29 December 2009


New resolution-type project: I'm rereading some of my absolute favorite books from elementary school. My co-worker Steph is close enough to my age, and was as relentlessly bookish a child, that we have a lot of touchstones in common, and talking about with her has made me hungry to re-experience them. Not to say that I never read anything dubious in my youth: I shan't be rereading any of the 50+ Baby-Sitters Club novels I devoured, despite the enormous pleasure I garnered from them the first time, and my attempt to get back into the Nancy Drew books a while back imparted the rueful knowledge that the writing wasn't exactly, well, good. But hell, I never ate sugary cereal or watched Saturday morning cartoons: compared to those, reading mountains of innocuous pulp was pretty harmless.

First up, Norton Juster's incredible The Phantom Tollbooth. I think this book, more than any other, introduced me to and created my passion for metaphor. The concepts I read about here first--Short Shrift, the Awful Dynne, the Dodecahedron and the Doldrums--that I can't think of without imagining Juster's personifications! The marvelous similes (the tastes of letters, the sights of sounds, particularly the handclaps of clean white paper)! Middle-Earth and Narnia and Hogwarts are quite all right, but I would say I'd rather live in the Kingdom of Wisdom, were it not for the knowledge that it's already where I spend my days.

Pynchon, Pynchonesque.

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon: Pynchon is, I think, one of those polarizing, love-him-or-hate-him authors, also tainted by an overserious and undercritical male following. Me, I love his work to absolute bits, ever since reading V. in eighth grade (though both then and in my rereading ten years later, I skipped the excruciatingly detailed nose job scene entirely).

The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem: Epic coming-of-age novel (like everyone feels their coming-of-age to be) set in 70s Brooklyn, during the morphing of Gowanus into Boerum Hill. Apparently Lethem's another divisive novelist--this book in particular, to judge by Goodreads reviews, is either THE BEST EVER or A PIECE OF SHIT. "Pretension" was a common and frankly baffling accusation. I have to assume these detractors' pop- and high-culture experiences differ widely from Lethem's own and his characters'; to me, writing from within what's comfortable for you can never be pretentious, and The Fortress of Solitude reads with the confidence of comfort. One commentor complained that there were too many adjectives and similes in his prose; to me, this is saying, "Yeah, those descriptions were way too vivid! I hated knowing what the sights and sounds and smells of the narrative were! And figurative language just confuses me!" Perhaps Lethem's just firmly in my bailiwick, with his adorable sweater vest (when he read at WORD in November) and comparisons to Pynchon? And yeah, I got a kick out of knowing, down to the block, where the book takes place.


Once a Witch, Carolyn MacCullough: Pretty good. About a girl from a family of witches who has no power of her own (or does she?). Family secrets, burgeoning romance, and a fantastic climactic setpiece in Grand Central Station.

Lips Touch: Three Times, Laini Taylor: Far and away the best of the lot, in spite of the aggressively stupid title. It's three novellas, loosely centering on the motif of a life-changing kiss. The language is amazing, and the three entirely separate fantasy worlds she creates are richly detailed. For instance, in the center story, "Spicy Little Curses Such as These," is set in India during the Raj, and begins with the daily meeting, over tea, between an elderly widow and a demon, wherein she pleads with him for the souls of children. And that's just the premise. Plus, each story is preceded by a brief, wordless illustrated narrative, depicting a peripheral scene from the story. Its significance only becomes clear as you read on.

Ash, Malinda Lo: Ehn. It's billed as a YA lesbian retelling of Cinderella, and it is that. I mean, the Cinderella stand-in falls in love with and ends up with a woman. Beyond that, the characterization is flat, and the romance as sterile and take-my-word-for-it as too many heternormative teen reads. Gay girls deserve better.

27 November 2009

Russian front.

Have I really been reading Solzhenitsyn on the subway all month? Yeesh. It's marvelous, of course; the Great War (as I insist upon calling it, cause it wasn't just a prequel) is one of my pet fascinations, and I've read novels and poetry and memoirs from Brits and Frenchmen and Germans, but hadn't previously gotten the Russian perspective. Horrible, incompetently commanded, meat-grinder stuff. In less than ten pages, though, I'm off to another of my increasingly frequent YA paranormal breaks, henceforth referred to as YAPs. I've got three titles lined up this time: witches, goblins, and a lesbian retelling of "Cinderella."

05 November 2009


Etymological aside: the word ketchup/catsup comes from the Malay word kechap, itself a version of a Chinese word describing a pickled fish sauce. While Americans associate it purely with tomatoes, it is in fact the spices & vinegar that define the substance--the English used to make ketchups out of oysters and walnuts, and banana ketchup is super-popular in the Philippines.

Aaaand a flurry of updating:

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party, Graham Greene: a decidely minor, black-comic entry in his oeuvre.

To the Wedding, John Berger: lyrical, but emotionally slight.

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud: a classic, obviously, and useful to a text-obsessed reader like me. Whenever I read graphic works, I'm never sure if I'm spending enough time looking at a given page, especially if there aren't words on it; I've enjoyed David Small's Stitches, loved Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe and the more straight-up comic-book stylings of Joss Whedon's Fray (my Halloween costume two years running) and the Buffy Season 8 series, but I still often feel out of my depth, like I'm not getting something. Understanding Comics helped a bit. (Though you know what? I will never like Watchmen, ever.)

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs: a novel written in alternating chapters by two founding Beats, with an afterword by my cousin James (first, once removed; Burroughs' longtime secretary and executor). I read and enjoyed On the Road, read and shrugged at The Dharma Bums, never read any Burroughs--and I have a chip on my shoulder about the whole Beat movement, as it has been used as an excuse for so much terrible, sloppy art since. But this was engaging, and surprisingly cohesive for being written by two people.

Behind That Curtain, Earl Derr Biggers: read somewhere, earlier this year, that our knee-jerk assumption that the Charlie Chan mysteries were racist isn't really true. And yes, having read one now, Charlie does dabble in flowery humility, and his attitudes towards women are not at all progressive, but he's well-respected by almost everyone he meets, and the ones who do bluster about being bested by a Chinaman are, basically, idiots. Plus, this was a great mystery: long-vanished ladies! Enigmatic clues! Quite enjoyable.

American Nerd: The Story of My People, Benjamin Nugent: a good "ethnography" of the history and subtypes of the nerd, including the roots of the type in the Romantic rejection of reason as what sets man apart in favor of emotionalism--hence seeking rational and rule-based means of discourse (which something like D&D has at its base) made one less than human, instead of more so as the ancients would have believed. He also theorizes that the fake hipster nerd is an attempt to attain authenticity by allying oneself with the artless outsider--really kind of the same way the Beats co-opted black jazz culture, and just as annoying. It's not as boring or scholarly as I make it sound; while I could have done without some of Nugent's self-flagellation for abandoning his nerd friends when he got to high school, it's a fast and oddly heartwarming read.

About to start Solzhenitsyn's August 1914! 700 pages of sheer delight, no doubt.

27 October 2009

Rage, sing, goddess

It's no secret that the Iliad is important to me; in what was once referred to as "the most pretentious tramp stamp ever," I've got the first three words (menin aeide thea, the beginnings of the invocation of the Muse) tattooed at the base of my spine. It's a fitting place for these founding words of Western poetry, at the root of the spinal cord, the walled-in fortress of the nervous system (and, to switch traditions, the location of the kundalini chakra). In many ways, the Iliad is Western culture, violent and tender, pulled in opposite directions by the forces of war and domesticity.

Caroline Alexander's The War That Killed Achilles is a lovely, well-written exegesis of the Iliad's chronicle of the devastation and pity of war--a peculiarly human notion, but rarely so well put. For me, as for millennia of readers, the characters of Homer's epic are immediate and familiar, such that I still tear up when I read about Hektor taking leave of Andromache and Astyanax--still more so when Alexander points out that in light of this scene, where Hektor's infant son is terrified by his imposing helmet (whereupon the warrior laughs and takes it off, de-heroizing himself for the sake of his doomed posterity), Hektor's common epithet "of the shimmering helm" is less honorific than poignant detail of his martial duties' cutting him off from his family.

One still encounters people who claim the Iliad glorifies war. I can only surmise they haven't read it. The Iliad begins with rage and ends with two funerals; even Achilles would give up his glory to die quietly in old age, at home.

18 October 2009

Adventure kitty!

All right, so one moves a mere 1400 miles (to Bushwick, Brooklyn! Everyone is allowed one "I guess you're not in Kansas anymore" joke. Just get it out of your system) and one's blog falls by the wayside. And looking back it seems reading itself has fallen off a bit: though I did deeply and unironically enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and another paranormal Austen sequel, Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre. (The "y" just makes that title, doesn't it? Also it's dedicated to Catherine Morland.) On the gritty-realism side, there's As God Commands by Niccolo Ammaniti, translated from the Italian: I can't characterize it better than a back cover pull-quote from La Repubblica calling him "a modern-day Dickens"--just that kind of ordinary darkness, the underpinnings of polite society, with a child at its center. Ammaniti's a much finer prose stylist for my tastes, though.

