Thursday, October 30, 2008

National Novel Writing Month

Well, it's that time of year again: November, when I try to decide whether NaNoWriMo is really, actually, a good idea. Can anything good come out of a single month of pressured writing? If I was serious about writing something, why not a six- or even three-month deadline?

But I can't seem to resist this opportunity: an externally imposed deadline, without any worries that what I come up with will fail. Because of course it will fail! The project is absurd! Maybe I should look a little more closely at my attraction to doomed projects.

Anyway, last year I fizzled out after three days. I can't remember why. But this year an old friend is doing it, too, and I feel vaguely positive about the whole thing. I just can't come up with an idea. A good NaNoWriMo idea can't depend on research -- there just isn't enough time, unless you do it all ahead of time, which I didn't. The ideal NaNo novel has a gimmick, a kind of trick you can work out thirty different ways over the month, starting fresh each day. The first year I tried writing a traditionally plotted novel, but found it too difficult to pace everything right, and the plot kept running off the rails whenever I'd have a bad day.

Is anyone else doing it? My name over there is Triptraptrop. If you sign up, we can read each other's bad stuff!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stealth YA!

I was delighted to find that a new Kelly Link collection was coming out, and so I ordered it from the Bookery. As she was typing it into the computer, Rhian paused. "Oh wait--this is a young adult book." I told her I didn't think so. She said sure it was, it's listed as YA. We looked into it--there didn't seem to be anything in the descriptions online that suggested the book was YA. Maybe it had been misfiled, I figured. I ordered it.

The book came in the other day and I sat down to read it. Nothing on the jacket, flaps, endpapers, or title page suggested it was YA. Then I read about halfway through the first story.

It's YA. I love Kelly link, but wow, this has really got me steamed. Yesterday my friend and collaborator Lou Beach wrote me with this link to an article on Link and this new book; go read it, it's good, and bully for her for writing a YA collection: it's always a pleasure to see something for teenagers that isn't a horrific piece of shit.

But a big middle finger to Viking for disguising this work as something other than kids' lit. I'm happy to have shelled out to further Link's career, but I'm a grownup, dammit, and I've been deceived. As that article suggests, they're hoping that Harry Potter fans will dig it, and I'm aware that there are people over the age of 17 who were able to endure Harry Potter, so I suppose this sleight-of-hand is for them, and they won't mind a bit. But in my view, there is a big difference between YA and adult literature, and I want the strong stuff.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An unlikely inspiration

OK, file this is under extra-literary. Last night, when the family sat down to dinner, I went scrolling through the iPod looking for some decent music to listen to while we ate. And I came across an old favorite, an album I have been listening to for ten years with absolute pleasure and have never gotten sick of, an album I find inspiring, amusing, and moving every time I hear it.

Obviously you want to know what it is. I must warn you, knowing is not likely to be of much help. It's called "Home And Abroad," and it's by Howard Skempton, a British avant-garde composer, and it consists of 32 pieces for solo accordion. It's not on Amazon, it's not anywhere (NOTE: I just noticed, there seems to be a used copy at I can barely find any evidence the thing exists. But I love the hell out of it.

In 1996, I was working at the Missoula Art Museum as a receptionist and, since there were only seven of us, I ended up hanging shows, doing lighting, and (one grueling month) stripping wood floors. That year, we commissioned a piece by Hamish Fulton, a self-described "walking artist" whose pieces consist of him taking a really long walk in the middle of nowhere, then returning several weeks later looking like a homeless man, and spending another week or so filling a gallery space with conceptual work based on his walk--mostly wall paintings, texts, sculptures, etc. His stuff is great, and we really hit it off, so well in fact that a couple of years later we hauled our then-one-year-old son Owen to Canterbury, England, to visit him and his wife.

Hamish and Nancy Fulton are great people, and their cottage outside of town has since served as a model for us on how to live our lives--a book- and art-filled house, idiosyncratically decorated, and filled with a lot of smart, funny conversation. In any event, they picked us up at the train station, and when we walked into their house, this album was playing.

