Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

The dangers of overwriting

I’ve just read a devastating review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, written by no other than the writer of reading Like A Writer Francine Prose.
It’s the more devastating because Prose is a spectacular writer in her own right and someone capable of dissecting prose to its skeletal bits and highlighting past injuries, improper joint formations.
As I write that last sentence, I hesitate. Overwriting is a curse. It’s easy to get caught up in the flow of some spiralling metaphor and waft off to some puddle of murk.
According to Prose, that’s what happens in The Goldfinch. At one point she seems in despair, “Doesn’t anyone care about how something is written anymore?”, being very clear that this book’s failings are more so because it is being held up to be a literary novel.
It’s a cautionary tale for me, princess of the mismatched metaphor. Great in a funny novel, not so good in a serious one. I am proud of my ability to stick unusual things together, but I will now keep in mind that my cleverness may not be appreciated.
“Kill your darlings” they quote at writers everywhere, and it’s true. A clever turn of phrase should probably be terminated with extreme prejudice.
As for me, I think I’ll avoid The Goldfinch. 800 pages of thick prose about disastrous lives sounds too much for me in this gloomy weather.

Please make this true, or how the New York Review of Books changes my life…

I recently treated myself to a subscription to the New York Review of Books.


I haven’t had one for years. It’s an expensive subscription, a bit pricey if you neglect to appreciate the pages of excellent writing therein, but more so because of the time required to read it as deeply as the articles demand.

Consequently I am always behind in reading them, and gradually the pressure builds (as with my to-be-read-bookshelf-of-books, which has now expanded to double layers in some places), and I settle myself down and throw myself in.

I honestly believe the NYRB is one of the last bastions of proper journalism. Articles that presumably are there to review books bring in such knowledge and analysis, and I learn so much I can feel my brain stretching.

Every once and awhile I find an article that makes me cry out with delight. I’ve always been a fan of George Saunders’ writing, but this review of his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December, written by Wyatt Mason, was so beautifully done that I am fighting the urge to run out and buy the book to front load onto my aforesaid bookshelf.

I was captured from the first quotation Mason uses from the book, “The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs,” immediately envisioning my son back when I was learning to give the kids haircuts and the horrible way I sent him out into the world (Sorry, J). Mason goes on to excerpt more of the story, a heartbreaking one, ultimately redemptive.

Mason contrasts Saunders with Franzen and David Foster Wallace, and makes the conclusions that made me cry out in delight. You have to read the article. I’ll include the last sentences as a temptation…the problem is that, standing alone, the might behind the comment is missing, the discussion of Saunders’ Buddhism, his perspective on writing fiction, and much more.  Go read it. Better still, subscribe to the NYRB. You won’t regret it.

“But if fiction is to continue to exert an influence over a culture that finds it ever easier to connect, however frailly, to the world around them through technology, Saunders’s stories suggest that the ambition to connect outwardly isn’t the only path we can choose. Rather, his fiction shows us that the path to reconciliation with our condition is inward, a journey we must make alone.”

Oh heck, I’m just going to have to buy Tenth of December!

Dear Geist,

How inadequate you make me feel. I simply don’t GET you.

This morning I opened a free sample of your magazine, mailed to me with a pleading note to renew my subscription, offering a free tote bag if I took you on for three years. The magazine had tempting titles: “why I mastered ukulele”(a favourite instrument), “Helen Humphreys” ( a favourite author), “inferno, purgatorio, paradiso” (a favourite book).

Eyes flipped wide. What the heck, I thought, I’ll give it another look. Usually I find Geist impenetrable, hopelessly fond of literary jumping jacks and the ultra hipster feel of Vancouver on a hyper-caffeinated day. It thinks of itself as cool, above readers, unspeakably literate.

I find it tiresome.

The ukulele temptation was a poem of impossible inaccessibility. About flamenco dancing.

The Helen Humphreys review was oddly patronizing, which made me angry, but not strongly enough to feel the urge to care. I adore Helen’s writing, and I find even in her less engaging novels moments of pure transcendence. The final comment was cold: “made me want to comfort Helen. This too shall pass.” So glad you can recover quickly, reviewer, whoever you are.

