Sunday, December 31, 2006

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

As a kid I went through a period of reading plays which seemed to serve as a good transition from reading kid novels to adult novels--the plays had grown-up content but an easy-to-follow, quick-to-read structure. And I suspect that my play reading helped me with dialogue as a fiction writer--though dialogue in fiction is typically less stagy than in drama, it also isn't as natural as some would have you believe. Anyway, Tom Stoppard's plays are now available in these fat collected volumes that I'm gradually obtaining via my Amazon wish list. And so my first Xmas-present-read this year was Arcadia, the one Stoppard play I've seen (though I think a trip to NYC to see the new trilogy would be a nice self-congratulatory gift if I happen to do anything worthy of self-congratulation in the near future). And it's just a fantastic piece of writing--even if you never get to see it performed, it's well worth reading.

What interested me most was the way Stoppard moves between the scenes in the past and those in the present. Half the story takes place in a big house in 1809 and the other half in the same house in the late twentieth century. The characters in the twentieth century (literary scholars mostly) are trying to figure out what happened in the nineteenth. But instead of just flopping between the two in an ABAB structure, things are more fluid. It is ultimately an ABAB structure, but sometimes A and B are taking place near simultaneously with all the characters on stage at the same moment. And the props from one time period (including a tortoise) remain in the later time period. Now Stoppard can get away with this because the setting is the same in both times, but it made me think about the way as a fiction writer I use flashback and exposition. Readers are quite accepting of shifts backwards in time, especially if they are cued by a space break or a chapter break, but it's an interesting thought to allow the two time periods to blend more. To use setting/detail/props and structure to allow the time periods to both feel present at the same narrative moment--and yet not to have readers confused between the two. I suppose Woolf and Joyce (and others I'm sure) have done this in ways, using manners not so different from Stoppard, but I haven't read anybody lately who's playing in this way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ssh, reading in progress

I'm halfway through the novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Not sure I'll have much to say about it other than it appears to be a Dave Eggers-ized (I like) version of The Secret History (I don't).

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

For a long time all I knew of this novel was the title and that it was post-modern and meta-fictional, so for some reason that led me to believe it was narrated by a parrot. And that led me to not read it for quite awhile (not that there's anything inherently wrong with a novel narrated by a parrot.) I really can't imagine why I leapt to that conclusion, but this is in no way a book about or by a parrot. It's a clever Kundera-ish expansion of what a novel can do. Some critics call it a satire of literary criticism, but if that was all it was it wouldn't be of much interest--what an easy target, after all. Instead it combines the first person woes of an academic while throwing in literary criticism, literary biography, and yes, satire. But it's simultaneously satire of lit crit (the grand puzzle that frames the novel is which of two stuffed parrots was Flaubert's inspiration) while working as a piece of lit crit (My favorite bit is the list of all the things the narrator would ban from literature) and as what seems to be a pretty sincere bit of author-love for Flaubert. Since it's told in first person it actually struck me as largely realist in that this guy would obsess about these things. This is the way he'd tell his life story because his life is so wrapped in Flaubert's. In other words, it would be less realist if bits of Flaubert bio were thrown into a third person narrative or a first person narrative of a non-Flaubert-related character. So the novel is post-modern metafiction but not randomly so.

Monday, December 11, 2006

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I've read this charming novel before and seen the charming movie, but lately I've realized that it's become a cultural touchstone for many boys of my generation and I felt a sudden need to understand them and so I read it again. And I've decided it's Bridget Jones for boys. And let's be clear, I'm a Bridget Jones fan (the first book only) because she's really really funny. And so is Hornby. But anyway I was thinking of teaching the novel because of its strange structure--the lists--but as I reread, I realized it's a completely conventional structure with the lists on top as a disguise to make it seem strange (all the more reason to teach it--the ordinary made new). It starts with an inciting incident (girlfriend leaves), goes into exposition ("top five most memorable split-ups"), develops some subplots (record shop, etc), brings the past into the present (visiting the top five split-ups in their current lives), and includes a second incident (ex's dad dies) that brings things to a climax and off we go...

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

This novel is wonderfully strange. I've decided that one of my favorite sub-genres is writing about strange women. Or women behaving strangely. What's interesting about the novel is that Bowles creates the sense of strangness by yes, creating characters who are atypical and act against cultural norms, but more importantly by leaving out the reactions of other people or of a narrator or of anyone who might say, boy that's weird. So you get the women behaving strangely but very rarely do you get any commentary on what they're doing. So you as the reader watch their acts, eavesdrop on their conversations, and are left to interpret completely on your own. It's like Hemingway for girls.

The Haunted Hillbilly by Derek McCormack

This is the kind of novel that only a small press is likely to publish--strange and risk-taking and hard to define and with a limited audience--and that's one of the reasons small presses need to exist. The novel is about a country western singer who is made and destroyed by a vampiric (literally) manager and is told in a spare voice that leaves a lot to the imagination. It's an interesting book. But I admit I kept wondering why the publisher insisted on publishing it as a novel. There is so much white space on each page (and the trim size is small to start) that it reminded me of the shenagins students pull when they meet a page requirement via giant fonts, triple spacing and two inch margins. It's really a long short story, maybe a novella, and one that might have been served well by being packaged with some other pieces of writing by the same author. But then it got me thinking about the idea of a book. My poet friends are always thinking about what constitutes a book--what poems to leave out, how many poems they need to have in--but as a novelist, you write your story, you print it out, there's your book. So why can't something that's rather short compared to even a short novel, be called a novel and be done with it. I suspect, rather embarrassingly, it has something to do with wanting to feel I got my money's worth.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

I first came across this novel in its Modern Library edition on my great-aunt's bookshelf when my family was cleaning out her house. When I asked my mom about it, she said, oh yes, that's a good one (she later admitted she was thinking of Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier) so I took it home and voila, four years later, I read it. It's rare that I get to read a novel without knowing anything about it in advance so I was surprised to realize this book is about kids, and at first, I thought maybe it was written for kids (the preface jokingly refers to it as a novel about "a crew of well-meaning pirates who fall into the clutches of half a dozen children"), but actually it's that rare novel that writes about children in a way that is really interesting to adults. Not necessarily realistically-not all children are this callous and this dreamy--but interestingly. In particular the character of Emily appears on the outside to be rather ordinary and dull, but her inner life (created I'll point out by a male author) is really wonderfully strange and intense. I think this is maybe where some writers creating child characters in adult fiction go wrong--they let the kids do interesting things but they don't let them think interesting things. If you're going to create kids, don't underestimate their own internal voices, their point of view. Don't make them little grown-ups, but don't make them blank slates either. Emily actually reminded me some of Briony in part one of Ian McEwan's Atonement--a child character who I loved to hate.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

I first read Nobel winner Coetzee when Waiting for the Barbarians was assigned in a freshman comparative literature class I took with Victor Brombert, who forever set in my mind a vision of the ideal scholar of literature (foreign-accented, dapper, bit old, erudite, charming, and very very smart--a vision neither I nor any scholar I know can match). And the fact of reading an author in a class like that--big lecture, serious books, serious treatment of those books--forever shades how you approach that author's work--with a bit of trembling and awe. But Coetzee seems compellingly human and flawed in this novel. Both Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello were novels I greatly admired in the way that you admire an idealized mentor (say Professor Brombert) but Slow Man is not quite so grand a work and yet a likeable effort--a weird experiment on the part of the great author (like Brombert in shorts, shall we say).

Slow Man starts off quite conventionally with a catastrophic event for the main character--amputation of one leg after a bicycle accident--but about a quarter of the way through Elizabeth Costello, the title character of Coetzee's previous novel who is widely believed to be a stand-in for Coetzee himself since she gives lectures he gave and espouses things he espouses, walks in, quite literarally, on the protagonist. And by all appearances she is the one actually writing his story (she quotes the opening lines to him). This prompted me to consider how when an author steps into their own work ironically they become the fantastic element. The fictional characters seem real and the author seems like a break from that reality. The protagonist, Rayment, seems quite believable and regular, and Costello is mystifying and strange. In the end, she seems to exist in the novel to demonstrate how much authors don't know about their own story. She prompts Rayment into actions, into scenes and confrontations, but then it is seemingly up to him and the other characters to determine the events and effects of those scenes. In this way, it seems to be a novel about the process of writing rather than the product--and how the process of writing--one of discovery--actually mirrors much of the process of life (we obviously live without knowing what the result will be). An interesting effort.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

Rabbit is not, by any means, the kind of character or the kind of person I would choose to spend much time with, but this was a book club book, so I was obligated. And it was time usefully spent. I wasn't sad to see Rabbit go (this is a compliment to Updike not a criticism; he must know that his character is a jerk and he did a good job of creating said jerk), but I was struck by just how good many of Updike's observations were. The novel is third person, mostly limited to Rabbit's point of view though there are occasional, half-hearted forays into that of his wife, and one necessary foray into that of the kid who watches Rabbit collapse in the end. And despite or perhaps because of, Rabbit's bad habits, he is a very good point of view character. Especially in older age his observations on the United States, pop culture, parade crowds, all of it... are poignant and compelling. I've been thinking lately about distinctions between what third person narrators say versus what the characters think, and in this case, there is no sense that the narrator is anybody but Rabbit. There's no stepping away to judge Rabbit from an outside objective perspective and that's probably necessary with a character like Rabbit who would be so easy to judge (he cheats on his wife with his daughter-in-law!). It's more interesting, I guess, to have to form my own judgements and in the end, to perhaps give him some forgiveness.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

McEwan is in the book news lately for three passages in his novel, Atonement, which have some resemblance to a wartime nurse's memoir he openly acknowleged using for research. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of recent years and for the record, it wasn't those three passages that put it at the top of my list. The question of plagiarism in fiction is sometimes an interesting one--but in this case, it seems to be too much ado about too little.

