30 August 2006

Exquisite

In my occasional moments of spare time I've been reading and savoring Laird Hunt's new novel, The Exquisite, which is bizarre and complex and beautiful and an awful lot of fun so far (I'm 60 pages in). I keep noting interesting paragraphs to quote, so thought I would share one before too many more accumulate:
O.K., I said. I told them about a scenario I had often entertained as a kid, involving a Jules Verne-type submarine that would take me to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, where I would disembark, in a special suit, and enter a grotto then a tunnel down which I would spelunk for miles, overcoming, as I went, multiple traps and numerous multilimbed ferocious-toothed guards, then pick or force the lock on the small iron door behind which my father was supposed to be kept, only he wasn't there. This would mean I would have to find my father's captor, force him, through awful means, including chopping one of his legs off, to tell me where my father was. He would tell me that my father was now being held on an off-world colony whose location was the highest secret. He would die laughing in my face. I would spend the next several years conducting an investigation that would take me all over the world in search of the secret to my father's whereabouts. I would finally get the answer in a bar made out of a shipping container on one of Jupiter's nastier moons. When I found my father, in a detention tower near the Sea of Tranquility on the moon, he would put his hand on my cheek and say, I knew you would find me, boy. I would pick him up in my arms. At that moment, my father's captor, mysteriously resurrected, would spring the trap he had been waiting to spring for years, locking both my father and me up together in the tower's chamber. There we would sit together and wait with no hope of rescue for certain death. Some dark, end-of-the-galaxy sci-fi music would play in the background. We would be happy though. Together, with our arms wrapped around each other's shoulders or playing some game like Scrabble.
Poets & Writers has posted a longer excerpt if you want more. And Bud Parr has read the book faster than I and posted his thoughts. My fear, as with any book I become fond of early on, is that the rest won't live up to the promise of the beginning, but I'm betting this one does, because what I've read up to now is so skilled and assured that even if the rest falls apart, it is likely to fall apart in interesting and surprising ways. It's a joy to read a novel that is full of weirdness and hints of philosophy and erudite allusions and still so pleasurable on the basic narrative level -- it's really a page-turner in its own bizarre way. (So far, so far. Mustn't get the hopes up too high...)

24 August 2006

Elsewheres

23 August 2006

"Yes, matter has grown old and weary..."

A paragraph of Nabokov will brighten any day. From Invitation to a Beheading:
It was a bound magazine, published once upon a time, in a barely remembered age. The prison library, considered the second in the city for its size and the rarity of its volumes, kept several such curiosities. That was a remote world, where the simplest objects sparkled with youth and an inborn insolence, proceeding from the reverence that surrounded the labor devoted to their manufacture. Those were years of universal fluidity; well-oiled metals performed silent soundless acrobatics; the harmonious lines of men's suits were dictated by the unheard-of limberness of muscular bodies; the flowing glass of enormous windows curved around corners of buildings; a girl in a bathing suit flew like a swallow so high over a pool that it seemed no larger than a saucer; a high-jumper lay supine in the air, having already made such an extreme effort that, if it were not for the flaglike folds of his shorts, he would seem to be in lazy repose; and water ran, glided endlessly; the gracefulness of falling water, the dazzling details of bathrooms; the satiny ripples of the ocean with a two-winged shadow falling on it. Everything was lustrous and shimmering; everything gravitated passionately toward a kind of perfection whose definition was absence of friction. Reveling in all the temptations of the circle, life whirled to a state of such giddiness that the ground fell away and, stumbling, falling, weakened by nausea and languor -- ought I to say it? -- finding itself in a new dimension as it were...Yes, matter has grown old and weary, and little has survived over those legendary days -- a couple of machines, two or three fountains -- and no one regrets the past, and even the very concept of "past" has changed.
[ellipsis in original]

22 August 2006

Books

Lacking anything particularly interesting to post, I will fall back on that mainstay of blog content production, the meme -- this time with one that many people have been doing (and hey, if it's good enough for The Valve, it's good enough for me)...

