27 November 2010

Beginnings of Best of 2010!

Things these lists are: tentative (as I just started a book this morning that made it onto the list--what if I read something awesome on New Year's Eve?!?), in reverse order of when I read 'em instead of any kind of ranking, needlessly idiosyncratic. Links go back to original mention on this blog, in an omphaloskeptical sort of way.

FRONTLIST (i.e., published in 2010)


The best thing I read this week...

...this line from The Best of Everything:

"[She] had never been poor enough to feel the fright of poverty but only its small annoyances."

Most perfect phrasing ever of my quasi-adult lifestyle. For instance, this morning I handwashed a thrift-store cashmere sweater in the bathroom sink with shampoo because I can't afford dry-cleaning. Not exactly rent-or-food stuff...I mean, I'm unemployed, but I won't be for long. I have savings. Frugality for me is a virtue and not yet a necessity--I let people buy me drinks at bars. I don't go to movies. I haven't gotten that Nancy Drew tattoo.

And the whole novel was marvelous--the stories of young women in publishing in New York in the early fifties. One way to judge the success of a novel is whether I talk aloud to the characters, and here I kept shaking my head and muttering "He's never going to marry you, honey." And I was right, of course. If only one could be so clear-headed about one's own relationships.

I also finished The Outward Room: going to drag out the old adjective "lyrical" for the writing. It turned out much better for the protagonist than I'd feared. And it's always fascinating to read a novel from a time when Italians weren't yet white.

This morning I started reading Suzanne Rivecca's short story collection Death is Not an Option; I'm not even through the title story and I've already added it to my work-in-progress best of 2010 list. I'm such a sucker for effortlessness of voice!!

Literary cultures.

I loved this article in Slate about the parallel literary establishments of the MFA and NYC worlds. I shan't recap, because you should really go read the article, but I did a lot of nodding. I dropped out of my poetry MFA after a year, when I realized I was only having fun in my modern dance class, and I guess I'm on the periphery of the NYC market now, as a local bookseller. What bugged me most about my MFA program (besides my cohorts' lack of knowledge of, or interest in, much lit besides contemporary poetry, most of which bores me silly) was the willful blindness to the business end of things. I can write on my own (not that I really do anymore...), but I've no clue how to query, how to locate likely lit mags, how to format a goddamn manuscript--and the trade is just completely ignored--all something we're somehow supposed to pick up on our own. Or not, maybe--as the article points out, the point of an MFA is to secure your position in the MFA system; in other words, to get a teaching job. And that's fine if you want to teach. But I never did; nor was I any good at it. And I don't think there's any connection between writing well and teaching well, so it's a shame the teacher-writer is the standard.

But then, I see the shortcomings of the NYC publisher model, too, of course: business corrupts art, art avoids business, etc. I feel much more hopeful than my academic-y brethren & sistern about American Letters, though, as great books are being published all the time, whether heralded or no. Really, the three letters I'd offer as the literary culture producing the best work right now are SF/F. I know it's a pet topic with me that realism is limiting, and I find myself loving realistic novels all the time--but when the NYTBR positive review of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has to explicitly say "sometimes sci-fi can tell us more about our lives through metaphor than straight-up realism" IN THIS DAY AND AGE WHEN IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN TRUE?!?! It seems it still bears repeating.

24 November 2010

Happy Yam Day!

 (I don't like turkey. Also, today is my cat Juliana's 16th birthday, which is how I justify this otherwise gratuitous kitten adorableness pic:
OMG TINY EARSES) So, books! First, miscellaneous items of interest perhaps: I don't think I have plugged The Word Detective in this particular forum, but it is a must for all etymological hobbyists and "didja know"-ists. 'Twas knowledge garnered from Mr. Evan Morris that allowed me yesterday to explain the origin of the word "bailiwick." See, "-wick" is an old English place-name suffix (as in Warwick, etc.), and the "baili-" comes from "bailiff," who in ye olden times was a sheriff's assistant, a fairly powerful official. A "bailiwick" was simply his jurisdiction. Easy-peasy.

