by Michelle Wildgen, October 16, 2009 10:07 AM
Word of Gourmet
folding is last week's news
, I know, but I came home today from a reading in Chicago to find my new issue here and it just reminded me of the whole depressing thing. If S.I. Newhouse had asked me, I would have told him to lose Bon Appétit
and keep Gourmet
, but I must admit to a little nostalgia for Bon Appétit
. One of the first times I became interested in cooking and food was thanks to an old pile of Bon Appétit
issues at a friend's house. One of them contained a recipe for pasta with shitakes, saffron, butter, scallion, and crab. It sounds very '80s now, but then again it was the '80s. I was about fifteen at this point. I remember the photo of it, which caught my eye — the ivory and mahogany mushroom slices, the bright green rings of scallion, the golden tangle of noodles and soft white shreds of crab — but mostly what grabbed me was that I did not have the slightest idea how it would taste. I didn't know how to cook, but I decided to cook it anyway, just to find out. I told my mother I would make dinner some weeknight if she would buy the ingredients — cunningly, I didn't specify the ingredients until she had agreed. I suspected saffron did not come cheap.
I didn't even know how to pronounce shitake but I found them in a little package next to pearl onions, sun dried tomatoes, shallots, basil, and other things that had been deemed high end in the '80s and grouped together and fenced off in a tiny, elite-produce ghetto. I unearthed a small vial of saffron threads in a little-used shelf of the spice section at the grocery store, and because crab was dicey, we substituted shrimp. The methods were simple (chopping, boiling, melting, tossing); it was the ingredients that intrigued me. I thought it was delicious, sort of musky and savory and rich and buttery. To be honest, I don't really want to make it now, but at the time I was extremely impressed by it all: by saffron, by shitakes, by Bon Appétit, by myself for assembling it without flames, illness, or bloodletting.
That was how I learned to cook, and why I learned to cook: because I read about dishes I wanted to taste. I enjoy a mouthwatering description of a familiar dish as much as anything, but what always grabbed me was the unfamiliar ingredient or combination. Later, I read Nora Ephron's Heartburn, which described a pasta dish combining room temp tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and basil with hot pasta — there, it was the combination of temperatures that intrigued me. It was delicious, of course, a simple classic that by now the whole world probably knows, but I was delighted to make its acquaintance. I began leaving high school early and coming home to make this dish for lunch.
Any devoted cook or eater loves a great cookbook, but I have an endless love of the great novel or memoir that is just as appetizing. John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure tells the story of a murderer who is also a divine cook, and for some time as I read, I wondered if it might not be worth the risk of poison to meet a man who could make a mushroom dish as he described. I argue that it is. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books are all about food, the endless rounds of butchering, curdling, curing, baking, and I went crazy for this book as a child too, trying to enlist my mother in figuring out how to make a vanity cake based on the description in On the Banks of Plum Creek. She maintained that the book's brief mention didn't give her enough to go on, but I felt my mother was being faint-hearted and regarded her over the nightly casserole with acute disillusionment for the better part of a week.
And then there were English children's books — do they exist in order to do anything but torture American children with tantalizing mentions of cream teas and jam buns and scones? Well, yes, and I have my loves in that subgenre too (do people realize how crisp-tongued and vain and fantastic Mary Poppins is in P L Travers's novels? She's a lot closer to Naomi Campbell than Julie Andrews would have you believe) but much of it was because the British, the excellent, excellent British, seemed to eat Devon cream by the bucketful.
Laurie Colwin's characters sat down to old fashioned faintly English food — lamb chops, salmon, ham steak in cream sauce, rice pudding — that I rarely wanted to eat but loved reading about. Hemingway wrote about a whole village in ecstasy over the catching of a large fish, about a different preparation of eggs each morning and the interplay of eggs and mustard, eggs with pepper, eggs and coffee. I came to love any number of authors for their willingness to apply their skills to the table, but it's been a long time since I read about a dish I'd never had, and couldn't imagine, and just had to learn to cook it so that I would know what saffron was, what this mushroom was. I wouldn't say writing about food has replaced the person-to-person learning and teaching, by any means. But for me, anyway, it was the first glimmer, the first push at the door.
That's all for me this week. Thanks, Powell's
by Michelle Wildgen, October 15, 2009 9:00 AM
I am a sucker for a book about a group. What reminded me of this was Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age
, her homage to Mary McCarthy's endlessly re-readable...
by Michelle Wildgen, October 14, 2009 9:00 AM
Does anyone remember Norma Klein? I go around asking people this pretty often and no one ever seems to. I think her best-known book for kids was Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me
, but I was usually less into her books for younger readers and more into her YA. I was deeply
into her YA novels.
