Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Endangered species

At Slate, Paul Devlin mourns the passing of the tie clip. Paul is a friend of mine, a delightfully snappy dresser himself and also the person I have to thank for introducing me to the great Albert Murray, one of my literary heroes; his thoughts on this modest item of gentleman's haberdashery are well worth a look.

Twofold pleasures

Wikipedia on the sandwich. (NB have just caught an error in the novel--"doorstop" rather than "doorstep" is the appropriate word for a thick piece of bread.)

I really am fond of sandwiches, I rather think they are the perfect form of food! Sushi is my favorite food in the world, I would eat it every day if it were a bit cheaper, and fruit and cheese seems to me the other ideal food combination, but a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, or a ham sandwich and split pea, must rank as two of the most satisfying meals in existence...

The savage Norse

Wicker Man sequel!

Archive overload

Go and read Alice's characteristically wonderful post about the writerly challenge of registering a subject's excess without reenacting it oneself.

A New Yorker cartoon wrapped around a knife

M. John Harrison's top ten books linking the individual to the universal, at the Guardian. I know that one or two of these are not to my taste, but it's an amazing-looking list, full of books I haven't read; hmmm, maybe a good summer reading project, I should get them all from the library and see which ones appeal...

I've got sort of a love-hate relationship with metaphysical fiction; I would have liked it more when I was a teenager (this is a list that would have had me salivating at age fifteen), now I prefer my books less mystical and with more of a sense of humor, and yet there's no doubt that the intellectual ambition of an Iain Sinclair or an M. John Harrison for that matter pretty much beats almost everything else that's out there. If I was leading an alternate life, in other words, I would be writing some very strange and vaguely Sebaldian books with a strong metaphysical streak! Clearly I am going to have to write one anyway--but in this life I am not actually going to go and (I am thinking of those wonderful Phil Rickman books!) walk along ley lines and write demented New Age supernatural intellectual histories with an Arthurian tint. (Just as well, you are thinking; but wouldn't it be kind of insanely appealing?)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good literary things

at New York Magazine.

I like the holiday weekend thing because it lets me get a ton of work done in peace and quiet--I am on track for Friday's novel submission deadline, in fact I cut almost a hundred pages in this final revision, very exciting! Almost thirty thousand words gone from the last version--if I could just cut about 1600 more I'd get the book under a hundred thousand, but I am not sure if I quite have the fortitude, all the obvious stuff is now out. But the one thing I really don't like about holiday weekends is that there's never any good literary news online to blog about! It's true, I partly was just immersed in work, I've got a couple more readerly posts in my head that I can't spare the energy to write till after I've sent the manuscript in; but also pickings were slim...

I was slightly sorry not to see my own opinion in Lori Fradkin's "Future Canon" piece (what books do you think people will be reading in fifty years?), I had a good phone conversation with her when she was working on it--but not very sorry, as someone else chose the same book as I did and has given a much more eloquent explanation of why it's canon-essential. The chooser's Diana Fuss, and the book of course is Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name. Her words: "The most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century. Few novels since Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are this adept at capturing the nuances of human emotion." If you have not read it already, you must do so at your earliest convenience!

Other picks there I'd especially endorse: Coetzee; Lethem; Sebald; and, yes, Gary Lutz, I read that guy for the first time this fall and his sentences just blow me away, in fact that's another post sitting in the back of my head, must dig out the book and write something up....

(There's also a good best novels you've never read list: several of my favorites show up there, including Helen DeWitt--you must read her if you haven't!--, plus some I've been meaning to get to, like Jincy Willett.)

The cutting/revising thing is fascinating, by the way. Because my editor is a genius I have learned a great deal in this round of revisions--at its best, revision is always teaching you something about your own writing as well as helping you improve that particular manuscript. I'll write a more thoughtful post on this once I've got more time, but one of the funnier things was seeing how many passages I could cut in which I was just telling the reader about my main character's thoughts rather than trusting the story to show these things.

Some examples (I like these paragraphs, but you will quite see why they should all go!):

Oh, it was impossible, unanswerable, to be talked to as though your deepest convictions about human life and morality and society were merely a function of your body chemistry at that particular moment! Sophie had a depressing feeling that adolescence was going to include more and more of this, people looking at you as though you couldn’t be a rational person just because you sounded upset about something and telling you that you must be in the grip of disgusting things like hormones.

Sophie had to be braver, just because behaving badly made you feel sick to the stomach didn’t mean it wouldn’t be good for your character to really scandalize everybody once in a while).

Praise! Sophie clung to it even as she despised herself for caring; really you should aspire to be perfectly self-sufficient, like Robinson Crusoe, and live in the wilderness with only cats and dogs and parrots to keep you company.

She knew it was stupid, but she had a sudden conviction that she would never enjoy anything in life ever again. What was there to look forward to? (Anhedonia, that was the word for this feeling. She had seen it once in a novel. Somehow knowing the word made her feel a bit better.)

Sophie was one of those people who couldn’t stand not being on time. Being even five minutes late for tea with a friend in town, for instance, made her heart begin racing and she would break out in a cold sweat. On the rare occasion of her being held up to the extent of fifteen or twenty minutes, she felt a knot in her stomach so bad that once she had actually had to go and be sick in the disgusting public lavatory in Princes Street Gardens.

Reading wasn’t necessarily more enjoyable than spending time with a friend, it was just less tiring, somehow, Sophie thought to herself, then was pierced by self-recrimination at her own ingratitude.

You get the idea!

Also cut: long historical digressions; research-heavy descriptions of things and places (I use that research as a crutch, I think, when I'm writing my first draft--it's not so much an academic habit as a deep temperamental thing that explains why I'm an academic, I just like having that armature of stuff to work with); excessively long stretches of rather dry classroom conversation (but I still have a long tract of conversation--my students will appreciate this!--about Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, I feel Dynamite No. 1 will almost certainly be the only young-adult novel to feature extended conversation about Burke!)

(NB I have also got rid of that "you" form address--it feels very natural for me, in this third-person limited voice that's so close to Sophie's point of view, but it's anachronistic for alternate-universe 1930s, and if it's bothering readers then it has to go.)

All right, got to go, already running late for the day; but once I'm done with this manuscript, expect a lot of catch-up blogging, including some thoughts on bicycles as well as on a new favorite writer I've discovered....

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sinister jigsaw puzzles

A fascinating article on the people and computers working to piece together shredded Stasi files. (Thanks to Ed Park for the link.)

The What

Dave Eggers has a fascinating piece in the Guardian about the challenges of collaborating with Valentino Deng on his story (I've got to get that book, I've been meaning to for a while now).
Here's the problem, as Eggers recounts it:

I had been working on a book of oral histories from the lives of public school teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. So I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemble the book from his words. I even imagined for a while - much of our first year together - that I would simply be the editor of the book, not its author.

But after that first year of interviews and my first attempt to assemble the resulting narrative, we both realised that there were great limitations, in this case, to the oral history model. Valentino was six years old when he left his home and began his 800-mile journey to Ethiopia, and thus his memory of that time was very spotty. When we looked at what we had from our recording sessions, it was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes. In addition, a new book called They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky had just appeared, and it did much of what we had originally intended to do: it wove together the oral histories of three Lost Boys, and did so with great skill.

