24 December 2007


For various reasons, I'm going to need to take a hiatus from blogging for a bit. I do promise to return.

sende nicht aus,

durchgründet vom Nichts,
ledig allen
feinfügig, nach
der Vor-Schrift,

nehm ich dich auf,
statt aller

do not send out,

transgrounded by the void,
free of all
fine-fugued, according to
the pre-script,

I take you in,
instead of

--Paul Celan
trans. Pierre Joris
from Lichtzwang/Lightduress

21 December 2007

Sweeney Todd

I know Terry Teachout reveres the stage version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at least as much as I do, but I can't entirely agree with him that Tim Burton's film version "is -- without exception, and by a considerable margin -- the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical." However, this is only because I think Bob Fosse's Cabaret is a more profound and innovative film. Fosse turned an awkward and mediocre musical into something newly rich and strange, and the camera work and editing in Cabaret remain breathtaking even after thirty-five years and oodles of CGI movies. Tim Burton simply had the task of not obscuring the brilliance of his source material. That he did more than that is something to be celebrated.

Burton has created what is certainly his best film in many years, and perhaps his best film yet, although opinions on that will depend on how much you prefer Burton's darker side to his goofier side. This Sweeney Todd is dark indeed -- dark in color palette, dark in tone. By cutting out the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" segments from the play, Burton has removed the device that allowed the audience to keep a bit of distance from the gore and mayhem, and his ending is more that of a Jacobean tragedy than a Victorian melodrama, for the untainted purity and goodness of Anthony and Johanna is left more unresolved in the movie than in the play. (Did I miss the "Ballad" sections? Sure, because they contain some of my favorite lyrics, and I love the moment when Sweeney rises in the final one. But they're theatrical and would either have made the movie campy or Brechtian, and Burton wisely chose to go in other directions.)

This is very much a Tim Burton movie, and that's just fine, because Burton has tremendous respect for the original play, and his style is not one that is at odds with the source, although it certainly offers a different experience. He is a filmmaker with as distinctive a visual vocabulary as any director I can think of -- there is a continuity of imagery between many of his films, and at times Sweeney reminded me of Beetle Juice and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Batman Returns and Corpse Bride and, at the very least because of the razor blades, Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, Sweeney is the nasty Struwwelpeter underside of the sentimental sweetness at the core of Edward Scissorhands (which, I rush to say, is a movie dear to my heart). Sweeney's line upon getting his razors back -- "At last, my arm is complete again!" -- could be the cry of Edward after having grown up and lost his way for a while. We don't need to refer to Isaiah Berlin to know that some artists have many different styles and visions and others are masters of digging away at particular stylistic obsessions -- Burton, it seems to me, is the latter, with each new film a work unto itself, certainly, but also a work that offers variations on its predecessors' images.

There are a few moments of Sweeney that feel a bit long, a bit theatrical, a bit off (mostly with Anthony's song "Johanna", which generally comes off as silly in the movie because Anthony's passion is a shallow and ridiculous passion of love-at-first-sight, the sort of thing theatrical melodrama can absorb, but which is unintentionally funny on screen). For the most part, though, Burton's version works quite well as a film, making for a fine meld of gory gothic horror and movie musical.

