Lighten Up

Winter Light is Short and Sweet

I was a winter baby.

Born on one of the darkest and longest nights of the year, I have always felt drawn to the light: the sun, the moon, fireflies, fireworks – and perhaps most of all, the bright lights of theatre.

When I wrote my first novel, it felt only natural to have the plot revolve around a dramatic production. That first novel marked a significant change in my personal writing, from personal essays to complete fiction. It’s been a bumpy ride, for the most part, but I was lucky with that first book. It found a home at the very first writer’s conference I ever attended.

The magnitude of my lucky start was born in upon me as the years passed and changes in the publishing industry transformed the business so much that all bets are off anymore. As one small part of the wave of change, my initial publisher, Avalon, was bought by Amazon, and now, as a result, my first novel, Tall Order, which came out only in hardback, is due to be released as an e-book and in paperback.

Tall Order is a traditional romantic comedy about a tall woman who is pursued by a much shorter man. When he casts her as one of the leads in production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unexpected chemistry occurs.

It’s a light tale for a dark winter’s night.

Tall Order will rise and shine again on December 18th, or thereabouts. If you’re looking for something a little sweet for the holidays, it could be just the thing.

Avalon, Amazon, Babylon, Con

So, I’ve been traded.

Not me personally. But Avalon Books, the little publishing company which first took a chance on me as a fiction writer, has been absorbed into the Amazon behemoth.

I’m hoping this will turn out to be a good thing. Usually I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to business news, but in this case I have a tiny vested interest in the outcome of this deal.

Founded 62 years ago as a family business by Thomas Bouregy, Avalon made its small but respected mark in the publishing world by limiting its production to wholesome genre works: romance, mystery and westerns.

The accent there is on the wholesome. While some genre publishers concentrate on fiction designed to make the flesh crawl or sweat, or generally heat up, Avalon’s focus since the 1950s was the sort of books you could loan to your grandmother without fear of offending her delicate sensibilities; the kind of books you didn’t have to worry about leaving around where your nine-year-old daughter might happen upon them. Chaste, morally grounded, straight shootin’ yarns.

When they offered to buy my first novel, back in 2003, I was thrilled. I had read their guidelines. I had cleaned up my novel to meet their standards, I thought. Then as the editing process began I got a list of various changes they required in order for the manuscript to meet their expectations. They had no problems with my  grammar, my plot, my characters, or my style. But my use of certain terms, my diction, my innuendos, didn’t sit well with them.

At first I chafed at this. I spent a few hours huffing and puffing before I calmed down and reflected on how lucky I was that anyone was willing to offer me a contract for my modest little romance. And once I accepted the challenge of rewording a few phrases and applying a touch of concealer to the more suggestive portions of the book, we got along fine.

The experience of being published at all was thrilling. But, as with so many thrills, after you come down from the top of the ride, you realize that you’re pretty much right back where you started. Avalon was a small company, with no promotional budget to speak of. At least not for me and my Tall Order. And marketing has never been my strong suit. I couldn’t sell Girl Scout cookies.

However, I have always felt grateful for that first success, because it gave me hope, the stuff of dreams. So I’ve kept dreaming. Five years ago I gave up on trying to interest conventional publishers in my works. The agents and editors I met at conferences and interviews were universally encouraging, but they were all looking for blockbusting, or in some cases bustier busting, works, and that’s not what I’m going for. Some people like books that are electrifying or terrifying. Others  love novels that aim to be heartbreaking, crushingly realistic, dismally honest and dark. Not I, said the duck.

For me, a great book is funny, thoughtful, and sometimes poetic. A touch of romance adds to it, but isn’t required if the humor is smart enough.  That’s the kind of book I’m trying to write.

Tall Order was a good first step for me, so I’m glad that if Avalon must vanish, as Avalons are wont to do,  Amazon will be taking over (as Amazons are wont to do). I’m hopeful that my first book will be digitalized and available on Kindle  and its kin.

