Monday, April 30, 2007

Alternate histories

No posts round here till early next week (but I'm hoping once I'm back from this trip I'll be in more normal read-books-and-literary-news-and-write-about-them mode, I've been excessively frenzied with various work stuff these last couple weeks). Meanwhile let me just say that thanks to Colleen I've discovered a really wonderful little novel that I wouldn't have heard about otherwise but that is pretty much perfectly to my taste, and really beautifully conceived and written: Jo Walton's Farthing.

It's a lovely book, a modest and beautifully written crime novel that also manages to be very imaginative alternate history and casts some intense light on questions about accommodation and moral heroism. Put it on the shelf next to Fatherland and The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policemen's Union (and also the wonderful and underrated A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond).

But the book's style is quite different from any of those--in the acknowledgments, Walton thanks "the dead writers of English mysteries, especially Josephine Tey and Dorothy L. Sayers, and to the master of living ones, Peter Dickinson" (also she appealingly observes that the novel arose largely out of her "thoughts on various political situations, and out of wondering what date Josephine Tey could have imagined Brat Farrar to be set"). These of course are three of my favorite, most magical novelists ever--and I will take this opportunity to recommend Peter Dickinson to anyone who hasn't read him, he was a staple of my public-library-and-mass-market-paperback reading in my early teens and I remain devoted to his books. I think my favorite--the one everyone must read!--is The Lively Dead; and one of the narrative voices here distinctly reminds me of The Last House Party, but really with Dickinson you can hardly go wrong, he's just such an intelligent and cunning and deeply appealing writer. Walton's done a very good job with this novel, in other words, and I am dying for the sequel, Ha'penny, though I am afraid it will not be published until October.

The other novels I've been reading are a recommendation from Justine, and also incredibly perfectly to my taste--The Thief and The Queen of Attolia (I've still got the third in the trilogy to look forward to) by Megan Whalen Turner. Again, even before plunging into them I pretty much knew I was going to love them because of the intelligent and altogether delightful material at the back of the volume. This must be the only young-adult novel published in recent memory--maybe ever?!?--whose afterword recommends my beloved Thucydides and also singles out Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken and Rosemary Sutcliff as special loves & influences--I have found a kindred spirit...

Finally I will just observe that though in the end I did have a very pleasant swim this evening, next year I must not go swimming in the last hour the pool is open on the last day of classes as the minutes tick down for final eligibility for seniors to take the swim test they are required to pass in order to graduate!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The prose of the world

Hermione Lee has a very appealing essay in the latest NYRB on a nice handful of books about novel-reading (Kundera, Smiley, Mullan, Sutherland, Mendelson, Moretti, Parrinder--no subscription required). It's full of good things:

In our Man Booker Prize judging for 2006, however carefully we analyzed our books, however good we agreed our preferred choices were (and we could easily have had a long list of thirty rather than nineteen novels), in the end our arguments came down to matters of taste. The most hotly debated novels on our list (for instance by Nadine Gordimer, Barry Unsworth, Howard Jacobson, Andrew O'Hagan, and Edward St. Aubyn) divided us, finally, not because of objective aesthetic judgements, but because some of us disliked the moral atmosphere of the books, or found them claustrophobic or overinsistent, or were unable to enjoy a particular style of historical recreation, or were irritated by the narrative voice. And there is no accounting for boredom. The critic Jonathan Zwicker writes, in Moretti's collection, of a marginal note scribbled by an anonymous Japanese reader in a 1908 library copy of Tolstoy's newly translated Kreutzer Sonata, whose title in translation was "Chôkon," meaning "long resentment." The marginal note read: "A boring book. Where is the long resentment? The resentment is in having read the book. There is no value in its being translated."

The resentment is in having read the book! I am going to start penciling that in the margins of books that make me angry...


Sebastian Faulks has a new novel out, reviewed here by Allan Massie at the Scotsman. Somehow I missed his last one, perhaps I will get both at once. I am going to London on Tuesday for a conference on rationality in literature (check out the program--pretty fun, eh?!?) and I have pretty much already decided (a) that I am going to have one day of down-time where I wander into either a real bookstore or more likely WH Smith and descend on the light-reading shelves and devour at least two or three trashy novels and (b) that I am going to drop a lot of money in the airport bookstore on the way home, I must think about what UK Amazon-shippable titles I could spare myself from needing to obtain...

Friday, April 27, 2007

Do you not

totally want to go and study for years in the Shaolin Temple?!? I've got to get both of these books...

Beyond nose to tail

At the FT, Rowley Leigh and Fergus Henderson have a delightful conversation about cookery. A snippet:

RL: The one person I come back to and always use as a really reliable metronome of good taste and proper English cooking is Eliza Acton and I just think she has perfect pitch: “Take a wild duck, put him on a brisk fire, serve him up with a little orange salad and watercress,” you know, that sort of language of cookery, which is exactly what you want.

On pride

I think it is very difficult to take a clean pride in one's own achievements, or at least in any kind of public recognition of those achievements; it is too often tainted either by some reservation about the thing you've done or a sense of the deep bad decorum of pride as opposed to humility (there is always a sort of shame, I find, in whatever pride we feel on receiving an award or distinction of some kind--as if it's a distinctly lowering thing to find one even cares about such recognition); but I love taking pride in my friends' accomplishments, and of course pride in a present or former student's accomplishments is by far the most gratifying sensation I can think of, a more innocent and purer pleasure than any satisfaction elicited by our own public successes. So here I am ridiculously bursting with pride about this great piece of writing by a dear friend who's also a former student: it's Nico Muhly at the Guardian on the deep allure of English choral music. Here's a particularly good paragraph, but go and take a look for yourself:

My love for Thomas Weelkes, especially, was like a childish celebrity infatuation. If the internet had existed, I would have been running the Weelkes fan site and moderating the message boards. There was something about his 400-year-old music that felt so right in the throat and brain; I would have followed him on tour and lit my lighter during When David Heard. I'd have told all my friends that he had written the Ninth Service for me. Part of what is so appealing to me is the athletic teamwork required to pull that music off; in his anthem Hosanna To the Son of David, the basses begin with a swift kick to an A on the syllable "Ho-". Immediately afterwards, the rest of the voices enter on a fat A-major chord, and spiral out into a quick cadence, some moving quickly to a distant note, some staying right where they are, and the tenors doing a little back-flip to their second positions. I cannot remember any other music that has excited me as much as that one balletic and powerful gesture: it has got to be right or there is nothing to listen to. Weelkes makes you do it again and again, with subtle variations each time; singing it was a pleasure that made me feel larger than myself, part of a different body of work.

