Here are some things that happened while I was gone:

1.  When you don’t write in your blog, but you keep your feedreader open, you have a lot more time to listen to what other people have to say.

2.  This makes you remember something you really value about being part of a community of people who write and read blogs:  People other than you have a lot to say — sometimes what they say is incredibly funny, or inspiring, or thought-provoking.

3.  There’s real joy out there.  Nova, whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time, and who thought at one time that no one would ever want her books, has written and sold a second book.  It came out today.  It sounds wonderful.

4.  There’s unimaginable sorrow.  Elizabeth, whose blog I’ve also been reading for a long time, is very sick and in hospice care.  She’s such a talented writer, and a wonderfully loving person.  Here is a story she wrote.  If you read one thing today, this should be it.

5.  Although it’s true that I learned a lot of other things while I was away, tonight these seem like enough to illustrate my point.  The people I’ve met while blogging aren’t virtual people.  They’re real, as real as flesh and bone, and as important.

Genre Queen

It could, of course, be Genre King.

I am not an ambitious woman.  Well, not any longer.  It  is true that, at one time, I wanted to be either the pope or the president, career paths I am clearly unsuited for, one by reason of biology and the other by reason of being utterly unskilled at making any kind of enterprise involving more than one participant run well.  Very briefly, I also thought I might become a partner at the big law firm where I landed when I graduated from law school, but the work was so soul suckingly boring, and I was so spectacularly bad at it, that this ambition ended ten minutes after I hung up from my first phone call with a lawyer on the other side.  “You’re unethical,” he hissed.  “You lied to me.  Where are my documents?  You said I’d get them all.  I didn’t get them all.  You’re unethical.”  It went on and on and on.  At some point, I should have said, “You’re an asshole,” but I didn’t.  Instead, when the horror was over, I hung up the phone, put my head on my desk and moaned and vowed that I would never again harbor any ambitions of any  kind.  I would be an underachiever.  People would be pleasantly surprised when I managed to do anything of note.

But you see, it’s also true that for my entire life — ever since I knew this particular job existed — I’ve wanted to write stories.  And it turns out I do indeed have an ambition.    It came to me the other day when I was reading an article about a kerfluffle in the literary community involving a woman who writes literary fiction.  Her advice to young writers?  Aim high.  Do not write derivative crap.  For some reason, this made people who write genre fiction mad because they felt insulted and made people who write literary fiction mad in her defense.  And me?  I just thought, “Okay, then.  I  will write the BEST genre fiction there is.” I will never be a literary innovator because I am not interested in literary innovation — but I can certainly aim high enough to write really terrific genre fiction.  So, that got me to thinking about whether there was such a thing as excellent genre fiction, and that got me to thinking about the day when fiction was not divided into genre and literary.  Wilkie Collins, for example, just wrote fiction.  It was mystery-type fiction, but it was shelved in Victorian libraries (if they even shelved things in any kind of order), relatively close to Dickens, who wrote just fiction too, fiction which also often had secrets and mysteries at its heart.  Like, who’s my real mother?  Who’s my father?  And what happened to all my money?

Really, all I want is to write stuff that’s so entertaining and so beautifully written that people will close my book and think,  “Wow.  That was worth the money.  Plus, what a nice cover.”  I do not want them to close the book and feel sort of bad, the reading equivalent of eating a big mac, plus fries, plus some frozen dessert thing.  That is what it feels like to read crappy derivative fiction and we all know that that sort of stuff is filed both in the genre section and the straight on fiction section.

Genre Queen.  That’s what I want to be.  And how do you achieve THAT?  Well, first you write the things you love to read.  If you happen to love genre fiction, as I do, particularly spy books and mysteries, then you write that.  And you learn how those stories are structured by reading them carefully.  And then you write one of your own, but you tell your own story, the one about a place you lived when you were a child, or a man you loved once, or an event that has never left you.  And you ask questions you’re afraid to ask, and then you go ahead and try to answer them, all the while using the form you really like to read as a way to answer them.  That’s what I do anyway.

It turns out that the great thing about becoming Genre Queen is that you don’t have to marry Genre Prince and wait for his grandmother to die in order to achieve your goal of being Queen.  Also, you will never have to worry that people will find out what your wedding dress looks like before you show up in your Rolls Royce and step out to the oohs and ahs of the world.  (Gack.  Who ever would submit to that kind of thing?  Crazy.)  It turns out there can be a couple of Genre Queens and Kings.  PD James is one.  So is Dorothy Sayers.  Eric Ambler.  Sometimes John LeCarre.  Me, I’m a Genre Scullery Maid at this point.  I’m aiming for Genre Lady in Waiting next.  After that, who knows?  There’s a lot of room on that throne.