It's hard to describe. Sometimes it sounds like folk music, sometimes modern classical, usually both. It's rhythmically odd, the melodies are sinuous; the playing is rife with good humor. Think...think....of Eric Satie crossed with Weird Al Yankovic. In any event, I immediately asked what it was, characterizing it as being like "an alcoholic circus," and Hamish promised that he would get me a copy.

Well. Our visit was wonderful, and we went home. Time went by. I thought about the album daily--I really wanted it. (This was before it was easy to rip CD's, let alone upload them to your ftp.) Eventually a package arrived from Hamish, but he mustn't have been able to find me a copy, because the one he sent had a little sticker attached to it that read "Fulton." He'd given me his own.

Is it a stretch to say this record has influenced my work? Maybe. More likely, it has served as a reminder of what I like in the world. Simplicity mixed with surprise. Mournful humor. Brevity. This music presumes nothing, and gives everything. It's weird and quietly powerful. Every time I listen to it, it's like listening for the first time. I don't think I can name a book that makes me feel that way.

Rhian will think I'm nuts for posting this, but I just love this album. It's one of the only things I've ever been able to write while listening to--instead of pushing my concentration away, it goes with the flow. It isn't just the music, either--it's the strange journey that I had to take to reach it, a journey that Hamish's walk was a part of. And I love the fact that things still exist that are hard to find.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Recommending Books

One of the things I get paid the big bucks for, down at the book store, is recommending books. Okay, I will confess: I don't really like this part of the job. Sometimes I do -- sometimes I really sense that a customer will like what I like and I turn all fanatic, pressing my favorites on them. And sometimes I feel like a temporary psychic: something just descends on me and I know a customer is destined for a certain book. A woman looking for something for her hip, J.S. Foer-reading niece? That Miranda July collection, duh!

But most of the time I'm a little bit at sea. Do you know what people ask for most of the time? Besides a gift for their precocious 7 year old niece (and I make sure those poor kids get the fancy gift edition of The Secret Garden), they want something "light, uplifting, like a beach read... but not stupid." Aw, geez, man, I dunno! Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is pretty charming and smart, but the guy dies in the end, so is it uplifting? I usually press them a bit more: Do they like The Secret Life of Bees, or The Devil Wears Prada? Exactly what kind of fluff are they after? Or do they not want fluff at all, just something more fluffy than The Tin Drum?

Why do people like what they like? I think about this a lot. Do most people like whole classes of things, or are they more likely to like specific examples of a wide range of things? We assume the former but I think the latter is more common. People are quirky. Sometimes the narrator of a book just ticks them off, and there's no explaining it. It's almost as hard to set people up with a book as it to find them a lover.

And anyway, why are they asking some random schlump behind the counter what to read? Oh, I get it: they want someone to blame. Cousin Wanda didn't like Duma Key? Yeah, well I know whose fault it is -- that bookstore woman's!

There's nothing better than getting a recommendation right, though. I know it's happened to me, though I can't think of any titles at the moment. Do you have any recommendation successes to share? I'll be sure to steal them for my next shift.

Biblio Burro

This article on Colombia's burro-powered bookmobile might be the charmingest thing I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Taschen: The Polaroid Book

Is there anyone else out there who loves Taschen? Their books are big, beautiful, and cheap, and they appear dedicated to abolishing the distinction between high and low culture, embracing everything from portraiture to porno. And then there's the architecture, the old maps, classic anatomy texts, illuminated manuscripts...almost everything they put out is interesting.

Anyway, The Polaroid Book isn't new, but I just picked it up at the Bookery for fifteen bucks, and it's a tremendous inspiration--not just for photographers, but for anyone who likes representing the world in art. Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties, and exists in a variety of formats; the one people know best, however, is the square-frame pack film, used in instant cameras and recently discontinued, which created pictures like the one above (taken by Karin Elizabeth, on flickr, and pretty much selected at random).

