Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

The Irish novelist Anne Enright, with a meditation on Genesis and the evolution of blame. Excerpt below.

She goes on to evoke everything from Milton to Twitter, with her usual lightly worn, but amazing wit and erudition. The whole thing is worth a read.


From the Metropolitan Museum

The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?

The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.

Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.


Bad Reviews: John Simon

I’m long, and gratefully, out of the arts reviewing game. (Despite an occasional lapse).

When I was doing it regularly,  an editor once told me my positive reviews were, atypically, better than my negative ones. Don’t know why, certainly for me the really bad review is a guilty pleasure, probably for others too. (Seems like it keeps Anthony Lane employed at the NYker. I’m not sure he honestly knows that much about movies, but the man knows how to pan a film.)

One of the great ‘left it for dead’ masters was John Simon of New York Magazine, who really let you know when he hadn’t liked something.

Here he is from 1987 on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express (the one with the roller skates). This is a piece, like Tom Shales interview of Phyllis George, that newspaper folk handed around to one another. Lodestones that point towards a not particularly admirable compass point, but point they do.

It would be best if children remained small,’ concludes Erich Kästner’s charming poem ‘A Mother Takes Stock.” This is even truer of model trains, which should not exceed the size of a small puppy and definitely should not be anthropomorphized as they are in the ghastly juggernaut of a musical from Britain, “Starlight Express.’

The conceit (in both senses of the word) is to put seeming adults on roller skates and make them pretend they are trains competing in a trans-America race imagined by a child, whose taped voice narrates the event. The repetitious preliminary heats and self-contradictory main races cannot be followed; the story is ludicrous and confused. Just when the trains veer into humanity, they become derailed into nonsense; just when the humanoids achieve some trainlikeness, they become choo choo cute.

Also immense and monstrous. The set—really an environment—is a huge, three-tiered track that winds across lowering and revolving bridges, around platforms that rise from a central declivity where most of the action takes place, and along winding paths that encircle two pockets of spectators but do not have the decency to envelop the entire audience (as they did in London) and thus at least occasionally be visible only on small TV monitors. Here the entire vertical three-ring circus is always in full, fulsome view, bespangled with garishly colored lights to put the brashest discotheque to shame, with characteristic bits of American cities from coast to blinking coast flaring up fitfully. And the often deafening sound is the most denatured, unnatural, dehumanized clangor ever to hit Broadway. Starting with that child, a mere computerized voice (the real boy, Braden Danner, has the good sense to be the live Gavroche up the street in ‘Les Misérables’), everything sounds canned. Hordes of performers whizzing about on skates have to be lip-synching, but even on the occasions when someone stands still long enough for a viva voce song, elephantine electronics make it all clank and clatter like a can tied to the Great Bear’s tail. [ARS: what would Simon make of today’s Broadway amplification?]

Witnessing ‘Starlight Express’ is to feel trapped inside a gargantuan tape deck while watching a Brobdingnagian Erector Set go through the most elaborate mechanical gyrations. The human performers railroaded into the show have to be actors, singers, dancers, roller skaters, and, considering the danger to life and limb, Evel Knievels, which is too much to expect of anybody, and so no one quite manages to huff and puff up to snuff.

The plot is simplemindedness itself. The insomniac child envisages a race through America for a shining silver dollar. There are trains from various countries, e.g., a Japanese bullet train, an Italian espresso (that’s the humor of it), etc., but the musical and dramatic possibilities of multinationality are promptly dropped as we concentrate on Rusty, a nice American steam engine that competes against a nasty American diesel called Greaseball and a campy, outer-space electric train, Electra, both of whom steal his pretty but fickle female tender, Pearl, as they try to trip and elbow him out of the race, sometimes using the services of the treacherous and androgynous Red Caboose, a cross between the Joker of ‘Jeu de cartes’ and Anybody’s from ‘West Side Story’—but, then, everything here is really from somewhere else.