Mother Ghost

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, but very little writing here on the blog. I have been shy about discussing my writing career because I haven’t really known the rules about what you should say and shouldn’t say. Having never had any rules at all in writing this blog, it’s really shut me up to think there might be some rules I don’t know anything about.

This morning, I e-mailed my agent to ask him if there WERE any such rules. So, we’ll see what he says. I’d like to talk about The Secret War and the loooooong road to getting that book ready. And maybe I will. (I mean, how much of a surprise is it to know that it’s been a looooong road to finishing that book?)

For now though, I wanted to say that I’ve been reading a really fun book about creativity — it’s by Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, and it’s called What Is It. (Or is that what it is?) Because she is fun, she has invented a fun exercise for doing some image-based writing that I’ve really enjoyed. It goes like this: pick a word(don’t worry — she has plenty of words)/flesh out the word (asking the famous who/what/where/when/why questions you learned before you knew you didn’t want to be a journalist)/orient yourself in the word  by doing a very cool thing:  asking what was below you, above you, to the right, to the left, and behind you? Got all that down?   Well, then, write for seven minutes about the word.

I did this.  I did it mostly because I was so sick of typing and the instant I realized you could do this on notebook paper in a three ring binder, my heart was full of love for Lynda Barry.  Plus, you can use colored pencils if you want.

I figured out how to use our scanner (who knew we even HAD one? — but we did). And because it’s almost mother’s day, I’m going to start posting Mother pieces, because the word I used was “other peoples’ mothers”). Okay, it was a phrase.  Shoot me.  It’s about the mother of a boy I loved once. Don’t worry, though, this is not about to become a blog where I post my seven minute writing exercises. I wouldn’t like to read that (well, I would, actually, if the pieces were short and illustrated).

PS:  That first line begins “I was in her dining room.”  It might be mistaken for a sentence that suggests I was in some kind of herding room.  I was not.

Know, sweet love, I always write of you

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing a lot of new fiction and sending old and new fiction out to a lot of places.  I keep thinking about my  blog, and how much I love writing it and how lucky I am to know all the interesting and fun and smart and kind people who come over here and say stuff.  But I haven’t posted, even though I have a series of great interviews to put up (Ingrid, the girl in the cafe is next, and then Lisa Alber and then Debbie Freedman…), which I’ll do this week.  Mostly, that’s because every time I go to write something here, I think to myself that I always seem to write about the same things.  That’s true of my fiction too. 

And then I found this sonnet, one I’ve not read before, and it made me realize that it’s okay to write, over and over again, about the things that matter to us.  It was okay for Shakespeare to do.  And it is okay for me too:


Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

On Reading

Kissing Games of the WorldI’ve spent my life reading fiction and poetry — anywhere from an hour, two hours, three, even six hours a day.  I’ll bet a lot of us are like that:  we’re the back-of-the-cereal-box readers, when we were kids, we walked home from the library while reading a book, we were late into the night readers with a flashlight under the covers (or, like my friend, C, the kid who read in the closet with the door closed after lights out).  Some of us were driven to book stealing when we ran out (will my brother really notice I’ve taken his Captain Underpants book?)

And then we became adults and found even more things to read — Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, you know big fat wonderful books.  Not to mention short stories and poetry.  

Anyway, that’s what I was like until about four years ago, when I went from reading War & Peace in a week to reading a dozen books a year.  It was writing that led to this stunning change in my relationship with words.  There’s only so much time in a day, and the little time I had to devote to reading became the time I devote now to writing.  

But you know what?  Something great happened last week.  I finished my novel edits.  (And Barack Obama — oh how great is that?  I still feel incredibly moved every time I think about him.)  And I had time to read.  With impeccable timing, Sandi Shelton’s new book, Kissing Games of the World, came out on election day, and arrived in my office, with the help of Amazon, the very next day.  

You know, if you know anything about her, (that’s a link to the interview she did for this blog), that it’s a great book, but it’s made even more wonderful by the fact that Sandi has been such a lovely, approachable, encouraging presence — on her blog, on mine, and in my life.  She writes me e-mails every once in a while; wonderful, inspiring, funny, interesting ones that give me heart and make me think I can actually accomplish things as a writer myself.  

