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.