Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sherman Alexie vs. Neutral Milk Hotel

Two things, this week, have got me thinking about the false dichotomy between intellectual sophistication and emotional directness--and the commonly held misapprehension that the two are somehow mutually exclusive.

The first is an album that an undergraduate of mine turned me on to: "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," the second and last (so far) album by Neutral Milk Hotel, a nineties band from Athens, Georgia. This record came out about ten years ago and is a kind of imaginative response, on the part of reculsive lead singer Jeff Mangum, to the diary of Anne Frank. In it, among other things, he fantasizes traveling back in time to save her:

And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine

The album, though brainy, is characterized by a very unadorned, present sound, extremely simple chord changes, and a somewhat terrifying frankness, which some listeners are liable find cloying or off-putting. For my part, I love it, and am a bit obsessed with this band right now. My own instincts tend toward the ironic and indirect, and such music--like a lot of folk and blues--has an unsettling effect on me. But an importantly unsettling effect, and one that I suspect could tell me something about myself, if I'm prepared to hear it. Mangum's voice is extraordinary--it bends to the breaking point, goes ragged at the edges, and leaps entire octaves in the space of a measure--and has been stuck in my head for the better part of a week.

Anyway, in the middle of this same week, I was stunned to come across another work that imagines traveling back in time to participate in horrfying historical events. I'm talking about the forthcoming novel Flight by Sherman Alexie, most of whose previous work I have read, and have developed rather a complicated relationship with.

I must confess I didn't really "get" Alexie until I saw him give a reading from Reservation Blues in Missoula years ago. He opened up the novel, read the first couple of pages from behind his lectern, then closed the book, stepped aside, and ad-libbed the story, so that it was sort of, but not quite, like the version in the book. His direct, almost childlike, style suddenly made a lot more sense--as the ultimate manifestation of the novel's narrative, it sometimes seemed unsophisticated. But considered as merely one possible approach to an infinite verbal narrative, its complexities suddenly revealed themselves. They were extrinsic to the novel--the novel was part of a great whole, and if read as such was far more satisfying.

So Rhian brought a galley of this new book home from work, and I read it in an evening, and really enjoyed it. It's about a teenage delinquent, half Native American, who appears to murder everyone in a bank, but eventually gets another chance not to commit the crime, after a journey through time. He is a crooked cop putting down a reservation rebellion; he is a wounded adolescent Indian at Little Big Horn; he's a white tracker who leads American soldiers to a doomed tribe. And in the end, he gets a second chance at life.

Flight reads like a YA novel at times--its style is, if anything, even more goofily straightforward than Alexie's previous books. But the narrator's historical jaunt, though it feels incomplete, also feels infinite, as though he might have zoomed through time forever. The simple narrative voice suggests possibility--it's a vessel into which the sweep of history might be poured.

But, as with the Neutral Milk Hotel record, you have to be willing to go along for the ride. And not everybody will be. The sophistication of these works lies in the demands they make on the reader or listener--they're a kind of challenge to the imagination. I'm not sure if this is an established category of art, something that has been identified, debated, and codified in dissertations, but maybe it should be--the peculiar, wry false innocence that leads you down roads you might otherwise be afraid to wander.

EDIT: Rhian just pointed out that Trevor, in the comments of her 9/11 post, brought up Neutral Milk Hotel...and I didn't even notice. Serendipity!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Notes On a Scandal: Joyce Hatto

For anyone who hasn't heard about the Joyce Hatto scandal, Wikipedia is as good a place as any to get the details; the short version is that the classical music world has been rocked by the discovery that Hatto, a reclusive British pianist who released over 100 CD's on her husband's recording label before dying of cancer last summer, actually took the recordings of other pianists and passed them off as her own. Modern technology has made plagiarism like this very easy to do, but also more possible to detect. Apparently someone stuck one of her discs onto iTunes, and the correct composer -- Liszt -- popped up, but the name of the performer was someone else. A quick check proved that the performances were indeed the same. And now Hatto's husband has confessed. He claims he did it for her, to make sure she got the attention she deserved.

Well, it's hard to know whether to trust a con-man; I might just as easily believe that the motivation here was to pull one over on the classical music establishment.

My first thought was, What a great novel this would be! Unfortunately the Hollywood people are already putting screenwriters on the story, so it will probably be a movie before any writing types get their act together.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Who Sent Me Lint?

The other day, I got a package in the mail from the UK, with no return address, containing two books, both about the obscure cult science fiction writer Jeff Lint. Click that link and read a biography.

Now click this link, and get a gander at the line in italics:

It should be noted that Jeff Lint is not real.

Oh. Well, then.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that the first link does not lead to Wikipedia, but a wiki on the website of Snow Books, an independent publisher in London. The second is the acutal Wikipedia link. It would appear that the first is part of a publicity campaign to sell the books of Steve Aylett, an apparent cyberpunk satirist whose splash page reads IMPERVIOUS TO POPULARITY.

Perhaps he's not so impervious, though. I'm publicizing him right now, after all. Did you send this stuff to me, Steve? I think maybe you did. Frankly, that was a good idea. I love little literary mysteries, especially when they result in my receiving free geeky books like these.

There is a long tradition, of course, of imaginary writers, and books about them by non-imaginary the top of my head I can recommend Peter Carey's wonderful novel My Life As A Fake, and all of the amazing imaginary poets who were actually Fernando Pessoa.