I had heard enough clips of the singing online that I knew what to expect, but I wasn't sure how it would all fit together -- would it seem as thin as it does alone, or would the intimacy of the camera and the lushness of the production design compensate? Overall, I was perfectly comfortable with the singing, and I say that as someone who knows nearly every note of the score by heart. It's simplified in the movie, certainly, and has more the quality of a pop album than an operetta, but the only singer who really disappoints is Helena Bonham Carter, because the quality of her voice is so thin that, for instance, in her first song ("The Worst Pies in London") many of her words are lost beneath the orchestra. But she's a fine actor, and that matters -- I've seen productions of Sweeney Todd with excellent singers who are not particularly good actors, and it is a far more painful experience than productions with adequate singers who are excellent actors. (And her voice is just right, I think, for her later song "By the Sea", which is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.) Burton gets his actors to create vivid, over-the-top characterizations that are often mesmerizing. Johnny Depp is just about the best in the business at such characterizations, and many of the people who can give him competition for that title are in the movie, too: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall. Each sings, and each is at least competent -- the key is that they do what the best actors do, and throw themselves so deeply into their roles that how they sing becomes a vital part of the character. Timothy Spall's version of "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" is much less pretty than it usually is, but his characterization of Beadle Bamford is also far less pretty than the usual -- he is no self-important fop, but rather a rat-like creature, a lurking pustule of corruption. Johnny Depp's Sweeney lacks the bombast and rugged masculinity of most stage Sweeneys, and so his gentler, less forceful singing makes good sense for his character -- there is a creepiness to him that I've never encountered in Sweeney before, because usually he is presented as rugged, strong, forceful -- whereas Depp finds something else within him: not a vulnerability so much as the ghost of vulnerability, the shell of a man who was once too sensitive, who was nearly destroyed because of it, and who now maintains an obsession because nothing else will keep him from shattering into a thousand tiny bits of self. It lacks the complexity some of the best stage actors have found in the role, but it provides a unity the film needed.

In 1994, my father and I saw the glorious London production of Sweeney Todd at the National Theatre (with Julia McKenzie as a strong and multifaceted Mrs. Lovett and Adrian Lester adding more depth and the role of Anthony than anyone probably ever imagined could be there). My father didn't know the show at all, but likes horror movies, so I thought he'd enjoy it, and he did, saying, afterward, "That had more blood in it than any play I've ever seen!" I don't remember it being particularly bloody, myself, but it's one of those plays that, regardless of how much blood actually gets poured onto the stage, feels like a bath of gore. The movie, though, is full of blood right from the opening credits, but the notable thing about the blood is how stylized it all is -- Burton doesn't try to make the blood look realistic, but rather makes it very, very red, and the effect is both unsettling and beautiful. Perhaps unsettling because it is beautiful. The only truly painful moment of gore is one of the slightest and involves Pirelli's technique with a razor, strop, and Tobias's fingertips.

An interesting change Burton makes from the play involves Tobias, who is generally played as a dim-witted young man. Tobias in the movie is played by Ed Sanders, a young boy. It's a notable performance because it is so understated and sincere, the one character who lacks almost any trace of caricature in the movie. (It's interesting that this year two of the best American movies are musicals -- I'm Not There and Sweeney Todd, and both include startling performances by kids: Sanders here, and Marcus Carl Franklin in I'm Not There.)

I had hoped the film of Sweeney Todd would at least not cause me to cringe while hearing some of my favorite theatre songs sung on screen. I crossed my fingers that it might do more than that, and might even provide occasional moments of joy. It exceeded even those hopes. It was entertaining, entrancing, surprising, delightful, and emotionally affecting in ways different from, but not inferior to, the stage version. It is very much a work of art of its own, separate and different from the other iterations of the story and music -- which was my highest hope, the one I didn't dare dream of, because the chances of disappointment were so high. There was, though, no disappointment at all.

17 December 2007


Thanks to this post, this site has become the top hit on Google for such phrases as "I will have vengeance!" and "I will have vengeance, I will have salvation!" And lots of hits a day are coming through because of it.

I don't know if people are looking for ways to get vengeance and salvation, or if they're looking for the song the phrase came from in Sweeney Todd.

If it's the latter, that's easy: The song is "Epiphany" and the lyrics, wiht a fwe typoz, are available here. You can see it on YouTube in various productions: Len Cariou (the original Sweeney) and Angela Lansbury (the original soundtrack album is a masterpiece, like a bloody and brilliant radio show); George Hearn and Angela Lansbury; George Hearn and Patti LuPone; a little bit of Johnny Depp.

For actual vengeance and salvation, let me introduce you to my friend Nick Mamatas, who will be happy to help, I'm sure...

