One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it “within months.” This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen’s San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
I’ll be on Minnesota Public Radio show Midmorning tomorrow (Thursday) for a discussion of newspaper book sections and blogs. Also appearing on the show will be former LA Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman. The segment starts at 11am Eastern and I’m told that I’ll be on from 11:30 until noon.Those of you not in Minnesota can listen in online here. Hope you enjoy it.
As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d’If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas’ account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there’s a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn’t changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words “The Best Books of 2003,” so, naturally, I took a gander. It’s not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book’s official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you’ve been lurking around here for that long you’ll remember. Several folks have called it “the book of the year,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I’ve mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague’s dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm… didn’t this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the “best” readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I’m afraid I don’t get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn’t really heard of this one, but it’s one of those “f’d-up-childhood” memoirs, but this time it’s not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
Cholodenko, Cholodenko…. Cholodenko. It really rolls off the tongue. I saw a movie directed by Ms. Cholodenko this evening. She didn’t direct it this evening, I saw it this evening, at the Vista in Los Feliz. I had enjoyed her previous movie, High Art. In Laurel Canyon she continues her riffs on sexual predators, sexual innocents, and the curiosity of all those folks thrown together at once. It was light and entertaining, but also pretty invigorating. Frances McDormand plays a “seen it all” record producer. Her life is fun and free of the usual drudgery, and those around her don’t know whether to fear or envy the life she leads while surrounded by rapscallion British rocker types. Like High Art, Laurel Canyon is a coming of age story, but without so much psychological trauma and none of the admonishments about the scary drugs.
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to discourage a writer’s use of cliché; and
It is a cliché of the creative writing workshop to say that clichés are too familiar and therefore ineffective; and
The first time we heard this cliché against clichés it was a revelation, but with each successive repetition the cliché against clichés became increasingly faded and opaque, i.e., clichéd:
a comforting logical fabric (“I’ll say the thing about clichés!”) to throw over a gap where uncertainty lay;
a stand-in for new and difficult thinking
because you’d have to remember all the way back to the first time you heard this cliché against clichés to actually see, once again, that clichés are ineffective because they prevent you from seeing;
but also an efficient shorthand,
one soothing for its familiarity,
and in its familiarity suggestive of rightness,
and in its rightness suggestive of belonging: to the community of those who’ve been through writing workshops and so have been inducted into the Army Against Clichés,
which is also an Army Against Genre Fiction and Commercial Fiction and Popular Nonfiction, all of which are what they are (beloved, commercially viable, popular) because they return dependably to clichés of storytelling invented and real; and
which may itself be an Army Against the Teeming Masses, who buy mass-produced books for the soothingly familiar stories inside; and
which is therefore an Army of Elitism, reproducing clichés of class; but
which may also be an Army Against Itself; and
Every word of our language is a cliché, so familiar as to be efficiently, effortlessly understood; and
We cling to these clichés (of language, of description, of workshop) for their ease and also for their familiarity, which suggests rightness, which suggests belonging; and
Cliché, here, may refer to a bevy of workshop clichés, including:
clichés of praise (this is effective, is working, is strong, great, fantastic, amazing, well done), which stand in for consideration of what these terms mean;
clichés of condescension (this isn’t working, is ineffective, weak, less well-done), which cover over uncertainty about what these terms mean;
clichés of response and suggestion (too heavy-handed, sentimental, familiar; more subtle, restrained, fresh), which assume there is a single aesthetic community to which we all belong; and
other such meaningless pandering and avoidance of considerate thought, tics that are contagious because we reach for agreement because we reach for belonging because the truth that there is no rightness is so damn maddening;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED…
That we will use the cliché against clichés against itself, at once ratifying and refusing its meaning:
abstaining, in our conversations about new writing, from using workshop shorthand, i.e., from not thinking;
abstaining from agreeing with each other too much, i.e., from group-think;
granting that, in the process, we will create new clichés; and
trusting that we will question and thereby destabilize these clichés along the way.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tom Newby Photography.
Some quick observations: Bob Woodward’s new book Plan of Attack is selling as fast as I have seen any book fly off the shelf in my two years at the book store: faster than Hillary and approaching Harry Potter levels. One time Millions contributor Kaye Gibbons has a new novel out called Divining Women. Early reviews are mostly good. On the other hand, the review that New York Times’ “Madame” Michiko Kakutani gave Alice Walker’s new book, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, is just about the most brutal I have ever seen in that paper. View the carnage hereIn Millions news, I’m heading to New York tonight. I’m in a wedding this weekend and there are other East Coast errands to run, so I probably won’t be blogging much, if at all. I will, however, be checking the comments here as well as my email. I don’t know how special this makes me, but I have been asked to be a trial user for Google’s mega-hyped webmail service, GMail, so if you are curious about how well it works, feel free to drop me a line.