Since the concept and music are by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, as we know from ‘Cats,’ likes to go metaphysical on us, there is also God. Assuming the disembodied gospel-singing voice of Poppa, Rusty’s earthly father, this is the eponymous Starlight Express, appearing as a light show in the starry sky, who might as well be called I Am That I Amtrak. The mentality of the piece, as written by Lloyd Webber and his doggerelist Richard Stilgoe, is resolutely reactionary. Steam wins out over diesel and electricity (a curious position for a show that depends wholly on computers and state-of-the-nonart electronics), and women are neurotic or simpering tenders, sleepers, dining or smoking cars, the male locomotives’ subservient playthings or prostitutes (“I’m a sleeper with a heart of gold”) who, in a typical dance sequence, get kicked in the rear by Greaseball, for whom they bend over backward.

Lloyd Webber’s tunes are scavenged from all over, not least from Lloyd Webber, though here and there a patch of melody fleetingly pleases. Stilgoe’s lyrics tend toward things like “Was I corroded/Or overloaded?” “The coach I thought was going with me,/She up and joined electricity,” not to mention grating repetitions of “Freight/ Is great.” John Napier’s scenery and costumes here lean toward excess, as in “Cats,” but Meccano lovers should exult in them; David Hersey’s lighting just about twists itself inside out to come up with fancier effects (some compelling, some merely frantic), and the skating and break dancing by Arlene Phillips, though not up to what one sees in the streets outside the theater, has its moments. Trevor Nunn’s direction is pretty obvious here, and among the performers, only Reva Rice, Jane Krakowski, Greg Mowry, Steve Fowler, and Andrea McArdle come off passably [A few names that have continued in lights since then]—but, then, no one has much of a chance with an orchestra piped in from a “specially designed ‘orchestra room’ off stage” and very possibly on Mars.

“Starlight Express” is a tale told by an idiot with son and lumière. It is a light show, an industrial show, a circus show, a freak show—everything but a show show. It belongs in a sports arena, exhibition hall, or oversize discotheque; all it can do in a theater is cheapen it. But the audience palpitating around me was entirely apposite: They looked and behaved like people who had never been to a theater, and “Starlight Express” is guaranteed to do nothing to change that. Perhaps the most characteristic thing about it is a sign reading RALIEGH [sic], for this is postliterate or, at any rate, illiterate theater.

Writers on Writing

“The Writer” from Fragonard, The Fantasy Figures at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I always blog in a tunic like that.

A round-up of some quotes on writing (no certainty that these are all accurate). I found them nosing around the web looking for a Peter De Vries quip–always one of my favorites.

“Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.”
Jules Renard

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork.”
Peter De Vries

“If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster.”
Isaac Asimov

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”
W. H. Auden

“I always write a good first line, but I have trouble in writing the others.”

“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
John Steinbeck

“Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”
William Zinsser

“You can fire your secretary, divorce your spouse, abandon your children. But they remain your co-authors forever.”
Ellen Goodman

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Robert Benchley

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
E. L. Doctorow

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.”
Steven Wright

“Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
Don Marquis

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room. ”
Tom Waits

“Novelists are no more moral or certain than anybody else; we are ideologically adrift, and if we are any good then our writing will live in several places at once. That is both our curse and our charm.”
Andrew O’Hagan

“If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.”
Derek Walcott

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
Bernard Malamud

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Graham Greene

“I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.”
Zadie Smith

“I’m never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work of writing a book.”
Neil Gaiman

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
Richard Ford

Commonplace Book: Lament for the Blogging & The Internet

Tipped by the always readable Farhad Manjoo, a NYTimes tech writer (with  a good twitter name), I checked out Jia Tolentino’s lament for blogging, in The New Yorker, pegged in part to the closing of The Awl, sort of the blog equivalent of an alternative daily.

It’s a nice piece, although perhaps a bit impredicative in that it (I assume unwittingly) embodies some of the reasons people might not be so interested in blogs any more. Although it oversells a golden age” of the Internet that has been lost (such vanished Edens have always been with us, although perhaps they are disappearing over the horizon faster and faster), there is a sense of fun that has diminished (even for somebody who barely even qualifies as a blogger, like me).

