Tuesday, March 29, 2005


A week or so ago I picked up a copy of a novel, Mister Posterior and the Genius Child by Emily Jenkins. (It was a trade paperback by Berkley, which doesn't usually publish contemporary non-genre fiction, so that may have caught my eye.) Partly because of a laudatory blurb by Sarah Willis, partly because of an immensely charming cover (you can see it at http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/042518627X/ref=sib_dp_pt/103-6095491-0271812#reader-link), and -- because these had gotten me that far -- an engaging opening page (http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/042518627X/ref=sib_dp_pt/103-6095491-0271812#reader-link) and funny cover copy, I took the book home.

It's a novel set in Cambridge in 1970, told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl. Since the girl is narrating, but from the vantage of later adulthood, it raises interesting technical issues, which could interact fruitfully with its (interesting) setting.

I began reading, but quickly smacked up against a real problem, at least for me. The story is full of anachronisms. Jenkins was born in 1967 (the copyright page tells us), and her 1970 Cambridge is replete with events, phrases, and attitudes from the mid- and late eighties. The first example was so egregious (an early reference to a woman going out and "drumming in the woods") that, like a sting from the world's biggest bee, I developed an immediate sensitivity to even minor recurrences.

This alerted me to what I might not otherwise have noticed: that there were no references that were actually specific to the era (a woman who wanted to get away from her family and straighten her head out would find an "Encounter Group," not a drumming circle). Cultural references and allusions that were acceptable to 1970 all proved to be examples that were still in use well into the following decade. The author's specific knowledge of her chosen milieu seemed to be zero.

This really bugs me. The author has a Ph.D.; she has published a previous book of non-fiction. Presumably she knows how to conduct basic research. The book was edited, then copyedited, by people trained to look out for exactly this kind of thing. It comes lavishly praised, presumably not only by people younger than the author.

Do most readers shrug this off, or does it bother others as well?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

I Grow Old . . . I Grow Old . . .

I'm wracked with guilt for the drunks I've rolled.

My joi de vivre is green with mold.

My MSS molder, all unsold.

I wake, the tip of my penis cold.

My obit will run below the fold.

Too late to cruise "the realms of gold"!

Still can catch, but cannae hold.

Etc. Pardon me; I am having an Old day.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Titling Strategies

I have long been interested in titles, their fashions over time, their evolving functions. (Early novel titles were simply labels, the name of the protagonist plus a descriptive subtitle. This persisted through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, when other fashions gained currency.) Strategies for giving a story collection its title are especially interesting, since the obvious strategy (name the book after the most famous story in it, or at least the one with the most memorable title) is so overwhelmingly popular that any others are worth studying.

James Tiptree always gave her collections offbeat titles of their own. Gene Wolfe goes for witty titles, and Harlan Ellison often comes up with striking titles for his collections. Maureen McHugh has titled her forthcoming collection Mothers and Other Monsters, which is more than slightly in-your-face. (Much more interesting than "The Lincoln Train and Other Stories," which one publisher wanted to call it.)

Last week I came across two striking collection title strategies in successive days. The first was Jenny and the Jaws of Life, a collection by Jincy Willett that I have read good things about. It isn't, on its face, a tremendously remarkable title, until you look at the table of contents and realize that there is no title story. Instead there are two: the final stories in the volume are "Jenny" and "The Jaws of Life." I have never seen a collection title take the form "A and B," when the volume comprised more than just those two works.

The next day I came across 13 Stories by Stephen Dixon, I writer I have long intended to try. Again, not a very striking title, until you turn to the Table of Contents. The first story is called "13 Stories" -- meaning that it is a volume with a title story, while seeming to be one that follows the strategy of Salinger's Nine Stories and Faulkner's These Thirteen. (I counted the number of stories in the book: fourteen. He does not intend an ambiguous reading!)

Dixon is being sneaky, but Willett's title seems bewildering. Both strategies are much more interesting than what you see with, say, Fire Watch and Other Stories.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

If I Wrote for The Onion

Like all well-informed Americans, I read The Onion regularly, and could recite off the top of my head my half-dozen favorite headlines. (Number One: "Commemorative Plate Industry Calls for Tragic Death of Barbra Streisand.") I admire particularly their conciseness: quite often the headline says it all, and you don't have to -- indeed, often shouldn't -- read the accompanying piece.

Since my days include a lot of mental downtime (idling at intersections; waiting for kids to get out of music lessons), I find headlines popping into my own head. If The Onion accepted freelance work (I am told they don't), I would not hesitate to send a few in. Usually they are just the headlines:

"It's Time to Put These Torture Scandals Behind Us"

"I Dedicate My Life to Restoring the Lost Honor of Ahmed Chalabi"

"I Think We Have Qualified for a War Crimes Exemption"

"Of Course Our Warlords Are Committed to the Democratic Process"

"Reinquist Treated for Cancer, Evil"

"Israel Calls In Strike On Arafat's Body"

"U.S. Charges Transitional Government Two Days' Interest for Early Delivery"

"You're Making Condi Angry"

Anyway, today's is: "What Am I Going To Do With All These Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Bush Stickers?"