Saturday, December 19, 2009


My Dostoevsky prof in college was Irwin Weil, a big and joyous man who involved us in his enthusiastic love for the great writer. Though Weil was Jewish, he dismissed claims of anti-Semitism against Dostoevsky (as I recall, by arguing that Dostoevsky used Jews as a literary "type" and meant no particular offense; that's an easier argument to use in defense of Shakespeare, who wouldn't have ever seen a Jew, as they'd all been deported 300 years before, but I think it doesn't quite fly for Dostoevsky). Of Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" scene in The Brothers Karamozov, Weil said Dostoevsky meant to prove that he could come up with better arguments for atheism than an actual atheist could. Though religious, and pretty clear about (as John Gardner wrote of John Updike) "who was buttering his bread," Dostoevsky didn't write didactically.

This week I read (or reread; my memory is a forest at midnight) Tolstoi's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Now there's a didactic story, concerned with how to live a moral life and Who is the one true judge. The preachiness is evident, but Tolstoi couches it so well, it doesn't grate. From the outset, we understand that people's lives are of two parts: exterior performances and interior responses. The first people to hear of Ilyich's death give the proper external reactions, but inside, they think terrible things, and we follow one former friend in all his duplicity for the entire first chapter. The purpose of this section (in which the very denial of death is imperative for everyone's mental wellbeing) becomes clear in the remainder of the story, which concerns Ilyich's life and death (and never returns to those first characters): Ilyich, too, lives a lie, and his death forces him to confront the falseness of his position, though only after he repeatedly dismisses the notion that his life was anything but "correct."

Also last week I finished Carol Emshwiller's science fictional The Secret City, which had very little to do with a secret city. I've like her shorter writings; this was less a novel than a longer work using the same motifs, tone, voice and structure as her shorter work, and it never came together in a satisfying way. Plot threads weren't attended to carefully. The book felt rushed and not thought-out. I liked parts of it, but it needed to stand up, shake itself, and approach its plot with more certainty.


During my break from school, I hope to finish a draft of "Clockworks," a story coming from the same world as "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," which will appear in next month's Asimov's. I have much of it visualized and have made notes for many of the scenes. I'd also like to look at revising "You Have No Idea What I've Forgotten" so I can send it out again. And I'm still waiting to hear back on two other stories, "The Dearness of Bodies in Motion" and "My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Just finished Britten and Brülightly, a graphic novel by Hannah Berry. Lovely artwork that's noirish and takes full advantage of the large pages; it's also very well written, with a sad-sack hardboiled voiceover and sharp dialogue. My one complaint about the design is that the voiceover appears as smallish handwriting: it's difficult to read. This was, I think, part of the reason I found the mystery tale tough to follow. Many names, written small: not helpful. That aside, it's fascinating to view and read.

For reasons never explored—which is fine—private detective Britten's partner is a teabag. He carries it with him everywhere, and it talks to him and assists with the investigations. Somehow, this works.

I'm most of the way through the first book of The Compleat Dying Earth. Fittingly, it's called The Dying Earth. Each chapter is a self-contained tale, and there's some crossover between the tales (though with sloppy continuity: a guy stabbed and left bleeding in one chapter reappears two chapters later with nary a reference to the preceding events . . . and things don't end well for him in that story either). The first chapter read like an issue of Doctor Strange written by a mildly precocious 12-year-old. The narrative jumped about rapidly, with characters confronting each other with trap doors, mystic spells and protective runes. The other stories have all been much better. They're fun, somewhat goofy tales which no heft, but the tone is consistently enjoyable.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Some reading has been accomplished (he passive-voicedly reported):

Stand on Zanzibar entertained, but afterwards there was something of the Chinese Food Effect (I'm sure there's a better metaphor). And I'm talking good Chinese food! It achieved what it set out to do, was well put together, and read fluidly. Unfortunately, the novel doesn't really take off in terms of other story or character. The characters are, well, fully two-dimensional. They make narrative sense, but they're not remotely like real people, and Brunner's difficulty with character is probably most evident in how everyone talks the same way, what my friend John Rogers called "über-rationalist." Certainly the novel was storeys above the two other sf novels I recently read, but it still didn't reach the level of literature (though it certainly had literary aspirations, it seemed). Another gap in its smile: the absence of female characters who weren't there to be stomped on by the men on their way to masculine fulfillment.

My third issue of One Story had a better tale than the previous two, "Finding Peace," by the late Sheila Schwartz. The others had felt overly safe, works that do exactly what they're supposed to do and nothing more. The Schwartz story—about a female cancer survivor on an Everest expedition—approached issues of hope and achievement with ambivalence (and some outright hostility). The omniscient narration was wonderfully locked-in, narrowly sealed inside the protagonist's perception.

I'm presently enjoying The Lost Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World, by Rowan Jacobsen. This nonfiction work is about oysters along the shore of western North America, mostly in the region of Vancouver Island. I've never eaten an oyster. Good book, though.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Still reading (with gaping lapses between stints) Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. It's truly excellent.

