Friday, March 30, 2007

Barthleme Online

So I assigned a short story for my graduate workshop to read, by a writer I won't name but whose fiction, which I found unappealing before, I thought deserved a second chance. I read the story and found my original opinion confirmed: Bad Barthleme.

Donald Barthleme was a wonderful fiction writer, essayist, and critic active in the 1970's and 1980's; he followed in the footsteps of the Oulipians as an "experimental" writer who was as funny and engaging as he was innovative. His selected-story collections 60 Stories and 40 Stories are among my favorite books by any 20th Century American writers. Barthleme died young but left behind several careers' worth of great writing, and he was, and is, a major influence on my own work.

I showed up for class and asked the students--what did you think? One of them, Alexi Zentner, immediately said "Bad Barthleme."

In this case, most of the class agreed, and that got me thinking it was time to go read some good Barthleme. My students informed me that a great deal of Barthleme was now available online--a blogger named Jessamyn Charity West got permission from Barthleme's estate (specifically his brother, the writer Frederick Barthelme) to post a bunch of stories, and they're free for the reading now.

It's hard to pick favorites, but I can't resist linking to the hilarious Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby--I'm going to assign it to my undergraduates, most of whom haven't yet had their first contact with this endlessly rewarding writer. Huge thanks to Jessamyn and Frederick Barthleme for making this work available for free--I can't believe it took me this long to find out about it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Who Remembers Laurie Colwin?

When Laurie Colwin died in 1992, at the age of 48, she left those of us who followed her work with the sense that her best stuff would now never be written. She was never my very favorite writer, but she was good, she was solid, and she had a very specific sensibility. The first book of hers I read, Happy All the Time, was, in fact, about happiness -- and I remember being surprised to discover that happiness could even be the subject of literature, and it didn't have to be cloying. That was a revelation to me, a big Raymond Carver junkie.

But her novel Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object is the one I return to most often as an example of a perfect short novel. It's about a young woman whose husband dies in an accident and how she takes up with her husband's brother. It's absolutely unsentimental, even wry and witty. Colwin never wrote self-consciously or in a style as so many of her 80's contemporaries did (Beattie, Carver, Hempel, Moore), but she had a light touch with characters that was ultimately quite distinctive.

Short novels (Shine On is just short of 200 pages) really are a genre of their own. The novella has never really taken off as a form (quick, name five great novellas!) but posing as real novels, short novels have managed to do something somewhat different. They work more like long short stories, in that their curve is tight -- just larger.

Another writer I first read around the same time as Laurie Colwin is Lynn Sharon Schwartz, who's still writing and recently wrote a 9-11 novel. Her book Rough Strife is one of the best novels about a marriage I've ever read. I wonder if it's possible to write well about a marriage without basing it on one's own...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Audio Podcast: Sandra Gilbert

I just finished speaking with poet, critic, essayist, and teacher Sandra Gilbert. She has published seven collections of poetry, including the recent Belongings; she is also the co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature By Women and coauthor of the celebrated The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th-century Literary Imagination. Her awards, honors, and critical publications are truly too numerous to list. We discussed why the sonnet still has life left in it, the emotional fallout from September 11th, our Sicilian forebears, and the poet's role in a violent culture. This was a really great talk--check it out at the Writers At Cornell Blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Books As Art (And Other Things)

The Make Magazine blog has a post up today about the book sculptures of a guy named Tim Baker, who is also a makeup artist (check out the gruesome pics on his site). This got me thinking about books as physical objects, and the uses to which they're put. I for one use books in my home studio as sound diffusing material--I mean, why pay hundred of dollars for these when you've already got the equivalent lying around the house?

You could check this out, too, some bookshelves made out of books. Here's a guy who made the world's largest book, and if it's tiny books you're after, you could join the Miniature Book Society. I'm also reminded of Tom Phillips' book A Humument, which was created by selectively obliterating, in various artistically compelling ways, some of the words of an already published book.

Finally, here's an article about a sculpture, commissioned by Cornell, the college where I teach, that's made entirely of faculty publications. I missed the boat on that one, but I must confess that I have quite a few such "sculptures" all over my office just now.

If you've seen some good extra-literary uses for books, post a link in the comments.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ben Marcus on Lydia Davis

So our friend Jeffrey Frank, apropos of nothing, suddenly got us a gift subscription to Bookforum...thanks dude! Bookforum is an arm of the art magazine Artforum, and judging by this one issue, I don't think it's quite as satisfying as its seems to be striving, on one hand, for a New York Review of Books feel, but can't resist throwing in a little dash of Entertainment Weekly here and there, as in the very silly Literary Calendar column, with its fey segues and disembodied floating head graphics, or in the dorkily punning article titles. But overall it's a solid mag and a fine addition to the coffee table.