And here's the solution:

When we returned from Sudan, Valentino and I were more committed than ever to getting his story into print as soon as we could. In an attempt to kickstart the writing of the book, I published an account of the trip in journalistic form in the Believer magazine. The exercise made clear, though, that my telling of Valentino's story, in my voice, would be distracting and tonally incorrect. In the account I wrote, I was present, both as narrator and as the guy riding in the cargo hold next to Valentino; there was no way to excise myself from the story. But in the book, I knew I had to disappear completely.

The first decision made that spring was to have Valentino narrate his story. His voice was so distinctive and powerful that any other way of telling it would be criminally weak by comparison. But my standards for what would qualify as non-fiction were strict; as a journalist, I was trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape. We had no such thing, and Valentino couldn't remember who said what at almost any point in his life, and thus the book would be without any dialogue at all.

So already we were straying from our intent - to bring Valentino's story to the general reader. Without sensory detail or dialogue, the book would be parched, and likely to reach only those already interested in the issues of Sudan. I was holed up in a cabin a few hours north of San Francisco, trying to figure out the book, when, after wrestling with all these problems for the year or so after our trip, I finally gave up. I was cornered. I couldn't make an interesting non-fiction account of his life - I do believe another writer could, but I personally couldn't - and a simple oral history wouldn't add anything significant to the material out there. I didn't know how I would tell Valentino that the thousands of hours he'd given to the process were for nothing, but I knew that I'd spent two years on it and didn't feel any closer to doing justice to his life and everything he wanted from the project.

Yet hours after I had given up - and I truly gave up - something occurred to me. Or many things occurred to me. First, I remembered that, at the refugee camp in Kakuma, in northern Kenya, Valentino had been part of a theatre group whose mandate was to write and perform one-act plays to educate the residents of the camp in various issues - HIV/Aids, gender equality, conflict resolution. So he knew that one usually needed to adapt the facts of life and shape them in such a way that they came alive in the minds of an audience.

By the same token, I realised that so many of the books I'd brought with me for inspiration, and the books I'd been reading on the shelves of this book-filled rented cabin, were novels. The books about war and upheaval that I'd turned to again and again, and that best (in my opinion) communicated the realities of war, were in fact novels: The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried, The Painted Bird, Catch-22 - War and Peace, for Christ's sake. Only with a bit of artistic licence could I imagine the thoughts in Valentino's mind the first day he left home, fleeing from the militias, never to return. Only in a novel could I imagine the look on the face of the man who rescued Valentino when he became entangled in barbed wire one black night in the middle of his journey to Ethiopia. Only in a novel could I apply what I had seen in the various regions of southern Sudan to describe the land, the light, the people.

Now, this is interesting for all sorts of other reasons also, but it especially caught my attention because of his reflections on what it means for an author to work with someone on capturing their voice and translating it into the form of a book, whether non-fiction or novelistic. I did a short piece like this recently with a friend who's having a health crisis and needed help translating thoughts into the form of an article about how to hold onto one's humanity in the deeply dehumanizing conditions of hospitalization, and it's a kind of work I intend to do more of in future. I think that the theatrical analogy Eggers invokes is actually even more deeply apropos, it seems to me that as the writer helping out one is trying in part to come up with a style on the page that captures the essential qualities--the spirit rather than the letter, as it were, though it's meaningless to use the term "letter" of something that's intrisically a matter of voice--of the speaker's voice, so that it's in many respects more like the playwright's task.

(If you have ever taped an interview or transcribed someone's speech, you know that a literal transcription in most cases--most but not all, some people have very distinctive ways of speaking that do translate well onto the page--comes across as flat or deadened compared to the rich affect of the audible voice. Your job as the writer is to--what's the word?!?--oh, reconstitute that voice on the page, like adding water to sea monkeys...)

"Bad novelists should marry one another (and not breed)"

Stanley Pignal interviews Sebastian Faulks at the FT. These English fellows are so clever it's criminal--I hope this interview was conducted by e-mail and that he wasted some hours thinking of good answers, if it was face-to-face and he thought of witty responses on the spur of the moment then it is just unnatural...

Friday, May 25, 2007

The naked polliwog of the Elite g

A quite wonderful collection of writers' confessions as to their font preferences at Slate! Just go and read it, too good to excerpt, they have chosen their writers wisely.

(These are my people, this is my generation! I too remember the Brother word processor, I too like Anne Fadiman am unrepentantly anti-Helvetican, I share Caleb Crain's preference for a legible font with a neutral personality...)

(I love Courier, like various writers there [including my high-school classmate Elisa Zuritsky! Hi, Elisa!] I have a typewriter prehistory that makes Courier my favorite font, but since I am a fairly copious writer with a frugal streak I simply cannot afford the sheer number of pages that Courier makes me turn out--think of all the extra reams of paper I'd be lugging up to my apartment--so I do everything in Times New Roman. Its defaultishness suits my temperament, just--I suppose--as I prefer the basic default Blogger template also.)

(I had a striking insight the other day about my own temperament, but I must not procrastinate by writing it up now! But expect some thoughts over the weekend on the allure of triathlon...)

The real people

Stuart Jeffries interviews Iain Banks at the Hay festival (that's criminal, that his new novel's not coming out in the US immediately, Banks is on my short list of must-read favorite enjoyable novelists). His next book's science fiction, one of the "Culture" novels he publishes under the name Iain M. Banks (which I must confess I enjoy more in theory than in practice, I'm firmly on the non-M. Banks track):

Banks tells me that he has spent the past three months writing another Culture novel. It will be called Matter and is to be published next February. "It's a real shelf-breaker," he says enthusiastically. "It's 204,000 words long and the last 4,000 consist of appendices and glossaries. It's so complicated that even in its complexity it's complex. I'm not sure the publishers will go for the appendices, but readers will need them. It's filled with neologisms and characters who disappear for 150 pages and come back, with lots of flashbacks and -forwards. And the story involves different civilisations at different stages of technological evolution. There's even one group who have disappeared up their own fundaments into non-matter-based societies."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Toy soldiers

At the TLS, David Horspool reviews Harry Pearson's ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND: A boy's own story of imaginary combat:

The memoir of personal obsession is almost as popular a pastime as the one Pearson is describing, and Achtung Schweinehund has most of the better qualities of the genre. Chief among these is specificity in the cultural references. It is no good for the writer to remark that he remembers having lots of toy soldiers. We need to know how many, exactly what make and model, where he bought them, and preferably how much they cost. Pearson is adept at all this, and wallows in the details of total recall, as when reminiscing almost parodically about the experience of refashioning a battalion of Airfix First World War German soldiers into British ones in the Zulu War, a process that called for a lot of banana oil and coincided with a Bob Dylan phase: “To this day, I can’t smell an overripe plantain without thinking of the Battle of Isandhlwana and singing the opening verse of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’”.

The Friends of Terra Cotta

Toni Schlesinger at the New York Observer.

NB: the word "verticalness," very good....

"The noise - the massiveness - the horror!"

David Kynaston has a lovely little piece at the Guardian on why he turned to women's diaries for his history of postwar Britain (oh, these quotations make me miss my grandmother so sharply, she was exactly one of these such women!):

My first historian hero, AJP Taylor, barely mentioned a woman. Nor did my next, EP Thompson, do much better in his seminal history-from-below, The Making of the English Working Class. At Oxford in the 1970s, the only woman I can remember featuring in my Modern History course was Elizabeth I. My own subsequent life as a historian was studying that virtually all-male bastion, the City of London. Moreover, although there has been a broad shift towards inclusivity in the past 30 years, the extent to which the old agendas retain their dominance is still striking. Even Peter Hennessy's recent, widely praised survey of Britain in the 1950s, Having It So Good, mentions barely two dozen women - compared with 45 men under the letter "B" alone.