Also! A friend of my Aunt Laura & Uncle Kurt had a combination birthday costume party/ private showing of the new Harry Potter movie! She is not 10 years old, as such an event would suggest. I love grown-up theme parties. Here are slightly blurry iPhone pics of the two, as Minerva McGonagall and Mad-Eye Moody, I hope obviously respectively:

In things-I-am-actually reading news, I finished up the last novel from my September looking-for-a-job-at-indie-bookstores spree, Fran├žoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse--very nouvelle vague, but less fun than Bad Marie--just in time to start another somewhat dispiriting rounds of visits (not going to bitch about the Strand at length. Just not at all a fun place to work). This time I'm trying to actually start living/spending like I'm unemployed, that being the actual situation, but I did pick up a copy of Perdido Street Station at St. Mark's Bookshop as a Christmas gift for my brother-in-law, who I don't think reads this blog: last Xmas gift to purchase! Are you jealous? I had a beautiful cupcake with a perfect buttercream rose at Books of Wonder; the frosting tasted just like the one my family makes for our traditional red velvet birthday cake, which most places top with cream cheese frosting, which is several steps less awesome. And at the cluttered, cozy, holy-crap-I-feel-like-I'm-in-London used bookshop Alabaster (so far the only place that "might" be hiring), I picked up a used copy of Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, which the lovely Stephanie Anderson is trying to get every woman in publishing to read. I started this on the train, as my previous read, Millen Brand's The Outward Room (NYRB Classics; snagged a galley as it has an introduction by Peter Cameron, one of my favorite contemporary dialoguists), while good, was dwelling on the travails of a bipolar girl looking for work in New York City during economic hard times. Liiiiiiittle close to home. Best of Everything is great--reminds me a lot of The Group, though written earlier and set later.

Other stores I visited without purchase, though I made sure to snag a bookmark for my "installation piece," by which I mean I'm gonna hang 'em on my wall: The Mysterious Bookshop, Posman Books in Grand Central Station, The Center for Fiction (mostly a subscription library/ lecture & workshop series, with a tiny, tiny fundraising bookshop), and Shakespeare & Co. (Broadway & Washington Place location). I am totally awarding myself a fake FourSquare badge for visiting the most New York indie bookstores this year. Go me! And that perfect job (that's somehow not WORD but perfect anyway) is out there. I may just have to be more artist-pursuing-a-dream about it and see if I can make some cat food money doing temp clerical work while I wait. Julie likes Innova, and that doesn't come cheap.

21 November 2010

A day late...

...but not a dollar short, I don't think. Let's try Sundays and Wednesdays for a bit, yes? They've always seemed good twice-a-week days to me.

So The Tenant of Wildfell Hall!!! Every bit as amazing as Agnes Grey was disappointing. I read this novel because of these chickens:

These lovely ladies free-range about my folks' backyard (here they're having Saturday morning coffee with my dad). And because my family is my family, their names are (L-R) Emily, Charlotte, and Anne, after the Bronte sisters! And because they'd ended up with those names, my parents couldn't resist taking my bookselling-alma-mater Watermark's Bronte Sisters Challenge last summer. And while Penguin Classics saw fit to stick Agnes Grey in with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights like it was Anne's best novel, the inimitable, indefatigable Mark Bradshaw (love you, Mark!) sussed out Tenant and told everybody in the Challenge it was his fave of all the Bronte novels. So Mom and Dad read and agreed. And golly, so do I!!!

Tenant centers on an excruciating portrait of a terrible marriage, at a time (1848) when such things weren't talked about--but it's worth as much as a novel as it is a historical curio, due to the relentless detail of how poor Helen Huntingdon, head turned by a handsome rogue and sure she can settle him down (how hope springs in the 18-year-old heart), finds herself tied indissolubly to a childish drunk, more interested in carousing in London with his bros than getting to know his son--he's jealous of the baby for diverting her attention from him; later, he amuses himself by getting the toddler drunk and teaching him swear words. Helen's first-person narrative (told in diary form) is a masterpiece of emotional doublethink: she vacillates between love and hate, between determination to force her husband to reform by endless patience and love and the fear that her beloved son will grow up just like his father. It's like following Lydia and Willoughby home, and a marvelous antidote to the "romanticizing [of] douchey behavior" (I love you, Kate Beaton) practiced by Anne's sisters, and by extension generations of writers for women (*cough Stephenie Meyer cough*). It's a must-read. Thank you, chickens!