The key word there is “available.” Because as a writer, the best reward is to have people read your work and respond to it. Maybe they like it, maybe not, but  if it brings a momentary lift to anyone, I’m thankful.

So roll on Amazon, swallowing everything in your path.  And me, I’ll keep searching for higher ground.

Where The Wild Things Went

Every parent is a lifeguard.

Maurice Sendak just died, at the age of 83.

Though I never knew him, the loss feels personal to me. Some of my happiest hours as a parent were spent reading books with my kids. For a time there I knew “In the Midnight Kitchen” by heart.

Sendak was a marvelous illustrator, but what set his work apart from most childrens’ books of his day was the way he confronted the terror, the vulnerability, the monstrous unfairness of childhood. Sendak infused his stories with humor and the courage of little people forced to survive in a world ruled by giants.

As this spring’s graduation season commences, attention will be focused on the bright young scholars heading out into the world while their once-giant parents are left behind with framed photos and video tapes. The story continues, the readers change.

In honor of Mr. Sendak, and all the writers and artists whose works give encouragement to parents and children alike, I offer here a column I wrote in the year 2000, when my oldest child graduated from college.

This column originally appeared in The Fauquier Citizen,  a weekly newspaper in Warrenton, VA.

Make Way for Graduates

In the thickening dusk I could just make out the shape of something standing in the road ahead as I drove my younger daughter home from soccer practice recently.

Slowing to a crawl, I edged the car closer until the shape gained definition, feathers, wings — lots of wings. A pair of Canada geese was attempting to escort four baby geese across the perilous winding road to the pond on the other side.

I stopped the car. The geese gave us a measured look and carefully shepherded their goslings back to the grass while my daughter and I watched spellbound.

“It’s like “Make Way for Ducklings,” I said to my 13-year-old. She smiled, recalling one of the favorite books from our family’s read-aloud years.

In Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott Award-winning book, a pair of mallards go through the full cycle of the parenting process. They find a safe place to nest, hatch their eggs, teach their children how to swim, find food and avoid danger, and then, in the book’s climax, the proud parents lead their children to the park pond and launch them into their new lives.

Although written in 1941, the simple story still resonates with parents everywhere, because it deals with issues every parent experiences — the desire to keep children safe, to prepare them to live on their own and the excitement of watching them try those wings for the first time.

I couldn’t help thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard last weekend as my husband and I watched our oldest daughter graduate from college.

To me, it seems like just last week she got her acceptance letter, a moment of high celebration. Now suddenly four years have disappeared, and it’s time to watch our daughter fly yet farther on her journey.

I promised myself I wouldn’t be too soppy about the whole thing. After all, we had a lot of practical work to do between the various graduation events. In addition to attending the celebratory garden party, brunches and dinners, we had agreed to help our daughter buy furniture and move into her new apartment during the weekend.

In one sense, this was good. We were so busy it didn’t leave time to get too mushy. But finally, after the popping of champagne corks dies down and the rustle of graduation gowns stills the murmur of the crowd, the moment of passage appears, clear and  solemn despite all the euphoria.

There she goes, walking across the stage, smiling so wide, shaking the Dean’s hand, holding her diploma.

I’m reaching for my tissues, blowing my nose, fumbling for my camera. Even with 20 years of preparation for this moment, I still wasn’t ready.

During the long commencement ceremony more than 400 students received degrees of one kind or another. My husband and I, along with hundreds of other parents and well-wishers, sat on folding chairs outside the peaked white tent which looked like a meringue whipped to perfection under the clear blue skies. On the dappled lawn beyond the rows of chairs free spirits gamboled in the sun, unable to sit still for the long haul.

Most eye-catching were the toddlers and infants sporting fetching sunbonnets and straw hats. Doting parents and grandparents hovered around the small fry, applauding every new trick, every bright smile.

That’s what we do, parents. That’s our job. We watch the children grow, we teach them all we know, we applaud their efforts and  their courage and try to help them pick up the pieces when things fall apart.