As for Jeff Lint, I wasn't fooled for long, only because the name is just too perfect. But I'll still read the books. Long Live Lint!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

9-11 Fiction, Part 1: A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a song that blew my socks off: "While You Were Sleeping" by Elvis Perkins. Perkins is a son of the late Anthony Perkins and the photographer Berry Berenson, who was in one of the planes that flew into the WTC. "While You Were Sleeping" seems to be about his mother and that day, and it's beautiful and moving and it is (I think) the first piece of "9-11 art" that I've heard/seen/read that really works. Of course, Perkins has a personal connection to the material. If *I* wrote a 9-11 song, it would feel wrong and exploitative. (Not that I have written a song in my life.)

"While You Were Sleeping" awoke in me a desire to read ALL the 9-11 novels. The last couple of years have sprouted a bunch of them, and I've been avoiding them all. I didn't want to relive the horror and I didn't want to be subjected to others' interpretation of it. But now I do want to see how writers have handled it. They are writers with more nerve than I.

So I started with A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus, which was a National Book Award Finalist last year. I get the impression that Kalfus was most energized by his clever and compelling premise: a divorcing couple each thinks the other is killed in the WTC attacks, and are disappointed when they each show up back home. Most of the rest of the book is about the divorce, painfully dragged out over the anthrax- and war-infused years that follow.

What is best about the book is the way it shows how current events have inserted themselves into ordinary lives. It's something worth writing about, for sure. And though some reviewers have interpreted the book as a condemnation of the way Americans went temporarily insane in the run-up to the Iraq War, I think Kalfus is a little more forgiving than that. His characters are too shell-shocked to fully absorb or think critically about what's going on around them, and so are easily exploited by greater forces. (Exploitation again: definitely a theme of the times.)

The ending of the book is interesting and surprising and it works, but I won't spoil it for anyone.

Next I think I'll give The Emperor's Children a go. Reactions to it have been split and I'm curious to see where I stand. Then maybe Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dream Sequences

Probably number one on the list of things writing teachers outlaw in workshops is the dream sequence, which, like an eight-minute guitar solo, is supposed to be much more fun to create than it is to read. About that, I'm not so sure. Certainly, I love to write them, but I love to read them, too. The problem with them is that, when they're good, they're fascinating, but when they're not so good, they're insufferable. A good dream fills a story with mystery and excitement; a bad one cheapens it terribly.

I'm back on Crime And Punishment, as my book group is meeting tomorrow for our second, and final, session on it; and I must admit that I'm shocked at how many dreams it contains. I'd entirely forgotten this. At the midpoint of the book is a terrifying sequence in which Raskolnikov dreams he is again murdering the old pawnbroker, and she laughs uncontrollably as he strikes her with the axe. And right after this, Svidrigailov arrives--a deeply creepy widower who may or may not have poisoned his wife and is obsessed with Raskolnikov's sister--and reveals that he sees his dead wife all the time, and actual reality begins to take on the quality of a dream.

Later, Raskolnikov sets out for Svidrigailov's apartment, but instead heads down a random street, for no clear reason--and there is Svidrigailov, in the window of a tavern Raskolnikov has never seen before. Raskolnikov calls it a miracle--and Svidrigailov corrects him:

     "...And as for the miracle...I myself suggested this tavern to you...I gave you all the directions myself, described the place where it stands, and told you the hours when I could be found here. Remember?"
     "I forgot," Raskolnikov answered in surprise.

Svidrigailov goes on to reveal that he has seen Raskolnikov leave his own apartment many times, and watched him go out into the street talking to himself and waving his hands in the air--something we, limited to Raskolnikov's point of view, have never seen before.

At this point it occurrd to me that the whole book functioned as a dream--that its logic was not strictly realistic, but adhered instead to the rules of intuition, and to its own moral complexity above all. There is another reality hidden behind the ostensible one--the reader feels the floor falling away beneath his feet. It also occurred to me that I was totally going to rip that scene right the hell off for my novel-in-progress, which functions in a similar manner, or tries to anyway.

I love books that seem entirely like dreams--one of my favorite novels of all time is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, the kind of story in which the protagonist enters a room, then emerges five minutes later to find he's in an entirely different building...or suddenly remembers that an old man, a stranger, whom he has been dealing with for the past 400 pages is actually his father. I'd like to say I've been trying for years to imitate this book, but I haven't--I'm afraid to. It's too strange and wonderful.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Architecture of Happiness

Alison Lurie has a review of Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness in the latest New York Review of Books. I think I'll have to take a look at it -- the subject is, quite literally, how architecture can make a person happy, or sad, or angry, or anxious, or so on. This has been a hobby horse of mine ever since I read James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere which is about more or less the same thing and apparently was originally supposed to be titled Why America Is So Fucking Ugly.

(Here's an example: Chicago's Union Station. When I got off a train there a few (okay, many) years ago, the original part of the station was an incredible example of public architecture: soaring, cathedral-like ceilings, wide open, sound-absorbing spaces, long pew-like oak benches. It made you feel important, awed, soothed, and excited, all at once. But when you left the old part of the station and entered the newer, rehabbed part, you were confronted with low ceilings, gray fluorescent lights, uncomfortable plastic seats, stained carpeting, and blaring TV screens in every corner. Why, why, why???)

