Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ursula K. Le Guin on "accidental discovery"

My “research method” was to go to the largest library accessible to me, get into the stack where some books about whatever it was were, and blunder around in those shelves pulling off books until I found the ones I needed. I mean, how much can you know from the title? One book on Ancient Roman Sewers will be useless and the one next to it will be a revelation. But riffling through to establish such judgments seems immensely easier to do with an actual bound book than with the page-by-page limitation of a reading device.
From her blog (how much does it delight me that Ursula K. Le Guin has a blog? Almost as much as it does that Margaret Atwood has a Twitter.) (And, of course, Chaucer....) (Someone should really do a series of blogs by famous authors. Think of Juvenal's. Or worse, Martial's.)

Peter Dickinson: two Pibble novels

I was reading back through some of these entries and thought, "Shit, it's been a long time since I said anything about a book I liked." It's that old conundrum about how it's always easier to write about times you were upset or movies you hated, e.g. why Milton's Satan has all the best lines: there's something about being happy or uplifted that's hard to put into words. At any rate, I disliked the very negative emphasis here so far, so I'm crossposting some quick'n dirty reviews from that site I used to love.

Sleep and His Brother was the first Dickinson I've ever read, after a friend reviewed it -- I like procedurals and detective series, and other bookish friends had mentioned they liked Dickinson's prose style, so I was in. (I managed to snatch up a grand pile -- ten battered paperbacks! cheap! -- of Dickinson from a local used bookstore, only to get home and gnash my teeth on finding none of them were Pibbles.) I found this book (not the first in the series, but you can read them out of sequence, or at least I have) very oddly compelling. I can't think of very many good procedurals which also have supernatural setups -- Kate Wilhelm's Death Qualified is another (I'm sure there are more, that's just one of the few I can think of right now). Very satisfying in that first-five-minutes-of-Prime-Suspect way in which everything's happening and you can't figure it out and it all isn't neatly explained, so the plot stretches your brain a bit. The book was originally published in 1971 and some of the gender issues are very dated -- a scientist will "never" marry a young heiress because of her genetic background (can't they....just not have kids? adopt?), many nurses are pinched, women are automatically and bluntly rated on an attractiveness scale when they first enter the narrative, and so on. But the female characters themselves were quite good -- I liked the spoiled Doll, the comically gruesome Lady Sospice, and "poor Posey" all very much.

The book really isn't about genetics or telepathy or corruption or crime at all, although Dickinson weaves all these themes into his central, real one: obsession. The Dormice-children are like little fleshy rings of Gyges: what they are matters less than what other people do with them. And the book itself is almost hypnotically the sleepy children themselves, eerily alluring. Dickinson makes even the tremendously stale copper-confronts-the-sympathetic-bad-guy endpiece (which actually happens twice) interesting -- it's a dangerous skill, like a knife: bright but with an edge.

The Old English Peep Show (a better, earlier title was Pride of Heroes) doesn't have any supernatural elements, but it was just as weirdly mesmerizing as Sleep and His Brother. Dickinson has the real, odd gift of making me read straight through in a day about almost entirely unsympathetic people in very puzzling environments. He doesn't coddle his reader at all, but he won't lie or trick you, either; he plainly, coolly plants two ENORMOUS clues near the beginning, and when they're recalled nearly a hundred pages later, I swore out loud and flipped back, sure I hadn't missed them -- but I had. He reminds me a little of Christie, except he's deliberately iconoclastic where she's more conservative. Parts of this book must have seemed much more daring in the late sixties, barely two decades after WWII, with its debunking of a mythical Naval operation and references to "Winnie." The people are nearly all cardboard but somehow vivid, and Pibble is a complete schlub but somehow it's a pleasure watching him doggedly tease everything out.

Dickinson's prose style is amazing -- poetic but concise, stripped bare but never ostentatiously simple. I've heard friends say they find Dickinson off-putting, and I think part of it is in how nearly everyone is lying and trying to conceal their motives, which of course fits well into the typical mystery plot. But there's a sort of cold rock-bottom callousness about human nature -- as Ginsberg wrote of Junky, "the stoic cold-humor'd eye on crime." I suppose you could call him an uncozy mystery writer.

