Archive for the 'words' Category

what the living do, by marie howe

I picked this up because one of the Rumpus bloggers read it in the Australian coffee shop in Brooklyn that Matt took me to – what? That’s cromulent! – but no one told me it was an AIDS memoir.

The Last Time

The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t.

And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

Oh, and also a love letter to her brother, two things which separately and together are bound to make me verklempt. I miss them, the AIDS dead. I imagine another mentor or two, acid-tongued, politically astute, fond of my children. The other books Paul Monette would have written, Kenny Everett’s late night talk show, Freddie Mercury’s kickass performance at the Olympic opening ceremony in London, the rest of Derek Jarman’s films. Fuck.

Nothing for it but my best Zen life hack: pretend you are travelling back from the future to see that person you loved one last time.

panic, by david marr

Marr is Australia’s best journalist right now, as far as I can gather. He is acute on both what makes us different…

David Malouf has a wonderful theory that it’s the English we carried in our baggage that makes America and Australia such different places. In the early seventeenth century, settlers took to America a language of abstractions: “Passionately evangelical and utopian, deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time, this was the language of … dissenters … who left England to found a new society that would be free, as they saw it, of authoritarian government by Church and Crown.” Malouf argues that by the time Australia was colonised, the language had changed. What the First Fleet brought here “was the language of the English and Scottish Enlightenment: sober, unemphatic, good-humoured; a very sociable and moderate language; modern in a way that even we would recognise, and supremely rational and down to earth”.

…and what makes us boringly the same as everyone else.

Wherever the Tampa tactics lead Australia in the years to come, those of us in the City Recital Hall yesterday will remember the sight and the sound of a white, prosperous audience baying for border protection. They know it’s the winning ticket and John Howard has found it for them. He is a genius of sorts: he looks this country in the face and sees us not as we wish we were, not as one day we might be, but exactly as we are. The political assessment is ruthlessly realistic. Only the language is coy. But who has ever admitted to playing the race card?

why be happy / are you my mother

Yes, they are both meditative middle-aged memoirs by great lesbian writers. Both dramatize the writer’s complicated relationship with her mother and both name-drop Woolf and Winnicott all over the damn place. And YES YOU HAVE TO READ THEM BOTH. I don’t care. Cancel your calls.

Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory – i.e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. These things made me angry.

I love them at least in part because the NY Times gave Bechdel a shitty review that boils down to “These women! How dare they think their inner lives are interesting?” Therefore reading these books is exactly the same as jabbing a burnt stick into the eyes of the Four Boresmen of the Aborecalypse (Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike. Could those guys HAVE more cockish names?) And if that doesn’t make you want to read them I don’t know what will.

I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life.

I remember curling up in Books Upstairs in Dublin, right outside the gates of Trinity College, and reading Dykes to Watch Out For like it was going to save my life. I can’t have been in Ireland for more than a week. And I never connected with Winterson in the same way; I’ve never even seen Oranges. But this book! This book. It took me apart.

I know these are ways of surviving, but maybe a refusal, any refusal, to be broken lets in enough light and air to keep believing in the world – a dream of escape.

primarily updatey in nature

We’ve been back in Sydney for a week. I’ve been working and trying to get the kids to do their independent study, all while missing my family sorely. We had a few sunny days but lots of blustery windy ones and now, humidity and rain. Hi, Sydney.

Ugh! None of that. Good points of Sydney include the fantastic playground with the huge water feature in Centennial Park, with a cafe right next door; Nielsen Park, which is one of my favourite places in the world; and Rushcutter’s Bay Park, which also has a yummy cafe and a vast playground, and back from which we have just come.

Yesterday I got up early and flew to Melbourne for the inaugural AdaCamp, which was excellent and lots of fun. It’s a feminist unconference with the goal of promoting the participation of women in open tech and culture. The sessions were lively and the women were clever and funny and insightful. Best of all was getting to spend solid time with Skud.

Skud maintains that I am a larval Melburnian. Her argument is cogent. She’d chosen the venue for the conference, Ceres, which is basically Ecotopia and which pushed all my tech-hippie buttons. I want to go to there! Oh wait! I already did.

I flew back to Sydney twelve hours after I flew down. My Kindle was almost out of battery, so I ransacked the terminal’s sadly atrophied bookstore twice before finding, on the bottom shelf, the last copy of Mark Dapin’s new novel, The Spirit House. WIN. It is funnyangry and brilliant and you should all read it.

Today we scattered Ric’s ashes, and I don’t know what to say about that.

lighter reading

I came across a notebook the other day with this written on the back:


i listen to history books in my car

This post on Cool Tools changed my life. I drive more than I should. I drive to the barn two or three times a week. I drive the kids to swim class and piano class and summer camp. I used to suffer grievously from road rage, on account of California drivers zomg! But since I started listening to audiobooks while I drive, my driving has become serene and Zen.