The great thing about Sandi’s book is that it’s both fun and beautifully written.  You never feel like you’re being cheated when you’re in her generous hands — the characters are interesting, full of life, troubled, funny.  And my goodness, that woman can pull you in.  The book’s about a single mom whose life is turned upside down when the older man she lives with, a man who’s raising his grandson, dies and his son returns home to kick her out of the house and take his son home with him.  

Now, that’s not the kind of book my husband ever reads (if they were on a boat while this was happening, maybe this would be different), but he picked it up the other night and he loved it.  He laughed more than he ever has reading those books about grim sea voyages.  And he e-mailed Sandi without even telling me, to tell her he really liked her book.  He’s in good company.  The book is getting terrific reviews, and rightly so.  

So.  Go out and buy it.  Give it to people for Christmas.  We need to support each other’s endeavors!  Even more, we need books like this, books that remind us of what it was like to walk home from the library, glancing occasionally at the ground to make sure you aren’t going to trip, but mostly feeling like you are the luckiest person in the world because you’ve found a great, interesting, fun book and it was taking you to a different place, a place you liked being in.  That’s how it felt to me, for the first time in a long time, and I’m so grateful to Sandi for her terrific timing and her wonderful book, which have reminded me again just how much pleasure there is in a story well told.

Me and Barack

Oh, it’s been an exciting month.  Mostly for Obama, but for me too.  I’m a few chapters shy of being done editing my novel for the FINAL time.  In fact, I’ve set myself a goal:  I’ll be finished by the time Obama is elected President.  If he loses — well, he isn’t going to lose, that’s all I can say about that.   The time to get stuff done is right now.  Not four years from now.  

Nothing like hitching your very small wagon to a juggernaut.  I regret that I am unable to come up with any better metaphor for my slightly ridiculous and possibly unlucky goal — it’s the best I can do while I’m whacking away at my keyboard, trying to make sure that I didn’t call people by one name in the beginning and a different name in the end.  I’ve wiped out one entire relationship and replaced it with a far, far better one, even if it doesn’t seem to be about to end happily.  People are having more sex than they did in any other draft of this novel.  It is suggestive, rather than anatomical sex, I’d like to assure you, in case you’re worried I’ve taken a month off to write porn.  The minor characters are now, officially, a lot more real, even if they don’t get to be real for a lot of pages.  The weather changes more, as do the points of view of some of the chapters.  People drink an awful lot of coffee and ice water and beer in this book.  They eat sausages and candied peanuts more than any other kind of food.  (Brown bread and leberwurst make an appearance.  So does a cake.)  An adolescent appears and re-appears.   Spelling?  Check.  Grammar?  Check.  German words?  Check.  Czech people?  (sorry, that’s not really funny — but there are a lot of Czech characters. ) 

So that’s it, then:  I’m typing, typing, typing.  I’m also eating Halloween candy and hoping I didn’t jinx the entire presidential election by confidently predicting that both Barack and I will be finished with the thing we’ve been working on for a long time by midnight tomorrow.  I think hope is a great thing — and I’m going with it today.  I know many people feel it is best to be restrained and concerned today, and some are even spinning out scenarios in which McCain will somehow snatch this victory from Obama.  That strikes me as terribly unlikely.  This feeling that good things won’t happen, that people won’t vote out of the best in them, but instead will go into the voting booth and suddenly become racist and fearful makes a lot of sense given the nightmare that has been American politics in the last eight years.  But bad things aren’t going to happen tomorrow.  It is Obama’s singular achievement to have made that unlikely to occur, and it is one reason he is going to be a great president.  So, while I am not celebrating something that hasn’t occurred yet, I think it’s equally important to go into the next day or so paying attention to something that’s so new and different it’s hard to believe it’s happening.  But it is.  Obama marks a paradigm shift in American politics, an enormously hopeful one.  And that is something to be proud of and confident about, for the first time in a long time. 

And how have all of you been? 

(Wednesday I have lots of exciting writing news about OTHER PEOPLE to report.  Interviews to post.  Books to write about.  It’s so lovely to almost, almost, almost be where I want to be.)

