February 06, 2011


Susan D. Anderson

Dear Mark,

I find that my dissatisfaction with even what is called good television has been alleviated by no longer subscribing to cable, and using my TV set as a box for watching DVDs of exactly what I want, when I want. I sympathize with the competing demands on your time; my blog posts have slowed (no longer do I promise or expect to deliver one a week). Now, my Facebook friends endure bulletins re: my weekends devoted to revising my novel for an interested agent. First things first!

Susan D. Anderson

(The Other) Niall

We've been through this before, but Mendelsohn misreads the show as badly as Mark Greif did. Just for starters, his list of what "everyone" does in the office is simply incorrect. And the peculiar tone of the show comes precisely from the fact that nothing is ever resolved, melodramatically or otherwise: lots of things end, without being over.

Secondly, like all people who decide (pretty much ex nihilo) that the show is about its historical setting, Mendelsohn misses what the show is actually doing - which is establishing a kind of continuous present: a history-free zone full of ephemera that nobody in the show really notices.

These are people who feel their lives should be free of unintended consequences: they should be only what they present themselves to be. The things that thwart them in that aim are very rarely the allcaps racism and sexism that Mendelsohn takes to be the show's guiding and gigglingly superior fascination. Mad Men is not saying that we are better than the characters: it's saying that these are our immediate ancestors and that not much has changed.

Anyway, that's enough of that from me. Good to have you back, Mark.


On the subject of television, did anyone watch Downton Abby? One of the best, I thought. The characters, the setting, the story line, hard as it was to relate to know. Entailment. Bondage without the chains, but as painful for the women of that time.

Alexandra Boland

Welcome back; we've missed you.

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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.
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    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."