I just did a little searching and was delighted to see that Lizzie Skurnick over at Jezebel's Fine Lines column — a column I live and die for — also appreciates some NK, but she is largely a lost writer these days. Yet in the '70s, Norma Klein was well known. Mostly for her YA books, but she also wrote for adults, though I have to say I don't think her sensibility translated very well. She was not unlike Judy Blume writing for older kids, about kids with less conventional families and with fewer of Blume's maddening ellipses in the dialogue. The thing about Norma Klein for me was that her world was so distant and exotic that it was almost sci-fi. The books usually took place in New York City, so half the involvement for me was trying to parse from Ohio some of the basics of life in the city. When she wrote about going to someone's house, did she mean house or apartment? The setting struck me as vast and unnavigable: how did people ever just run into each other in New York City? How did they find each other at all? There seemed to be an arcane ritual for reserving time on a city tennis court, and people all took trains and subways and thought nothing of it, and teenagers had parents on their second or third marriages, parents who had come out, parents who didn't care if they smoked weed at home as long as they opened the windows.
But the greatest part of all was the frankness about sex. Teenagers had affairs with each other or older people though no one seemed bothered by that, they got diaphragms and later the pill, had misunderstandings, got hurt, got over it. It wasn't presented in the way it so often is now, as some kind of world-in-peril decision from which the kids had to be protected at all costs. (And before we note that, yes, this was pre-AIDS, I think it's worth noting how rarely the current hysteria about teens and sex seriously addresses safe sex and sexual health — it's usually more about what some would call virtue, as far as I can tell.) Sex was a part of the adult world these characters were learning to navigate. Their families were imperfect — the parents often yelled or apologized later, or were maddeningly opaque or just clueless about their own marriages and affairs, but they were largely unfazed by the appearance of sexuality on the scene for their offspring. I don't recall them as being extraordinarily helpful, but how many parents really are in these matters?
The thing is, these weren't "issues" books; they weren't explaining radical phenomena but just depicting a life that I suppose was pretty realistic for some. And this was thirty years ago — I would love to hear from someone with YA publishing experience if they think these books would be published today or what, in the current market, compares. Maybe there is something out there that
by Michelle Wildgen, October 13, 2009 10:09 AM
At the book festival
the other day, a panelist told a story about someone (I can't recall who but I think he later became a comics artist) who as a child got a hold of some underground comic, maybe an old R. Crumb
or something similarly subversive and sexual, and he was so disturbed by the comic that he couldn't think of anything to do but bury it.
Everyone had a good laugh about it, because everyone knows that feeling of being drawn to a book, to a picture, of being desperate to know just what the hell is going on in it, and then feeling so strange and repulsed and implicated by your involvement in it that you just need to disavow it — bury it, hide it, cover it. I think that as kids, we have these kinds of involvements more with sexual content than violent content, unless it's violent sexual content, but I'm guessing.
Anyway, midway through my own laughter at this story, I shut up and remembered something. My freshman year in high school, word went out that a girl named Tisha had a really crazy book and that we should all totally borrow it. I think I waylaid Tisha immediately after study hall and got my hands on it.
It was just a small paperback, with a cover in sunset colors, and I think a photo of a woman's face partially obscured by a lock of blond hair. Something like that. The summary that follows is from memory and is doused in shame and distance, so don't hold me to it, but I recall the heroine is a newscaster, and she meets a man at some party, and I believe he drugs her and then arranges for most of the party to have sex with her while he watches, or records it, or something. I know, it's not funny; it's appalling, and I recall feeling completely gobsmacked when I read it. So then, as you do when someone has taken the time to arrange such a fate for you, she falls in love with him. Well, first they argue. I mean, there has to be some tension, right? But then I think she is kidnapped and he saves her and along the way the reader is supposed to be pretty okay with the love affair.