Lurie points out that much of de Botton's oeuvre, particularly How Proust Can Change Your Life, is about how to be happy, and notes that "this goal maybe be particularly relevent" now that some colleges are actually teaching courses in "The Psychology of Happiness." If kids are now paying 40K a year to learn basic life skills, instead whatever they were learning before, I don't know, but I think we might be in some kind of trouble.

(Another example: I once read a memoir about a guy struggling with his depression, in which he described living in his dark, damp, basement apartment. I kept thinking, Dude, move out of the freaking basement! Sure enough, near the end of the book he moved into a light-filled house on a hill and his depression miraculously lifted. I mean, people aren't supposed to live underground. Corpses live underground.)

Anyway, Alison Lurie is an Ithaca neighbor of ours and even though she has now gracefully blown through her seventies, she is still churning out erudite but incredibly readable criticism and hilarious fiction at a rate those of us less than half her age deeply envy. Wish I knew her secret. Maybe it's these frigid upstate winters??

Thursday, February 22, 2007

DIY Steampunk Keyboard

Okay, I hate to give you another link post like this, but I couldn't resist. Via the Make Magazine Blog, this is a homemade computer keyboard made with manual typewriter keys. I think it's the function keys that really take it over the top...a stunning use of free time. Click through for bigger pics and a link to the builder's page (which, as I write this, is pretty slow).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Audio Podcast: Junot Diaz

I just finished talking with Junot Diaz, author of the celebrated story collection Drown and a forthcoming novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, due out this fall from Riverhead. We talked about the immigrant experience, ripping off our heroes, genre fiction, and how every writer is a political writer; download the mp3 at the Writers At Cornell Blog. Diaz is a great talker--his responses to my stammered questions sort of roll out in an intricate fog of erudition. You'll dig it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Downloadable Books

I like gadgets, sort of. That is, I like them when they actually solve some problem I had, or serve a function worth their expense. (That is to say: iPod yes, cell phone no.) But I am not in a big hurry to buy the Sony Reader, a trade-paperback-sized device, capable of storing and clearly displaying hundreds of books and other documents, which no one in their right mind would ever use in the bathtub.

But the e-book is coming, in the "it's already been here for ten years" sense, and I suspect devices like the Sony Reader will be in much wider use in another ten years. The main problem with e-books, up until now, has been the fact that nobody likes reading for pleasure on a glowing screen. The Reader's display is a kind of electronic paper, which looks more book-like and is illuminated by ambient light. In other words, you can sit next to a lamp and read with it. I've only seen pictures, but they look pleasantly non-fatiguing so far.

I'm not terribly sentimental about the book itself, but mostly because there is approximately zero chance it's going to go away. I still have plenty of vinyl records, after all. And then there's the tub--and the beach, and the toilet--places you are not going to want a $350 device with you, no matter how pleasant it is to read off of. But I think this thing could be very useful for reading newspaper articles, academic papers, out-of-print titles, one's own manuscripts exported to .pdf--ephemeral or hard-to-find texts we might otherwise have to read on our computers.

Will people eventually actually pay to download bestsellers from the internet? I'd say probably yes. Will Google be involved? Oh my yes they will. Will writers get ripped off? About that, I'm not so sure, in much the same way I'm not so sure I dislike Google Books (and by the way, that link is my first-ever visit to Google Books, and holy geez, that's some scary shit). Time will tell how well writers and readers benefit, or fail to benefit, from these new technologies. Personally, music downloads have enabled me to actually sell some of my songs for the first time in my life, and to enjoy listening to recordings in a new way--so I'm willing to be convinced electronic books will be good for all. So far, though, I'm agnostic.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Money Changes Everything

This is an interesting collection of personal essays about getting and losing money, put together by Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, who did a similar collection about defunct female friendships (The Friend That Got Away) which I enjoyed. Dan Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) writes about his sudden enormous wealth, Chris Offutt describes how his parents supported his family in the hills of Kentucky (his father wrote hardcore pornography and his mother typed it) and many others have contributed essays about inheriting money, making it forging art, or never having it at all.

Most writers I know have a weird relationship with money and almost all of them talk about it a lot. A LOT. I guess that's what happens when you work for years, watching your savings melt away, and then suddenly, WHAM, you have two or three years' worth of cash all at once. The whole work-money relationship is thrown out of whack. Sometimes (most of the time) you're not paid at all, and sometimes (once in a great while) you're overpaid.

In any event, I borrowed this book from work and think I'll wait for the paperback before I actually buy it. Books about money have a way of making me feel even cheaper than usual.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading And Writing In Restaurants

I remember the first time I saw somebody using a laptop computer in a cafe. The pretentious S.O.B.! It was the early nineties, at the sandwich shop in Missoula, Montana where I was trying to supplement my grad student teaching-assistant stipend of $6000 a year. (On my last day of work there, I would break a glass I was washing and cut my hand, landing me in the hospital for stitches. I still recall with enormous pleasure the flood of awesome chemicals that my body pumped into my bloodstream in response--it might have been the best mood I was ever in. But that's another story.) Nothing, at that time, seemed more dorkily ostentatious than using a computer in public--the equivalent today might be driving a Segway to work.

Anyway, by now I've used my laptop in public dozens of times, though it still makes me a little uncomfortable. One's computing habits are personal, frankly. I don't want passersby seeing my NASA supernova desktop, complete with the poor untethered drifting astronaut I photoshopped in. I don't want them catching a line or two of an email from my mom.