Goiter excision practice

Ed Park has a quite delightful little squib about Harry Stephen Keeler at the Poetry Foundation website (and if you have not read The Riddle of the Traveling Skull you're missing out on one of the strangest and most enjoyable reading experiences known to man--here was my Keeler post a while ago, it will give you the flavor of the prose at least).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

More books I want to read

on chimpanzees and human morality--how delightful--the TLS is hitting a lot of my favorite topics this week...

Same or different

At the TLS, Mary Beard has a great piece about a quite wonderful-sounding book (I think I must read it; I've got a thing about this period, it comes I assume from obsessive re-readings of I, Claudius at an impressionable age--I popped to attention when I saw the name Germanicus!), Peter Parsons' The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt. She includes a host of fascinating details in the review, go and take a look, but here are Beard's final paragraphs, which touch on something I think about all the time:

In some cases it is actually Peter Parsons’s elegant and judicious translation that serves to domesticate the strange. In one papyrus letter, Titianos, probably a Christian, writes to his sister about a lucky recovery. “I was gripped for a long while by an illness”, runs the translation, “so that I couldn’t even stagger. When my illness eased, my eye suppurated and I had tachomas and I suffered terribly and in other parts of my body as well so that it nearly came to surgery, but thank God!” It is the word “surgery”, or “operation” in another modern version, that gives this account a particularly familiar ring, with all its connotations of hospitals, anaesthetic, antiseptic and so forth. In the original Greek, the word in question is “tome”. This means “cutting” – of anything from wood to flesh. “Surgery” is a perfectly legitimate translation, though a rather nice way of putting it. “It nearly came to the knife” or “it nearly came to chopping me up” might be a better reflection of ancient medical procedures – as well as a stronger prompt for us to go beyond the comfortable modern analogies.

“Same or different” is a dilemma for any historian who tries to recapture the structures and concerns of everyday life at whatever period of the past. On the one hand is the obvious fact that some things do not change, or only very slightly. People in Oxyrhynchus would have had coughs and colds, sore feet and blistered hands just as we do; and they may well have baked their bread in ways that are still instantly recognizable to us. On the other is the unnerving thought that these people lived in a world so different from ours as to call into question that superficial familiarity and to challenge our ability to understand, let alone empathize with it. My only qualm with this otherwise brilliant book is the slightly too cosy image it offers of ancient Oxyrhynchus and its people. Much more stands between us and making sense of their world than the decipherment of Grenfell and Hunt’s tins of papyri – fascinating and formidable a task as that is.

I'm not a historian, obviously, though there's a strong historical component to my scholarly work, but I fall down very strongly on the "same" side of the "same vs. different" divide; really I must get this book and read it. (It is funny what beneficial effects a good night's sleep can have, this time of the semester is quite brutal but I actually feel myself again this morning, that's good! I've been reading in the tiny scraps of spare time I can muster a very delightful young-adult trilogy that's based in a semi-mythologized version of the ancient classical world, about which more anon; also a really wonderful alternate-history novel; no time to blog 'em now, perhaps later...)

A minor curiosity

for the young-adult-fiction readers among you: I really am totally swimming-obsessed now as well as running-obsessed, I am dreamily (if that adverb can be applied to someone whose thinking happens as if under insane compulsion!) in the grip of future triathlon training that will start casually as soon as I get a bike (in a couple weeks--don't have time now), and in the midst of some internet search I came across this piece by Catherine Gilbert Murdock about the Total Immersion swimming method as applied in the Endless Pool!

These terms will mean nothing if you have not been recently obsessing over triathlon-related swimming (I read one of the Total Immersion books, I found it illuminating but not quite my style--I have found my own swimming guruin any case!), but I was quite delighted (her novels Dairy Queen and The Off Season are on my very, very short list of particularly most favorite young-adult fiction of recent years (well, of fiction generally, really!), in spite of the fact that there is no magic or dragons in them, just a lot of athletic activity--they are really absolutely delightful, I cannot recommend them too highly--the way she handles the first-person voice is exceptional. Maybe she will write a novel about triathlon training, that would make me happy...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Children of Hurin

provides John Crace with irresistible material for his Digested Read:

"Forsooth," he swore. "Henceforth shall I remain a derivative Wagnerian hero and wander mindlessly through the realms of Middle-Earth on a quasi-symbolic quest and, Children of the Eldar, resolve only to talk in sentences of unspeakable leadenness, punctuated by manifold parentheses."

Really of course this is too easy a target, none of this will stop lots of people from reading & greatly enjoying the book...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some truly evil giraffes

Michelle Pauli has a very good profile of China Mieville at the Guardian.

(Why have I never heard of Cliff McNish? Must get his books & read them--the others Mieville lists as "top-notch children's fantasy writers" are all favorites of mine...)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Stygian council

The first installment of Astral Weeks, Ed Park's monthly science fiction column at the LA Times. Here he reviews new books by Nick Mamatas (I've got that one awaiting my attention, it looks great!) and Brian Aldiss.

Avian music

An interesting post on the musical notation of birdsong at the Kircher Society blog.

In the neighborhood

David Masello has a rather nice essay in the Times about sightings of his neighbor Kurt Vonnegut in the vicinity of the United Nations (sort of a curiously appropriate area for him to have lived).

