Saturday, August 25, 2007

Walking and Writing

Nicole Krauss on walking and writing:

I like to walk to be alone with the world, not to be alone. In this way, walking is a lot like writing. Both writing and walking (as I know it) are fueled by a desire to put oneself in relation to others. Not in direct contact — some aloneness wishes to be preserved — but contact through the mediation of language or shared atmosphere of a city street.

From "The Walker and the Walk" in The New York Times (August 19, 2007).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Grace Paley

I was sad to hear of the death of Grace Paley this week. She was a brilliant short story writer and, by all accounts, a fabulous human being. You can read accounts her life and career here and here, and a personal tribute to her by Maud Newton here. At a reading in Toronto earlier this summer, poet Matthew Zapruder spontaneously described Paley as "the Yoda of American literature." I loved that!

As a small tribute, I propose that we make Grace Paley's story "A Conversation With My Father" the focus of our September discussion at A Curious Singularity. The story is available online in text and audio versions. If you're already a member of A Curious Singularity, or if you'd like to join the group for a new round of short story discussions this fall, let me know if this idea appeals to you. As usual, the discussion would begin on the second Tuesday of the month.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Roar of Literature

Peter Carey on the current state of fiction:

No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They'll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those "true stories" have really been.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Resuming with a Reading Meme

I've been neglecting this blog shamefully of late. I wish that I could report having been productive in other writing realms while I was absent from this space, but alas I must admit that I mostly filled in the time playing online Scrabble with Facebook friends. Does anyone else out there share this addiction? If so, let me know and we'll have a game! But now back to blogging. A reading meme seems a fine way to get back into the swing of things. I've borrowed this one from Litlove (who in turn borrowed it from Imani, Dewey, and Emily).

What are you reading right now?

I've been on a mystery binge, alternating between Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks novels and Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Both series are police procedurals set in Yorkshire and it has been most interesting to compare and contrast them as I read instalments of each back-to-back. Other books that I'm currently in the midst of (okay, in at least one instance, stuck near the beginning!) include Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building, James Baldwin's Another Country, Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Do you have any idea what you'll read when you’re done with that?

My TBR pile is, as ever, overflowing. But at the very top of that pile are Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist, Tsipi Keller's Jackpot, and Decalogue 2: ten Ottawa fiction writers (edited by Rob McLennan).

What magazines do you have in your bathroom right now?

We don't have any magazines in our bathroom. The only magazine that I read regularly is Quill and Quire, and I have yet to consign it to the bathroom. Usually I read it cover-to-cover in a cafe en route home from the bookstore. However, I do have one of those fancy over-the-bath book racks so that I can take whatever I happen to be reading into the tub with me without fear of a dunking mishap.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read?

I’ve forgotten the name of it, but there was a novel that I had to read for a third-year French class that nearly did me in. I wasn't very good at French so I struggled even with compelling works like Albert Camus' L'Etranger. Alas, the one I've forgotten the name of was in no way a compelling work. I was forever consulting the French-English dictionary for the meaning of unfamiliar words and they nearly always turned out to be obscure 19th century agricultural implements that I couldn't picture even once I had the English translation. I'm not sure if I ever finished the book. My final grade was the worst of my university career and I never took another French class.

What's the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?

There isn't a single book that I press upon all of my friends and acquaintances. I'm alert to the fact that my tastes are eclectic and someone who shares my taste in literary fiction might not embrace the mystery novels or the children's literature that I love. On reflection though, I do have some stock recommendations within categories, so I'll outline some of those.

To girls, or people with daughters, or anyone who enjoys reading quality children's literature, I enthusiastically and repeatedly recommend Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series.

To mystery fans, I'm always recommending Laurie King's Mary Russell series and Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid series.

To short story readers, I rave about Jackie Kay's Why Don't You Stop Talking? and Ali Smith's The Whole Story and Other Stories. I also try to persuade them, if they haven't already done so, to read my all time favourite short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" by Delmore Schwartz.