The current issue has a review of the new Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance. I'm glad to see this, because Davis is one of our favorite fiction writers ever, and her recent Proust translation pretty much kills every other one on the planet. Ben Marcus, the reviewer, likes the book, and I'm glad; and I'm glad to see Marcus writing about it, because I think Marcus's nonfiction is excellent.

But he says something weird at one point, before quoting a highly restrained passage from one of Davis's stories:

The remarkably bullheaded story "Jane And The Cane" doesn't give an inch toward the acknowledgement of emotion...

B-b-b-but it does, it totally does! Here's part of the passage:

Mother could not find her cane. She had a cane, but she could not find her special cane. Her special cane had a handle that was the head of a dog. Then she remembered: Jane had her cane...Mother called Jane. She told Jane she needed her cane.

See, to me, that is just packed with emotion. I picture the author sitting perfectly still, her hands folded, looking like she's going to explode at any second--Davis is intentionally writing as though she is a very precocious child grappling with feelings too huge to put into words.

Now, granted, I haven't read the whole thing yet--and Marcus does get around to saying that Davis indeed packs her fiction with emotion, in her own way. But the funny thing is, the description Marcus initially offers seems closer, to me, to a description of Marcus's fiction--indeed, his books are so bullheaded I can't get through them.

Are we all doing that? Seeing ourselves in the books we read, and taking writers to task for seeming to be like us? The prospect is depressing. I think maybe I am, anyway--my last couple of book reviews, when they were critical, were critical of things I myself am often guilty of, like excessive jokiness or overly loose structure. I didn't realize this until they were published.

In all fairness, Marcus isn't really taking Davis to task at all--he greatly admires her, as he should. As do I. As should you. And when I read the new book, I'm going to try to avoid seeing my goony mug glaring back from its pages.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Buying Books

Books are too freaking expensive. For years I didn't buy any new hardcover books, except for gifts, but managed to fill all available book shelves with used books and paperbacks. (My book-storage secret: build a long shelf all the way around a room at the top of the windows. It's wasted space -- you might as well fill it with books.)

Then I started working at an independent bookstore. It's bad enough that I spend the day handling and shelving and flipping through all the cool new books, but I get a discount AND feel like I'm supporting the store when I buy books. I no longer have any resistance whatsoever. It feels almost like a compulsion, like gambling.

Today, even though I'm still reading The Lay of the Land and De Lillo's Falling Man and Julian and George and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Jenny Diski's Stranger on a Train, I bought a new book that I found mysteriously irresistible: Tom McCarthy's Remainder. I'd never heard of the guy, or the book, but every page I opened to seemed full of great little bits and small thrills. I can imagine one might experience the same sense of impending pleasure when buying a lotto scratch ticket.

I'll tell you what it feels like: it feels like all the books are going to disappear and I have to gather as many as possible before they're gone. It's nuts, I know. But there is definitely something in the air.

Friday, March 23, 2007

My B-List

I liked Rhian's ranking post, but I want to focus a moment on the B-list. For me, the B-list is inherently more interesting than the A-list--it holds unexpected treasures, books that other people might not have read. It's something you can talk about (or, of course, blog about). What's the fun in recommending Anna Karenina to somebody? I mean, duh.

But when you press upon your friend a copy of, say, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman, or Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco, you may have a friend for life. Or perhaps an enemy. The B-list is where the vagaries of taste begin to creep in; whether people like a B-list book or not actually tells you something about them. Whereas, you know, of course they like Hamlet. (Indeed, we don't even need a hyperlink.)

This is why I'm going to add, below the blogroll on the left-hand column, a new feature of links to B-list books. You may consider these W6 recommendations, though we cannot be held responsible for your reaction to them. (We would be as delighted, however, to learn that you threw one across the room as we would to learn you liked one.)

Sorry for the blank days! We were on the road.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ranking Favorites

We took the kids to Disney World recently, and as a way of talking about the experience I asked them which ride was their "favorite." Immediately I felt I had made a mistake -- asking children to put diverse experiences into a hierarchy probably flattens it for them. Anyway, since when have I ever been able to say what my favorite of anything is?

But I do have favorite books, if not a favorite. Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter is one; I was reminded of it when I spotted a copy in JRL's grandmother's condo. She had it because her rabbi's wife thought we'd like it. It seems crazy that a person could just forget about a favorite book, but I did. How many more books out there have I forgotten about that are as good as that one? I could never just sit down and make a list. I'd forget too many.