I've missed the boat on Vonnegut links, there's been a lot of very good stuff around the place, but I must take this moment to say that my favorite Vonnegut novels by far are Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse 5. I think of both of these novels quite often, and never without also a moment of remembering the person who introduced me to them, my beloved high school boyfriend Anton Segal. Anton was murdered in 1998, almost ten years ago now; he was the first person I really knew well and cared about to die violently by someone else's hand (he has since been joined in this sorry distinction by Natasha Fuentes and Helen Hill, and I hope it will be a very long time indeed--a never-type long time!--before I have to add another name to the list).

Books for the texting generation?

At the Sunday Times, Fiona Shaw on the new Royal Shakespeare Company edition of Shakespeare's complete plays.

At the Independent, Jonathan Bate discusses his work on the edition, being an academic versus being a theatre director and why he's a Folio purist.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The three Ts

I don't link particularly often to New Yorker articles, mostly just because I figure almost everyone who likes that kind of writing is either a subscriber if US-based (best reading-material value for money, bar none!) or a website-viewer if not; but there's a really stunning essay by Jianying Zha in this week's issue that I commend to your attention. It's about her brother Zha Jianguo, a democracy activist serving a nine-year sentence in Beijing Second Prison, and it touches (beautifully and--I suppose I shouldn't use the word "honestly" to describe an essay whose factual basis I have no access to other than what the essay itself provides--but yes, the quality of the writing is exceptionally honest and psychologically stringent on these difficult matters of loyalty, family and principle) on very deep questions about idealism, personality traits and the motives that drive one person rather than another to pursue a political cause at great cost.

Here's a taste, at any rate:

When I first started visiting Jianguo in jail, I could tell, despite his disavowals, how much he cared about the outside world’s response to what he’d done, and to what had been done to him. So I tried to tell him every piece of “positive news” I could find. His eyes would light up, or he’d assume a look of solemn resolve. My task got harder as the C.D.P. faded from the news. In late 2002, Xu Wenli, the star dissident, was released on medical parole and was flown to the United States on Christmas Eve. Afterward, coverage of the other jailed C.D.P. members largely ceased.

Once, I had a sobering conversation with a woman while waiting for the prison interview. She was visiting her younger brother, who had killed another man in a quarrel and had been sentenced to twenty years. “He was in the restaurant business and the guy owed him money,” she explained. “He was young, too rash.” She asked me what my brother had done. When I told her, she was flabbergasted. “Organizing a party?” she said, and blinked as though I were speaking in tongues. “I didn’t know our country still had political prisoners. I thought everyone here got in trouble because of something to do with money.”

The last time I saw the C.D.P. mentioned in a major publication was in March, 2002, in a profile in the New York Times Magazine. The subject of the article was my friend John Kamm, a former American businessman who became a full-time campaigner for Chinese prisoners of conscience. The article dismissed the C.D.P. as “a toothless group of a few hundred members writing essays mainly for one another.” The line made me wince. The C.D.P. men could take pride in their status as “subverters” of a totalitarian state. And they could forgive their countrymen for not rising up with them: they are heroic precisely because most other people are not. But how could they face this verdict—of laughable irrelevance—from the Times, a symbol of the freedom and democracy for which they’d sacrificed everything? Toothless men writing for one another: the words were heartless. They were also true. And perhaps it didn’t much matter that these men were toothless because their powerful opponent had rendered them so; that they were writing only for each other because in China a message like theirs was not allowed to spread further. I felt like weeping. But I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was sorry for Jianguo or angry at him—for being such a fool. While he sits in his tiny cell, day after day, year after year, the world has moved on.

It's funny (this is somewhat off-topic, and even may be deliberately obtuse about the point of the essay): when I'm just blissfully writing in peace & quiet with few other obligations I revel in my doing-what-I-want-ness, I am rather a believer in it being more useful for people to do what they do well rather than immolating themselves on the altar of principle (unless of course that is what they most wish to do, and what most suits them); but when I find myself particularly thronged about with responsibilities and obligations and deadlines, as at this time of the school year, I find myself deeply discontented--not with the job and its responsibilities, to which I feel I am exceptionally well-suited, but with my failure to pursue some higher and more heroic cause!

It's slightly ludicrous, I do not have a very heroic bent in any case, and education is a worthy project of course, but I find myself recently (and if I had a journal of thoughts in other Aprils I suspect I'd hear an echo) feeling very guilty that--given that I am not luxuriating in endless reading and writing time, which always (however culpably!) makes me feel I am doing what I particularly should be dedicating myself to in life--I am not, oh, coming up with a massive and exhausting and entirely self-sacrificing plan to fight for prison reform or combat US imperialism overseas or what have you. I am hereby making a (slightly mutually contradictory) double resolve, on the one hand to just lavish myself on writing this summer and on the other to become a more socially useful person, so that five years from now I can look back with some modest sense of accomplishment about a thing in the world that I have helped improve (a thing beyond the normal sedate and more or less domestic improvements of politeness and education and light reading and so forth, to which I guess I contribute as much as the next person).

One thing's for sure, I have hitherto been able for various reasons to justify the extravagance of dedicating lots of resources to the problem of exercise, but it's coming to where I should really find some less selfish and more beneficial-to-others mode of pursuing it to the next level! (Is this purely a delusional symptom of overwork?!?) Like, you know, being the runner on the other end of the tether for a blind person who's doing marathon training, or whatever (a rather slow blind person!); or being the non-athletic coach's helper and morale-raiser for a team of marathon-training average city kids who otherwise wouldn't be getting any exercise; or raising money for medical research or something... My normal cynicism has deserted me!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gauss's telegraph

At the Guardian, a quite wonderful little essay by Daniel Kehlmen about reading and writing historical fiction. Here he describes visiting the observatory at Gottingen and seeing Gauss's telegraphic apparatus, which figures in the pages of his novel Measuring the World (it was already on my mental list, but now I definitely must read it):