That’s why graduation is such a big deal for parents. Yes, we’re proud of our children. Yes, we’re happy for them. Yes, we’re grateful for them. But it’s more than that.

We’re also a little proud of ourselves, for somehow getting through all the obstacles, for enduring the years between 12 and 18, and for somehow managing not to fall apart in the process.

To be honest, a part of me envies the graduates who have their whole lives ahead of them. I envy their energy, their optimism, their can-do attitude. I remember how it felt to think that my generation would change the world, and in a good way. Now, of course, I think the world changed my generation as much as we changed it, and not necessarily all to the good.

But the battle goes on. We need fresh troops. And I’m encouraged by what I see in these graduates.

So cut them some slack, world. They’ve worked hard and they’ve learned a lot and they have some new ideas. They may not be able to fix all the problems we’ve left for them. But they’ll give it a good effort.

Make way for graduates.

How The Cookie Crumbles

Nabisco, the makers of Oreos, are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their flagship cookie on March 6th.

In honor of the little cookie that became an icon of innocent sweetness, Nabisco has come up with yet another twist on the classic two chocolate wafers with a creamy vanilla filling: the Happy Birthday Oreo is filled with an icing designed to summon the giddy sugar high of birthday cake icing. Yay!

In addition to the limited edition birthday cookies, Nabisco is also encouraging Oreo fans to share their own Oreo moments and special Oreo-related memories on Nabisco’s website. The thrust of the new campaign is to honor the company’s stated mission to “make life a little less serious” by helping even adults reconnect with “the kid inside.”

Seems harmless enough. I mean, you have to give credit to Nabisco for creating a star-quality cookie, not to mention selling 491 billion of them. Although if I were a Fig Newton I’d probably be feeling a bit resentful. Nabisco’s Fig Newtons have been around since 1891, but nobody put on a party hat for their 100th anniversary.

Still, I’ve eaten enough Oreos to respect their healing properties. And I would argue that they aren’t just for the good times. Sometimes, when life hands you lemons, you wish it were Oreos.

So, in honor of all the quiet little cookie moments that bind up our wounds and give us the strength to carry on, I offer a short story I wrote some years ago titled More Oreos Than God.

Seeing Green

The original woodblock by Deborah Harris of Fergus the Green Man.

For those of us who enjoy spending a large portion of our lives reading fiction, the borderline between the world of the imagination and the so-called real world is sketched in erasable ink. We whose literary passports bear the stamps of dozens of favorite authors have no trouble packing our willingness to suspend disbelief. We welcome the chance to plunge into whole new worlds, to escape from our own daily anxieties while we visit inside the heads of other characters.

But when I first began to publish my writings I learned that all readers see things through the lens of their own imaginations, and what seems clear in my own head leads some readers only as far as a state of confusion. The first time this happened I was working at a newspaper in the small Virginia town where I lived, and I had written a column about my difficulty accepting the fact that one of the first things my oldest daughter did after she went off to college was to shave half her head.

I was upset by this. She has beautiful, thick, chestnut hair, and I felt the new look didn’t accentuate her best qualities. I wanted to be a supportive, easy-going, liberal mom, and I tried to go along with it. But I couldn’t mask the dismay in my eyes, and my daughter noticed. Words were said. For a time, there was a new awkwardness in our relationship.

The column I wrote about it made light of my maternal distress, the wacky things kids do, all those typical reference points that bind together those of us who raise children. A lot of regular readers responded to the column and seemed amused by it. But after reading that my daughter had shaved half her head, one woman who worked in my office took me aside and offered her sympathies and asked in a quiet undertone, “Which side?”

I had to stop and think. I had no idea. Did it matter? Apparently, this woman had been attempting to visualize my daughter’s new look and had been stymied right out of the gate by this all-important detail.

I’ll be honest. I still couldn’t tell you which side had hair and which didn’t. It wasn’t the hair that bothered me. It was the bare skull.