For awhile, I avoided reading this earlier novel, The Comfort of Strangers, partly because I wasn't too excited by my other McEwan reading, Amsterdam, and a brief foray into The Cement Garden didn't grab me either, not to mention I was traumatized by a teenage viewing of the movie adaptation (Christopher Walken plays the villain--need I say more?) but actually this short novel is compelling for a lot of the reasons Atonement is--it takes you in very very close to another person's experience. McEwan is a master of taking his time in scene, observing setting, action and thoughts at a pace slower than which most of us actually live. And so as a reader you're forced tightly inside of the point of view character's experience. In the case of Comfort of Strangers, it is a nightmare travel experience that made me unlikely to ever set foot in Venice. A colleague and I recently decided that the tourist literature of Italy can be split into two camps--the romantic dream (say Room with a View) or the deadly.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Yesterday I read Anderson Cooper's autobiography and then saw the movie Stranger Than Fiction and I really liked both. Think what you will.

The autobiography Dispatches from the Edge is interesting not because of Cooper's (the rather attractive prematurely gray CNN newsman and son of Gloria Vanderbilt) views on current events but because of his experience of them. He gets to do things I don't get to do and he writes about them pretty well. In the reverse of what memoirs tend to do--draw global meaning out of personal events--he draws personal meaning out of global events. I liked it.

Stranger Than Fiction is the rare movie that poses the question of whether a work of art (a great work of art according to the Dustin Hoffman character but then his bookshelf contains a lot of Robert Parker and Sue Grafton) is worth even one human life. The movie has lots of meta qualities, including a nod to the fact that it's sometimes hard to end a work of fiction without killing somebody off, an argument for literary theoriests as the arbiters of life (and as faculty lifeguards) and an argument for the hero over the anti-hero. If you liked Adaptation then this is that movie's answer. I loved it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm currently reading a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, a short story collection by Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, and Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. I've also been reading Tristam Shandy for about two months and War and Peace for about two years but they probably don't count. So far, Bowles wins:

"As a grown woman, Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine

In an interesting contrast to American Genius by Lynne Tillman, this novel is almost entirely in scene. I can count the number of times the narrator intrudes to tell the reader something outside of scene on my fingers. And the small intrusions are all echoes of each other along the lines of p.201, "For how long would Frances Johnson go in circles?"

Let me backtrack and say first, I was completely charmed by this novel. As in put-under-its- spell charmed. The whole thing was like an intense immersion into someone's totally believable dream world. And the way that the third person narrator relays events and settings and characters in such a matter-of-fact, sensory, I'm-watching-it-myself way without narrative commentary (or less than ten sentences worth of narrative commentary) probably helped to create that. The novel has fairy tale qualities--a strange, isolated town, a dreamy girl, a mission to retrieve some potionesque ingredients--but doesn't have a once-upon-a-time voice. It has a realism-Raymond Carver (or per the publisher, Jane Bowles, who now moves up the reading list to "next, please") voice. And I loved that combination.

The novel is anchored by two things--the strange town it takes place in and Frances Johnson, an immensely likeable character who never leaves town and kisses men in caves and may or may not go to the town dance. Actually the novel is not so much anchored as encapsulated by the town, the character, and the very tight (a matter of days?) chronology. And so it's a small novel in certain ways, but immensely felt, because of Frances Johnson, who's made both real and dreamy (which I think is how many of us feel --all weighty body and floaty mind) by the combo of realistic detail (a weird scar on her leg, a funny scene involving putting her legs on top of another character's) and emotional response (Frances wants desperately to leave town and the whole town seems to be offering their opinions on her life).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've begun Frances Johnson, a novel by Stacey Levine. A delight so far:

"Frances did not care about Ray's childhood or his life before they were together. She did not bother to inquire about his former girlfriends, though sometimes she saw Ray gazing at a wallet photograph of a girl sitting on the lap of a tough-looking older man: the girl's father, who had been prominent in a long-ago war. The girl was Fluff Davis, with whom Ray had spent a year or so. He doted on the old picture, even kissed it once, Frances observed, perhaps in admiration for the soldier father."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Half Life by Shelley Jackson

A novel in which our own nuclear testing has created a population of conjoined twins who then are taken on as a minority cause politically. It's actually less of a political novel then it sounds and is much more about identity and memory and dollhouses. There are some astonishingly good descriptions and moments and an extraordinary extended metaphor of the fake houses set up by the bomb testers as life-size dollhouses. What I found interesting to think about as a writer was the way Jackson uses texts--The Siamese Twin Reference Manual among other things--as interruptions to the two main narratives (one in the present, one in the past). Now the idea of found texts helping to create the sense that this world is real is not unusual, but it seems to be becoming more common to use these texts separated out and alongside the narrative (as Jackson does) instead of incorporating them into the narrative (say as in Atwood's Handmaid's Tale-- that's not the best example, but it's what I could think of). The choice is neither good nor bad, though I found myself increasingly skipping the text sections to head back to the story. It just seems that if they're not going to be embedded in the narrative, they need to hold the reader's attention just as much as the narrative does.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

The latest novel by Powers has its highs and lows, but what interested me most was the way Powers always gives his novels a broader, bigger scope (an explicit nod toward attempted meaning) than just telling a good story. And one of the ways he does this is by adding science and nature to the narrative. The novel opens with the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes and instantly the reader knows this isn't just a matter of setting--the cranes have emotional and intellectual resonance that echoes throughout the whole novel. They probably would even if they didn't come first in the book but it was absolutely right for them to come first.

Branwell by Douglas Martin

A fictionalized account of the Bronte brother that plays a clever twist on the more typical story of the underestimated female member of the family.

One of my MFA professors was the very talented Mark Richard, who had studied once upon a time under Gordon Lish. Apparently one of his favored editorial methods, adopted by Richard, was to cut out all the weaker lines leaving only the most language-oriented, punch-heavy sentences and creating a tight minimalist story with compelling lines. And the essence of the characters and plots was always still there. But the voice of each story, no matter who wrote it, often ended up sounding quite similar. And that voice is the voice of this novel. Very little introspection on the part of the individual characters, very little explanation on the point of the narrator, but very emotionally weighted lines. And if I hadn't seen the voice so often before I probably would have been more romanced by it. I appreciated the novel but kept thinking it all felt a little too familiar. Which led me to think about how definitions of genius (and even a FAU fellowship I recently applied for) always reference originality as a necessary criteria for quality. And I'm not totally convinced this is true. Originality alone definitely doesn't suggest quality, and plenty of writing that is traditional in style is tremendously moving. So why did it bug me that this voice didn't feel original? Perhaps because the novel (which I swear I enjoyed) seemed to be depending on voice more than it depended on character or plot of any other criteria, and the voice wasn't quite enough to carry it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

The first line of direct dialogue in this novel comes on page 204. An interesting lesson to my students who belive a novel should resemble a movie script. The first 203 pages are all monologue, a steady flow of long sentences that move from one thought to the next, between anecdote and fact and description of the moment and then back again, returning from time to time to some key motifs (skin, Zulu phrases, a murdered cat, breakfast, lunch and dinner) in a rhythm that feels surprisingly natural. And this is what I loved most about the novel. The first 203 pages are like moving into someone else's brain. It's not a conventional structure in the this happens and then that happens sense (though there is some of that), and yet the novel does not feel abstract and detached or even difficult to follow. Because Tillman, though she stays in the brain's eye view of the narrator, never forgets that the narrator has a body. So the physical world is not absent, it's just witnessed through this voice that never breaks out of its own head ... until p. 204. And I suppose that break may have been necessary in order for the novel to reach an end... the circular nature of the monologue might never have permitted a sense of conclusion otherwise. Overall, it's a truly original piece of writing.

