Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Random play

One of the best things about MP3 players is the random shuffle feature. Some people claim that their devices are in sync with them to a preternatural degree (don't these people choose the songs, themselves-duh!), but I'm not here to debate that. They do however, sometimes cook up a particularly heavenly run of songs that have nothing to do with each other, but somehow seem just right. While walking on the treadmill, I heard, in succession:
  • Looking for someone like you - Kelly Willis
  • Ordinary Joe - Terry Callier
  • Off the record - My Morning Jacket
  • Strawberry Road - Sam Phillips
  • My heart is the bums on the street - Marah
  • When I was cruel - Elvis Costello
Anyway, it was pretty awesome. That's all.

Friday, January 19, 2007

McEwan's life is as strange as his fiction

I loved the story in the Times this week about Ian McEwan discovering an older brother he never knew about. The details sound like the premise of a really great novel! Clandestine affair, a baby given up to strangers during wartime, the death of a husband in Normandy...

In other news, poet Seamus Heaney won the TS Eliot Poetry Prize for his latest collection (which I haven't read yet). Also a writer from Kentucky won a British prize for short stories: Willie Davis for "Kid in a Well." You can read it on The Guardian's site.

Woolf and the creative process

I just finished Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. What distinguishes this "biography" is that the focus is squarely on Woolf as an artist. Woolf was an exemplary diary keeper, and Briggs' uses great resources to show how she created her books from conception to publication. Even if you are not a particular Woolf fan, any one interested in how artists work, in the mystery of the creative process, would enjoy reading this book. Also, for anyone doing research on specific works by Woolf, this is an excellent reading guide. I found myself--a devoted Woolf fan--newly impressed by her serious work ethic, complicated as it was by her fragile mental health and fragmented by two major wars. (The Woolfs split their time between the country and the city, but Woolf was passionate about London. One of her former homes was destroyed, and her last home in London was damaged by WWII bombing.) She was deeply devoted to her craft. She could have reeled off traditional narratives by the score, but she was passionately attached to the idea of finding new forms to get at the truth of being. She wanted to write books about the inner workings of our minds, about all the invisible things that shape what we are and what we do.

I also highly recommend Hermione Lee's full-length biography of Woolf, which is more of a traditional "life" bio. It came out several years ago, and this spring Lee is publishing a new biography of Edith Wharton, which I will probably pick up. In addition, Claire Tomalin (Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys) has a new bio of Thomas Hardy out now that sounds very good. They're all dropping at the same time!

My next "big read" is history, however. I just started Niall Ferguson's War of the Worlds: The Descent of the West. I think it's going to be really interesting, if sobering. He's looking at the extraordinary violence of the last century and attempting to analyze it in new ways--apparently he's turning a few standard arguments on their heads; for example, instead of the rise of Western power and influence, he sees a "reorienting toward the East." Anyway, I've plowed through the 70-page introduction and just begun the first chapter.