A Question for the Audience

I had parent-teacher conferences the other day, and the most common statement-then-question from parents was, "My child doesn't really like to read, and I don't know how to turn him/her/it onto the pleasures of reading. What can I do?" My stock response was, "If I had an easy answer to that, I'd be a millionaire." I didn't want to say that I think most of the time we English teachers are an impediment to students' enjoyment of books (though I do think I slipped and said that to one parent), and that suggesting to an adolescent that anything is good for them is the surest way to make them avoid it at all costs. I didn't want to tell them, either, how little I feel like I understand adolescents anymore, how far I am from their frames of mind, how much they seem to have changed (or I have changed, or not changed enough) since I began teaching ten years ago.

Many of the parents who said, despairingly, that their child doesn't like to read were parents of boys. The parents of girls most often were concerned that their daughter didn't read the right books -- that instead of challenging herself, building her vocabulary, expanding her mind, etc., she goes to the library or bookstore and finds "junk".

I wished I had easy answers. I wished I had any answers.

A couple of parents asked me for recommendations of places where their kids could find out about books they might like. No answer came to mind, because I've never looked at the sorts of websites or resources that kids might look at, and I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin. But I know some of you out there are interested in such things as YA books, and so I thought you might have some good pointers. I'd particularly love to know if there are any teen-oriented blogs out there that ever talk about books, particularly blogs by teens themselves. If you were (or are) a teenager, what sorts of resources would help you discover books you might like?

Delany Week at Strange Horizons

Over at Strange Horizons, the reviews department is devoted to the work of Samuel R. Delany this week, and it begins with my essay "Night and Day: The Place of Equinox in Samuel R. Delany's Oeuvre", which is a piece I cobbled together from various fragments of academic writing. It originally had footnotes, much more jargon, etc., and then Niall Harrison did a heroic job of editing it, and I went back and rewrote various parts, to turn it into what it is now. (Some clunkiness still remains, because I decided that preserving a couple of ideas was more important than giving readers smooth transitions, so I hope you'll forgive me.) The whole process produced my favorite editorial suggestion of all time, at least among editorial suggestions I've received: "Maybe better to omit the next two paragraphs and skip straight to the sex?"

Keep your eyes on Strange Horizons this week, as Graham Sleight will be writing about Delany's short fiction, L. Timmel Duchamp will be writing about About Writing, and Paul Kincaid will be writing about Dark Reflections (which I wrote about a few months ago).

15 December 2007

The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck

The Farther Shore is the current LitBlog Co-op pick, and reading it caused me to think about a few different things, given that the novel portrays American soldiers in East Africa. It was, in fact, exactly a year ago that I was a tourist in Kenya, only a few hundred miles away from Somalia, where Matthew Eck had fought for the U.S. Army in the 1990s. A few hundred miles, a decade of years, entirely different worlds. (The U.S. has had a long history in Somalia, with U.S. military operations continuing, though this time as part of operations against al-Qaeda, while the situation remains complex and difficult.)

Before reading The Farther Shore, I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences? I became a bit skeptical of the fiction, because there were many possible pits it could fall into: politics and polemics overcoming the alternate sort of experience fiction offers; a glorification of the battlefield; all sorts of sentimentality -- the men from various backgrounds who start out distrustful and end up bonded as brothers in blood, or, alternately, the sentimentalism of so much of Hemingway: the hyper-masculine matter-of-fact tone that can't hide the drip of how tough-and-yet-noble it is to be guys being guys. And then there was Africa, which causes even more of my hang-ups to rattle their hangers. It's an unfair prejudice, but I rarely read books about Americans going to Africa. That continent has for too long been used as a literary device for otherness, and I think it's time to read literature by Africans and let them tell their stories for a while. (If we need a place for exoticization, let's use Europe, instead, since European literature has a long and vivid history to counteract our fumbling representations, and there's less chance of doing damage, less chance of our inadvertent, best-intentioned stereotypes propping up a master narrative of dehumanization.)

All of which is just to say that I read and enjoyed The Farther Shore, and if I was able to do that through all the distorting lenses of my biases, then it's clearly got something going on.

A few different things saved The Farther Shore for me. First, the compression of its narrative. This is a very short novel: 173 pages of somewhat large type and pages with a comfortable amount of white space (it's a nicely designed book). It is full of events, but the writing is not that of a novel all about its plot. The plot happens to the characters, and that's part of what the whole book is about, the gravitational force of events. The narrator's life is one where again and again everything changes in less time than it takes for consciousness to catch up. The words don't try to explain it all for us, they don't slow down to let us have a more reflective experience than the characters get. And yet they are more reflective, the words on the page, because the narrator is looking back -- looking back and still wondering what happened.