The Dante article did remind me I wanted to read him, but the article was too full of masturbatory self-congratulation to be meaningful.

And then there was a whole page devoted to “I’ll-advised status updates”, an unfunny collection that surely to god we can find in too many places already. Ick. Grow up.

It all made me long for a good wallow through the much much better and less snottily pretentious New York Review of Books. Therein I learn things, I find new authors to stimulate my mind, I find actual thoughtful reviews about books and less about the writer of the review.

And that’s the thing, Geist. If you weren’t so enraptured with your own total coolness, I’d be tempted to subscribe. I like to support Canadian magazines, I regularly get and read the Walrus, Quill and Quire and such. But a gal only has so much free time for reading and I prefer to spend my time reading something of value.

So keep your tote bag. I will miss the maps of place names on a theme, though. Those are cute.

Hanging loose in Starbucks

I’d just bought a copy of the New York Review of Books and The Literary Review of Canada, plus a copy of the Journey Prize anthology.  They felt pleasingly solid and filled with good things to read and inspire me as they rustled in my “bring your own bag”. I carry one always now, being too cheap to pay 5 cents for a plastic bag (but not too cheap to buy NYRB or LRC!)

Starbucks was packed, with students worrying their laptops at a long table with uncomfortable chairs; seniors curled up whispering to each other in the few really comfy chairs; on-line dates meeting up at the tables for two, conversing awkwardly. I’d just had a four-cup espresso at home as my cure (medically ordered) for my MS fatigue, something that dogs me always and blurs my vision, so I asked for a decaf from the tiny rounded Asian gal at the counter.

“Well,” she said, screwing her pink lips up into a rosebud and then wincing, “the thing is, we don’t, like, brew decaf in the afternoons anymore.  Like, all the people who want it seem to come in in the mornings.” She brightened. “But we can make you a café Americano if you like for the same cost.” Every phrase she said ended on an upswing, the curling up of girly girls everywhere. She reminded me of “Hello Kitty”. Perky, a bit vacant, smiley without any real reason to be, inoffensively pink in nature.

I went for the caffeinated version and a banana and chocolate bread, low fat, but I suspect high calorie. I thought maybe the bread would help soak up the caffeine.

Looking about for a seat, I saw a spot at the earnest student table but discarded that.  I hate being beside people who are working.  Seems too much like real work.  I would have felt observed.  Fortunately, one table for two opened up in the middle of everything and, discarding my slight guilt at hogging two chairs, I grabbed it an opened the NYRB. I was wallowing in the excellently written review of Franzen’s “Freedom”, the coffee, and my yummy banana bread, pausing every few minutes to lick the chocolate off my fingers, when I tuned into the conversation on my left.

They were two precious young women.  One had on white sandals made with exquisite soft leather that curled expensively around her well-turned ankle. Her eyebrows were perfectly arched, her smile orthodontically magnificent. She spoke in likes and diphthongs, explained that she got her sister to wear her shoes for a week to make them more comfortable because of her sister’s, like, “freakishly large feet”.  She and her friend chatted about friends, classes, profs.

I turned to the Personals in the NYRB.  Some of the best creative writing in the world is there.

Then the women started talking about a murder.  One of their friends had just been let out on $500 bail after a bar fight/riot where another young man was killed. They spoke about it in the same tones as they spoke about the shoes. The fight was over the shocking fact that the man who was murdered was wearing a hoodie without a t-shirt underneath. Teasing started.  Everyone was drunk. Their friend had an alibi because he was involved in another part of the bar, fighting someone else, though he started the original teasing.

The teased boy left the bar, and the general riot spilled into the street. The boy bicycled by and the gang pushed him over, forcing him to be hit by a car and killed.

The girls agreed it was horrible, especially horrible that their friend had to be put in jail overnight. Then they started talking about classes again, barely pausing for breath.

I turned to my right. A youngish man sat down, opening his Ipad. I asked him about it, and he, like a proud parent, showed me its tricks. Carefully. He mentioned about reading books on it and tilted the display away from me while he searched for an appropriate example, one where the pictures could be spun and enlarged and toyed with. I wondered what he was hiding. Porn? Romance novels? Religious tracts? What is still worth hiding, when murder is openly discussed in Starbucks?