Currently: Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, about New York pop-culture obsessives. My favorite kind of postmodern freestyling prose, checked by arresting metaphors.

And I have a new bookstore gig: WORD, in Greenpoint. Stop by!

30 September 2009

Werewolves, weddings, and Williamsburg.

Picked up one last YA-paranormal read: The Dark Divine, by Bree Despain. Notable mostly for the author's ability to create actual suspense, in that nothing even vaguely supernatural occurs for 100 pages, just offhand details and rumors, and the full picture doesn't come out for many chapters after that. While the revelations themselves weren't brilliant (werewolves!), and I did see the twist coming: still. There was a twist. There was some plotting going on! Good on you, Bree!

Then, the marvelous Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding, which galley I garnered with my mad bookseller skillz on behalf on my little sister, who is tying the knot in March. It's a wonderful, straightforward, sardonic how-to on having a nice wedding with niceness instead of buying into the wedding-industrial complex (my sister's phrase) that turns women into money-grubbing high-maintenance monsters on the grounds of a misguided confusion of femininity with selfishness, solely to enrich their own coffers /end rant/. My favorite quote, on the list of why everyone's miserable at the now-traditional production-number wedding: "The groomsmen [are crying] because they've had too much beer all week. (The bridesmaids have had just as much, but they hold it better.)"

And in celebration of my fast-approaching half-cross-country move, I'm finally reading the 40s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

20 September 2009

YA weekend!

Good Lord, I love these.

Up til 1:30 last night reading Melissa de la Cruz's Blue Bloods, the first in the series of the same name. It's set in the ranks of old-money Manhattan: the twist, though, is that the spoiled rich kids that populate this glitzy milieu aren't descendants of folks who came over on the Mayflower--no, they came over on the Mayflower, because they're all vampires. The writing's not great--the story relies heavily on info-dumpish "now you can know the truth" conversation--but the re-mythologizing is top-notch. De la Cruz blends in the fall of Lucifer, Caligula, and the lost colony of Roanoke with the vampires' history, and locates their immortality not in their bodies as a whole, but in the blood itself. It's the blood that lives forever, and passes from host to host along with their memories, so that they experience many lives, but not always as the same people. No mere "hey-they-sparkle!" varnish: this is real imagination, and it shines through the slipshod plotting.

Today I've started The Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, about the youngest and only female member of the Templars, half-Pakistani Billi SanGreal, plunged at fifteen into the Order's never-ending battle against the forces of darkness. The opening scene is straight-up Buffy-style, with the hate-and-black-ichor-filled spirit of a murdered little boy on a creaky swing in the middle of a deserted playground. Awesome sauce!

Why don't they write books for grown-ups like this? Or rather--because they certainly do (Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series springs to mind)--why are such books relegated to the Genre Fiction ghetto, and not allowed to coexist with (often dour, self-righteous, or o'er-consciously-literary) Serious Literature?

16 September 2009

Children's books.

Three recent reads that dovetail together nicely:

The Book of Dragons, E. Nesbit: Nesbit wrote some of the greatest children's fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I say this boldly, but I must confess I had only read Five Children & It, long ago, my curiosity piqued by references in Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful Half Magic (or maybe Seven Day Magic? One of Edward Eager's wonderful, wonderful, mid-century reads, which I wore to shreds as a little one). This collection of dragon-centered tales sums up her style, though: ordinary children matter-of-factedly experiencing the incredible.

The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt: While I was reading this, I didn't want to be doing anything else. Not working, not eating, not sleeping. I just wanted to read my book. It's a family saga, essentially, but also a brief history of England from 1895 to the end of the Great War, with special emphasis on radical politics (Fabians, Russian anarchists, brick-throwing suffragettes) and art. A main character, Olive Wellwood, is clearly a fictionalization of E. Nesbit herself, down to the socialism and the open marriage. It's probably the best book I've read this year, and Byatt makes it look effortless. Towards the end, she even tries her hand at some Great War poetry, and darned if she doesn't have Sassoon and Owens and Graves nailed.

The Magician's Elephant, Kate DiCamillo: I'm reading this now, and it feels like it was recently discovered in an attic in London, in spidery brown ink on yellowing parchment. Like Nesbit, or at least Olive Wellwood, or, definitely, Kate DiCamillo, who understands the rhythms of fairytale like almost no one--except children--does anymore.


So Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which I read, yeesh, a month ago already, was pitched to me as "Harry Potter goes to college," to which I said, and I quote, "Oooo! Neat!" And it's got a beautiful cover. Don't laugh; the marketers know their shit these days, and similarity in jacket palettes can often reflect similarity in tone and style. But The Magicians let me down on both counts.
It's not a bad book, really--I mean, I read the whole thing--but underwhelming. It's really half Harry Potter, as the hero, Quentin Coldwater, is lifted from his everyday Brooklyn existence to matriculate at the exclusive Brakebills Academy for Magical Pedagogy, and half Narnia: Quentin and his aimless twentysomething fellow graduates discover by chance that Fillory, a fantasy kingdom detailed in a series of English children's books they'd all read and absorbed as children, is real. There are some great scenes in here (I think first of the slightly drunk talking bear they meet in Fillory, who drones on for hours about the relative merits of different bee species), and the central dilemma--what if everything you've ever dreamed of is real, and you're still miserable?--is harrowing, especially to a fellow fantasy-devourer like me. But the writing is sub-par, heavy on exposition and telling-not-showing, especially in the school sections. Instead of, "Wow, what an ambitious adult take on Harry Potter," I kept thinking, "I wish I was reading Harry Potter."
Lesson learned: you can't always judge a book by its cover. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, though? Totally accurate.

Reviews: Stitches, Sense, Sensibility, & Sea Monsters.

Stitches: A Memoir Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In general, I’m not big on unhappy-childhood memoirs. Despite Tolstoy’s dictum, the genre is awfully repetitive, and often of dubious literary merit. Having had alcoholic parents or a drug problem or a Hardscrabble Existence Full of Simple Joys Not Like These Kids Today With Their Texting and Whatnot—it makes you deserving of sympathy, sure, but it doesn’t make you a *writer*. And the market is certainly glutted. It is probably a good thing, then, that I didn’t bother to read the blurbs on the back of David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches (which include the word “redemptive,” ick). Because it’s about an unhappy childhood, and it’s great.
The central trauma of Small’s young life was an operation at fourteen that he thought was simply to remove a cyst on his neck; he awoke missing a vocal cord, with a lurid incision stretching up his throat, “slashed and laced back up like a bloody boot.” He has to relearn speech. He is not supposed to learn, but does, that he had thyroid cancer, brought on by his radiologist father’s overzealous use of X-rays in an attempt to cure his sinus problems. His mother is cold, his father distant and preoccupied, his grandmother actively insane. It’s a harrowing tale, buoyed up by a formidable artistic talent.
Small is best known as a children’s book illustrator (he’s got a couple of lively sketches up in Watermark’s basement autograph gallery, in fact), a Caldecott winner in 2001 for Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?. His drawing style reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s illustrations in The Phantom Tollbooth, loose-jointed, often suggestive instead of precise, by turns whimsical and haunting. Stitches is entirely black and white, and here my vocabulary falters: I am not sure what to call the shading technique he uses. It looks like watercolor, but all in greys, a paintbox of ashes and thunderheads, punctuated with inky slashes. Just the two pages where we see his basted wound for the first time are a textbook in murk and exactitude, the variegated non-colors of blood and bruise receding from the bleached sutures, an unnatural imprint of disease and deception.
Graphic works require new skills: how do you read pictures? How long do you look at a page with no text before turning it? Memoir, too, provokes questions: is the story better somehow because true? doesn’t provide answers, but it’s excellent practice: a good story, well told.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When Quirk Classics’ first literary mash-up, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, came out earlier this year, we Austen-obsessed Watermarkers kept it displayed close at hand, for the sheer delight of watching customers’ reactions to its cover, which features a well-coiffed Regency lass missing several important parts of her face. As one might gather, comments fell into two camps: the “That is the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen!” variety, and, like my own, “That may be the single greatest idea anyone has ever had!” (Take that, penicillin and the wheel!) It seems the general populace leaned towards the latter, because P&P&Z has been hanging out on the New York Times bestseller list for months now. Last I heard, the movie rights were in hot contention. May I suggest, Hollywood, that no one could pull off Mr.-Darcy-as-action-hero better than Clive Owen?
Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters mines the same vein, with gleeful results. You see, some time before the action takes place, a horrible change took place in the oceans of the world; known as the Alteration, this mysterious event turned all the creatures of the sea into vicious monsters, bent on destroying mankind. Needless to say, this left England, being mostly coast, rather susceptible to attack by sea serpents, gargantuan jellyfish, razor-toothed crawfish, and the like. It’s a downright Lovecraftian premise, crossed with a little H. Rider Haggard (in a subplot about young Margaret Dashwood’s glimpses of an alien geyser-worshipping civilization on the secluded island where Barton Cottage stands).
And where is Austen in all this? Well, Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters has, despite appearances, the same basic plot as its more respectable namesake, and in fact, many of the same words. What’s brilliant about these two Austen-horror hybrids is actually their fidelity to the originals—I think most of the humor would be lost on someone who hadn’t read the non-zombified-and-sea-monstered versions. For instance, in the parody, poor Colonel Brandon is not only old (at 35) and less than dashing: he’s been cursed by a sea witch, and the bottom half of his face is covered with tentacles. Thus, in the early conversation between Willoughby and Marianne over their shared dislike of him, Austen’s words get oh-so-subtly spun: “‘Brandon is just the kind of man,’ said Willoughby, ‘whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and everybody is sort of mildly afraid to look at him directly.’”
I can, of course, understand why Austen purists object. Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, and its predecessor, are thoroughly silly exercises in subversion. Me, I think they’re hilarious. As for what Quirk Classics should tackle next, I’m torn: Northanger Abbey is begging for a vampire or two, but giant robots would liven up Mansfield Park considerably, wouldn’t they?