The thing most reviewers note about the novel is you are never sure where it's set--the two common guesses being an artist's colony or a mental institution (insert obvious joke here). And I admit I read it as an artist's colony, probably because in that way I could match it to my own experience. But I tried to force myself to read it as both--or even other--possibilities since Tillman clearly chose not to be clear. I often talk to students about the difference between ambiguous writing and confusing writing--ambiguous having multiple possible correct readings and confusing having one correct reading that the reader can't figure out. And yet even in ambiguous reading I have a tendency to believe there is one correct answer. So I found I couldn't simultaneously read this as a novel of a mental institution AND a novel of an artist's colony. Just as I can't simultaneously read Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body as narrated by a man and by a woman--my brain insists on reading her as a woman. But it would be interesting if I could--will have to work on this.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've started the so-far very smart novel American Genius after reading an intriguing interview with the author, Lynne Tillman in Bomb magazine. I'm identifying with the narrator, who may well be unstable, to an unnerving degree:

"At breakfast, I noticed the expressions on two women's faces, women in their late-twenties who looked unhappy, something had not gone well for them, was not going well for them in that moment or in their dreams or in last night's telephone call, but I didn't say anything to them, though I showed concern."

"Everything is a problem in some way, I can't think of anything that's not a problem from the past for the future, and I often worry, frowning to myself, unaware that I'm frowning, my lips turning down involuntarily, which I've been told to stop doing since I was a child, because it creates the impression that I'm sullen and also etches fine lines around my mouth, but I can't."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: Nobel Laureate

I had a nap post four-am-National-Book-Award-finalist discovery and then logged on to find Orhan Pamuk had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had a surprisingly, to me at least, nationalistic reaction to this. I spend a lot of time explaining how not Turkish I am, and yet I felt really really proud to have Pamuk win. My parents are in Turkey right now and I look forward to hearing first hand about the country's reaction (Pamuk is hugely popular in Turkey but also controversial for his politics, and lately his international popularity has ironically caused a bit of a backlash at home). I think part of my pleasure in this win comes from the fact that I access Turkey largely through literature by Turks (translated into English, naturally). Most of my knowledge of being a Turk comes through the singular portal of my father, which can't be a very comprehensive view, and Pamuk, who is only a little younger than my father and who went to the same prep school, oddly enough has been particularly informative. His memoir Istanbul, which I've posted on previously, placed my father for me into a generation and a class and a culture that helped me see a lot of cause and effect when it comes to who my father is. It was for me a really personal and important read. But Pamuk's novels are quite different--more experimental, increasingly political, and not easy reads. So what they do for me as a writer is make me think about style and content and how attention to both of those leads to bigger and more important books. A simplistic remark yet true all the same.

I think sometimes about how my parents could easily have made the choice to stay in Turkey and I would be a Turk with an American mother, instead of the American with a Turkish father that I am. And I wonder if I was the Turk with the American mother if I would have become a writer. Turkey is hard on writers, watching them carefully and charging them with crimes when they are insufficiently patriotic. And I don't know whether this fact would have caused me to be a writer but more political or stopped me from being a writer altogether. Recently the writer Matthew Stadler came to read at FAU and he mentioned something along the lines of how the American government pays such little attention to fiction writers that we should feel very free to write what we want, to be bold, to write on the important issues of the day. Now I agree with this, but I also wonder if it's our freedom that causes our complacency. It's possible that if our freedoms were more threatened (of course we may be headed that way) our fiction writers (myself included) would grow more revolutionary. Though I certainly hope that's not what it takes.

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

So I was unhappily awake at four o'clock this morning when I happily discovered that my friend, and former classmate in undergraduate workshops, Peter Hessler had been named a finalist in nonfiction for the National Book Award. I intended to post on Oracle Bones back when I first read it, but somehow that never happened. What I particularly admired about the book is how it blends memoir (Pete's life as a freelance journalist and clipper for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing), history, current affairs (it covers the time when the US fire bombed a Chinese embassy), and profiles of a diverse group of Chinese men and women. As a close reader of Pete's career, I know that the book is assembled largely out of profiles he wrote for The New Yorker, but the manner in which they are layered together makes a wonderful patchwork that tells a much bigger story of US and Chinese relations. It's a great example of how you can make your living as a journalist (writing articles) yet still build a book. Pete was a nonfiction student of John McPhee, who apparently always made the point: journalists should write books.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

I often have conversations with students about three things: how do you write about romance in a fresh way, how do you write about violence in a fresh way, and how do you write about coming of age in a fresh way. This novel conveniently answers all three. You put them into a new context, such as what happens when a boy detective grows up.

I was completely charmed. By this:

"Above the dirt of an unmarked grave and beneath the shadow of the abandoned refinery, the children would play their own made-up games: Wild West Accountants! in which they would calculate the loss of a shipment of gold stolen from an imaginary stage coach, or Recently Divorced Scientists! in which they would build a super-collider out of garbage to try and win back their recently lost loves."

and this:

"What happened then was this: The lost part--the silver, misplaced key to his heart, the part of him that seemed to be missing--had been suddenly found. Words were not necessary. The room was still as the boy detective took the magnifying glass in his hand and began to do what he had always been meant to."

and this:

"We would really like to think that you were holding hands with somebody while you read that last part. If not, you might read it again and ask someone to hold your hand right now. You might then write that person's name somewhere here on this page with a heart glowing around it. Why not? It might be fun."

Anything goes, people. Anything goes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

A lot of how-to's seem to blend together or offer variations on the same advice, but the thing Prose does very well here, that few others do, is focus on language and how word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph breaks shape every aspect of the fiction. If you can apply these lessons to story content with depth and weight, well then you'll be in good shape as a writer. Plus it's fun to look at her choices of texts to quote and recognize your old favorites and discover new possibilities.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've been reading the journal my great-grandfather, Thomas Wistar Brown III, kept while traveling in Switzerland and other places with his parents in 1908. He had this to say after visiting with a woman who knew a lot of Danish writers: "All this goes to show that 1) All writers are queer (editor's note: he means strange, not gay, it's 1908) a) the necessity of my not becoming so 2) That I must write that book on Canada and that on fairies, for though all feelings possible to human beings have been described there are still crevices in that vast rock of literature which have never yet seen the sun."

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I usually tell students that if they're going to switch between first and third person in a story or a novel they ought to have a reason for doing so (form and function, rather than form over function) beyond that they want to or they need to. But Charles Dickens manages to switch between first and third in his funny, depressing, wonderfully large and long novel, without bugging me at all. Now the question is, is this because he is Charles Dickens and through long-accepted classic-status above reproach; or because I am wrong and students should switch point-of-view willy-nilly and all they want; or for some other reason. I dunno. I think it's number three. Each point of view section is so long (as opposed to say a short story or even a two to three hundred page novel) that it's never jarring to switch and I feel satisfied by each section before I'm forced to leave it. And maybe a little bit of number one, and a little bit of number two (it is possible to get to hung up on rules and repeat them on near-automatic from semester to semester--though for the record I resist automatic as much as I consciously can).

Monday, September 18, 2006

New York Times bestsellers

I noted with an admitted bit of cynicism that Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer is currently #20 on the NYT hardcover nonfiction bestseller list this week. Why the cynicism? Because I thought to myself I bet there isn't one book of literary fiction in the fiction top twenty and yet a book on writing fiction is in the nonfiction top twenty. But then I clicked over to the fiction list and lo and behold: #8 Claire Messud's novel and #13 Edward Jones's short story (!) collection. Well, well, well. Happy day.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

I've been thinking lately about how much I'm willing to forgive in a novel before it goes from a thumbs up to a thumbs down. And the novel Lighthousekeeping is definitely a thumbs up because as I read I was affected by the language, moved by the characters, curious about the story... and yet in the end, it wasn't an entirely successful novel. Lots of things feel dropped (incomplete) and the plot never really goes anywhere (Winterson never seems too interested in plot) and yet I'm so appreciative of the quality of the writing to the degree that I'd recommend the book to others, consider teaching it, and certainly take a second look at it if I ever had the time. So I guess I'm willing to forgive a fair amount as long as your images are good.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

This is my first Julian Barnes novel, and while it took me a couple of tries to get past the opening--it ping-pongs so quickly between the two main characters at the start that I kept stopping--but once I got going I really admired and enjoyed it.

The Arthur of the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame and the George is an English-Indian solicitor accused of insane crimes that he didn't commit. I could never quite tell if it was based on a real case or if Barnes made the whole thing up (Google would tell I'm sure), but I'm often a sucker for the real life author as fictional character genre and I enjoyed imagining Conan Doyle via Barne's creation. (confession: I've never read any Sherlock Holmes).