But reading's a different thing, and so is writing in a notebook. The closest I ever get, while being alone, to the euphoria I felt after I cut my hand at work is probably the feeling of sitting down in a restaurant, ordering an enormous glass of beer, and reading a crime novel while waiting for my companions to arrive (usually Rhian and our kids). I can't read anything more serious than that--there are too many distractions. It's akin to the feeling of pitching a tent in a wilderness, then climbing inside and firing up the Sterno. It makes a private space, a zone of mental pleasure, within the confusion of the outside world. It's getting to be content while knowing that, when you're interrupted, it will be so that somebody can bring you some more pleasure. Like food.

I mentioned a few posts back about writing a second draft of a novel on a manual typewriter. The first draft of that novel was written longhand, on legal pads, in a coffee shop (The Oak, here in Ithaca, now defunct, but whose co-owner went on to start this) and in parks. I still don't know how I managed that--less on my mind in those days, maybe. At any rate, there's no doubt that cafe-scribblers have got their hands on a particular kind of mojo, that portable universe of self that can make a writer feel less like some shlump indulging herself in private, and more like a chronicler of life as it's lived.

And oddly, hardly anyone seems pretentious to me anymore. Everyone seems terribly, painfully earnest, especially the snobs, with their MacBook Pros and elaborate vegan beverages. Type away, hipsters--dig life in the pleasure zone while it lasts. It's rough out here, in Iran-war-anticipation-land, and we're running out of Sterno.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

About the Scrotum

The newest Newbery Award winning children's book, The Higher Power of Lucky, apparently has the word "scrotum" on the very first page, which, according to the New York Times article about it, has caused an uproar among some school librarians. To quote the Times, quoting the book:
“Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much,” the book continues. “It sounded medical and secret, but also important.”
Now that is an excellent example of how to use the word "scrotum" in a kid's book. It perfectly describes the way child figures out new, off-limits vocabulary. And heck, "scrotum" isn't even a swear. I can't think of a better place for my kids to learn the names of body parts than a Newbery Award-winning book. It certainly beats my having to teach them.

I don't know how the offended librarians are going to handle this, though. "No, Giselle, we don't have the 2006 winner, because it's very, very naughty." You might as well hang a big READ ME tag on it.

Sometimes I think we should tell kids, "You're not allowed to read until you're twenty-one." Next thing you know, we'll have a nation of binge-readers.

Friday, February 16, 2007

All Hail Pleasureable Failure

One day, when I was in (I think) third grade, my teacher passed out a little worksheet. It was a mimeograph--you know, the sweet-smelling purple-text precursor of the photocopy--covered on both sides with instructions. The instructions were incredibly fun and easy--they told you to draw circles and squares around certain letters, solve math puzzles, make drawings, and break codes. The first instruction, however, was "READ EVERYTHING BEFORE DOING ANYTHING."

Naturally, almost everyone ignored the first one and dove right in. Wouldn't you? Presented with a fun, mysterious assignment, I saw no reason not to. I drew my pictures and solved my problems, and at some point noticed that one kid, call him Carl, had finished within seconds and was handing his paper in, to the teacher's evident glee.

When I got to the end, I saw that the last instruction was, "Now that you have read everything, write your name at the top and hand in the worksheet."

Carl was rewarded with a hearty and theatrical congratulations. The point of the worksheet, it turned out, was not to give us something interesting to do--it was to get us to follow instructions to the letter. Those of us who had chosen a pleasurable failure were chastised; the one of us who had chosen joyless submission to authority was praised.

Man, I'm still mad. As it happens I chose a career that is all about pleasurable failure, and I don't regret it one bit. And as for Carl? He now works for...the United States Department of Defense.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Harriet the Spy

I think my opinions about children and reading are so strong because so many books I read when I was a kid still hold tremendous power over me. I picked up a copy of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the bookstore the other day and skimmed through it and found that I remembered almost every single line. If you haven't read it, it's about an eleven-year-old girl (a tomboy!) who spies on people and keeps a notebook because she wants to be a writer when she grows up. In the end her friends find the notebook and discover all the honest but pretty unkind things she was thinking and writing about them, and she has to figure out how to stay friends with them while staying true to her "art," so to speak. It's a pretty incredible book. It was written in 1964, which blows me away.

Tonight I was discussing the death of Elvis with my nine-year-old son, talking about his (Elvis's!) drug abuse and how hard it was to understand that someone so talented and successful could be so sad. And O. said, Well, when you're that rich and famous it must really hard to know if people like you for yourself, or because you're rich and famous. Which is of course terribly, and even obviously, true, but this is a kid who is obsessed with Tamagotchis and squeezing as much computer time out of me as he can, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I was actually startled that this was something he'd put some thought into, which of course he had.

And this is all to point out how easy it is to underestimate children. If I were writing a book for O., I doubt I'd write something as smart and complicated and true as Harriet the Spy. I don't think Louise Fitzhugh ever had children, and maybe that's part of it. Maybe there's something about being a parent that makes you focus on the homework, the violin practice, and the fingernails to the exclusion of what's going on behind the scenes.

Anyway, I'm grateful there are some writers out there who can write for children without forgetting what complex and thoughtful people they were too, when they were kids.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Muckysnogger Booty Call

I'm susceptible to occasionally getting sucked into the world of word games and obscure limiting exercises, and at one point last year I was obsessively writing pangrams. These are sentences that use every letter in the alphabet. You know, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Which, according to the Wikipedia link above, was "developed by Western Union to test Telex/TWX data communication equipment for accuracy and reliability."

