The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman. I'd call this a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. Christopher Buckley raved about this book for the Times, declaring he was particularly impressed by the structure, which surprises me. I think it'd be easier to write a novel this way. But maybe that's just me. The subject matter, the lives of employees and readers of an international newspaper -- and that newspaper's rise and fall -- is very timely. What better way to get coverage in the traditional media's shrinking review pages? Still, a very readable and entertaining book.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I happened across a mention of this book in a piece on five books about childhood innocence and thought it might make a good addition to my list of the best books about childhood. (I need to update that list.) The Go-Between, published in 1953, is written from the perspective of an adult but this is an adult who remembers astonishingly well just what it was like to be thirteen in the year 1900. And the year is key -- for a reader in 2010, that thirteen-year-old is unbelievably naive. I kept thinking the plot might work today but only if the protagonist was maybe 9 or 10 years old instead of thirteen. Still, this is a terrific, eminently readable book and I highly recommend it, even though it is certainly overwrought and almost unforgivably melodramatic. Read it when you are in an overwrought, melodramatic mood. Interesting note: this is the book that begins with the famous lines: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. They do indeed.Just Kids by Patti Smith. I didn't know much about Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe until I read this sweet memoir of their early romance and lifelong friendship. The jacket copy says that Smith was given the Commander of the Order des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, France's highest honour for artists, in 2005 and I was struck by how her writing, which is elegant, formal, and melancholy, seems very French. It almost reads like a translation of something from the French. As I read, I discovered that she is, or was, very fond of French poets, particularly Rimbaud, so this began to make a kind of sense. She comes across as a bit of a delicate flower in this book which seems at odds with her rock and roll persona and her androgynous crow mystique -- I suppose all that makes for an intriguing contradiction. I was impressed by how devoted the pair were to the idea of making art. And less impressed by their deliberate political forays into the art world. There's a lot of name dropping. There was a definite sense that Smith and Mapplethorpe were interested in being inspired by other, more successful artists rather than using them in order to get famous themselves but there was a lot of the latter going on, too, I think. That was disappointing -- I like the idea of artists focusing only on their art, and not on how to promote themselves.
Okay, here's something you really shouldn't miss. One of my favourite writers, Kelly Link, author of the critically acclaimed -- and very fabulous -- story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, is doing a blog tour for her Young Adult collection Pretty Monsters. She is doing guest posts for a number of blogs and they are riveting. Link recently had a baby girl, Ursula*, who was born at 24 weeks and therefore had a long and harrowing stay in the NICU. Start here:
I could hardly stand being in the NICU at first. We knew that Ursula’s situation was precarious. Almost half of babies born at 24 weeks don’t survive. (Before my pregnancy became high risk, I didn’t know that any babies could be born so early, so small, and go on to thrive.) A majority of those babies that do survive end up with serious complications of one kind or another due to the therapies that keep them alive as well as due, simply, to their extreme prematurity. The gregarious nurse assigned to Ursula that first day told us immediately, well, it’s good that she’s a girl. Girls have a better chance of survival. The next day when we went up, he said, well, she’s still alive. The first twenty-four hours are really crucial. The next day he said, she’s still alive — that’s good. The first 48 hours are crucial. After a week had passed, when a nurse told us that the first week was the period of greatest danger — and so it was a good sign that she had made it through — we weren’t surprised.
Then go here:
I didn’t write any stories during this period. Maybe this is because the kinds of stories that I write don’t have the kind of happy, conclusive ending that I longed for, so badly, for so many months, in my own life. Maybe I didn’t write because it was always going to be hard to write while you are a new parent.
I was never the girl the vampire fell in love with. Or the girl who discovered her destiny was to kick vampire ass. For that matter, for a long time I was sure that I would never find love. I was fairly sure I would end up an old maid, living in a house full of cats. Except even cats were never as smitten with me as I with them. I would have been the old maid living in a house full of iguanas. I’ve had a pet iguana: it doesn’t break your heart that your iguana doesn’t love you. You don’t expect love from an iguana. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that many of my characters are faint of heart, like me. They aren’t especially heroic. If they get involved in dramatic situations, let’s say, with werewolves, it tends to be a terrible mistake: maybe they did something stupid. Or maybe someone else dragged them in. Me, I’ve always been concerned about the fact that I can’t drive stick shift. Come the zombie apocalypse, or the werewolf attack, I’ll be the one sitting in the driver’s seat of the getaway car, crying hysterically while I flood the clutch.
And here Kelly provides lists of her favourite romance and paranormal romance novels and favourite paranormal romance in other media. I'm bookmarking those, so I can work my way through them.
*Kelly's baby daughter's name, Ursula, means "Little Bear." The Little Dipper is also known as Ursa Minor or Little Bear and it contains within its constellation Polaris, the North Star, which is the most well-known and widely used directional star. Clearly Ursula is a very good name.
I was a little hesitant to read Eleanor Catton's debut novel The Rehearsal -- she was in her very early twenties when she wrote it and the praise on the back of the book seemed as overblown as it usually is for a new writer. (And for old ones, for that matter.) But I cracked the thing open and started in. A character called the saxophone teacher was refusing to take on a new student in dialogue that seemed ludicrously florid. "Let me put it this way," the teacher says, "a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud." I might have actually rolled my eyes at that point. I told myself to give the thing ten pages.
Five or six pages in, I was hooked. This is a brilliant and unusual book, written in an experimental style and peopled with characters that actually have depth and layers. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that the book is about performance -- students at a drama school put on a play about a recent sex abuse scandal at a neighbouring school for girls, which perfectly allows for an exploration of how adolescents begin to consciously shape, or perform, their personalities. In the video I've posted above, the very young Eleanor Catton talks about how the novel came about.