But what really struck me about the novel is the way it uses the conventions of mystery within a literary novel. The end, which I won't give away, is a bold move away from the conventions of mystery but Barnes gets away with it because of his beginning (for the first 20-30 pages you have no idea you're headed toward a mystery). Anyway, I've noticed lately that literary authors, like Kate Atkinson, are taking on the mystery genre more directly and I think it's been good all around--whether you think of them as literary novels with strong plots or genre novels with strong characters--they're a pleasure to read. It can be useful for a novelist to acknowledge that we're pretty much all writing mysteries--not necessarily about crimes but about things unknown which will gradually be revealed--and so understanding the rules of the genre (multiple suspects, red herrings, tension, subplots and unexpected developments to name a few) can help with even the most literary construction.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Messenger Boy Murders by Perihan Magden

I've discovered this British publisher, Milet, that focuses on publishing Turkish authors in translation, which for me, a Turk who doesn't speak Turkish, is pretty exciting. This short novel was a great find.

Every culture seems to have its Kafka, and Magden (there should be an accent over the g) is Turkey's. This novel, much like Murakami's (Japan's version) Kafka on the Shore, has a Kafka meets Raymond Chandler voice that I loved. The end is rather abrupt but it's not troubling me too much. I found myself wondering, because the book is written by a woman but translated by a man, if that affected the voice (the narrator is male and believably so, I found). I resist the idea that a writing voice can be masculine or feminine (I don't like when Hemingway's writing, for example, is called masculine--because if his spare prose is masculine writing then what does that make feminine writing?), but it's hard to insist that there isn't any gender effect on writing. But since I can't read the original, guess I'll never know.

When I first started teaching writing, I didn't teach works in translation because they were a step away from the original author's language, etc. But then I realized that would limit the scope and variety of what I could teach and just perpetuate the idea that great work is only written in English. So now when I teach work in translation, I tend to focus more on content and structure, ambition and style, rather than actual word choice.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Young adult this and that

There's a quote in the NYTBR this Sunday from Gary Paulsen a very popular young adult writer saying he would never write for adults because they are essentially beyond the point where they could be moved and changed by literature. All that, he says, happens when you're young. Now to some extent, I think he's right (after all, just yesterday I wrote here that my favorite film is The Black Stallion--a movie I saw as a kid, of a book I read as a kid). It was as a kid that I decided I wanted to write, and it was as a kid that I read Harriet the Spy, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Borrowers, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, every Judy Blume book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...all books that established one of the deciding precepts of my life: the imagination matters. They are also books that got me excited about reading, developed my empathy, and probably socialized me. And I have even had the thought that if I really wanted to affect a reader I should write for kids (my first job was working at a children's book publisher); and one day I'd like to write a book for kids. But... But... surely all hope is not lost for adults.

In Florida we have The Big Read, one of those NEA programs to try to fight the decline in reading. Our program, like the One Book One City programs is a fine idea; I'm all for it. But the books chosen are all books commonly read in high school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Farenheit 451..) and the programs seem to be aimed at high school students. I assume this has something to do with the statistic that the biggest drop in readers was in the young adult range, but it seems to me either all the progam intends to do is to get parents to read the books their kids are reading or it plans to reteach what's already being taught. I think we need something more like the Netflix system--where recommendations are made based on your preferences--so that readers will find a wider net of books they can enjoy. And adults should be encouraged to read books of a complexity and sophistication that CAN move them. Maybe they're not being moved because they're reading books (see my entries on Prep, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that lack the complexities of adult reasoning (there is such a thing, right?).

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark

Occasionally I have epiphanies about my personal taste--like I've long known that I'm a sucker for sports movies as well as movies with cute little dark-haired boys in them, which explains my favorite film (The Black Stallion)--and after reading this novel, I realized I love Big House books. As in, books set in big houses. The Secret Garden, George Colt's nonfiction book appropriately titled The Big House, The English Patient, Delta Wedding, The Remains of the Day ... I think maybe I like the way a house can put characters into each other's lives so that strange intersections occur and relationships shift. This could certainly happen in a small house, even more so I suspect, but I'm still a sucker for the big houses (probably from early readings of Big House Brit Lit).

Anyway, The Hills at Home is about a big family of various ages that all come home to stay in their big former house, which normally only has one old lady in it, and some degree of hijinks ensue. But mostly nothing happens or very small things happen, and this is a very long book. And yet I found it lovely. I think because the setting was so well done and line by line it was so clever. I actually felt like it should be a tv show (I also had this reaction to the movie The Royal Tennenbaums) because it had all the components of a good narrative but no arc. So the place and the people could be visited over and over for a variety of stories.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

One of the choices a writer has to make is what to reveal when, and one of the pleasant surprises of this well-written, very popular novel is the choice Sebold makes. The novel is narrated by Susie, a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped and murdered by a serial killer and is now in heaven. This allows Sebold to escape all the normal limitations of first person since her narrator is omniscient, able to see all and to enter into the thoughts of other characters. What is interesting to me is that there is a lot of tension to the novel despite the fact that the reader knows everything about the murder, including who did it. Not only do we know, but a number of other characters in the novel also know (or are convinced they do). This is one of the ways Sebold reminds readers that she isn't writing a mystery. But she keeps up the tension of a mystery by having the murderer essentially get away with it--everybody knows he's guilty except for the police who have no evidence. So there's the tension of having a murderer walking around for the first half of the novel. Then he skips town and everyone, including the police, knows he did it, but he's still walking around (just somewhere else) and our omniscient narrator can (and occasionally does) follow him. But while the novel contains a lot of tension (including the graphic rape scene and one scary scene in the murderer's house), it's not driven by tension. It's driven by character and emotion (sad sad sad emotion). And that fact--that it's a character novel more than a plot novel--is cued by revealing everything up front.

I can see why the novel was such a success--it's literary in its language and dark in its concept but from the beginning feels like a survivor's tale--it's uplifting, hopeful. This is a novel where heaven exists and girls who are raped and murdered get to go there and watch their families and tell their stories. So our narrator loses her body but not her mind. She's a sad narrator and it's a story with a lot of real emotional weight, but to some extent the reader is let off the hook because characters go on to that better place where even their dead dogs join them. Compare that to a novel like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where a little girl is raped by her father and loses her mind but not her body. What happens to Pecola seems much much worse that what happens to Susie. And ultimately The Bluest Eye feels like a more important book, but one that the general public seemingly would prefer to shy away from (even though it too is a survivor's tale; it's just that one girl survives and the other doesn't) because it's so "heavy." Which is not to say The Bluest Eye hasn't done well--obviously it has--but more because of Morrison's acclaim and because academics teach it then because it was embraced by the widest public.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Winkie by Clifford Chase

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but with this novel, the title, the cover (a one-eyed teddy bear in an interrogation room) and the endpapers (mugshots of the one-eyed teddy bear) made me pretty sure I'd like it. And I did, though it wasn't what I expected. The novel is the story of Winkie, a transgender teddy bear who can walk and talk and who is arrested and tried for the crimes of a Unabomber-esque terrorist (who actually kidnapped Winkie's baby). The summary and every review I read of the novel suggested it would be hilariously funny. But in reality it's tremendously sad. The concept is funny, the book is a satire, in certain ways, of our current American administration, but the parts that are most effective and that dominate the book are the interior thoughts of Winkie, who is really a representation of the saddest, loneliest child ever to exist in literature. I had lots more to say about the writing but I took too long between reading it and writing it up and I've forgotten it all, so you'll have to figure it out for yourself.

One interesting side note, one of the jacket blurbs is from Stephin Merrit, the central force of the band The Magnetic Fields. This is the first blurb I've seen from a non-writer, non-reviewer, and it's symbolic of the desire to market this book to a group of consumers (hipsters, presumably), rather than to particular readers. It's probably a sensible way for publishers to go... if Nike can be a part of your identity, if your favorite band can be, why not your favorite character? Merritt's quote is actually about considering a Winkie tattoo, which fits right in with the idea of branding fiction. Winkie, btw, has a blog and a MySpace page.

Everyone's Pretty by Lydia Millet

When I read Millet's novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, I commented that it reminded me of DeLillo some. When I read this novel, it reminded me of John Kennedy Toole (Confederacy of Dunces) some. Which is not to say that Millet pilfers her voice from other writers, but rather that I think I can pick out her influences and it's interesting to me that they are two quite different writers, but two male writers that are taken quite seriously by the academy etc etc and not the kind of influence that you most often see in a woman writer (if I may generalize a little)...and I like that.