What is it about Polaroids? For me, it's the the saturated pastels, the darkened edges, the sense of immediacy and accident. People used Polaroids to instantaneously commemorate experience: you took one, and could look back fondly on the moment, a couple of minutes ago, when you took it. The result was a heightened sense of the flow of time, the way life changes from moment to moment--something that the very best fiction does, as well. I also like that Polaroids are an artifacty format--the instant snaps like Karin Elizabeth's are usually shown inside their lopsided paper frame, which serves to remind you you're looking at a picture. The old Land Camera positives always had those rough, distorted edges, as well--evidence that art is a process, that it is something made by man. I like art that flaunts its artificiality. I like art that is about itself.

Anyway, the book is little more than page after page of cool pictures, and I recommend it. It expands one's idea of what is worth representing in art, and how it can be represented. And it shows that art can be egalitarian, and it can be refined, sometimes in the same instant.

EDIT: Reader Lou Barranti, a contributor to this book, sends the following correction: "Your post says that 'Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties...' Actually it was in the late 1940s that Land created the Polaroid photographic process. Perhaps it was a reference similar to the following statement in a Wikipedia article that you may have seen prior to writing your piece on the Polaroid book (in fact, you link to that Wikipedia article at the beginning of the above quoted sentence): 'The original material, patented in 1929 (U.S. Patent 1,918,848 ) and further developed in 1932 by Edwin H. Land, consists of many microscopic crystals of iodoquinine sulfate (herapathite) embedded in a transparent nitrocellulose polymer film.' It wasn't a photographic film. It was a light polarizing film (or filter) that Land created in the 20s to which this article refers. This was his first major invention. The Wikipedia entry for Dr. Land ( ) has more on his photographic invention. There are more authoritative sources out there, of course (Barbara Hitchcock's essay in The Polaroid Book, for example), but what I read there seems to line up with what I know about Land and his invention (instant photography, that is; I don't know much about the rest of his professional life, other than that he invented Polaroid polarizing film.)"

Sunday, October 19, 2008

To the Colonies!

Anybody here ever been to a writer's colony? Neither JR nor I ever have. We've always been too busy trying to make money or having kids or taking care of them. Also, what's two weeks or four or eight weeks, really? If a person needs quiet and isolation to work, she probably needs a lot longer than that to get anything done. Anyway, I always thought, isolation is over-rated: I once spent a summer alone in Missoula, Montana, in an apartment with a mountain view, knowing no one yet, and wrote about five total pages of sheer crap.

However, for whatever reason, I've been thinking it might be awfully fun. For the first time, I think I might tolerate two or even three weeks away from our sons. They're awesome, but you know. When I was a teenager I spent hours and hours ALONE. Wow, that sounds just blissful, now. And though just a few weeks might not be enough to get a ton of writing done, it might kick something off.

Here's the scary part: What if you got into something terrific like, I dunno, YADDO or something, and then you spent the WHOLE TIME just sitting there, staring into space! And every evening at dinner in the Grand Hall, or whatever, you'd be sitting with your plate of rotini while all the other colonists talked about their Big Breakthroughs and how they just nailed that scene in Chapter Five. Maybe shop talk is a faux pas at colonies. I don't even know. But when I start my colony, out in the woods behind our house, it will be Verboten.

And sometimes I think that the main reason to try and get into a colony is for validation. Normally I would sneer at that -- who needs the approval of OTHERS? -- but heck, a little dollop of validation would nice, now wouldn't it?

What do you think? Are writers' colonies just an indulgence for the vain and idle? Or are they a valuable experience?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Two specimens of awesomeness

I was impressed by two things this week, one a novel, the other a poem. The novel is the late Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This book is a bestseller and hardly needs my recommendation, but it is a superb example of the genre, and kept me distracted from everything else in my life for a couple of knuckle-biting days. Larsson was a Swedish journalist who died in 2004 at the age of 50; he left behind this novel and two sequels, complete but unpublished. That Wikipedia page also calls Larsson a photographer, and I'm not surprised to learn this. Cameras play a role in this book, and the protagonist knows a little too much about them. He can identify a Hasselblad, for instance, at 200 yards.