For those who share my fascination with literary Paris in the 1920s, I'm apt to press upon them a copy of John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse.

More generally, to readers of literary fiction, I'm quick to recommend Dawn Powell's The Golden Spur, and Muriel Spark's The Comforters.

I could go on, but I won’t because I think I’ve already thoroughly defeated the purpose of the question with my voluminous list of recommendations!

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don't they?

They may not know my name but they certainly know my face. And they are unfailingly pleasant to me despite the shameful amount of space that books I've requested invariably take up on the hold shelf. There's one librarian who has taken to offering me unsolicited book recommendations with some frequency. I'm not sure if her recommendations are based on what she's seen me checking out or if they're just books that she has particularly enjoyed herself. Regardless, she strikes me as a kindred spirit and I enjoy my interaction with her.

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don't like it at all?

On occasion, fellow bloggers have been less than enthusiastic about books that I've raved about here and vice versa. It underscores for me the element of subjectivity that is present in all aesthetic judgements. I'm often surprised by the disjunction in our reactions, particularly when the person in disagreement with me has shared my literary likes and dislikes in the past. But the ensuing discussion about the basis for the disagreement is always stimulating. This is why I so enjoy the various blog reading groups in which several readers focus their collective attention on a single book. I remember a very interesting range of opinions among the Slaves of Golconda about one of my all-time favourites, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer? While you're having sex? While you’re driving?

While eating: Definitely while I eat. On the odd occasion when I find myself going into a restaurant alone without a book, I'm likely to reverse course and buy something at the nearest bookstore to take in with me.

While bathing: Often while I bathe (see above).

While watching TV or listening to music: I will read with the TV or music on in the background. I can't focus on both at once though, so it's only justifiable if someone else in the room is enjoying the television show or the music. When I'm inside a book, the book is the whole world and everything else is blotted out of my consciousness. I don't even hear the phone ring, or others in the house shouting to me.

While on the computer: Not while I'm on the computer unless it's a research and writing scenario.

While having sex: I'm not going to answer that question! But I will tell you that my beau always chuckles when he gets home from a road trip and finds his side of the bed covered in piles of books that roughly approximate the size and shape of a human body. So easily replaced...

While driving: I don't drive, but I do regularly read on public transit. I can read on subways, streetcars, trains of all descriptions, and airplanes. But motion sickness gets the better of me if I read on buses and in cars, so on either of those modes of conveyance I have to make do with listening to audiobooks.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits?

I don't remember being teased about my reading habits as a child. I do remember some of my friends being puzzled by my attachment to books and the amount of time I spent reading though.

What's the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn't put it down?

It's not so much a book being "so good" that will keep me reading late into the night. It has to be good to keep me reading at all, but to prompt me to forego sleep, generally there has to be an element of suspense involved. Not necessarily suspense in the genre sense (though it may be that), but the sort of plot that has me avid to find out how it all turns out. Books that have kept me up into the wee hours in the recent past include Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know, William McIlvanney's Weekend, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files, Caro Fraser's The Pupil, and Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season. As you've probably gathered, I'm often short on sleep!

On the flip side, there are some very good books that I would never stay up late to read because they're difficult books that require a level of attention of which I'm simply not capable when I'm tired.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Things Have Just Happened

Charles Baxter on dysfunctional narratives:

The trouble with narratives without antagonists or a counterpoint to the central character—stories in which no one ever seems to be deciding anything or acting upon any motive except the search for a source of discontent—is that they tend formally to mirror the protagonists' unhappiness and confusion. Stories about being put-upon almost literally do not know what to look at. The visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations. In any particular scene, everything is significant, and nothing is. The story is trying to find a source of meaning, but in the story everyone is disclaiming responsibility. Things have just happened.