As KK says in his Cool Tools post, fiction and history are ideal. Well, as those of you with even a fleeting acquaintance with me will have gleaned, reading enough fiction is not my problem. My problem may indeed be reading too much fiction. But history is harder. It’s hard to read history after a long day at work and with the kids, with your head heavy on the pillow. I thought I’d test-drive audio books with some history I had tried and failed to get through in print. That’s how I managed to race through Georgiana and, even more dauntingly, Paris 1919. I got both from the San Francisco public library, on CASSETTE TAPES HOW STEAMPUNK. Then I had a vicious slapfight with the SFPL’s bitterly disappointing audiobook reserves (foul proprietary software with almost nothing available for Android.)

So I signed up for Audible and listened to Bloodlands and Postwar streaming off my phone. They are both beautifully read by Ralph Cosham, who sounds almost exactly like Kerr Avon. Which was odd, but compelling. The books are twins in so many other ways that I suspected Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt of knowing one another’s work even before I Googled them to learn how intimately they were connected. Both books consider Eastern and Western Europe as parts of a whole. Bloodlands considers state-sponsored mass killing by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as two distinct expressions of a single totalitarian impulse. Postwar examines the aftermath. I was very lucky with the order in which I tackled them. Bloodlands picks up where Paris 1919 leaves off, and Postwar does the same for Bloodlands.

Postwar is one of the best and wisest and most useful books I have ever read in my life, and I am a Judtist now. I’ve been praising it as the missing manual for the world in which I grew up, but it’s more than that. Judt – a reformed Marxist – takes pains to distinguish between Soviet communism, which succumbed to its genocidal totalitarian impulses, and Scandinavian-style social democracy, which didn’t. He is also clear-eyed yet hopeful on Europe itself as a model for organizing human beings that is neither coercive in the Chinese model or cynical and corrupt in the American way. Judt, who died of ALS last year, would not have been the least bit surprised about Greece and Portugal and the peril in which the Euro finds itself: he read the writing on the wall. But in spite of much of the evidence of his own eyes he argues for the continuing usefulness and relevance of social contracts that don’t inherently fuck people over, or arrange to have them killed. So that’s nice.

By contrast, my latest project is Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. It’s a history of Al Qaeda, beginning in aftermath of World War Two. Narrator Alan Sklar is no Ralph Cosham, and until I cast him in my mind as my friend Bob Foster the genius Koreanist from Michigan, his flat Midwestern vowels seemed set to drive me up the wall. I am glad I persisted, because The Looming Tower is an Iain Banks Culture novel, with the West standing in for the Culture. Specifically, it is Consider Phlebas, because it concerns itself with the point of view of the enemies of the Culture.

The big question of the last century appears to be: “Why do you want me dead?”, for various values of “you” and “me”. All the answers are depressing. The Looming Tower follows Sayyid Qutb, the father of Islamism, as he studies education in Greeley, Colorado: founded as a Western utopia. Qutb is so horrified by people tending their gardens and women talking about free love that he turns against America altogether. It is as compelling and awful as a car accident. As Jeremy remarked: “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

The more I read history the more I hope to stay as far the fuck away from it as I possibly can.

iphigenia in forest hills, by janet malcolm

Brilliant and chilling. A timely reminder that weird women (such as myself) should never get in any position where other people have power over us.

Borukhova’s contained, Cordelia-like demeanor at the defense table worked against her. Nothing came of nothing. “She had no emotion,” Jones said. “She didn’t seem upset. She wasn’t scared. If you’re innocent and being tried for murder, you’d be upset.”

Be exactly like everyone else, or suffer for it. Malcolm’s book is precision-engineered to afflict the comfortable. She is as troublesome as Helen Garner (high praise.) She’s also acute on class and privilege and their expression:

Whether to reflect the grandness of the Times or in accordance with a personal code, Barnard dressed differently from the rest of us. She wore interesting, beautiful dresses and skirts in contrast to the uninteresting jeans and corduroys and sweaters that Gorta and Bode and Pereira and I wore. Her sharp-eyed stories about the trial were as pleasing as her elegant clothes; not the least of the pleasure we took in them was the knowledge that Judge Hanophy would be irked by them.

Recommended to those with an interest in justice, women or writing.

works in progress

The Pony Club Manual – second draft
The New International Version – first draft
Awful – notes
The Great Gamgee
Rivendell Revisited

possible first line

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl in possession of a retirement-level liquidity event must be in want of a tax shelter.

as of tonight

…my novel fragment is twice the length it was when I left California.