This telegraph apparatus crops up in a scene towards the end of my novel. Professor Gauss, by this stage old and frail, is standing at the window of his study transmitting messages. He is half conversing with his colleague Weber and half with himself, but at the same time is in contact with the world of dead souls, a realm that has grown alarmingly over the course of his life. However, as the briefest glance at the machine in the observatory told me, it would have been impossible to hold conversations using this piece of equipment. The oscillations of the receiving needle were so faint that you had to stare down a magnifying tube to detect any movement against a scale. This in turn meant that the person transmitting the message had to send a messenger to the recipient beforehand to let them know when he planned to begin the transmission - a truly Pythonesque arrangement. As I stood there in Gauss's room, between the teleprinter, the window and the portrait, I made up my mind to stick to my original version.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Frank Miller look

Michael Wood's got a great piece about 300 at the LRB:

Still, however slow the movement and however brutal and self-righteous the culture being celebrated, the movie does have the benefit of its stark, memorialising visual style. The novelist and the moviemakers are not fascists; only in love with a fascist fantasy, and perhaps even in love only with its picture possibilities. There’s not much to be said for making a film based on a comic or a graphic novel if you don’t like the look of the comic or the novel, or more precisely if you don’t want something like the feel of draughtsmanship in your film, an effect that can seem both flattened-out generally and weirdly intense at moments. Fortunately, Snyder loves the Frank Miller look, and the film creates the sense of a fine dark dream, all sepia skies and stones and seas, brown palaces and dashes of bright red from the Spartan cloaks. The warriors’ helmets look like grim sculptures, ancient iron artefacts with gleaming eyes in them, and if you can bring yourself to stop wondering why the Spartans would insist on going into battle with so few clothes on – just helmet, sandals, shield and thong – the pumped-up bodies themselves look like archaeological toys, marching animated statues.

There’s one scene that isn’t in the book but effectively completes the book’s thought. The Persians have attacked a Greek city and all the inhabitants are gone. Then one of the Spartans says he has found them. A reverse angle shot shows us a perfect image, graphic art at its most static and most vivid: a tree that seems to be made up entirely of corpses, the way an Arcimboldo painting is made up of fruit. And at the end of the movie an overhead view shows us the Spartan dead lying on the ground in artistic confusion, like figures in a medieval French tapestry or a Japanese print. This copies an image in the book, but is better because it is larger, more closely defined and the colours sharper. Miller gets the credit for the composition; Snyder gets the credit for seeing what this would look like on a big screen.

And this is where the idea of memory returns. The film is too startlingly good-looking to be all bad news or all distasteful politics. And what is being commemorated here, at least in the images, so many years after the date, and so far away from the recording technologies of the ancient world, is not a crypto-Nazi version of the mythology of Sparta, but the practice of terminal fidelity to an idea of the unfaltering self. Herodotus picks out as especially brave a Spartan soldier who said, in answer to a Persian’s threat to hide the very sun by the sheer quantity of falling arrows, that in that case they would fight in the shade. The bravery here is in the wit rather than in pride or monomania, of course. The images of the film are far too monumental to be witty, but nevertheless they are stylish enough to suggest what a memorial can look like if the vanished get lucky.

Oh dear, I must confess that I secretly want to see this movie, I see so few that it would be really absurd for this to be one of them--I do suspect in fact that it's rather boring--but I've got an obsession with ancient Greece that's longstanding and a more recent one with muscles! Also it just sounds trashy in an enjoyable way. I had a very funny conversation with the trainer I work out with at the gym about the movie, he & his colleague were (rightly) scornful of the notion that those Spartans would have had twelve-packs like that. The fitness world on the whole seems rather taken with this 300 business, there are various 300 workouts online--I am tempted to try, though it is really a ludicrous notion.

On a related note, this is far and away the best fitness-related site I've found online. It's got a women's weight-lifting focus, but will repay investigation by anyone, male or female, who might be (for instance) toying with the idea of the unassisted pullup. And a recent link from there sent me to this quite amazing site about body-weight training feats. I think most of them are permanently beyond me, and yet it's intriguing to think about--yoga is a different way of arriving at some of this stuff--working on a handstand is the next project in yoga, I think (there you do that stuff up against a wall at first to practice, I can do a really solid headstand now which I never would have expected, only not yet ready to take it out into the middle of the room...)

Monday, April 16, 2007

April madness

Bad time of the school year! I am now officially overwhelmed with obligations, my brain is like swiss cheese!

On the bright side, a Dickens theme park. (Thanks to Nico for the link.) Can you imagine what they will have to serve at the cafes in the spirit of authenticity? It would be funny if they had, oh, I don't know, gin and hot water, and various grotesque Victorian meat products. But I expect they will hedge by having burgers and chips also...

On a related note: on Saturday I saw Neil Bartlett's Oliver Twist (it was a Theatre for a New Audience production, at the John Jay theater--very nice little theater, disconcerting though as that's where I go for the deep-water running classes usually). I was on a panel discussion afterwards, quite enjoyable but work-time-eating-up (and heated discussion of Dickensian anti-Semitism!); the show's over now, which is a pity, I would definitely recommend it. Highly enjoyable, perhaps partly against the director's intentions: it's a Brechtian little production, Nancy's straight out of Threepenny Opera, but the distancing/estrangement stuff can't entirely contain the force of Dickens's empathetic imagination. Rather in the style of that Shock-Headed Peter a few years ago: stylized neo-Victorianism, some very good acting. Must reread that novel, there was not enough Bumble for my taste...

(I think I never posted about a risibly and over-the-toply dire show I saw a few weeks ago--it was made, I think, with the best intentions, though the massive marketing surge that accompanies these big Broadway shows is off-putting--the lobby stores were conspicuously un-thronged the night I saw it--The Pirate Queen. Best features: more or less suitable for teenage girls fond of the novels of Tamora Pierce (you know, girl dresses as boy, etc. etc.--but really you'd be better off just reading one of those novels!); fairly charming scenes-at-the-court-of-Elizabeth-I sort of under the signs of Gilbert & Sullivan & Monty Python (with really lovely sets and costumes); decent Irish dancing, though it's a kitschy context. Worst features: awful Broadway belting-out (the love ballads are intolerable, in general the volume's just overwhelming and awful); unfortunate chronicle-style narration (you know, where the pirate queen's getting married to the useless wastrel son of the rival chieftain in one scene and then, like, a minute later she's totally giving birth and then there's an invasion and she staggers up off the pallet with blood all over her childbirth outfit and picks up a sword and fights off the attackers!). Sociologically interesting: it's been a while since I went to one of those big Broadway shows, I forgot how it's a sort of family night out & all the young girls wear their party dresses, I feel that when you see Manhattan tween-teen girls out there are more likely to be wearing jeans and little tops rather than these old-school Bloomingdale's-type dresses and tights and shoes...)

