utter crap, even the award winners--but right now I'm reading my kids John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain series, my absolute favorite books when I was my older son's age--around ten. The books are a series of anecdotes based upon the author's childhood in Utah, and in one of the only Catholic families in a largely Mormon area at the end of the 19th century. The narrator, J.D., is a stand-in for the author, and the stories are ostensibly about his brother Tom, a self-styled "Great Brain" who is always getting into--and slipping out of--trouble, or thinking up some (usually successful) money-making scheme.

Of course the stories are really about J.D.'s tremendous powers of observation, and the books comprise an unusually complete and utterly satisfying narrative universe. With their brother, Sweyn, the boys grapple with real moral dilemmas and genuine life problems, including the starving death of a peddler for which the whole town is responsible; the near-suicide and rehabilitation of a boy who has lost a leg; and the recasting of a villainous private-school master as a thoughtful and reasonable man. Fitzgerald constantly calls all his most acute observations into question, and little ever goes as expected. Meanwhile, the characters serve as real role models--I was aware of this even when I was a child, and consciously aspired to Tom's cleverness, Sweyn's maturity, J.D.'s articulateness, their parents' judiciousness and good humor. I hope my kids do the same.

By the way, these books are still in print, and still bearing the terrific illustrations, by Mercer Mayer, that I remember. A nice change of pace from the usual W6 "This book is great but good luck finding a copy."