So a hierarchy is out of the question, but I think it's possible to put all my favorite books into two groups -- an "A" list and a "B" list. The A list would include the best books I've ever read: the powerful, life-changing ones like Lolita and Moby Dick and Anna Karenina and The World As I Found It and Housekeeping. I think this list would have about ten books on it, but who knows what I'm forgetting about.

The B list would be made up of books that I love, but that probably haven't altered my worldview in the same way. For instance, I Capture the Castle and The Illustrated Man and Independence Day and Jesus' Son. This would have about 25 (or maybe 50) books on it, but would be much more subject to change than the A list.

Is this a waste of time? Oh, probably. But I couldn't sleep the other night so I spend a few restless hours coming up with this scheme. I think it has to do with our impending move. What to throw out, what to keep? There's probably a C list -- forgettable books I pretty much enjoyed at the time (She's Come Undone) -- and a D list -- deeply flawed stupid books I couldn't put down (Valley of the Dolls).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sunday Morning, Wednesday Night

Today I read Kim Cooper's book In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, an essay on the the Neutral Milk Hotel album, which I posted about last month. It's a good book, part of Continuum's intermittently terrific 33 1/3 series, and one bit struck me. The second song on the record begins with lead singer Jeff Magnum crying, "I love you, Jesus Christ," and I was a little surprised to learn in Cooper's Book that Magnum meant this entirely in earnest, not merely from a musical character's point of view, and certainly not ironically. One listener is described as having been initially "repelled" by the lyric, and it occurred to me how much of what I consider the best contemporary art, music, and literature is essentially secular, and that religion, in the public sphere, has largely become the provence of authoritarians and political opportunists.

I am not without my own eccentric spiritual awareness, and I am acutely preoccupied with the big questions about human existence. But, institutionally speaking, I'm an agnostic. That said, I am not repelled by earnest expressions of religious faith. I am repelled by the all too common and extraordinarily shrill hypocritical ones--the kinds I was alluding to in the previous paragraph. Mangum's lyric moves me, though, and I started wondering if I could think of any good religious fiction.

Well, Flannery O'Connor. She's the main one. (Her faith is kind of a deal-breaker for some people, but it deeply endears her to me.) Has anyone read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? I suspect I would like it, having loved Housekeeping, but haven't gotten to it yet. Dostoyevsky, of course. And Rhian likes Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. Most others I've tried seem soppish to me--Updike's In The Beauty Of The Lilies is the one that springs most immediately to mind. (I don't dislike Updike, but he bugs me more often than he amazes me. I like Of The Farm and all the Bech stories quite a lot...and his book reviews and other nonfiction. The One of these days I'll post about why Roth is way better at bad men than Updike is, but not today.)


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fiction and Coincidence

A couple of years ago I was having coffee with my friend E. and talking about our respective family histories. I had known her since we had moved into the neighborhood a few years before and knew she was from California, but I didn't know her family ranched in southern California back in pioneer times. So did mine, I told her. Her family was on land that became Camp Pendleton, she said. So was mine!

When I later researched it on the internet, I discovered that when my great-great-grandfather arrived in California in 1884 and began ranching on his homestead, he was sued by my friend's great-grandfather over ownership of the land. My guy won. Later, things turned bad (grasshoppers, horse thieves) and he went into sharecropping for E.'s guy, then got into hotel-keeping. After he died, his wife sold the hotel to a man who abruptly died, too, and then the hotel became a hangout for hoboes. (That's the part I had always known about.) In the 1880 census, E.'s g-grandfather's occupation is "Capitalist."

This would be bizarre coincidence enough -- I only know E. because of the proximity of our houses, 3000 miles from the disputed ranch; it's not as if we found each other in a California pioneers club, or because of a love of horses or hotels -- but about a year ago my friend became a realtor and just the other day she helped us make an offer on a house. If I believed in that sort of thing, I'd say we were working out some kind of karma. And who knows, maybe I do believe it. Mostly I believe that world is big and complex enough so that coincidences are a natural by-product. Mostly.

Anyway, at first I thought that this would make a good story, but then I realized why it wouldn't. Coincidence is fascinating in real life because it hints at a design created for mysterious purposes by an unseen designer. In a book, the designer is not so mysterious -- it's the writer -- and the purpose is usually obvious, too: it's to finish the dang plot.

When coincidence does work in fiction, it's when the characters acknowledge the coincidence and try to figure what's really going on -- then it becomes psychologically interesting and exciting. That's what Paul Auster does in his best work. Other times Auster's characters numbly accept the coincidence and we're supposed to be fascinated. I think not.