The protagonist in question is a middle-aged financial reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, who stumbles into a murder mystery wrapped in a family conundrum rolled into a financial puzzle; his co-protagonist is a 25-year-old borderline-autistic punk girl named Lisbeth Salander (the girl in the title), an emotionally disturbed ward of the state, hacker extraordinaire, and crack private investigator. I know--it sounds hopelessly corny, doesn't it? It really isn't, in spite of the occasional (and necessary) run of expository dialogue. Indeed, the book flirts with literariness now and then--not too much, luckily. The point of reading it is the absorbing plot and the wonderful Lisabeth, who is, in spite of her outre, overdetermined persona, a truly original creation, even within the very impressive Scandanavian crime scene. A wonderful book.

The poem is by Frederick Seidel, and is in this week's New Yorker. It is called "Poem By The Bridge At Ten-Shin," is quite long, and is just extraordinary. I am a real sucker for the way Seidel lurches from erudition to crassness, from the lyric to the nursery rhyme, from the wise to the puerile, often inside the same line; here, he seems to achieve some outrageous apotheosis of self, with line after line of mad juxtaposition and loopy rhyme. The poem is rude and childish and brilliant; please give it a look. Here's the ending:

The Earth keeps turning, night and day, spit-roasting all the tanned
Tired icebergs and the polar bears, which makes white almost contraband.
The biosphere on a rotisserie emits a certain sound
That tells the stars that Earth was moaning pleasure while it drowned.
The amorous white icebergs flash their brown teeth, hissing.
They're watching old porn videos of melting icebergs pissing.
The icebergs still in panty hose are lesbians and kissing.
The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that's missing.

Jesus Christ. Those last four lines, with their catatonic rhyme scheme and cracked-up rhythm, somehow just scare the shit out of me. Happy Halloween.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hey, Late Bloomers

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that you don't have to be a precocious young punk to be a genius. He proposes a model of creativity that takes years and years to develop, years that might look like total failure while the artist slowly works out her thing. Wow, I love this: the idea that slow, hard work and inspired originality are not mutually exclusive. For too long I thought they were; I thought if the work didn't come to me in a big flash it probably wasn't any good, and if I had to pick at ideas to get them right, they were dead. These days, nothing comes easily, and I like thinking that my labors are just part of a longer, more frustrating, but equally rich experience.

Boy, though, that bit about Jonathan Safran Foer -- who tossed off his first novel at 19, having not really read much or thought about writing until then -- was a bit hard to take...

Anyway, read the article. Unless you're a 19 yr old genius, it will make you feel good.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How Far Is the Ocean From Here

Moonlight Ambulette is a wonderful blog, one of my favorites. Amy always has excellent recommendations and hilariously charming commentary. I knew I'd love her first novel. It's about a very pregnant runaway surrogate mother stranded in a down-at-heel motor lodge in New Mexico, and it's full of weird, surprising, beautiful writing and good characters. On the surface I guess HFITOFH is about family-making (can you make a family out of random strangers?) but a step or two deeper down it's about what people owe each other -- indebtedness. The characters are constantly giving each other things: pebbles, breakfast, lodging, babies. (One of my favorite lines is when one of the characters demands his breakfast: "'Pop-Tarts and a orange,' he said. 'Yeah.'" He gets the Pop-Tarts, but no orange.) I loved the setting, too: the desert, the motel with its huge, buzzing neon sign and greenish swimming pool. Anyway: it turns out you can blog AND write great fiction! Or at least Amy can.

It's good to be back. I shouldn't have picked an election season to try and give up the internet, though. I would have done more writing if I hadn't spent so much time checking the latest tracking polls. Several of my old lit-blog haunts disappeared during my hiatus: Writer, Reading is gone (drop a line if you have a new blog, WR) bloglily is taking her own break, etc. But I'm totally raring to go. Anyone seen Max around? I really miss that mean old son of a gun.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fiction-based blogging?