(Side note: .....I first read Junky when I was about fourteen ((yes)) in an edition that had Ginsberg's introduction, and his phrase was so striking I've remembered it ever since -- but Google wouldn't cough it up so I had to check my 50th anniversary copy to be sure, and realized only then my lifelong tic of spelling "humour" and "favour" (probably too much Dickens as a kid) was what had gotten in the way.


LibraryThing vs GoodReads

LibraryThing is now offering free accounts through Sunday.

There is no such thing as a free web 2.0 service. We are the product. If a "free" service built LARGELY on entirely volunteer reviewing, cataloguing, ranking and commenting can be sold for over a billion, with no profit or consideration given to the people who provided all the content, that demonstrates it like nothing else.

For all the (justified) worrying about data mining and reviews, the target of Amazon's buying GoodReads was probably Bookish, and definitely Barnes and Noble. The Nook is doing terribly. Since GR is now basically Amazon's book social network, and since more people than ever are now reading digital books on phones and tablets, this is going to pump steroids into the sales of the Kindle Fire, with its extreme DRM.

A bad day for booklovers.

Friday, March 29, 2013


Readsday! Man, this just never gets old. Maybe now we'll see a resurgence in bookblogging since Amazon and GoodReads joined up in unholy matrimony? Can we get Anton Scalia to be unhappy about that? No? Right, right.

What did you just finish reading?
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler. Flat-out terrible. Full of anachronisms and totally wrong speech patterns, and even worse, Scott and Zelda don't sound like themselves at all. (SAMPLE DIALOGUE: "I went to the window. 'I never woulda thought it. Not like this.' I turned back toward him. 'You're sorta impressive.'") There's really no excuse for this, since so many letters and stories and novels by both Fitzgeralds have been published, as well as an infinitude of biographies. As near as I can tell most of the good parts are pretty much straight out of Sally Cline's Zelda biography, anyway. Too much of it reads like a bad movie script: flat dialogue, lots of summary instead of action, and barely any description.

More seriously, Fowler also has the main acrimony between Hemingway and Zelda start after he makes a pass and she turns him down -- which is really off, Hemingway wouldn't have made a pass at her when Fitzgerald was cultivating him, AND he tended to let women make passes at him, which they frequently did. This is more important than it sounds because in the book, Hemingway is the reason the marriage fails, and Scott denies his homoerotic attraction, and expects Zelda to be more "wifely," and then she goes off to the asylum.

How much better would it have been if Fowler had stuck to the facts -- from the first, Zelda thought Hemingway was overly macho and "phony" (anticipating feminist 20th century criticism by how many decades?) and this shocked everyone. (She told Gerald Murphy -- another male artist in denial about his sexuality who was in thrall to Ernest -- that Hemingway was "bogus.") Hemingway's "proof" in his memoir of Zelda's insanity is when she asks him if Al Jolson isn't greater than Christ; the Murphys, who knew her much better, also heard her say that and never thought she was crazy. It was the era of the shocking wisecrack, and both she and Scott delighted in showing off how much they didn't give a damn. Zelda never took any shit from anyone and said exactly what was on her mind. Sometimes, the mentally unstable have a weird kind of absolute radar for lying and bullshit -- they're very sensitive to it. All that meant she and EH were trouble from the start. I think it does injustice to both of them to blame it all on EH making a pass at her.

Worse, Fowler omits a lot of Zelda's actual bad behaviour -- some of which was high spirits, some of which was bad behaviour on purpose (she and Scott putting purses and wallets into sauce, &c) especially when drunk, and some of which was clearly erratic. Zelda was self-destructive and talented and frustrated and ambitious and more than a bit nuts, and she deserves so much more than either the stereotype of "mad bitch of a wife" or "victimized genius." She loved daring fearless pranks, but this author makes them into hollow performances Scott forced her into. There's just so little of Zelda's actual vitality and amazing boldness in this book. It's sad.  

