Monday, December 27, 2010

A Gate at the StairsA Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I couldn't help comparing it to Freedom as I read--the white midwestern kids at college similarity, I guess.  Its lightness of touch, the wit that sometimes just shimmers off the page, the wistfulness--all in all, I have to say I enjoyed reading it more than I did Freedom.  It was more relevant, more immediate (less mediate?). It follows its own pattern; the things that happen have the random feel of life, yet somehow all fit together to stick into your gut like a knife.  The passivity of the main character was at times troubling, but after all that is the point.  Better to keep those bright young people distracted by their college courses in sufism, winetasting and soundtracks to war movies, so that you can get their kid brothers to enlist to fight in wars that they don't understand.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010


 Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a feeling I was supposed to like this book more than I did, but why? Why did I hear that it was so wonderful? A lot of it seemed forced, contrived--it just didn't sing to me. Is it because New Yorkers have to love a novel that is about (however obliquely) September 11th? I thought I was going to love it, but it didn't take long for me to realize I didn't. I kept trying, though. Of course I love the story of Philippe Petit, but this book added little to my appreciation of that story. Several of the characters were drawn too strongly against type, as if to prove some point--an ascetic Irishman, a fat African-American woman who lives in the projects, but is college-educated, does not go to church, and loves opera. I appreciate the effort that went into the writing, and there are some nice moments, but it never came together for me.

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Next to Godliness

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought I’d made a big mistake reading two books about “the gods” in a row. How many characters can you meet who might turn out to be gods, demigods, mythological whatsits, mystical beings, “culture heroes,” totems, spirits, pixies, goblins, fairies, or maybe a regular old human being who just happens to be walking around dead? And then to have those characters spend over half the book mumbling about the coming storm, and traveling around to weird places finding more of their ilk to try to enlist in the coming war of the gods?

Several times in the book, it is mentioned that America is a bad place for gods. Due to its being a young country, most of its gods were imported along with its immigrants. These are the primal, ancient gods that predate any monotheistic religion. But it seems that in the present day that new gods have emerged, brought into existence by people’s belief in them, namely technology, consumerism, and the media. America seems to be a much better place for these gods.

So, blah, right? A humorless screed against modern materialism? Not quite—first of all, Gaiman’s humor relieves the solemnity of the theme. Second, the old gods are not portrayed as all that wonderful to be around—many feed on blood and warfare, others are deceptive and destructive in other ways—essentially needing some sort of sacrifice from human beings in order to stay alive. I suppose the new gods might be the same in that respect, but they are not portrayed as such. Third, the storytelling involves a couple of twists near the end that make the two sides not so black-and-white.

Just after finishing the book, I happened across an article by David Barnett that mentions Gaiman’s foreword ( for a book of short stories of the speculative genre, otherwise known as science fiction and fantasy. In the foreword, he writes “What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that." Barnett goes on to discuss the split between "literary" fiction and genre fiction.

I understand why such articles are written--they are bread and butter for many critics--but the arguments themselves seem sadly predictable and pro forma to me, as well as beside the point. Each person argues for why he/she thinks his/her favorite type of writing is the best. Is a lyric poet going to say that science fiction is her favorite genre, or a fantasy writer that Zola is his favorite author? It might be interesting if they did, but it's not likely to happen. And what of the readers of these various arguments? Are we supposed to be suddenly swayed to like something we've never liked before? Is the reader whose favorite author is Henry James going to say, "I've seen the error of my ways--nothing but Philip K. Dick from here on in!" People like what they like. Assigning moralistic or political value to different genres may make readers feel guilty, but will it change their tastes? Maybe the effect is simply to encourage readers to try something new, to widen their horizons.

The point for me is my own enjoyment. What type of writing brings me enjoyment? While I read mostly what would be called "literary" fiction, I read many other genres as well. I tend to read different books depending on what kind of experience I'd like to have while reading. After I (rather unexpectedly) found myself pregnant for the first time, I plowed straight through the complete Sherlock Holmes. Obviously, faced with a great mystery in my own life, I craved an experience in which all mysteries were satisfactorily solved by a genius who found it all "elementary." Besides mysteries, I read thrillers, "speculative fiction," trash, book club books, YA lit.--whatever fits my mood. Sometimes I'll read a bestseller to try to figure out why it is such. Sometimes I'll read a YA novel because my kids recommend it, or because I want to see if I should let them read it. I also read non-fiction occasionally. I think I'm probably similar in my reading habits to many people who like to read in that I seek a balance of genres, sometimes reading different genres at the same time, or following one genre with a very different one as a palate cleanser. I recoil from tying myself too strongly to one particular type of writing, because I love to read a variety. A good story is wonderful, but a beautiful prose poem in which nothing happens is wonderful too. Why should anyone have to choose?