03 September 2009

The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have an image-destroying confession to make: I enjoy watching pro wrestling. Not enough to seek it out while channel-surfing, really, and my TV companions would never let me dwell on it, anyway—but man, is it ever a fascinating, brutal form of theater, telling Homeric and Shakespearean tales of rivalry, revenge, treachery, and heroism! And there is an epic, animal grace to the competition, like a nature documentary where rutting elk lock antlers, bellowing. Also, people get hit with folding chairs.
There were no folding chairs in the mix, however, when Millie Burke, the greatest female wrestler of the Thirties and Forties, was grappling. That’s right, there were female wrestlers in the Thirties and Forties! Enough of them for there to be “a greatest!” It was a surprise to me, too. But unlike the sport she helped invent and made famous, Millie Burke was quite real: a five-foot-two Kansas girl (born in Coffeyville, like my grandmother), who escaped Depression-era waitressing to “rassle,” and, with the P.R. savvy of her otherwise despicable husband, Diamond Billy Wolfe, built a media empire.
Burke’s tawdry, complicated, brawny story is ably handled by Jeff Leen, a managing editor for the Washington Post. He follows her rise from sideshow attraction, wrestling all comers (mostly men—her agility and lower body strength prevailed), to arena bouts before thousands of cheering fans (60% of them women), clad in her signature white costumes, rhinestone-covered capes, and full makeup, to her final championship match, where she and June Byers (one of Wolfe’s many lovers) set aside the playacting and fought for real. The match was called after an hour, because it turns out real wrestling is pretty boring to watch. The Golden Age of women’s wrestling, which Burke presided over, has faded into obscurity; but Millie’s rediscovered glory is the tale of a woman strong before her time.

16 August 2009

Lecture time!

As promised/threatened: my sprawling, messy lecture notes for my Austenland lecture last Wednesday. I talked for an hour, and told the story about my dad crying at the end of the recent BBC version of Persuasion, and got to wear a wireless mike, just like a celebrity on a late-night talk show.

Lady Susan
(written around 1794; first published 1871)

The correspondents:
  • Lady Susan Vernon (our antiheroine)
  • Mr Vernon (Charles): her amiable-if-not-the-sharpest brother-in-law; resides at Churchill
  • Mrs Johnson (Alicia): her equally scheming best friend; resides in Edwards St, London
  • Mrs Vernon (Catherine, née De Courcy): Charles’ not-taken-in wife
  • Lady De Courcy: Catherine’s mother; resides at Parklands
  • Mr De Courcy (Reginald): Catherine’s dashing, impressionable younger brother
  • Sir Reginald De Courcy: Catherine & Reginald’s sickly father
  • Miss Vernon (Frederica): Lady Susan’s timid, ill-educated daughter

Other characters:
  • Mr Manwaring: Lady Susan’s married lover; resides at Langford
  • Mrs Manwaring: his jealous-with-reason wife, formerly Mr Johnson’s ward
  • Miss Manwaring: their (presumably plain) daughter
  • Sir James Martin: Miss Manwaring’s erstwhile suitor, waylaid by Lady Susan for Frederica; eventually Lady Susan’s second husband
  • Mr Johnson: Alicia’s gouty husband, not a fan of Lady Susan, who refers to him as “just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.” HA!
The Epistolary Novel
A novel told as a series of documents, usually letters, although diary/journal entries, newspaper or magazine clippings, or (recently) audio, radio, TV or film transcripts, blog entries, emails or even instant messages (Lauren Myracle’s teen novels ttyl & ttfn) have been used.
Early examples (which Austen would likely have read):
  • Pamela and Clarissa, Samuel Richardson (1740, 1749)
  • Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Cholderos de Laclos (1782)
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
Modern(er) epistolary examples:
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
  • Griffin & Sabine, Nick Bantock (1991)
  • The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008 Man Booker Prize winner)
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (2008)
The Fragments
The Watsons
  • Unfinished novel of five chapters (about 18,000 words).
  • Emma Watson, having been raised by a wealthy aunt, is forced by her relation’s imprudent second marriage to move back home. She is awkwardly courted by a lord, but prefers his former tutor, Mr. Howard.
  • The story bears similarities to Pride & Prejudice (Emma is embarrassed by her family’s vulgarity and her sisters’ husband-hunting) and Mansfield Park (a girl raised by relatives more genteel than her immediate family).
  • Worth reading for a charming ball scene: 10-year-old Charles Blake has been promised the first two dances by Miss Osborne, the daughter of the local Great Family. When Miss Osborne cavalierly abandons the boy for a dashing colonel, Emma, without pausing to think, offers herself as a partner to the crestfallen boy. It’s a lovely bit of characterization-by-action, and the delight of the child staying up till all hours to dance like the grown-ups is heartwarming.
  • Austen likely abandoned the novel after her father’s death in January 1805; Mr. Watson is seriously ill in the preserved draft, and Jane confided in Cassandra that he was to die in the ensuing chapters.
Sanditon (The Brothers) (1817)
  • Eleven chapters; Austen was working on it during her final illness.
  • While there are various marriageable young characters to provide romantic intrigue (the ostensible heroine seems to be Charlotte Parker, daughter of a large and isolated country family who goes to visit the burgeoning beach resort of the title), the most interesting elements of the story come from social satire.
  • Unlike Persuasion, probably the most restrained of her novels, Sanditon contains broad caricatures: a trio of hypochondriac siblings, fond of leeches and tonics; a young peer who’s read too many Gothic novels and fancies himself a dangerous seducer—his conversation is peppered with the buzzwords of the time (prefixes like anti- and pseudo- were super-hip); his mother, Lady Denham, who exemplifies the mixture of haughtiness and parsimony that we often find in Austen’s aristocrats.
  • Austen’s other novels all take place in established locales, but Sanditon is in the process of developing from a sleepy seaside village to a fashionable resort in the manner of Bath—at least in the mind of Mr. Parker, the town’s most zealous promoter. In reality, few of the lodgings are let, and the library’s subscription list is sadly missing names of rank or fortune.
  • Mansfield Park comes down firmly on the side of the staid status quo, but Sanditon is much more uneasy in its appraisal of the progressive consumer culture that was to define 19th-century England. The tone with which Austen details Sanditon’s improvements—blue shoes in the shop windows! fashionable ladies with harps and telescopes and sketchbooks! the library/convenience store, which sells “all the useless things in the world that could not be done without”—is certainly mocking. But the coastal setting is lovely, Mr. Parker’s enthusiasm in his hometown is sweet, and Charlotte, the representative of the “old ways,” is even less likeable than Fanny Price. It’s maddening that Austen’s death prevented the novel’s completion, because one has no idea where it’s going!