Because I have an independent study on Russian literature to oversee, I read Gogol's "The Overcoat" tonight. (Next up, "The Portrait." The translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.) I didn't care much for the supernatural ending tacked on. The story could have easily done without it. However, Gogol keeps such a distance from his protagonist (or at least insists he's keeping his distance), that the tone remains one of a fairy tale even as it broaches realism. More than once, Gogol's narrator declines to speculate what the poor clerk might be thinking because, in so many words, "who can know a man's soul." The narrator even strikes a pose that might be viewed as modern or post-modern (though other early authors did the same; every old is new again) when he says he's not interested in certain information, baldly digresses into areas not strictly aligned with the plot, and even confesses to forgetting facts, names and geography. A delightful story, funny in the way Dickens is funny in how he describes people being drowned by bureacracies, though refusing to demonstrate the sympathy that would accompany a story aiming at realism. Gogol is, in this way, perhaps more real: he tells us straight up that no one remembers the clerk and that his passing leaves no mark (until the supernatural coda, that is).

Did a little writing on a story I've been kicking around for a few months. It needed to be told more . . . interestingly. It presents challenges as I reshape every scene; it's still got an omniscient narrator, but the narrator is being somewhat pushed out of the way.

My story "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" will definitely be in the March 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, hitting newsstands in late January.

I received a positive response to a query about another story, but I won't hear for certain until sometime in December.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I think this illustrated version of Fahrenheit 451 is both outstanding in its own right and has made me love the original even more. The artwork uses noirish design to great effect and never overdetails its world, letting the words do their own work. Illustrator/adaptor Tim Hamilton has judiciously cut the text to give us, for the most part, the strongest and most evocative lines. Some scenes allow for silence. Fire has, as in the book, a life and presence that threaten the characters. This is excellent work.

Read some more of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. It is, unlike the last two science fiction novels of the New Wave that I read, a book for grownups.

Last night I read the first story in Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, "The Twenty-seventh Man." The story manages to have the quality of both a "tale" and an authentic occurrence, seeming strangely fantastic and realistic. Englander throws together 27 Jewish writers (all but one of whom are widely famous) all caught simultaneously in the net of Stalin's paranoia. We see their final hours as they await doom. Excellent story.

News about my own publication: My novella (at least, I think that's how it's being considered) "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" will run in the March 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, coming out mid-January.

Yesterday I received a rejection from The Greensboro Review. Three other stories of mine remain out for consideration.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Finished the gloriously strange Three to See the King, by Magnus Mills. To say anything about the plot of a Mills book is to, possibly, ruin it, the same as telling someone who's never heard of Little Red Riding-Hood that the story is about a wolf taking the place of a little girl's grandmother. That's the whole plot, and you shouldn't know anything about it until it's too late. The only thing I'll let slip about this Mills novel is that its protagonist lives in a house of tin of which he is very proud. End-stop. The other novel of his that I've read, Explorers of the New Century, is about men on an expedition. That's all I'll say. His novels combine dream logic and fairy-tale bluntness about the true nature of the world using spare yet evocative language. He's amazing.

Following that joyful experience, I'm facing the daunting prospect of reading John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, which is anything but spare. I'll give it a try.

I also finished Camus's play State of Seige. It's very formal and melodramatic in its language and staging, like opera or Greek drama; I can't imagine what it would be like to perform. There are huge monologues by individuals and choruses. Death and pestilence come to a city and impose an austere existence plus totalitarian rules. Only Diego fights them, pushing other people to do the same. It has some interesting moments, taken as a commentary on the politics of the time, but its emotions are so overstated, there's little feeling to be found.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Today I read Jennifer Haigh's story "Desiderata," which appears in (and is the entire contents of) the latest edition of the journal One Story. (The subscription is a gift from one of my daughters.) The story was fine, but not great . . . and perhaps I'm being generous with "fine." It's rather schematically structured, so you can see what's coming and no surprises are in store. There's nothing ultimately either mysterious or revelatory or puzzling about the tale. It takes absolutely no risks, but is simply solidly realistic, with no interesting choices in tone or voice or structure or content. A few lines struck me as quite clever. The dialogue was handled well. Nothing was wrong with the story, particularly, though I don't know why what the character has realized already is withheld for so long—as if we would be surprised. What's disappointing is that these folks publish one short story a month. Nothing more interesting (if flawed) came down the pike?

I've been reading poetry by Paul Muldoon from his collection Moy Sand and Gravel. Interesting. They're not work to read, exactly, but I'm not pulled in, for the most part. That he is able to toss a bunch of evocative-sounding Irish town names into his poems seems like a terribly unfair advantage.

Started reading an outstanding and absorbing novel by Magnus Mills, Three to See the King. I have no idea where this is going. What fun. Totally strange. I read his Explorers of the New Century a few years back; that was one of my most enjoyable reading experiences. It's like reading modern fables, this guy's work.

Worked on some short fiction today. Hope to do a little more before bed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In his book Awake in the Dark, Roger Ebert writes that "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it . . . ." This is a useful way to think about something I just finished and something I've recently begun.

Since this occurred to me while reading the latter, I'll start there: David Eggers's novel/memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is supposedly about his parents' deaths and the resulting effects on his family, but it's really the title that tells you what it's about by revealing how it's going to go about its business. The details are not the issue, but rather the effect the story will have on you and how impressed you'll be by the work itself. However, Eggers immediately, in the hilarious prefatory matter, undercuts this aims and tells you that parts of the book don't work very well and that, yes, he's reductively aware of his own self-consciousness about this story. As it turns out, how he goes about telling this story has, so far, less heartbreak than humor and less genius than . . . well, again, humor. It reads like sitcom writing. He attempts to break your heart through the juxtaposition of ironic distance and horrible details—though this actually results, for me in any case, in a sense of irony rather than emotional connection. These, though, are the subjects of the book.