In passing she quotes Alex Balk, writing in 2015. He was a founder of The Awl, and his update to the ‘lament for the makers‘ is bracing:

I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (“Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people”) and Balk’s Second Law (“The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything”). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

Perhaps true, but also perhaps ever so, for more than just the Internet. Somewhere I recall a Mark Twain quote, “no matter what the show, the golden age seems to have ended the day before I bought my first ticket”

Commonplace Book: Wacky Weddings

Trying–yet again–to get the blog re-energized. For now just going to use it as a commonplace book, and this Sunday’s NYTimes was full of great stuff. Perhaps none better than this wedding story, which has the best lede I’ve read in a while:

Not your average wedding venue…

“A man born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Toronto and schooled at a Yeshiva and a Japanese-American man raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, were married in the rare books section of the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village before a crowd of 200 people, against a backdrop of an arch of gold balloons that were connected to each other like intertwined units of a necklace chain or the link emoji, in a ceremony led by a Buddhist that included an operatic performance by one friend, the reading of an original poem based on the tweets of Yoko Ono by another, and a lip-synced rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” by a drag queen dressed in a white fringe jumper and a long veil.

The grooms met on the internet. But this isn’t a story about people who swiped right.”

The copyeditor did right by the headline too:
Of All the Blogs in the World, He Walks Into Mine




Why there will always be a Chicago Manual of Style

From their droll Q&A.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-4-58-33-pmQ. A sentence in a manuscript: In a landmark collection of essays, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of “King Lear,” a range of scholars made the case . . . The book title is of course in italics—but then how does one treat that comma after Lear, and then the quote mark after the comma? Would the comma be in roman, and then the quote mark in italics?

A. This situation is a sticky wicket. The quotation marks must be italic, since they are both part of an italic book title. But the comma doesn’t belong to the title. According to Chicago’s preference for putting punctuation into the same font as the “surrounding text” (6.5), the comma would be roman. But this comma is “surrounded” by italics! If only we could use “logical punctuation,” whereby the comma would go outside the quotation marks, to render the issue moot. But that would be un-American. Editors here disagree on the best solution, so style the comma as you wish with the hope that its tiny size will allow readers to ignore it.

Commonplace Book

A few tidbits gleaned from recent reading:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

An inspirational preamble in a book on math pedagogy (subject of my current work project).

In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarcely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers Club’ had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.

We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.

 An unforgettable narrative voice. The opening of Joan Didion’s essay, “John Wayne: A Love Story”

“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

— R.K. Narayan on a feeling I too have had in many libraries.

And to match elegance in prose, a page from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ Kelmscott Chaucer. Saw a copy in person at the Fogg last week; wow.


Blogging 101, Day 3: Reading Other Blogs

Assignment #3 was learning your way around the WordPress Reader, and also thinking about your blogging in the context of others you read. The other bit was following five new blogs and five new tags. Useful prompt–I haven’t used the Reader that much (I just follow stuff on FB), and I didn’t know that you can just use it for RSS feeds, so have hooked in my favorites. Interesting to think about how varied the content of the blogs I follow is, and how catching a particular voice is what grabs me.

Also a reminder that tying into the (vast) community of WordPress is partially dependent on tagging and categorizing.  My self, my meta data.


The vast expanse of blogs. (Well, actually it's Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park, but they're both big!).
The vast expanse of blogs. (Well, actually it’s Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park, but they’re both big!).

The Reading and Writing Life

BuschEncountered a book called “Letters to a Fiction Writer”–an anthology rustled up by the late Frederick Busch, whom I have always liked (although I do seem to get my Busch and Bausch novelists mixed up). It may be one of the Bausch brothers I like so much.