One book that changed your life:
Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 3rd Edition, edited by Laurence Perrine. When I was ten or twelve years old, I asked a college professor I knew for his opinion of science fiction, and he said it wasn't literature. I then set out to find out what literature was, and another college professor gave me a copy of this book. After reading through it, I still didn't know what literature was or why science fiction wasn't it, but I had learned to look more closely at things I read than I ever had before. While now I find Perrine's approach sometimes simplistically traditional (the litcrit equivalent of trying to hammer a nail with a shotgun), nonetheless, it's still not a bad way to begin, and it opened up a realm of thinking for me that I'd never imagined existed. (And introduced me to some stories, poems, and plays that I continue to cherish.)

One book you have read more than once:
I don't tend to reread novels, unless I'm teaching them, and that generally has little to do with how much I love them (I really don't care much for The Great Gatsby, for instance, but have read it at least 10 times). Poetry I always read over and over again, often returning to writers as much for their rhythms as any particular poem -- I always try to keep a copy of some poems by Paul Celan around, also Olena Kalytiak Davis, Frank O'Hara, T.S. Eliot, Charles Simic, Robert Creeley (yes, aside from Celan I'm tremendously prejudiced in favor of 20th century American poetry; for some reason, those are the rhythms I like best). Nonfiction I seldom read straight through, but instead plunder, often repeatedly. Which I suppose means that I should choose a novel, since if I've read a novel that I have not taught multiple times, then it's likely to be a book that means a lot to me somehow. Thus, the answer is: The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. I've taught As I Lay Dying, so have read that multiple times as well, and have reread many parts of Absalom, Absalom!, which I think is a more substantial and fascinating book, but The Sound and the Fury is the Faulkner novel that gives me the most pleasure, the only one I have, for no particular reason other than love, reread cover-to-cover three times.

One book you would want on a desert island:
If I were taking this question literally, the answer would be How to Achieve a Painless Suicide with Sand and Sun (Nick wants a book to help get off the island; I just want an excuse to die). But taking the question by the spirit that usually underlies it -- what, lacking all other stimulation for the foreseeable future, would you want to have around for a book, if you could have only one -- I'd go with one lots of people choose, a complete edition of Shakespeare, because Shakespeare's work contains just about everything I want from literature -- humor, tragedy, beautiful language, dirty jokes, action and adventure -- and there are some plays I haven't yet had a chance to read, others that I've performed in or taught, and so feel like friends.

One book that made you laugh:
Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen. Also his Sick Puppy. Now that I think of it, I've read both of those books multiple times, and each time have laughed through the entire thing. Just seeing Hiaasen books on a shelf makes me smile. Time to read some more, in fact...

One book that made you cry:
I suppose this is as in, moved me to tears, not, "This is so badly written I can't bear it!" Lots of books make me cry, actually -- I'm a sap when it comes to stories, and even the cheesiest, stupidest, most manipulative and moronic books and movies have this potential for me -- but it's rare that it feels like a real emotion. It did happen just last week though, when in one day I devoured Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty. (The basic outlines of which can be seen in this New York Magazine article, pieces of which became part of Truth & Beauty, but the vividness of the friendship requires the whole book.)

One book you wish you had written:
This almost never happens, because even if I absolutely adore a book, I don't tend to think of it as something I would do. But it did happen with Michael Cunningham's The Hours, just about the only book I've ever felt a sense of deja vu with, so many of its sentences somehow familiar, its ambitions similar to ones I have for my own writing, etc. It was both an alienating and comforting experience. I don't have any illusions that I would have or could have written The Hours in the way Cunningham did, but noneless I feel a closeness to it that I've not felt with any other book.

One book you wish had never been written:
Many people are saying Mein Kampf, and that makes a certain kind of sense, though I don't think it the nonexistence of the book itself would have alterred the course of history much. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a good choice, though, again, had it not existed some other anti-Semitic propaganda would have probably taken its place. Maybe something like The Turner Diaries, but again, I think if we follow the road of looking for a book that led to a socio-political disaster of some sort, we end up with lots of forces other than a book influencing the situation, and so the eradication of a book doesn't eradicate the situation. Instead of looking for some one book that caused terrible things to happen, what about a book that was somehow embarrassing to an otherwise good writer? None come immediately to mind with a writer I particularly care about, but I'm probably forgetting something...