Thomas M. Disch's On Wings of Song . . . I'll admit, I don't know what he wants the book to be about. I think he wants it to be about the facades that people construct and the falseness of dreams. But the book goes about this in such ham-handed fashion and with such an inconsistent tone and voice (not to mention a plot that loses track of itself) that the book is about how not having a clear vision results in derailment. That's what happens to the character; that's what happens to the book.

Read a good, small short story from Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection American Salvage. I have no idea why I ordered this at the library. This happens from time to time. Thus I find myself in the odd position of having a wish granted though I'm not conscious of any lingering desire for the a-wished object.

I'm working on two short stories simultaneously, though I hadn't planned to. (This also happens from time to time.) "Machine Age" is an old idea I've written about several times; I'm hoping this approach gets me somewhere more final. The newest thing, on which I've only written the opening, is "Rhetorical Lad." Both have adolescent protagonists. Hm. A consequence of teaching middle schoolers?

Friday, September 25, 2009

I've been reading, with diminishing pleasure, Thomas Disch's On Wings of Song. The discussion of this is viewable in the "Books and Stories" threads of the Asimov's forum.

I've been revising two poems and gave one to a friend for critiqueing. My concern, beyond whether I can competently write poetry, is whether there's a reason for me to write it. The more I write, the more I start thinking in its forms and rhythms, which is certainly a good thing, but do I burn to write it? Is that the question one should ask?

Perhaps this (long) weekend I can get some work done on a short story. Two of my stories-in-progress have been on my mind a lot, as have three of my novels-in-progress. World enough? Time?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I finally finished Dexter Filkins's The Forever War, having read it in a kind of steady drip over the the course of many weeks. Extremely well written, it gave me a set of images and a context to complement the film The Hurt Locker (about an American bomb defusal squad in the present Iraq conflict). A friend and colleague with whom I saw The Hurt Locker feels that the film withholds a true point of view; that is, it fails to make clear its moral position in relation to the Iraq conflict. I don't agree, and believe that the film's position—that its main character defines himself in terms of danger and conflict, though he does not know why—provides a lens for judging the war itself. Whatever its initial or subsequent causes, it exists in all its horror in a kind of amoral place, operating with an awful momentum that does not allow for moral reasoning. (This, in itself, is a moral condemnation, I'd argue.) In any case, while discussing the film in light of Filkins's book, I said that the film's tone is a kind of reportage rather than narrative storytelling, which my friend says is exactly his point. The Forever War does not say "this war is wrong" or "these causes are just" or any such thing. It faces, instead, the situation of soldiers, insurgents, government workers and ordinary citizens caught in the conflict. Filkins says, "This is how life becomes when we enter war." He saves, I think, his most cutting outrage for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but perhaps that's because, by the time Iraq has descended into a succession of suicide bombings and all-out internal Islamic conflict, his outrage has become too stunned to fully function. What he finds, I think, is the nihilism at the heart of the conflict—and he names it as such at one point. As in Graham Greene's "The Destructors," people seem intent on acting merely for the purpose of pulling the world down upon everyone's head. Filkins's sympathies are with all those simply trying to do the right thing, even if "the right thing" remains morally problematic.

I've been reading other things: some of Bruno Schulz's strangely haunting and narratively truncated short stories; an outstanding, beautifully rendered story by Melanie Rae Thon, "Survivors," in issue 69 of AGNI; Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," with its sense—so close to any writer's thinking—that death's victory is in taking away what we meant to say; and Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," which wisely follows "Kilimanjaro," again taking us to metaphors expressing the meagerness of light and the kind of blank dread that's possible outside that light.

I mailed a group of eight short stories, jointly titled The Last Revelation, I Swear, to the Iowa Press for its annual short fiction competition. My collection contains four published (or soon-to-be-published) stories and four unpublished stories.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mary Kinzie makes me feel stupid. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I often appreciate it, coming from her. I don't appreciate it coming from the poems in the new issue of Poetry.

I'm reading Kinzie's book A Poet's Guide to Poetry. She actually explains everything quite well, and she chooses wonderful poems to scan and unpack. However, her sentences often have one or two more terms in them than I find helpful all at once (I find this on reading science, especially physics), and I have to reread and then mentally paraphrase. This is pretty much how I approached the study of German in college (a woefully unsuccessful venture, but Northwestern made students in the College of Arts and Sciences take a foreign language).

I had Kinzie as a teacher at NU; she was brilliant. Some students feared her. I vividly recall a young woman saying something utterly uninsightful in a class on women poets and having her severed head handed to her without ceremony. I didn't take Mary's poetry writing classes—I was in the fiction seminars—but I did take her women poet's class (Moore, Bogan, Bishop, Glück and . . . hmm . . . Dickinson?). Great class. She was, in addition, my advisor for three years.

As for the latest issue of the journal Poetry, I can't figure out why the first writer was given space for four poems, two of them quite short (as the journal won't print more than one poem on a page, and the print seems smaller than it used to a few years ago, this is particularly galling). The first poem, I couldn't judge. I have no clue about it. Two of the others seem simply bad.

I do reread poems; I don't simply give something one look and judge it. However, if there's no way in to the poem on first reading—either narratively or imagistically or through beauty of the language—then it's likely I'm not finding anything the second time. Wallace Stevens is a poem who often befuddles me, but he does so in good ways, hitting at least one if not two of the conditions above at first blush. This lets me return to him in hopes of more. If you're not offering any of those three, I have no idea what you're doing, because I can't respond.