This is not, then, a novel about Americans going to Africa and getting lots of difficult experience and hard-won knowledge, though their experiences of being separated from their unit and wandering through hostile and indifferent territories is certainly quite difficult. Nor is it the Heart of Darkness Africa where everything's a symbol of metaphysical blight. It's more like a Werner Herzog movie, where people from one world go to another world and moments of comprehension are few. In a sentimental story such moments would be precious and valued and trascendent, but in a more honest tale such as this one, they do nothing so much as highlight how much disconnection there is.

There is strangeness at the heart of the book, too, as the landscape gets sparer and the narrator and his fellow lost boys wander aimless and wounded through senseless ruins. People become little more than objects and stimuli, and I don't think I will soon forget a scene where the narrator is numbly cruel to a little girl. "You never know where to stand in a war," he says in one of the book's most quotable sentences -- and its own quotability, the fine bite of its sound, the pregnant possibilities of its implications, tells us much about where the narrator has gotten to at that point: it's no coincidence that that sentence comes only a few pages after this passage:
"I bet they'll make a movie about us," Zeller said. His face was thin and pale by now, and his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark shadows. He'd lost a lot of weight. We all had. I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

"They'll make a movie about us," said Santiago, "made for TV."

We all laughed.

After a while Santiago said, "I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed?"
And so reality gets mediated, and men who have grown up on images of war get battered by war themselves, and in their struggle to enunciate all they have seen and done, they fall back on what they know, seeking a way to fit their lives into a comfortable three-act structure with rising actions and climaxes and good guys making it out okay after struggle and hardship, their actions paved over with swagger.

I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

Or maybe not.

I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed.

The novel falters -- perhaps inevitably -- at the end, because once everything has been in extremis there's hardly anywhere else to go. I kept wishing there were a way it could end with the haunting scenes of an abandoned train, rotting on rails going nowhere, an image that becomes, for the characters, something more concrete: a place of rest. I started rewriting the novel in my mind after that point, which is utterly unfair to it, but I'm a playwright at heart and it was such a wonderful set that I wanted it to be the one we stayed with, a variation on Joanne Akalaitis's staging of Beckett's Endgame in a post-apocalypse subway car. Mostly, I just didn't like the last few sentences, which tinkled in my ears like lines from a country song.

It's the imagery that makes this book more than something predictable or familiar, because the ordinary and sometimes cliche-spattered sentences of the soldiers gain, every few pages, some twist or turn to move the language beyond the immediately familiar (though it never, for better or worse, becomes estranging. The imagery is sometimes that of dreams or nightmares, but dreams or nightmares based in a known world, comprehensible. Is this a strength or a flaw? More limitation, I think, or maybe, again, a bias of mine: I like to see the deformation of words alongside the deformation of consciousness.)

Ultimately, this is not a book about Africa at all, which is probably for the best -- it's a book about a person caught by chaos, and chaos knows no geography, but settles wherever it can find some ground. It's a cousin to the reveries of The Short-Timers and Apocalypse Now, but more staid and stoic, with a narrator who observes more than he participates in the whole dream -- even his actions seem separate from his observations, and the effect is the same as what (in completely different circumstances and a completely different work of art) Dr. Dorn in Chekhov's Seagull says is the effect of alcohol: "...your true 'self' fades away and you start seeing yourself in the third person."

The farther shore of the title has various implications, but perhaps in addition to the implications of that image as it is used in the novel there is another one -- an image of a man looking out across the ocean for a self he can no longer distinguish from the horizon and the waves.

12 December 2007

"The detritus of the white man's world"

I've spoken of my admiration for much of Doris Lessing's work, but I have remained silent on her writings about Africa and her thoughts on that, the continent of her birth. Mostly because I've felt that her perspective on Africa was an important one for a while, but that she is also very much a product of her time and situation, as are we all.