16 November 2010

To tide you over...

Here's a gorgeous, gorgeous essay from The London Review of Books by Hilary Mantel. I wish Wolf Hall has been this full of amazing lines:

"Imagine you were creating all your experience by writing it into being, but were forced to write with the wrong hand"

"The iambic pentameter of the saline stand, the alexandrine of the blood drain, the epidural’s sweet sonnet form."

"Illness strips you back to an authentic self, but not one you need to meet."

Eyes on the prize.

So today it turns out I'd rather read a book (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Super great) than write about it.

(Also, the update sched is going to change as I've job changes in the works again--will try to stick to twice a week, though, as that jives roughly with my reading pace.)

13 November 2010

Plan B.

OK, so here's what I originally had planned for today: since the novel I'm reading (Richard Powers' first, Prisoner's Dilemma) isn't exactly knocking my socks off (it's not bad or anything--just that the tale of a studiedly eccentric Salinger-Glass-Royal-Tenebaums-type family led by an ever-sickening patriarch, who obsessively chronicles an alternate-history version of WWII wherein Walt Disney liberates 10,000 interned Japanese-Americans to create a soaring homefront propaganda film that will save the world [whew] isn't up to the intricacies and jaw-dropping juxtapositions of his later work: The Gold-Bug Variations or The Echo Maker)

Let's start a new sentence, shall we? That one rather got away from me. (Sometimes I'm envious of gendered/cased languages--one can keep so many dependent clauses straight without resorting to punctuation.) Anyhoo: I thought instead of chatting about book content, I'd write about bookshelf content--with pictures! Except somehow my camera cord has gone missing. Totally bizarre, since my apartment--while ample-space livable, with multiple rooms and everything!--is not NYC-sitcom-huge, and there are only so many places it could be. Stymied!

This is what I took pictures of, though:
  • The to-read stack--down to 6, which is crazy. I'll have to go the library or something.
  • On my desk, my teensy reference-book (dictionary, thesaurus, two copies of The Elements of Style, one a first edition, one with the Maira Kalman illustrations--everyone in my immediate family got one for Christmas the year it came out) and NYC-guide section.
  • On top of my dresser, flanked a bit precariously by my jewelry box and a magazine file containing the first 34 issues of the Buffy Season 8 comic books, kids' books, ranging from picture books (including my signed Bats at the Ballgame!) to my childhood favorites (including my signed A Wrinkle in Time, inscribed, just like Miranda's in When You Reach Me, "Tesser well"), then graphic novels and various miscellaneous tall books.
  • My main--and only proper, if you're looking for a Christmas gift idea--bookcase, mostly alphabetized fiction and then non-fiction, but also...
  • Idiosyncratic sub-sections. There's some Japanese lit in translation, some Catholic books (works by Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena, of course), poetry (with copies of all the journals my work's ever appeared in, which makes it sounds like there's a lot, right? But no, maybe a half-dozen), and finally my Great War books: poetry, prose, memoir, analysis, even a collection of soldiers' letters in French.

So how do you organize your books? Rhyme? Reason? Color?

09 November 2010

Kata sumbebekos.

A happy accident, that the roll of the die (down to 8 sides now!) should have me end up reading Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs directly after my visit to Montaigne-land, because the gentlemen have so much in common: curiosity, quotability, rambling prose style, obsession with the details of everyday, "low" culture. I can't tell you how many times I laughed aloud or blurted out "Exactly!" to the page. A worthy successor indeed!