That was the first time I came face to face with the reality that no matter how well a writer sees his characters and their world in his own mind, unless readers can enter into it, they aren’t going to be able to care much about what happens there.

When I was first trying to get an agent or editor to take a chance on Alice and the Green Man, the rejections I got tended to be all the same. They all liked the idea, they thought it was original, they enjoyed my writing, but they balked at the basic concept of a woman fighting for a garden. That notion didn’t grab them. Not enough blockbuster potential. I was told by several agents that the market was hot for hotter stories – more sex, more violence, more dark creepiness. Well, for a thousand reasons I won’t go into, I am so not going to write that kind of stuff. It’s not what I want to read.

Eventually, on the advice of a successful published author I met by chance while waiting for a train, I entered Alice and The Green Man in a bunch of Romance Writers’ contests. Generally they request the first three chapters, and the preliminary judging is done by other aspiring romance writers, some of whom have been published. I got a lot of interesting feedback from those contests, and scored well in several, though none led to a contract. But one curious aspect of the comments made me question whether I should continue trying to pass myself off as a romance writer.

I am, of course, a romantic. I long for a world in which happy endings are the norm. That’s why I write fiction. But many of the women who judged these contests seemed troubled by their inability to see the world of my imagination. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Some of them seemed to enjoy their visit to my garden. Others thought there was entirely too much floral description and not nearly enough bodily contact.

And there we come to the green heart of the matter. From the first moment he came into my mind, Fergus, the Green Man, was a vivid, sexy, intelligent, fascinating man who cared about plants. Wow! My dream man. But not, it seems, quite so enthralling to a lot of the women who read my contest entries. On one point in particular they were united. They wanted to know the exact shade of green he was. And was it just his thumb? Or, umm, all parts of him?

Well, of course, I thought I had spelled this out in the text – that his skin was a delicious olive tone, that it seemed to get greener after he sat in the sun for a while, that the leaves and vines were drawn to him by his aura of fertility. As is Alice. ‘Nuff said.

But not, apparently, for the judges. In the margins of my entries they wrote their concerns. They seemed to see my Green Man as some sort of amalgam of the Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant and Shrek.

Not even close to my vision.

The idea to take the ancient archetype of the Green Man, a figure so shrouded in mystery that no one knows who first produced an image of a man with leaves sprouting out of his head, and make him a hero in a modern setting appealed to me on many levels. While many of the early depictions of the Green Man carved in stone on medieval cathedrals in Europe show a monstrous untameable creature, these illustrations grew out of the earliest struggles of humankind, when nature itself was a thing to be feared, conquered and placated. Now, as modern civilization has reached the brink of nearly destroying the tree of nature on which our very existence depends, society has a different view of nature as something to be cherished, and a new passion for connecting with the natural world. In my interpretation of the mythic Green Man, I simply took this new passion to its logical extreme.

So, when in the course of time I finally decided to self-publish the book because I was, and still am, hopelessly in love with my Green Man and want to share him with anyone who might appreciate his charms, one of the most important parts of the process for me was making sure that the cover image gave readers an evocative suggestion of how to ‘see’ my Green Man.

Luckily, my artist friend Deborah Harris has been a longtime supporter of my work, and when I asked her if she would be willing to create a portrait of Fergus, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Deborah is a marvelous painter, but I wanted a woodcut, because for years I have admired her floral woodcut designs, and I felt sure that she could create an image that would straddle the border between the imaginary and the ordinary.

At first we had some discussions about what Fergus looked like. She sent me a few trial sketches that had elements I wanted – the twining leaves, the sensual eyes. But the cheeks were too cherubic, too innocent. I wrote her back and told her to take a look at some photos of the character of Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, I was at the height of my obsession with that show, when it was in its witty, genre-breaking prime. A few weeks later Deborah sent me an image and asked, “Will this do?”

“Yes,” I said, “yes, it will, yes.”