So began the search for legible, quotable diaries. Eventually I found more than 30, of which about three-quarters are by women, quite often unmarried. A dozen or so of these female diarists feature in my account of the first six years after the war - years of heavily masculine resonance, with politicians such as Attlee and Cripps, Bevin and Bevan, industries such as steel and coal-mining, the docks and the railways, and pastimes like football and rugby league, speedway and the pub, not to mention the female retreat (voluntary or not) from working in offices and factories. A corrective was badly needed, and these diarists, for all their almost uniform tendency to be middle-class, help to supply it.

They include Marian Raynham, a Surbiton housewife who, on a typical July day, "made macaroni cheese & did peas & had & cleared lunch, then rest, then made 5lbs raspberry jam, got tea & did some housework, listened to radio & darned"; Mary King, a retired teacher in Birmingham who saw the Queen (later the Queen Mother) during a royal visit and observed that "considering the rationing of the people, she certainly looked well fed"; Grace Golden, a commercial artist, who, standing in a bus queue in Piccadilly, spotted "a number of charming 'new look' women - the full long skirts quite delightful"; Erica Ford, a thoroughly sensible, church-going young woman from Ealing, so mesmerised by the play Gaslight on television that "of course knitting remained undone"; and Phyllis Willmott, not fully into her stride until the 1950s but still writing her diary in 2007, who visited the Ford plant at Dagenham and concluded her description of the assembly line with the Kurtz-like sentence, "The noise - The massiveness - The horror!"

Monday, May 21, 2007


taking a few minutes off from Candide and Rasselas and Pope's (slightly awful--great poet, mediocre philosopher) Essay on Man which are on the menu for tomorrow's faculty seminar to say that Sebastian Faulks's Engleby is the most enchantingly funny novel, I am completely in love with the unreliable first-person narrator. I've only had time to read the first third of it, will hope to finish later this week, but it is a delightful book indeed! I am not sure how accessible it will be to everyone, I think it will be funnier (but perhaps the excellence in Faulks' execution of the voice makes knowledge of the references irrelevant?) if you know a certain amount about this sort of middle-highbrow English culture stuff, but seriously I was laughing out loud to myself (I'm not exaggerating, really laughing out loud) at the deadpan cultural judgments which do some quite wonderful character and plot work in context.

Any of my students reading this will understand why I find the following quotation so delightful, for instance; I leave it for your contemplation (and there is a hilarious long passage on practical criticism that I commend to the attention of anyone who was at John Guillory's talk in the English department a few weeks ago and would like to know more...). The narrator is a university student from a lower-middle-class background, admitted to do English and now studying science but with many strong literary opinions:

My first summer vacation, I worked for a few weeks in the paper mill to get money, then took a ferry to Le Havre. I thought I'd hitchhike somewhere interesting and do some reading on the way. I took big paperbacks I could tear the pages out of as I went along: The Wings of the Dove, The Magic Mountain, Pamela and Anna Karenina. I remember reading Pamela on a camping site near Tours and thinking I was glad I was becoming a scientist. I don't think it's famous because it's a good book; I think it's famous because hardly anyone else was writing novels in the eighteenth century. Posterity didn't tell Richardson he'd done a fine job; posterity told him he'd done an early job. You wouldn't want to fly in a Wright Brothers plane now.

Now that I've blogged it, this is out of the question, but I must confess that the notion came over me that this would make a hilarious final exam question for my eighteenth-century novel class. "Discuss." But don't you like the way that it would be more just straight-up funny if the paragraph ended with the words "early job," but topples over into the mildly unsettling with the last sentence? I like this deadpan first-person kind of voice, in fact that last sentence sounds to me like something I wrote in Heredity only I can't think quite what!

Because it's the most pressing thing in my life

this week and next, I'm reprising an amazing quotation from Samuel R. Delany's About Writing on what it means to revise fiction (here was my long post on the book last year). I have thought of this passage very regularly since I first read it, it seems to me an extraordinarily apt and imaginative description that's not quite like any other I've seen:

When writers get (from readers or from themselves) criticism in the form “The story would be more believable if such and such happened” or “The story would be more interesting if such and such . . .” and they agree to make use of the criticism, they must translate it: “Is there any point in the story process I can go back to, and by examining my visualization more closely, catch something I missed before, which, when I notate it, will move the visualization/notation process forward again in this new way?” In other words, can the writers convince themselves that on some ideal level the story actually did happen (as opposed to “should have happened”) in the new way, and that it was their inaccuracy as a story-process practitioner that got it going on the wrong track at some given point?
In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it. Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can’t be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.

I can't wait to read

my friend and world-of-eighteenth-century-literature colleague Sophie Gee's novel about the real events behind Alexander Pope's writing The Rape of the Lock! Anyway, The Scandal of the Season will be published in the US in August....

(Thanks to Sarah Weinman for the link.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Some very charming letters

of Charles Darwin's printed in the Times Week in Review section. (Here's the Darwin Project website.)

Here's Darwin at age 12 complaining about his sister:

Just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent question, that was whether I wash all over every morning — no — then she said it was quite disgustin — then she asked me if I did every other morning, and I said no — then she said how often I did, and I said once a week, then she said of cour you wash your feet every day, and I said no, then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on that way a good while. then I went and told erasmus, and he bust out in laughing and said I had better tell he to come and wash them her self, besides that she said she did not like sitting by me or Erasmus for we smelt of not washing all over, there we sat arguing away for a good while.

And here's a good one for my book, an 1844 letter to a botanist friend:

I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species. — I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts — At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” ... but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his — though the means of change are wholly so — I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.

Lunch with the Witch of Endor

At the Observer, Rachel Cooke interviews actress Jill Balcon about her life and her marriage to Cecil Day-Lewis. It's an appealing piece, very interesting...

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Alphabetical agates at the Kircher Society blog.

The Healthy Kidney 10K

Oh dear, I do not at all mean to make light of kidney disease which is a very serious thing & afflicts several people I know quite catastrophically, and yet there is something very funny about the name of this race! The weather was quite perfect after all, no rain to speak off and neither too cold nor too warm, and I am very pleased with my results: 54:10, for an 8:44 mile pace. It is my goal--I will just say it, no point superstitiously keeping it to myself--to get down to 8:00 pace for longish runs, i.e. so that I could race a half-marathon at 7:45-type pace or even a little below; this will take a lot of work, but seems definitely (of course, what do I know?!?) within my natural capabilities. People talk a lot about genetic limits for running, but it is also clear that most people never train in a way that will get them close to their limits; I am determined to extract every ounce of speed possible from my not particularly runnerly physique. And then my five-year goal is that the year I turn 40 I will qualify for the Boston Marathon--it is true that I will be one of the very slowest runners in that race, assuming I am so fortunate as to be able to train to qualify, and yet that really would be something to give one a sense of accomplishment...

(Although it is slightly absurd to say this on the basis of absolutely zero triathlon experience, I have a extraordinarily strong conviction that the half-Ironman race is going to be a perfect fit for me, I'm already totally in love with it.)