Apples to Apples

It was a surly weekend, dear readers. Maybe the surliness was about having so many revisions still to do. Or maybe we’ve been staying up too late. I don’t generally talk about my surly days, because I think they’re a little boring. But sometimes at the center of surliness lies truth, or something true anyway, or maybe something sort of amusing — who knows, maybe when I get through with this post the surliness will have evaporated.

Our little family is probably the worst family in the world at playing games together, a terribleness in inverse proportion to how badly the children in this family want to have family game nights. The troubles are many. First, I refuse to play Risk, a game that goes on forever, is not very interesting, and has a goal I think less than admirable (world domination). Second, THEY refuse to play Scrabble, a game that does not go on forever, because I always win, and has a goal everyone but me finds less than admirable, namely my domination of them, word-wise. Third, that leaves pretty much only games nobody likes to play, so we end up watching a movie together, which is fine, but not as fine as playing a game sometimes.

Anyway, a few weeks ago they were at their aunt’s house and played a game they loved, Apples to Apples. A lot of fun, mom, they promised. You’ll like it because it’s about words

For the few remaining people on the face of the earth who haven’t played this game, basically, you get seven cards with nouns on them: funeral, Mata Hari, firefighter, George Bush, haunted house, for example. And then a person designated as the “judge” (a rotating position), turns over another card, which is always an adjective. Funny, cool, outrageous, sadly misguided, stupid. You lay down the card that you think is the most like the card that’s been turned over.

Fair enough. So, you’d think that the person who wins would be the person who has the good luck to have the noun that best matches the adjective — I mean, really, we all know which card goes with “sadly misguided.”

Sometimes, the cards don’t match up perfectly, and there the judge has to make the best call he or she can make.

The trouble is that people don’t always WANT to pick the best card. Sometimes they pick the dumbest comparison. Or the exact opposite. Or the one they’re pretty sure their brother put down, because they want to do something nice for him since he’s just picked THEIR card, which wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as mine.

Okay, so I’m a grump for not being amused by what is, by all accounts, a fun party game. But, really, what good is a game when there’s a judge who gets to be subjective about something that’s not actually all that subjective? Maybe the trouble here is that I work for a bunch of judges and I’m just not able to let go of my strong feeling that judges are supposed to do one thing: get it right. Or  maybe the truth is that I just hated losing.  Especially when I had the George Bush card.

Here’s Some News

Three months ago, I submitted the first fifty pages of The Secret War to The James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.  ($10,000!)  I’d actually intended to mail them the first fifty pages of my second novel, but since I was only on page 22 or so back then, I had to make a little last minute substitution.  

They e-mailed me this morning to say the book’s in their finalist round, which makes me happy.  It’s always terrific to make somebody’s cut, and this one is particularly gratifying because the award is intended to “honor the spirit of unblinking honesty, determination, and insight into modern culture exemplified by the late James Jones. . . .”  I also happen to love Deborah Kerr (okay, Burt Lancaster figures in there too),  who was so magnificent in From Here to Eternity

I don’t know if you’ve been following the saga of my short stories – the ones that keep getting dinged by one fine literary journal after the other — but I think it was about time for a little good news around now, don’t you? 


Short Forms

It’s been a terribly busy week, which is why, if you’ve checked in here this week, you kept seeing that post telling you it’s Friday when it’s actually NOT Friday.

There have been performances (William was the bus driver who denied Rosa Parks her seat — he played this key role in a choral performance dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King), and projects due (Charlie knows a lot about Venus Fly Traps),  and two of the boys are going on tour with their choirs in a week or two, which means you have to buy black pants that fit and also you have to find their passports, tasks that sound pretty simple but, in reality, turn out to be odysseys of epic proportions. Somewhere in the middle of the week someone managed to break two bones in his hand playing football, which necessitated three trips to the doctor for diagnosis, x-rays, and a very handsome black cast.

That is why, during the week, I have read a couple of short stories, and written the beginnings of two stories, and revised another one, and have not worked on revising my novel. The best novel writing requires that you stay in the world of your novel while you are writing and revising it so you remember what the weather is like, and the shifts in your characters’ emotional states, not to mention the color of their hair you mentioned 100 pages earlier.  That is simply impossible, I’ve concluded, when people go out of town and children break bones and I have to drive kids to school, and pick them up and work and do the dishes.