One book you are currently reading:
ONE?!?!? Okay, here's one: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, as some background for reading Brian Evenson's new novel, The Open Curtain, which promises to be wonderful and harrowing.

One book you have been meaning to read:
My to-be-read piles are large -- a couple of them are three feet tall, in fact. I have great intentions of reading all sorts of things. The one I've been feeling the most guilt about not reading yet is Andrea Hairston's Mindscape, which someone thought I would very much like and so had the publisher specially send to me, and I still hope to get to it, but it's long, and I don't tend to read long novels anymore unless forced, because, well, the number of novels over 300 pages that I've found fully satisfying is probably below 10, and I get much angrier at unsatisfying long novels than unsatisfying short novels, because the long ones waste more of my time. But I do hope to get to Hairston's book, because she's an interesting writer, and Aqueduct is an interesting publisher.

These are only 9 questions, and so I'm going to add one to make it an even ten:

One book you would like to see made into a movie:
Most books I like I hope Hollywood never gets anywhere near, and most good books simply don't make particularly good movies, anyway. But I've long wanted somebody to make a thoughtful, arty movie from Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. In fact, I've long wanted to make the movie myself, but I know if I did it, it would appeal to about 2,000 people at most, and would not make any money, so that's just never going to happen. I expect the rights have already been bought, anyway, so even if I win the lottery, it's not likely I'll be able to make this movie. Nonetheless, I hope someone a bit odd does -- for instance, I would love to see a version of The Man in the High Castle directed by Wong Kar-Wai.

21 August 2006

Next Quarter at the LBC

Over at the LitBlog Co-op we have let it be known that we are nominating three books for the fall quarter, about which you will hear much, much more starting on October 16.

I nominated one of the books this round, Manbug by George Ilsley (published by Arsenal Pulp), and will say lots of things about it once the time is right. For now, I'll just say it's a novel full of entomology and sex, and the voice and oddity of the book so captured my attention that I read the whole thing in one sitting, then went back and reread the novel more carefully, to spend time with some of the sections I had skimmed. I'm very curious how the book hits other readers, because there are elements about it that will probably be pretty annoying to some people, which just means we might have some good discussion during Manbug week, whichever week that ends up being.

The other nominees are fun as well, and so the fall is shaping up to be a quarter that's definitely worth reading along with.

20 August 2006

One Story

I'm going to indulge in a moment of self-promotion to promote something much more interesting and worthy than me: the marvelous magazine One Story, which will be publishing a story of mine this fall (probably in October).

There are lots of reasons to love One Story, even if you hate me. There is, for instance, the fact that they have published such fine writers as Kelly Link, Judy Budnitz, Alan DeNiro, Stephen Dixon, Binyavanga Wainana, Gregory Maguire, and many others. Their format is great fun -- living up to their title, they publish a single story in each issue, as a sort of chapbook. They're portable, convenient, not overwhelming, and sometimes even kind of cute. They have a blog. They tend to win awards. (Indeed, I first became aware of them when judging the Fountain Award, which this year they ended up winning.) At the AWP Conference in March, they had rubber duckies in an inflatable swimming pool, for no reason I could quite figure out except that rubber duckies and inflatable swimming pools were exactly what the staid halls of AWP needed. And editor Hannah Tinti gives extraordinarily useful feedback (or at least she did for me).

Therefore, today's Public Service Announcement is a simple but heartfelt one: One Story is awesome. Don't be afraid to subscribe!

19 August 2006

A Conversation After Miami Vice

My friend K. and I saw Miami Vice a couple days ago, and had somewhat different reactions.

