Monthly Archives: September 2013

Seeing Stephen King

A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to snag tickets to see Stephen King and his son Owen King at a reading in Manhattan. The tickets were on sale for about five minutes before selling out, and I barely got my hands on a pair. The event itself was this past Tuesday, and this makes the third time I’ve seen King at a reading or book signing, twice in Manhattan and once in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And I’m not really a big Stephen King fan! I’ve read three of his novels and liked them, but I don’t read much horror, and so don’t pick him up regularly. But, of course, Hobgoblin is a huge fan, and I’m always happy to accompany him to events.

This one was fun. Stephen and Owen both read twice, the first time reading from each other’s books, and the second time reading from their own. Stephen’s new book is Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining, and Owen’s is Double Feature, neither of which I have read or am likely to read, to be honest, but Hobgoblin assures me that Owen’s book is very good, and I’m sure Stephen’s will be too. The most enjoyable part of the evening, though, was an interlude between readings when the two of them chatted informally for a while. Owen pulled out a book he said he’d found in a used bookstore, which turned out to be The Stephen King Quiz Book. Owen then asked Stephen a few questions about himself. The first question was an easy one about where he was born, which Stephen answered with no trouble. But the next three questions he missed! I don’t remember the specifics, but they were questions about places and character names from his novels, and I guess when you’ve written as much as Stephen King has, the details begin to get blurry after a while. So we all had a good, friendly laugh about that.

It was moving to see father and son together; they were clearly proud of each other and enjoyed each other’s company. One of the audience members asked Stephen, had he known back in 1970 that he would one day become Stephen King the extremely famous and popular author, whether he would have done anything differently back then. From what I know about some difficult times in his life, there are lots of ways he could have answered this. But he said, you know, I’m still happily married to the woman I married back then, and I have three great kids, and no, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It was thoroughly charming.

Part of the price of admission was a copy of Doctor Sleep to be distributed after the reading. Some of them would be signed, but not all, and it was a matter of chance which each person would get. And look what I came home with:



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Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s Beauty on Earth

I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s 1927 novel Beauty on Earth, newly translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones, who writes the blog Pieces. Ramuz is a Swiss writer, not well known here in the U.S., and it’s exciting to see that his work is now available. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Juliette, who comes to live with her uncle in a small Swiss town after her father’s death. She grew up in Cuba, and so has a large change ahead of her. The focus of the novel is not on her experience of this change, however, or at least not on her inward experience, for we see her mainly from the outside as she arrives in the town, an unusual and surprising figure to whom the villagers don’t know how to respond. The novel is focused more on the experiences of the uncle, Milliquet, a café owner, and Rouge, a fisherman, as well as a handful of other townspeople. It’s a story of a stranger coming in and disrupting what appears to be a quiet, peaceful place, revealing tensions lying beneath the surface. It’s Juliette’s beauty that the town finds so disruptive; she captivates all — or at least many — of the people who meet her. Her beauty provokes them to want to possess her. The fact that Juliette provokes such possessiveness and that we never learn much about her inner life suggests that she is meant to be a symbol for human longing for the unattainable.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the narrative voice and the novel’s point of view. The book starts off in a straightforward third person objective point of view, but the narrator quickly shifts to first person plural, and from there on, moves back and forth between first and third, and sometimes shifts into second. It’s disorienting for readers, as sometimes we’re outside the scene looking in, and sometimes, through the narrator’s use of “we,” are in the scene itself, one of the townspeople, taking part in the action. Sometimes, when the narrator uses “you,” we are being addressed directly. Readers never quite know where they are, what their place is, and are therefore not allowed to sit in judgment on the townspeople from afar. Readers are implicated in the desire to possess Juliette, and, just like the townspeople, are frustrated in any attempt to know her.

Ramuz’s writing — and Michelle’s translation — is beautiful; the lake and village landscapes are gorgeously evoked. I finished the book with a strong sense of the place — its cliffs and waves and storms. The novel’s title refers to Juliette’s disruptive beauty, but it also surely gestures toward the beauty of the landscape. I wish I could visit, although I would not want to be drawn, as Juliette is, into the schemes of the townspeople. The genius of this novel is that Ramuz never lets the reader keep a safe, observing distance. To read this novel is to take part in its struggle, an unsettling, but satisfying, experience.