Since then, of course, the book has not exactly blazed a trail through the publishing world. But it has been read and enjoyed by a few people, and this brings me great satisfaction. I know I don’t personally have the strength or courage or vision to save the natural world from the forces of destruction bearing down upon it. But if enough men and women unite in not only seeing, but being green, maybe there’s hope for us all.

Stark Raving Martin

I like long books.

Some readers don’t. Some prefer slender paperbacks, which tuck tidily into a suitcase, books which promise not to weigh the reader down with sorrow or reality, even when the plots involve serial murders or child molesters. In fiction, we can expect to enjoy the satisfactions of justice, or, failing that, at least the comfort of revenge.

I’m a fan of Dickens and Melville. I like sagas which go long, take detours, ramble through the wayside and offer disparate views of the action. But, in all my years of reading I’d never met a fantasy saga that got under my skin until I took a chance on George. That’s George R.R. Martin, for those of you who, like me, pay little attention to The New York Times bestseller lists. Had I been taking notice in the past decade I would have been aware of this colossus of invention.

But, wait, you may say, what about Tolkien? Yeah. About that. Back in the day (that would be the late 60s for those of you born too late to enjoy the peculiar blend of insanity and merriment that flourished under the reign of King Richard) the legions of Lord of the Ring worshippers were recruiting heavily, and I tried to like the books. But seriously, I could barely stomach The Hobbit, with its almost complete lack of female characters, its tiresome pacing, its creaky attempts at humor and its general tedium. For years I refused to even pick up the actual trilogy, until the looming film version inspired me to see what all the fuss was about. I dutifully plowed through all three books. And I repeat: almost complete lack of female characters, tiresome pacing, creaky humor, and OMG the tedium.

I realize there are those who hold LoTR as a sacred text, and I mean no disrespect to Tolkien, or the thousands of wannabes who have been trying to follow in his literary footsteps ever since. But really, I think literature grows through innovation that draws not only from the past, but from the gritty present and the vast and unknowable future. And, if that’s the criterion on which we judge the merits of fantasy epics, then the contest is over and George R.R. Martin is the clear winner.

I started A Game of Thrones after reading a funny piece in The New Yorker about Martin’s difficulties with his immense fan base, a vocal minority of whom were irritated because they thought he was taking too long writing the final book of the five-part epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire. Within the first hundred pages I was trapped. There was no way I could stop reading this thing.

Some critics have described the work as a blend of Lord of the Rings and The Sopranos, and I can see why they’d make that connection. The story contains some of the classic elements of fantasy – the sword fights, knights, castles, magic, etc., combined with the cold-blooded violence and misogynistic male bonding of the Mafioso genre. Fundamentally it’s about power struggles, and how they warp and wound everyone who gets in the way. But Martin’s epic offers much more in the way of characterization, plot development, and stunning action.

For me one of the most striking aspects is Martin’s credible use of children in central roles. Harking to the grim realities of our own medieval times, when children had to grow up quickly and education was only for the nobility, Martin tells much of the story through the eyes of the five Stark children, most of whom are under 10 years of age at the start of the saga. It’s a measure of his gifts as a writer that we soon forget about age entirely, the way children themselves do, living in the now, believing themselves capable of almost anything, and in many cases suffering terrible consequences.

Another strong point in Martin’s favor is that he has fitted out his saga with more than one strong female character, some of them noble and good, some of them not so much.

And then there’s Tyrion, the dwarf. Brave, cunning, far more decent and kind than he lets on, and supremely likable, for this character alone Martin deserves some sort of merit badge. He’s added to the literary lexicon of unforgettable characters. I don’t get HBO, but I’m already looking forward to seeing the new series based on the saga, especially after I learned that the estimable Peter Dinklage is playing Tyrion. And Jason Momoa is Khal Drogo. OMG.

I’m up to page 700 in Book Two, with miles to go before I’m through. Just how I like it. So that’s what I’m taking to the beach this summer.