That little chop will not make a very nourishing pie

Oh, I must read David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, 1945-51, John Charmley at the Guardian makes it sound impossibly alluring (these are the stories of my mother's childhood that my brothers and I most clamored for as kids--like the first time she had a banana, and what a disappointment it was because of being so much less sweet than the preserved bananas that were more frequent--NB in Auberon Waugh's biography there is a very good description of Evelyn Waugh eating the entire family's banana allotment under the horrified gaze of the Waugh children, the national doling-out of those bananas was a major event in British cultural memory).

Here's Charmley's opening:

This is a classic; buy at least three copies - one for yourself and two to give to friends and family. It is a classic because its portrayal of that unheroic, slightly shabby yet formative era that was Attlee's Britain is utterly convincing - and more than that, evocative. No one born in this country between 1939 and 1959 will fail to recognise what is being described in passages such as this: "Got ahead with the ironing and then felt I must go in quest of meat as that little chop left over from our Sunday joint will not make a very nourishing Shepherd's pie"; or "Yet middle class standards are somehow still kept up. Meals are eaten in the dining-room, though it would be less work to eat in the kitchen. The children still go out for a walk in the afternoon, but mother is now the nursemaid, and often has to furnish the housework when the children are in bed."

And here, I see, is a nice little piece by Robin McKie from the Observer a few years ago with more background on the whole banana issue:

At times of war, however, bananas disappeared from Britain. In World War I, this shortage led to the popularity of the music hall song 'Yes, we have no bananas', written by Leon Trotsky's nephew.

Similarly, during World War II bananas disappeared from shops. When transatlantic shipping re-commenced at the end of the war, the return of the banana was hailed as heralding an end to austerity and to the curse of the ration book. The Labour government even instigated a national banana day in 1946. Every child should have a banana that day, it was decreed - sometimes with unfortunate results, as the writer Auberon Waugh recalled. He and two of his sisters received their quota of three precious bananas, an exotic fruit whose deliciousness they had heard of but never experienced.

'They were put on my father's plate, and before the anguished eyes of his children he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three,' Waugh wrote. 'From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.'

The shrinking surface area of the soul

David Grossman has a very moving piece (an excerpt from his PEN lecture) at the Guardian on the death of his son and the restorative complementarity of politics and writing.

Two Dover soles and a giant ribeye steak

Victor Mallet of the FT has lunch with Gore Vidal at the Mandarin Grill in Hong Kong. (Expensive meal! But then they had a lot of drinks--this feature is funniest, I think, when the interviewer arrives all excited about having a lavish meal of some sort & the person being interviewed is extremely abstemious & inhibits the ordering process. I think if you are the interviewee on such occasions you should be sensitive to the life of journalism & order dessert even if you don't want it so that the person interviewing you can have some if s/he wants!)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Putting up with the interruptions

Sarah Kinson interviews Alan Garner at the Guardian. It is not a particularly forthcoming interview, and yet he's so much one of my favorite children's book writers that I couldn't not link to it...

On a related note, I feel like a human being again this week for the first time in a while, due to the fact that I'm back at work on writing-related stuff. I love all the other aspects of my job too, but writing time is indispensable, I do not thrive when I don't have it. As far as the fix goes, revision is to writing as methadone is to heroin, and for the next few weeks at least I'm really revising rather than writing, but it still gives me a feeling of expansiveness in the chest & enriched humanity, a great relief (though school stuff still looms large over the rest of the month). Expect me to emerge from the cocoon sometime in early June, unless I become enraptured by the next set of writing tasks--but at least I should be a bit less antisocial.

A couple fun books read this week around the edges: Holly Black's latest, Ironside (very enjoyable); and the quite delightful American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly. I seriously couldn't put it down, it is a most gripping read! I am often suspicious of these wise-cracking memoir-writers, but in this case was totally won over both by the narratorial persona and by the content. The Shaolin temple! Training! China! Great stuff.

(I was eyeing the Shaolin kung fu class on the Columbia gym schedule last summer, we all need to release our inner eight-year-old boy sometimes, only then I fell in love with Iyengar yoga instead which really suits my purposes much better, especially since the running coach I worked with in the fall is a stickler for health & safety & strictly banned us all from doing anything obviously injury-producing, which certainly includes kickboxing and martial-arts-type stuff. And now I am obsessed with this whole triathlon training project, with yoga ongoing but also held in reserve for some future point about seven years from now where I might lose interest in racing and suddenly have the training time to do yoga every day and become much more knowledgeable and expert. But it would be interesting to do a bit of martial arts training, I have liked the tiny bit of kickboxing I've done, only the gym-type cardio kickboxing workouts which I have never tried seem way too much like an evil and cunning repackaging of 1980s-style aerobics, not at all my cup of tea...)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The ghosts of 995 Fifth Avenue

Toni Schlesinger has really outdone herself this time. I feel there's the imaginative space for an unusual slipstreamish fantasy novel somewhere in there (what happened if you moved into a brand new condo and it was inhabited by ghosts and they were very annoyingly like characters from Sex in the City?).

My favorite paragraph:

New York’s other empty rooms are not quite the live-across-from-the-McKim-Mead-White Met experience, with halls leading to rooms leading to halls, though the conversion of 823 Park with 12 full-floor homes may well be even grander. All one can see now are watery drawings on the Web site, which make the rooms look even more elegant: part of someone’s Bachelard dream of violets in childhood, trembling columns and wing chairs on a snowy night—perhaps for a middle-aged couple in French clothes with a preference for Straub and Huillet films.

Black-market whisky at twenty-five shillings a bottle

D. J. Taylor at the TLS on the lost worlds of Patrick Hamilton:

As one of the great fictional chroniclers of drinking he takes himself to anywhere drink is likely to be found: to the public bars of upmarket hotels (always a good venue for impressing women) to secret gin and brandy orgies in pebble-dashed front parlours. Two of his books are set almost entirely in pubs; in at least another three, practically every significant event takes place against a background of clinked tumblers, last orders and the barmaid’s saccharine smile. Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, perhaps the most alcoholically charged of all his novels, has more than twenty separate scenes in which characters either buy drinks, have drinks bought for them, or are discovered in some out-of-the-way corner of the bar with the first of the evening at their elbow.

I have been very much meaning to read Hamilton ever since I first discovered he had written a vaguely unsung cult-favorite novel with the truly excellent title Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court. But somehow I never got around to getting hold of a copy. Now I am resolved: a Hamilton binge this summer. (Other summer reading intentions: Beckett; August Wilson; and possibly if I find myself with a bit of time on my hands--only really this is not going to happen--Proust...)

A steep plunge to the road below

At the LRB, Inigo Thomas on Gore Vidal. Vidal's a particular favorite writer of mine, though it's been some years now since I read him extensively; worth a fresh look, I think...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Further thoughts

re: dentistry and retirement accounts: If there is going to be a future, one would prefer to have planned for it.

The bestseller

Shira Boss has a very interesting piece in this weekend's Times business section on the mystery of making a bestseller.