Ten thousand words down, seventy thousand to go.

implausible, &c, day 2

Words: 500. This is hard.

also epona, goddess of horses, helps me find parking

When I met her in Sydney in January my childhood friend Anna asked if I still believed in God, and I said “Oh, no,” which felt at the time and still feels like an evasion (and also unfairly dismissive.) That said, I still don’t have anything well-formed to put in its place, though, so consider these notes towards… um, something? Maybe a provisional explanation of why the Hubble Ultra Deep Field helps me to be happier, more compassionate and more mindful of my own death.

In her fantastic Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill says:

People of faith so often seem to forget that a god who gives their lives meaning too often provides them with justification when they want to wipe out other people who believe in other gods, or in nothing. My own belief – that we on our short-lived planet are part of a universe simultaneously perfectly ordinary in that there it is and incalculably mysterious in that it is beyond our comprehension – does not feel like believing in nothing and would never make me recruit anyone for slaughter. It feels like a state of infinite possibility, stimulating and enjoyable – not exactly comforting, but acceptable because true. And this remains so when I force myself to think about the most alarming aspect of what I can understand, which is that we will eventually become extinct, differing from the dinosaurs only in contributing a good deal more than they did to our own fate. And it also remains so when I contemplate my personal extinction.

Recessional puts it this way:

Innocence looks at the stars and says “look at the lights of the gods in heaven! I am in awe.”

Experience says, “Eh, it’s just burning gas lightyears away. I’m bored.”

Grace says, “look at the burning gas lightyears away! I’m in awe.”

or maybe salome

Last night’s turnout included a Rachel, a Rebecca, a Naomi and an Elizabeth. We need to recruit a Mary or an Eve so we can start a Biblical Heroine Fox Force Five.

monday night writers (with drinks)

Me: “I’d like to write a writing group. ‘Have you thought about writing it in the first person?’ ‘I think your story really starts on page 9.'”

Liz: “The poetry group would be ‘Why don’t you make it rhyme?’ or ‘I think you should replace every third word with the word after it in the dictionary. To make it more postmodern.'”

“People really say that?”


“Don’t they have medication for that?”

Later I read out a line of dialog and Liz says “I have to show you a woman I know who writes really good dialog.”

“Are you saying my dialog is shit?”


“I’ve had a quarter of a glass of wine so I’m paranoid. WHAT OF IT?”

Naomi: “They do have medicine for that.”

Liz silently hands me chocolate.

“There’s some dialog I would have liked to have written.”

also nablopomo! all rach all the time

I decided to do Nanowrimo for the first time in a few years. My novel is called “The New International Version”, and it takes the form of two LiveJournals. Masochists and the more indulgent of my friends can follow them here:

Doctor Proudie

in queens

There are shirtless water polo players frolicking in the hallways of my cheap-ass airport hotel.

I sorta finished a not-quite-so-embarrassing draft of “Everywhere” on the plane. Anyone wanna beta read my big gay Suez Canal historical love story murder mystery? Skud? Spike? Francis? Bueller?

punting on the cam

So we are in Cambridge! It didn’t help that we got here at the end of the week that started, for me, in Vegas; so what with the implausible Northern twilight and the pretty pretty greens and colleges so forth I have begun to think of this as just another themed casino. The Cantabrigian. With live shows called Tripos and Viva Voce! We punted on the Cam, which I insisted on spoonerizing, to my own hilarity and the resigned amusement of my entourage.

Anent which entourage Julia has jetlag which means that no one within earshot may rest. As a result Jeremy and I went for about six days with no more than four hours of sleep at a time. Jeremy coped with this better than I did; I was up at 5am yesterday, trying to help Claire in the bathroom, when I fainted. The flat has a wooden floor so I am sporting handsome bruises on my head and hip. It was extremely unpleasant but has had no alarming sequelae. I shall avoid recreating the circumstances.

Not suprisingly, my academic anxiety has been flickering on and off like a flaky Wifi signal. I had another good hard look at the MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science, a course I’ve thought about doing before. Grace Hopper, maybe, or Unix as literature? But I couldn’t help thinking I already have a perfectly nice MPhil that I am extremely fond of, and that the books I dream of having written aren’t academic texts at all but novels. And you don’t need any degrees from anywhere to write novels.

This cheering thought had me working on the novella on the train to and from London today. It’s far from perfect but there’s some decent writing in there. That said, I think I’m going to have to smash it to bits and patch the bits together if I want to get it to the next stage. I think it’s publishable as is but that’s not really enough for me any more; I think I can do better. Guh! What’s happening to me? IS IT SOMETHING IN THE CAMBRIDGE WATER SUPPLY???

sumerian literature for fun and profit

I just learned that the first writer in recorded history was a woman who wrote political poetry: her name is Enheduanna. I thought her hymn to Inana seemed very fresh, so I had a go at translating it into the vernacular:

The good ole boy, the maverick, holding his own in the Beltway set and a world leader, son of 41, darling of the Grand Old Party, the consummate politician who has transformed the executive branch in ways even Reagan would admire, is President, and the buck stops with him. Congress grovels at his feet. He does whatever he wants. He’s got political capital and he intends to spend it. He’s got the country on a leash.