Everyone's Pretty is full of strange characters behaving badly and is written largely in scene with dialogue that you probably won't hear on the street (it's stylized, it's weird, it's very very crisp and funny) and as a whole it didn't have the breadth and depth of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, but I certainly enjoyed it. What struck me most though was how willing Millet is to change her style from work to work. Some writers take on different characters from piece to piece but their voice remains quite similar (think Hemingway, Salinger, Austen, Ishiguro, Irving or REM, if you want a musical example, though I must admit I haven't heard them lately) and a seemingly much smaller number of writers embrace totally different styles and voices from book to book (Jane Smiley... um, I'm sure there are others). I tend to fall into the second camp--I like trying on voices--but I wonder if the more I write the less this will be so. I remember Russell Banks telling me once that I should experiment while I was young before I got boxed into what I (and possibly others) thought was my style. At the time, he had just finished The Sweet Hereafter which was starting to move away from his style (Contintental Drift, Affliction) and then he busted out Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter, which took his thematic interests but changed the voice and strucutre and scope of his past work really drastically, and I think allowed for some of his best work. So maybe that feeling of being boxed in gets uncomfortable and even limiting after awhile. If you write enough books that is...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Florida by Christine Schutt

For those of us who live in Florida, it's worth noting this short novel is not set in Florida, but rather uses the metaphor of a dreamlike, paradise-in-the-distance Florida. The writing here is beautiful, particularly in the first half, which evokes a bittersweet childhood nostalgia (sehnsucht, the Germans would say--except I'm not sure I spelled it right). Then in the second half the narrator is older and the writing, previously so precise, minimalist and lovely, is not quite as tight. It's an interesting dilemma to age a narrator from childhood (where almost inevitably they are innocent and likeable even when they're not) to adulthood when they almost inevitably become less likeable. Part of the problem is the conflict in a child's life never really seems the child's fault, but adults we expect to work out their problems. And a lot of fiction (much like memoir, as Benjamin Kunkel points out in the NYTBR this week) is people suffering through their problems rather than addressing them. My undergrad class was just talking about using the hero's adventure structure in short fiction (Joseph Campell works nicely, you might be surprised to know, with Raymond Carver's "Cathedral") and how that can help create complex fiction which is not so hopeless as much of what we read. I could have used a little more of the hero in the narrator's second half of Florida, but over all it's a far above average read, and the people who fussed about this book being nominated for a National Book Award (the year the nominees were all women who hadn't sold many copies of their books) should hang their heads.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sssh, Reading in Progress

Some fiction writers say they can't (or don't) read fiction while working on a project. I find it depends on the stage of writing that I'm in. Sometimes in the midst of something, I find I really really need to read something brilliant and inspiring (in which case I turn to something I've read before and know to be good), sometimes it doesn't matter and I can read anything, and sometimes I can only read nonfiction. These stages seem to correspond with whether or not I'm trying to find the voice of the piece (requires inspiring reading), whether I'm happily in the midst of the piece (read anything), or whether I'm trying to solve some problem, either in drafting or revising (read nonfiction). Right now I'm moving between two nonfiction books, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and The 9/11 Commission Report (which is well written enough to surely have had some English majors on staff). These reading choices have to do with the fact that I am trying to solve a problem while revising my novel, but also because I've started thinking about my second novel and they're prompting new ideas.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity by David W. Galenson

I confess I didn't read the whole book, the concept turned out to interest me more than the specifics, but this is a scholarly study of visual artists who paint their best work (as judged by commercial and critical value) either at a young age or at an older age (nobody seems to do it at middle age). The idea is that some artists (here named "conceptual") have big ideas at the start of their careers that instantly revolutionize painting (as judged by influencing their peers) and then have diminishing returns as they get older, but other artists ("experimental") work their way, painting by painting, study by study, to a new idea that revolutionizes painting. There are obvious correlations to writing, and the last chapter actually covers writers like Hemingway ("conceptual") vs. Faulkner ("experimental"). I, in part, found the book a relief--I hoped to be a young genius, but sadly am not, and now it turns out I can hope to be an old master instead--and also a revelation regarding teaching writing. Workshop in certain ways favors the young genius, since s/he would receive early acclaim (assuming the class was open to revolutionizing art) as does the academic world, where writers need to publish relatively young in order to receive tenure... But at least addressing the fact of old masters in class could probably go a long way toward keeping student writers encouraged. And emphasizing process and long term goals (beyond the degree program) could also help...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch

Much like Camille Paglia's Break Blow Burn, this book is really a guided anthology. Each poem is accompanied by a reading of the poem by Hirsch. Whereas Paglia's reading were line by line and even word by word explications that analyzed the poems much like an English major would, Hirsch goes with a more humanist approach. His readings, which were originally essays for the Washington Post Book World often include anecdotes about the author, a thematic context of how the poem fits with other poems on the subject, and an emotional response. Both anthologies do their job just fine and largely pick interesting poems, though Hirsch has the wider selection. What's interesting is that these books are aimed at a wider audience--the reading public who is generally assumed to be afraid of poetry. The idea is if you provide the poem with a reading of it, it's less intimidating. Probably true. Paglia's book seems to have had success and Hirsch's, which is just out, should too given his past track record. But sometimes I think by treating poetry so delicately ("let me help you with that") we just confirm that it is something to be afraid of and something that one can't simply read and react to without a guidebook. A friend of mine told me about "math phobia" and how it is actually promoted or even created by math teachers who say things to students like, "I know you don't like math but you have to learn it," or "I know this is hard but ..." There is a poetry phobia and sometimes those of us who teach poetry (which I do only at the introductory level) create it. I think Hirsch and Paglia are striking blows against the phobia, but maybe they are perpetuating it a little bit too.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

What do people who don't read receive as gifts? Due to turning thirty-five (yes, happy birthday to me) as well as a recent pilgrimmage to a used bookstore, pilfering of my mother's library, and finally getting my library card at the remarkable Delray Beach Public Library I now have much to read: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Our Mutual Friend by Frederick Busch, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, Beauty and Love by Seyh Galip, Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King, Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch (who I have a big crush on), The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark, A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley... This is compounded by not having yet read all the books I got as Christmas presents (Young Turk by Maris Farhi...) and by one of my favorite birthday gifts: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (yes, I made little checkmarks next to all the books I've already read and started post-it flagging ones I want to read soon). Not to mention the previously mentioned Complete New Yorker....

But today I'm reading Good in Bed and I'm enjoying it, thank you very much.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Burning by Thomas Legendre

This first novel is written by a friend of mine from graduate school, so perhaps I was predisposed to like it, but it's a fun and rare combination of commerical and intellectual (read: sex and ideas in one). Tom first sought to publish the novel in the United States, but agents weren't sure how to sell it, so instead he found an agent in the UK where he is currently living. The book was a big success in England and so his publisher (Little, Brown) has put out a US edition. Which just goes to show: persist persist persist. When I knew him Tom was one of those writers who wouldn't begin the rest of his day until he'd written a page which also goes to show: write write write.

Anyway, what I found most original about the novel is the way that it takes a character trait (the protagonist is an economist) and uses that as part of the third person narration. It's common to have a first person narrator in which an economist (or farmer or what-have-you) uses the tools/lingo of his/her trade to illustrate his/her story, but it's much rarer to have a third person narrator do it. As a result, the novel has a worldview and it feels constructed by an author--more idea-driven then it would have felt in first person. What I admire is how the economic ideas here (and they're tied to environmentalism, which was a fresh and compelling linking for me) invade the plot, the voice, everything. When a character has an affair, it's in economic terms. When characters gamble it's literal and metaphoric. This is in the end a much more sophisticated and complex book than either the title or the cover, which involves flesh, water, and kissing, suggest.

It's a joy to see my fellow MFA-ers do what they trained to do. I'm totally jealous.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

It took me a long time to pick up this very popular novel because I once, years ago, read a page and felt exhausted by the density of language. Which just goes to show taste is sometimes a matter of mood (or maybe of age) because this is probably the best novel I've read since I read Bel Canto and Life of Pi a few years ago. The voice is in simple terms: gorgeous. Literature by Indian authors has become popular in the past decade but of all things this reminded me of the Eudora Welty novel Delta Wedding. The southern setting that permeates Welty's novel is strangely akin to the lush setting of Roy's novel. And it shows how place can be used to achieve an entire novel's tone. Perhaps hot and humid dictates mournful and measured. One interesting aspect of the novel is the way it circles around one pivotal event and the even larger consequences of that event without covering a large number of scenes but by inching its way around a complete, three-dimensional description of the key moments.

I don't want to say anything else about it, I just want you to read it (when you're in the right mood).

Black Maria by Kevin Young

The full title of this poetry collection is Black Maria: being the adventures of Delilah Redbone & A.K.A. Jones and the full author credit is Poems Produced and Directed by Kevin Young. I enjoy when two seemingly disparate things come together nicely and Kevin Young has brought together film noir and poetry in a clever collection. Sometimes I think poets get too caught up in linked collections (that's not really a proper term, I'm stealing the short story equivalent) where all the poems have to overtly fit under one heading (thematic or otherwise), but this one felt original and appropriate. The tightly-wound language of noir (and though Young works with cinematic ideas, it's often really the language of noir fiction that he's using) is very well-suited to the compression and precision of poetry. And Young has a way of turning familiar phrases around with a single word replacement that is quite funny and fresh. This weekend my five-year-old nephew said to me, "See a shadow, pick it up" and it reminded me of Young (which is not to say Young writes like a five-year-old but rather that my nephew talks like a poet--naturally I believe he's a genius).