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Narrative Reality

I was really impressed by this blog post about narrative by Matthew Cheney.  It touches on Reality Hunger, as well as a few other books that sound interesting, especially Vanishing Point by Ander Monson.

I wish I had written what Cheney wrote re Reality Hunger; then again, he has actually read it. I was mildly surprised to see that he writes for a "speculative fiction" web magazine, i.e. science fiction/fantasy. His essay is critically solid and literary in feel. I guess I need to widen my horizons.

"Narrative is reality: it makes reality. Neither word is stable, though, because both are built by and rely on human perception: language, thought, memory."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fictional Feast

I've been hearing about this book Reality Hunger by David Shields, and then I came across this interview with the author. I haven't read the book, but that never stopped anyone from having an opinion (as we shall soon see very well). The author sounds to me like an overexcited undergraduate taking his first literary criticism course, and the idea of the book strikes me as naive. Since when is a lyric essay or a memoir more true than a novel? In the interview he spends a lot of time putting down a novel by Myla Goldberg for having a story structure with plot points. (He admits he has not read the book, and only knows what he has gleaned from the catalog description.) He criticizes this novel, which he does not name, along with others that actually have a plot, for being outmoded, "antediluvian." Leaving beside the point that Shields has not even read the book (the Second Pass dealt neatly with that), I've read Bee Season, and I recall that it was hardly a formulaic story. And anyway, egads, a novel with plot points! What next, music with melody? Apparently Shields simply dislikes fiction. Therefore, to express his dislike for fiction and disdain for the novel—and to feed his hunger for reality?—he has written a book consisting of quotations from many other authors. At first he did not plan to credit the other writers, but finally did so when his publisher advised him to do so.

I'm finally nearing the end of 2666 by Robert Bolano; it is a digressive, infuriating, simultaneously raw and refined feast to feed my hunger for stories. Nestled deeply within this novel so rich in story, so sprawling in reach, a novel as reality-laden as any I have ever read, near the end (i.e., 152 pages from the end), I came across this passage: "Semblance was an occupying force of reality . . . . It lived in people's souls and their actions, in willpower and in pain, in the way memories and priorities were ordered." So everything is semblance--Shields would seem to agree, since he argues (or rather Geoffrey O'Brien does in writing the introduction to Reality Hunger), "Since to live is to make fiction, what need to disguise the world as another, alternate one?" Stephen Emms writes that Shields's "arguments fall apart upon further contemplation." It is pointless to argue that there is no need to make up stories, since it is done every day by hundreds of thousands of people, and has been for thousands of years in one form or another. It must fulfill some human hunger.

As I continued to ponder these ideas, I came across the following passage 45 pages later in 2666, in a character’s monologue on the difference between a masterpiece of literature and a minor work: A minor work is the:

shell of literature. A semblance . . . . The person who really writes the minor work is a secret writer who accepts only the dictates of a masterpiece. 
Our good craftsman writes. He's absorbed in what takes shape well or badly on the page. His wife, though he doesn't know it, is watching him. It really is he who's writing. But if his wife had X-ray vision she would see that instead of being present at an exercise of literary creation, she's witnessing a session of hypnosis. There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading.
And this further on:
Plagiarism, you say? Yes, plagiarism, in the sense that all minor works, all works from the pen of a minor writer, can be nothing but plagiarism of some masterpiece. The small difference is that here we're talking about sanctioned plagiarism.  Plagiarism as camouflage as some wood and canvas scenery as a charade that leads us, likely as not, into the void. 
Interestingly, though, somehow the minor works are necessary; they are like a forest:
There must be many books, many lovely pines, to shield from hungry eyes the book that really matters, the wretched cave of our misfortune, the magic flower of winter!
Bolano also compares minor works to cannon fodder, something that must exist in order to be sacrificed,  to protect somehow the true masterpieces of literature. Why do masterpieces need to be protected? Would the "hungry eyes" devour them too completely if they were not shielded or hidden by the minor works? Alas, I have not been able to glean an answer to that question from 2666. Perhaps someone else will. But in any case, according to Bolano's system, I am glad that David Shields wrote Reality Hunger.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Orange Prize