Austen’s Female Literary Influences
Modern audiences more or less consider Jane Austen to be the first woman novelist in English. Nothing could be further than the truth: though the literary form was only two centuries old (arguably—I’m dating from Cervantes’ Don Quixote [1605], but the ink spilled by comparative lit scholars on the subject could float an armada), women had been formidable forces in the genre since its inception. (A great, if academic, study of women’s contributions to the early novel is Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen [1988].)
Here are a few:

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)
Love-Letters Between a Nobleman & His Sister
(1684), Oroonoko (1688)
Behn was perhaps the first Englishwoman to earn her living as a professional writer; because of this, and her reputed bisexuality, she’s something of a celebrity to feminist scholars (as she was to Virginia Woolf, who eulogized her in A Room of One’s Own, a work which also applauded Jane Austen). Mostly known at the time as a dramatist, she also served as a spy for Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Her novel Oroonoko chronicles the romance of an enslaved African in the English sugar colony of Suriname in South America.

Charlotte Lennox (1729-1804)
The Female Quixote (1752)
Poet, actress, and literary scenestress, a friend of Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson. Like many independent women of her time, she was separated from her husband. Though her novels were widely popular when published, she died penniless.
The Female Quixote is a great read (and, at 400 pages, quite short for the 18th century) and a direct progenitress of Northanger Abbey. As the title implies, it’s an inversion of Cervantes’ work; the contemporary heroine, Arabella, has steeped herself so far in the melodrama of chivalric romance that she models her life after their women characters, expecting her suitors to undergo horrific ordeals to win her favor, and perish by their own hand at her rejection. Reality crashes down on her with some force.

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
Emmeline (1788), Ethelinde (1789), The Old Manor House (1793)
Miserably married to a unfaithful, violent, and profligate man, Smith turned to writing as a career—the proceeds from her first book of poetry got him out of debtor’s prison in 1783. She later left him and started writing novels instead, as they were more profitable than poetry (hey, even back then!), and she had ten children to suppport. Needless to say, her experiences led to strong feminist themes in her writing, and even radical politics—later novels took stands against slavery and supported the ideals of the French Revolution. Aesthetically, she blended sentimental plot with an artist’s eye for landscape and setting; she is credited as an early influence on Gothic literature and Romanticism.

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840)
Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796)
Like Austen, she wrote about strong-willed, flawed, middle-class female protagonists negotiating the stressful realm of romance and marriage, and satirized contemporary manners and social hypocrisy. While her first novel was published anonymously (her father, in fact, read several reviews of Evelina before he learned it was written by his daughter), her cover was eventually blown; but instead of causing a scandal, her authorship brought her national fame. Her widespread success under her own name helped legitimize writing as a career for women. She married a French exile, General Alexandre d’Arblay, when she was 42. Her diaries, published after her death, were started at 16 and span 72 years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849)
Castle Rackrent (1800), Belinda (1801)
The proudly Irish Edgeworth never married, and her writing career was closely shepherded by her overbearing father, who insisted on approving and editing her work. Her first novel, Castle Rackrent, was submitted for publication without his knowledge, and hence escaped his improving pen—it’s the story of four generations of bungling, dissolute Anglo-Irish landlords told through the bemused voice of their steward, Thady Quirk.

Northanger Abbey and the Novel

“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has be so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.” (Northanger p.22, Bantam Classics edition)

Northanger Abbey is a novel about novels in general, gothic novels in particular, and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho in even more particular. Both the narrator and the sensible Henry Tilney poke fun at the over-the-top conventions of popular fiction, and Catherine’s inability to distinguish between imagination and reality gets her into trouble. But Austen is not anti-novel (or even anti-Radcliffe); rather, she calls them the works “in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (p.23). Even her hero, Henry, reads and loves novels, though Catherine assumes “‘they are not clever enough for you—gentlemen read better books’” (p.85); then, as now, women read more novels than men, a likely reason for the disparagement of the genre. (A 2007 Gallup poll confirmed that women read more books in every major literary category except for history and biography. One can’t help but wonder what Austen, who through Catherine typifies history as dull—“the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all” [p.87], would think of this.)

Novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey

p. 23: Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, Fanny Burney (1782): The eponymous orphaned heiress will inherit a vast fortune, but only if her future husband adopts her last name. Unable to find a gentleman who’ll do so, she relinquishes her wealth and marries for love. Pride & Prejudice takes its title from this quote from the end of the novel: “[R]emember: if to pride and prejudice you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.” Also alluded to by Anne Elliot in Persuasion.

p. 23: Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, Fanny Burney (1796): Thorpe describes it as “‘the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man’s playing at see-saw and learning Latin.’ . . . [T]he justness of [this critique] was unfortunately lost on poor Catherine" (p.33).

p. 23: Belinda, Maria Edgeworth (1801): In the first two editions, this novel featured not one but two interracial couples: an English farm-girl marries an African servant, and the titular heroine nearly weds a wealthy West Indian Creole. The third edition, published in 1810, excised both these relationships; Edgeworth’s editor father was likely responsible. Austen would have added this mention in revision, as the novel hadn’t yet been published when Northanger was first written (under the name Susan).

p.24: Isabella’s list of “horrid novels”: For years scholars assumed these titles were the products of Austen’s imagination, but they are all real works of disposable popular fiction already deservedly obscure by the time Northanger saw print. Rife with incest, ghosts, and ruined castles, these novels were indeed shocking reading for well-bred young ladies! Several have been reprinted by Valancourt Books, or can be found in etext form online:
  • The Castle of Wolfenbach, Eliza Parsons (1793)
  • Clermont, Regina Maria Roche (1798)
  • Mysterious Warnings, Eliza Parsons (1796)
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest, Karl Friedrich Kahlert (1794)
  • The Midnight Bell, Francis Lathom (1798)
  • The Orphan of the Rhine, Eleanor Sleath (1798)
  • Horrid Mysteries, Karl Grosse (1796)

p. 26: Sir Charles Grandison, Samuel Richardson (1754): Austen’s hands-down favorite novel, told (like Lady Susan) in epistolary form. The saintly hero & heroine’s exceedingly drawn-out path to the altar (seven volumes & 80,000 words!) were buoyed along by their far more interesting family and friends. Charlotte, a sister of the title character, seems quite familiar, in fact: “Here was an outspoken young woman, very often wrong in her judgements and behaviour, yet always captivating, brilliantly lively and wholly human, whether speaking for herself or presented through the eyes of others. with her sisterly love and loyalty, her teasing, her articulacy, her repartee, her ‘archness rising to the eye that makes one both love and fear her,’ Charlotte Grandison was surely an early inspiration for Elizabeth Bennet” (Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life, p.74).

p. 32: John Thorpe’s “tolerably decent” novels Tom Jones, Henry Fielding (1749) and The Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796): The former is a founding work of realistic fiction (made into an Oscar-winning movie with Albert Finney in 1963. You probably remember the dinner scene.), while the latter is high Gothic, the tale of a corrupted monk who dabbles in black magic, rapes and kills a woman who turns out to be his sister, and eventually sells his soul to the devil. Radically different books, but both scandalous and extremely sexual; together, they don’t speak well of Thorpe’s moral fiber.

Ann Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho

“Have you gone on with Udolpho?”
“Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I have got to the black veil.”
Northanger Abbey, p.24

[Emily] paused again, and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.
The Mysteries of Udolpho, p. 249 (Oxford World’s Classics edition)

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) was probably the most celebrated English writer of the 1790s, and a must for anyone with pretensions to being well-read for at least fifty years thereafter. All of her novels were bestsellers; The Mysteries of Udolpho, her 1794 masterpiece, was sold for the astonishing sum of £500 (Pride & Prejudice, in contrast, was sold for £110). Unlike a lot of modern blockbuster authors, however, she was also a critical darling, called “the Shakespeare of romance writers” and “the Great Enchantress”; even those who admitted her characters could be bland and same-y (at least the good guys) praised her scene-setting, her lush description of the natural world, her sense of the sublime, and her intricate plotting and ability to inspire terror in her readers.

Her biography is brief and pedestrian—hers truly was, as Henry Austen said of his sister’s, not “a life of events.” She was middle-class, seems to have been happily married—her husband certainly supported her writing—and never comfortable with her fame. She didn’t mingle in literary society, preferring a private, quiet lifestyle. The only strange incident is the abrupt end of her career: after publishing five novels in eight years (The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, 1789; A Sicilian Romance, 1790; The Romance of the Forest, 1791; The Mysteries of Udolpho; and The Italian, 1797), she simply stopped writing at the height of her fame. (A sixth novel, Gaston de Blondeville, was published by her husband after her death.)

She didn’t invent the Gothic novel; that distinction is usually attributed to Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764) established many conventions of the genre—the exotic-to-the-English location in Italy (France would also be popular); the setting somewhere in a vaguely medieval past; the aristocratic family with a dark and terrible secret; a crumbling, mysterious edifice full of secret passages, unexplained noises, and dark corridors. What Radcliffe did was make the genre respectable. Where Otranto was full of paranormal and magical events—beginning with the castle’s heir being crushed to death on his wedding day by a giant helmet that falls out of the sky—Radcliffe pioneered the “explained supernatural,” in which seemingly ghostly happenings (spectral figures, haunting music) are eventually revealed as ordinary—if backstory-and-coincidence-dependent—human actions.

