October 06, 2009



Nabokov was an author who was constantly mocking his readers even as they read his works. I think the reaction he expected to elicit from their bodies was excruciation, not exuberance.


The notion of "objective," i.e. non-personalized book-reviewing, has always struck me as bizarre, and not at all appealing (as a writer, in particular). My reaction to a book is always connected to the way in which the book/story/characters -- as a friend of mine puts it -- wrecks me. There are perfectly fine, award-winning books that others rave about that I can't get worked up over. It has everything to do with personalism. Consider how certain books strike us so differently when we read them once at a young age and then again in later life. Often the book I just read will (unfairly, of course) affect my experience of the book which comes after.

This reminds me a bit of my experience in an MFA program (years ago). My favorite professor was not the one who "taught" us things, in a standard fiction craft kind of way, but who simply shared with us his passions. He was not objective; he was clear about his biases -- his exuberance and his disdain. He couldn't have hid those biases if he tried, which is what, I felt, made him not a professional teacher, but an artist showing us what it meant to make and live with art. Our "education" with him was simply a dynamic conversation about what it means to connect with art, to be moved, and changed. That two-year conversation is what made that time worthwhile.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."