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

On the surface, this book, a nonfiction account of the consistent US policy of non-interference when it comes to genocide in other countries, has little to do with writing fiction. But as I was reading I kept thinking wow, everyone should read this book. Now normally I don't fall prey to such hyperbole, but it was eye-opening to see the repeated pattern of US passivity until and sometimes beyond the last minute, and it was equally eye-opening to realize the government often used the public (and our lack of out-cry) as an excuse not to act. Anyway... that thought--everyone should read this book--led me to wonder if there was a work of fiction I thought everyone should read.

I will go down insisting that fiction is as vital and important as non-fiction, but I couldn't really come up with an answer. It's something I'll have to give more thought to. What would make a work of fiction feel that important? And does such a work of fiction already exist?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Douglass' Women by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes was one of my mentors as a graduate student, and I try to keep up with all of the books of my former teachers, but she writes so diligently that I fell behind and only just read this novel about the black wife and white mistress of renowned abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass. It is now my favorite of Jewell's books (though Voodoo Dreams is a lot of fun).

The novel alternates between the first person story of Anna Douglass (Douglass' wife) and Ottilie Assing (a German woman who worked for the abolitionist movement). The alternating voices structure works well here (I often don't like it in other novels) because Douglass shuttles between the women, treating both of them rather selfishly, and so each can tell the part of the story that the other can't. But the two voices combined show clearly how Douglass failed to love either one of them and how united the two women are in their unrequited devotion to him. It's really quite sad.

What particularly interested me though is how unknown this history is. In her author's note, Jewell shows an awareness that she is showing the flaws of a much-admired (and deservedly so) hero of American history, but the novel does not make Douglass less of a hero, it simply makes him more of a human. I really admired it. It seems to me a perfect book club book, and I'm not sure why it hasn't met with more success. It's accessible, it's romantic, it's historical, and it's well-written.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Philbrick read at Levenger's the other week, so I got sucked in to buying a copy of this nonfiction bestseller. He's not an artistic writer, but he tells a compelling story and he hits a lot of historical notes that I never got in elementary school (which was the last time I learned about the Plymouth colony). Especially interesting is his focus on the Native American tribes who first aided and then warred with the Pilgrims (or in several cases, were warred on by the Pilgrims). He (or his publisher) titled the book brilliantly; a lot of readers seem to be drawn to boat stories but the Mayflower is really only the start of the story. But it seems to me a more accurately titled Plymouth, would not sell nearly as well.

Mostly though I want to point out that Philbrick was an English major and indeed holds an MA in American Literature from Duke (if I remember right). So for all of you English major/writers--fiction is not your only option. And it's certainly not your most lucrative option. Ross King is another good example of someone who studied English/writing only to become a big seller as a nonfiction writer (focusing on art and architecture).

All of this reminds me of how well nonfiction sells compared to ficiton. I really enjoy nonfiction, but a book like Mayflower kind of reminds me of watching television, where I am a fairly passive receiver of information. The book is summary and fact, though told in a narrative fashion, and while I found the facts interesting, it's not like I had to decipher them for meaning or try to puzzle out the storyline. Philbrick told me things straightforwardly and I believed him. I know history isn't quite so simple, but I wonder if this is part of the appeal of popular history books. You're learning, but you're not necessarily challenged.

The Complete New Yorker on DVD

The Complete New Yorker is the greatest thing to hit my computer ever. Thanks to my brother who financed this gift, I will never again be without something good to read. Just yesterday I read a mention in the NYTimes of a 1977 New Yorker profile of Tom Stoppard that struck me as off I went to my Complete New Yorker, discovered it was more than 40 pages long and spent a long time reading it. Then I read a bunch of Susan Orlean articles, then while browsing I happened upon an Ann Beattie story, which was right next to a Donald Barthelme story, then one of my friends was talking to me about Annie Proulx's story "Brokeback Mountain" and so I went and looked it up on my Complete New Yorker...

The only problem is I find it challenging enough to stay on top of my to have 80 years of New Yorker to read...I may never leave the house again.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lend Me Your Character by Dubravka Ugresic (translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Michael Henry Heim and revised by Damion Searls)

Very clever, entertaining, thought-provoking, often meta-fictional and intertextual short stories (plus a novella) by a Yugoslavian (when such a thing existed) writer that made me think three things:

1) I like novellas. Do other people? If not, why not?

2) I appreciate meta-fiction but rarely find it original anymore. It used to be interesting by its mere existence, but no more. These fictions work well, but not necessarily because of their meta-fictional qualities.

3) Lately, international writers have the best shot of being published in translation in the USA if their homeland is war-torn and genocidal. Witness the latest fiction issue of The New Yorker. I'm not against this, but wish more international writers got attention for more kinds of writing. One of the interesting things about this collection is it predates the dismantling of Yugoslavia, and it's still really relevant, enjoyable, compelling, without being about current events.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I wasn't too excited by the HBO version of Empire Falls, so it put me off reading the novel for awhile (though I'm a fan of Russo's very funny Straight Man). Now that I have read it, much like the movie, I admired it, but in a detached way.

What I admire most, though, is the patience with which Russo executes the novel. It's third person omniscient and while there is a central character, Miles, the novel is not just about what happens to him, but manages to be about the specifc small town of Empire Falls and the general idea of towns like it, which are struggling to continue to exist. Despite writing mostly in scene, staying close to event and character and not spending much time on narration or grand ideas, it is still a novel with a big scope. I tend to think of big scope novels as containing Kundera-like narrators who talk to the reader about ideas just as often as they convey scene. But Russo suggests his scope fairly simply by portraying close details of large swaths of the characters' lives and giving each character enough emotional depth that ideas are suggested rather than told. Partly he does this by really taking his time with each scene. The reader is immersed in the moment and never rushed through it.

My main difficulty with the novel has to do with the plot point that ends it. I won't give it away, but it's a small town tragedy, and (perhaps this is merely a matter of taste) I tend to prefer novels (like Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter) that detail the consequences of tragedy rather than the causes. Actually I would be interested in a novel that shows the build up to tragedy, how it can happen, but the violent events here seem rather facilely treated--they feel added to the main plot in order to create a more monumental effect--and not as carefully examined as the more ordinary problems of these characters. But I tend to favor subtlety in all things, and I can still see why this novel is a critical favorite.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I was excited to pick up this novel because it got such exquisite reviews, but I'm afraid I can't recognize what all the fuss was about. The novel is set in foot-binding era China and is exceedingly well researched. The best bits were the factual ones; I really felt the horror of foot-binding in a way I never really had before. But the research completely overshadows the characters and the plot. Right now I'm reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (yes, I'm rather behind the rest of the reading public on this one) and where Golden has created full characters who are interesting in their own right, and placed them in historical, carefully researched context, See pretty much gave the research without creating the characters. The novel reads oddly like a summary. Where Golden writes in scene probably 85 percent of the time, See is in scene about 15 percent of the time, and the difference is huge. I think See might have done better to write a nonfiction book on her subject. But if what you want to write is a historical novel, well, best to put the novel elements first and the historical ones second.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

I'm starting to feel the hardest bit of a novel to pull off is the middle. The easiest is the beginning, all new ideas and potential, and then the end is often carried by style and language and emotion, but the middle... One of my friends once took me on a tour of Seattle, and at one part of town, she said, "This is wear the s--t gets done." Well, that's a pretty good description of the middle of a novel, too. Your characters and your plot both have to grow in complexity and interest, and you have to maintain your voice, all without losing whatever pulled the reader in in the first place. It's hard. And I loved the beginning of Mantel's novel Beyond Black, and I liked the end, but in the middle I fizzled. In the middle, the language seemed to flatten out and not much actually happened. And I suppose the danger of a beginning so good is your middle needs to be even better.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm reading the novel Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.

So far, it is funny:

"Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn't in it"

(it seemed funnier in context)

and disturbing:

"Mrs. Etchells (who taught her the psychic trade) had always told her, there are some spirits, Alison, who you already know from way back, and you just have to put names to the faces. There are some spirits that are spiteful and will do you a bad turn. There are others that are bloody buggering bastards, excuse my French, who will suck the marrow out your bones. Yes, Mrs. E, she'd said, but how will I know which are which? And Mrs. Etchells had said, God help you girl. But God having business elsewhere, I don't expect he will."


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright's novels are always extra-good at creating a vision of the world. I tend to read a lot of straightforward realism that create believable portraits of lives/places/times I haven't experienced. Certainly all of the civil war ficiton I've read has been in that vein. But in this novel, Wright (who up until now has written mostly Vietnam-related fiction) takes the events/feelings of the time and through precise word choice and some very peculiar characters (who all engage in sharp, stage-y dialogue) creates a vision that isn't exactly realistic but much more strange and disarming and therefore original. And he really does it all through style and tone. The events are not especially strange; it's the way that they're told.