K: My head hurts.
M: Oh?
K: I was trying to put the pieces of the plot together.
M: Oh. I didn't bother.
K: And was the movie in English?
M: Sometimes it was in Mumble.
K: What was up with all that, "We've got the intel from the sec about the four mil kil drop."
M: It was the fetishization of jargon to evoke a kind of hyper-verisimilitude.
K: Ah.
M: And make you trust in the filmmaker's knowledge of the milieu they're presenting.
K: Right.
M: And make you think that the reason the movie doesn't make any sense is because you just don't get it.
K: Well, I just don't get it.
M: I really liked it, though. I thought it was kind of like what might happen if Stan Brakhage had made an action movie.
K: Meaning?
M: It's all about the color, the light, the sound, the shape. The only way to access these particular colors, lights, sounds, and shapes was to utilize the props of an action movie, but the plot and characters are not really what the movie's about.
K: So I spent the whole time watching the stuff that's not important?
M: Right, which is why you didn't like it.
K: I liked it. I guess. I just couldn't follow it.
M: Because it was subversive. It subverted your expectations. You went in expecting an action movie, not Michael Mann's version of The Passion of Joan of Arc.
K: Wait, I thought it was some other guy making an action movie.
M: Well, it could be, but I was thinking about the faces.
K: The faces?
M: There's a lot of attention to faces.
K: Uh huh. But The Passion of Joan of Arc is silent.
M: Right.
K: And the dialogue in Miami Vice is insipid.
M: Right. But the point of the dialogue is to evoke the sense of an action movie.
K: This action movie makes no sense.
M: And that's the point. So the dialogue has to be insipid, or else you'd be trying to get information from it.
K: But I did try to get information from it!
M: Which was a mistake. That's why you have a headache.
K: At least Colin Farrell was nice to look at.
M: I thought everybody was nice to look at.
K: Why, because they were colors and shapes, not characters?
M: Actually, because some of them are really pretty damn beautiful people.
K: It was nice to see Gong Li smile. I don't think I've ever seen her smile before in a movie.
M: She has a lovely smile.
K: And I liked all the strong women. My favorite moment was the one where the woman cop says to the guy, "Here's what will happen: I'll put a round at whatever-hundred-feet-per-second into your medulla," or whatever. I loved that. Even if it was just color and light. But the writing was pretty bad overall. Michael Mann needs to use different writers.
M: He writes his movies himself, I think.
K: Then what happened? The Insider wasn't badly written.
M: And Heat was pretty good, and certainly coherent. He tends to go for the overly-dramatic hardboiled dialogue, but he's perfectly capable of writing a comprehensible movie when he wants, which is why I think he was aiming for something different this time. He got tired of the same old action movie formulas, he wanted to explore a different aesthetic experience, a movie that never tries to explain itself, but he could only get the funding for that if he promised to make a big action movie, so he did. He just made one that doesn't try to explain itself, that can't explain itself, that's full of the basic elements of the most ordinary action flick, and that is all about evoking an affectual response in the viewer, rather than a narrative or logical response.
K: You're not serious.
M: Not entirely, no. But I liked the movie. I was actually, well, enthralled.
K: Because you didn't try to make sense of it.
M: Right.
K: There are times when I'd really love to live in your world.
M: It's full of existential crises, but not a lot of headaches.
K: I've already got the existential crises, so it might be a nice change.
M: There's a reason the first album that ever made a strong impression on me was Stop Making Sense.
K: So that's your aesthetic credo?
M: No, I don't have a credo. It's just something I thought of and so I said it. It's probably not even true.
K: Because nothing is true.
M: No, I'm sure some things are true.
K: Like that Miami Vice doesn't make any sense.
M: I don't know. We might have missed something.
K: Might have.

We drove through the rest of the night in silence, noticing the color and light and shapes all around us, without trying to make sense of any of it at all...

17 August 2006

All the Kinds of Yes

Yesterday I brought Meghan McCarron and her brother Alex over to Dartmouth to meet Njihia Mbitiru and Eric Schaller, and the five of us stopped for a moment at the Dartmouth Bookstore, where some copies of Julie Phillips's amazing book James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon were sitting on the New Books table. I recently finished reading the book in preparation for interviewing Julie about it (more on that another time), and it blew me away, because it was even better than I'd dared hope, and I had hoped for a lot. Meghan and Alex and I had just been talking about the book, because I brought them to see the Orozco frescoes at the Dartmouth Library, which Alice Bradley saw as they were being completed when she was a senior in college, visiting a boyfriend who was a Dartmouth student.

I grabbed a copy of the book and all but threw it at Eric, insisting he buy it, not just because it's brilliant, but also because his father is mentioned in passing on page 20. Eric waffled a bit, saying he might wait for the paperback, but I can be tremendously intimidating when I want to be, and he gave in.