This book freaked the living hell out of me. I wouldn't say that growing up in eighties suburban Ohio had left me particularly advanced in my sexual politics, but I did know it was vomitous that I was supposed to be either turned on by a gang rape and then swept away by the ensuing affair, or maybe worse — but what does "worse" even mean in such a context, anyway? — appalled by the gang rape and still swept away by the affair. (Though as I write this, I'm remembering a few other gems the eighties so thoughtfully gave us: a soap opera in which a woman marries her rapist and the whole world watched in delight, the deeply shlocky, unpleasant and thoroughly mesmerizing to children Flowers in the Attic series, in which men were always being driven by their passions to incest, beatings, and rape. But they had inner demons and penetrating eyes, so it was basically okay.) Anyway, I wasn't thinking in terms of cultural norms when I read this book: I just wanted it away from me, and I wanted to forget that I'd read it — and that anyone knew I had read it. I had the book at school with me, and I distinctly recall the trash can near the girls' room where I threw it out. I was supposed to give it back to Tisha, of course, because there was a waiting list and I think she had stolen it from her older sister, but I remember feeling that I couldn't even stand to engage that much with the book as to hand it back to someone and say what I'd thought. I was hoping Tisha would feel the same way and would let it go without mentioning it again. She didn't, of course, because I was the one behaving abnormally, and when she asked me about it, I insisted I had already given it back. She was justifiably skeptical.
It's possible that the book was not the pulp I recall, that maybe it was purposefully subversive and was accomplishing something complex and meta by trying to draw the reader in to this story despite the reader's resistance. And the idea of comics like the one that ended up buried in some boy's yard was not just about titillation for titillation's sake but also about the purposeful uncovering of the creepy, sexy ugliness at the heart of that titillation. But maybe trying to parse the book's meaning and intentions and merits and such is just beside the point. Because, really, I just started by thinking about something I had long forgotten, about a moment when I reacted so strongly to printed words on a page that I just wanted to bury it, hide it, cover it
by Michelle Wildgen, October 12, 2009 9:34 AM
Woo hoo, back on the Powell's blog! Last time I did this
, I was still in New York, in Yonkers for the cheap rent and cheap shots it so easily afforded me. Since then I've moved back to Madison, Wisconsin. Part of the reason I'm fond of this city, aside from the farmers markets and the sheer ease and beauty of being here, is that Madison likes a festival: early each spring the Wisconsin Film Festival gets us out of the house just at the moment when we can all actually see our sanity, shrunk into something like a tiny mouse curled into a ball, bouncing heedlessly off a cliff. And in the fall, we get the book festival, just as we are trying to distract ourselves from the oncoming winter — this year, this distraction has focused on a lot of predictions of dicey provenance that this winter will be mild. Something to do with a farmer's almanac, which to my knowledge no one has ever actually read but each fall we all insist that someone
has read and is telling us we will be just fine.
But back to the book fest. Chickens, for some reason, were in heavy rotation in the events I visited or took part in. (I realize that many people may already assume that people in Madison spend all their time discussing poultry, but I assure you it is atypical.) I went to a panel that included Lynda Barry, who told us that whenever people ask what she does for a living, she draws them a chicken to prove she is a cartoonist. (Kids take her chicken rendering skills as sound proof; adults, she said, feel sorry for her, and say things like, "Everybody has a dream, honey, and this is yours.") I also heard Novella Carpenter read from Farm City, and because the sections she read touched only lightly on the actual slaughter involved in animal husbandry, I began to think I too might have a little urban farming potential.
This led me to do a tiny bit of research, and it turns out the city of Madison is on my side on this dream: it is legal for single-family homes to raise up to 4 chickens (no roosters) at least 25 feet from the nearest house. So I began mentioning this ordinance casually in conversation, and people began telling me who near me is raising chickens on the semi-down-low, right here on my street. Apparently they are all around me.
But until I pursue my dream of converting our storage shed to a chicken coop, back to the book fest. For me the highlights of the comics panel were of course Lynda Barry, talking about anything, and when Harvey Pekar snuck in late and climbed over some chairs a row in front of me. I have loved Lynda Barry's work ever since Cruddy tore my heart out of my chest, bashed it against the wall a few times, and handed it back to me soaked in stale gin and my own tears. But I had never heard her on a panel or presentation, and I see now that this has been to my detriment. She is one of these people to whom you say, "I like cookies," and it touches off a monologue that ranges from childhood and alcoholism to chickens to whatever, and it's amazingly funny and off the cuff and every word is welcome. I love people like this. I like to approach them, say, "Hey, did you see that, um, car?" and then just pour myself a drink and listen. She was so good at this that it seemed to inspire the audience: people began to take longer and longer to ask their questions, until, in my favorite example, one woman began by telling a story about how her kids were reluctant readers until she gave them comic books and now they were great readers, not genius but really very good, and she herself had entered a raffle for a kitchen makeover, and on her ballot she had drawn a cartoon to show why she wanted to win, and how she didn't win, but nevertheless, to make a long story short, her question was about books written in prisons. And the thing is, we have all gone to readings when someone asks a question that seems to take forever and the audience becomes pathologically, predatorily still until they are all staring wrathfully in the talker's direction, but this was not the case this time. There was such a goofy goodwill in the audience by this point that when it turned out the whole story was in service of a question about prisons, there was just laughter — not pissy, disbelieving laughter, either. So it just goes to show you, if Lynda Barry comes anywhere near you, seek her out, ask her to draw you a chicken, and let her talk
by Michelle Wildgen, August 10, 2007 10:05 AM
It's Friday morning in August a few days after massive flooding crippled the subways, and the shame of New York's transportation system is on display at the NY Times
for all to see (compared to other cities' in-car screens and email downloads, the MTA provides its station masters with boards and lots of dry erase markers. I'm not kidding). But that's not what I'm thinking about this morning.
