Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Ruthless storytelling

If you know me, you know that it is relatively rare for me to feel of a new work of criticism that I MUST READ IT RIGHT NOW - I am more likely to say that about the new Lee Child novel. But it does occasionally happen, and has happened happily just now in the form of voracious consumption of Joseph North's Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History. I can't say that I share Joe's politics, but I love his account of criticism and its tug-of-war with scholarship over the twentieth century: this is a fascinating, highly readable and often very funny book, essential I think for anyone working in Anglophone literary studies. I'm definitely thinking of adding it at the end of my MA seminar syllabus, if I ever teach that course again, not least for the ruthlessness and delicacy with which he "close reads" the style of other critics. And look at this comment, in a close reading of some sentences by George Levine in which North detects "the more disturbing tones of the underlying sensibility . . . a sensibility to which equality itself has something of the taste of a necessary evil. It is this underlying sensibility that the rhetorics of critical thinking and diversity, properly executed, are usually able to manage and conceal. I note that critiques offered at the level of sensibility are sometimes read as ad hominem attacks, and I certainly do not offer mine in that sense" -- hahaha, must borrow a version of that gesture to use myself, as I am a strong believer in the value of sensibility as an indicator of motives and values, and have often been shot down in meetings on exactly the ad hominem charge!

Things I would ask Joe about if I were a respondent to the book on a panel (but am too lazy to write out properly): (a) What about Barthes? He supports the story, in some sense (think of his criticism veering much more strongly to Michelet and to photographs and drawings rather than to literary work more traditionally conceived), but it seems hard to explain how Sedgwick and Miller stand out so much without at least a nod to the joyful playful contributions of RB; (b) Principled neglect of institutional histories, expansion of higher education and the probable contraction of some of its more luxurious US franchises? (c) What about Maggie Nelson and The Argonauts? Surprising lack of mention of the extent to which arts must supplement both criticism and scholarship in the kind of political project he imagines (this may have something to do with the oddity of T. S. Eliot). Again, instititional contexts, job market, jobs moving to teaching writing and often creative writing - surely there is some hope in that realm along the lines he discerns here.

The artist moved to despair

Fuseli, "The artist moved to despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins" (1778-79) (via)

From Catherine Edwards, Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City: “The nature of the artist’s despair remains open. Is it provoked by the impossibility of emulating the greatness of the past, still overwhelming even in ruins? By the knowledge that even the greatest works of art will decay? Or is it rather caused by the unassuageable longing for a closer contact with the long vanished dead? These ruins, though of vast stature, are yet human in form; the artist stretches out his hand to touch flesh that turns out to be cold, unresponsive stone” (15).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"The night is for the dead"

Hilary Mantel on why she became a historical novelist (this is A Place of Greater Safety, her novel of Robespierre, which I remember reading at the recommendation of my brilliant teacher Simon Schama circa 1993):
I wasn’t after quick results. I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.

These erasures and silences made me into a novelist, but at first I found them simply disconcerting. I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.

Because his thoughts can only be conjectured. Even if he was a diarist or a confessional writer, he might be self-censoring. But the wallpaper – someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and colour, and if I kept on pursuing it I might find out. Then – when my character comes home weary from a 24-hour debate in the National Convention and hurls his dispatch case into a corner, I would be able to look around at the room, through his eyes. When my book eventually came out, after many years, one snide critic – who was putting me in my place, as a woman writing about men doing serious politics – complained there was a lot in it about wallpaper. Believe me, I thought, hand on heart, that there was not nearly enough.

Closing tabs

Just a few, in preparation for travel to Cayman and I HOPE some writing (it has not been a productive month for me, due mostly I think to factors beyond my control but also to the fact that it is very difficult to sustain full-on sabbaticalage over the entire 18 months that you get if you have a full school year and both summers). More realistic will be to make a detailed but modest list of ALL THINGS THAT MUST BE DONE BY THE END OF AUGUST (including updating fall semester syllabi and making the new syllabus for my spring-semester course in Paris so that we can get it cleared with the Committee on Instruction and have course book information in advance of the relevant dates) and then proceed to tick them off as I can. But I will be happier if I write some Gibbon pages as well....

Madame Bovary's wedding cake. (I am surprised by the negative orientation towards this sort of patisserie, I am a wholehearted fan!)

On a related note, I am still meaning to stop in and get a look at this. I think I have missed my chance to see the ballet....

Favorite items at the Houghton Library.

Subway maps compared to their actual geography

Watch the movements of every refugee on earth since the year 2000

J.G. Ballard, "The Index"!