What are you reading now?
For ONCE, this neatly segues into: Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, by Sally Cline. This is only the second full-length biography of Zelda since Nancy Milford's 1970 book, which was groundbreaking but frequently sentimental, and of necessity partial. Cline has access to far more unpublished writing of Zelda's, especially letters, and fascinatingly parallels Zelda and Scott partisans with "Plath and Hughes camps" -- if, as Beauvoir reportedly said, "marriage is a dangerous thing for a woman," it seems perilous indeed for a creative woman to marry a creative man (as Anne Sexton wrote about her own affair with another poet: "There is too much food and no one left over / to eat up all the weird abundance"). This book has all the advantages of new scholarship plus the social impact of feminism since 1970, and while there are odd errors here and there, Cline is certainly more rigorous than Milford.

However, if Milford's writing was often florid, Cline is dry, dry, dry. It is just about as hard to get a sense of Zelda's boldness and bright spirit from this biography as from Z, which is a real shame. I'm chewing through it, but it's going very slowly. It's one of those books you only read for the information in it, which is sort of like chewing through raw asparagus to make sure you get enough fiber in your diet.

What do you expect to read next?
This always stumps me (as indeed, it stumps most of my friends). Probably something lighter?.....I do have Red Doc, and Custom of the Country, and The Illness Narratives, and Holograms of Fear, and and and....

-- Damn, I forgot to write up Peter Dickinson, who is really something. And I'm sparing you all the RADICAL changes in diet I have made since being terrified by Salt Sugar Fat: BE GRATEFUL. Fruit! Vegetables! No cheese! Perhaps no more cheese ever again! .....God, I miss cheese.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Readsday, shambling back into the light like a zombie

Better late than never at all....still not in that great a mood, and the death of Jason Molina was fucking shattering (organ failure from alcoholism at thirty-nine), but I don't want to get completely out of the habit. Baby steps. Baby steps on the bus.

What did you just finish reading?
Uhh, some truly awful trashy true crime books, both nonfiction and novels. A little more seriously, Constance: The Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, which was very sluggish at first and all about Constance and Oscar's external doings to a maddening extent (she appeared dressed like this! he went off on a lecture tour dressed like that!), but then picked up the terrible tragic weight that the downhill slope of Oscar's story always does. (You have to wonder if Oscar's apparent suicidality in bringing the original libel case, and then later going back to Bosie and abandoning Constance after prison, didn't derive from a deep wish for his life to seem a perfect Greek tragedy.) We don't really get a better picture of Constance -- that might be impossible now -- but at least she doesn't come off as a simpering ignorant stereotypical Victorian female dupe. (Interestingly, she might have written or at least collaborated on the fairy tale "The Selfish Giant," which was used as a framing device in the visually lush but psychologically unconvincing 1997 Wilde -- that presented the very odd spectacle of Jude Law and Stephen Fry being perfectly cast with pretty much nothing to act.)

What are you reading now?
Salt Sugar Fat, which is threatening to do for processed "food" what Fast Food Nation did for Mickey D's. The real evil of a lot of corporate executives, and the bizarre moral neutrality of a lot of "food science" researchers (who are just like the tobacco industry researchers -- the book makes the point, over and over again, that the giant tobacco companies own the giant food companies, and often use the same advertising tactics) is horrifying. You can read along with my bogglement here. The really unsettling thing is how deeply corruption, greed and exploitation is woven into corporate culture: they're the butchers, and we're the cattle. Like most people I first heard of this book after reading the author's New York Times article, which is a pretty good summary, but lacks the building horror that comes from his piling detail upon detail, page after page.

What do you expect to read next?
A dear friend just showered me with a lot of NYRB books, so I'm utterly spoiled for choice here. Fermor! Zweig! Bernhard! Blackwood! I'm having fun just looking through the titles. It cheered me up quite a bit.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I want you to get together

Why yes I AM VERY excited for this thank you (the fake Shakespeare snobs* are already dissing this to high heaven, just like they did the Tennant/Tate Much Ado. Idiots).

Also, new favourite band - hello!