I just started reading Richard Ford's new novel about the pre-9/11 period, The Lay of the Land. I liked The Sportswriter and loved Independence Day, and this book continues with the same character, Frank Bascombe, who is a.... real estate agent!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Airplane Books

We're going on a trip soon (to Florida, and hey, I think we'll do a Florida writers post soon, too), and I'm trying to think of good books that involve flying. I'm sweet on the subject anyway, as my first book was about a plane crash (I feel funny even typing that here), and one of my early stories took place in a succession of airports. The book that sprung immediately to mind was Walter Kirn's Up In The Air, which I liked a lot. I don't love Kirn's stuff, but he's one of those writers about whom I always think his next one is gonna be great. His fiction feels unrealized but full of terrific ideas. Anyway, Up In The Air is about a borderline-insane management consultant whose life goal is to rack up a million frequent flyer miles. It's a twisted little quest novel with an ending I remember as half spectacular, half disappointing...but the fun in it is Kirn's observations of hecticness and its consequences. Definitely a good airport read.

The most memorable plane story, for me, is Stephen King's "The Langoliers," from his novella collection Four Past Midnight. I believe this story was turned into a TV series, which I haven't seen. Anyway, it's about a blind girl who goes to the rest room on an airplane, and when she emerges everyone else on the plane is gone. Great setup, and I am sure that somebody on the Lost writing team read when they were a teenager. Like a lot of King, I don't recall it ever really living up to its promise, but the concept was more than enough for it to stick with me.

If you've got a good one in mind, post it in the comments!

Friday, March 16, 2007

T. Jefferson Parker

Crime again, I'm afraid. When I'm trying to write a novel, I don't like to read other literary novels--their style starts bleeding into mine. So it's genre fiction--and Proust--until summer arrives.

(Yeah, Proust, in the new Penguin translations. With my book group, I'm 4/7ths through In Search of Lost Time, as it's now more suitably called, and I'll post about it when I've burrowed a few hundred pages into The Prisoner.)

Anyway, this week's crime novel is the new T. Jefferson Parker, Storm Runners. Parker's an odd phenomenon. He does indeed write police procedurals, and does have a couple of recurring characters, but his best stuff is generally the one-offs. (That Wikipedia entry I linked him to, by the way, is full of errors--not all his books are, in fact, police procedurals.) This is the opposite of what generally holds true with crime writers, which is that their series books are better than the one-offs (I'm thinking here of the non-Barbara Vine Ruth Rendell, and Michael Connelly, whose non-Harry-Bosch books have never done much for me).

Probably the best of Parker's novels is Silent Joe, a book about a policeman who gets dangerously entangled in the web of connections that bind cops and criminals. And come to think of it, the new one's about the same thing. And they both have vengeance as a theme, go figure.

But they're not regular thrillers, honest--they don't glorify violence, or vengeance for that matter, and they don't manipulate with easy emotion. Storm Runners (not a terrific title, I'm aware) is about a cop whose family has been killed by a Mexican mobster who was both a childhood friend and a former lover of his late wife. The cop, Matt Stromsoe, takes two years to recover, physically and emotionally, from the bombing, and gets a job as bodyguard to a Fox News weather lady who just happens to be monumentally hot and has also figured out how to make of course the head honcho of the Department of Water and Power, who has for years controlled the city's water supply, needs to have her killed, so as to preserve his importance, and he ends up getting mixed up with the same mobster who killed Stromsoe's family.

Wow, that sounds really dumb. But it's not! It's in the wild and implausible details that Parker's novels really cook--there, and in his prose, which is restrained, skillful, and marvelously unpurple. No expository dialogue, no passionate bad guy speeches, no churning logorrhoea about the blackness of the soul. Just good writing, solid pacing, strong characters, and lots of geeky information about rivers, weather, and the complex inner workings of prison life and Latino gangs. Plus, he's got the "first-intial/middle-name/last-name" mojo working, which as we know is the mark of brilliance.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Audio Podcast: David Barber

I had a chance earlier today to talk to poet David Barber. Barber is poetry editor of The Atlantic, and he's the author of two collections: The Spirit Level won the Terrence Des Pres Prize, and his latest collection, published last year, is Wonder Cabinet. We discussed the role of poetry for a general interest audience, his use of nonce forms, and the difficulty of the haiku, among other things. Check it out, at the Writers at Cornell blog.

Real post tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Helter Skelter

Talk about guilty pleasures. Whenever I'm feeling low on energy and enthusiasm, I find myself gravitating toward true crime books. I blame my mother, who was and is fascinated by serial killers and whose copy of Helter Skelter sat on our bookshelves my whole childhood, just out of my reach -- I was sure it had to be good, with a title like that, but I wasn't allowed to read it. But this past week, after a long succession of snow days and kid illnesses, I finally got it out of the library.