I don't have any thoughts in particular on what makes a non-fiction bestseller--many of them, it must be said, sound completely vacuous! (I mean, I can see the point of certain guilty-pleasure non-fiction best-sellers, but the self-help genre's pretty much a closed book to me.) But it seems to me that the internet's really changed the dynamic of fiction best-sellers because of the way it so dramatically augments word-of-mouth. No doubt some "bad" novels become best-sellers in any case. But I feel that a small proportion of books really are just much more appealing for one reason or another than most of what's out there. I'm not personally a fan of John Grisham or Dan Brown, but there's a reason those two guys sell so much more than their peers--great sense of narrative pacing is a big part of it. How could Lee Child and Robert Crais not be bestsellers, assuming decent handling at the publishers' end, given the ease and excellence of their story-handling skills? And then, too, there are altogether delightful books--what's a good example?--like, oh, Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos or Naomi Novik's Temeraire books. I know very little about the original conditions of publication of either of these, how they sold, etc. and yet it was clear to me immediately upon first reading that they had to have fantastic word-of-mouth and a long afterlife. People are going to be reading that de los Santos novel forty years from now from public libraries in the same way they read and reread Georgette Heyer or Mary Stewart. Similarly Naomi's books are going to be read by all sorts of different constituencies--male and female readers of fantasy fiction, fans of Patrick O'Brian, adult female readers more generally who just like her handling of character and voice, young-adult readers--basically as long as people are reading and enjoying novels!

(I am not a pessimist about the future of the novel, I find all the hand-wringing along those lines mildly ridiculous; but I do sort of believe that the world is going to devolve into some Mad Max-like post-apocalyptic scenario in my lifetime. However I feel sure that at that point you'll still be able to pick up a battered paperback or two along with your gallon jug of diesel fuel for the generator and your barrel of water. In any case the paradox of life in the world is that though I do not believe in the future I also funnel all my spare money into a retirement account, so there you go...)

NB irrelevant footnote: When I was little, I was always reading and writing, but from when I was about ten or so I was writing a massive novel called "The Purple Cow" which involved an apartment complex in Vermont built by a man who won a lot of money in the lottery & invited all his extended family to move in with him, they all become preoccupied with writing books and a large part of the story involved tallying up how many books they wrote of what kind in a sort of massive extended-family literary competition (privileging quantity rather than quality)! And I worked on it every day, especially during the summer, and it was always alluded to (very seriously, though not in a real-world sense) by me and everyone else as my bestseller. As in: "Where's Jenny?" "Oh, she's in her room working on her bestseller." It would be very exciting if one day I had an actual bestseller, though I feel that the terminology has become so elastic as to be almost worthless...

What works on the page

Janet Maslin loves Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher book. Quite right too...

A pair of white gloves

Three rather priceless pieces about smoking. Very bad habit, I am glad I've given it up, and yet there's no doubt in my mind that if I could get a free pass on one bad habit (you know, no bronchitis, no long-term health consequences) that would be the one...

Here's Germaine Greer:

I guess I began to smoke regularly at university, because everybody else was smoking. Even my English tutor sucked on a cigarette the entire time she had eight or nine of us imprisoned in her tiny room; she would spell out the spatial relationships in a poem such as Gerard Manley Hopkins's Wreck of the Deutschland with her fag pack and her box of matches, voicing the lines round the cigarette that hung from her nether lip. Dragging on my own fag was the only way to avoid the nausea reflex that other people's smoke can still trigger. If others in a group are smoking, I'll smoke; if not not. For years I smoked only OP's - other people's. I can work for eight or nine hours in a library without feeling any kind of craving for a cigarette, but I'll probably light up on the way home, if there's a cigarette in the car. If there's not, I won't make a special stop to get some.

In the 1950s my fellow students were smoking cork-tipped Virginia cigarettes, Craven A, Ardath, De Reszke (pronounced Dee Rezeek), and Du Maurier, which always struck me as dry and tasteless. Tough guys smoked untipped cigarettes, Senior Service and Pall Mall. The more adventurous - or pretentious - smoked exotic cigarettes, Black Sobranie or Passing Clouds. My mates and I followed the example of Picasso, Sartre, Camus and Orwell; we smoked Gauloises "brunes". And I still would, if I could ever find them. The last French factory making them shut down nearly two years ago.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Novels as bad influence

The next installment of Marco Roth's memoir in essays. This one is savagely good, the best yet I think (though I think the others have been excellent also).

Knight errantry

Michael Ray Taylor has a great piece about Lee Child's Jack Reacher books at the Nashville Scene. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Promotional blogging?

Clive Thompson has an interesting piece at the Times magazine on the importance of blogging and e-mail for a new breed of musicians. Lots there that applies to authors, too; once I have time this summer I am going to make a Myspace page and start getting the hang of it, since I'm going to be a young-adult author & all I think I can't really count on having Light Reading be the main promotional blog! It is deeply non-promotional in any case, that's not going to change, don't worry...

I'm thinking, though, that what I'll need is a proper website of some sort (with a place for all the stuff I'm cutting out of the present draft!) and also a Myspace where I write a kind of weekly update with a notional audience of teenagers (not that I really see the difference between teenagers and grown-ups, pretty much the same thing as far as I'm concerned, but just with a less bookish and more Dynamite No. 1-centered emphasis).

I am excited about the idea of working with teenagers! Younger teenagers than I'm used to, I mean--I suppose technically many a Columbia undergraduate is still a teenager....

Friday, May 11, 2007

A sort of consummation

Andrew Motion has a thoughtful piece at the Guardian about Peter Stanford's biography of Cecil Day-Lewis. Sounds like kind of a must-read to me, though I will confess that my minor obsession with Day-Lewis stems primarily from my obsessive reading and re-reading during early adolescence of the strangely (strangewaysley, if I can make an Ed Parkism) compelling detective novels he published under the name Nicholas Blake.

Impossibility does not exist

At the FT, Andrew Clark makes Elizabeth Wilson's book Mstislav Rostropovich: The Legend of Class 19 sound absolutely fascinating:

What went on in Class 19 has long been the stuff of legend, thanks to the informal testimony of alumni - many of them now distinguished soloists. The publication of Elizabeth Wilson’s book is timely, not just for its detailed account of Rostropovich’s teaching methods, but as a reminder of what made him special. Much of it is cast in the form of a memoir - Wilson studied in Class 19 in the 1960s - but it should be required reading for every performer and music teacher, for it adds up to a manual of musical truth. Rostropovich’s most enduring legacy, it suggests, will be the philosophy of life and music he passed on, rather than the more immediate impact of his exuberant personality and performances.

His idea of education, we learn in an ”interlude” penned by Karine Georgian, ”involved seeing and influencing the whole personality [of the student]. He was preparing us for a concert career, and our whole attitude to life and our profession was important to him. When he said I hadn’t shed enough tears to play Brahms, he was also teaching me a deeper truth - that one must know how to absorb everything into oneself, and then filter [the music] through one’s own experience.”

As such, Class 19 was far more than a musical hothouse. Rostropovich was often absent or late. He could be cruel. But as many of the alumni aver, he provided food for thought that lasted a lifetime. What he wanted was, first, to instil the idea that the impossible did not exist, and second, that it was more important to convey a sense of the music’s emotional impulse, through mood, atmosphere and a wide range of tone colour, than to have a flawless technique and beautiful sound.

The world's first computer

At the New Yorker, John Seabrook has a magically good piece about the Antikythera Mechanism. (Also there's a very good piece by Burkhard Bilger on guitar-making, not available online--that guy's such a good writer...)