Of course, we know them as typewriter-testers, or, more commonly these days, font-testers. Rhian's favorite has long been "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs"--and at 32 letters, it's pretty impressive. The fewer letters you use, of course, the more powerful your mojo (a "perfect" pangram being one that uses each letter only once) but in my opinion the very best ones are the funniest, regardless of how many letters you use.

Wikipedia helpfully, and amusingly, supplies classic pangrams in many languages--the title of this post is a perfect one in Finnish.

My technique is to print myself a page of about 15 alphabets, all caps, stretching across an 8-by-11.5-inch page, with plenty of space between for composition. Then I cross off the letters as I use them. I wrote a dozen or so last year, which were published as "New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters." Here they are:

Fetching killjoy Mavis Wax was probed on the quay.
“Yo, never mix Zoloft with Quik,” gabs Doc Jasper.
One zany quaff is vodka mixed with grape juice and blood.
Zitty Vicki smugly quipped in her journal, “Fay waxes her butt.”
Hot Wendy gave me quasi-Kreutzfeld-Jacob pox.
Jack's pervy moxie quashed Bob's new Liszt fugue.
I backed Zevy's qualms over Janet's wig of phlox.
Tipsy Bangkok panjandrums fix elections with quivering zeal.
Mexican juntas, viewed in fog, piqued Zachary, killed Rob.
Jaywalking Zulu chieftains vex probate judge Marcy Quinn.
Twenty-six Excedrin helped give Jocko quite a firm buzz.
Racy pics of bed hijinx with glam queen sunk Val.
Why Paxil? Jim's Bodega stocked no quince-flavor Pez.
Wavy-haired quints of El Paz mock Jorge by fax.
Two phony quacks of God bi-exorcize evil mojo.
What joker put seven dog lice in my Iraqi fez box?

Got any good ones? Put 'em in the comments!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I Heart Writers

The forecast at our place isn't looking especially romantic for tomorrow: school's been preemptively cancelled because of rumors of a big storm (last time they did that we got a whopping four inches; I'm so hoping for more) and dinner plans never got off the ground. Thanks to JRL's incredible grandmother, though, we are well stocked with chocolate.

But I would like to send a valentine to all the gorgeous male writers of the world. All the men I've ever loved have been writers of some kind (my first boyfriend was, and is, an amazing cartoonist) because, face it, nothing is more of a turn-on than a man putting pencil to paper. Or rolling a piece of paper into a typewriter. Or standing in front of a printer waiting as the pages of his oeuvre stack up. You are all incredibly sexy, and I love you.

That is all.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Our Typewriters

Oh boy, Rhian's gonna like this one. I was googling around for this new interview with Stephen Dixon that she'd been telling me about, when I stumbled onto a frankly awesome site called They have a section featuring various writers and their typewriters, and there was Dixon, and his Hermes Standard.

I know that typewriter well, because I've been corresponding with Dixon for like a dozen years, and he still uses it. Every letter I've ever gotten from him is typed, usually on the back of an abandoned manuscript page with a big ballpoint X over the text. For years I actually did this myself, sending people letters on the back of manuscript pages, because Steve is the world's coolest man, and I wanted to be cool in the same way.

Anyway, seeing this site got me thinking about our typewriters, and I went around the house taking pictures of them. They're above. (I think I'm missing one; Rhian will tell me.) The first is a big old Underwood--if it was a piano, you'd call it an upright. I actually wrote the second draft of my novel On The Night Plain with it, since it was a forties novel, and I wanted to write it using forties technology. (My Underwood is actually a sixties machine, though.) There's a label above the platen telling you the name of the shop in Missoula, Montana where you can have it serviced. I doubt it's still there. Sadly, when I picked the Underwood up from the shelf in my writing shed where I keep it, a bunch of birdseed hulls fell out--mice have been living in it.

The next one, a Corona portable, I only ever wrote a couple of stories on--the first draft of the short story that eventually turned into Mailman was one of them. It looks great, because it's in a very sturdy case. Little moldy blooms are all over the outside of the case, though--I need to clean it.

Next is a Remington we got at a yard sale. It's only ever been a display piece--it's sitting next to me now, on the dining room bureau. It's called NOISELESS 8, a name I've been wanting to steal for a rock band for years now.

Finally, there next to my knee, is our Selectric--I think the only thing I ever used it for was applying to grad school, but Rhian wrote on it a lot, and I think her ex-boyfriend did too. Or maybe that was a different one--at some point we had a few of them, sold the crappiest ones, and used the money to have the nicest one fixed up. At any rate, Selectrics were, and are, fabulous typewriters--that hum was like the sound of thinking.

The thing is, I started writing seriously on word processors. First, in college, on my roommate's first-generation Macintosh, then on a Brother word processor, the first I ever bought myself. I later switched to writing on Rhian's first PC, and then bought an impossibly heavy laptop. I now write on the HP Pavilion I'm using right now (on OpenOffice, of course, since I'm an open-source geek), or at my computer in my office at work.