Wow, is it ever good -- even better than Ann Rule's Ted Bundy book, The Stranger Beside Me, which is really saying something. What makes the author, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, a top-notch lawyer and investigator also makes him an excellent writer: an eye for the significant detail and a deep curiosity about people and their motivations. Bugliosi didn't just try to figure out what happened, but why -- how those particular crimes emerged from those particular characters at that particular time.

Maybe that's why I like true crime: when it's at its best, it's like good fiction. To perhaps misquote Flannery O'Connor, it's all about what people will do, in spite of everything.

There's a new book out called The Triumph of the Thriller, which argues that some of the best writing today is to be found in thriller and crime fiction. Maybe so. But I wouldn't know, because while I like a good solid mystery, I usually can't get beyond the first few pages of those big, blockbuster-type thrillers: they're too packed with action and dialogue. Things happen because the form requires that lots of things happen; events don't spring organically from characters -- they're imposed upon the characters. Obviously, it's a matter of taste, but it seems to me that movies are a much better medium for exploding cars and speedy banter and actiony storytelling. Fiction is best at going inward.

And that, I would argue, is what the best true crime does, too. It might be impossible to ever get inside the head of Charlie Manson (thank goodness, I suppose), but Bugliosi's efforts make for truly interesting reading.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Houses and Stories

So I've got houses on the brain this week--Rhian and I and our guys have grown out of our little place and are thinking of packing up and moving to something more spacious on the edge of town. Yesterday we took our first serious house tour.

We liked the house we looked at--it's old and has some land attached. But it wasn't until last night that I hit upon the thing that made it so appealing to me: it's like a house in a dream. Every room seems like it must be the last, but lo and behold, there's a little door in a corner where you're not expecting one; and there beyond it are more rooms. One noteworthy feature is an attached apartment, the product of a divison that appears to have been made a long time ago, and the way you get to it through the main part of the house is to go into a closet, then to duck through a little door in the back.

I have a special fondness for stories with distinctive houses in them; you could probably name as many great literary houses as characters. The House of Seven Gables, Northanger Abbey, Baskerville Hall, Howard's End, Manderley. (There is even a book about them, called Literary Houses.) Barbara Vine's latest, The Minotaur, a sort of neo-gothic thriller, has a great house in it, with a labyrinthine library that harbors dark secrets. And then there are the stranger houses: the one in Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I'm embarrassed to admit I've only read about, not read; or the vacation house with the hidden room in Don Delillo's The Body Artist, an imperfect book that I nevertheless am currently pillaging for my own novel-in-progress. There's a good house renovation at the beginning of Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, which I've also ripped off a bit, and a great childhood home in the interior of a mountain. The mountain that is, in fact, the protagonist's father.

Rhian has posted here somewhere, I think, that houses are metaphors for writing in her dreams; I'll go one further and say that I think they're more generally metaphors for creativity, for the structure of thought, the way it gets divided and sealed off, the way you have to walk through some of its rooms to get to some others.

And there are more rooms than you think. And walls can be knocked down, and new ones built. If we end up with the place we saw yesterday, though, we won't be knocking down anything. It's a writers' house, weird and mazy, just the way we like 'em.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Robert Stone’s Prime Green wasn’t what I’d hoped for from the author of the marvelous novels Dog Soldiers and Children of Light, but I was surprised that he’d write a memoir of any kind. It was surprisingly light, and falteringly written. He begins the book with an account of the various ports of the southern hemisphere, and how the American sailors are received variously, with differing degrees of admiration and disdain, and yet it seems antique to Stone, and to me, that he didn’t suffer either extreme—neither greatly admired nor greatly disdained.

I don’t know what it means to be against the current war. Believing I am against it, I am able to go about enjoying the benefits of America with very little contemplation. When I counsel my graduating high school students about college, the military is never mentioned. We talk about other things. (Though two former students, that I know of, are in uniform.) On KCRW this morning, a commentator mentioned that the U.S. Army has raised the entry age from 32 to 43. Since I am merely 35, my direct participation in the war is voluntary, and will remain so eight more years. What conclusions am I to draw from this? Are my days spent as an alternative to participating in the war? Can I truly claim to be against the war? Would it not be more sensible to join the U.S. Army and then refuse to serve?