The Antikythera Mechanism is one of those things that shouldn't even exist, based on our understanding of the ancient world, and yet it does--and it sounds ravishingly beautiful, I have a spartan decorating aesthetic and basically want zero stuff (except that I must buy a bicycle and a wetsuit!) but if I could get a working model of the Antikythera Mechanism it would totally make me break my no-stuff rule. If I had read this article when I was nine years old, I would have basically just lobbied to be allowed to quit school and go to Greece to become an archeologist, which was always one of my obsessions in any case (I remember being obsessed at that age with Linear B). Anyway, there's a slideshow also and here's the website for the wonderfully named Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. But it's the article itself that's so special, it perfectly captures the magic of the machinery...

Science is the "true" thing that gives me the same sense of wonder I associate with novel-reading, it must be said, and "science-fictional" is one of my highest compliments (I've been using it most recently to describe a really mind-bending book of literary criticism on Jane Austen). There are a lot of different things we might mean when we say something's like being in a novel--depends for one thing on the kind of novel (often things happen in my life that make me feel I'm in a satirical novel about academia--one of the reasons I have little urge to read such novels!). But what I'm most likely to mean is that heightened sense of interest and excitement that accompanies our turning the pages of a good novel.

I was thinking the other day, too, about why I like fantasy novels so much, and really it's because of the way that genre lets the writer make the stakes very high in ways that are non-naturalistic but psychologically compelling. We do not have a good vocabulary in the secular world for, oh, writing about someone whose soul is at stake! Fantasy does it better. It's that stakes-being-high feeling, then, that seems to me what's most worth seeking out in life. You can have it in unpleasant situations as well as pleasant--you know, when you're helping someone out in an emergency of one kind or another--but often in quite ordinary ones, like having a funny conversation with someone's small child. I have it very strongly when I'm thinking about training to run in a race or learning to be a better swimmer!

The other place I have it very strongly--this will be easiest for me to explain associatively--is in teaching. It's partly a luxury of the kind of teaching I do, it's not that many actual hours a week in the classroom, but I have a not-so-secret principle that every minute that I'm teaching (and the same thing goes if I'm giving a talk somewhere) I have to be at the very highest level of energy and attention. Frances Burney has a really wonderful passage in a letter about Edmund Burke that I think of often in this context (here's a link with the text):

How I wish my dear Susanna and Fredy[1] could meet this wonderful man when he is easy, happy, and with people he cordially likes. But politics, even then, and on his own side, must always be excluded. His irritability is so terrible upon politics that they are no sooner the topic of discourse than they cast upon his face the expression of a man who is going to defend himself against murderers!

My irritability is certainly not at all terrible upon politics, and I never have the expression of a person about to defend myself against murderers, but I love the passage because of the ways it shows that everything's always at stake for Burke. My enthusiasm is so torrential upon thinking that books and ideas are no sooner the topic of discourse than they cast upon my body a spell of energy more appropriate for a dramatic staged sword-fight in a production of Macbeth! When I find myself giving a talk in a slightly staid and decorous location, I become aware of the inappropriateness of this, but fortunately we are allowed to set our own tone in the classroom. I am never so tired that I cannot work myself up to an insane pitch of enthusiasm within minutes....

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Novel-reading on the road

A good book really does transport you, interminable plane journeys pass by in a flash--but it's hard to get exactly the right things, and of course really & ideally they are long books in proportion to physical weight (I was sort of kicking myself on the way back for having already read Jilly Cooper's latest, that sort of book's perfect for a plane trip--also the same sort of globalization that some years ago made British convenience stores strangely resemble their American peers now means that the bookstore contents are rather more similar than formerly, or else I have just already ordered everything I really wanted from Amazon UK, so that there are precious few untouched treasures at least in the London chain or airport bookshops).

That said, I had some really good ones, one way and another. Overnight on my way there (my neighbor was annoyed I had the light on, but really I do not see how you sleep on the plane flying overnight east over the Atlantic) I had Megan Whalen Turner's The King of Attolia (so well-written, and so perfectly to my taste!) and then Sherwood Smith's admirably long novel Inda. I think that in general I prefer a more tightly focused single-character mode of fantasy, this was a bit too much in the George R. R. Martin mode to be my perfectly-ideal book, but for the purpose it really was excellent, she's got a really mesmerizing way with the story-telling & it also tided me over the horrible hours in which I had dropped off my bag at the hotel at 9am but couldn't check in till 2pm--that and Starbucks (and my oh my, those Starbuckses have just proliferated since I was last in London! convenient, and yet somehow a bit sad--also perhaps it was just the couple I was in, but I like the way the American phrase "skinny cappucino" which I find annoyingly jargonish & will not say has become there "skinny milk"--"with skinny milk"--pretty funny...)

I raided the Waterstone's round the corner from the hotel for more light reading, most satisfactorily Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead (don't know why I missed that when it came out, but of course it's extremely good) and an absolutely wonderful book by Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. I've had Walton's others in my Amazon cart since reading & loving the excellent Farthing recently, but they kept on phasing in and out of availability (mostly not still in print? but that should be remedied, she is such a good writer...); I seized on this one when I found it, & devoured it with considerable and substantial enjoyment. It's pagan Britainish territory with magic/myth, took me back happily to my childhood love of (what's the short version of the list?) Patricia McKillip and Gillian Bradshaw and Juliet Marillier and Rosemary Sutcliff and a whole host of others whose names aren't particularly coming to mind (what was that one I loved with the centurions also?), and it's remarkably well done: the thing that strikes me especially is the satisfactorily rich and complex characterisation, rare (I think) in fantastical novels of this stripe. It's great! It pained me not to have the others to hand, but I'm going to go and order them from Amazon right now...

And then I had a ludicrously bad crime novel: pretentiously titled, absurdly plotted, Patricia Cornwell redux about fifteen years behind the times. Serves me right for liking the Cornwell-Hayder-Harris style of serial-killer detection thriller so much that I will buy one like this without properly looking in. The thing that really just had me helplessly laughing was when the formerly-forensic-anthropologist-fled-to-become-village-GP-post-death-of-wife-and-daughter goes into the nearest significant town--three years, mind you, after he's moved to the country to escape his family tragedy and it turns out to be the first time he's been to town since he moved to the village! There were so many farfetched points & so little substance to the narrative persona that it really only took about half an hour to read, very annoying.

A second stab at book shopping at the airport yielded two very satisfactory reads that took me exactly and conveniently to JFK. First of all, a quite interesting not-sure-what-to-call-it (fantasy? science fiction?) novel by Steph Swainston called The Year of Our War. It's a flawed book, I think, in certain respects: the plot's awfully meandering for a war novel, there are some inconsistencies of tone, a touch too much whimsy in the dreamworld to which the hero escapes (shades of Jonathan Carroll--I like Carroll very much at times, at his best he's stunning, but Carrollesque does not seem to me a good thing). And yet I really loved it anyway! A very appealingly rendered main character/narrator, for one thing, in the fallen angel vein; but just a really excellent high-caliber imagination and smart writing. Will look forward to her next ones with considerable interest.

And then, quite grippingly, Iain Banks's The Steep Approach to Garbadale. It hasn't been especially well reviewed, but I just loved it, I couldn't put it down (I mean, I was on a plane, so it could have been a lot worse and I would still have enjoyed it, but it really was enthralling); I don't feel that I experience my own life or the lives of others in the shape, as it were, of an Iain Banks novel (this characteristic shape of extended-family-centered retrospection--I mean, I feel like childhood and adolescence are happily behind me, I do not think that any moment of my grown-up life in my thirties would ever be primarily conceived by me as an act of retrospection going back to my teens, which is a preferred structure of his) and yet in every other respect I read Banks's (non-science-fiction) novels and just think "Yep, life is like this for me. Exactly like this." His main characters, male and female, just seem to be people like me--which is not actually a feeling I get as often as you might think, reading as many novels as I do. It makes them remarkably enjoyable.