I thought the experience of writing on a computer would result in drastically different fiction from writing with a typewriter. And while On The Night Plain is indeed different from my other novels, so are all my other novels. So I don't think it's the technology. But man those machines are beautiful. Someday, when the kids head off to college with all of our dough, I'll take them apart and put them back together, and keep them well oiled forever. But for now, the mice are in no danger of eviction.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Worst Covers Ever

I suppose the main purpose of the cover of a romance novel is to stand out from the other books on the rack, so the fact that the position of the (presumable) woman on this one is well-nigh impossible is actually a benefit -- you can't help staring and staring at it. You can find more here. The year 2004 seemed to be a banner one for screechingly funny bad covers.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Writing Inside And Outside Experience

There are two mistakes I see a lot of writers--often students--making, and when you get down to it they're the same mistake.

The first is the tendency of the writer who has inside information to hew so closely to that information that they forget the rest of the world. This information could be anything, but these days it often involves culture and class--the increasing diversity of our society has created a great demand for culturally specific material, and such material, in the possession of a skilled writer, gives their work a special authority. Think of Louise Erdrich, for instance, or Jhumpa Lahiri. These are good writers who have used their inside information to breathe life into universally interesting stories.

But sometimes a writer gives the inside information itself too much weight, and it turns into exploitation. Look! it can seem to say. Hyphenated Americans! Alternative Lifestyles! The inside information no longer offers readers a unique point of access to the human condition--instead, it feels like a barrier through which the reader cannot pass.

The other mistake is perhaps a reaction to writers like Lahiri and Erdrich. It's the assumption, among those who don't have any inside information, that their own experience is worthless, and they have to go fake it in somebody else's territory. The result is every bit as sterile as the exploitive-insider story, and perhaps more boring.

The worst thing about this mistake is that the writer is wrong--there IS value in their own experience. They just haven't hunted it down yet. Their inside information is as inside as it gets--it's their own way of seeing. Indeed, that's the true inside information for everyone, no matter what else they know. The trouble is that you don't always know how you see things. Every writer needs to figure this out: you have to trick yourself into not tricking yourself.

Lately I have hugely enjoyed the work of writers who have worked their way through their cultural otherness and emerged as, definitively, themselves. Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead fit the bill, I think--they are black writers whose work addresses race, but is about, and for, humanity. And Frederick Seidel, who I've blogged about a couple of times, is a rich white guy who, against all odds, renders fascinating a kind of life that our literate culture is otherwise liable to dismiss. He does it--as the other writers I've mentioned do--by being absolutely, inalienably, himself.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Jenny Diski: Jowls Are Available

I've never read her books, but I think I love Jenny Diski after reading her description of trolling around Second Life in the latest London Review of Books (click here). She got the title from the fact that when users create their avatars, they can choose from a menu of attributes that includes wrinkles and jowls. But apparently everyone chooses big boobs/muscles and Angelina Jolie lips instead. The idea of Second Life intrigues me a great deal, but the fact is, the very best things about the Real World (grand pianos, maple trees, wine, kisses) are the exact things that Second Life excludes.

Diski also has a blog and a bunch of novels and memoirs that I'm going to be ordering from the bookstore tomorrow. It appears she published her first book when she was around forty, and then a book every year or two after that, which I find very encouraging.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Audio Podcast: Poet Elizabeth Alexander

I've been light on the content these past few days, as I've been preparing another blog, this one for the college where I teach, Cornell U. Cornell invites ten or so writers to campus every semester, and I'm endeavoring to interview every one of them, for about twenty minutes apiece, and post the interviews online. The first one was today--I spoke with poet, essayist, and Yale Prof Elizabeth Alexander. We discussed her poetry--particularly her latest collection, American Sublime--as well as the Amistad Rebellion, Denzel Washington, and what parenthood does to your mind.

Check it out at the Writers At Cornell blog. Back with something substantive tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Read to Your Bunny?

So just how much does what you read -- or how you read -- as a child predict or mold the kind of reader or writer or person you turn out to be?

I come from a family of compulsive readers. My grandmother used to come visit us with a suitcase just filled with romance novels. Her son, my father, reads in a similar way: mysteries, thrillers, Tarzan, and non-fiction -- constantly. My mother is a little choosier but has always gone to the library and come back with a huge armload. However, my parents hardly ever read to us when we were kids. Reading was a private thing, not a shared activity. In fact, it was more like smoking than anything else: a thing we did when we were bored or anxious or alone, not a warm, family thing at all.

I think about this because there's a lot of pressure on parents to read to their kids these days, and I'm not sure I'm one hundred percent behind it. That sounds like horrible heresy, doesn't it? But I wonder: if children's experience of reading is entirely connected to their parents, won't they reject it when they begin to move away from their families and forge their own identities? What if, for the next generation, books get all tainted with uncool mom-ness?

JRL and I do read to our kids. Since we're uptight we don't let them watch TV or play video games, and staring at the wall gets dull after a bit, so they read a lot on their own, too. But I want them to experience the feeling of discovering a great book on their own -- that power to escape dull family life.

Oh, well, I'm probably worrying for nothing: reading is inherently an internal thing, isn't it?

I love my mom, but I can't help but think that Harriet the Spy or The Secret Garden would have been less potent for me if I'd listened to them on her lap.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

D. F. Wallace: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I read David Foster Wallace's The Girl With Curious Hair when I was still in college, in 1989 or so. I remember thinking it was interesting, but coldly experimental, and that I was going to go on-board as being anti-David-Foster-Wallace. Even in those early days, it was clear that he was a thing people were going to be for or against. And it felt personal, too: I decided I didn't like DFW, the guy, because I didn't like what I thought he was doing with fiction. Which was showing off.