Friday, April 13, 2007

How they write

At the Guardian, a funny selection of writers' reflections on how they fend off blocks. (I'm with Jane Smiley--a hot shower is always a good idea...) Though there are some other rather fascinating details (Jake Arnott's grandmother was a small-amounts-of-chocolate-eating showgirl in Paris? Douglas Coupland sees a trainer five times a week?!?), the best one by far is Nicholson Baker's (earplugs):

Some years ago I bought an industrial dispenser pack of 200 pairs of Mack's earplugs from Mostly, though, I buy them from the drug store. Recently, Mack's began offering them in orange, which is less disgusting than white.

I can sit anywhere, in any loud place, and work. Everything becomes 20 feet farther away than it really is. The chirping, barking, jingling cash-drawer of a world is out of reach, and therefore more precious.

You must have a good seal. When you unstick your thumb from a jammed-in plug, your eardrum will make a tiny, silent cry of pain, like a word in Arabic. Then you know you have a good seal.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shaving off a hundred pages

Dan Rhodes at the Guardian lists his top ten short novels. I totally disagree with him on the short novel front, I love long novels (but then again I am also a very fast reader), but I like the rationale he lays out in opening, and the list's very good too:

I was reading a new novel the other day when it struck me that the author might as well be a murderer. It wasn't a bad novel, it was just too long. Passages that could and should have been lopped out had been left in, but I felt I had to plough through them in case they had any bearing on the story. It might have been a really good read if the author had had the gumption, or the balls, to shave off a hundred pages. And here's where the murder comes in. Say it takes the average reader an extra two hours (two hours they will never get back) to read all the filler. And what if the book does well and finds 250,000 readers? By my calculations this author will have wasted a total of 57 waking years - the equivalent of a long human life. And what if this monster continues to publish such books? Surely that would make them a serial killer? I was about to dial 999 when I realised that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little overexcited.

But it seems obvious (doesn't it?) that writing overlong books is at the very least plain bad manners. I can't understand why writers are so often pilloried for writing short books. Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it's the opposite that is true. My new book, Gold, clocks in at 198 pages, and I'm convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. Of course I fully expect to eat my words next time I read a run of 400 page marvels, but in the meantime here's a list of works of fiction that I love which, in the edition on my shelf, don't run a page over the 200 mark. All killer, no filler.

(NB--really what I need instead of NB is one of those little index-finger-pointers that Richardson liked to use in his novels!--I really am going to cut a hundred pages from my novel between now and June 1, it's very exciting...)


At the TLS, Carolyne Larrington reviews Terri Apter's The Sister Knot: Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We Love Each Other No Matter What. It's a very interesting piece--I share Larrington's sense that if you are a sister but do not have a sister, much of this sisterly dynamic must remain a closed book....

The ship experience is so liquid

At the Observer, Toni Schlesinger on cruise-ship decor (particularly nice use of italics in this story--check it out while the link still works).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Body and soul

One of the tragicomic features of the book-reviewing life is that now and again someone commissions you to write something but it ends up not quite suiting the publication in question, for one reason or another: this is sorrow-inducing on both sides, of course, but not at all calamitous, and a piece that I wrote in that sort of circumstance in December has now happily found a home thanks to the proprietors of the Valve. Here it is: a review of Marina Warner's new book Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-first Century.

Also work-related: on the off chance that you happen to be in Princeton on Thursday morning & also with a strong interest in the eighteenth century, come and hear me ruminate on original sin (and the conference as a whole, on religion and the English Enlightenment, promises to be extremely interesting).

The year of the golden pig

So the exciting news I mentioned the other day is that as of last week I am now officially an aunt!

Jack Maverick Davidson
Born April 3rd 2007 @ 9:44am
8lbs. 7.9oz.
New York University Medical Center
New York, NY

The omniscient narrator

Tim Martin profiles Neil Gaiman at the Independent:

On the process of writing, meanwhile, he is clear, inclusive and infinitely courteous. "I remember when I was about seven," he says, "reading C S Lewis's Narnia books and discovering the concept of the parenthetical aside to the reader from the omniscient author. And going, I want to do that. I thought, wow - look, you can chat directly to the reader! You're God!"

Gaiman's blog, a Web tool of frightening power inspected daily by a devoted readership, expounds his resolutely clear-headed attitude to the process of creation. "I think writing is the coolest thing you can do," he now says, "and I think it's a craft. I think being a writer is magical, and it's like being someone who can make a table. I don't think those two things are contradictory, but I think you do people - especially people who want to be writers - no favours if you lead them to believe that what you do is unattainable. The writing that helped me become a writer was people like Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock occasionally: these guys who would write about the nuts and bolts of becoming a writer, and let me understand that I could do that: all I had to do was write a really good short story."

When I was little I read the Narnia books again and again (as I have said before, one of the things I find coolest in the world is that my dissertation supervisor Claude Rawson was a student of C. S. Lewis--I am the student of the student of C. S. Lewis!), and aside from the other things I loved about them it was true that the striking idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice were extraordinarily different from the other books I had read and loved to date--those amazing moments of direct address...

One of the things I love about teaching a semester-long seminar on Austen is that each time I do it I find myself obsessed with a new theme. I've always been fascinated by the relationship between first- and third-person voices, it's not that I don't always think about that when I teach Austen, but this time round it's a complete obsession; I think that drafting and revising (multiply) Dynamite No. 1, which is written in a third-person limited voice, gave me an entirely new perspective on the set of questions raised by voice and point of view, and that it opened my eyes to all sorts of other distinctive features of Austen's narrators.