The trouble with all this novel-reading is that you can't stock up on novels, so to speak--reading novels makes you want to read more novels! But these ones must mostly tide me over, it's a busy month--however I will sneak in a few here and there...

One thing that works really well online

is when periodicals link to archive material newly apropos--as here the TLS makes available (as a companion piece to a review of "The Lives of Others," not available online) Anne McElvoy's 2003 review of Anthony Glees's book The Stasi Files:

Halfway through the book I discovered to my considerable surprise that the industrious Dr Glees had unearthed a part of my own Stasi file - relating to my stay as a student at the Humboldt University from 1986 to 1987 - when I had given up what seemed like a pointless search in a labyrinth of changing access laws. Finding oneself reflected through the eyes of secret observers is always disconcerting. To discover that I had, according to the Stasi, "an ethereal quality" is strangely flattering. Not so edifying is the insight that "at the Humboldt University she failed to make much impression", but let's just say it was not for want of trying, so a lot of people I thought might be informing on me obviously did not bother to do so.

Surveillance was often more random and patchy than Glees's account of a relentless machine suggests. I also had contact with many of the other characters in Glees's account -not knowing that they were working for Wolf's foreign intelligence service, but not exactly surprised that they turned out to be. Oswald Schneidratus was no less than one of the elite Offiziere im Besonderen Einsatz (OIBEs), who were intended to carry on the good fight for Communism in the event of a capitalist overthrow of the regime. Schneidratus, an expert on nuclear proliferation, sought me out after 1989 and presented me with a brilliantly lucid account of the justifications, in Bismarckian balance-of-power terms, for maintaining the GDR intact. I remember thinking that the only flaw in his argument was that the State had just collapsed around him.


literal & metaphorical prefatory to getting (I hope) massive amounts of work done includes blogging the stuff that's sitting around on my desk and in my head...

Thoughts on London:

I had such a pang of missing my grandmother as the plane landed at Heathrow on Wednesday morning! The last time I was in London was for her memorial service (here was a brief excerpt from the "memoirs" I made her write which very much gives the flavor of her personality, and here were a few comical excerpts from various letters she sent me in the last few years of her life) and it really was as though she would be waiting for me in Highgate with tea and toast and clean sheets on the bed upstairs. My hotel room was very much like the bedroom I stayed at in their last house, too; something about the feel of the sheets and the faintly lavenderish smells and the under-the-eaves-ness of it...

The conference was super-enjoyable--really interdisciplinary in the best possible way--this fascinating paper on Tannhauser's dilemma and rational choice hermeneutics stood behind a lot of our discussions, and our host had an altogether delightful paper on this occasion about why Elsa asks Lohengrin the question despite the fact that it assures her a bad outcome--wonderfully appealing stuff! And we also had what must be described as the most heavenly Vietnamese-inflected meal imaginable at Bam-Bou (hmm, did not realize that the building once housed Ezra Pound's Vorticists, I wonder if that is apocryphal?)--though I skipped the other conference dinner due to exhaustion and a fit of the hermits.

I am still reproaching myself for not finding time to swim while I was there--the first place I'd researched in advance had changed hands and no longer had a day-pass arrangement, and by the time I figured out that the Tottenham Court Road Central YMCA was an even better option I kind of didn't have time to fit it in (I will swim there next time I'm in London though, it looked great--fifteen pounds for a day pass including pool and health club, plus some kind of week-long thing in the region of forty-five pounds--not cheap, but worth it). However I did have two very decent runs in Regent's Park. It is amazing how many fewer people run in London than in New York! Though of course this really isn't a "destination" park for runners, too small, you would only go there if you were living in the area & it's not a particularly residential neighborhood I suppose... Fortunately it is so easily findable from where I was staying on Gower Street that even my negative sense of direction couldn't get me lost....

NB Regent's Park as well as being altogether to my taste period-wise--those beautiful houses!--and full of childhood memories of feeding the ducks & eating ice lollies also makes me happy because of the Hundred and One Dalmations connection--you know, the Dearlys live in a little house by Regent's Park because Mr. Dearly is a financial genius and solved the problem of the national debt and earned a life-long exemption from income-tax and a free house to live in--needless to say if you have not read that novel in living memory I highly recommend it--and here's a chance to clear one of the other things that's been taking up space on my desk waiting for me to post, a wonderful passage from a very interesting book we read with the British history reading group a couple months ago, Deborah Cohen's Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions.

Cohen writes well about Ambrose Heal of Heal's Furniture (also right round the corner from where I was staying) and the "modern tendencies" exhibitions he introduced, but here's the charming part, which sent me off to read a biography of Dodie Smith & contemplate her taste for dalmatians:

The best publicity of all, however, was the example provided by one of Heal's own employees. Long before she racked up successes with One Hundred and One Dalmations and I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith was the manager of Heal's toy department, and, as her diary reveals, Ambrose Heal's mistress. The success of her first play, Autumn Crocus, brought Smith a flat to suit her 'very decided ideas' about home decoration. Decorated entirely in black, white, and silver, the flat represented the very latest in stage-set modernism. Its walls were bare of pictures; the few ornaments allowed, black glass flower vases and silver candlesticks, fitted the bichromatic colour scheme. The reporters who visited her in the top-floor flat marvelled at the happy synchronicity between the woman-'a modern phenomenon'-and her dwelling. Hers was a 'flat without a past', a spare assemblage of modernist items purchased to suit the rooms, with no family heirlooms to spoil the effect. Each room (including the bathroom) had a telephone. In place of the ubiquitous Victorian aspidistra, Smith cultivated cacti, plants that 'in their obliging habits are suited to the long absences of their owners which are part of modern life'.

I had intended to offer a few thoughts on novel-reading while traveling, but I think I must put that in a separate post since this one's got so long, and instead give you a page of pictures scanned from Valerie Grove's excellent Dear Dodie: A Life of Dodie Smith (the decor in these ones isn't particularly modernist)...

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I am a five-year-plan type person and am having a morning of to-do lists that will not otherwise be reflected here...

2007: fall marathon, injury permitting--New York if I get a spot in the lottery, Philadelphia if not. In the meantime, lots of swimming and biking as cross-training & skill-building but no non-run-related racing (unless an irresistible triathlon opportunity pops up--but I still don't even have a bike!). Various half-marathons and shorter races, including the 9 ones I will need to guarantee a spot in the 2008 New York marathon. I have signed up for a 10K next weekend to get a start on that--it's been making me crazy having to wait for my stress fracture to get better, but I think it's finally OK. I will be slower than I was in the fall, which is annoying but unavoidable; I'll aim for a 9:15 pace, but if I can get down closer to 9:00 it will make me happier.

2008: 4-5 sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons (and another marathon in the fall if I can, plus a couple of half-marathons and shorter races as it suits).

2009: half-Ironman!

And after that I will decide if I want to do a full one...