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Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

I very much admired Julian Barnes’s nonfiction book about facing the prospect of death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I was happy to hear he has a new book somewhat along the same lines coming out. This one is called Levels of Life, and while it’s also about death, it takes a different tack. Nothing to Be Frightened Of is about, among other things, his fear of his own approaching death. Levels of Life at first doesn’t seem to be a book about death at all; instead, it begins with the stories of three nineteenth-century people involved in one way or another with ballooning: Fred Burnaby, Sarah Bernhardt, and Félix Tournachon. Through the stories of these three, he gives a brief, partial history of ballooning, and also talks about the intersections of ballooning and the new field of photography. From there, he moves to a story about a love affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. I’m not sure the extent to which the story of this love affair is true, but Barnes tells the story as though it were fiction, creating scenes and dialogue. In his final section, Barnes moves to his own life, telling the story of his grief after his wife’s death. The book brings together widely divergent topics, but Barnes interweaves them beautifully, so the book as a whole makes sense and feels complete. The stories about ballooning and photography are interesting, but they also are important as metaphors — metaphors for the emotional heights of a love affair and the crash back to earth that death and loss can bring. By the time you get to the grief memoir part of the book, it’s clear that Barnes wanted a supporting structure for the difficult story he had to tell, a deeper language with which to describe it.

It’s a very short book — although I didn’t, I could have read it in a day, and there aren’t many books I can read that quickly — and a powerful one. I’m grateful to Barnes for being willing and able to turn the experience of grief into art.


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Bike and baby updates

I haven’t written here about cycling in a long time, but that’s not because I haven’t been riding. I have ridden over 2,100 miles so far this year, which doesn’t strike me as bad for a year in which I gave birth! I began riding in the middle of March, and have ridden more or less steadily since then, with some breaks for travel and busyness. I’d say my fitness is decent as far as recreational riding goes, but I’m far from being ready to race. I’m not sure if I will race next year or not. I want to keep riding through the fall and winter, but I don’t know if I will have time or energy to do the kind of riding that’s necessary to prepare for racing. I will just wait and see, and in the meantime, I’m enjoying getting out on my bike in the cooler fall weather.

The hard thing, though, is that I am doing much more riding by myself than I used to. A few times during the summer Hobgoblin and I hired a babysitter so we could go riding together, but that babysitter is no longer in the area, and now that summer’s over we are busier and need babysitters for other reasons. So he and I usually take turns riding while the other watches the baby, which is fine, but sometimes without someone to ride with, I lose my motivation. I can ride with other friends occasionally, but that’s sometimes hard to arrange. So I ride by myself and think about how lucky I am to be able to get out at all, what with a new baby and a full-time job.

Cormac is doing great, although even now as I type, I’m listening to him play upstairs in his crib when he should be taking a nap. Some days he is a good napper, but many days he is not, and he will frequently take 20-30 minutes to fall asleep, then sleep for 20-30 minutes, and then be ready to play again for another couple hours. I think 20-minute naps are marvelous for myself, but would prefer that my baby would sleep a little longer.

But I won’t complain about his napping, because he is a fantastic sleeper at night. We plop him in bed between 6:30 and 7:00 in the evening, and he sleeps until 5:30 or 6:00 most mornings. That’s a long stretch of time. He is an easy baby to take care of; he is happy and cheerful and fun to play with. He is very close to crawling, at which point we will spend our days chasing him around the house. It should be fun! Here’s a recent photo:



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Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler

Traveling Sprinkler If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that Nicholson Baker is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel to one of my favorite Baker books, The Anthologist. It continues the story of his main character, Paul Chowder, a poet and, in the case of this novel, aspiring song-writer. The Anthologist was about Chowder’s attempts to write an introduction to his forthcoming poetry anthology, and in this new book, the anthology has come out, and Chowder is supposed to be writing new poetry. Instead, he spends his time learning music software and trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Roz. The format is typical Baker: his main character thinks about the world around him, shares his thoughts on this and that, and not much happens.

I don’t think this book is as good as The Anthologist, but the thing about Baker is that even while I’m thinking to myself, “this book isn’t as good as The Anthologist,” I’m still beguiled by the narrative voice. I don’t want the book to end, which for me doesn’t happen with very many books. I’m aware as I’m reading that the thoughts Chowder is having, random as they seem sometimes, do fit together and add up to something bigger. Baker weaves his themes carefully together, and in this case, he’s interested in what art can do in a world constantly at war. Chowder wants to write a political protest song, and he thinks throughout the book about drones and a friend who gets arrested protesting U.S. foreign policy, and he wonders what good one person can do, particularly a person who spends his time quietly, thinking about poetry. Here is where the traveling sprinkler fits in:

National Walking Sprinkler of Nebraska made Wilson’s machines, and they still do. They made them for Sears and that’s where my father bought his. Everything about it is immediately understandable. It’s what America did before it threw itself wholeheartedly into the making of weapons that kill everyone.