I have often and loudly been saying that my affinities are all with first-person or third-person limited point-of-view, and that I will never write a multiple-plot omnisciently-narrated novel, but I am wondering if I have perhaps begun to protest too much: in the end it's a difficult challenge to refuse, eh?!?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Three things

that recently made me very happy (actually it's four, Wayne Koestenbaum's reading this afternoon was of course an absolute delight), all deserving of lengthy and laudatory posts in their own right but falling victim here to the abbreviating forces of exhaustion & overwork:

1. Michael Chabon's quite enchanting new novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which my alternate self obtained from alternate-universe Amazon in 2006 but which arrived in my real-life mailbox not long ago & which made this weekend's flying-visit-to-Cambridge-on-Amtrak trip pass by in a FLASH. Seriously, a FLASH. It's one of those novels that when you come to the last page it just pains you to put it down, I want to read it again RIGHT NOW! It opens in a long lovely leisurely sequence (alternate-universe present-day Alaskan Jewish homeland, with Jewish resettlement imminent) that's a bit reminiscent of parts of Jonathan Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music--intelligent neo-noir--very enjoyable, too, with some nicely done alternate-historyish details and good character development--but for me the thing really snapped into high gear with the visit to the boundary maven Zimbalist. Chabon does this thing here that's so subtle it took me at least a hundred pages to notice it (also since I was reading so greedily), a switching-into-a-past-tense thing that is so cunning and so effective that I really must look back through and figure out exactly how he does it so that I can try it myself! The main narrative's written in a very attractive and unobtrusive present-tense voice, so that these inset chapters/stories (usually prompted by the detective's visit to someone who then unfolds this knowledge-in-the-form-of-narrative chunk of stuff that has its own legend-like magical coherence) are at once disorienting & deeply intensifying of the whole experience of the world of the book. There's a certain family resemblance to Kavalier & Klay, but the novel's just redolent of all sorts of other powerful & evocative things also, not least my intensely and particularly most favorite Chaim Potok novel The Chosen, a novel I read obsessively and repeatedly as a teenager & that I continue to read every few years as an adult (& that gained strange new traction on my imagination when I realized that my friend & former neighbor David Weiss Halivni, author among other things of a remarkable memoir called The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, was a model for Reuven Malter's father in that book). I am curious to see how reviewers and readers will respond to this novel's political arguments (both implicit and explicit) about Jewish statehood--I imagine the book will be provoking in that regard to all sorts of readers--but I found it altogether enthralling, not least because Chabon's so good on this topic of what boys lose as they become men & the terrible pathos and embarrassment of virtually all aspects of adult male life! Very good stuff indeed, highly recommended...

2. And my destination in Cambridge was the truly excellent Actors' Shakespeare Project production of Titus Andronicus, directed by my dear old friend David Gammons. It's a wonderfully good production, you must go and see if it you get a chance (it's up through April 22 in Harvard Square, a very cool space in the basement of that shopping mall called the Garage); it's got a ton of nominations for awards and spectacular reviews and all that good stuff, the acting is amazing & everything about the production's just beautifully well done (including an extremely thoughtfully tailored script). Of course really Titus Andronicus is one of my very favorite Shakespeare plays, outside the obvious ones; I always remember Harold Bloom sort of gloating over the whole chef's-hat Marlovian grand guignol of it (the play provides a particularly good key to important elements of Hamlet, I think--and the Titus-dressed-like-a-cook cannibalism scene is especially beautifully costumed and acted here, that Robert Walsh makes an extraordinarily good Titus). I will refrain from pasting in huge tracts of delightfully violent and funny and harrowing lines from the play, but this is a production under the sign of Artaud that absolutely captures the spirit of Shakespeare's play--funny and grotesque and deeply moving all at the same time.

3. Last but not least, Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel. I love these books. I will read them again and again, and if Lee Child would teach a one-day seminar on how to write absolutely prime top-quality delightful escapist fiction I would pay an extortionate amount of money to sit in, this guy really has a remarkable talent. The lightness of the touch is what always gets to me, especially given how violent the books are (but half the violence is staged, as it were--Jack Reacher sets things up like the author surely did in his former TV-producer life); everything about the pacing and the handling of characters and story is pretty much just plain perfect. The best analogy, I think, would involve some sort of comparison to the versions of junk food that four-star-restaurant chefs sometimes dabble in; potato chips really are just junk, they're delicious in tiny quantities but not satisfying, but then if you have some sort of absolute delicacy of potatoes gaufrette it is like the heavenly angelic sublimated version of a potato chip with the nourishing qualities and deliciousness of real food. The Jack Reacher books are the ultimate in light reading, I do love them more than almost anything else; I wish I could erase this one from my memory, in fact, and read it again right now for the first time....

Closing tabs

on some interesting Guardian stuff from this weekend: Ian Thomson on Primo Levi's good German; John Lanchester's fascinating rumination on intellectual property and the problem of copyright in a digital age. Here's a bit of Lanchester, very interesting stuff:

The words "intellectual property" have a fairly predictable effect. Use them in conversation, and nine out of 10 people immediately fall into a deep sleep, only to wake eight hours later demanding coffee and Weetabix. The 10th person, who is likely to have some engagement with the creative industries, will immediately launch into a long, articulate, autobiographical complaint.

The broad story of copyright is one of creative individuals feeling they are being stiffed, and that the public interest is losing out as a result. Everyone has a beef about it. This is mine. Between Christmas 1941 and the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945, my grandparents were in a Japanese internment camp in Stanley, at the far edge of Hong Kong island. Many internees died of malnutrition and illness, only three Red Cross parcels arrived during the entire war, and some of their closest friends were tortured and executed by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police and equivalent of the Gestapo.