Because in Seattle, winter is always coming.

Swing, batter!

It’s that time when the baseball season has begun, and the first losing streak (seven games) has been snapped, and the diehard fans are still clutching those season tickets with a kind of wistful, albeit delusional, hope that this will be the year the Mariners prove they’ve got what it takes.

Not that anyone really believes this. But it’s the hope that carries us along, as we watch King Felix pitch with consistent conviction only to be undone by the limp bats of the offense. No offense. But really, that’s the problem. Again. At times last year it almost seemed as if the announcers could have phoned in the analysis.

But that’s baseball. Some teams got it. Others . . . not so much.

Still, if you get hooked on the dance to the music of baseball, you have to be there. Good or bad, win or lose, the game remains strangely hypnotic for those of us who give in to it. Since moving to Seattle I have learned to love baseball in a way I never did before. After years of watching soccer and tennis and even football, the game of baseball offers an entirely different kind of narrative. I’m continually intrigued by the variety of skills, and strategies, and personalities, by the slow unfolding of each game’s drama.

And at the heart of the game is the dynamic fulcrum of risk – the cagey battle between pitcher and batter. To swing or not to swing. It would seem a simple question. But when every pitch varies in speed and trajectory, it’s not so simple. And what can be more annoying than watching a perfect strike go by without taking a swing? I imagine it’s hard to judge a ball whizzing past at 97 mph, as they often do in Major League Baseball, so I have a lot of sympathy those guys.

As a writer, I’ve had some experience with pitches. Not the kind you see in the ballpark, but the kind that editors and agents demand before they’ll consider reading your work. A good pitch can open doors in the publishing business. But these days, the sheer volume of pitches being thrown in the publishing industry is so overwhelming that few editors and agents will consent to swing at anything unless the writer has already done some heavy lifting.

At the last writers conference I attended the most popular buzzword in the seminar programs was platform. As in: you have to have a platform if you want to be a successful writer. It’s not enough, apparently, simply to write whatever it is you feel driven to write. You have to build a platform – blog, Tweet, tour, plaster your name in as many places as possible to create buzz about yourself, to reach your target audience, to keep them informed about your books, your life, and enable fans to connect with you.

All of this sounds reasonable, I suppose. But the reality is, if you really want to build a platform, it takes money, time and a lot of effort which might otherwise be put into your writing.

So, as I’m gearing up for the publication of another book, coming soon to a web site near your computer, I’m thinking of pitches and platforms, promotions and pop flies. I’d like to think that I have fewer illusions about my writing career than I do about the Mariners’ chances of making the playoffs.

But, truth be told, I’d love to hit one out of the park.

Will it be “Moon’s Blues,” my up and coming light novel about an affable geek who tries to impress his girlfriend by managing a rock band? Probably not. But you never know. It’s a long season. Anything can happen. That’s my platform.


Some don’t like his voice. Some can’t stand his music. Some never forgave him for going electric back in the ’60s.

But for me, Bob is the One.

I like his voice. I love his music. There’s nothing to forgive.

He’s given me more solace, more pleasure, more soul satisfaction than any of the multitude of blandly pleasant popular crooners whose forgettable tunes rise and fall on the charts with as little lasting impact as the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

The best of Bob’s music is the stuff of poetry, with its wild free-wheeling imagery and close to the bone insight. Even his few mediocre recordings in the course of a career enduring more than forty years have a lyrical integrity that eludes most others. But  little of his vast output is radio-friendly. I suspect that to kids today Bob is known almost exclusively as the creator of “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,”  and to a slightly lesser extent, for “Like A Rolling Stone.” And of course, in the case of the first two, the covers by The Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary, respectively, have enjoyed more airtime than Bob’s original recordings.

But those of us who light candles in the Church of Bob tend to favor works less widely known.  “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” still casts a spell that takes me back to a time when many of my generation thought music could change the world. I no longer believe that any one song has that power. But “Visions of Johanna” takes my breath away. And “Dear Landlord” still hits the mark. The anti-war anthem “With God on Our Side” is as powerful and relevant today as it was in 1964.