I know that writers don’t choose literary forms entirely because of time constraints, nor do readers chose poems and short stories because they don’t have the concentration necessary to stay with a novel, but I do think the reason I am writing this post this morning, and not working on my novel, or even on a short story, is because it is 6:45 a.m. and William is sitting on my bed writing, in very competent cursive handwriting, a report about Jimi Hendrix’s life and the only thing I can do while he’s asking me how to spell England and counting out the number of paragraphs left to write and losing his pen, is this blog post, about how you fit what you write and read into the life you live.

I will be so happy when school is over and summer arrives and there is time to stretch out and read novels, not to mention edit them.

A Really Long List With Annotations

This comes from Marie. You’re supposed to bold which of these 100 canonical books you’ve read. I’ve added comments. I couldn’t help myself.

Here’s what I’m wondering — does it count if you’ve seen the movie, or if you’ve seen the movie and it wasn’t by Disney? What if the movie had songs in it? What if the movie had Daniel Day Lewis in it? You can see the trouble here.

Also, in this list I lay bare certain reading prejudices, some of which I didn’t even know I had. Please don’t think less of me because of it.

In fact, do this yourself and tell me you don’t have your own prejudices and don’t feel the strong urge to explain that the reason you haven’t read, say, The Stranger, is because it was never made into a movie with Daniel Day Lewis.

Achebe, Chinua – Things Fall Apart
Agee, James – A Death in the Family (I read the other one — the one with pictures, the one with Walker Evans)
Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain — ok here’s one I need to read.
Beckett, Samuel – Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul – The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily – Wuthering Heights

Camus, Albert – The Stranger (I believe this is about the plague. Of course I didn’t read it.)
Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (I re-read this recently on a trip to the southwest and loved it even more the second time.)
Chaucer, Geoffrey – The Canterbury Tales — in college, and then I had to memorize the prologue, which comes in handy when there’s a lull in conversation
Chekhov, Anton – The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate – The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph – Heart of Darkness

Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans — surely the movie counts? Let me just say three words: Daniel Day Lewis. (Okay one more: shirtless.)
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage — I probably have read this, because it’s the kind of thing you have to read at some point if you’re a student but honestly I can’t remember a thing about it.
Dante – Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel – Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel – Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles – A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment — I did, however, see an intense movie version of this when I was in my twenties and inclined to be depressed and it was awful. I think it’s time to revisit this one though. I’m a lot cheerier than I used to be. I think I could even read all of Native Son on a good day.
Douglass, Frederick – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore – An American Tragedy — I think Sister Carrie is THE Dreiser book, but that’s just my, you know, opinion. I love Sister Carrie and don’t want to read any more Dreiser and ruin my admiration for him by finding out why it is that one critic described him as a guy who wrote like a person who didn’t have a native language. ouch.
Dumas, Alexandre – The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George – The Mill on the Floss

Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo – Selected Essays
Faulkner, William – As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury — Couldn’t read this, and don’t know why. I’ve tried the first ten pages at least five times. But I loved Absalom, Absalom. Maybe you have a Faulkner limit and mine is two.
Fielding, Henry – Tom Jones — movie! (Wasn’t it a movie? You know, with Ryan O’Neal when he was gorgeous and filmed by candlelight?)
Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary

Ford, Ford Madox – The Good Soldier (I keep thinking this will be good, but then I always put it back on the shelf…)
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von – Faust
Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel – The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph – Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Homer – The Iliad
Homer – The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor – The Hunchback of Notre Dame — the movie! I saw the movie! okay. it had songs in it. Yes, it was a cartoon. Perhaps that should not count.
Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World — this is fiction? I always thought it was a travel memoir or some kind of long essay.
Ibsen, Henrik – A Doll’s House
James, Henry – The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Kafka, Franz – The Metamorphosis — I mean, I do know what it’s about. But it’s never interested me. Did anyone ever make a movie of this?

Kingston, Maxine Hong – The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair – Babbitt — I don’t like strident realist fiction. I know, I know. How do I know if Sinclair Lewis writes strident realist fiction if I haven’t read it? Wasn’t he responsible for that really, really long movie that Daniel Day Lewis was just in (see Last of the Mohicans above for other sort of unreadable books that made good Daniel Day Lewis films.)
London, Jack – The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas – The Magic Mountain — do the first twenty pages count? I was afraid I’d be stuck in the sanitarium forever if I didn’t make a run for it right then.
Marquez, Gabriel García – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman – Bartleby the Scrivener — people love this. I have never been able to get past the first page. It depresses me.
Melville, Herman – Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur – The Crucible