Michel Houellebecq is not easy to interview

"Bond, Michael Bond"

Many good tributes to the creator of Paddington Bear, but this old one from Pico Eyer is a good one (the NYT obituary was nice too):
Bond’s greatest moment is in describing how the attempt to make a live-action film about Paddington began with “a midget dressed up in a bearskin” (though a midget a mite too large). Given that “the person inside the skin couldn’t hear what was being said to him, let alone where he was going”, and given that, according to Bond, “midgets also tend to be temperamental” (especially when stuck inside a papier-mache head), it makes for a scene worthy of its hero – even before the man “who had invented an automatic lawn mower” is brought in to give the bear emotions, producing an artificial head whose eyes blink at different moments, generating an effect both sinister and salacious.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Life in water

Lidia Yuknavitch the lifelong swimmer. (Courtesy of Dave Lull.)

Sets of questions

Rebecca Solnit's life as a writer. Pull quote: "Lots of people want to be me now, but nobody wants to be me 20 years ago when I was living on $15,000 a year."

James, Jimmy, Jamie

Ed Pavlic's 2015 Boston Review piece on James Baldwin's letters to his brother David. Wish I could read the one about Just Above My Head and real-life family members!

Checking in

I am determined to reclaim the blog as a place where at the very least I log what I've been reading! Action prompted in particular by trying to download content from Facebook (I am just getting started on a short piece called "Reading Gibbon in the Time of Trump" and want to see which Decline and Fall bits I posted on which days - one of the ways in which Facebook is much inferior to the old-fashioned blog!) and remembering why it would have been better if I'd just posted those bits here. Also thinking quite a bit, around and after the two-year anniversary of my father's death, on the fact that it may not just have been social media that leached the energy away from my blogging vim; it was also very much the nature of my relationship with my father that we shared links and talked about bits we'd seen online, and my avoidance of the FT weekend magazine for instance seems part and parcel of the same phenomenon. Also, keeping so many tabs open is causing Chrome to fail - a tech guy at work showed me a good tool that lets you save a whole host of open tabs onto a single page of links, but really clearing tabs by posting what interested me would be a smarter way....

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Wrestling with angels

I see the last few posts here are mistakes, entries that should have gone to the other blog! Which I keep up very faithfully, only it is boring to read (insanely repetitive, as training must be!). Still overdue a light reading update and a year-end best post, I would like to keep the blog going to that extent but I've been too busy with other things: especially, finishing the Austen book (and juggling the other work commitments that you can only put on hold for so long). Leaving for the airport for Rome in a couple of hours, got some last bits of packing still to do and library books to return, but thought I'd blog a few sentences from J.D. Daniels' very good little book of essays The Correspondence. I think it may have been a mistake to include the two pieces originally written as short stories - they feel different and they don't work as well as the essays. But even so it's a great little volume. Here are a couple paragraphs I especially liked, for obvious reasons:
I took eight weeks off to squat and dead-lift heavy and eat everything that wans't nailed down, and I gained thirty-five pounds and had to buy new pants. Then I went back to sparring and I broke a guy's ribs. That was nice.

And then I did it all again, the way you find yourself eating dinner again the next night; the way you have sex, if you do, again; the way too much to drink was barely enough. It didn't end, it doesn't end, and if I knew what to say next, this wouldn't be the end.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Short run!

Really I'm still sick, ugh - I overdid it slightly yesterday maybe, it wasn't just feeling queasy towards end of run but I felt pretty woozy at the library afterwards too, and had to come home and lie down for the afternoon instead of working on my book. Just did :30 easy, still not feeling great, will be smarter to err on side of caution. Still wavering about whether or not I am going to NJ this evening for family Xmas eve at my brother's - I think it may make more sense to save energy for tomorrow and the following few days of socializing....

Also, watch battery died halfway through run! NOoooooooo!!!!!!! I am a watch person through and through - must head out now for a couple minor errands anyway and it will be beneficial for morale if I can get the battery replaced...

:30 easy

Friday, December 23, 2016


1hr very easy along the Hudson with my best long-ago training partner who is now moving back to the neighborhood - we will be able to run together a lot more regularly in coming months! Still feeling somewhat under the weather, lungs on the mend but imperfect, and I hate how queasy the postnasal drip makes you feel during exercise (had to go off the clock and walk for some minutes near the end, though I then felt OK enough to finish out the hour).