It actually all seems pretty attainable, the thing I like about this endurance training stuff is that it's kind of just a matter of putting in the time and you get the results. It was a great swimming clinic last night--it's Level II, now, and definitely more hard-core, which is what I like--a serious work-out. I was the only woman, and I think also the only person who hasn't done any triathlons yet--a couple of the other guys were training for full-length Ironman races this summer. And the thing was that I did do one less set of the last thing we did, I am just kind of a slower swimmer still than these guys, but I am definitely not in a different universe of swimming from them, it's more a matter of building up endurance & keeping working on skills & stuff but on some things I am perfectly on a par, and on kicking perhaps better. So this is all good, if they can do it I definitely can! I am getting a bike as soon as I've finished grading and done enough novel revision to justify an afternoon off--I'm hoping later next week sometime...

Monday, May 07, 2007

I have had my Weetabix

Home again, and with a long novel-reading post percolating in my head for later, but for now, check out Sarah Goldstein's excellent Salon interview with Michael Chabon (link via Neil Gaiman) and Sarah Weinman's thought-provoking observations on Chabon and the Yiddish language at her blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

(The London trip was good but tiring; in blog-related news, though, I will just observe that I had a delightful lunch with Maxine at the British Library and while our conversation was altogether quite lovely the single thing she told me that I'm most tickled by--have I got this right, or has my sieve-like memory betrayed me?!?--is that her grandfather was an agriculturalist who bred the strain of wheat used for Weetabix, the breakfast cereal that's recently been on my mind and my menu...)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

This is so

Robinson Crusoe!

(It's funny, it almost always happens after I say that I won't be posting for a while that I put up about five more posts before getting on the road ... but nothing much here again till Monday the 8th.)

One more thing before I go

A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on the occasion of my third-grade teacher's retirement that I ended up posting here because it turned out to be an essay about reading. I've just written another for the teacher I had in fifth and sixth grade; I'm not sure it will be of general interest, some of the references are a bit obscure (and really it is a testament to the progressive education of the late 1970s and early 1980s, eh?!? No wonder I loved school...) but I thought a few of you might be interested.

("Contracts" were the name for one of the major features of the elementary-school curriculum, in which each student would be assigned a suitable number and range of written questions and other tasks--things like making the shield of Medusa out of papier mache--that s/he undertook to complete by a given date, making it a matter of a personal and more-or-less tailored obligation between student and teacher; the Winesapple Apple Corporation was a way of learning about stocks and shares and companies, but also involved apple-picking and bake sales. And here is the website for the school, if you're curious.)

Here goes: in honor of Katy Hineline's retirement.

Part of Mrs. Hineline’s genius in a classroom full of fifth and sixth graders had to do with the way she was such a good teacher for boys and for girls also. Ten and eleven are awful years in which it creepingly begins to dawn on you that it’s going to mean something quite different to be a girl as opposed to a boy, and I am inclined to think that Mrs. Hineline must have been the only person in the world in 1981 or 1982 (with the possible exception of my English grandmother) who did not render me savage and sullen when she drew attention to some aspect of my appearance with a compliment.

The striking fact in retrospect is the ways the influence of Mrs. Hineline worked to make us nicer. The word nice is often belittled, and yet I remember the genuine deep dyed-in-the-wool niceness of girls like Cori Schreiber and Molly Kelly and the way it was allowed to thrive in the best possible way in the culture of the Hineline classroom. Mrs. Hineline made it easy for us to be nice. The girls were nice to the boys and the boys were nice to the girls and (perhaps most amazingly) the girls were nice to each other.

Things I remember with great fondness:

Making paper as part of learning about Marco Polo’s trip to China.

Reading group at that table in the middle of the classroom. (Books I read and loved in that setting included E. L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver and The Second Mrs. Giaconda, and also—a novel that remains a favorite of mine and that then had me absolutely in its thrall—T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.)

Playing Friar Tuck with a pillow under my monk’s habit and Malvolio with yellow cross-gartered stockings.

The honor of Mrs. Hineline asking me to adapt Twelfth Night for our class play (but also the chagrin of her scaling down the extent of my written assignments for the “contract” we were then working on—I felt I should do more than anybody else, I didn’t see why the other thing should mean I had to do less!).

I remember Mrs. Hineline with what seemed to me even at the time as amused horror rather than actual disbelief asking me one Monday morning what I had done over the weekend and me saying “I read The Agony and the Ectasy” and her saying rather hopefully (Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo being roughly eight hundred pages long) “You mean you finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy?” and me saying blithely and truthfully that I had indeed read the whole book over the weekend (and probably a few others also, though I imagine I had the tact not to mention them). These were also the years of Jane Austen and Robert Graves, I must have read I, Claudius half a dozen times over that couple-year period of being in Mrs. Hineline’s class.

Mrs. Hineline showed me how to fall in love with real history as opposed to the mythological world of ancient Greece, my previous passion; I remember spending many hours compiling notes on historical sources and transforming my material into the year-long diary of a medieval English peasant or a first-hand account of a young nobleman compelled to chronicle the rise and fall of Savonarola. (These were the first things I wrote that really showed me what kinds of novels I wanted to write, and I found myself remembering those narratives when I took a seminar near the end of college from Simon Schama on writing narrative history, a class that together with those early writing experiences helped me understood why the typical fiction-writing class didn’t speak to me and how I could find a different mode of writing that would engage the whole range of my interests.)

I have Mrs. Hineline to thank for my youthful grasp of a technical medieval military vocabulary (trebuchet, crenellation).

I remember (this was not at school) helping to give Mrs. Hineline’s handsome Maine Coon Cat Eggamoggin regular flea baths—an interesting and challenging assignment, more dangerous than anything we did in the classroom....

I remember Mrs. Hineline’s lovely assistant Stan Kenyon showing me how to calculate square roots with pencil and paper (a pointless but enjoyable skill which I no longer retain) and the cheerful daily morning greeting of the task that elicited my most maniacal enthusiasm and energy, MOTB or VOTB (math on the board, vocabulary on the board—since I always got to school before the building was even open, the classroom was a warm haven & vocabulary an absolute delight compared to that penitential winter lurking outside the building till the doors opened at eight).

I remember suffering a crisis of guilt over not being able to fulfill my duties as secretary of the Winesapple Apple Corporation because of an unfortunately scheduled clarinet lesson, only Val Minor stepped in and saved the day!

I remember Mrs. Hineline (a good friend to the Davidson family) having us all to stay at her summer house in Stonington, Maine and being a remarkably good sport about the vast quantities of food we expected to consume at every meal (the thing I remember most vividly from that trip, I must confess, is my effort to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety—to this day it is pretty much the only long poem that I could even attempt to say by heart).

I especially remember my imagination being in the grip of the roster of tasks we had to complete as we studied the middle ages in order to receive our “knighthood”—musical tasks and tasks involving embroidery, tasks literary and mathematical. It was not so much the individual things we did as the sense of there being all sorts of ways of approximating the kind of ideal of self-improvement and self-testing undergone by the notional knights of Arthur’s court, and in fact, I’ve thought of the knighthood tasks several times recently, because (this is farfetched, and not what my poor gym teachers would have predicted!) my imagination is now in the grip of a different set of tests—ones related to training for a triathlon or a marathon. I am not sure exactly what it is in human nature that makes us want to try ourselves in this way, but I know that Mrs. Hineline’s real gift as a teacher wasn’t just the love and intelligence she mustered for her subject matter but the way that she made every single one of her students want to work like a demon in order to satisfy her high standards, and the way that her very highest standards were reserved for consideration and thoughtfulness of others rather than any simple notion of academic accomplishment.