She also cleverly blended Gothic trappings with the “novel of sensibility,” which featured a sweet, well-behaved, usually orphaned heroine and her ordeals at the hands of cruel, tyrannical father figures, on her way to happily ever after with her similarly proper but persecuted love interest. (In terms of genre shifts, it’s similar, actually, to Stephenie Meyer’s commercialization of the vampire myth, achieved partly by excising the traditional eroticism connected with bloodsucking in favor of a chaste romance that echoes Radcliffe’s wholesome values. Edward and Bella are really not that far from Udolpho’s Emily and Valancourt.)

But while her ostensible protagonists may be one-dimensionally virtuous, her villains are fantastic: bloodthirsty, avaricious, manipulative, ruthless, completely amoral. Her landscapes are gorgeous and painterly, mountains and fields and forests lovingly lingered upon. And her plots are jaw-droppingly complex, fast-moving and packed full of shocking plot twists that would make M. Night Shyamalan hang his head in shame. She’s worth reading, is what I’m saying.

And Jane Austen would agree. Northanger Abbey laughs at the more exaggerated aspects of her Radcliffe’s fiction, especially in contrast to mundane middle-class English life:

“But you must be aware” [said Henry Tilney] “that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the house, she is formally conducted by Dorothy, the ancient housekeeper, up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before.” (p.128)

And poor Catherine Morland’s Radcliffe-assisted imagination leads her to assume General Tilney (who has “the air and attitude of a Montoni,” Udolpho’s remorseless bad guy) must have hated his wife, and probably either killed her or imprisoned her, of which scandalous notion Henry disabuses her in astonished anger:

“Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult you own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?” (p.163)

But it’s Catherine’s suggestible nature that’s mostly to blame. And is she so wrong after all? General Tilney’s not the sort of man to murder his wife, no; but he is the sort who would peremptorily send away his daughter’s good friend and his son’s sweetheart, early in the morning, all alone, with no money, for the sin of not being an heiress. He’s a proud and unyielding man, whose children are scared of him, who sucks all the fun out of the room. He may not be an out-and-out villain, but he’s not a pleasant chap.

And that, I think, is where Austen’s respect and admiration for Ann Radcliffe figures in. Sure, she doesn’t write realistic fiction. But she’s not trying to. She’s trying to entertain, and there she succeeds; further, while the events are overblown, there’s a central truth about emotional experience that is very real. Radcliffe captures intensity of feeling; she truly, as Austen says, conveys “the most thorough knowledge of human nature” (p.23).

As for what’s behind the black veil, I am totally not telling you.

26 July 2009

Summer-of-Jane. And tomatoes.

I'm happily ensconced in Austenland for a few weeks, preparing my little lecture on Northanger Abbey and Mysteries of Udolpho, and Ann Radcliffe, gothic romance, and the female novelistic tradition in general for the final meeting of Watermark's Jane Austen Challenge on August 12. As per usual, I expect to require diversions. I shall also most likely subject you to the whole text of whatever I come up with. You'll read it and like it.

And I bought another cookbook: The Too Many Tomatoes Cookbook, by Brian Yarvin. O the delights contained therein: sauces from Greece and Romania, Basque country and Serbia, Albanian marinated green tomatoes, an African chicken dish with a tomato-and-peanut-butter sauce, a Turkish eggplant-stuffed-with-tomatoes called Imam Bayildi ("The Imam fainted"). I'm going to have as much fun as I've been having with our bumper zucchini crop (is it ever not a bumper crop, with zucchini): I've made pasta and pancakes, brownies (vegan!) and pie. All as local as can be.

Info dumpish.

I am allowing my MySpace to go fallow for most intents and purposes (hell, I just this moment cancelled my Friendster. It was pretty heartbreaking, actually: the cancellation form asked you to specify which other social network you switched to), but I can't bear to delete it altogether, as the blog entries stretch back to 2005, and I have a really hard time getting rid of anything I've written (I have boxes of juvenilia in the basement). A couple entries from last summer, though, are explicitly book-related, so I'm reposting them here.

July 20
Current mood: indignant

So for all y'all who don't have your finger on the pulse of the young-adult literary zeitgeist like I do: pretty much every girl in America between the ages of 10 and 17--and their mothers--has read Stephenie Meyer's three Twilight novels, about a girl named Bella and her hot vampire boyfriend, and is anxiously awaiting the release of the fourth and final installment on August 1st. The bookstore where I work is having a Harry-Potter-style release party with themed food, a reading, the works, and a lead-up reading group called the Twilight Circle, which I, the resident young, hip female with goth tendencies, am leading, aided by some rabid devotees from our Young Readers' Group. As a die-hard Buffy fan, I've been excited about these books since I found out they existed, and after I read Meyer's new adult novel, The Host, and found it to be a ripping good sci-fi yarn, my geeked-out bliss just hit new levels. Since the Twilight Circle (my bril name, btw--note how it's almost "coven" but without scaring off the Godfolk) meets for the first time next Friday, I spent the last three nights up way too late reading the eponymous first novel.

I hated it.

At first I was just annoyed by the protagonist's hopeless adolescence and the way she can't go two paragraphs without mentioning once again how beautiful Edward is and how she just can't believe a guy like him would be interested in her OMG (though she puts it in more awkward, romance novel-y terms--at least lolspeak has its own breathless charm. Srsly, I read a whole blog novel a few months back and just loved it). Then, Meyer's habit of exposition-through-dialogue-and-no-action started to grate. But really, all of that could be forgiven for some of her good bits--like how the vampires aren't harmed by the sunlight, but avoid it in human eyeshot because their skin literally sparkles, or Bella's endearing clumsiness.

Here's where she lost me: you see, Edward's a good vampire in true Louis/Angel fashion, living on animals rather than humans. However, he still has to be careful when he's close to Bella. And whenever he kisses her, she has to remain perfectly still and not breathe fast or grab his hair or anything or he might just lose control and hurt her.

In other words! Any sexual response on the part of a female is dangerous and should be avoided. Are you fucking kidding me? This is what we're teaching our teenage girls? Are you FUCKING KIDDING ME?

Stephenie, I'm very, very disappointed in you.

[Ms. magazine did a great piece on this topic this spring, and when the fourth book came out (in which 19-year-old Bella gets married and has a half-vampire baby right away, and then abandons her mortal family for immortality with Edward, AND learns to LET HIM INTO HER THOUGHTS WHICH WAS THE ONLY THING SHE HAD LEFT THAT WASN'T COMPLETELY SUBSUMED BY HIM OH MY GOD THIS IS SUCH BULLSHIT), even those friends of mine who were into the first three ended up turned off. The teenage girls of America (and their mothers, which is even more terrifying) sure don't agree with me, though.]

July 23:
Current mood: miffed

It's cheap but true that you don't need an MFA to write well, though I would never in a thousand years discount the work put in by talented friends to get their degrees. I think they'd agree, howevs, that it's also true that you can get through grad school without learning a damn thing about writing if you so choose.

Like one Stephanie Kuehnert, whose debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, I just stopped reading at page 129 because I simply couldn't take her ham-fisted expository dialogue anymore. It is one thing, in a first-person narrative, to move away from the natural rhythms of speech, to give voice to metaphor and description in a way that people don't in conversation. It's necessary, in fact. But when one character is directly speaking to another, telling a story about her past, and continues to speak in the narrative voice (although it's a different character), she needs to sound like she's talking, for heaven's sake. No one, anywhere, not even the most pretentiously poetic among us (and by this I mean me, who says things like "I felt like I was watching my own death" about superhero movies, for fucking out loud), utters lines like "He put his amp down and ran his fingers through his inky black hair," or, heaven forfend, "I didn't let rock 'n' roll save me. I became the ultimate rock cliche!"

Didn't anyone at Columbia College, where Ms. Kuehnert got her degree, ever point out the stiffness and clunk of writing like this? That people JUST DON'T TALK LIKE THAT? What did she read that she thought this was acceptable?

Working at the bookstore, I consume a lot of galleys, with an eye towards figuring out what I like and yeah, what I can sell. I give them 100 pages--a mere hour and a half of my life--to do something for me. Some don't make it past the first paragraph. Some take a few chapters, a little characterization, a settling into a style, to hook me, even if I don't adore it. I'll always give an interesting story a chance; I'm a sucker for good writing, deft handling of adjectives and punctuation. Awkward phrasing, easily predicted story arcs, or, on the other side of the spectrum, self-conscious literariness (another casualty of MFA programs, especially the Iowa Writers' Workshop . . . it's writing so concerned with craft, with shaking up the linearity of time and space, with pithy phrasing, that it forgets to make you care about any of it) will get a novel tossed back onto the pile.