1hr very easy

Monday, December 05, 2016

Light reading update

Jet lag has me up much earlier than usual: I must make sure not to squander this advantage, if I am smart I can type up the notes for my two remaining Austen chapters and get the production of quota underway before life too much intervenes! Very happy to be home - I always forget how much I love my apartment, and of course the warm welcome from the two funny cats is huge....

First, though, an overdue light reading update, a sort of throat-clearing before getting back into the real work.

The trip home from England went smoothly, with the proviso that I arrived at the airport six hours in advance of my flight (B.'s flight to Miami was a couple hours earlier from a different terminal) and was horrified to learn that the airline would only take checked bags (I had 2 bags of approximately fifty pounds each, one small and densely full of books, the other a cumbersome large duffel full of clothes and miscellaneous running gear) three hours in advance of flying time. Fortunately Heathrow Terminal 5 is very nice and I was able to hole up in a reasonable restaurant for the duration.

Key to successful travel for me is having the right books to read, and in fact the day passed very enjoyably. I read part of and put aside a Swedish thriller I wasn't enjoying, then had an undemanding and enjoyable urban fantasy (at its best, this genre is undemanding and wonderfully immersive) that took me through the first stint of waiting, an incredibly good and funny noir novel for the next bit of waiting and first bit of the flight, and then, incredibly immersively, a long science fiction novel that I have been meaning to read and that absolutely captivated me.

I haven't logged light reading since mid-September, which means I am well overdue for it - forthwith! As always, loosely sorted by categories and with the best stuff mostly singled out at the top. This includes reading from the Australia trip and then the stint of Oxford light reading (probably a little lighter than usual, in volume as well as kind, as I was doing a fair bit of work reading as well).

Strong all-round recommendation at the top, then.

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. My favorite kind of book - captivating! This was a consensus recommendation when I crowdsourced my light reading demands on Facebook before traveling to Oxford, and I enjoyed it very much indeed (reminiscent of but also quite different from Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, also I thought an extremely good book).

Garth Nix, Goldenhand - latest installment in the Old Kingdom series, which must be my favorite YA fantasy series running today (it was the first three books in this series, plus Pullman's His Dark Materials, that made me write The Explosionist when I got tired of not finding a new trilogy along the lines of Nix's or Pullman's on the shelves of the Bank Street Bookstore)

James Lasdun, The Fall Guy. He is a genius! He writes as good a sentence as anyone you have ever read, but he also has this chilling Talented Mr. Ripleyesque imagination about doubles and secret selves - this one's very good indeed.

The book that surprised and delighted me most perhaps of everything I'm logging here, and that made the first part of the trip from Heathrow to JFK pass as if in a flash, was Joe Ide's IQ. I loved this so much I can hardly say! It's a Sherlock Holmes homage (the story of a young detective coming into his full powers of deductive reasoning), but it's also learned from Walter Mosley's socially conscious noir (with a dash of George Pelecanos) and has a strong satirical element that is genuinely comic rather than just striving for it. The parody rap lyrics are some of the funniest things I've read all year - I had just found this one as a random recommendation on Amazon, hadn't particularly registered anything about it in the world - everyone should read this book!

And the book that captivated me for the remainder of the voyage was N. K. Jemisen's justly lauded The Fifth Season. I loved her earlier trilogy and have had this one on my Kindle for a while, but hadn't quite gotten into it - I think I read the first few chapters and found them a little alienating (I have observed that one weakness of digital publication for novels is that when you have a novel written in a few different voices and timelines you really lose something not having the physical book in your hands, with the extra help it can give in the way of headers and being able easily to leaf back a few pages to orient yourself), put it aside for a quieter moment. But it is glorious - really expansive imaginative storytelling at its absolute best (as ambitious as Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, for instance, a book I enjoyed very much, but much more unusual and startling in its willingness to invoke fantastical as well as science-fictional elements). Loved it and can't wait to read the next installment.

Kevin Wignall, The Traitor's Story (love his cool unemotional way with storytelling - some storytelling minds are just more attractive than others, the economy and precision of his imagination much appeal to me!)

Tana French, The Trespasser. I continue to feel she's one of the couple best crime novelists writing today - we are used now to the contours of her imagination, so it's a bit less startling than those first few books in the series were, but they are still pretty much at the top of my list of what I most want to read.