He is the War on Terror and he is the Terror. We’re all scared shitless down here, I can tell you. Everything he says frightens the crap out of us. There’s no accountability, and God knows what’s going to happen. Who can stand up to him? Meanwhile fire and death rain on New York, and New Orleans drowns in a sewer.

Something about him makes the Democrats unable to tie their own shoes. Pratfalls galore, but it isn’t funny. People burn and drown and he arrives in a very nice suit with spin doctors and cameras and a crack security detail, for a press conference. Wherever he holds a press conference, there is despair. He believes in his own virtue, which makes him more evil than we could ever have imagined. Compassionate conservatism! Remember that? Anyone, Bueller?

He has been the single worst catastrophe of this last tormented decade. Yet to oppose him is to invite censure! Those who speak up for the suffering and the dead are scorned as vicious fools. He does not lack for toadies.

In his mouth language turns to lies. When he speaks of life he means death. When he promises tax cuts he means that the poor will pay for the greed and stupidity of the rich. In the face of defeat he says, Mission Accomplished. He baptises the nation’s children with blood, and looks at what he has done, and says that it is good.

Across the wide and bewildered nation, his deeds blot out the sun. He turns midday into darkness. Brothers turn on their sisters, and parents attack their children. His words frighten not only his own people, but everyone on earth. This man rules the only superpower in a unipolar world! People from every nation look at Iraq and think: Are we next? He leaves no bad deed undone. The Grand Old Party is filled with pride.

small, good things

I would like to have an editor like Gordon Lish; only, instead of ruthlessly editing my stories, he would write them, then let me collect the accolades, royalties and hot poet wife. Takers?

Me to Julia, idly: Do you like cats?
Julia, intensely: I. Love. Cats.

What I hate most about running is that I end up warm and energized, able to breathe more easily and calmer about whatever is worrying me. It’s so unfair. The odds are totally stacked in its favour. Exercise cheats.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco Ballet, storefronts around Union Square have the original, embroidered and jewelled tutus on display. The effect is to make the expensive clothes that are for sale seem drab and dowdy.

Claire: This is my unicorn. These are its legs. And this is its metal claw, for killing.

some notes from edward tufte

“A good diagram isn’t necessarily meant to be taken in at a glance. We should read a good diagram as seriously as we might read two or three paragraphs or even a couple of thousand words of text.”

“It starts with Patient One, and that gives insiders some important information; because of course these charts usually start with Patient Zero. What happened was, the Chinese government suppressed information, so Patient Zero can’t be traced. So the chart pointedly starts with Patient One in Hong Kong.

“An important principle is not just to concentrate on descriptions but also their relationships. Show causality.

“We have evidence at the molecular level, the clinical level, the human level, the patient level, because of the detective work. Finally there’s some public health information. The evidence exists at multiple levels. And that’s one of the important principles of evidence: whatever it takes.

“Most people show material that they’re good at, that happens to be convenient, that happens to be inexpensive… but the evidence should be at multiple levels. From molecules up to the nation state. Whatever it takes.

“Notice that the linking lines are annotated. Look at an organization chart with a few names at the top and an increasing number in the mighty pyramid. The nouns are quite important, but the linking lines – I can’t believe it! – are all the same. Think what that says: that every pairwise relationship in this organization is exactly the same as every other. That simply cannot be the case.

“So how can we give those linking lines some texture? Put some words on them. Put some numbers on them. We have intense specificity in the nouns. Let’s add some specificity to the linking lines. Look at Patient 2C. That’s probably how the virus got to Vietnam. That’s the mechanism. Or look at 2E. Travel to Singapore. Or Patient 2D. Travel to Canada. Instead of just information that tries to tell us the bad news about the epidemic, this shows the flow of causation. So tha we can try to intervene.

“This texture of annotation on the linking lines and on the nouns helps the credibility of this diagram a great deal. It shows off the hard work of the investigators. This stuff is not overload or clutter. In general, there is no such thing as information overload. There is only bad design. Don’t blame the victim. Don’t blame the audience for being stupid. Blame the design.

“We don’t go around a city complaining about information overload, and that’s because we have a very powerful perceptual system. We perceive in 16-bit colour, three dimensions, all day every day. That’s massive bitflow. One of the things we are trying to do with information design, here, is to bring it up to the routine capacity of the human perceptual system!”

Twenty minutes in and I am IN LOVE.

Read the rest of this entry »