Next up on the stack is Iodine, by Haven Kimmel; I read her The Solace of Leaving Early a few years ago and remember liking it, though I can't recall exactly what it was about. I'm pretty sure I'll finish it.

[Iodine was amazing, in fact, one of the best novels I read last year.]

19 July 2009

Cemeteries and changelings.

Took a YA break this week, which was a literal headache: finally read Neil Gaiman's Newbery-winning The Graveyard Book, which calls out to the bloody-minded little girl I was and still am underneath the Responsible Adult costume. And somehow a new Francesca Lia Block, The Waters and the Wild, slipped into the bookstore without my immediate knowledge: I just found it back in Teen whilst merrily compiling a haul for the local juvenile detention center to buy with an annual grant from the also-local bar auxiliary (does that just mean lawyers' wives, still?). I sent 'em much of a muchness, including The Iliad. I'm an FLB fan from way back: along with Juliana Hatfield and boots with skirts, she's the legacy of the late lamented Sassy magazine. Like JH, she's still plugging along making art for the weird girls--while her last title, How to (Un)Cage a Girl, wasn't any great shakes, Waters is glorious, and makes me want to cook with fresh produce and go dancing.

13 July 2009

K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist by Peter Carlson

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
So here’s a wacky premise: the by-turns jovial and irascible leader of the United States’ sworn enemy, in the shadow of mutually assured destruction, tours the nation at the personal if accidental invitation of the President, with family and a rabid media circus in tow. Hilarity, with a frisson of doomsday, ensues. Even better? It’s all true.

In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev embarked on a historic, bicoastal jaunt across the U.S. While the trip culminated in a (not particularly fruitful) meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David, for most of the ten days “K” (as the space-starved headlines dubbed him) and his wife and children were tourists—albeit tourists with State Department escorts, tight security, and a phalanx of reporters and photographers recording their every move. Honestly, there are so many stranger-than-fiction anecdotes contained in this marvelous tome that I must quell my urge to just pour out all of them, or otherwise you wouldn’t read the book—so here are three indelible images to pique your interest: The American Dental Association patriotically refusing to relocate their convention from the Waldorf-Astoria Ballroom for a government-sponsored luncheon in Khrushchev’s honor (one telegram of support read KEEP ON EXTRACTING THE POISONOUS FANGS OF COMMUNISM). Mrs. Khrushchev, as grey and serviceable as a block of Moscow flats, seated between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra at a dinner at the Warner Brothers studio commissary (she showed them pictures of her grandchildren). The dictator’s red-faced public tantrum over being told that, because of security concerns, he would not be allowed to go to Disneyland—a chilling reminder that, as much fun as the whole thing seemed on the surface, the nuclear annihilation of most of the world turned on the temper of a short-tempered man.

It would be difficult to write a dull book with such killer material; Peter Carlson’s writing, though, goes past engaging into delightful. He brackets the “surreal extravaganza” of the 1959 trip with the stories of two other important visits: then-Vice President Nixon’s to Moscow the previous year, which resulted in the infamous “kitchen debate” on the set of a corporate-sponsored American Exhibition; and Khrushchev’s return as part of a U.N. delegation in 1960, bizarrely punctuated by his taking off his shoe and pounding it on his desk while making a point, an enduring image of the Cold War, “probably,” wrote K’s granddaughter Nina L. Khrushcheva in 2000, “the only war in which fear and humor peacefully coexisted.” K Blows Top walks that line with gusto.

12 July 2009

Another vacation, another vacation wrap-up.

I spent the weekend of the Fourth in Illinois at my little brother's frat house (O smart, sarcastic, Settlers-playing college boys, you are my favorites). As usual, I thought I was packing too many books, and as usual, I packed too few.

  • The Big Rewind, Nathan Rabin: A pop-culture-aided memoir by the Onion AV Club's head writer, the profane, giddy genius behind My Year of Flops. For my money, Rabin and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics are the two funniest living writers in North America.
  • K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist, Peter Carlson: And there is no doing justice in brief to this marvelous, stranger-than-fiction account of the Soviet Premier's 1959 tour of the U.S.--I plan to write a full-scale review later this week, so here I'll just put forth the indelible image of Mrs. Khrushchev, as square and serviceable as a block of Moscow flats, seated at dinner in the Warner Brothers studio commissary between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
  • House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski: I asked my brother for a book I could casually flip through without committing, and his frat brother Sean brought me this sprawling experimental tome. Rather the opposite of what I was looking for, but I couldn't put it down. The gut-level-terrifying story of a family who discovers their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, it's wrapped in layers of narrative (ostensibly, it's a manuscript about a documentary the father made, with notes and asides from a dissolute young man who found the analysis in the apartment of its mysteriously dead author) and a dizzying array of footnotes that make David Foster Wallace look like a piker. Text goes upside down, sideways, diagonally, several directions at once. I don't think it's a great book. But wow, it was interesting.
  • I Drink for a Reason, David Cross: I wavered on this one. I only know Cross from the glories of Mr. Show and Arrested Development--I guess his stand-up is much more bitter and confrontational, and I actually stopped reading in a huff at one point because I was tired (and a little bored) of his denigration of religion. But I picked it up again. And in the end, he annoys me far, far less often than he makes me cackle myself into a coughing fit.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky: Meh, from beginning to end.
  • John the Revelator, Peter Murphy: Read this after I got home. It's a first novel by an Irish music journalist with a countenance of doom; while the prose is often arresting, the plot is thin, needlessly episodic, and disconnected from any sort of emotional center.

Currently I'm engaged in a couple of kinds of research. NYC: An Owner's Manual (Caitlin Leffel & Jacob Lehman) is full of information to make my next year's move to Brooklyn seem both prudent and attainable; Bipolar II (Ronald R. Fieve) offers the tempting thesis that the hypercompetency and euphoria of my good days are something I should embrace, as I learn to avoid the sloughs of despond. Here's hopin'.

29 June 2009

Nom nom nom.

Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Coctktails and Appetizers Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Coctktails and Appetizers by Kathy Casey

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Appetizers may well be my favorite food group. Dips, spreads, baskets of bread, crudités, amuse-bouches, miniature what-have-you, any variety of fried cheese, from saganaki to jalapeño poppers. My new cookbook boyfriend Sips & Apps combines an array of pre-or outside-meal noshes with a section of horizon-expanding libations, the latter of which has served to lift me well above my college-honed here’s-some-booze-here’s-some-mixer drink-makin’ skills. I’ve become a lime-squeezing, simple-syrup-dolloping, cocktail-shaking fool: fresh margaritas with a touch of chili, sunset-pink hibiscus rum punch, a concoction of cucumber, lime, and soju (Korean sweet potato vodka) as subtle and refreshing as a good night’s sleep with a kitten curled on your pillow. I find myself longing for winter, to try the Harvest Pumpkin Toddy (like pie laced with brandy!) or the Holiday Hot-Buttered Rum. As for the nibbles, I haven’t had a less-than-perfect one yet, though the bacon, blue cheese, and pecan “cocktail cookies” are early standouts. The dishes are well and unusually spiced (a roasted red pepper and almond spread, e.g., is perked up with orange juice), and yield just enough for one to have leftovers after a party or film festival or art opening—or whatever excuse you generate to keep cooking.

28 June 2009

Recent reads.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh: irrestible after Bright Young People. My St. John's College text-in-a-vacuum background doesn't predispose me towards wanting to know whence fiction is derived, but it was pretty great to know how much of VB was excruciatingly accurate. Fascinating, too, that Waugh satirized his best friends in such sharp terms, and that it didn't by historical account cause any kind of break. The BYP, it seems, were perfectly capable of laughing at themselves.
The ending is downright bizarre, similar to the same shift in tone that comes at the end of A Handful of Dust--the former ends with a world war (prescient and inevitable), the latter with the more-or-less hero stranded in Africa, forced to read the works of Dickens out loud to a local potentate. Dust is weirder, but even before his conversion, Waugh had a very Catholic notion of downfall.

Right now, I'm reading (Re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin, a sequel to the great teen novel Cycler which I read and reviewed last October. In this one, Jill, Jack, and the body they share move to Brooklyn (lucky bastards). Complications ensue. It's not as good as the first book--the twin selves' horror at the casual sexuality they encounter (most notably a group of Williamsburg hipsters who swap girls like baseball cards--and boy is that a dated metaphor) is a bit forced. But both voices remain sympathetic and distinct. And I think I'm gonna move.

And I'm really meaning to start Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution (Alex Storozynski), about the Polish-born Revolutionary War hero I first learned about through Kate Beaton's brill webcomic. Mr. Show, if only you stopped being funny the dozenth time through, I could stop watching you at night when I should be reading...