*How you can tell a true fake Shakespeare snob -- they will go on and on about the 1964 Russian version of Hamlet when they speak no Russian. Trust me on this. It is an infalliable litmus test.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

and in case you thought I was kidding....

.....about that book on Plath, part of it went:
Steven Gould Axelrod reads 'The Colossus' as an allegory of patriarchal domination of female creativity where the metaphors of destruction and incomprehension exemplified by the incoherent animal voices of stanza one lament the oppressed, silenced voice of the woman poet. Crucially, though, Axelrod finds that the poem demonstrates the....
and I don't know what comes after that, because I had fallen asleep in my chair, and when I woke up I decided to try something else.


The Infinite Jest liveblog
(Ah, the end of IJ. "I threw the book across the room!" "It was like waiting for your friend to give you a dead arm and instead taking a brick to the face." Or simply, "AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH.")

(You wanna know what the end of IJ means? I studied conic geometry and calculus a little at SJC, so I can actually tell you. IT'S A TANGENT. No, that's not a joke. Go look it up.)

Salinger's early Holden Caufield stories. Hmm, the book is a buck-ninety-nine? I might get this.

Interview with Anne Carson! sort of. Her emails sound brilliant.

Fuck yeah Tin House and Granta. They will be getting some of my money.


A friend of mine came up with that title, which I find delightful, since if you miss Wednesday that's okay, and another friend switched the order of the first and second questions so they're actually easier to answer.....other people were talking about basically making this recurring post a snapshot of the books you're reading right now, as opposed to feeling obligated to write up capsule reviews of everything you've read during the week (with me, this is usually three to five books) or even full-length reviews of two or more books every week -- which, no. (Altho a lot of people doing this -- me included -- were hoping this would push them into more regular book-reviewing again, which, also no.)

So: Readsday.

What did you just finish reading?
I just came off being sick, and then the migraine moved in for a Surprise Flank Attack (apparently triggered by a BPAL perfume called, wait for it.....Our Lady of Pain ((NO LAUGHING)) ((okay, go ahead, it's funny)) ) which meant yesterday was lost to head pain and severe nausea, and today might very well be too. Migraines: you go with the riptide. A friend who suffers much worse migraines (and also had to be weaned off Perks by her doctor, FUN) has tried out every chronic pain clinic in the country, just about, and I admit it's still hard for me to think of migraines that way: they're "just" oh yeah those crippling headaches that make it impossible to go to school or work or write or even read much that happen a couple of times a month. Thank you, Christian Science upbringing. Vitamin I(buprofen), you are my favourite.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying I did nothing much but comfort-reread Terry Pratchett. Witches Abroad, Thud, Hogfather, Lords and Ladies, Wyrd Sisters, Going Postal, all old favourites that never let me down. I even reread Witches Abroad twice. I tried some not-new-to-me Pratchetts I haven't reread in some years, too: Feet of Clay, Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, and one I had apparently just skipped over entirely, The Fifth Elephant. They were.....okay. I'm now at the point where I'm starting to notice not just repeated plot points and characterizations but actual phrases (for some reason he's fond of a "perfect chrysanthemum" of soot appearing on walls after a small explosion), so I better find something else. ....hmmm, maybe Hound of the Baskervilles or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, those are old sickbed friends. I've been eyeing The Italian Secretary, but....I d'know.

What are you reading now?
Not exactly reading it, but looking at The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath, which just arrived and is mainly reminding me how awkward I find High Academese to just read. The disappearing of middlebrow lit journals and little magazines has also meant that there's now nothing much in between the desperate-to-be-hip slanginess of book blogs and academia (which is itself endangered) (I can't be too broken up about that). Just once I would like to read a book of critical theory without names like Derrida and Irigaray and Cixous and Foucault (Foucault! can't he just be taken down by a pack of feral neopragmatists like the Stephens Island Wren? Or maybe that happened already, and his spectre is doomed to haunt the powers of Old Europe, forever) being tossed into the mix like so much post-structuralist flavouringJust once. "Remember, fledgling critics, you can always add more salt Lévi-Strauss, but you can't ever take him out."