Although I cannot find it anywhere -- perhaps it was just for a blurb? -- apparently Joshua Ferris wrote somewhere that the book is "as if Miss Jean Brodie got lost in Barth's funhouse." If you are the kind of person that description appeals to, you will love this book. If you are the kind of person that description would turn off, there's still a good chance you will love this book.
My little brother Den and I have a list on McSweeney's today called Things Dorothy Parker Might Have Said, Had She Been A Mother. Here it is, if you can't be bothered to click the link:
"If you can't say anything nice about anyone else's children, come sit by me."
"She knows her letters from A to B! Isn't she amazing?!"
"Brevity is the soul of high school musical productions."
"That child is learning eighteen languages but doesn't understand No in any of them."
"If you want to know what God thinks of children, just look at the people he gave them to."
"Money is no object; I want only enough to keep a nanny between me and my kids."
"Men seldom make passes at lactating lasses."
"The two most beautiful words in the English language are 'nap time'."
"I require only three things of a man. He must get up at for night feedings and change diapers. Is that only two? Okay, I require only two things of a man."
"Childbirth pains you; diapers are damp,
Spit-up stains you and little feet stamp.
the pediatrician says he's hyperactive,
I'm going to commit suicide if you don't come home early tonight,
I mean it, I'm totally not kidding."
"Hi, I'm Dorothy... Timmy's mom. "
Here are some of the things she really did say. Our list isn't very amusing at all if you aren't familiar with her bon mots. And we owe a big shout-out to Sean Carman for the "lactating lasses" bit. I'd originally put "girls who are lactating." Sean makes everything better.
I've just finished a binge on Shirley Jackson's stuff. I love both her lighthearted family memoirs and her short stories and novels. She does creepy extraordinarily well -- I do most of my reading in bed, next to the sleeping Sylvie and Luke, and I finally had to restrict The Haunting of Hill House to daylight hours. I was starting to imagine that our house was haunted, especially the other night when I got up at 4am to feed Sylvie and heard disturbing crooning and radio-static noises coming from somewhere downstairs. I roused David and we both crept through the eerie dark looking for the source. It turned out to be a musical birthday candle we'd had on David's birthday cake earlier that day -- it was singing its death throes in the garbage can.
I gather from Jackson's biography that much of her supposed non-fiction writing about her real life was fictionalized. I suppose it's hard for a good storyteller not to embellish. But those who do likewise when they write about their kids should take note of this, from Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson:
For the past five or six months I've been reading a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. Every few years I tend to go through a stage when I binge on them. Just this past week, for instance, I finished Private Demons, Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Shirley Jackson. It left me telling everyone, only half tongue-in-cheek, that I wish I could take amphetamines like Jackson did in order to stave off exhaustion. If I could only get my hands on some speed, I aver, I could probably toss off a literary masterpiece in the intervals between Sylvie's night feedings. Jackson's family doctor prescribed them to her -- a lot of busy housewives in the 1950s took them as a matter of course and Jackson not only had four children, she also was one of the few mothers in her small town who worked at something else. Unfortunately, the amphetamines meant she had to take tranquilizers in order to sleep and the drugs are now thought to have contributed to her early death at age 48.
I need to get my hands on a copy of How I Became a Famous Novelist, which is reviewed here and excerpted here. He had me at the ad line "Blood is the new pink" and only reinforced the deal with "I wear jeans daily because jeans can double as a napkin." Never mind the following premise for a thriller: "A New York City cop discovers that some Hasidic Jews have found a long-lost 11th commandment that changes everything."
The book has its own Facebook page, where you can find a bunch of extra content, including a page where you can add your own titles to the fake New York Times bestseller lists.
Last weekend, the weekend before Sylvie was born, I devoured my first Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep. The characters, with the exception of Philip Marlowe himself, are ridiculous* caricatures, especially the women, and the plot was ridiculously* convoluted -- I'm still not sure what happened -- but the writing is stellar. There's something very Art Deco about it, very vivid and economical, all dramatic stylized swoops. Those zingy one-liners; those crazily apt similes and metaphors! Yum. There are too many great ones to list here, but the one that goes something like "He looked more like a dead man than most dead men" has stayed with me. The construction works to describe lots of things, like my current situation. Although I gave birth a week ago, I still look more pregnant than most pregnant ladies. (Try it! It's fun! Not the looking pregnant thing -- which is decidedly unfun -- but playing around with the "He looked more ___ than a ___ ___construction. If you come up with a good one, please do share by leaving it in the comments.) You can read some good Chandlerisms here but that list is by no means definitive. There were at least that many good lines in The Big Sleep alone.
Take this, from The High Window:
"From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away."
It's very similar to a description that I've always liked, from the movie Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling:
Tai: Do you think she's pretty?
Cher: No, she's a full-on Monet.
Tai: What's a Monet?
Cher: It's like a painting, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess.
I wonder if Heckerling is a Chandler fan.
*Ridiculous is my new favourite word, ever since Luke has started using it a lot -- except he pronounces it "ree-dick-lee-us."
Pasha Malla's terrific book of short stories, The Withdrawal Method -- a debut that got a lot of positive attention here in Canada, including a nomination for the Giller Prize, which is very fancy --is now available in the United States. To mark this occasion, we decided to have a little conversation about children in fiction. I was particularly interested in Pasha's fictional kids but Pasha, in typical Pasha fashion, was more interested in other people's. You can read the conversation over at Maud's, who was kind enough to post it for us. (By the way, it's Maud's birthday today! Send her some good wishes... I'd have the baby today, if I could be assured she wouldn't be undercooked, just so she'd share Maud's astrological profile.)