I liked parts of her Nobel lecture very much, and the overall thrust of it -- which I perceived as a call to recognize the systems and luxuries that allow literature to be written -- is one I think deserves to be raised more often, and I was glad Lessing did. I didn't even mind her disparaging comments about the internet, because I never expected her to be very familiar or approving of it, anyway.

But some of what she writes about Africa bothered me quite a lot, in that she seems to be nostalgic for colonialism. Ramblings of an African Geek now has a post addressing this:
Never mind the damage colonization has done and still does to Africa, never mind the fact that the mission schools she so easily praises were built to teach a small minority of Africans to be government clerks and clergymen and were never meant to either educate the masses or produce the thinkers they did, thinkers who primarily came into existence because they understood how to subvert the education they were being given and take more out of it than was intended for them. Instead let’s take swipes at African governments and praise colonizers who were happy enough to enslave people, turn those they didn’t enslave into second class citizens on their own land and then annex the aforementioned land and strip it of resources for their advantage.

Post-Pboz-Party Post

Pindeldyboz is migrating from being a print-and-online magazine to being only an online magazine, and so they held a party Monday night, and I went. So did other people. Including Richard Larson, Dustin Kurtz, Ed Champion, and Sarah Weinman. The last print issue of Pboz is actually only appearing as a free PDF download. It's 16 megabytes of worthwhile reading.

Of last night's readings from the last issue, I was particularly taken by two. Here are excerpts:
As internships go—is that still what this is? -- you could do a lot better than zig-zagging through no man’s land carving up no man’s cows all summer. It’s not for credit, what the hell kind of major would give you credit for that? It’s more like an apprenticeship, but with no hope or desire to take over the business. Every Wednesday $250 is direct-deposited into my account back east. This job makes a lot more sense on Wednesdays.
--from "Every Creeping Thing of the Earth"
by Patrick Rappa

I agreed with you -- wholeheartedly, in fact -- that it was a relief that you were upgrading your BlackBerry that evening. If you hadn’t, then you wouldn’t have returned to the office and received the call from the Committee Chair, confirming that she did receive the proposal and she thought it was "exceptional." I also agreed with you that the shock you suffered was unfortunate and upsetting. And yes, I do understand that just because you had -- as you stated -- a "brain fart" it was not my responsibility to take it upon myself to complete the mandatory proposal for a grant that increases our project budget by two million dollars. I was to find you and have you view the final edition so that you may “put your spin on it” and I didn’t do that and, as I said, I am sorry.

What I really wanted to say was that you would certainly know that you had a "brain fart" because your head is so far up your ass you could probably smell it.
--from "What I Wanted to Say"
by Kristin McGonigle
The good news is that the Pboz website is going to continue to publish five new stories every other week, as they have done for a while now, and impressively so -- in fact, for Best American Fantasy (which makes a great holiday present, by the way) we reprinted more stories from Pindeldyboz Online than from any other source.

09 December 2007

Failbetter 25

One of the more venerable online literary magazines, Failbetter.com, has now reached a milestone: its twenty-fifth issue. Published quarterly since the fall of 2000 (when, coincidentally, one of the other venerable online magazines, Strange Horizons, also began), Failbetter has been a model of what can be accomplished on the web. They've consistently offered interesting fiction, poetry, art, and interviews -- indeed, their very first interview was with pre-Pulitzer Michael Chabon, and they would go on to interview a number of other authors only a few months or even weeks before they, too, would be bestowed with prizes.

Of course, the web has changed a lot since 2000, and Failbetter has changed too. Now they've got an RSS feed and are releasing content every week rather than just four times a year. The quality is still high, though, and the diversity of content exciting.

I can't claim impartiality -- one of my first publications of fiction as an adult came with "Getting a Date for Amelia" in the Summer/Fall 2001 issue. Editor Thom Didato and I had met at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference the summer before, and Thom promptly rejected two other stories of mine, saying they were well-written but dull. I'm glad he said that, because "Amelia" is a story I'm still fond of (even if it's a bit too much of a George Saunders pastiche), and I only sent it to him out of spite, thinking, "Well, this may be junk, but at least it's not dull!"