Here's a quickie to tide us all over until Rhian gets her behind in gear and takes hold of the rudder. They're up to something peculiar this week at Boing Boing Gadgets: that celebrated geek-tech blog has undergone a temporary transmutation into a fictional mouthpiece of "Infomercia, a massive super-conglomerate turned government on an alternate Earth in which indiscriminate technological consumerism and promiscuous corporate partnerships have become the backbone of an oppressive, Orwellian dystopia." Blogger John Brownlee goes on:

In this world, Boing Boing Gadgets is one of an endless number of official government mouthpieces, controlled by Infomercia's Ministry of Machines (MiniMac, or MoM for short). In fact, all gadget blogs are either mouths of MiniMac's propaganda machine, or the mouths of its foreign counterparts. As such, links that go to Gizmoldovia's cluster of gadget blogs will tend to be laudatory; links that go to Engasian sites will be disparaged.

So the blog will evidently be spending the week wearing the vestments of a meta-novel, in the form of a gadget blog in an imaginary ultra-consumerist nation. I'm not sure how ironic this is supposed to be, since Boing Boing Gadgets is already a voluntary mouthpiece of an ultra-consumerist nation, but no matter. I like the idea.

Similarly, Rhian said something interesting to me the other night--she wondered what I thought of occasionally discussing extra-literary matters on this blog. Since I've already allowed politics and photography to ooze onto these pages, I don't see why not...we always end up bringing everything around to books, anyway. It reminds me of the mental games I play every winter while trying to decide which expenses I can justify as business deductions on our taxes. Since we're writers, all of life informs our work, does it not? So every last Twix bar, in theory, can be written off. I've never had the guts to go all the way, and I doubt we'll go that far here, either. But perhaps you can anticipate a subtle broadening of our outlook.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What came in the mail

Here's a hodgepodge of stuff from this week's mailbag. The main thing was my box of books from the UK. About twice a year I put in an order, so that I can get my hands on some of my favorite British writers' books before they come out here. Mostly mysteries. In this fall's box I've found new stuff from Tom McCarthy (and by the way, how on earth did the guy get such a huge Wikipedia page? Consider this an official request: somebody please plump mine up, I don't have the chutzpah to do it myself), Karin Fossum (not a police procedural this time around, but apparently a literary venture), and Arnaldur Indridason, along with the latest from Barbara Vine and P. D. James.

I've read the latter two, and thought they were both OK. Vine/Rendell is reliably good, especially in her Vine mode, but this new one (The Birthday Present) is strangely subdued and unsuspenseful. And the James (The Private Patient) feels a bit as though she's going through the motions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the act of reading these books, and picked them up with great eagerness in the evening, despite their shortcomings. Why? It's the way these writers create and maintain their settings. In Vine's case, it's London, with particular attention to the workings of Parliament; in James's it is Dorset, and a former manor house that has been converted into a private plastic-surgery hospital. There is a lushness and comforting realism to these places; both writers are masters at describing streets and roads and interiors, never in terribly thrilling prose, but always with steadfast professionalism. Both books were genuine pleasures in a personally anxious week.

Yesterday's mail also brought the latest Paris Review, featuring two items of note: a new short story by a guy I've never heard of, Jesse Ball (yes, yes, that website is pretentiously uninformative, but hey), and a new poem, "October," by our own Ed Skoog. The Ball story is about a starving poet who applies for a mysterious job--he fills out a bewildering application, and then endures an interview with an inscrutable man; the result is a hundred-thousand-dollar gig trying to avoid being murdered by another applicant. It sounds hopelessly Chuck-Palahniuk, I know, but it's really more like a less tired, more driven Paul Auster--spare and cryptic without seeming coy. I strongly suspect it's the first chapter of Ball's forthcoming novel.

Ed's poem I have read before, in a manuscript copy of his forthcoming book, Mister Skylight, coming out from Copper Canyon around the same time next year as my new book. The money shot:

It's eleven-eleven, time
to make my daily wish,
catch the stilt legs of those
two birds who land twice
a day inside the clock.