So, yeah. When I hear people talk about what kind of music they like these days, and they rave about whoever it is, be it Taylor Swift or Kanye West or any of the thousands of bright young bands mixing and mashing up musical styles for the great buffet of modern musical tastes, I nod and hold my tongue. Unto each generation is born a new roster of talent. Some got it. Some don’t. As Bob himself once sang, “Time will tell who has fell, and who’s been left been behind.”

My guess is, it won’t be Bob.

I Never Metafiction

And here’s why: life is confusing enough as it is.

Yet, obviously for some brainy writers it’s not enough for a novel to combine a plot, characterization and compelling narrative authority into a coherent whole. The challenge is to create a fictional world in which nothing is reliable – not the narrator, not the apparent setting, and certainly not what passes for a plot.

However, once you get used to the idea that you can’t trust anything to be what it seems, in this sort of novel – one which refuses to behave like a civilized, domesticated piece of fiction – it can be kind of thrilling to let go and see just how far out or in deep the author can go.

Charles Yu, in his brilliant, confounding, yet ultimately moving novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, provides an extraordinary journey outside the box of conventional narrative. His hero is not heroic. His quest may or may not be real. His experiences are simultaneously profound and mundane. The novel has moments of violence, tenderness and dry humor.

But Yu’s subject, ostensibly time travel, is explored with acute sensitivity to one of the great paradoxes of human life – our awareness of time and the effect this has on the way we live. Our attempts to beat the clock, to escape the consequences of being dependent on our ticking hearts, to somehow control time so that we can . . . live forever? Undo past mistakes? Fix the world, or at least our own small lives?

Yet make no mistake, while How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe does indeed include descriptions of time machine building, and a gauzy film of computer wizardry veils the suspension bridge of disbelief, Yu’s use of the concept of time travel has more in common with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Wells’s The Time Machine.

Yu is most lyrical when reflecting on the experience of being human in a world of constant change. Early in the novel the hero says: “Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.”

Some like it deep.

A New Edge

So, the first week of 2011 has slipped by, and, as yet, I’m unable to detect anything particularly distinctive about its personality. Whether it will be a Year To Remember or a Year To Redecorate remains to be seen. But at least in terms of my reading list, it’s off to a good start.

My first read of the new year was “Personal Days” by Ed Park, not a new book (it was published in 2008) but one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. As I read it this last week I was enthralled by Park’s brilliant observations on human nature and the way it gets bent out of shape in the bizarre machinations of the modern office environment.

The world of the office has provided fertile ground for literary works ever since Dickens, in works such as “Bleak House,” created scathing portraits of the soul-crushing tombs where numbing routine and Byzantine power structures combine to drain the life out of workers. More recent authors have exposed the absurdity and pathos of modern office life. Notable examples include Joshua Ferris’s funny, yet deeply moving “Then We Came to the End” and Max Barry’s sharply comic “Company.” One of my personal favorites is Tom Holt’s gleefully insane fantasy “The Portable Door,” which posits an office where the boss from hell is, well, that pretty much says it all.

Like these novels, “Personal Days” is wry and thoughtful, but it steps farther out on the ledge where the Mad Men lurk. Park is a founding editor of The Believer and a former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, and his novel stands out in part because of his own marvelous voice. Writing about an office operating under a kind of Machiavellian cloud, his descriptions of familiar office types are fresh and thrilling. Of a character dealing with a sudden onset of panic he writes: “It was like she’d been set in italics.”

In a tour de force monologue which stretches over several pages he describes one employee as “someone who would always have an ax to grind – who would, upon finishing the satisfactory grinding of one ax, refuse to relax, but instead go back to his cavernous ax storeroom and haul out another one that needed a new edge.”

Ah. That’s what I’m talking about. The first cut is the deepest.