Just sold a piece of fiction, though I won't say anything more about that here, yet. But I'm trying to return to poetry as well, and when I find poetry that simply stymies me—and yet was deemed publishable—I'm left feeling stupid, as we do in a dream when we find ourselves in a game with unknown rules.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I've read some great short fiction over the past few days, alternating between Shirley Jackson and Jean Thompson.

Jean Thompson's quite a surprise. In the two stories I've read so far from her collection Throw Like a Girl, Thompson uses an omniscient narrator who clings very closely to one character's point of view, setting the reader deep inside their consciousnesses. Both characters, female, are trapped, one by her age (she's 12), the other by her passivity in the company of her boyfriend. Such accurate portraits, and such interesting--though not unexpected--turns the stories take. I have to read more to get a broader sense of her.

I first heard about Thompson when Alan Cheuse reviewed her latest book on NPR. He talked about her as if "Of course you know who she is." No, I didn't. Thank you, NPR!

The Jackson stories are mostly those I've read before. I don't think I've ever read so many at once, however, and doing so lets me see what's constant about her stories: a preoccupation with social discomfort. Often, people can't speak up or simply don't know how to respond; rather than epiphanic moments, characters face moments of existential dread--though they don't recognize then as such.

This makes me think I've been missing one of the key elements in "The Lottery" when I teach it: What does Bessie Hutchinson's reaction to getting the black dot tell us about her as a person? The way the story shifts from the quotidian to the ultimate is actually a distraction from this character whose behavior is built on the expectation that life will continue to proceed in a certain way. Her horror is not about her imminent death--at least, not in terms of Jackson's larger social preoccupations. Rather, her horror is that events have unfolded in a new way, which forces her not to question the lottery itself but the physical and social mechanics of the day's ceremony.

I flipped through Nebula Awards Showcase 2005 (I got it from the library to copy Karen Joy Fowler's outstanding "What I Didn't See" for a colleague), but couldn't find anything of interest. The introduction to Harlan Ellison's story sucked most of the potential joy from it; nevertheless, I plowed ahead, but found that the writing itself, trying so hard to be, in his own word, "antic," drained away the rest of the story's potential.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I accomplished some writing this weekend, mostly on a new story, "Untimely Ripped." It's interesting to me, for now. Also still working on "Design." "Design" is definitely SF; I don't know what the other is.

Read two short stories. "Saving Tiamaat," by Gwyneth Jones (from The New Space Opera, eds. Dozois and Strahan), is an impressive far-future story of humanity. It apparently links to some of her novels. She's a smart writer, highly imaginative, and writes well. I ordered one of her books from the library. "Nawabdin Electrician" is the first story in Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (a reference to Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms"?). An entertaining tale of an enterprising man with too many mouths to feed, it didn't end satisfyingly, but I'll give the other stories a try nevertheless. Mueenuddin is a New Yorker darling, and I don't tend to care for their fiction choices; we'll see.

I also started Molly Haskell's classic study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. First published in 1974, the book was revised for a 1987 edition--and I wish there were an even newer edition so I could hear her analysis of the current state of affairs. There do seem to be more roles for middle-aged women, and more flexibility in how roles are conceived, though many of the problems she identifies with Hollywood's (and America's) view of females are even more firmly and disturbingly entrenched.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Samuel R. Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah," from the collection of the same name, is excellent. Smartly told, with much left unsaid by the characters (a good choice, since his dialogue isn't the most natural-sounding), the tale of future "perversions" (it might be titled "Unsexed Astronauts and the People Who Want Them!") didn't feel dated, despite its 1966 composition date and the unashamed forthrightness of subsequent decades of writing. It's very much a short story in the late American tradition, a brief stay with a character who has a mildly epiphanic moment that isn't truly life-changing. Nicely done.

Summer is the time for not hearing back about stories one has sent out. Unless my records are in error (always a possibility), I have stories out at Granta, storyquarterly, Cincinnati Review, Asimov's Science Fiction, a contest hosted by Northwestern University's alumni magazine, and the National Public Radio Three-Minute Fiction Contest.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Currently reading Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Langages of Babylon, by Lesley Adkins, about early decipherment work, but also slipping in reading on some short fiction.

"We Never Talk About My Brother," by Peter Beagle, is from his collection of the same name. I used to assign Beagle's The Last Unicorn as summer reading for entering seventh graders, but the kids never cottoned to the book. It was too self-aware and literary to simply be the kind of fantasy the ordinary fantasy reader might enjoy, and with its protagonist a female (and a unicorn in the title), it was hard to sale to male readers. The parts of the book don't really make a coherent whole as it goes veering about, but it's clever and has some great ideas. Plus, it understands the genre. I've picked up other works by Beagle from the library, but hadn't read anything else until now. "We Never Talk About My Brother" feels like an outline for a longer piece. It has a few vivid moments, but its thinking is terrible rushed and its climax is like something from an X-Men comic (or, worse, an X-Men movie). There's none of that lyricism I associate with The Last Unicorn, but instead the kind of genre shorthand that becomes the default setting for workers in the field. In short, the protagonist discovers (through one awkwardly described event and one even-more-awkwardly describe off-stage event) that his brother can control reality. The limits of this are utterly vague, and the metaphysical ponderings that crop up aren't fully thought through or given sufficient resonance.