From Charles Baxter, "Dysfunctional Narratives: or: 'Mistakes Were Made'" in Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Look for Iago

In her contribution to Bringing the Devil to His Knees, Susan Neville reports receiving this pithy bit of advice from Kurt Vonnegut:

…he asked how my novel was going.
         It's a mess, I said, truly awful, and I tried to think of some way to change the subject.
         I can tell you what's wrong with it without seeing it, he said. You're missing Iago.
         The character that bounces all the other characters around. I wasted twenty years figuring that out. Look for Iago.

From Susan Neville, "Where's Iago?" in Charles Baxter & Peter Turchi, eds., Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (2001).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

My Latest Library Odyssey

Yesterday I was awed once again by the resources that are at my fingertips thanks to the two library systems to which I have access. During an idle moment at work, I was browsing on the Graywolf Press website. Prominently displayed there is a write-up about Charles Baxter's soon-to-be released The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. I was already aware of this book and I'm keen to get my hands on a copy. But somehow, until I read the write-up on the website, I hadn't known that Baxter had written an earlier collection of essays on writing, also published by Graywolf, titled Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. I checked the online catalogue of my university library to see if they had a copy of the earlier collection, to tide me over until the new one comes out. Indeed they did and, alongside it, an anthology of essays by various writers co-edited by Baxter titled Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Later in the afternoon, when I left for home, I stopped in at the library en route to the bus stop and checked out both.

I dipped into Bringing the Devil to His Knees first. I have a long commute—a bus, two subway lines, and a streetcar—so I made reasonable headway in the book along the way. By the time I reached the streetcar portion of my journey, I'd begun Jim Shepard's essay on what he refers to as "the tyranny of the epiphany in the short story." I was intrigued by Shepard's essay, but it soon became apparent that the bulk of it was given over to a detailed reading of Robert Stone's "Helping," a short story that I hadn't yet read. Better to put it aside, I thought, until I could read the story for myself first. I closed the book and got off at my stop which is right in front of my local branch of the public library. (Very convenient, is it not, that my daily commute is bracketed by libraries?)

It's a small branch with a small collection. The library staff invariably manages to get whatever books I want shipped to me there from other branches with good cheer and astonishing efficiency. But there's no guarantee of finding any particular book sitting on the shelf, so I had no reason to suppose that I would find Robert Stone's stories there. Still, it was worth checking. Lo and behold, there it was: Robert Stone's Bear and His Daughter. Perhaps I should have bought a lottery ticket right there and then. Instead, I gleefully carried my bounty of books straight home and read "Helping" twice. It truly is a brilliant story and it demanded immediate rereading. Then I returned to Jim Shepard's essay and read it all the way through better equipped now to savour his insights.

What's the point of this post, apart from singing the praises of my beloved libraries? If you haven't yet read Robert Stone's "Helping," I highly recommend it. A few months ago the Literate Kitten posted a list of short stories that she and her readers deem must-reads. Add "Helping" to that list. Then read Jim Shepard's essay on it to add more layers to your appreciation of the story. Me, I'm looking forward to reading more of Stone's stories, and to reading the rest of the essays in Bringing the Devil to His Knees, and, of course, to reading Charles Baxter's two books on writing, the search for which initiated my latest library odyssey.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Withholding Consolation

Jim Shepard on resisting "the tyranny of the epiphany":

Now, as I understand it, a short story, by definition, does have a responsibility, in its closing gestures, to enlarge our understanding, but it seems to be increasingly difficult for writers to resist allowing their hapless protagonist a new understanding as well—an understanding that will set him or her on the path to a more actualized life. This is, as we all know, the age of the Oprah Book Club, whose credo is that a book is useful precisely to the extent that it conjures up for us a ratification of our own particular experience and can thereby be morphed into a self-help text. It's not our task, though, to save our characters, however adorable we secretly find them. We should not, in other words, be afraid to withhold consolation.

From Jim Shepard, "I Know Myself Real Well. That's the Problem." In Charles Baxter & Peter Turchi, eds., Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (2001).