I've seen a lot of literary journals -- in print and online -- appear and disappear during the past few years, but Failbetter has remained strong and reliable, and in these times when so much attention runs a deficit, and so much of what we encounter is ephemeral, I think Failbetter's relative longevity and consistently high quality is a real accomplishment.

06 December 2007


John Klima is having everyone who contributed to his anthology Logorrhea write up a little something about why they chose the Spelling Bee word they did, and then post the section of Jeff VanderMeer's all-encompassing "Appogiatura" story that corresponds with the word. Also, there is a podcast of each section of "Appogiatura". And John is going to chronicle it all via this blog post.

First, about my own word and story...

Elegiacal Origins of "The Last Elegy"

It was the only possible word for me. What stories have I written that couldn't, in some way or another, be described as elegiacal? Sorrow for the past -- that is, it seems, one of the few things my imagination is willing to fixate on for fictional ideas. Often, too, the novels and stories that most appeal to me as a reader are ones with at least a hint of the elegiacal in them, partly because memory and time fascinate me with their twinned ability to haunt us with the ghosts of all we have lost.

Also, two books had captured my mind: Man Into Woman, which is the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery; and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, a novel where spare and very straightforward prose rises to a form of lyricism that I have seldom encountered elsewhere, and where a wandering, often mysterious narrative became, for me, far more enthralling than most novels with strong plots. I knew I wanted to write a story to work through some ideas the books had brought to me, but I didn't know what sort of story I wanted to write.

And then I saw the word "elegiacal", and I knew that would provide the solution. Immediately, a character sprang into mind: a professional elegist, someone who gained great fame from writing elegies, a popular poet in the mold of Edgar Guest. I imagined that at first the fame and money would be pleasing, but then a trap, as he was known only for one thing, and the public only wanted that one thing from him.

How, though, would this story fit in with the other that I wanted to write -- something related to Lili Elbe that also gave me an opportunity to try out some of the rhythms and style of Jean Rhys? What if the elegist fled his fame, and then had to face one last request for a poem, a request he could neither honor nor ignore...

I decided to stay as true to the story and words of Lili Elbe as possible, and I wanted to evoke pre-war Germany less through specific details and more through style (hence, the place is never named; I'm perfectly happy if readers imagine different places for it). It should, I thought, feel like a story of the time -- a bit stilted, a bit melodramatic. I included some of Lili Elbe's own words and phrases, as well as some from Jean Rhys (since Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939, only six years after the first edition of Man Into Woman came out in Germany). I didn't steal very much, and never without some tweaking, but just enough, I hoped, for flavor and a certain sort of truth. My favorite theft was a cause of death I pillaged from Man Into Woman: "paralysis of the heart", a phrase I hoped would leave itself open to many interpretations. I tried, too, to replicate the ostensibly plain prose of Jean Rhys, knowing that I lacked her skill, but hoping the exercise would, at least, prove fruitful -- what I love about Rhys is not the plainness of the style, but the way it lures the reader in, then presents gaps and ambiguities, creating beauty through absence. She gets compared to Hemingway now and then, but I think she's closer to Pinter. (Looking back on "The Last Elegy" now, in fact, I think I didn't leave enough out.)

Finally, because elegies are about not just memory, but time, I played around with the tense of the story, creating a structure and then breaking it, hoping such gymnastics might provide some subtle clues to readers, knowing full well the feat might simply be distracting.

And now, you'll see, Mr. VanderMeer was rather differently inspired by the word:

by Jeff VanderMeer

Brown dust across a grey sky, with mountains in the distance. A metallic smell and taste. A burning.

Abdul Ahad and his sister Parveen were searching for a coin she'd lost. They stood by a wall of what was otherwise a rubble of stone and wood. A frayed length of red carpet wound its way through the debris.

"It has to be here somewhere," Parveen said. It had been a present from her uncle, a merchant who was the only one in their family to travel outside the country.

Her uncle had pressed it into her hand when she was eight and said, "This is an old coin from Smaragdine. There, everything is green."