A new novel in Emma Newman's appealing Planetfall world, After Atlas (B. was reading this also a few days ago and comments on the miraculously readable convergence of SF and noir investigation). And then what might have been the best discovery of my last few months of light reading because it was so joyful and so well-timed (it saved me from a good amount of post-election angst - not that I was spared, just that I had places to escape into like my Austen book and these novels) - a wonderful series called the Split Worlds. Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, All is Far, A Little Knowledge - I was slightly gnashing my teeth when I came to the end of book four and realized that it wasn't the end of the story, but now I am glad of it as it means there is another one to read. I had vaguely had the impression that Planetfall was Newman's first novel, which surprised me given what a very very good book I found it - so this makes sense, she had a journeyman series before that might be a little more ragged around the edges but that are absolutely delightful and pretty much my favorite sort of thing in the world to read in times of trouble!

A first installment in a series that is another version of what I most enjoy collapsing into (I was happily downloading books from Amazon end-of-year recommendations for transatlantic travel, only I started this one the night before and stayed up till I finished it, and was only outraged to realize that I could not immediately get the next chunk of story): Todd Lockwood, The Summer Dragon. I was then saying to B. in the car we took to the airport the next morning that books about girls raising dragons are pretty much my favorite thing in the world - he said, implacably, "I find them Pernicious"! (Which reminded me of the time we were riding in a boat across a lake in Costa Rica and saw a huge flock of sea birds, prompting B. to turn to me and observe that one good tern deserves another.)

Connie Willis, Crosstalk. Enjoyable, very much in the vein of her earlier fiction like Bellwether, but slight. I am mildly outraged that the boring book that you are supposed to read if you are a telepath who needs to shield your mind from the intrusion of other people's chaotic thoughts is Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire! And

New Virgil Flowers book from John Sandford, Escape Clause, cause for minor celebration! (I read through the whole of that series and then the Lucas Davenport ones late this spring in a reading binge that was incredibly well timed to coincide with the time of the academic year when I still need a pipeline of light reading but don't have the energy or attention to discover new veins of ore.

New Daniel Faust installment from Craig Schaefer, The Castle Doctrine (these are good but not great - they are not as immediately appealing as Ben Aaronovich's Rivers of London series and not as masterfully told and plotted as Paul Cornell's Shadow London, but very enjoyable - definitely recommended).

Justine Larbalestier's My Sister Rosa is excellent, though I wasn't sure I endorsed the final twist - you can see it coming and I think it complicates what is otherwise a very emotionally true and compelling book

I found Harlen Coben's initial Myron Bolitar novels a bit silly/slight, but like Robert Crais he has gotten better over time. Enjoyed Home, then read the trio of YA Mickey Bolitar novels, which are wildly implausible in their imaginings but quite enjoyable to read (Chelter, Seconds Away, Found). Then read Fool Me Once. Then read Missing You. Then felt I had had enough Coben for a while!

Pre-election solace (genius timing!): Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel! The last one wasn't great (the dark web stuff is too silly, and really the Reacher premise works best in a time before cellphones and pervasive computing) but this one is a return to form - I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Doug Johnstone, The Jump (very good - subtle, moving)

Walter Jon Williams, This is Not a Game (not bad, sort of sub-William-Gibson)

Seanan McGuire, Full of Briars (novelette in the October Daye world); Mira Grant, Feedback. Poppy Z. Brite, Last Wish and The Gulf.
Michelle Belanger, Mortan Sins (short story in the Conspiracy of Angels world)

Matthew FitzSimmons, Poisonfeather (Gibson Vaugn #2, sequel to The Short Drop). Not quite as smooth as the first one, but it's a worthwhile series, I will certainly continue to read.

Michael Connelly's new Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye. I think the quality of the series has declined over the years. This one is a little stronger than some of the couple previous, but I always have a curious feeling as I am reading that it is almost as if he has written the book as an outline rather than a fully imagined and realized story.

A pair of quite reasonable British police procedurals by Sarah Ward, In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw (but don't you wish series naming protocols would undergo a major overhaul?)

David Anthony Durman, Acacia: The War with the Mein (book 1 of a series, I thought it was good and I enjoyed it but I do not know that I have the fortitude quite to read the rest of the saga - also, though I do not imagine influence just deep mythic patterning/stereotype, the children in the displaced ruling family have exactly the same roles and personalities as the Stark children in Game of Thrones!)

Peter Straub, Ghost Story (for some reason I'd never read this, but I think it feels dated now - the gender roles are offputting - and it's so reminiscent of some of the Stephen King of that era that I really wonder who thought of it first). Liked it enough to read Floating Dragon thereafter, but once I'd read those two I felt it really was sufficient, though they are long reasonably enjoyable books of the sort I always need more of.