Personal possessions were scarce. By the end of the war, my grandmother owned only two things: a one cent coin with the middle drilled out, which she wore as a wedding ring, since she had traded her ring away for food in early 1945; and a small pocket diary for 1942, which she must have bought before the fall of Hong Kong. She used that diary for the next three years, writing in pencil, and commenting almost exclusively on food - basically, every time they had something other than rice, she made a note of it.

At the end of the war, the internees were given a typed newsletter that filled them in on what had happened while they were in the camp. (Almost the first thing on it was a remark about the influence of women in all areas of civilian life during the war: "driving buses and working in factories".) At about the time she was given that newsletter, Lannie, my grandmother, must have found a typewriter, because along with the other scraps of paper from this period I found a poem that she, or someone else, had typed out. It was called "A Farewell to Stanley":

A farewell to Stanley - it's over
Of internees there's not a sign
They've left for Newhaven and Dover
For Hull and Newcastle on Tyne.

The poem must have meant a lot to Lannie, or she wouldn't have kept it for the rest of her life; it is, it seems to me, a rather good poem. But you won't find it in the American edition of my book Family Romance, because my American publisher was reluctant to let me quote it. The fact that I couldn't find anything about the poem's author made them too nervous. If I couldn't find him or her - didn't even know whether he or she existed and wasn't a pseudonym - then the poem was probably in copyright and as such couldn't be published.

There might have been a way around it, if I was prepared to indemnify the publisher from potential costs arising. That didn't seem fair to me. "I don't feel I can indemnify you for the legal risk, for obvious reasons to do with the relative balance of resources between us," I wrote to the corporate lawyer. "Pearson is a £6bn global corporation, I'm a writer with two small children and a mortgage ... One of the complaints of the people in the camp was that they were forgotten and silenced. It does seem sad that this person's voice won't be heard precisely because no one knows who he or she was."

No dice. The poem isn't included in the US edition of my book. It was cheeky of me even to ask, since, as my American editor told me, "copyright over here is like libel over there" - in other words, it is immune from common sense, with no room for flexibility or negotiation or the self-evidently right thing.

NB on a totally irrelevant note I have been eating a lot of Weetabix recently, it's kind of the perfect food if you like that sort of thing: as a child I used to eat it at my London grandmother's house for breakfast, I have fond memories of it but it's also still what I like. So it seems to me a good thing they're marketing it in the US now, only the advertising copy on the box is risibly inappropriate for an American audience! There are four pictures on the back of possible ways to serve it: "A delicious hot cereal for cold winter days. Just add warm milk" (well, just about feasible, I suppose, though I think American breakfast cereals skew hot OR cold, not AC/DC, so this is a bit off); "Enjoy with yogurt and fresh fruit" (hmm, milk and fruit would be the more familiar option); "Heat a biscuit in the toaster oven, then spread with butter and jam" (distinctly farfetched!); and finally the one that really gets me and sort of has me in stitches even now as I am looking it (since I actually went so far as to bring the box in and put it by the computer so I could type up the captions!), "Mix with warm milk for baby pabulum." Baby pabulum! A delightful formulation, in its way, but it is so much more English- or Canadian-English than U.S.-American, the whole thing is just bizarre...

Quick heads-up

for Columbia light readers (short notice!): Wayne Koestenbaum's reading today at 4pm in 413 Kent. Although more generally the idea of going to a poetry reading at the end of a long teaching day would tip me over towards definite nervous breakdown, this one really will be delightful.

(It should be that later tonight I can steal half an hour to write here about three things that have made me very happy in the last few days, all artistically perfect & deeply satisfying in quite different ways--more to come...)

Friday, April 06, 2007

The age of cant

At the FT, Jenny Uglow reviews Ben Wilson's Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant, 1789-1837 (I love it the way that someone over at the FT clearly has a strong interest in the eighteenth century):

This was ”the age of cant”, declared Byron in a scathing letter of 1821: ”cant political, cant poetical, cant religious; but always cant, multiplied through all the varieties of life”.

The term originated from the whining appeals of beggars in Elizabethan times. Then, thanks to a 17th-century preacher, Andrew Cant, it shifted to describe the pontifications of the pulpit, making an easy leap to the jargon of the professions, especially lawyers, ”the canting tribe”. By the end of the 18th century, the main problem was that almost every group had its own language of moral justification, from health fanatics to fashion addicts, from advocates of iron self-restraint to impassioned devotees of ”sincerity”.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


I am perhaps too polite to give my opinion of the new magazine 02138, and yet it seems to have some very good things in it; in this issue, a great little piece by John Ashbery as told to Greg Atwan about his literary activities as an undergraduate at Harvard.

The funniest part concerns my late colleague Kenneth Koch, but here are the central paragraphs in any case (makes me think J.A. would be an absolutely delightful person to have a conversation with, I like the flavor of the talk):

I applied to Harvard in order to study with some poets who were teaching there, particularly Delmore Schwartz, who was one of my favorites, and Theodore Spencer. I never ended up taking a course with Schwartz, probably because he would cancel his classes and go back to Greenwich Village to drink. He left Harvard permanently in the spring of ’47. Robert Creeley and John Hawkes were, as it happened, also in my class with Spencer, though I didn’t get to know them. Both looked rather intimidating. Creeley always wore black, sort of anticipating the Goth look—he had his eye-patch, of course, and always walked by himself. Most of my literary or intellectual conversations with friends were held at Cronin’s bar, where I went practically every night.

Kenneth Koch was on the staff of the Advocate and he had decided that he and I were the poets, and was very reluctant to admit anyone else, though finally he allowed Frank [O’Hara]. Robert Bly and Donald Hall were also on the Advocate at that time. There was a gay culture associated with the Advocate that was very underground—it could have been grounds for expulsion from Harvard then, and in fact I knew two people who were expelled for being gay. In private, though, most people didn’t bother to pretend. I was open with some of my friends, but not with Koch. Kenneth used to have what he humorously called “HD,” homosexual dread, and only surmounted it after living in New York and knowing O’Hara and me better. In fact, the Advocate had been closed down for several years before I got to Harvard because of the war and also some sort of homosexual scandal—there were rumors of orgies in the office and that sort of thing—and it only reopened in the fall of 1947 when some wealthy alumnus persuaded the administration, but on condition that they have a policy against gays on the staff. Kenneth had trouble getting me elected, in fact, because of rumors about me, but (not knowing that there was truth to the rumors) he threatened to resign if I was indeed gay. As it turned out, there were already several gays on the staff, including the chief literary editor, who became a good friend.