Yesterday I read from an old favorite, Zenna Henderson. Her "Ararat" in the collection Pilgrimage is her first story of The People, those aliens who, scattered, crashed in the American Southwest at the end of the 18th century. The story does a nice job giving a glimpse of the features that would make stories of The People interesting: their powers; the close family relationships; information about their planet (the Home) and their terrible journey (the Crossing); their struggles to fit in among Earth humans. Some of the tales of the People would feel repetitive, as a consequence, but when I read them as a teenager, I appreciated their combination of emotion and science fiction. Her non-People stories are also fine, and some of them reveal darker strands in her imagination. "Ararat" involves the arrival of an Outsider teacher among several families of the People situated in Cougar Canyon. The narrator, a nineteen-year-old girl, is slower to put together the pieces than the reader is, though that's part of the story's fun, as she and we learn that Miss Carmody, the Outsider who can't keep a teaching job, is also one of the People, raised in isolation by parent who had, as young children, survived the Crossing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Finished Pnin, which managed to, for the most part, evade a plot and remain a character study. By the end, several elements had unexpectedly reared their heads which turned out to be all there was of a plot; this was in keeping with the nature of the character, a static soul who was not altered, by the end, but had had some shocks to the system and was moving on. Twice it appeared that elements of the story would become key turning points, but in both cases Pnin managed to merely take them in stride.

Throughout, the writing was brilliant and lively, and by the end, the occasional evidence of a first-person narrator not only made sense, it brought the story into sharper relief and gave greater sympathy to the character. Rather an amazing final act, really.

At one point in the novel, Pnin attends (by sheer luck, having lost his way repeatedly) a party for Russian émigrés. The Holocaust, which to that point had eluded mention, suddenly becomes personal, and as Pnin thinks about all of the dead through the actions of both Germany and Russia, we have this:

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Read another Samuel R. Delany story, a long one, "The Star Pit." It started off well enough, on the beach of some alien world, but when it shifted to its primary setting, a repair shop at the galactic edge, Delany gave the reader less to see. The dialogue felt flat, and characters unnecessarily repeated information from one scene to another. Some interesting and even wonderful ideas and interconnections in its plot threads, but some characters didn't entirely come into focus (partly because of inconsistencies in voices); the story played out well, though it could have had a sharper ending.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I have to read more Samuel R. Delany. Last night I read his short story "Driftglass," which was quite fine. It didn't end on exactly the right note, but otherwise built a believable world and main character and held to its tone. A few times, the writing became overly precious or self-conscious. I'm also reading Nabokov's Pnin, where half the point is in the writing itself, but somehow his excesses aren't excesses; it's clearly established that it's a first-person narrative voice functioning like an omniscient narrator, and it's a winning, funny voice that fits the pedantry of its subject. Though Delany comes across as an excellent writer, in spots I less appreciated the writing than simply felt it obtrude into the narrative, whereas Nabokov's whole style has to do with a hyper-present narrator. Reading more Delany (I have his collection Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories) is called for.

I have a vivid memory of being a teenager in the Paperback Booksmith (Oxford Valley Mall, Pennsylvania) and looking with fascination at the covers of Delany's novels Dhalgren and Triton--but finding them somehow too daunting to buy.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The third act of Miéville's The City & The City was a tremendous disappointment. All the hauntingly interesting suggestiveness of the early parts devolved into mere . . . mereness. There's no explanation given for the capabilities of the one truly science fictional element in the book, which on closer inspection doesn't appear science fictional at all—or even interesting. There is an incredibly long conversation when our protagonist confronts the perpetrator; gun-to-gun, then walk us through all the events of the story, sucking the final bit of life from the narrative. Miéville tries to keep the prose level up by throwing his energy into interesting verbs or snappy, noirish exchanges, but he's fighting the downward swirl to no avail, in part because much of what he's set up as the book's main conceit looks, by the end, silly. Ah well.

I have much higher hopes for Nabokov's Pnin, which I started today, and which has already made me laugh out loud a few times in the early pages. Genius.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Finished Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star. An interesting combination of lyrical and brutal, like a more expressive Cormac McCarthy. Olmstead gets loose with the grammar when it suits the lyrical flow, and for the most part this works. Only once did it just seem like he'd blundered into the wrong tense. I'd like to read more of him. The story was smart and vivid; the small-scale battle scene (and the horrors that followed it) was as impressive, in its way, as the ship-capsizing scene in Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus (my standard for rapt adventure writing).

Enjoying John McPhee's The Headmaster, a brilliantly written portrait of Frank Boyden, the man who ran Deerfield for decades. I'm also deep into China Miéville's The City & the City. Fascinating and exciting, absorbing and baffling.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Eat the Document wasn't holding me. It's well written. And the author has a detailed, almost reportorial, grasp of the times and places her characters inhabit (the late '70s and late '90s; suburbs of the Northwest). But the voices (there are several points of view, including a detached omniscient) lack momentum, and I'm moving too slowly through it. I have no complaints about the book, but it's not for me.

I read a short story from Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen collection ("Creature from the Black Lagoon"--which is exactly about that) to cleanse the palate last night. (This book I own.)

Today I started Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star and was immediately stunned and engaged by the prose. The story, so far, is simply about soldiers in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916. Terrific voice, great narrative momentum, smart prose, vivid yet concise descriptions. I've not read Olmstead before. Looking forward to more of this.