Then Infinite Jest came out and just reaffirmed my opinion -- the longest book ever! What a show off! I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the cute year names.

But then over the years I read little bits and pieces of his work, including his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which is about going on a cruise and is one of the funniest things I've ever read, but also intimate and thoughtful and only slightly show-offy. All of his non-fiction is like this: rambling, inquisitive, and self-consciously brainy. Even his essay about Tracy Austin.

The impression I have when reading DFW's fiction is that it tangles you up and leaves you hanging in a sterile, literary space, while his non-fiction takes you to a real place. His essays give you the feeling (though it might not be true) that you're getting to know a person named DFW who is a thoroughly entertaining fellow; meanwhile his observations are surprising and enlightening.

This pertains somewhat to the latest story, Good People, from last week's New Yorker, even though it's not even the least bit experimental and has been described by other bloggers as being kinda post-ironic, or something. I had the interesting experience of falling asleep while I was reading the last page, and dreaming up an ending, and reading the real one. My dream ending was a political one - that the boy in the story realized he could really have no opinion about the abortion because he was a boy.

And maybe that's why I didn't like the story, ultimately, though I do like DFW and his rambling brain, these days. Because I'm tired of abortion-from-the-boy's-point-of -view stories. It's a legitimate literary experience, of course. But.

Is it too sweeping to observe that there are fewer abortion stories from the female point of view? I've certainly read plenty of abortion memoirs by women, but not so many short stories. Is it because the fictive voice lends itself so well to distance and "watching the other" -- because fiction is so much about mystery?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Grammar, Spelling, and the Internet

You could write a book about this, but for me it will just be a paragraph or three. May I just say that I absolutely adore the way the internet embraces and codifies crappy grammar and misspelling? For all its glorious YouTubishness the web remains, for me, mostly a text medium, one that can proliferate an amusing mistake all over the world in a matter of hours, and gather it up into the shaggy, loving arms of its accepted lexicon. The rallying cry of this new world of intentional awkwardness must certainly be "All your base are belong to us," a poorly-translated-from-Japanese phrase discovered in a 1989 videogame called Zero Wing. It's perfect in its earnest near-meaningfulness, and earnest near-meaningfulness is what the internet is all about.

Take, for instance, the typo teh, which never ceases to amuse me; there's a whole freaking Wikipedia page about it (see link), which contains this glorious bit of dorkitude:

Furthermore, teh is sometimes used in front of a verb in a novel form of gerund. The best-known example of this is the word "suck". Thus, the phrase "this sucks" can be converted into "this is teh suck"; the word pwn can be similarly converted (teh pwn). The latter phrase is primarily used by the computer gaming community, and often intended humorously.

Aren't you glad you live in the kind of world where that paragraph can come into being? I think my current favorite use for intentionally-awkward internet slang are these little jpegs you see here and there that feature a cute kitten surrounded by boldface-courier type that reads "Is this teh intrawebs?" or "I made you a cookie, but I eated it." These images, friends, are the "Hang in there, baby!" of our generation.

Of course having a retard for a President only fuels this movement; Bush has given us "the Google" and "the internets," but I'm a little less comfortable using these malapropisms, as I strongly suspect that they aren't really mistakes, but coded messages to the base, assuring them that their Fearless Leader is still a down-home country boy and not some Frenchified in-touch-with-the-culture liberal. But this is Ward Six, not DailyKos, so I'll shut it.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

The Art of Bad Conversation

Dialogue. It feels like the easiest thing in the world to write, doesn't it? Somebody says something, then somebody else answers. And then that person responds, and the first person responds to the response, and pretty soon you've got eight double-spaced pages and you're heading for the early bird special at Denny's with a big self-aggrandizing smile on your face.

And then, a few weeks later, you read what you wrote, and it's the boringest thing imaginable. What the hell?

Maybe you ought to go back to Denny's--not for the food, for some eavesdropping. If you listen to the way people actually talk, it doesn't work the way you think. People don't respond to each other in the expected way. Thoughts go unfinished. Someone starts arguing a point, and then abruptly gives up. Someone changes her mind, or changes the subject. Sometimes two people who appear to be talking to each other are actually holding two separate conversations with themselves, out loud.

Some of the best dialogue I've read can be found in James Welch's 1974 novel Winter In The Blood. There is a lot of talking in bars in this book, and nobody's ever quite listening to anyone else; multiple conversations are carried on at once, and when anybody says anything, it takes another line or two before anybody else notices. Here's a bit from late in the novel. The narrator has just been in a fight, and he comes home to find his grandmother's chair empty. Soon his mother and stepfather walk in the door:

     "She passed away," Teresa said, setting down the sack of groceries.
     "What did you do to your nose?" Lame Bull said.
     Teresa looked at him. "It was a merciful death."
     "Where is she now?" I said.
     "We took her to Harlem." Teresa began to put the canned goods in the cupboard.
     "Somebody busted me one," I said to Lame Bull. "How come? Why don't we bury her here, where the rest of them are?"
     "She was a fine woman," Lame Bull said.
     "Because they have to fix her up. They'll make her look nice. And Father Kittredge will want to say a few words over her."
     "But it would have been easier to bury her here," I said. "She didn't even go to church."
     "Can't you get it through your head that we are going to bury her here?" The voice was calm. "As for looking nice--it's the least we can do."
     "Standard procedure," Lame Bull said.
     "Will the priest come down to bury her?"
     Teresa turned. She had been putting the milk in the icebox. "I don't know, if he can get away."
     "Like he did when we stuck First Raise in the ground?"
     She looked away. "He's very busy. They're sending him to another parish...Idaho."
     "Look here, boy." Lame Bull pulled a bottle of wine from a paper sack.