This is a reading-related chain of thoughts from this morning’s Los Angeles Times, which runs two obituaries back-to-back. French theorist Jean Baudrillard rubs his chin on B15, and on B16 Brian Freeman, an Army Reserve Captain (link to L.A. Times article is unavailable) from nearby Temecula, hugs his children. Baudrillard wrote about the ridiculousness of America, then died of cancer; Freeman was abducted from a base in Karbala and executed by Shiite insurgents disguised as (creating a simulacrum of) U.S. soldiers.

I dug Baudrillard when I was an undergraduate. Among the French theorists we were told to read, he alone interested me or seemed relevant. Because my focus as a reader and a writer has always been poetry, it was permitted for me to not understand current theory, to my relief. Looking at the poetry and fiction of my generation, at least that which I prefer, it’s hard to see much influence. However it’s also hard to see much critical observation worth their salt. Notable exceptions are in poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw, by Ben Lerner; in fiction The Seas, by Samantha Hunt. And of course, Mailman, by J. Robert Lennon.

But mostly the writers I admire, the best writers of today, are sleepwalking.

I have found in my sleepwalk retreat books about mystery and, in the best sense of the word, wonder. In some earlier life I hope I was enthralled by alchemy. Too much science (which I also only lightly understand) exists now, or at least this afternoon, to be enthralled. It takes work, patience. Lawrence Weschler is a proponent of it: just finished Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, which I’ve visited five times since moving to southern California. It made me pull from the shelf two books I treasure, A Long Desire and The White Lantern, by Evan S. Connell. The two books of essays were collected as the Aztec Treasure House in 2001. Another marvel on the topic is Escapism by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. All of these projects about wonder are forms of geography, trying to locate what is hard to pinpoint, what refuses to be witnessed fully.

Escape. That’s what many people I know have been looking for the last five years, in poems and stories, and elsewhere.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Dreaming About Reading and Writing

One of the most fun, and most rare, dreams I have is that I'm reading a book and it's really really good -- exciting and detailed and moving and lovely. Then when I wake up, I'm thrilled to realize that since I was dreaming the book, I in fact made it up and now I can write it!! Whee!

Then it dawns on me that the book is actually not so great, that the premise is ridiculous or something. Oh, well.

When I took up the piano a few years ago, I started having a new kind of writing-related dream, one that conflates the two kinds of keyboards. In these dreams, I'll be trying to play something I usually know how to play but find it impossible because the keyboard has turned into a computer keyboard (once it was even one of those old Texas Instruments membrane keyboards).

I think the point of these dreams is to contrast the happy ineptitude with which I approach the piano to the agonized ineptitude that characterizes my writing, these days. Anyway, there's something about practice, mastery, skill, performance... I can't figure it all out.

Last night I dreamed I was listening to my old piano teacher play, but when she turned around I saw she was actually my old writing teacher from college. You have to practice a lot! she said. You need to have calluses on your fingers! And you need a teacher!

The human mind is so weird.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Audio Podcast: George Saunders

Yesterday I had a chance to speak with our old friend George Saunders, who came down from Syracuse to read at Cornell. Saunders is the author, as I'm sure you know, of the story collections In Persuasion Nation, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, the short novel The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. He lives in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches in the Syracuse Creative Writing program; last year he was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship for his work.

We talked about Dubai; imitating other people; whether irony is inevitable, or even real, or what; and what totalitarians do to language. Check it out at the Writers At Cornell Blog.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

New Don DeLillo: Falling Man

It's probably too early to post about this book, since it isn't coming out until June, but it's what I've been reading as part of my 9-11 jag. My first thought upon seeing the galley -- the cover's a giant cloudscape, with the tops of the little WTC towers poking through, and that title -- was Wow, how much nerve does that take?! It's clear thatDeLillo's intention was to write the 9-11 book. Well, okay, who else?

Still. Claiming that image for the title of your book takes, well, balls of steel. It had better be good. It had better be the best possible book about 9-11, ever. And, well, I'm only half way through, so I'm withholding judgment.

It's interesting, though. Having lived vicariously through 9-11 the first time, and again when reading Ken Kalfus's book, and now with this book... I find it hard not to feel a little deja vuey. Both Kalfus's and DeLillo's books start with a similar character: a business man who survives the collapse of towers and whose secret experience there begins to alienate them from regular life. You can almost see the screenplay. Not that that's a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Out, Again

I posted a few days ago about Natsuo Kirino's crime novel Out, and while I said I liked it pretty well, I kind of condemned its writing style and plot with faint praise. I hadn't finished it at the time, though, and now I feel bad.

Having read the whole thing now, I have to admit that Out is a really strange, really interesting book. At the halfway point, Kirino appeared to be moving toward a number of familiar tropes of the genre--the women who covered up the murder of their friend's husband had inadvertently let out a few details, several unsavory figures got wind of their deed, and the police seemed to be closing in. I was certain there would be some blackmail, some betrayal, some retribution, in the classic style.