Long way round.

N.B.: I am not particularly happy with this review. It is maddeningly nonspecific, whereas the novel is awash in detail; it's impressionistic, where the book is sharply defined. It's also heartwrenching without being the least bit manipulative. I don't know how she pulls that off.

The Scenic Route: A Novel (P.S.) The Scenic Route: A Novel by Binnie Kirshenbaum

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m glad I finished this novel over a lunch break at work; else, I would have had to curl up someplace and bawl for a while. From the very beginning, The Scenic Route is about endings.

Sylvia Landsman, fortyish, divorced, childless, having been laid off from a job she didn’t care about, decides to go to Florence. There, she meets Henry, an expatriate whose marriage of convenience provides him with means and opportunity for a life of utter frivolity and leisure. Together, they set off on an aimless, luxurious jaunt through Europe, somehow outside of time and space, though conducted in five-star hotels and beholden to a deadline: eventually, Henry’s wife will return from her travels, to him, and he to her.

On long drives through landscapes, Sylvia tells Henry stories, rich expanses of unimportant detail, stretching back generations, while avoiding the uneasy climax of her most important story—the betrayal by omission of her best friend. But as she says, stories only have happy endings if you end them too soon, and the choices we make, though in many ways inevitable, are still our responsibility.

And all that makes the novel sound dark, doesn’t it? It’s not, though there’s plenty of grief to go around. Kirshenbaum’s facility with language locates beauty and humor everywhere, and the novel duplicates the process of getting to know someone so well that we’re ready to forgive Sylvia her cowardice, because it’s so like our own. “The Scenic Route” is that wonderful mix of wry, witty, and unutterably tragic—you know, like life. Where the destination’s known, but there are so many ways to get there.

15 June 2009

My dear, it was too, too sick-making!

And here is where a sense of history comes in handy: I stayed up too late last night finishing D.J. Taylor's marvelous history Bright Young People, about the eponymous "set" that ruled Mayfair in the 20s, immortalized (to me, at least) in Evelyn Waugh's gloriously vicious and viciously glorious novel Vile Bodies. Reading about these indolent, pathologically pleasure-seeking personalities, fond of drink, pranks (they once mounted an exhibition of paintings by "Bruno Hat," a completely fictitious modernist painter) and fancy dress parties (the Circus Party, the Second Childhood Party, the Impersonation Party), happily mixing high and low culture, openly tolerant of homosexuality: well, they're terribly familiar, is what they are. They're ancestral hipsters. How different is the Zombie Prom I went to in February from the Mozart Party--my friends and I killing a bottle of champagne in the next doorway over from the club, taking pictures all the while; they, debouching from the fete in the wee hours, pausing for snapshots of their periwigged and flounced crowd posing with a nonplussed road crew fixing a pothole in Piccadilly. Their symbiotic relationship with the gossip columns smacks of Facebook's relentless self-promotion. Even their eventual mainstreaming echoes modern laments: "Like many a youth movement," Taylor writes, "they began unobtrusively, found themselves seized upon by a grateful media and were rapidly converted into a stylized and decadent version of their original form. Their great days were over by 1929: thereafter the stunts tended to be stage-managed, the entertainments pallid imitations of what had gone before, the territory colonized by younger acolytes."

There's a viewpoint which sees these commonalities and says, "See? You think you're being so original, but it's all been done." Me, I think it's great. I feel plugged into past subcultures in the same way that, baking a cake from scratch or knitting a sock, I'm part of an ancient feminine domestic tradition; or reading Homer I'm sharing a narrative experience with millenia of scholars and storytellers.

And Taylor taught me three new words! Epicene, androgynous; ukase, decree (from Russian, a pronouncement by the tsar that had the force of law); echt, from the German for genuine (which I should have remembered from that line from The Waste Land: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt Deutsch"). Great, great book.

09 June 2009

Manifesto stylings

Destroy All Cars Destroy All Cars by Blake Nelson

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up Destroy All Cars because I recognized Blake Nelson’s name from back when, in the mists of the early 90s, excerpts of his first teen novel, Girl, were published in my much-beloved (now much-missed) Sassy magazine. The chapters were a sharp and vivid exploration of the emotional wasteland of adolescence, which I was traversing at the time. Destroy All Cars, Nelson’s latest novel, mines the same tumultuous territory, now (for me) bittersweet nostalgia. (Nelson also wrote Paranoid Park, which Gus Van Sant made into a movie, so it must have been pretty good.)

Seventeen-year-old James Hoff is furious with humankind, particularly the “CONSUMER AMERICANS” who surround him; he sees the destruction of the environment and climate change as willful but oblivious suicide. Not that he really minds the idea of his species wiping itself out, but he’s afraid the planet will go with it. But rather than “get involved” like his ex-girlfriend (and still feminine ideal) Sadie, who’s head of the school’s Activist Club, James confines his venting to the AP English essays scattered throughout the book, bending the assignments (to his teacher’s dismay) to fit his favorite topics: greed, hypocrisy, and the scourge of the automobile.

James reminds me a bit of the like-named protagonist of Peter Cameron’s brilliant Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, both in his profound unhappiness and his wry dismantling of other people’s foibles. He views Sadie’s petitions and canned-food drives and bike-path campaigns as hopelessly insignificant (one of the reasons they broke up), but his anger offers only impossible solutions: Stop having children. Destroy all cars. The novel is often funny—particularly James’ fruitless search for a new girlfriend and his interactions with his long-suffering English teacher (who, after one essay, forbids him to use any more “manifesto stylings”), and James does grow as a person, however much he’d hate the phrase. There’s a sadness, though, to the compromises of maturity; perhaps if we could tap into the ardor of youth from time to time, we’d be better off.

05 June 2009


A couple of unfinished galleys, noted in passing:

Slanted & Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Kaya Oakes: I don't have a problem with hipsters or academics (unless, of course, they have a problem with me. Then all bets are off), but the first 50 pages of this confirmed that I hate Hipster Academics. Particularly ones whose sense of history only goes back to the Beats--who, yes, did some new stuff, but the way they did it owes a lot to the Jazz Age, the Bloomsbury set, and back and back through the bohemian ages.

Vanessa and Virginia, Susan Sellers
And speaking of the Bloomsbury set . . . if you write a novel about the Stephens sisters, people are going to think about Virginia Woolf's writing while they're reading it, so try to use other than simple declarative sentences and flat, oft-repeated similes, yes?

And while I did finish the Joni Mitchell biography, it kind of made me hate Joni Mitchell.

01 June 2009

Hi, blog! Remember me?

Theater has been eating my life for the past month, as well as general don't-wanna-ness. So herewith, what I've been reading:

Ink for an Odd Cartography, Michele Battiste (Black Lawrence Press)

Let’s go with full transparency here, right from the start: I know Michele, from my stint in WSU’s MFA program in 2004, and I’ve visited her regularly since she moved to Astoria, Queens. Last August, her then-nine-month-old son, Henry, fell swooningly in love with me (and vice versa, really), drenching any accessible surface of me in inept baby kisses, even my feet. So yeah, vested interest, if affection, respect, and belletristic esteem are murky motives.

But I think you’ll find, upon picking up Michele’s first full-length poetry collection, Ink for an Odd Cartography, that what I love in her writing is consistent with my recurring allegiances: detail ("Begin at hinge, not lipped. Lidded. Outer canthus."). Voice ("I will crumple your half-assed romance/ like cellophane wrapped around an empty/ pack of cigarettes"). Modifiers, for heaven’s sake (O Hemingway, what havoc have you wrought, when Serious Literature attempts to ignore vast swaths of vocabulary). These poems have a madcap precision; from the haphazard shreds of daily, searching existence (food processors, whale factoids, drink orders) they draw meaning so deep it doesn’t need to be expressed, because it’s there, it’s felt. It is immediately recognizable as life.

But the writing’s also as far from accident, as far from mere collections of images, as you can get: craft and care are evident in every line. The book is pulled together by a sense of place, or places: the nomadic narrator is always somewhere very concrete (San Francisco, Wichita, love), but the location is rarely the same. This wandering localness culminates in the last section, "Mapping the Spaces Between," which begins as a diary of sorts in a lover’s absence and, as time and distance feed into each other, dilating both, becomes a chronicle of dissolution, a self-indictment where the words demonstrate their own insufficiency. Poetry can’t sustain a relationship. Poetry is a relationship.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shahriar Mandanipour’s ambitious, digressive novel “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” starts from a thorny question: How do you write a love story when it’s illegal for your protagonists to be alone together? The book is really two narratives, feeding into each other but typographically distinct: that attempted romance, and the author-surrogate’s tortuous endeavor to write it in the government-stifled publishing climate of modern-day Iran.