At one point, Klosterman defines (in a footnote) the oft-tossed-about term "postmodern" as "Any art that is conscious of the fact that it is, in fact, art." I love the unfussy clarity of this definition, though it's unfortunate (and not Klosterman's doing in the least) that the semantic chunks of the word itself place it somewhere in time--I have no idea when. When was "modern"? The 1930s?--because that misleads one to think of art of this kind only being produced within a certain chronological era, when certainly one can find works that embody Klosterman's definition throughout history: say, Tristram Shandy, one of the most postmodern novels I've ever read, despite its being written shortly after the novel was invented (1759-1769). Thinking about the postmodern also got me thinking about what I'll refer to as post-postmodern (although I know that has a critical definition that doesn't jibe with how I'm using it). Art that knows it's art is taken for granted these days. The "new" prevailing mode of art (and I'm using "art" in a less restrictive sense, to mean not objects sequestered in galleries, but cultural expressions of all kinds), I think, is the remix or the mash-up; the unprecedented access to the history of human information and creation collapses the centuries, making it natural and obvious to combine and reshuffle songs or words or images from everywhere--essentially, making Montaigne-ism the dominant artistic manner. It's a great time to be alive.

07 November 2010

Connie, at last.

The world where Blackout and All Clear take place was first created in 1982's novella Fire Watch (thank Zeus it's hanging out online, as my copy of the eponymous collection is languishing somewhere at my folks')--the protagonist of which makes a fleeting cameo in All Clear. In between were Doomsday Book (1992--heartbreaking, and singlehandedly responsible for my thenceforth interest in the Black Death) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997--one of the funniest novels ever written, and the source of my family's youngest cat's name, Princess Arjumand, Juju for short). It's set it (what is now much nearer than originally) near-future Oxford, wherein the avuncular Mr. Dunworthy presides over the time-travelling history department. A lovely conceit--that this technology would end up being used primarily for historical research! There is, of course, an element of holodeckiness to it, in that we only ever experience the drops that somehow go wrong. This time, Willis returns to the Blitz, where it started for her 28 years ago: three students are sent back to observe various parts of the British WWII experience--Merope (as Eileen O'Reilly) with evacuee children in the country, Michael (as the incongruously American Mike Davis) at the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk, and Polly (whose name conveniently works for centuries) as a shopgirl during the opening months of the Blitz. When they individually discover they can't get home, they end up banding together in 1940 London, trying to figure out why they're stranded, whether they can affect events that should have already happened, and whether time travel--and hence the future--is doomed after all.

There's my blurb. Here's why I love her: the effortlessness. The (as I once wrote) "best comic incidental characters this side of Jane Austen." The incredible intricacy of her plots--this one in particular weaves several individual narratives and points of view into not even a knot but a braid, if you follow--and parcels out information over 1100 pages total yet manages to surprise even on the last few pages. She makes me laugh out loud, and she makes me cry. She has as fierce and wide-ranging an imagination as China Mieville, but more, if you'll forgive a phrase frowned upon in contemporary criticism, heart--while my friend Noah actually dislikes her because, as he says, "when you find out what's really happening, it's always optimistic*," I feel like this is a point of view sorely lacking in modern fiction of any type. And it's not like she doesn't earn her happy endings: there is suffering and despair and sacrifice. Or, to put it in terms of the 2010 novels, before V-E Day, there are six years of rationing, air raids, and loss. Darkness before dawn.

And the weirdest thing is? Most literary-readin' folks I talk to haven't even heard of her. Go forth and remedy!!

*with the extremely notable exception of Doomsday Book. Boy howdy.

02 November 2010

Skipping ahead.

OK, folks, I'm having a rough day, and I want to postpone writing about Blackout and All Clear till I can do them justice and actually impart some information to interested readers, rather than just flailing about going OMG SO AMAZING (though they certainly are that--definitely in my top 10 for the year. Is it cheating that they take up two spots?). And I'll be on a day trip to Easthampton, MA this Saturday to geek the flip out at Webcomics Weekend, so that entry will have to wait till Sunday morning. Didn't want to fall behind on the sched, though, so I'm skipping ahead to an easy reprint entry, in honor of my current read, Sarah Bakewell's charming and appropriately digressive Montaigne bio, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Montaigne's the only 400-years-dead dude I count among my best friends, and to put it in a cringingly zeitgeist-y way, the first blogger--or at least the straight-up inventor of the personal essay (in its original meaning, from the French essai--"try" or "attempt.). Back in winter '01 I took a great eight-week preceptorial on his essays, probably something that should be required for all people everywhere, ever. Anyway, here's the final essay I wrote for the class; it's much longer than my usual entries, so join me after the jump, won't you?

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