I was completely wrong. The plot takes a weird, surprising, and ultimately quite plausible turn which I won't reveal here. But the story picked up steam so completely at that point that I would later be amazed that I had once considered not bothering to finish.

As for the writing style, I can't decide. It's unadorned, which I usually like. But its character development is very expository--feelings are rather clinically described and explained, instead of being illustrated with action and dialogue. Ordinarily this would bother me, but by the end of Out I wondered if perhaps this is simply part of the character of Japanese fiction. Kirino's the only Japanese novelist I've read (save for Haruki Murakami, who I think of as more of a cross-cultural, "international" writer)...can anyone weigh in on this issue?

Anyway, my apologies--Out is a terrific book, especially the second half!

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Word Menu

Though I've never been a huge fan of thesauri (someone put me off them years ago, and left me with the idea that if I can't find a word in my own brain it's probably not a good idea to use it) I'm very fond of The Word Menu. For those of you who've never seen it, it's a massive collection of words arranged not alphabetically but by category. I find myself turning to it whenever I need a job for a character (see Occupations/Jobs) or an interesting psychological condition to discuss (see Phobias) but mostly it's just great fun to leaf through when I'm feeling stale. Seeing pages and pages of words describing architecture, or states of being, or sex, or colors, never fails to remind me how interesting the world is.

You can find it here.

When I was poking around to see if the book was still in print (apparently so) I found out that it has an alternate life as a piece of software. This seems like a pretty good idea, and I imagine it would make an excellent alternative to Microsoft Word's thesaurus. (I used to worry that Word's horrible thesaurus would wreak stealthy damage on American prose, but it turns out that there are much worse threats.)

The Word Menu was assembled by a man named Stephen Glazier, who died shortly after the book was published. I have to admit this little fact disturbs me just a bit -- I think about the poor guy every time I pick the book up and wonder if somehow the massive effort contributed to his untimely demise (he was in his forties; it was a brain tumor). Perhaps one day I'll post about cursed books.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Nineteen Seventy-Seven

Honored to step in, like James McNew, to play a little back-up for Ward Six’s regulars.

My father recently broke both of his legs, and during the week I spent with him at the hospital in Topeka, several books passed through both our hands. My aunt had picked them from the New Arrivals section of the library across the street, and we read them, and I have already forgotten the titles, the authors, and any details. The cover of one was bright yellow, another dark blue. The dark blue one involved a drowning in a cave. Perhaps we want from thrillers what we ask of television, entertainment to pass the time without the burden of memory.

Alone at the house, I read They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, by Horace McCoy, published when Dad was six years old, in 1935. (Excellent film by Sydney Pollack based on the novel in 1969.) It’s a thriller of sorts, involving a dance marathon. I experience this game of equivalency more frequently as I too age: if Dad was six when that book, which seems very old to me, appeared, what books appeared when I was six, in 1977? How could they ever seem as historical, as antique? Here are seven books that I know they read that year, checked out from the grand and glorious Topeka Public Library at Tenth and Washburn.

The Shining, Stephen King

The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams

The Howling, Gary Brandner

The Honourable Schoolboy, John LeCarre

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson

A Spell for Chameleon, Piers Anthony

Note that no award was given by the Pulitzer committee for the novel that year. (Some fine contenders, of course, in retrospect—A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick, A Professor of Desire, Philip Roth, and, duh, Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison.)

What was I reading that year? Not Mildred Taylor’s Bridge to Terabithia, of which I have no memory. Around then I was living two lives, my own and, more intensely, the dull late 1940s-ish life of Eddie Wilson in the child novels of Carolyn Haywood, listed as follows, with the years, which despite the march of time are all firmly located in immediate post-war behaviors, checked out from the Potwin Elementary School’s library (the school’s been demolished for several reasons, asbestos equal to Brown vs. Board of Education):

Little Eddie '47, Eddie and the Fire Engine '49, Eddie and Gardenia '51, Eddie's Paydirt '53, Eddie and His Big Deals '55, Eddie Makes Music '57, Eddie and Louella '59, Annie Pat and Eddie '60, Eddie's Green Thumb '64, Eddie the Dog Holder '66, Ever-Ready Eddie '68, Eddie's Happenings '71, Eddie's Valuable Property '75, Eddie's Menagerie '78, Merry X-mas From Eddie '86.

However, the book from that year I remember most clearly my parents reading is Robin Cook’s medical thriller Coma. The cover chilled me then, and perhaps you can see why.