Helen Callaghan, Dear Amy (couldn't quite get behind this one, I think thriller writers should be banned from writing stories that rely on dissociative selves with comparmentalized knowledge a-la Girl on a Train, whether due to alcohol abuse or mental illness)

Aoife Clifford, All these Perfect Strangers (Australian crime novel, not bad but not memorable); Kirstyn McDermott, Madigan Mine (good premise well told but not quite my preferred genre - I think I was trying to get local color via reading Australian genre fiction)
Ann Turner, Out of the Ice, an Antarctic thriller, was the best of the bunch - reminds me I meant to get her other novel but it was not I think available for Kindle.

Carol O'Connell's latest Mallory novel, Blind Sight. These are so eccentric as to sometimes have become almost unreadably silly, but I didn't think this volume was such a brazen offender as a couple of the others. The story rather recapitulates elements of her standalone novel The Judas Child, which remains my favorite of all her books.

I don't read urban fantasy obsessively, I am too critical of the writing in its bottom tiers, but Ilona Andrews, Magic Binds was worthwhile, and I was very pleased (this was the one I read yesterday morning at the airport with too much luggage) with Suzanne Johnson's Royal Street. Was happy to realize that it is the first of a five-book series, will get the others promptly (though by the time I realized I could do this, I was in a no-wireless zone and had a moment of feeling profoundly thwarted!).

Susan McBride, Walk into Silence - sub-literary, though the writing is quite good - I always feel a bit tricked when I think I'm reading "crime" genre and it turns out to be built on the romance chassis, there is a thinness of imagining around the storytelling

I must have been desperate - a Supernatural novel, Mythmaker! (Actually I do occasionally like reading this sort of tie-in story, though it is mostly only when I can't settle on anything else decent to read!)

Charlie Engle, Running Man: A Memoir. Very enjoyable in parts, but I thought the account of his arrest and imprisonment was somewhat lacking in self-awareness.

Comfort reread: Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, though that was more of a tourism reread - and I suddenly remember now that I never walked into the Botanic Garden, though I ran past it almost every day, to see if I could find Will and Lyra's bench!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Minor work update

The Austen book has been a haven for me over the last couple of weeks. It's killing me to have to put it aside for a few days (weekend travel, then focusing on Gibbon and footnotes for the last two weeks I'm here and in preparation for my Balliol talk on self-annotation)! But I've just drafted chapter 6 of 8. Two more to draft, plus introduction and conclusion.

(It's currently draft zero, so it will need a couple weeks of cleaning up and filling in of references before it's a proper editable first draft - shooting to have proper full draft by Xmas. Due date to publisher in March, but I need to send it by late January so that I'm clear for six weeks of all-on Gibbon in Rome.)

Note to self: don't in future use such similar blues for two related chapters (revision, voice). Under artificial light, the sky-blue post-its are genuinely indistinguishable from the sea-blue ones!

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Packing for an English sabbatical

It is not a complaint, I love this flat and am extremely happy here, but there are a couple things I hadn't bargained for about the English sabbatical flat! I would have packed slightly differently if I had remembered the following:

In English October and November, it is colder inside than outside.

The thermostat seems basically placed to give the illusion of control, and there is no heat from radiators during the day.

The bathroom has a funny shower like a sort of plastic telephone booth - the water is hot and fully pressured, so that's the most important thing, but the bathroom itself is huge and drafty and unheated, and it is impossible to shave legs either in the shower (because the water runs down your legs in such a thick curtain when you are bent over vertically) or out (because the goose-pimples from freezingness catch on the razor).

The washer-dryer is a good amenity, and the washer aspect works fine, but these double-use machines are virtually useless as dryers, and the drying racks in the flat have to be positioned near functioning radiators if you actually want things to dry in a reasonable timeframe.....

Sabbatical makes twice-a-day exercise a near certainty!

Pants that are good for running are fine for yoga, but not vice versa; shirts that are fine for running sometimes fall down over your head in downward-facing dog and similar.

All of which is to say - I bought a pair of fleece pants a few weeks ago as a home comfort (regretted not bringing my Siberia running pants for indoor wear, and my Patagonia down sweater!), and have just descended on a local running store to repair other lacks: shirts that won't fall down when I am somewhat inverted, full-length running tights in case the leg-shaving conundrum remains insoluble (I think I found a good compromise the other day - it was after hot yoga, so I was fairly warm even after the chilly walk home, and I turned on the shower and left the door open and very hastily shaved my legs outside of the shower with shaving cream).

I may have to get some kind of a fleece blanket - I was so cold the other day I pulled a blanket from the warming cupboard, but it made me wheeze pretty severely and I think I should keep my distance from it!