November 28, 2005



dear Lord, it's almost frightening... the whole point of the article is functionally worthless. it doesn't matter what feeling a piece of literary fiction leaves you with, it's whether or not the piece was well-crafted, whether or not it sought to convey a Truth. i don't read to feel happy, i read to learn, to connect, to expand, and those things make me happy: that is why i read.


ya, we spent about 30 minutes badmouthing that column on Sunday morning, while having our coffee. The only thing I can say in her defense is that "literary" books marketed to middle-aged women are almost always about family tragedies and incest, and if that's what she's been reading for the last few years, I can see how it would get you down. HOWEVER, there is a universe of books out there: for god's sake go to the library and ask for some recommendations. Read some funny books, some whimsy, whatever. It's not like there aren't quality books of this type.


I'm not quite sure that the citizen journalist aspect of this column is such a bad thing, Mark. There will be plenty more jarring notes like this as regular papers try to compete with blogs. Eventually they will get something right.

For example, we have a really odd music column in our Friday entertainment guide at present - in the past the guide has been chock-full of high quality music writing and reviews, mostly about the local scene. Definitely something to be treasured and nurtured - yet one journo who has a quite popular personal blog has started to use her column to review song choices sent in by readers - bang, one formerly excellent column turns into a long crappy meme.

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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."