As for Flannery, the biography, it was fine. For those of us who've read her stories, essays and letters, there was not a great deal new, aside from some interpersonal material. Gooch does a good job making a coherent narrative from all of the material, but there were countless problem sentences. Most of the problems came with ungrammatical presentations of quotes, which led to my having to reread many sentences. The editor must have been convinced--if he or she cared--that this was an effect of style rather than simply an error.

It seems my novel writing is--naturally, not as the result of some considered weighing of various styles--Nabokovian. I'm not writing fragments on index cards, but I am writing small pieces as I draft. I found myself doing this for "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (still waiting to hear about that). As a long story, that had something of a novelistic shape and, for me, complexity. Apparently I need to work through such things in teaspoons.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Closing in on the end of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. No revelations to it, if you've read her letters and essays. The best thing about the work is its reliance on O'Connor's wit for its laugh lines. I see a mention in the acknowledgements that Conan O'Brien (whose shows I've never seen beyond perhaps a few minutes here and there) wrote his senior thesis at Harvard on O'Connor.

I always call her "Lady Flannery." Like others, I have canonized her, or at least made her accessible to writerly prayer.

I've started Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta. It began very well. I've picked this up because she was hired by Syracuse U. to teach creative writing.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Death with Interruptions, José Saramago

More enjoyable than his Seeing, with a lighter tone. The intrusive narrator is more knowingly, self-deprecatingly intrusive, rather than taking the tone of someone making profound philosophical comments. There was serious commentary, but, despite the subject matter--“death” withholding her services in one country for a while, then changing tactics by giving people one week’s notice, via mail--the tone was less dark. Most striking was how the book shifted from broad strokes to increasingly human and humane interests, till it narrowed down to the relationship between death and a cellist who--for reasons that remained unclear--simply declined to die. Slow early on, with its broad approach, but increasingly of interest once it allows characters to emerge. Quite a bit about the book is “meta,” as death’s stylistic choices--lowercasing her name, idiosyncratic use of punctuation, loose sentence structure--are actually Saramago’s choices, and the movement of the book’s plot is meant, I suppose, to mirror Saramago’s shift in interest from the largely philosophical questions posed by his initial conceit to the more finite issues posed once he’s introduced a more novelistic plot. A fair bit of that early idea seems half-cocked, so it’s as if Saramago only stumbles upon a better story once he’s halfway along.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Following the lead of Livejournal's wendigomountain and selfavowedgeek, I'm listing 15 books that have had a huge impact. Tough to whittle it down, and some major influences have been left off. The more interesting part, I'd say, is explaining each of these (not that I'll be doing that just now). In general, it strikes me that each book does something that, until I read that book, I didn't realize you could do.

In no order:

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
The Endurance, Caroline Alexander (non-fiction)
Middlemarcha, George Eliot
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquz
The Hamlet, William Faulkner
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor (stories)
Dr. Fischer of Geneva; or, The Bomb Party, Graham Greene
Nickel Mountain, John Gardner
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (non-fiction)
Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Plague, Albert Camus
Fun House, Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

. . . rather absurdly leaving out any Shakespeare (Hamlet) or a book of the Bible (Gospel of Luke) or a book of poetry (maybe Louise Glück's Wild Iris).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" came back from F&SF in less than a week. After some changes it went out to Asimov's, where, in truth, I'd imagined it being published the whole time I wrote it. Waiting to hear back.

Today I finished Norwood, Charles Portis's first novel (1966). Previously, I've read True Grit and Masters of Atlantis, both very funny and odd books. Norwood is unpretentious and skillful, one character's jaunt from Ralph, Texas, to New York City and back again to Ralph. Much fun is had. Perhaps my favorite line described a woman wearing open-toed shoes that "exploded with toes."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fly, my wingèd monkey! Fly!

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" submitted to F&SF.

Presently reading:
Geoff Dyer, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It
Annie Liebovits, At Work
David Eagleman, Sum
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Finished and ready to send: "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down"

Begun, barely: "Bathrooms I Have Known"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"A more complex ordering system appears in what is known as the largest encyclopedia ever printed: the Qinding Gujin Tushu Jicheng, or Great Illustrated Imperial Encyclopedia of Past and Present Times, of 1726, a gigantic biographical library divided into more than ten thousand sections. The work was attributed to Jiang Tingxi, a court proofreader who used wooden blocks with cut-out pictures and movable characters specially designed for the enterprise. Each section of the encyclopedia covers one specific realm of human concern, such as Science or Travel, and is divided into subsections containing biographical entries. The section on Human Relations, for instance, lists the biographies of thousands of men and women according to their occupation or position in society, among them sages, slaves, playboys, tyrants, doctors, calligraphers, supernatural beings, great drinkers, notable archers and widows who did not marry again."
—Manguel, The Library at Night, p. 49

Thursday, May 7, 2009

" . . . [M]y books know infinitely more than I do, and I'm grateful that they even tolerate my presence."
—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, p. 4

"'Why need I even speak of it, since it is imperishably held in the memory of all men?' wrote Athenaeus of Naucratis, barely a century and a half after [the library of Alexandria's] destruction."
The Library at Night, p. 27

[Athenaeus hadn't seen it, nor had anyone alive. He made it vivid through insistance, not recollection, like people's ideas of a better decade, a perfect past, a moment that wasn't.]