Morrison, Toni – Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery – A Good Man is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene – Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George – Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris – Doctor Zhivago — the movie, I love the movie!
Plath, Sylvia – The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan – Selected Tales

Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas – The Crying of Lot 49 – no way. I do not like Thomas Pynchon. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I am afraid there will be no plot and a lot of Symbols.
Remarque, Erich Maria – All Quiet on the Western Front — this I must read. Rostand, Edmond – Cyrano de Bergerac — movie! With Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin, remember that one?
Roth, Henry – Call It Sleep — I keep seeing things about Henry Roth. DIdn’t he wait fifty years between novels?
Salinger, J.D. – The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William – Hamlet
Shakespeare, William – Macbeth
Shakespeare, William – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William – Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard – Pygmalion – movie! I could have danced all night!
Shelley, Mary – Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon – Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — is this any good? It looks so… long. But then he is Russian and long is his job.
Sophocles – Antigone
Sophocles – Oedipus Rex

Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island — yes, I know, the movie doesn’t count, because it was, yes, by disney.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher – Uncle Tom’s Cabin — does the King & I count?
Swift, Jonathan – Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William – Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David – Walden
Tolstoy, Leo – War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan – Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire – Candide

Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. – Slaughterhouse-Five — I do need to read this. But I avoid it, along with Catch 22 because I am afraid it will be ironic and not entertaining.
Walker, Alice – The Color Purple — I happen to have an autographed first edition of this book. It is autographed in purple. I did not see the movie, which looked awful.
Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora – Collected Stories (Not all of them — nobody reads every single one of the collected stories of anybody unless they wrote, you know, six stories.)
Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass (could someone please explain to me why Leaves of Grass is on this list? I mean, these are mostly novels and plays and Homer. Last time I looked, Leaves of Grass was a super long poem. Okay, some of Shakespeare is poetry, and Dante too. But if poems are okay to include, then this list would look a lot different.)
Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Williams, Tennessee – The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard – Native Son (Okay, I quit when Bigger Thomas stuffed the body into the incinerator.)

Well that was fun.

On Marriage

It’s a lovely day in San Francisco, a day so warm it feels like summer. A perfect day to issue an opinion, if you happen to be the California Supreme Court, in which you say that it’s no longer acceptable for the state to call committed, loving, gay relationships anything other than marriages.

The opinion’s here, on the court’s website. To find it, you just have to scroll down to “In Re Marriage Cases.”

Today I am so proud to live in California, and very proud of our court system.

Oh, Barf-o

This is a post about criticism: how to do it well and not so well.  It begins with an illustrative anecdote:

I feel for the poor bloggers among us who click the “publish” button and send out into the world a post so misguided and poorly targeted that it opens them up to a storm of fury in the blogging world. I wish there was a way to spare bloggers like that — well-meaning, innocent blunderers — from the churning stomach-ache they’ll have to endure for about a week while they get yelled at by a bunch of really mad people.

You want to go check out that car accident don’t you? Okay, here’s a summary. Waldo Jaquith over at the Virginia Quarterly Review, which is a literary journal, posted a bunch of the mean comments their editors have made about fiction submissions. They’ve since been removed, so you’ll have to trust me that they’re not the meanest thing I’ve ever read, and some of them aren’t even all that original. (I’m sorry, but “barf-o” is not a critical term I have much respect for, perhaps because I hear it out of the mouth of my three sons — who are 12, 12, and 8 — all the time).

Still, the post touched a nerve. Okay, it ripped the skin off some people. Readers responded, here, and here and here and here.

One of many points made was that airing the negative reactions of the people who are, essentially, judges in a highly competitive game in which the participants suspect there is already a lot of unfairness (elitism and cronyism being the big two) is a no-no. It comes off as disrespectful, arrogant, mean-spirited. In my view, it is also a breach of an implicit promise of confidentiality a journal makes to its submitters. It’s other things, some that aren’t so bad. But you have to read those links to find out.

In his defense, Jaquith isn’t an editor — he’s the web guy. And he’s got a great name. He was just trying to amuse and entertain. In the law, there are some crimes where you do a lot less time if you didn’t intend them to turn out the way they did. Like murder. (If you hide out in someone’s garage, and then shoot them and maybe also steal a bunch of stuff, that’s way worse than if you’re the PG&E guy and you mistakenly turn on the gas in someone’s garage and kill them because, unbeknownst to you, they had chosen that inopportune moment to take a nap in their car).