An example: "One early evening in the late spring of Liberty's eleventh year, swallows playing tag over the peaks of the house, the limpid air marshaling objects near and far in sharply defined equidistance, cricket orchestra warming up in the dank pit under the front porch, Uncle Potter, who hadn't been seen by family, friend or local constabulary in more than a year and whose last known whereabouts involved a lengthy stroll down the Drummond Pike, a left at the North Fork and on about sixty miles past the border of Nowhere, came thundering into the dining parlor, per custom, unexpected, unannounced and in an inveterate state of personal and mental dishabille at the precise moment Aunt Aroline, with the fussy ceremony of an anxious chef, was depositing upon the loaded table a great pewter dish out of which rose a steaming citadel of beef and bone set amid a delightful enceinte of boiled "sauce"--potatoes, onions, beets and carrots chopped and sliced and compulsively aligned in an alternating pattern emphasizing their natural chromatic harmony.
'As usual, Potter.' Roxana smiled. 'I must applaud your theatrical sense of timing.'"

Friday, April 28, 2006

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg

A charming novel from the point of view of a tortoise who really lived in the garden of naturalist Gilbert White during the 18th century. Now anyone who has taught an undergraduate fiction workshop has seen more than one story from the point of view of a fuzzy friend or even an object without a brain. I've seen numerous dogs, a mirror, flags...and when you see this kind of thing a lot you want to ban it and simply tell students it's a bad idea. But it's not the idea that's bad, it's just dependent on how well the writer works with the limitations of the idea--and undergraduate writers often aren't yet skilled enough to pull it off. So this novel was a reminder that, like most techniques, non-human point of view can be taught--in so much as I can point out what has and hasn't worked in the past.

And what works here is that the tortoise point-of-view is essentially treated like a human point-of-view, just a human with a tortoise-like personality and tortoise-like interests. Klinkenborg does not limit himself to what a tortoise could realistically know (not much)--but gives Timothy a god-like omniscience of the village, the humans who surround him, and his own past. Rather than a god on high, he is a god down low--paying particular attention to the things that would matter to that tortoise in that time in that place. So the point-of view, as it should be with any first person narrator, is particular to his character. It's not particular to all tortoises (whatever that would be), but to Timothy, who has a particular history, a particular experience, and a particular personality (abject--the one word that for me makes the title great).

Because there isn't a lot a tortoise can do physically this is not a plot-driven narrative. Part of its cleverness comes from the form of the novel--it is much like a naturalist's meditation, but instead of a human naturalist observing Timothy through a human lens, it is Timothy observing the humans through a tortoise lens. There is one surprise revelation in the middle of the novel, but I won't give it away.

In addition, Klinkenborg doesn't forget to give Timothy a unique voice. He speaks largely in sentence fragments, which operate sort of like line breaks in a poem, giving the whole novel a rhythm that is slow and steady--tonally appropriate to the tortoise pace.

A sample: "The fable that humans love to tell. One bright morning the prodigal tortoise sallies forth. Rich in notions. Wealthy in prospect. But the world is an unrelenting place. Lonely. Coarse grass. Weeds. Imaginary females. Alas the comforts of home. Luxuries of the garden. Old settled ways. Rejoicing over the lost sheep. Fatted calf. A mammal's tale told to the sound of a crackling fire. Never leave home unsure of your next good blaze."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sssh, Reading in Progress

A teaser from the novel Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg:

"I am not taken in by the tide, borne up by the counterpoise of the deep. I sink. The water doesn't sustain or welcome me. It soaks me like a week's worth of washing. I am merely a long-pampered tortoise--decades removed from my natural life--standing on the bottom of a water-tub in the south of England. Two male humans in wigs look down with expectant, distorted faces. Waiting to draw the proper inference from my unhappiness.
Next day they weigh me, and my unhappiness is complete."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Swivel magazine: A Nexus of Women and Wit

A moment of self-promotion: I have a story in the current issue of Swivel, a relatively new literary journal of women's writing and art, all with a humorous vibe. I'm in the same issue as Stacey Richter, who wrote one of my favorite short stories, "The Beauty Treatment." Fun for me. Check us out at

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

I'm planning one day to teach a graduate course "Allowing Influence" that will be about deliberately taking on other writers, other texts and allowing their influence into our writing. This novel would be a definite candidate for the reading list. Wake Up, Sir! is essentially an American's take on Jeeves. Or rather an American's take on Bertie Wooster. Ames' novel is about a goofy, young, alcoholic, suddenly-wealthy, orphaned American writer who has hired a valet named Jeeves. Ames acknowledges straight on the reference to Wodehouse's butler, but never lets on that Alan Blair is very much a Bertie Wooster gone wild. The novel--which is very very funny in many places and clever in all the rest--works because it uses the Wodehouse voice and the Wodehouse character of Jeeves directly, but adapts Wooster. So the reader who loves Wodehouse will recognize the voice and Jeeves (as well as the heist-related plot), but not feel like the book is an attempt to write Wodehouse. Because Blair is far more troubled, and far more R-rated than Wooster, he reads like his American cousin. And as a result, the book rather than being an imitation becomes a comment on the differences between Brit lit and American, as well as Brit behavior vs. American (if I may generalize, a bit). So there is influence but not pure imitation. Clever indeed.

Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

An intriguing first novel about a Nigerian-British girl who has a mysterious (imaginary? ghostly?) friend, Tilly-Tilly, who gets her into trouble. One of the most noteworthy things about the novel was I actually got a little scared while reading it. That hasn't happened since I was 14 and had to go outside to read the last hundred pages of Cujo (for some reason outside seemed less scary than in). To be honest, I'm scared easily, but by visual images not written ones. I think maybe it was the thought of the young protagonist in danger that got to me. Or maybe I've just been avoiding scary books for twenty years, and this one--a literary novel--caught me by surprise.

But my main thought on Icarus Girl has to do with what I think is the author's one big mistake. The novel is third person limited (to the protagonist) for probably 90 percent of the book. But one major scene is through the perspective of the protagonist's friend (not Tilly-Tilly, another girl). And it felt immediately to me like a cheat. The author needed to get some information out that the protagonist didn't have access to. But when I talked about that scene with others--non-writers--who read the book, they weren't troubled by it. So I entered a moment of crisis wondering if the rules we tend to insist on in workshop (like maintaining point of view) are actually a matter of indifference to the majority of readers. But then my mom said that scene really bugged her and she just couldn't figure out why--so I've gone back to believing in my rules.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Murakami is like the orphaned love-child of Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka. His characters have these spare, charged dialogues (like Carver) but in the context of very strange events (like Kafka). Ultimately, I admired this novel--smart, surprising, complex--but I'm more attached to Murakami's short stories (start with the book The Elephant Vanishes). He frequently creates an atmosphere that is mournful and haunting and very weird. I love immersing in that feeling for the span of a story and then being left lingering in it when I finish the story. But with a novel, when I have to enter in and out of that feeling each time I pick the novel up to read a little further, it diminishes some. But that's a fairly subjective response. Murakami maintains what he does in stories in his novels, it's just for me, I like that feeling compacted rather than extended.

For those who are interested, Murakami's short story "Tony Takitani" has been made into a haunting little film of the same name.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Conflict on Screen

My feelings about the movie Crash (I'm against it) are already well known. I could have agreed, though, with it winning some acting Oscars; it's well-acted. But Best Original Sreenplay, that might have pained me more than it winning Best Picture. John Gardner has a bit in Art of Fiction about how compelling it is to read/write a character who does the wrong thing for an understandable reason. I absolutely agree. That's conflict. For example, when Sethe tries to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery in Beloved, that's a conflict that shreds me. It's an unbearable thing to do, yet I can imagine why she might. And you might note, that Beloved is one percent about that moment and 99 percent about the effects of that moment. So, for me, conflict in story-telling is often at its best when a character is conflicted and then the consequences of his/her actions form the plot.

The problem with a movie like Crash is there isn't actually any conflict. You have characters who are good in one moment and bad in the next. There is no narrative structure to that--no growth, no sense of being conflicted, and no real revelation about character (bad people do good things--duh). So Crash is dependent on multiple storylines and clever cutting (the one Oscar it did deserve was Editing) to keep the viewer interested. Now readers of this blog know that I like original narrative structures--I like collages, I like cuts and juxtapositions--but Crash fails to do anything with the structure that hasn't been done better in movies like Amores Perros. So for me it lacks style and content.

Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is interesting precisely because the conflict is NOT that Ennis and Jack betray their wives but rather that they betray each other (largely Ennis betrays Jack) by marrying their wives. So the bad choice for an understandable reason is to marry a woman when you are in love with another man. And therefore when Ennis/Jack betray their wives the viewer/reader is remarkably sympathetic to all involved--the men and the women. It's much better character-oriented storytelling (which to the Academy's credit did win its own Adapted Screenplay award). For those of you who are interested in story to film adaptations, I highly recommend you check out Annie Proulx's short story--which is lovely in its own right, but quite different in scope.