The letter that caught my eye, somewhat surprisingly, is one by Joyce Carol Oates, mostly “write your heart out,” but it opens thus:

“To a Young Writer:

All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love,–to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. This alone is to be alive to the extremities.  –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 6 May 1854

(Yet keep in mind Thoreau’s other, more sardonic aside in the first chapter of Walden:

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment…untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it…One generation abandons the enterprise of another like stranded vessels.

How achingly true this seemed to me when I was a young, adolescent writer, and seems so still!)

If it’s your ambiguous destiny to be a writer, you already know that no one can tell you what to do; how to behave; still less how to think, and how to feel about yourself….

The letter also has this observation a bit later,

Don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and “yearning.” If you yearn for people who won’t reciprocate your interest in them, you should know that your yearning for them is probably the most valuable thing about them. So long as it’s unrequited.

Reminds me of something I read years ago by Robert Penn Warren about no experience in life being wasted on a writer.

That this resonates with me surprises, as, although I’ve always been impressed by Oates industry, I haven’t really clicked with her writing — at least the fiction. But she is apparently a wonderful mentor. To wit, this this recollection by Jonathan Safran Foer:

JSF: She [Oates] wrote a letter to my house in DC during one break, and she said, “We talked a lot about your work in the context of the class and now I would like to talk about it a little more personally. “You appear to have a very strong and promising talent coupled with that most important of writerly qualities, energy.” And man is she right! Energy is the most important writerly quality. In any case, she gave me a reading list. It was a very Joyce Carol Oates thing to do. She gave me suggestions for what avenues to pursue. And somebody took me seriously. It was a revelation for me. The revelation was not just that—the smaller revelation was that a writer of Joyce’s caliber would like my writing. The much larger revelation was that there was such a thing as my writing. It had never occurred to me.


writer at desk
Just one more line…


Publishing Words: Platforms and Publications Round-Up

This will be old news to many, but in the light of The New Republic’s meltdown, I have been nosing around new digital approaches to what is (loosely speaking) journalism, or maybe publishing, or at least, typing.  Herewith, a brief list. is a news service (currently only for mobile, but coming to the browser). Nicely presented stories, gives you a simple way to follow any particular beat you are interested in, as well as sharing of course. Not sure if this will become part of my regular news diet, but in the emerging world of “journalism apps” seems like one that solves a problem.


Medium is platform rather than a publication as nearly as I can tell, and certainly handsome. It seems to be open to any kind of long form material, by professionals or duffers. Like, has a very striking design (although some will not be a fan of the wide horizontal one-page scroll approach–something that is all over current web design). Medium comes from the people who created Twitter, and presumably they aimed for the same kind of pick up. Upstart Biz Journal’s Alex Dalenberg was asking good questions a year ago about it–how their business model will work? and just what kind of tool it is? He also mentions something that a writer friend also pointed out, the license appears to let Medium sell your content, presumably in search of “sustainability”. (Like “platform” and “content,” another drab word.)

As far as I know, those questions are still out, and he also links to some weirdly fascinating info about Medium’s business structure, called Holacracy. It boasts “no managers” and seems to be a distributed  system. (Classic Google goose chase, I just learned about Holacracy researching Medium, and now I discover that it’s already contested: fad versus brilliant management approach? Zappo’s is finding out.)


Finally, there is Ghost, which is a blogging platform from some of the same people who worked on WordPress. It’s intuitively appealing and also beautifully designed–pared down for clean presentation and ease of posting. WordPress, of course, has a lot to offer, but its development as a powerful publishing platform means that for me, at least, its sort of blown past plain old blogging. I’m tempted to move everything to Ghost, but, of course, it’s a little like moving house if you have hundreds of posts to fool with, and since part of my living is made with WordPress, is nice to stay close to the platform, even if I use 1% of its power. Ghost, like, has a more writer-friendly license than Medium (although, like anything online, they reserve the right to change it any time.) But you own your stuff, and their only right is to post snippets for promotional purposes.

I don't think they used Twitter!
I don’t think they used Ghost, Medium, WordPress or even  Twitter!