If Jaquith is guilty of anything, it’s a misdemeanor. Lashes of the wet noodle rather than the solitary confinement at Pelican Bay with people blaring Ted Nugent at you (which is what he got). Not everyone would agree, but it’s my blog, and I’m the Legal Professional, so I’m going to go with me being right about this.

Jaquith then made an effort to be nice about it and apologize (sort of) by posting some of the good things people at the VQR have said about writers. Whew. I’m glad to hear that over at the VQR they know how to be nice. That effort didn’t really get him all that far, though, because people were still mad at him, so pretty soon, an editor at the VQR posted his own response. It’s a deliciously weird non-apology — the kind of thing that starts off apologizing and then goes on into a sort of blame the victim defense (you know, when a defendant says, well, I wouldn’t have killed the victim if the victim hadn’t asked for it by writing such a stupid story.) Anyway, sometime, check it all out (the link above to the VQR will lead you to the first, second and third posts). The whole thing is smoldering and just about out.

Me, though, I have no interest in that smoldering pile. I’m more interested in telling you about somebody who really DOES know how to condemn and praise, a guy who’s a real critic. I started thinking about him partly because of the whole VQR controversy, but also because of a post over at Ward Six about good writing that comes from unexpected places.

Now, if that isn’t the longest damned introduction to a book review about a book that illustrates How To Write Beautifully and Be a Proper Critic in an Unexpected Place, I don’t know what is. I love blogging. Digressions, smoldering controversies, strong words, mad people — I feel like we’re all in a smoky coffee house in London ready to draw swords over the things we feel passionate about, but unable to do so because we’ve had too much (a) coffee (and our hands are too shaky) or (b) wine (ditto) and, anyway, we sort of like each other. Fortunately, we have all the time in the world to wander around the coffee house yelling about this and that, and then maybe getting to the point before everyone falls asleep, but maybe not, which is okay too, because we are not in a hurry here at BlogLily.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide is a messy, opinionated, and very smart collection of reviews of more perfumes than I ever knew existed. Turin and Tania Sanchez smelled a lot of stuff, wrote about it, alphabetized it all, added a couple of good essays about perfume (how to wear it, its history, for example) and sent the whole thing out into the world.

It’s a great book. I don’t even care that it’s so badly indexed you have to rely on karmic convergence to find some of the perfumes you want to know about. Or that he dismissed a Guerlain perfume that was described by the New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr (there’s another whole long coffee house discussion of a blog post about what the Times is doing with a perfume critic on their staff) as “a crepuscular, rose-inflected darkness suffused with a luminosity that floats on the skin.”

I asked for that perfume for Christmas, being in the market for a little of that inflected darkness suffused with luminosity. Luca Turin gave it a respectable, but mere, three stars and summed it up as “handsome, striking, but a little tiresome in the long term.” Apparently, crepuscular gets old. It’s just that it’s a HUGE bottle of crepuscular. Still, I do like it, and I’m going to keep wearing it when I want to be luminous and yet plan to depart the party before I grow tiresome.

The thing I love about Turin as a critic (and this applies to Sanchez as well) is that he has a huge amount of respect for the past — he obviously knows and has experienced great perfumes, ones that still form the basis for what he thinks about things people are making today. I like that. I think it’s hard to be a good critic in a vacuum. 

Another thing I like about him is that he’s an enthusiast. If he likes something, he REALLY likes it. There’s no tiptoeing around it.  It helps here to be French.

He’s also unafraid to champion things other people won’t have anything to do with because that thing happens to be sold at Target.  That’s one of the hallmarks of a true critic — he thinks for himself and he finds wonderful things where other people are too good to look. I mean, really, have you tried Tommy Girl?  I have.  It costs $28 or so and it smells lovely. 

Qhen he hates something, he’s very funny, and a little mad. I like this one:

Delices eau de toilette (Cartier) * vile fruity

Probably called Delices the way the Furies were called Kindly Ones, for fear of upsetting them. This is a woody-vanillac fruity so loathesomely potent and crass that I cannot find a bad word to say about it. On second thoughts, I can: it’s not even vulgar.

Now that’s good stuff there.  FIrst, it made me laugh.  The whole thing about the furies was not something I knew.  Second, the idea that there is something even worse than being vulgar surprised me and made me think.  There’s a lot going on in this little tossed off paragraph.  It’s way better than “barf-o,” although that is exactly what he’s saying here. 