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bulletin from Another Country

After a week of light reading, it was shock to my system to plunge headlong into James Baldwin's Another Country. It's the antithesis of light reading, full of violence and despair. The violence is not just in the events recounted, but in the very language of the novel, such that I felt as if I'd been knocked about a bit myself by the time I emerged at the end of chapter one.

In this opening chapter, events unfold through the eyes of down-and-out jazz musician Rufus Scott. At first I thought that the whole novel would be told from his perspective and, compelling though this character and his story are, I wasn't sure that I could bear being inside his head for 400+ pages. Before long I discovered that the second chapter switches to the perspective of another character, and the third, yet another. In typically contradictory fashion, however, the relief that I felt at escaping a first hand view of Rufus's pain soon gave way to a longing to return to the intensity of his experience.

I'm not sure how the various perspectives will hang together in the end. I'm only a third of the way into the novel, so it's far too early for any definitive conclusions. Consider this a bulletin along the way with more, much more, to come as I venture further into Another Country.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Capsule Reviews: A Bit of Light Reading

Recent circumstances have propelled me into a spate of light reading and I’ve come across a few good books along the way.

Him Her Him Again The End of Him by Patricia Marx is a black comedy about one woman's romantic obsession with a man altogether wrong for her. The book is not as funny as I'd been led to expect, but it was an entertaining read all the same. The first third of the book, which incisively evokes the absurdity of the graduate school experience, is the strongest. In that context, I could understand the narrator's interest in pompous philosophy student (and utter cad) Eugene Obello. Her continued attachment to him thereafter was more difficult to get my head around. Indeed, her interest in him post-graduate school does wane somewhat. But while this makes sense emotionally, it's a bit of a disaster structurally. Since Eugene is the focus of the book, when the narrator is not focused on him, the book loses its intensity and drifts. Nevertheless, there were enough funny lines threaded through the remainder of the book to keep me reading to the end. Ultimately this one gets a qualified recommendation from me.

Though I have long been a keen crossword puzzler, it never occurred to me to wonder about the construction of crosswords until I spotted this slim volume on the new books shelf at the library: Cruciverbalism: A Crossword Fanatic's Guide to Life in the Grid. The author, Stanley Newman, is the crossword editor for Newsday, and the book is part memoir, part compendium of crossword arcana, and part how-to guide. The best bit is the memoir portion in which Newman recounts his transition in the 1980s from a career on Wall Street to one in crosswords. I found the tale of the campaign he and other "new wave" crossworders waged against Eugene Maleska, then reigning crossword editor at the New York Times, particularly interesting (more than a little reminiscent of Ed Champion's contemporary campaign against Sam Tanenhaus of the NYT Book Review). The bit devoted to the history and lore of crosswords is slight, but sufficiently intriguing to prompt me to search out other books on the topic. The how-to section was least compelling to me, as I simply don't care enough about my crossword prowess to work to improve my game. Even so, there are revelations in it that caught my interest. Lots of food for thought for readers with varying degrees of commitment to crosswords.

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz is the story of Isabel ("Izzy") Spellman who, at age 28, is trying to break away from the family business. Alas, that business is a Private Investigations Agency and her dysfunctional family is not going to let her go easily. First, her parents insist she must solve an apparently unsolvable cold case, and, in the meantime, they put her under the surveillance of her 14-year-old sister in order to learn more about her new boyfriend and her desire for a career change. In a back cover blurb, Curtis Sittenfeld dubs it "Harriet the Spy for grown-ups." I swear, without having read that blurb, that's exactly the phrase that was running through my head as I read, at least until I got sufficiently caught up in the Spellman family's hijinks to forget to make comparisons. The Spellman Files is a marvellous romp, smart, funny, and often moving, from beginning to end. I was very pleased to learn that it is intended to be only the first in a series of books about Spellman Investigations. I wouldn't want to live or work with the Spellmans, but I certainly want to read more about them.