I'm thinking about Road House.
We all have to turn away from the deeply depressing world for a little while. Sometimes it's an hour with the befuddled but fierce contestants of America's Next Top Model, on whom the demands of dignity and grammar sit so lightly. But after a few rounds of bad TV, there comes a time when you have to jump head first into the breech. Which I'm pretty sure is how I came to watching a double-billing of Zardoz and Patrick Swayze's 1989 honky-tonk splatterfest last week.
First, a note on Zardoz. I hadn't heard of this 1974 sci-fi epic until my friends in the band the iOs played the trailer for me: Maybe it's unsporting to mock the special effects of thirty years ago, but I figure all the principals in this film can console themselves with endless evenings of fugu and money fights. Impressively incomprehensible, Zardoz features Sean Connery in dyed ponytail and red linen loincloth, as well as a stone head that flies and vomits machine guns, and a race of future people who kill by waving their fingers and murmuring... something. Connery plays a sort of Heston-in-Planet-of-the-Apes-type role, sometimes mute and sometimes perfectly verbal, sometimes doing his own stunts very ineptly. If ever a man deserved to be immortalized on my screensaver trotting obediently before a rickshaw in a red diaper, it is Sean "sometimes a woman wants a smack" Connery. I promise a shiny new donkey for whoever can make that happen.
One's first stupid movie night comes upon one in various ways, but at some point almost all of us who first saw MST3K in college have realized it's more fun to participate in a bad film than to turn it off. For me this moment first arrived alongside the gradual realization that Pushing Tin was not a satire. When Billy Bob Thornton showed up to work bearing an eagle feather behind one ear in this Top Gun for air traffic controllers, or caught a salmon in his bare hands and chucked it right back into the river, grunting, "I know I caught him, and he knows I caught him," I was aghast but he was dead serious.
Or maybe it was a chance TV repeat of Cocktail, featuring Tom Cruise mixing his way to immortality, a clear precursor to his current incarnation as a desperate, grinning man just barely restraining himself from hoarding Katie Holmes' ovaries all for himself and L. Ron Hubbard.
But then Hollywood provides so many opportunities for levity, so few of them intentional. Very few of them as unintentionally hilarious as Road House. I know you recall this career-ender for Patrick Swayze, but just remind yourself for a moment: Swayze is Dalton, a famous bouncer who drives a Mercedes and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from NYU, presumably where he learned truisms like "Pain don't hurt." An over-tanned Kelly Lynch, sporting gleaming blonde wings on either side of her face like a kestrel, is a doctor with a taste for rough trade. Sam Elliott (he'll always be Gar to me) makes a jerkied appearance as Dalton's mentor and Kelly Lynch's creepiest dance partner ever. Jeff Healey plays a guitar player caged in chicken wire. Ben Gazzara, who must have had one hell of a mortgage payment due, plays the horse in a one-horse town. Along the way they all deal with their own existential dilemmas: Dalton must learn to let his rage roam free. Kelly Lynch must weigh her lover's pros and cons ? sure, he tears out men's throats now and again, and I guess they don't teach foreplay in grad school, but his winged hair is as mighty as hers. Sam Elliott dances, fights, and dies. Ben Gazzara comes to wish he had more friends and fewer lackeys. It's a tough road for all involved.
I can't tell you that your life or intellect will be better served by watching Road House than Citizen Kane. Road House will almost certainly rob you of more than a few IQ points. But the world sometimes seems to be grinding slowly to a halt, my friends, and it can't hurt to give yourselves a few hours of fun.