First Raise is the narrator's father, and a whole raft of resentment and unhappiness--about his absence, and about Lame Bull's presence, and about Teresa's affiliation with the priest, whom the narrator considers a fake, is coiled up in those efficient lines.

If you keep reading another page, you get to the funniest line in the book, too. Lame Bull, trying to justify his purchase of the bottle of wine, offers the following testimonial: "I saw a guy drinking this once in Great Falls."

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Saturday Night Writer's Block Party

Writer's block doesn't exist. That's what I've been told, and I believe it: the arguments are so logical. William Stafford was a noted writer's block skeptic. What you have to do, he said, is lower your standards. People who think they have writer's block are trying too hard to be good. Just write! he said. Just do it.

I had a teacher once who said that it was a matter of being too proud to write the crap that you have to write in order to get to the good stuff. I've also heard that there can't be any such thing as writer's block, because there's no such thing as carpenter's block or plumber's block or tennis block.

This is all true and convincing. Nevertheless, after six years of sitting down at my desk almost every day, after six years of just doing it, I have nothing to show for it. Well, I have hundreds of pages. But I have no novel, no short story, not even a haiku.

The pages fall into two categories. One: writing that, whether it is "good" or "bad," means nothing to me, and that I would just as soon throw out. It's empty. Or two: writing that I kind of like, that seems pretty true and not bad and maybe even funny, but for the life of me won't hang together in any kind of shape. It refuses to congeal into a thing with a beginning, middle, and end.

The best metaphor for how this all feels is impotence. You've done it before, you know in great detail how it's supposed to go off, and God knows you WANT it... but it ain't happening, baby.

There are about a thousand possible contributing factors (babies, politics, a contract that went sour, and yes, pride, and yes, wavering commitment, etc., etc.) none of which means a thing when it comes down to it. Kindly friends have suggested, "Well, maybe it's not meant to be right now... maybe you should try doing something else..." Ultimately this might be the sanest choice. But I can't not keep doing it. I can't stop trying to unlock this door. I know I have the key to it somewhere.

Friday, February 2, 2007

A Book Fetish

This post might not mean much to those of you whose mental DNA was not forged in the public library. But if yours was... look at this gorgeous thing!

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I wanted to reread Rebecca this summer and found this copy at the Tompkins County Public Library. It looks like it's over fifty years old, and has been read maybe 300 times. (In fact, according to Wikipedia: "Though literary critics have often berated Du Maurier's writings for not being 'intellectually heavyweight' ... for several decades she was the number one author for library book borrowings.")

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Look at how carefully this book was maintained over the years -- the cloth tape at the binding, the later plastic tape at the edges.

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Great first line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The bottom of the page is practically worn out from all those thumbs holding it.

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There's a wonderful soft/rough quality to the pages of old, well-read books. They smell good too.

I was tempted to steal this from the library -- I know they have a tendency to ditch old books, and was amazed this one survived as long as it did. But that would be wrong. It's a library book, and it needs to live out its life as one... but I thought I'd take some pictures of it.

An Interview...With Us

Susan Tomaselli of Dogmatika, guest blogging at 3am Magazine, has interviewed Rhian and me about our work and about this blog. The interview's in two parts, here and here. Thanks a lot, Susan!

In other news, I'm gonna stop underlining hyperlinks. Blogger doesn't offer an underline button, for some reason, and all this html is hurting my hand.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

New David Wallace Story

Speaking of short stories...David Foster Wallace has a new one, called "Good People," in the latest New Yorker, and it's really excellent. It's short, and very simple--a 19-year-old devout Christian kid is standing in a park, contemplating whether or not he loves the girl he has impregnated. The word "abortion" does not appear, but that's what he's really thinking about.

I've always liked Wallace a lot. It's kind of a shame that his fame accreted around Infinite Jest...not that it's a bad book. Indeed, it's great in many ways, but it's also this big bloated sloppy thing that kind of obscures the incredible clarity that Wallace is so adept at achieving. His eye and ear (especially his ear) are peerless. And maybe more importantly, he is willing--far more than his other metafiction-slingin' contemporaries--to risk sentimentality. He teeters often on the edge of vulnerability and sweetness, and that edge is where he does some of his best work.

This story is right there on that edge. His protagonist gives himself over to love--or, rather, to the possibility that he doesn't know what the hell love is. It'd be sappy if it weren't so clear and true and honest. The prose, as ever, is simultaneously incisive and rambling, as in this bit of scene-setting:

Lane was very still and immobile and looking past the bank at the downed tree in the shallows and its ball of exposed roots going in all directions and the tree's cloud of branches all half in the water. The only other individual nearby was a dozen spaced tables away, by himself, standing upright. Looking at the torn-up hole in the ground there where the tree had gone over. It was still early yet and all the shadows wheeling right and shortening.

Nice. Go give it a look.