I met Frank O’Hara shortly before I graduated. He was rooming with Edward Gorey in Eliot House, but they weren’t particularly close—they had perhaps been forced together by the housing shortage. One day I went to an exhibition of Gorey’s drawings at the Mandrake Book Shop, no doubt his first show. O’Hara was there, talking about a concert he’d been to where they played a little-known piece by Poulenc called Les Sécheresses. I heard him say “Let’s face it, Les Sécheresses is greater than Tristan.” And I recognized my own hyperbolic way of talking and also my own nasal voice, and was sort of amazed. O’Hara had majored in music for a while, and I was fascinated by modern music, of which little had so far been recorded. I would go over to Eliot House now and then and he would play me works by Krenek and Satie, and once one of his own works, a sonatina that he said lasted three seconds. He was also a very precocious reader—he was reading Beckett, whom nobody had heard of—this was before Godot— as well as Jean Rhys, Ronald Firbank, Flann O’Brien, Ford Madox Ford, and Horace McCoy. Frank was very competitive, and in my own passive-aggressive way I was too. After we moved to New York, we were rivals socially and poetically. I was envious not so much of the famous painters and writers he got to know, but of the fact that they tookup so much of his time and I rarely got a chance to be alone with him and talk about poetry.

Ninth Man in the Monarch, Keeper of Karate

Tobias Hill on being a writer-in-residence at Eton.

NB an idle thought on style. Hill lets a pan of milk boil over in the suite where he's staying, then reflects:

There is nothing seductive about the lactic mire of the electric oven. The Hodgson Guest Suite is indeed roomy, but it is cavernous and utilitarian, everything foursquare and scrubbed to the quick. 'All the mod cons' is an estate agent's way of putting it, too: all cons are present, but the mod is that of a bygone decade. Vinyl seats, flaked white goods, ironing board (though maybe all normal people have ironing boards; maybe it's just crumpled writers who don't). Marmoleum.

"The lactic mire of the electric oven": I like the phrase, it caught my eye, and yet I feel it's the kind of stylistic flourish that detracts from the effectiveness of the prose as a whole. Too poet-y for me, to be honest, as is the "Marmoleum" at the end; the diction of all of these sentences is interesting & striking and yet it sounds to me also slightly affected, not ringing quite true. For that phrase to really work for me, it would have to be mobilized in aid of something more like the Anthony Burgess or Vladimir Nabokov style: Burgess is demented and energetic, Nabokov is mandarin verging on precious but also with that slightly demented energy behind it. Here I feel the prose is undermotivated: style not quite sufficient unto itself and also insufficiently called forth by the occasion (is that "crumped writers" not coy?). Related, perhaps, to the kinds of insecurity Hill describes in the opening, as if he exerts himself to produce these flourishes partly out of a rush of social-educational anxiety & thinking about what he's supposed to be thinking...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The sense of smell

The headline says it all: Joan of Arc's relics exposed as forgery. But there are some quite amazing details too, involving (among other things) a cat femur, pollen analysis and "leading 'noses' of the perfume industry: Sylvaine Delacourte from Guerlain, and Jean-Michel Duriez from Jean Patou." Check it out (thanks to Maxine for the excellent link).

It's rough, it's animal, it's stone

At the Observer, Toni Schlesinger muses on color fashion (that link won't last). Here's my favorite pair of sentences:

No more beige, he said, though he wasn’t talking about late-1950’s champagne beige, silk-furniture beige on which women in chiffon evening-gown beige would sit having a champagne cocktail and sounding like Deborah Kerr. He meant 1990 Jil Sander beige, the white and the bone.

In one of those fantasies that will never be enacted--really I only want the plainest possible living environment, I am a devotee of monastic self-discipline!--I will one day live in an apartment where I can paint one of the rooms robin's-egg blue. Hmm... must schedule some drastic tidying-up round here once I've cleared a few of these deadlines, although I don't have very much other than books and papers & a few odd pieces of furniture (in a fire, besides laptop & iPod, the only two things I would really have to rescue are a few pieces of my grandmother's green-and-gold-and-white china for old times' sake and also and more importantly my beloved cat) the cumulative effect of these heaps of books and papers is disastrously unmonastic. Even the bed has been pretty much awkwardly taken over by books about original sin (I'm not kidding).

One day I am going to have a really nice office with walls and walls of bookshelves and I will take almost all my books there or else get rid of them & then I actually will be able to achieve my fantasy of living in a place that looks somewhat like an old-fashioned railway train station, one big empty room with some kind of seating bench or narrow low shelf-like rim round the edges on which I can lay out various heaps of work-related materials project by project and leave them undisturbed for months at a time....

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


David Thomas interviews Lee Child at the Telegraph. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

I am so excited to read the new Jack Reacher novel that in a fit of insane extravagance I totally Amazon UK'd it late on Sunday night, I am hoping it might arrive in time for a train trip I have to take on Saturday.

(Who am I kidding? The minute that book turns up I am reading it, I will never have the self-control to save it for traveling! Arghhh....)

Blogging's going to be very light round here for some weeks to come, I am unprecedentedly deadline-hemmed-about in a not very pleasant way; but I've got an exciting non-literary announcement, just waiting for a photo to accompany it, should have one by Thursday.

The genius of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, BTW, is that they are so lightly handled--intelligent, not at all condescending, grippingly perfect escapist fiction. After I finish the last bits & pieces & revisions on the two books that are due in the next two months and write the two following books that are most immediately pressing I am so going to write my Upper Manhattan animal-shape-changer escapist thriller, also it is going to have a lot of fitness-related details so as to get some non-athletic mileage out of the amount of time I've been spending training....