And finally, for fans of my better half: Rhian's return is nigh. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I like the new Philip Roth. Is this surprising? There was a time, several years ago, when I thought the recent Zuckerman trilogy might be some kind of swan song--a late-career resurgence that would be followed by a sighing decline. I'm embarrassed to admit this now, but Roth is the kind of writer whose excellence would seem hard to sustain for more than half a century: unlike, say, Alice Munro, whose genius is steady and reliable, Roth's, since the late seventies, has been uneven. All his books are good, but some are thrilling, and when he started ramping it up around the time of Sabbath's Theater, and kept it there for three more in a row, it was easy to imagine he might soon take a bow and walk off the stage.

Nope. There have been, what, five novels since then?, all of them stunning in one way or another, particularly last year's Exit Ghost. This one is a surprise--no familiar characters, no old men, and most of it takes place at a college in Ohio. Our first-person protagonist, Marcus Messner, is a butcher's son from Newark. When he begins college in a small Newark school, his father begins to worry about him--so much so that it becomes a kind of sickness. When Marcus is out late one night studying, his father becomes fixated on the idea that he is out playing pool, and double-locks the door against him. This event precipitates Marcus's transfer to Winesburg College, a day's bus ride away.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Korean War, in which Marcus is terrified of being killed; his plan is to graduate first in his class, become an officer, and avoid combat. So far it's a rich, if simple, story--but fifty pages in, Roth does something shocking. I'm gonna spoil this small surprise, so if you care, stop reading. But in the wake of the book's pivotal event (I am delighted to tell you that it is a blow job), we get this:

What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward. And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.

There's your novel, right there. The blow job comes from Olivia Hutton, a willowy gentile with razor scars on her wrist, lots of sexual experience, and a violent aversion to talking about her father. Marcus's relationship with her lies at the center of a series of accidents and misjudgements (including clashes with the Dean, a lunatic roommate, a quickly declining father back in Newark, and a dalliance with a Jewish fraternity) which do indeed lead to death.

This death--Marcus is telling the story from a kind of athiest purgatory, and the act of remembering consumes his consciousness; it's easy to see this riffing as Roth's contemplation of the novelist's creative dream-state: "...Would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it isn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself? Though perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion." So we get this, but mostly we get Marcus's wild descent into his doom. Olivia's disturbed, if poised, lasciviousness gives way, toward the book's conclusion, to a campus-wide panty raid; Marcus's visiting mother complains about his declining father, "I cannot sleep beside him in the bed anymore." Marcus finds his dorm room ransacked, and anointed with semen. In each case we see sexual urges deflected, reflected, and perverted, and if gives you to wonder if plain old wholesome sex is even something that exists in Roth's world.

Well, if it doesn't, that's fine by me. Marcus is so cheerful and energetic in charting his own death spiral that the book is actually kind of a delight to read; Rhian kept coming into the room and asking me what I was chortling about. I feel as though this was an easy one for Roth; it's like watching Emeril Legasse make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In any event, Roth is still on fire, and I did something with this book I haven't done in many, many years (and haven't had the time to do): I opened it up, sat down, and read the whole thing, cover to cover, without interruption. The fact that I would want to should tell you something.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Podcast: Charles Simic

Sorry to dish up one of these lazy-ass cross-postings, but I have just uploaded to the Writers At Cornell Blog a fresh interview (just a couple of hours old!) with U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic.

Well...ex-Poet Laureate, actually. His stint ended a couple of days ago, and he's agreed to spend part of his first week off here in Ithaca, talking to students, giving a reading, and letting people take him out to dinner. During the interview we discuss not only his Laureateship, but his new book, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, a collection of notes, a la The Notebook Of Anton Chekhov, a W6 favorite. I also ask him to repeat perhaps my favorite literary anecdote ever--the one about the time he met Richard Hugo at a conference in San Francisco, and they realized that Hugo actually dropped bombs on Simic during the Second World War. I love this story not only because it's so delightfully serendipitous, but because, in its mixture of horror and slapstick, it seems to match Simic's literary aesthetic so perfectly.

I love Simic's poems, and in the interview describe them as little cottages that, once you enter, turn out to be haunted mansions. This is among my favorite of these podcasts that I've done, so do click that link. Sorry about the clicks and pops...