The coin was heavy. On the front was a man in a helmet and on the back letters in a strange language, like something from another world. For weeks, she had held it, smooth and cool, in her right hand-to school, during lunch, back at their house, during dinner. She loved the color of it; there was no green like that here. Everything was brown or grey or yellow or black, except for the rugs, which were red. But this green-she didn't even need a photograph. She could see Smaragdine in her mind just from the texture and color of the coin.

"I don't see it," Abdul Ahad said, his voice flat and strange.

"We should keep looking."

"I think we should stop." Abdul Ahad had a sharp gash across his forehead. Parveen's clothes had ash on them. Her elbows and the back of her arms were lacerated from where she had tried to protect herself from the bomb blasts.

"We should keep looking," Parveen said. She had to keep swallowing; her throat hurt badly. She heard her brother's words through a sighing roar.

Now the muddled sound of sirens.

A harsh wind roiled down the brown street, carrying sand and specks of dirt.

Abdul Ahad sat down heavily on the broken rock.

Now Parveen could hear the screams and wails of people farther down the block. Flickers of flame three houses down, red-orange through the shadows of stones.

Their father had been dead for a year. Now their mother lay under the rubble. They'd seen a leg, bloodied and twisted. Had pulled away rocks, revealing an unseeing gaze, a face coated with dust.

Her brother had checked her pulse.

Now they were searching for the coin. Or Parveen was. She knew why her brother didn't want to. Because he thought it wouldn't make a difference. But Parveen felt that, somehow, if she found it, if she held it again, everything would be normal again. She had only survived the air strikebecause she was holding the coin at the time, she was sure of it, and Abdul Ahad had only survived because he had been standing next to her.

"You don't have to look, Ahad," she said, giving him a hug. "You should sit there for awhile, and I'll find it."

He nodded, gaze lost on the mountains in the distance.

Parveen walked away from him, kneeled in the dirt. She stuck her arm into a gap between jagged blocks of stone, grasping through dust and gravel, looking for something smooth and cool and far away. In a moment, she knew she'd have it.

04 December 2007


Things are going to continue to be light around here for at least a month, as I have various duties to attend to, deadlines that are quickly threatening to pass, etc. And last night I decided that I needed to start the Big Project over yet again, despite progress, because it's obviously in the wrong POV and starting far too far from the stuff that matters. And I owe 13,593 people 642,482 emails. And only a few of them are princes in Nigeria who want me to take care of their money for a few days. And I've been sick, which is never fun, though I have reached the post-sickness point of being just utterly weary.

(I perplex my students repeatedly because they have all been indoctrinated into believing that sentences cannot begin with such words as "and" or "but", that paragraphs cannot have more than five sentences in them, that sentences with more than a certain number of words in them are run-ons, etc. I tell them this is not true. I tell them what matters is purpose and audience. I tell them there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" style and usage, just style and usage that work and are appropriate to particular audiences and purposes. They ask me why their other teachers told them differently. I want to say, "Because they were lying. All of us lie to children. You will, too, someday." Instead, I say, "They were trying to teach you some basic principles. They were good at heart. Don't be bitter. There are plenty of other things to be bitter about.") (What is my purpose here? Whittling away the time. What is my audience? [No comment.])

And now for what you hunger for: links!

  • At the LitBlog Co-op, we have announced the one book out of three that got the most positive votes from members: The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck. (It's notable that this is the second novel in a row we have chosen by a person named Matthew. I am entirely in favor of this tendency.) I mostly liked The Farther Shore, and so will be participating next week in some way or another in discussing it. (Yes, some of the procedures at the LBC are changing. We're not discussing all three nominees anymore, just the book that gets the most votes. And we're going to spread the posting around across various blogs, using the LBC site as a hub collecting them all rather than the One True Place of Posting. We'll see how it goes.)