The problem with conflict isn't limited to the movies. Reality tv (which I was a big fan of when it began) has ceased to believe that conflict in storytelling is anything beyond fighting. The reason American Idol remains on top, while other shows are fading, is not because of the bickering of dear old Simon and Paula, but because there is a storyline (whose life will be changed) that viewers can project themselves into. I'm not against external conflicts (man vs man, man vs nature, man vs society ... remember those?) but literature lately has done very well with man vs self, something that's hard to depict on screen. But screenwriters/directors are failing to recognize that man vs man isn't bickering and finger-wagging.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Accidental by Ali Smith

I took a break from reading Murakami to read The Accidental (it was due back at the library sooner). I really really heart Hotel World, Smith's first novel (sad and stylish in one), and this novel is a nice move forward. More complexity, more plot, more cumulative feeling, but still with a voice and style that is fresh and semi-experimental. Smith is best at creating characters who can think in metaphor. E.g. "If Amber is a piece of broken-up jigsaw, too, Magnus thinks, then she is several pieces of blue sky still joined up." As a result the narrative voice can be quite varied since the metaphors don't come from it, but rather from the individual characters. It feels evolved out of Jeanette Winterson, but whereas at times a Winterson voice can get ultimately overbearing (see cancer chapters of Written on the Body), Smith has the luxury of being able to change-up regularly. But, of course, it only works because her story is about the kind of people who think things like the above.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm halfway through Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. You can always count on Murakami to be strange and to disappear some animals, but you can also count on him to be mesmerizing, which this novel is so far.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I happened to be half-way through this novel when Sittenfeld's essay on book clubs appeared in the NYTBR. One of her points was how difficult it is to visit a book club and hear how much the readers disliked her narrator (who is not her, but hers, Sittenfeld points out). I had to laugh because my reaction to the book at that point was, this girl is annoying. I have no problem, though, reading a novel about someone I don't especially like. What I found interesting about Sittenfeld's novel is that it, like Curious Incident..., has been a popular book club book, instead of what I think it ought to be ... a good book for young adults. The reason Prep's narrator is so annoying is because she's a teenager, and like many teenagers she's self-absorbed, embarrassed by her parents, obsessed with her place on the popularity scale, and alienated by large swaths of her world (in this case, an elite prep school). Probably many of us had her annoying personality and self-absortion for a good 3-4 years of our lives. And then we grew up. Novels about teenagers for adults can put us back in that world--causing pleasure and pain--but ultimately they seem most meaningful if they tie our past teenage selves to some adult present. Without much reflection, and without any unusual dramatic events (some teen novels work by putting the teens into adult worlds), this seems a novel best suited to those who are living it, rather than those who have lived it already.

Categories aside... as a writer, I found interesting the familiar structure that Sittenfeld employs--an outsider giving us an inside view of an exclusive world. Like a lot of readers, I like fiction that shows me a world I can't otherwise experience. And like a lot of readers, I identify best with someone who, like me, doesn't identify with that world, but who has infiltrated it and is now sending out dispatches. From what I know of boarding schools, Sittenfeld gives a very real portrayal of its rituals, etc. (this novel, unlike chick lit, is absolute realism). But as much as the structure is tried and true, I found myself wondering if it's time to let the insiders have a say. At this point, I would be interested to hear the popular, rich kid's account of boarding school.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

I'm so happy to have found Lydia Millet. Finally, a woman writer who takes on the social, political concerns, the big ideas, that are most often left to male writers. There is definitely some Don DeLillo in this novel (his observations on crowds in Mao II are overtly echoed here), but Millet is totally her own stylist, and I can't wait to read more.

This novel pairs the personal story of Ben and Ann, a gardener and a librarian respectively--gentle folk, obviously--with observations on nuclear war, cult behavior, and religious fanaticism, by dropping three atomic scientists from the 1940s into Ben and Ann's lives. The book is great on character, on language, and on observation, but, to my taste, a little wacky with plot (also a DeLillo trait), but still, it's now one of my favorite books of the past few years.

My undergraduate workshop has been talking about when to show and when to tell, and Millet is really great with telling. She uses lines of intellectual observation to add a deep layer of beauty and thought to what would otherwise be only a clever tale.

A bold example: "As she walked she became all abstract./ The opposition between the small and the big, the idea of the miniscule and the idea of the vast, she thought, is not far removed from the opposition between the mundane and the sublime./ And if the question were asked: What is more real, the mundane or the sublime? most would hesitate before they gave an answer./ On the one side details: say, the aftermath of a breakfast, dirty chipped plates in the sink, their rims encrusted with egg yolk. Against this, the unnameable: small aching heart with boasts, what can you know? Outside the cage of everything we ever heard or saw, beyond, outside, above, there lies the real, hiding as long as we shall live, there stretch and trail the millions of names of God burning across the eons. When all through this our end will come before we even know the names of us./ For many the egg yolk prevails."

For a more subtle example, see my reading in progress entry below.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

My most recent discovery is the novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet.

Sentence I wish I had written: "It was the music of nostalgia, she thought, pure sentiment with words only for placeholders--as though that was the only function of music, to convey either nostalgia or longing, the same emotion in different tenses."

The March by E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow's Ragtime was a novel I read at just the right age--I found a beat-up copy sometime during junior high and then got to take a day off of school to hear Doctorow speak during senior high (the kind of expedition that, at my school at least, only so-called gifted students got to make, and yet the kind of expedition that would make learning so much more engaging for all students)--and it probably set me up for a lifelong interest in historical fiction (that and that romance series about the founding of the west that started with Independence! and then went through all of the states (to-be-states) on the wagon trail).

Historical literary fiction always seems, to me, a little more important than contemporary literary fiction (unfairly so, probably), and more likely to have a lasting presence. Even novels of recent history (like Morrison's Paradise, Roth's American Pastoral) seem more weighty than up-to-the-minute novels. This may simply have to do with attaching personal stories to moments in history that have proven to have significance. A novel attached to Bush II and Iraq II written right now might feel as important as one written ten or twenty years from now.

Anyway... The March, Doctorow's most recent novel, is written in the collage structure that has grown quite popular with post-post-modernists, and I loved it as I read it...and with so many collages, when the end didn't find a way to complete the picture, the book didn't feel entirely successful. It doesn't, for example, find that one image that brings all of the narratives into one final cohesive unit, the way Edward Jones managed to do in The Known World, with his amazing final image of the quilt. But it's still well worth reading for the evocative writing and the wonderful images throughout.

The March, like Ragtime, uses real events and real people interspersed with fictional events and fictional people. In this case, all connected to Sherman's march across the South during the American Civil War. I've meant for a long time to try writing historical fiction, and this is a good reminder to move that idea up on my list of projects. When I was a graduate student, one of my colleagues (Elissa Minor Rust--go check out her new book of short stories) used to write historical fiction and we would all discuss this with amazement-- "You mean, she goes to the library and does research before she writes?" we would ask each other, wide-eyed. It wasn't that the concept seemed so crazy but that we couldn't imagine where she found the time. But I think grads and undergrads alike would benefit from occasionally attaching the personal to the historic--it could broaden the scope and increase the depth of their otherwise well-crafted language.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I had no idea this novel was considered a book for young adults until I had to track it down in the juvenile section of the library. It's not shelved as young adult in bookstores, and seems beloved by book clubs. I'm comfortable crossing over to young adult reading, but what was interesting about Curious Incident... is it really strikes me as appropriate for kid readers much more than adult readers. Sometimes novels with young protagonists--Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid is a good example--get misidentified as being for young adult readers, when really they are quite sophisticated. But that doesn't seem to be the case here. What seems even more interesting is this isn't a case of adults wanting to feel like kids--the Harry Potter phenomenon--but rather adults wanting an easy read.

Curious Incident certainly could be a novel for adults even though it is narrated by a 14 -year-old autistic child who does not have the capability for sophisticated reflection, but Haddon hasn't added that layer. The things that the reader understands but the narrator doesn't are quite simple (his parents are terrible parents, for one). He has not given the kind of cultural, political context that elevates Annie John beyond the limits of the narrator's understanding. So why isn't anyone admitting that this is a book for kids? I think we want to feel smart, and so sometimes we like things that are easy but not stupid (the voice is good, it's a well-written book). But I would probably have been much more satisified if I hadn't gone into the novel expecting something more complex.

But what I meant to write about is that voice. It's interesting how "kid voice" in literature is not at all like kid's real voices. Of course, nobody would want to read a novel narrated in the way that a kid--or even an adult, I suppose--really speaks. We want some artistry to the voice. So authors have adopted this lyric kid voice (the narrative voice of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is near identical to Haddon's, even though Foer's kid is nine and not autistic), where the kid speaks in long sentences full of simple words. I wonder if it's time for a new kid voice. Something that's equally interesting to read, but not so familiar.