"In any of the pages in any of my books may lie a perfect account of my secret experience of the world."
The Library at Night, p. 29

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"My Story of Us Looking for My Comic Strip, by Franklin James Nemeth" sent to GUD.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Rufus T. Firefly was accordingly made president and at once began to rule in his characteristically flamboyant manner. Although Firefly was immediately popular with the people of Freedonia, his behaviour and attitude led to the resignation of some of his ministers.

"Nor was his appointment to the taste of neighbouring Sylvania or its ambassador Trentino. For some years Sylvania had been trying to subvert the economy and politics of Freedonia and Firefly's appointment was seen as an obstacle to these plans, as well as to Trentino's marrying Mrs. Teasdale, as Rufus T. Firefly had offered her a roofus over her head if she became his wife."

—"Freedonia," from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi

"I can't get the thumb tack in the wall. I've got the saddest life."
—Little Edie Beale, Grey Gardens (film)

"My body is a very precious place. It's concentrated ground."
—Big Edie Beale

"Everything's good that you didn't do."
—Big Edie Beale

When exactly does someone cross the line between viewing cat piss and feces as problematic and seeing it as part of what one expects in a household? For the Beales, when did raccoons tearing through the walls seem merely a natural event like wind? How could they not attach their feeding of the raccoons—Little Edie's moment of leaving the loaf of Wonder Bread sprinkled with cat chow—with the encroachment of the creatures into their living quarters? These are the questions I'm left with.
"Are You Looking At" sent to Virginia Quarterly Review.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Coleridge, it's often claimed, was the last person to have read everything. This voracious appetite for reading was matched, in his writing, by a chronic inability to finish anything. Walter Benjamin, an obsessive collector of books, thought that the most satisfying way to acquire volumes was to write them, but he, too, was able to bring only a few of his most cherished projects to anything like completion.

"It is a trait they share with Gedney. Although he reproached himself on occasions, for not making the best use of his time, this inability to bring any of his varied projects to completion was not the result of laziness but, paradoxically, of immersing himself so thoroughly in his work."

—Geoff Dyer, What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney

The Kentucky photos are the most striking. The Benares photos possess some of the same qualities—the appreciation for the beauty of a human body in need, an eye for how people shape—unconsciously and unselfconsciously—their bodies against a background, a love of naturalism that carries no overt statement about its subject—but the KY photos hit me more. First, there's continuity—the same family viewed and reviewed, aging. The way people interact with each other. Their interactions with objects—often cars, but also parts of cars, cigarettes, their clothing (men's pants). And, too, I somewhat recognize these people. They remind me of my Frostburg relatives and childhood friends, or Nan's relatives out in Deer Park, with their rural isolation, the tales of violence and illness, the lack of forward momentum. They have no expectation of being remembered by the world. Gedney has remembered them (they seem aware of this in the letters to him, as if he summoned them). He gives those of us who deceive ourselves in regards to our importance—or who inhabit a world in which change is not only possible but expected—the opportunity to recollect how most humans live. His camera doesn't pull these subjects into the limelight. Somehow, they remain where they are.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Highly highly highly recommended

Hie thee hither!

Wait! Not that close . . .

OK. That's good.

You should read How Fiction Works, by James Wood. He writes wonderful critical pieces for the New Yorker. Bright guy. This book walks briskly through a host of idea about how narrative achieves what it achieves, though the book also slows to browse through many well-phrased examples to make its points. Wood cuts through the brush of decades (centuries, even) of rancor to point out what should be obvious, if one sets aside ideological fixedness. Really a fine work.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wingèd Rejection

I don't know why it's wingèd; it just is.

It flapped my way today from Ninth Letter, which had rejected something else but enticingly requested something more. This moved through the system pretty quickly, one month, but to no avail. And so I seek another venue for "You Have No Idea What I've Forgotten."

Sample paragraph, sans context:

Ron said, “Curb.” He passed the sofa from hand to hand behind him as he swung his end to face the street. His grandmother was talking across the driveway to an old man on the next porch, Sam Timmons, who wore a beige newsboy cap on his bald head. He had no lips and nostrils that appeared to let you peer too far inside him.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A topographical map of reading matter

Lying exposed on the sofa, The Art of Teaching, by Jay Parini. One third of the way through, I'm finding rich striations on how Parini became inspired in his schooling and how various teachers affected him. Nearby, atop fanned pages of my latest story and sandwiched between loose layers of New Yorkers, Elizabeth Gilbert's collection of short stories, Pilgrims. I'll not read her Eat, Pray, Love (are those the verbs?), no I won't, but a look at her biography put me on to her fiction. The first story in the collection was wonderful in voice and characters; it felt authentic. Wedged unexplored just above the Gilbert collection is Sarah Vowell's set of essays, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Oh, I keep it for another day.

At comparatively stratospheric elevations, the books upstairs receive, at present, less attention. To name those stacked, like ancient water-stranded stones, atop my writing desk would be to merely namedrop; retrieved from the library, they've now become part of the landscape. Those beside my bed, where the Parini book is remoored each night, at least see some activity: Barry Hannah's odd short story collection Airships, faded blue-and-orange letters on the cover, is topmost. Lower, and delved into for odd gems on odd occasions, is the most recent Pushcart annual. And somewhat forgotten, in a second stack, lies Terry Pratchett's non-Discworld Nation; several chapters have yielded their wares, but I don't know whether I'll continue--I'd taken it from the library thinking it might work for my eighth-graders, but now I think not.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dear Dennis Brutus,

I took your course in African literature at Northwestern. I know I didn't read the Mongo Beti novel. But I read the Armah. I read the Ngugi. And the hilarious Salih. And . . . I thought I'd read the Achebe. But there I sat this morning, reading this old book from my shelves, and nothing of it seemed familiar. Not a word. Did I skim? Did I read it on the edge of sleep and thus retain nothing but what might return to me whenever I slide near the twilight of consciousness? Or did I simply not read it?