I have been trying to write a poem about this sprinkler for years, because I like it so much, and I’ve never managed to do it. What a joy now to wind it around Nan’s tomatoes and watch it, in all its intuitive clumsy ungainly beauty, do some good.

Chowder is trying to appreciate what good there is in the world, as a counterweight to all that is bad. This effort may not get him very far, but it’s a worthy way to spend his time, at least.

So even with my doubts along the way, I was feeling warmly toward the book by the end. It has large things to say about the world, but it does it in an understated, charming manner that I find hard to resist.


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Susan Choi’s My Education

my-education-by-susan-choi I picked up Susan Choi’s book My Education at the library because I was in the mood for an academic novel, and Choi is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I suppose it was my desire for an academic novel that made me enjoy the first half better than the second, because in the second half, the novel takes off in a different direction. So it’s probably not fair to call this an academic novel at all, because its interests ultimately seem to lie elsewhere. The first half was very enjoyable; it tells the story of a young woman heading to graduate school in English at an unnamed school that has to be Cornell. She is well-trained in contemporary literature and the latest in literary theory, but gets a chance to be a TA for a professor teaching Chaucer where she can learn something very different from her usual fare. It’s not all about the literature, though; this is a professor who has a reputation for sexual exploits and whom she finds attractive. As the book goes on, it turns into a novel about love and sexual obsession, although it doesn’t follow the track that you might expect, given the set-up. Its real interest lies in exploring various kinds of desire and obsession and the love that is possible and not possible between people of different ages and backgrounds. The writing is interesting and rich, with lots to think about, but I don’t think the story really holds together. The second half slowed down too much and my attention wandered. Choi does have a lot to say about love — how it changes us and how our ability to love changes as we get older. I just think it would have been a better book if it were shorter and more tightly focused.


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The Art of Fiction, Part 2

I have now finished John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction and enjoyed it very much. As I wrote in my earlier post, the first half of the book deals with Gardner’s ideas about fiction generally, and the second half gets into more technical details about how fiction works. At the end of the book are a series of exercises for beginning (or, for that matter, more advanced) writers to practice on. He believes that new writers can improve by taking one small fictional element and working on that, at the same time as they are working on stories as a whole. So the exercises are things like writing opening paragraphs, or a couple paragraphs of suspense, or a paragraph of description. These exercises will help the writer figure out how to put all the pieces together into a complete work.

I wrote last time that I wasn’t satisfied with how Gardner dealt with unconventional fiction, but the book’s second half does more justice to the subject. He describes various types of experimental writing and the challenges each type holds, as well as the new things it can do. I still think he’s biased towards conventional fiction, and his focus on metafiction seems a little dated, but the book is better on the subject than I’d originally thought.

I’ll close with a passage I particularly liked in which he contrasts the novel and the novella. I don’t have a strong opinion on his views of the novella, but I liked his description of the novel very much:

Through the sparest means possible — not through the amassing of the numerous forces that operate in a novel but by following out a single line of thought — the novella reaches an end wherein the world is, at least for the central character, radically changed…. Nothing can be more perfect or complete than a good novella. When a novel achieves the same glassy perfection — as does Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — we may tend to find it dissatisfying, untrue. The “perfect” novel lacks the richness and raggedness of the best long fiction. We need not go into the reasons for this except to notice that the novella normally treats one character and one important action in his life, a focus that lends itself to neat cut-offs, framing. The novel, on the other hand, at least makes some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity…. As a result, too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect…. The novel is by definition, to some extent at least, a “loose, baggy monster” — as Henry James said irritably, disparaging the novels of Tolstoy. It cannot be too loose, too baggy or monstrous; but a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use.


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A Rare DNF

I don’t keep track of the books I abandon unfinished, so I’m not sure how many there have been this year, but it’s possible that Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is the first one. I don’t mind mentioning it as one I abandoned, because it’s doing quite well, and my dissent from the general consensus that it’s a great book is not going to hurt it. I’m generally reluctant to leave books unfinished, so I usually soldier on, or in some cases, read on full of hope, giving the book a chance to improve. But sometimes, particularly when a book I’m uncertain about is long and feels as though it will never end, I give up. Yes, I know I should feel free to abandon books and that life is so much better when you do. I know that. Please don’t remind me! But I do like to give books a full chance when I can.