The Orange Prize for Fiction Long List:

Forever and a day

I was struck by the note in this New York Times article that written material stored electronically on "floppy disks, CDs and hard drives . . . degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper." The article deals with the challenges of preserving authors' archives for university libraries--e.g. Rushdie, Updike. But what about all the other writers, published or not, who slave over something on their computers, and put it away for a few years, thinking they can always pick it up again later, only to find the 1s and 0s have gotten all mixed up? How many masterpieces will be lost for want of a print-out?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Hornet by Any Other Name

Have I mentioned how many times I have thought of changing the name of my blog? I think the first time was the day after I started it. I woke up to the fact that it is a very sappy name. Why did I not see that from the very beginning? I guess I was blinded by the sheer excitement of starting a blog that I could not see the obvious, i.e. that the name sucks. Also, I started exploring the blogosphere more, and came across so many great names for blogs that I was put to shame. "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" comes to mind immediately, then "The Elegant Variation." Many more are out there; to name just a couple I like: "Mason Fiction," "The Second Pass," "Bookslut," "House of Mirth," and "With This I Think I'm Officially a Yuppie." (Actually, I must point out two things about that last example, which is a music blog: one, the real name is lacking the apostrophe in "I'm," and two, it uses the same template that my blog does! Check it out! I need to post longer posts, as that blogger does, to keep from having the problem on my blog where my lefthand sidebar extends below the, the, thingy, the inner frame, whatever you call it.) These are just the first ones off the top of my head; I could go on forever, almost literally, naming all the blogs with names better than mine; I'll stop with one more, a personal favorite: "Chiu on This."

(Should the titles of blogs appear in quotation marks, like a magazine article, or in italics like a book or periodical? Or just caps? Has this been decided out there in blogland?)

Of course, the best name in the world is wasted if the blog itself is no good. But I would like to have a better name; quite some time ago I started a list of alternate names: Literata (i.e. the feminine singular of literati), The Screen Door, The Cess Pool. OK, the latter might not be the greatest idea, but it harkens back to my college yearbook quote, when I was in what passes for a radical phase for me. I tried changing it to "Literata," but it did not work; apparently there was a Spanish-language blog on blogspot with that word in the name, as it is also the Spanish for a female author. So for now, I'm sticking with the old sappy name, which leads me to the reason I started writing about it in the first place: this list of Books for the Word Lover. Maybe the name will stick because, after all, I am a sappy, nerdy sort of person, the kind of person who gets excited to see the new edition of Latin for All Occasions, a book I remember from high school, when I took four years of Latin from my mother. Yes, that's right, my mom was the Latin teacher at my high school, and I was in her class all four years. We got along fine. So what super-cool, ultra-witty, iconoclastic name could a person like that have for a blog? I better face it, "Notes for Word Lovers" might be as cool as it gets for me. But maybe it should be "Notes of a Word Lover," so that the nerdiness is more about me than about the reader; still pondering that.

More random notes: Of course movies are on the way for the Millenium trilogy, aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc. The first Swedish installment was already released in Sweden, under the title "Men Who Hate Women," which is the real title of the first book. When I was reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest on the subway, a woman who works for Knopf struck up a conversation with me, and mentioned that she heard American movie versions were in the works.

After checking that "hornets" is plural in the title of said book, and correcting it everywhere in my blog, I then spotted today's Amazon Omnivoracious blog entry, with a shot of the American version's cover, and it says "hornet"! Singular! What's up? It really makes more sense to say hornets, as usually there is more than one hornet in a nest. I assume the head hornet is Lisbeth's father, but he was the leader of a criminal gang, so together they would be the hornets whose nest Lisbeth kicks. So why was it made singular? The British version is plural. Is it because most Americans are so clueless about the use of the apostrohpe to form a possessive that it just doesn't matter where it is placed? Just wondering. By the way, the Amazon reviewer liked the book as much as I did, for whatever that's worth.

Also, I think Jonathan Galassi's article about the importance of the role of the publisher in making a book a success would have had a little more oomph if he had gotten the publication history of Lie Down in Darkness correct.


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About Me

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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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