The narrator struggles to honor multiple responsibilities: To the millenia-old tradition of Persian literature, particularly the elaborate traditional metaphor of eroticism. To himself, and the joy he takes in crafting a beautiful paragraph, and the pain of excising it to stay out of jail. To his naive young lovers, whose desire is curtailed by fear. To the truth. Looming over it all, of course, is a regime whose immense bureaucracy “protects” its people from vice through (besides occasionally executing rape victims) such darkly absurd measures as taking a Sharpie to the bare arms of women in Western magazines; re-editing Dances with Wolves (an American movie with an important anti-American message; too bad about that lascivious “dance” in the title) so the intimate conversations of the film’s lovers are “explained” by their being a long-lost brother and sister; carefully framing musicians on TV so their instruments (possibly immoral) can’t be seen, thus making the players of lap-bound sitars look like they’re engaged in a rather more immoral act. The censorship reaches into the author’s own mind: passages in the bold-faced love story are simply crossed out, and the conversation often drops off the record for a few forbidden sentences, popping up again after a meaningful ellipsis.

As for the answer to Mandanipour’s initial problem: unfortunately, at present it seems to be “go outside the country,” as Censoring is translated from an unpublished Farsi manuscript. But while the novel is certainly frustrated, it’s also funny, sweet, and deeply concerned with the role of the artist in society. In the tradition of Aleksandr Solzehenitsyn, Mandanipour laments oppression by making us celebrate those who are oppressed.

Castration Celebration Castration Celebration by Jake Wizner

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really think the saying needs to be changed to “You can’t ALWAYS judge a book by its cover.” The dogmatic assertion that appearance never reveals content is belied by the hard work of focus groups and graphic designers industry-wide; consider the initial impressions one receives from the front of Jake Wizner’s gleefully profane teen novel Castration Celebration. Across the bottom, a row of well-scrubbed youngsters leap with theatrical whimsy; above, in unabashed letters as tall as they, that double-take title. The message is clear: this book is JUST LIKE High School Musical, but with every glimmer of wholesomeness removed.

Plotwise, Castration Celebration doesn’t reinvent the wheel: it’s a romantic comedy, set at a summer arts camp for teenagers at Yale University. Olivia, disgusted with her father’s philandering, is working out her frustration at the male of the species by composing the titular musical; after a meet-cute for the ages, hotshot actor Max decides she’s a worthy challenge, even with her vocal condemnation of his entire gender. Guess whether they get together? You’ll be totally surprised! (Or not.)

Wizner’s ear for dialogue, however, is unrivaled. The delicate art of the double and triple (and single) entendre. The navel-gazing profundity of the stoned seventeen-year-old. The banalities of flirtation. All pitch-perfect, hilarious, and painfully, nostalgically familiar.

And yes, it is cheerfully, uncynically dirty in the way only innocence can be. And there are SONGS, which got passed around and marveled at backstage at Theatre on Consignment’s recent show (and we’re the “edgy” theater company, folks). And a tasteless, vulgar riff on the Twilight phenomenon that makes me grin like a madwoman just thinking about it. Okay, Castration Celebration is far from good clean fun. But FUN indeed, accurate cover to cover.

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic Book) Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Patricia C. Wrede earned my undying loyalty with 1990’s Dealing with Dragons and the ensuing Enchanted Forest Chronicles, the continuing adventures of tomboy princess Cimorene, teddy-bear-patterned magic carpets, rabbits-turned-donkeys-turned-blue, flying, incorporeal-donkeys, and villainous, magic-stealing wizards whose Achilles heel turns out to be lemon-scented soapy water. In Thirteenth Child, the first installment in a promised “Frontier Magic” series, she won me over again.

Thirteenth Child is set in an alternate-reality 1800s United States where manifest-destiny-bound pioneers have more than the usual hardships to deal with: beyond the Great Barrier Spell that protects communities east of the Mammoth River, they’re vulnerable to all manner of creatures both “ordinary” (mammoths, saber cats) and magical (Columbian sphinxes, steam dragons, swarming weasels). Traveling magicians from fancy East-Coast colleges patrol the frontier, trying their best to protect the settlements, but out West is a risky life.

Wrede’s narrator is Eff, a girl seemingly doomed by her birth order: though her twin brother Lan, as the seventh son of a seventh son, is a natural magician of great power, her status as the eponymous thirteenth child is cause for dislike and suspicion Thirteenth children always go bad, you see, and from early childhood Eff finds herself blamed for whatever goes wrong nearby. While her large family is supportive, humbugging the superstition, Eff herself is afraid the rumors are true, and grows up constantly on guard for signs of evil in herself. When the family moves to Mill City, a flourishing community right across the river from the very Wild West, it seems like a new start for Eff—but can she escape her birthright?

Yes, Thirteenth Child is Little House on the Prairie with magic, thus targeting the precise demographic I’ve cherished since the age of five. Wrede’s world-creation is great, combining homespun folkiness with a highly developed system of magic that includes diverse traditions: Avrupan, Hijero-Cathayan, and Aphrikan, all with different methods and strengths. The enchanted world is consistent and plausible. I look forward to more!

Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hellbending Celebrating America as it Ought to be-an Oil Well in Each Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every ... Potentates Trying to Rope a Goat for Dinner Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hellbending Celebrating America as it Ought to be-an Oil Well in Each Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every ... Potentates Trying to Rope a Goat for Dinner by P. J. O'Rourke

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
One (well, me) occasionally hears the notion bandied about that conservatives aren’t funny. This is, of course, as reductive generalizations tend to be, complete and utter bunk; as incontrovertible evidence, I offer the sublime, wicked, merry-making stylings of Mr. P.J. O’Rourke. I defy anyone to read my all-time favorite chapter heading from Parliament of Whores—“Our Government: What the Fuck Do They Do All Day, and Why Does It Cost So Goddamned Much Money?”—without respecting the snark, even if you’re not of his libertarian bent (his main problem with both major parties, it seems, is that they want to stop him having fun).

Perhaps Driving Like Crazy is a good place to start, since it’s not overtly political at all: O’Rourke has for thirty years written automotive journalism for a variety of publications: Car & Driver, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, among others, and a lot of it’s collected here, from his 1978 “National Lampoon” piece which draws the conclusion that no car handles like a rented car (“You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed . . . than in any other kind. You can also park without looking, and you can use the trunk as an ice chest”) to his tongue-in-cheek defense of the SUV as an embodiment of the American spirit (“The real truth is that we need sport utility vehicles to carry our concealed weapons”). In between, he “discovers” NASCAR, drives a 1956 Buick Special from Florida to Los Angeles, goes off-roading in the Baja, on-roading in India, and despite having three children, stubbornly resists the practicality of a minivan.

My automotive knowledge is limited to gingerly refilling the various leaking fluids of my leviathan Mercury Grand Marquis, but even when O’Rourke dips into acronym-and-numeral car-nut talk, I never felt lost. The reason for this is that the man can sling a metaphor better than almost any writer I know. Re a Suzuki GS1100 motorcycle: “Any twist of the throttle put you in danger of being left there with empty bowlegs, like a Roy Rogers figurine after the dog ate the plastic Trigger.” Describing entrants in the California Mille, a road race that only allows cars that could have been driven in Italy’s Mille Miglia, which took place from 1927 to ’57: “There was an Aston Martin DBR2 showing compound curves beyond the dreams of Frank Gehry and a gill-slitted Maserati 200SI that could star in Jaws IV if anyone were idiot enough to put it in the water.” In short, O’Rourke’s lively writing got me through a 250-page book about cars. CARS. If this can happen, there’s hope for a post-partisan America. One where everybody drives really fast.

AND last but not least, though not reviewed:

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
I read this for an on-line book club (the Onion's sister site The AV Club). It's about a carnival family where the parents decided, with the aid of drugs and radiation, to breed their own freakshow, and it's every bit as dark and perverse and glorious as that sounds.

First Impressions, Marilyn Sachs
A promising premise--a girl who identifies with Pride & Prejudice's neglected, nerdy middle sister, Mary Bennett--that was abandoned almost immediately in favor of ho-hum YA nattering.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead
My boss kept telling me I'd like this one, so I finally took it home: Yeah. It's about 15-year-old Benji's summer at his parents' beach house, in an upper-middle-class African-American community--it's about race and D&D and ice cream and manhood and reinvention, and it's summery like sand between your toes.

Right now I'm halfway through Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer. It's all right. On tap: Blake Nelson's Destroy All Cars--he wrote Paranoid Park, which Gus Van Sant made into a movie (I should fact-check that, gimme a second--yup), and way back in the 90s, excerpts from his first novel Girl were published in my beloved Sassy magazine.

Creative Commons License
Muse at Highway Speeds by http://museathighwayspeeds.blogspot.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.