  • I just read Cormac McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, which I liked very much at the beginning, but less so as it went on, because there was nothing in the voice, events, or characters that, once I spent some time with them, I found continually engaging. I didn't expect a lot from his first novel, though, and found my eventual disengagement with it interesting on an intellectual level, because it's something that happens to me a lot: I read a third or half of a book, feel like I've gotten what there is to get, and stop. Or, I finish a book and think I should have stopped reading much earlier, because in some way or another the book felt to me like a lot of reiteration rather than development or surprise. Such a response is as much about the reader as the book. For instance, I finished reading a contemporary novel recently that many people have raved about -- indeed, I've seen nothing but good reviews of it, praising it for its style and its ideas -- and yet after being quite excited at the first hundred pages, I grew ever more uninterested as the second hundred fifty passed across my eyes, because the book was, as far as I could tell, little more than an elaboration of what had been set up in the beginning. The style was admirable simply for its consistency, and so it provided little pleasure, because even a great piece of food eaten again and again and again grows tedious. Basically, though, I just felt like I could have imagined it all just fine on my own, and so the writer's attention to detail and narrative felt, in some ways, like an imposition. I wanted more gaps, ambiguity, and surprise. I don't read to have what I could imagine for myself confirmed; I read to discover what I couldn't imagine, what I couldn't know, what I couldn't dream or extrapolate or come up with on my own.

    Which is not to say I could have imagined all of The Orchard Keeper after the beginning -- not at all, no way, nuh uh. It's just that it stopped pricking my imaginating in interesting ways, and by the end I felt unfulfilled.

  • Via Mark Sarvas, I discovered an essay by Cristina Nehring about "What's Wrong with the American Essay". I agree that many of the essays collected over the years in various books of American essays and personal essays and essayistic essays are ... well ... boring. But that's just because most of us aren't as good as Virginia Woolf, whose "Death of the Moth" is, I think, among the greatest things ever written in English, and could be seen as suffering from some of what Nehring criticizes, except it isn't, because it's written by a genius. What really bothered me about Nehring's essay, though, had nothing to do with her, but rather with whoever at the website decided to illustrate the piece with a picture of the new Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I kept waiting for Nehring to discuss the Wallace collection, because in his introduction Wallace says some of the same things she does, and I found this particular entry of the series to be more entertaining and immediately engaging than any of the others I have read (and I've read a few. I like the Alan Lightman one quite a bit, too.) Nehring notes the dates 1996-2006 multiple times, so it becomes clear enough that she isn't discussing the Wallace volume, but then to put the Wallace book prominently on the page with the article is misleading.

  • Speaking of great essays and essayists, Elizabeth Hardwick has died at the very fine age of 91. I owe much of my understanding of Melville, if I can claim to have any, to her. In honor of her, check out "Grub Street: New York" from the first issue of the magazine she helped found, The NY Review of Books.

  • And from the most recent issue of the NYRB: Michael Dirda on Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is an amazing, overwhelming, frustrating writer, one who it's difficult to really get a picture of without devoting your life to reading her work (Randy Souther's Celestial Timepiece website is a great help. In fact, the JCO discussion group there was the first online community of readers I ever joined, when I was a wee lad finishing up college.) Dirda mis-states the title of A Bloodsmoor Romance and leaves out the third of Oates's experimental Gothic novels in his mention of them: Mysteries of Winterthurn, which I remember being among the books of Oates's that most impressed me. I just received a galley of a new edition of that book that will be out in May of next year, so I am hoping to get the chance to reread it, and hoping it will find a new audience now. In some ways, in fact, I think we are now better ready to receive the sorts of genre play that Oates was up to with Winterthurn and the other books, and it might now have a better chance of finding an audience. Perhaps, too, we will finally see The Crosswicks Horror published.

  • Ms. Gringa found A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead, which made me think of a 45 my father had (RPM record, not gun, though there were plenty of those, too) of Peter Sellers singing "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!". I wondered if they were available on the internets, and lo and behold, there's a TV clip of Sellers being introduced by the Beatles as he does Laurence Olivier as Richard III reciting "Hard Day's Night" -- and there's also a site called The Songs and Sounds of Peter Sellers, which offers mp3s of not only the two songs I knew, but also other Beatles covers, including one of Dr. Strangelove putting a rather ... Hitlerian ... spin on "She Loves You". (Sellers later returned to his German accent, and also returned to Richard III.)

  • Happy Chanukah to all my Jewish friends!