Oh Dennis, it was not my aim to thwart your aims. I was young. And how fondly I recall the way you evoked each writer's alien world merely by the speaking of each name. Your high voice, your South African accent emerging from the halo of hair and beard. So you summon them for me still, these writers of other lands.

I will read the Achebe now. It is so good.

But do not expect a paper.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics, ed. Sean Howe

Riveting, the subject line! (My only falsehood!) Fine work, the book! Especial praise: Aimee Bender on the value of graphic narrative! Geoff Dyer on how comics shaped his aesthetic sense! Geoffrey O'Brien on the wildness of Jim Steranko's art and our world's strangeness (I simplify, I simply . . . )! Glen David Gold on the obsessiveness of collecting (an involving story)! Chris Offutt (sing of his short fiction!) on the marginal comic character with which he connected! Myla Goldberg on Renée French (my thanks for the introduction; her blog now gives me daily weirdness) and Chris Ware! and Andrew Hultkrans's mental excursions prompted by artist Steve Ditko!

Worth noting for meanderingness: Jonathan Lethem's piece. This reader does not find himself charmed when a writer says, in effect, "Actually, I meant to say--" or "Wow, I got off track," as if the essay were spontaneously stepping full-bodied from said writer's skull and could not be altered rather than being a thing the writer actually spent time crafting and was paid to provide. Bogosity!

And whither Krazy Kat!?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Barthelme's The Dead Father, Praising of

So you finished it.

Did. Did indeed. That section, the one I balked at? Turned out, there's where the book kicked into high gear.

These clichés . . . 

The book umped the umpdoodle. It flang me. I was kerflanged. "The Dead Father" himself becomes secondary to the concept of father, or at least an Overfather, the big boss. One--


--gets the sense that Barthelme's own father was a bruiser, thick of word and hand, a man to be, with much difficulty, processed and put behind. And so in the novel they drag his brobdingnagian carcass and take his power bit by bit. I relaxed with the book when I realized I didn't have to parse it all or even figure out who was talking in its non sequitur–packed conversations. The end was beautiful, just beautiful. A fine thing.

You've spoken your speaking.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Unfinished work

Give me a sample.

Of the latest work?

The thing you're planning to work on today.

All right. I'll give you the opening paragraph.

What's it called again?

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down."

Some sort of metaphor?

Well, I don't want to--


I wouldn't--


I forget which one that is.

 . . .

In any case, here's the opening:

When I married, late and surprised, I hadn’t heard from the old man for about two years. I knew his assistants went through fallow periods, only to be summoned back into service from out of the blue. Having heard nothing formal, I considered myself retired rather than dismissed, but in truth I didn’t know what to think. No contact was possible between me and my former peers. From my own time with the old man, I sensed some people had simply aged out of service; others died, of course, and not only because the old man’s career had spanned decades.

What kind of thing is this?

Again, I'd rather not say too much.

How about a line at random.

“No. If he’d died, we’d know. The world,” she said, and waited so long I thought the call had been cut off, but then she concluded, “wouldn’t make as much sense.”

That was at random?

Well. Random . . . . I went to a section that was in decent shape.

So now choose something you quite like. Less random.

It’s true that he never used a gun. For a while there, I carried one. So did Jean. Balder kept a tiny pistol up his sleeve, not the sort of weapon for doing much damage, but that was in keeping with the ethic of the Work The old man didn’t want us killing people, not if we could help it. A master of disabling the most solidly built enemy with a single blow, the old man believed in the nobility of the human spirit but saw the human body as a machine rife with “off” switches. 

That'll do. Now get to work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Narrative as cake

Will you finish reading it?

This? Barthelme's The Dead Father? I haven't decided.

You're stalled.

I'm stalled. It's true. There's a 30-page section, two-thirds of the way through--and it's not a long book--in which the characters read from another book. It's like one of those chapters in Moby Dick where Melville peels off to talk, inaccurately, about cetaceans. 

You thought about jumping over this section.

True. It's not that long. But the book is like cake. It's turning out to be like cake.


Cake. You eat one portion of it, one decent-sized bite, and you'd know all you need to know about the entire cake. This book is like that. The narrative doesn't have progression. It just seems comprised of the same substance throughout. I could move parts around to no ill effect. It'll end. Something will happen. But it's . . . a riff. I could walk out in the middle of some long jazz improv number and come back in ten minutes later, right? Okay, maybe I'd have missed the greatest improv ever improvved. That's possible. But what if it's the same guy diddling about on a riff, and he's not showing me something new moment to moment? 

Just finish the book. It's short.

My keyboard needs cleaning . . .

Don't change the subject.

I'm growing fond of you.

Don't change the subject.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'll be better

Really, I'll be better about this than I've been. My old livejournal blog lost its focus. Here I'll talk about what I'm reading and writing. 


And with more consistency.