He does all this wonderful work in a paragraph, or even a sentence. When he gets up to three paragraphs, you know you’re reading about a perfume he considers a work of genius.

I’d recommend this book for anybody who cares about how we praise and condemn that which we love, which would include short stories.  I’d also recommend it for anybody who wants to smell good. And I think that somebody should send it to Waldo Jaquith, completely for free, because he deserves a little pick me up after the smelly week he just went through.

The Promised Profit Post: Measure for Measure

Oh, so long ago, I said I’d be writing about reading Shakespeare for profit, and then life intervened and I went off on a long jag of Elizabeth Taylor reading, and a lot of novel and story writing, and re-writing, and some other stuff, and well, really, it’s time to get back to Measure for Measure, for profit’s sake.

The word “profit” is one I love, just as I love the word “rich.” I have long felt compelled to point out to those who have to listen to me (aka my children) the non-monetary meanings of words like this. Think of it as a little bit of vocabulary subversiveness. “Rich” doesn’t mean rolling in cash; it means replete with something. It’s a good word, describing as it does the quantity of good things we should all have in our lives: we should be rich in laughter, in books, in words, in love. Same with profit. We profit from things not just monetarily, but morally and spiritually, intellectually and entertainment-wise.

Whenever I think of the word “profit” I think of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a poem so old-fashioned that it shows up in Ted Kennedy’s speeches. It begins: “it little profits that an idle king….” And, on the subject of random word association, I noticed this last week, as William was preparing for his First Communion, that when my kids think of profits they think of guys with long white beards who are messengers from an angry old testament god.

Okay, here comes the Shakespeare part. (Aren’t blogs great? They are one big digression. And nobody nails you for it!)

Sometimes, the thing you’re reading perfectly fits your current preoccupations. In the case of Measure for Measure, I found myself thinking that Shakespeare knew there is no better set up for a comedy with a slightly tragic edge than that of the righteous man who is himself doing the thing he so vigorously condemns.  And how that is SO Eliot Spitzer.

Shakespeare’s Spitzer is Angelo, who, moments after he is put in charge of the kingdom, gets right to work handing out death sentences for having sex without being married. And then, just moments later, he is busy trying to figure out how to seduce the play’s number one virgin who also happens to be a nun. You can tell that Angelo is in for a big fat fall.

How does it end up? It’s a C-O-M-E-D-Y, so after the proper amount of chastisement, everybody marries somebody and things are good.

It profits an idle writer like me to read Shakespeare not only because you realize that there are no unique plots, but also because once you are freed from the scariness of making stuff up, you can look around you and see how all you have to do is just steal what you need. And that’s what I did. I STOLE part of Measure for Measure for my new novel, for a subplot set in the Marks & Spencer food hall at Paddington Station. I even have a nun character. She’s Swedish. She looks severe. She’s a traffic expert. She knows a lot about snow. I think that’s very nun-like, to be an expert at things having to do with winter. The Marks & Spencer manager is a righteous guy. And that’s all I needed to get going. Thank you, Will.

Free Rice

Perhaps you are wondering what I have been doing lately.  Perhaps you don’t really care.  But for those who do, I want to announce that I have been improving my vocabulary in two ways. 

First, I have been spending an awful lot of time on free rice — and am currently at a 46 (no 47!!), for those who are keeping track of how close to 50 you can get.  50 is the highest score possible on free rice, and it is unattainable, unless you cheat.  I have considered cheating, but it seems so uncool to do that on such a worthy site, one which donates so much needed food while you marvel at the fact that there is a word that means “splittable” — fissile, as in “that piece of chocolate cake looks so fissile.” 

The other thing I have been doing is not anywhere nearly as worthy, but does involve cleaning out my email, so it’s semi-worthy.  I am the recipient of half a dozen emails a day asking if I would like to have my penis enlarged, a question that never fails to make me laugh.  But the thing I love about these emails, beyond the zealousness of the enlargers, is the remarkable variety of words there are for the penis.  I’ve been keeping track, although because this is a family blog, I am not going to give you a list.  Just know that it has reached 37.  My favorite of all so far is contained in the email that invited me to obtain a “bigger sword to fit in her scabbard.”  It’s just such a weirdly chivalrous way of looking at it. 

 And that’s all I have to say today.