The Flamethrowers just wasn’t keeping my attention. It’s about a young woman, Reno, in the 1970s, who goes to New York from Nevada to participate in the art scene there. People have praised it for its portrayal of the New York City scene, and that certainly interests me, but if that’s part of the book’s interest, then I wanted more of it. Reno herself wasn’t coming to life for me either. She is described with too much detachment, and her actions seemed arbitrary. I didn’t understand why she befriended the people she did. And then interspersed among Reno’s story are sections about an Italian man from earlier in the 20th century and his love of motorcycles, and, while I knew these sections were going to connect up with Reno’s story, I still found them dull.

But don’t necessarily take my word for it — lots of people have loved this book and recommended it, so you might like it too. But I have since moved on to a novel I’m enjoying more, so I think I made the right decision.


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The Art of Fiction

I’m about halfway through John Gardner’s how-to book The Art of Fiction. I like reading these kinds of books even though I’m completely uninterested in writing any fiction of my own. But these books seem equally useful (if not more so) to readers of fiction than to writers of it. They offer theories of reading that are interesting to think about, as well as concepts of craft that help readers appreciate what authors are doing, or where they might be failing. As a teacher of literature, I appreciate the ideas about craft these books give me to bring to the classroom.

As I understand it, Gardner’s book is a classic of the genre, and so far I’m enjoying it very much. It’s incredibly clearly written — he makes it seem so easy — with great examples and illustrations and a nice use of humor. I like particularly the balance he strikes between the need for rules in fiction writing and the more complicated truth that the rules exist for writers to break and possibly to transform:

However he may get it, mastery — not a full mental catalogue of the rules — must be the writer’s goal. He must get the art of fiction, in all its complexity — the whole tradition and all its technical options — down through the wrinkles and tricky wiring of his brain into his blood … Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.

In other words, art has no universal rules because each true artist melts down and reforges all past aesthetic law.

He argues that good fiction creates the feeling of a dream: “what counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.” This strikes me as absolutely true of, as he puts it, conventional fiction. We want to believe in the world the fiction creates and not get knocked out of that dream by details that seem false or by sentences that seem awkward or characters that don’t convince.

I find myself less convinced by the way he treats unconventional fiction. He acknowledges that the kind of fiction that doesn’t aspire to be a dream has its pleasures and its interest, but he seems biased toward the conventional anyway. I’m not seeing in his discussion of unconventional fiction the range of experiment that I’ve found in such books. Perhaps this has something to do with the book’s 1983 publication date? I keep thinking, what would Gardner make of something like Nicholson Baker’s 1988 book The Mezzanine? It doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc and as far as creating the feeling of a dream goes, it doesn’t seem interested in it, unless you consider getting lost in someone else’s thoughts as like inhabiting a dream.

But disagreeing with this kind of book is part of the pleasure of reading it. The book’s first half is about fiction generally and the second half gets into the nitty-gritty of technique. I’m looking forward to what he has to say next.


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Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart’s new novel, Sanctuary Line, tells the story of an extended family living, among other places, on the north shore of Lake Erie. The family came from Ireland and is full of lighthouse keepers, farmers, and orchardists, or at least it was until the most recent generation, which has moved on to other things. Now the farm on Lake Erie is falling into disrepair. The story is told in the first person by Liz Crane who is living alone in the old farmhouse, mourning the loss of her cousin, who has died in combat in Afghanistan. She is a scientist and is conducting research on monarch butterflies. She gives us some details of her current work and her isolated life, but most of the book is filled with stories from her childhood and family legends, many of which have come down to her from her uncle, a charismatic but troubled man. The narrator moves back and forth among all these narratives, building up a picture of the place and the family. The tension in the novel concerns what happened one summer during Liz’s adolescence, a series of events that transformed her life and led to her uncle’s permanent disappearance.

The writing here is beautiful, and Urquhart evokes such a strong sense of place, it made me nostalgic for an area I’ve never seen (although it seems not so different from the south shore of Lake Ontario, which is where I grew up). The novel verges on being too slow in its pacing, and it probably will be too slow for some people. She takes her time with the narrator’s various tales and stories, but I found myself wrapped up in the novel’s atmosphere and wanting to know what happened that summer. I wasn’t sure I liked Urquhart’s choice to have her narrator address an unnamed “you” in her account of her life; this “you” wasn’t consistently evoked and seemed unnecessary, although this does eventually get resolved. But mostly the novel felt satisfyingly rich in its portrayal of the changes time can bring.


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