OK, so this was not the most intellectual of notes on which to end the week, but it has been enjoyable. Thanks to Powell's for letting me post, and to Patrick Swayze for all the
by Michelle Wildgen, August 9, 2007 10:00 AM
Greetings, citizens! Now that we're closing in on sweet sweet Friday, I think a little pleasure is in order, so let's talk books with food and sex. With these particular tools, writers and readers have such strong inclinations in one direction or another ? sometimes I suggest a writer try a sex scene for a certain story and they either light up or instinctively shake their heads. Once I exchanged novel drafts with a colleague and we returned to each other a week later, me saying, "I think it's overusing landscape a little," and him saying, "I think it's overusing food a little." In the end, he kept his landscape, and I kept my food.
For those of you who write, I suggest challenging whatever your inclination may be ? if you always cut to the bedroom scene, stay in the living room. If you have a character remaining a little opaque to you, toss them in bed with someone. It may not make the final story, but you may find it extraordinarily helpful to know them in this way. Plus, a good sex scene that doesn't fall back on clichÃ© is not an easy task. Similarly, what food do they eat when no one's watching? Sardines on toast, ice cream with peanut butter on top? What's their comfort food and what's their idea of culinary taboo?
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So what books do you turn to when you want to see a provocative sex scene, a sensual food-fest? For sex, I'm not necessarily talking a heap of full-on sex scenes (although for a teen in the 1980s, Judith Krantz was indeed instructive), but allowing your characters' sexuality to play a useful part in the story. Wallace Stegner's wise, mournful, and richly textured Crossing to Safety contains no sex scenes per se, but it's very attentive to married sex, the power shifts it reflects, and the old-fashioned, surprisingly erotic awareness of when conception follows reconciliation ? quite frankly, with infertility on everyone's mind these days, I had to ask around to confirm that sex and babies are still related. They are! Who knew?
This past year Jane Smiley described every single sensation and moment of a lot of sex scenes in Ten Days in the Valley. Responses were all over the map to this novel, but I have to say I was delighted to see a writer unapologetically apply her immense gifts to write about sex in a way I don't think I have seen ? with an almost preternatural awareness of every vessel, every muscle, every nerve.
Of course, John Updike gave us Couples back in the day, along with any number of heightened sex scenes in other work. The book certainly reflects its era, as far as gender politics go, and that ain't pretty, but I have always loved his descriptions of bodies ? the soles of feet, a wrist, posture, the turn of the hips.
Let's not forget movies, though, and let's not forget Pulp Fiction. Remember Bruce Willis as Butch, fresh off reneging on his agreement with Marsellus to throw the fight and instead beating his opponent nearly to death? Back at the hotel room, his girlfriend, played by Maria de Medeiros, is all big eyes and Dutch-boy haircut and halting accent, and my first fear as she chattered about pie was that she was going to incite him to violence again. But he's pure tenderness with her ? not a reversal of his character but clearly another innate part of it. We don't see them have sex, but we see them about to, we hear their private vocabulary for it. It all feels so absolutely specific and particular to this couple, and the scene totally changes how we see Butch. It's fantastic.
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When I was working on my novel, it quickly became clear that I couldn't have a book about bodies without writing about sex. I'd also argue you cannot have a book about culture without writing about food. If a family sits down to dinner I love to know what they're eating and see what it tells me about them. But I also purely enjoy seeing those words on the page. Remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books? They are all about food ? making butter, butchering hogs, harvesting. Let's blame her for my obsession, shall we? In the nicest possible way.
But back to culture, back to food: Memoir writer MFK Fisher may be the avatar of this group, and deservedly so. In The Gastronomical Me, in particular, food is the means of expressing, experiencing, and contrasting lust, worldliness, marriage, infidelity, illness, incompetence, even evil. Fisher's not big on humor, and she purposefully leaves out a lot of personal details, but she tells you every single meal, from an egg sandwich to a hung pheasant to truite au bleu, in prose so clean and rich and precise it should be taught in MFA programs everywhere.
Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies single-handedly made me desperate to learn about Indian food. There are also times in that book when it broke my heart to see a person simply trying to cook her standby dishes ? the culture wasn't translating. For years Laurie Colwin wrote with wit and warmth about food for Gourmet, and her novels are filled with descriptions of brunch, of dinner, of lamb chops, cheese, capers, salmon... Cooking is part of her characters' way of living their lives as they choose. It's celebration, it's keeping your claws embedded in your social class, it's the choice to live richly or live parsimoniously, regardless of how much money is spent.