Then we were all looking at magazines, and I saw the new issue of the New York Times Book Review, and lo and behold, what is the cover review -- "Alice's Alias", a review of the biography by none other than Dave Itzkoff, whom I have said a few things about previously. I think I might have uttered embarrassing squeals of joy when I saw the Book Review, a joy elicited by seeing a book I treasure receiving such prominent notice. Itzkoff does a good job of summarizing the major points of Bradley/Sheldon/Tiptree's life, and offers praise for the biography in a way that people not familiar with the material will probably find intriguing. (The Times previously ran a review by Janet Maslin [which spawned a poll].)

I thought for a day or two that I might review the biography, but one of the nice things about the book is that it has inspired thoughtful reviews, and I don't really have anything to add to things already said by Nisi Shawl, John Clute, Justine Larbalestier, Mely, Gavin Grant, Laura Miller, and John Mark Eberhart, among others. (I will say that the only recent literary biography I've found as absorbing for its own merits, rather than simply out of curiosity about the writer, is Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years.) Phillips's achievement is that she has found a subject that lets her explore not merely the life of a writer (though she does that well), but a whole tapestry of ideas and experiences of 20th century gender roles and prejudices, and she shows how those ideas, experiences, roles, and prejudices molded, deformed, and inspired one woman's life. The book shows what the best biography can be: a portrait of one person that opens into an epic depiction of personal and cultural life within particular places at particular times.

I also want to note that the September issue of F&SF is essential reading, because it contains selections from letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and Ursula LeGuin. They are entertaining, insightful, affecting, marvelous letters, some of which are excerpted in the biography, but there's lots of new material in the magazine.

[This post was originally titled "Matt & Meghan & Alex & Eric & Njihia & the Book", until the author decided to abjure esoteric allusions.]

15 August 2006

Linking About

There may be no here here, but there are theres there:

Returning

Much has happened during my brief break from blogging, and I have lots of links to share, most of which I will save for another post, but for now I'm going to indulge myself in some self-promotion and rambling, because what would a blog be without self-promotion and rambling?

Therefore, some links to things I've written elsewhere: the first of what may be a series of dissents at the LitBlog Co-op regarding the current Read This choice, Michael Martone by Michael Martone (a book made up of contributors notes about Michael Martone, a form we at the LBC are playing with for a while, to see just how much a dead horse can be beaten before it vaporizes), a new column at Strange Horizons, and at Locus Online "A Field Guide to Recent Short Story Collections". The latter is a way I could have some fun noting various new books, some of which I've written about before, some of which I'm not comfortable doing a real review of because I know the writer too well or have done some work for the publisher, and some of which I just haven't had time to write a proper review of. (I should also thank Eric Schaller for reading a draft and saving me from some of my own scientific ignorance. Any remaining incoherence in the use of biological and ecological terminology is entirely my fault.)

While I was staying away from the internet, Cheryl Morgan decided to put an end to Emerald City. I will miss it quite a bit, though at the same time part of me is very happy for Cheryl, because I don't know how she has found the time to keep it running for so long, month in and month out, providing valuable coverage of wonderful books and of the world of science fiction and fantasy, and now she will be mostly free to read and write when and how she wishes. I will miss reading through each new issue, shouting out "Hooray!" and "Yes yes yes!" and "Wow, didn't know that!" and "What are you thinking?!?" -- it's been a publication that has made me clap my hands, stomp my feet, gnash my teeth; it has made me laugh sometimes, though never cry; it has made me frustrated sometimes, but never truly angry; and more often than not it has felt vibrant, idiosyncratic, and unique.

And in other news, I would like to officially welcome Meghan McCarron to the rural north. She now lives down the street from me and will be working at the same school I do. My secret plan to create a cabal of writers in central New Hampshire is continuing splendidly. Hannah Wolf Bowen and Nick Mamatas came to visit the other day, and Hannah got a lovely photo of Meghan wearing the local garb.

In honor of the U.S. release of Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword (a book that puts the fun in fungus), Meghan and I spent some time on the day of the book's release with mold and mildew.

Speaking of Shriek, it looks like I'll probably be at the screening of the movie at Pandemonium Books in Cambridge on Friday night, but I hope that won't cause people to stay away. Update 8/16/06: Alas, it now seems unlikely I will be there.