What do you expect to read next?
.....I really have no idea, it's hard to focus (no, I can't take heavy-duty painkillers, thanks for asking). I might go back to bed. I might read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, which just arrived, except something that unrelentingly twee might stun me in my weakened state, or kill even more brain cells than a migraine. Maybe after a nap.

-- Wow, migraines seem to encourage profusions of parentheses.

Monday, March 11, 2013

xposted from (God help us) Tumblr

Hey all you naifs who reblogged this snippet! I “hearted” it (O modern nomenclature) and scrolled on, only to wonder later, Why the hell would Louis-Ferdinand Celine, genius and psycho, say something as soppy as that? Turns out he didn’t mean it to be that soppy.

Context is a wonderful thing:
Woman is very troubled, because clearly she has every kind of known weakness. She needs … she wants to stay young. She has her menopause, her periods, the whole genital business, which is very delicate, it makes a martyr out of her, doesn’t it, so this martyr lives anyway, she bleeds, she doesn’t bleed, she goes and gets the doctor, she has operations, she doesn’t have operations, she gets re-operated, then in between she gives birth, she loses her shape, all that’s important. She wants to stay young, keep her figure, well. She doesn’t want to do a thing and she can’t do a thing. She hasn’t any muscle. It’s an immense problem … hardly recognized. It supports the beauty parlors, the quacks, and the druggists. But it doesn’t present an interesting medical situation, woman’s decline. It’s obviously a fading rose, you can’t say it’s a medical problem, or an agricultural problem. In a garden, when you see a rose fade, you accept it. Another one will bloom. Whereas in woman, she doesn’t want to die. That’s the hard part.
…..that doesn’t sound quite so Hallmarky, now does it?

(I unhearted it. The modern form of protest. I guess.) 

-- I mean for Chrissakes, it was Celine! Certified wingnut! It would be like Genet saying "A pretty girl is like a melody"! You wouldn't just reblog that and move on, would you?....well....well obviously people would. They're probably all the same people who reblogged that fake Virginia Woolf quote. sigh.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

reading Wednesday

Feeling too ill and depressed to try a reading Wednesday post this week. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"without faith and without hope"

In the meantime she continued to dictate, sometimes supine on the floor. The necessity to speak her prose was tremendously discouraging, but as she would tell Marianne Moore a few years later, "It also taught me a lesson. When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, without faith and without hope....suddenly the work will find itself."

 -- Isak Dinesen: Life of a Storyteller, Judith Thurman

Friday, March 1, 2013

books read in March 2013

Fiction is in red.

39. With or Without You, Domenica Ruta (well, that was fucking heartbreaking)
40. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, Jenna Miscavige Hill (ditto)
41. Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, Jeanette Winterson
42. Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps, Marya Hornbacher
43. Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power, Marya Hornbacher
44. Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
45. Cocaine's Son, Dave Itzkoff
46. The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett
47. The Folklore of Discworld, Terry Pratchett
48. A Blink of the Screen, Terry Pratchett
49. Constance: The Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, Franny Moyle
50. The Real Holden Caufield, Michael Moats
51. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss
52. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler (one of the worst books I've read in a good long while)
53. The Old English Peep Show, Peter Dickinson
54. Sleep and His Brother, Peter Dickinson
55. Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, Sally Cline

2013 booklist

winter's tale

One year, a century ago, spring was late in Denmark. During the last days of March, the Sound was ice-bound, and blind, from the Danish to the Swedish coast. The snow in the fields and on the roads thawed a little in the day, only to freeze again at night; the earth and the air were equally without hope or mercy.

Then one night, after a week of raw and clammy fog, it began to rain. The hard, inexorable sky over the dead landscape broke, dissolved into streaming life and became one with the ground. On all sides the incessant whisper of falling water re-echoed; it increased and grew into a song. The world stirred beneath it; things drew breath in the dark. Once more it was announced to the hills and valleys, to the woods and the chained brooks: “You are to live.”

— Isak Dinesen, opening of “Peter and Rosa,” from Winter’s Tales