It's also seduction ? sometimes disastrous. In Deborah Eisenberg's breathtaking story "Window," a slightly naÃ¯ve, increasingly enthralled young woman goes to an older man's cabin in the woods. He gives her red wine, wild mushrooms gathered from the forest around them, sautÃ©ed with wine and served over noodles. It's clear she's never eaten such simple, delicious food. The description of the dinner is brief but of almost magical intensity, and at this moment the story feels a bit like
by Michelle Wildgen, August 8, 2007 1:22 PM
I know it's tedious to talk about the weather, but if there is a more disgusting soup to swim through than August 100-percent humidity in the New York area, I have not encountered it.
So yesterday I was talking about how mystery novels have ever so slightly taken over my personal reading life. I know I am not the only literary writer who reads mysteries, but I will note that every time I admit it among other writers, a faint glaze of pity and stillness overtakes their faces. Well, I don't care. Plenty of would-be literary writers could learn from the plot and drive of a mystery, or detective novel, or thriller (all different genres and all laid out in Carolyn Wheat's very useful How to Write Killer Fiction). Susanna Moore and Jane Smiley even wrote their own mystery novels (In the Cut and Duplicate Keys, respectively), and you know they did it well because when the killer was revealed in each I felt a genuine chill up my spine.
I have a number of go-to writers whose new books I jump on and backlist I wallow in (including recent Powell's blogger Laura Lippman), and I will get to them. But first, some bitchery.
Maybe because even a poorly written mystery can be so lucrative, this genre seems to allow writing that ranges from the creepily revealing to genuinely bad. After six or eight hundred books or so, a few patterns and peeves stood out to me. For instance, the male writer who fetishizes the diet of his heroine or his hero's girlfriend. Once I began to notice this, it drove me nuts. Back when everyone was reading John Grisham, I gave him a shot too. Which led me to this (paraphrased from memory) line in The Pelican Brief: "Darby Shaw was five foot eight and weighed 106 pounds and she intended to keep it that way." And she does, through the steely refusal of a debauched glass of red wine with dinner. While it's swell that Grisham regards Darby's commitment to the skeletal as evidence of her firm resolve, I keep getting stuck on those measurements ? Darby is essentially bones and hair, but it's clear we're meant to find her hot and brilliant. Similarly, Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels are forever proudly noting that Spenser's girlfriend Susan lives on the occasional skinless chicken wing and eight unbuttered peas at a time ? every meal they eat, Spenser's devouring a three-pound porterhouse and Susan's priggishly wiping her mouth after her second cherry tomato.
Then, of course, there's the amateurish writing some mystery editors seem to keep on letting through: the hot tears and journeys into pain, the knee-jerk habit of lending depth to our hero not through nuanced characterization but by killing a woman in his past, the endless clunky socio-economic descriptions: "I checked my platinum Tag Heuer watch ? I was late for court! There was definitely no time to have Arturo touch up the creamy golden highlights in my shoulder-length blonde hair."
But all of that either drives you crazy or you sail right over it for the plot or what have you, which is fine. Yet where I find myself with a real hang up is when I'm reading a novel that is so gruesome, I'm not sure if it says more about me or the writer. I'm talking about those novels that come up with such incredibly sadistic crimes that I cannot get them out of my head and often put the book down unfinished, feeling rather filthy not just for reading it ? but because I am usually reading for entertainment. It's probably not fair to blame the writers for going what feels too far to me, because it's also true that in order for a mystery to feel high-stakes and urgent, the transgression has to be high enough that it's absolutely necessary to right the wrong. It's hard to feel the pull if the great crime is wondering which maid stained the duvet.
My personal litmus test for this is a totally subjective one, but I can often live with the hideous act if the writing is genuinely good, if it's clear to me that the writer is not presenting the crime as just another interesting way to cook someone alive beneath a steampipe, or just another reason for our burly hero to kick the wall and holler at the night, but as something that truly horrifies and upsets the protagonist as well. I'm thinking of work by writers like Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is one of the great flawed and real detectives, or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, whose affronts tend to be along economic, political, or corporate lines.