Here Comes Ed Skoog

Hey, readers--we're very excited to welcome our first guest blogger, Ed Skoog, who will be posting later this day. We're hoping he'll make himself at home here and post whenever he pleases.

Ed sent me the following woefully inadequate bio: "Ed Skoog is a writer living in rural southern California." I'll resist the temptation to fill in the blanks; but, suffice to say, Ed is one of our oldest friends, with whom we have always had the kind of conversations about literature that this blog strives to recreate. We urge you to enjoy his contributions to Ward Six.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Bulletin: Crime In Translation

I say "Bulletin," because I'm probably going to be doing this every once in a while. I am big into crime in translation, even above and beyond Crime & Punishment.

This week I finished Åsa Larsson's latest, The Blood Spilt. Larsson is Swedish, and her first book, Sun Storm, was excellent; in it, a young lawyer gets caught up in the aftermath of a ritualistic murder that occurs in a church in her rural home town. This time, however, is totally different--the same lawyer accidentally gets caught up in a completely different ritual murder in a church, this one a few towns down the river from her rural home town.

No, really. Wacky coincidence, huh? Surely the next book won't be...

But to help her friend, and to find the real killer of a man she once adored and is now not sure she ever knew, Rebecka must relive the darkness she left behind in Kiruna, delve into a sordid conspiracy of deceit, and confront a killer whose motives are dark and impossible to guess ...

That's the blurb for Larsson's next book, and I don't know if I'm terribly interested in returning to Kiruna with Rebecka, to be honest. I was certainly happy to be there with her this time, though--The Blood Spilt is a fine book. Larsson is essentially a literary novelist disguised as a crime writer; you should read this book not for the plausibility of its plot but for its small, careful observations of small town life. I wish more American crime writers would take this tack--crime is a social and psychological phenomenon, the result of friction between the individual and the society, not some Lord-Of-The-Rings-style battle between good and evil: literary fiction is the perfect vehicle for it.

The other thing I've been enjoying--I'm about halfway through--is Natsuo Kirino's Out, which Junot Diaz recommended to me a couple of weeks ago when he was in town. It's the story of four women who work together at a boxed-lunch factory in Tokyo; when one of them murders her abusive husband, the others help out by chopping him up and distributing the pieces all over town. It's a hideously gruesome book, and the writing is nothing special...but its portrayal of Japanese working-class life is stunning, and unique among books I've read. These women have to change their mother-in-law's diapers, fend off credit agencies, talk rapists out of attacking them, and endure the demeaning insults of their depressed husbands as they cover up the murder; the shrewdness of their deception is only possible because they've sharpened their chops fending off a society that despises them. Heavy going, but fascinating.

I posted this early by mistake--sorry if you saw it getting cut off in mid-sentence!

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Greatness of Lydia Davis

At the bookstore the other day I was flipping through the spring Farrar Straus Giroux catalog, a little on edge because seeing the wrong face (enemy/rival/ex) in the FSG catalog can ruin your day, when I was delighted to see, instead, one of my favorite instense bespectacled stares: that of Lydia Davis. I always imagine that in the divorce with Paul Auster I would take her side (though I have nothing against him and know neither of them personally) because though he's been getting lots of attention for years, Davis has been doing wonderful work for just as long and has only recently been getting her due.

But though she's been one of my favorite writers since I read Almost No Memory in 1998, I almost never recommend her to anyone. Maybe for the same reason I don't like to recommend my favorite Vietnamese place to people: if you don't like that kind of thing, you won't like it, no matter how totally great it is.

So what kind of thing is it? Most of her stories are quite short and center on one or more small ideas or observations that are examined coolly and intelligently and with wonderfully restrained humor. Some of them are kind of surreal and some are internal and personal. I like the personal ones best, just as a matter of taste, but they are all of a consistent high quality that is clearly the product of a powerful artistic vision working hard to perfect itself. She's not just goofing around, or trying out the latest clever trope, or even making a political point. She's trying to work something out.

Lydia Davis reminds me how many different ways there are to be a writer, and that the most important part is staying true to your thing, whatever that happens to be.

The new book will be coming out in May and will be called Varieties of Disturbance.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Audio Podcast: Yvette Christiansë

This morning I spoke with the poet and novelist Yvette Christiansë. She was born in South Africa under apartheid and emigrated with her parents via Swaziland to Australia at the age of 18; she now teaches at Fordham University and has written two books, the poetry collection Castaway and a novel, Unconfessed. We discussed the effect of exile upon her creative life, the limitations and opportunities history brings to a work of fiction, and why barre chords are not necessarily the best way to play rock guitar. Check it out at the Writers At Cornell blog.