I see I've spent all my space complaining and not enough talking about the good stuff. There's probably a personal lesson in there. More importantly, I think I still have space to talk about the good stuff, so here is a whirlwind tour of fine mystery/detective/thriller writers if I haven't already mentioned them:
Donna Leon's excellent, gentle Inspector Brunetti series, set in Venice, Italy, provides a knowing look at the ins and outs of the Venetian political and civil structure, and a wonderful family life for Brunetti, who conducts most of his work over food and is forever stopping off for "brief" lunches of three tramezzini and a couple glasses of wine.
Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan series, featuring a novice PI steeped in love for Baltimore and sculling.
Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield series. Perry's big thing is people who disappear, leaving one identity completely and how they set up and survive in the next. Jane is the guide who helps them do it, and the research and the detail are much of the fun here. I'm pretty sure I know how to create a new identity if the need ever arises.
I'm not a big fan of Ruth Rendell's standalones, in which the characters often feel like a somewhat bloodless collection of traits designed to bring them to a conclusion, but I do like her Inspector Wexford novels.
When I say I'm quite fond of Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series, people often tell me Reginald Hill is better. I haven't found the Hill book that really grabbed me yet, but I've read most of Robinson's and liked them all.
In Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's Bill Slider novels, every single character in the police station feels real
by Michelle Wildgen, August 7, 2007 10:33 AM
I mentioned in my last post that I've worked as an editor for the past several years, currently as a senior editor at Tin House
literary magazine and an editor at Tin House Books. There was a time when I thought the people on that side of the desk ? those who read my work, who generally said no but sometimes said yes ? were probably a certain order of tweedy, well-read gods: decisive, opinionated, absolute in their rightness, their chic offices awash with coffee and bon mots. I pictured them forever harried but deeply satisfied with their duty to squash me and others like me.
The coffee part, it must be said, is absolutely true.
But the rest came in for some revision. For one thing, I don't think I ever appreciated how subjective the response to the work can be. Above a certain level, that is ? below that, when we're talking about writing that is not remotely publishable, writing that makes you want to cry or stab at your own jugular just a little with the point of your pen, that's the easy part. You say no thank you, disinfect your pen, and that's it. But there are endless writers out there who can put the pieces of a story together, who can turn a phrase quite skillfully, who can fill in the gaps of a good plot and character ? and yet in a particular story leave me cold. I would never have believed this before I worked at Tin House. Back then, I thought if it was good, it would be published, and that's it. If I sent out a story and it came back to me, I took it as a representative judgment from all editors everywhere. It never occurred to me that some people liked my writing but some didn't, that you could always send it to other people and see what came back.
Yet the notion is pretty obvious. Consider the pantheon: does every single person love Hemingway? God, no. But many beginning writers send out their work and are waiting for the definitive reply: Keep Writing, or Stop Writing. So I say, Just keep writing and divorce your feelings as much as you can from the process of rejection ? not from writing, just from the unholy business of publishing your writing. It may take a little booze and lot of bravado but you can freeze out that part that makes you want to throw yourself under the bed when a rejection arrives. Breathe deeply and think of it as little Botox for the soul.
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Do people still use the old trope about choosing between being an editor or a writer? I imagine it still gets tossed about somewhat. It seems to me the reasons may have as much to do with logistics as with an inner suitability to one or the other. If you're an editor in a big publishing house, for instance, you're signing on for long hours and heavy workload, all using the same verbal part of the brain, and frankly who can write after all that? Fine, Toni Morrison could. I'll give you Toni. And I know there are others out there, others far superior to me in many ways but in this way in particular. My own job allows me to squeeze in writing because it has flexibility and a workload that is sometimes heavy and sometimes light, but I will say that nearly seven years working as an editor has changed my approach to writing and to publishing quite a bit, even to reading in my off time.
For instance, I used to read almost all literary fiction with the occasional palate cleanser of a good mystery. I now spend so much time reading literary fiction at work that once I hit the train home I'm desperate for a break. I've read so many detective novels and mysteries in the last several years that I routinely scan the grass for corpses when I take my morning walk. That said, I do live in a city that makes this habit not entirely unwarranted.
On the upside, editing has made me a better writer. I no longer think my limpid prose will carry a reader through the first ten pages of a story in which nothing happens except delicious meandering thoughts. I cut. Twenty-five pages is actually a long story to me now, not because of arbitrary page length but because I rarely see stories that need to be that long. I cut. And you know that thing we writers often do, when we hope no one will notice that we aren't exactly sure of why X is in a story, or the purpose of the subplot on bowling with frozen turkeys, or if Z would really rush, laughing gaily, into a snowstorm in her nightgown or if we just really wanted to make her do it so we shoehorned it in there? People always notice. I try to make it work or I cut.
I'm sure there must be more. If there is, I'll shoehorn it into another post later in the week. But for now, time to walk three miles and scan for
by Michelle Wildgen, August 6, 2007 11:10 AM
I don't want to overexcite anyone, but you're here at the dawn of a new era ? my very first blog. I know. Contain yourselves.
I'm forever behind the trends, which is part of why I've never set up a blog of my own. My sophomore year in college, a class was supposed to include reading postings from Chiapas on the World Wide Web (we were still calling it that) and I was so intimidated by this that I debated dropping the class. I also recently heard myself say, as if from a great distance, "I don't get the point of Facebook. I can just call someone." In actuality I was not wearing a little tweed hat with a feather and leaning on a gnarled cane, but I was in spirit.
So anyway, here I've leapt into waters unknown to me but charted by millions of thirteen year olds before me, and I'm feeling rather proud. I'll do my best not to let it degenerate into one of those personal yet not at all juicy diaries ("I saw Bob the other day. He looked great. I also ate some eggs") or lists of products I'd like to purchase ("A nice pair of flip-flops"). If I sense either coming on, I'll stave it off by spilling some nefarious secret that should never see the light of day. Not one of mine, of course, but someone's.
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I just came home from a week in glorious Madison, Wisconsin, where the beer is locally brewed, the cheese curds squeak between your teeth, and bratwurst covers the land as far as the eye can see. It is a lovely place ? a small city with a lot of the amenities of a larger one, great restaurants, big lakes, and a killer farmers market. I lived there (the city, not the market) for seven years before moving to New York, and I think I imprinted on it.
But of course, nothing is perfect. While in Wisconsin I also spent some time at a strange little amusement park bounded on one side by a dairy farm and on the other by a large graveyard. Every now and again as my nephew and I were risking our lives on a rickety rollercoaster called The Necksnapper or something similar, we'd be drenched in a hot breeze redolent of sun-heated cow and cow-related products. I'd grip the handlebars of our personal deathtrap as we hurtled around hairpin turns and think of the century-old graveyard on one side and the hundred cows in the sere yellow fields on the other, us humans in the middle, climbing into metal contraptions with rubber bumpers so we could playfully ram each other senseless. The moment felt faintly absurd and maybe a little profound, some armchair anthropology with a touch of sunstroke.
The same feeling overtook me several years ago when I was at a bar, watching people dance to a blues band. For some reason I started focusing on a father and his twenty-something daughter, who were dancing enthusiastically. I was sitting this one out, feeling a little congested and itchy. (Later I realized I was in the very beginnings of anaphylactic shock, but that's not important right now. Hospital, epinephrine, home.) Anyway, I was watching the people on the stage as they beat skins with sticks and blew into finely calibrated metal tubes and strummed strings stretched over hollow wooden backings, and all the people below them moving to the sounds they made. It felt very simple and very sweet to me, the whole idea that humans somehow invented music and then kept revising and building it, and that we all seem to enjoy finding some way to move to it. (At this point in the story I am often asked to clarify: I was not stoned.) It's a bizarre phenomenon, but to me the great pleasure of it, the thing that makes me think humans aren't totally lost yet, is that it isn't strictly necessary to survival. I assume we began this for pleasure, and to some extent, continue it for pleasure, though it offers more profound effects as well. It also offers Nickelback, but that goes back to that "nothing's perfect" thing again.
The same thing ? not truly necessary but needed nevertheless ? could be said about storytelling. Once I was asked at an author visit in Atlanta what purpose fiction served in the world today, from a student who seemed skeptical it had any real purpose at all. I've spent so much time in fiction classes and working for a literary magazine that it had been a long time since I'd questioned the purpose of it all. I love it; that's my purpose. Yet I thought it was a fair question ? maybe this student was a poli-sci major, or pre-med, and the idea of telling stories to one another was not impressing her as a life-or-death pursuit.
I found myself saying that literature, producing and consuming it, was an act of empathy, maybe one of the most empathetic acts possible, and that the world seems so short on empathy, on the simple ability to imagine a life outside our own towns and skins, that if anything we need more of it. It was an off-the-cuff response but I actually still believe it's true. It's like talking to as many people as you can, who see the world in as many different ways possible. If music can draw me out of myself and into some other space altogether, fiction gets me out of myself and into someone else. And of course sometimes it simply occupies me enough to prevent going pop-eyed with rage on the subway, which perhaps is more