Saturday, June 30, 2007

The life of Riley

Luc Sante has a great list-like accumulation of paragraphs titled "Commerce" in an altogether appealing anthology called New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (it's sort of like Wayne Koestenbaum's delightful "My 80s" only totally different). The effect of the bits he strings together is cumulative, but here's a good one:

For years there was a general store, of the most traditional sort, on 9th and Second. I did my photocopying there, bought aspirin, string, drywall screws, mayonnaise, and greeting cards on various occasions. You could not imagine that they could possibly carry the exact spice or piece of hardware of style of envelope you needed, since the place was not enormous, but invariably an employee would disappear into some warren and re-emerge with your item in hand. In my memory I am always going there during blizzards. Another sort of general store stood on the corner of 14th and Third. It may have had another name, but its sign read "Optimo." It was cool and dark inside, with racks of pipes and porn novels and shelves of cigar boxes and candy. Of its two display windows on 14th Street, one featured scales, glassine envelopes, and bricks of Mannitol--the Italian baby laxative favored by dealers in powder for stretching their merchandise--and the other held shields, badges, and handcuffs. I often wished that Bertolt Brecht had been alive to admire those windows.

And he ends with this:

When S. inherited his father's estate, although it was not a major sum, he promptly retired. That is, he quit his job, moved into a room in the George Washington Hotel on 23rd Street, and took his meals at the doughnut shop on the corner. He read, wrote, strolled, napped. It was the life of Riley. He might have continued in this fashion indefinitely had he not made the acquaintance of cocaine.

Great stopping place, eh?!? (Think of how much better a novel House of Mirth would be if Wharton had just stopped a little sooner...)

(Courtesy of Ed.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In memoriam

The memorial service today for my amazing swimming teacher Doug Stern was very moving and very, very sad.

(This is going to be a long and rambling swimming-related post. Consider yourself warned.)

I went over to the Columbia pool this evening and as I got in (usually I swim at the funny little Teachers College one because it's better for working on drills, plus the Columbia one gives me pool rage because of crowdedness and bad lane etiquette, but the TC one closes at 8 whereas the Columbia one's open till 9, and I didn't make it back out of the house till about 8:10) I thought "well, if I can swing it I am going to swim a mile without stopping"--it has been my swimming goal at the back of my head, I haven't really been keeping track because if you're using fins and hand paddles for some of the laps and doing tons of right arm-left arm drills it doesn't count anyway, and I've been at the stage where technique is more to the point than volume, but really swimming a mile is an important marker. And I have certainly never done it before--we do timed 500-yard swims quite often in Doug's class, but I haven't had the chance to go longer while really counting.

I was thinking very much of Doug and for some reason this evening my swimming was just very strong and comfortable. I started in the medium-speed lane only the two other guys there were super-slow--I was laughing inwardly because when I for the second time met up with one of them at the wall and politely said "Will you go ahead?," he motioned to me to go ahead and said "You're really good!" (?!?)--and so I switched for the first time ever into the fast lane and kept on swimming (not very fast, by the way, it is just that the pool is such a mess, you have to find a refuge in the fast lane).

And I sort of couldn't quite remember whether the pool was meters or yards and exactly how many of them count for this whole swimming mile thing anyway, and I got kicked out of the pool right at 9 o'clock closing time as I finished lap 64 (around lap 59 I realized that the guy who was now in this new lane telling me to go ahead of him was my friend and former student Dizzyhead Gautam!), and the pool really is 25 yards rather than 25 meters so that's 1600 yards which is not a full mile (the swimmer's mile is 1650 yards or 1500 meters), but I would have to say that I met the spirit of the challenge. I can pretty much swim a mile now (minus two laps), and it was easy! (Not sure how long it took, forgot to check the clock at the beginning-thirty-five minutes, maybe a little longer?)

The really good part is thinking about what this means for the whole cycling business (I still have not gone out on the bike, there have been various weather-related and post-injury/don't-over-exercise-type obstacles, but I will get out at least once this weekend). I was an enthusiastic but quite poor swimmer in January. I hadn't swum, really, since I was a kid, I had never swum laps and I could barely do more than a couple lengths of the pool without stopping to rest. After reading various internet-type material, I resolved that I would swim at least four times a week (actually I initially said five, but this proved impractical) until I was a good swimmer.

I bounced through a couple teachers who were helpful but with always with one drawback or another, but as soon as I realized that Doug taught swimming as well as deep-water running (that was the class I started taking with him at the beginning of January) I thought, "I have found exactly the right teacher!," and the first swimming class confirmed this belief (the other teachers who work with Doug are all fantastic also).

So over about five months and a very steady sustained effort (and, I must confess, a rather large amount of money...) I am now in possession of a slowish but very steady and enjoyable front crawl stroke.

What I think this means: if I ride my bike, say, 3 times a week, twice for forty minutes and once for an hour and a half, and if I keep this up very steadily for five or six months (adding in complications one at a time--I really am mentally gearing up for the clipless pedals, I live right next to a park with totally no cars, lots of talk today about Doug really being afraid of heights but making himself jump off a 30-foot cliff into the ocean so I think the least I could do is ride with shoes stuck onto the pedals--and gradually working on traffic-related skills, and the finer nuances of gearing and interval training and stuff, and making the long ride longer every couple of weeks), there is every reason to think I will be a perfectly respectable cyclist by the end of 2007. I think most people would say that riding a bike is on the whole easier than swimming, though it's daunting in different ways.

And then in 2008 I am going to do four or five triathlons (mostly Olympic distance) over the summer and run the New York marathon in the fall, injury permitting and providing I can snag a place. And then in 2009 I will do a half-Ironman triathlon and keep working on half- and full marathon speed so that the year I turn forty I will bring my marathon time down low enough to qualify for Boston. (And then after that I will do a full-length Ironman race!) This all can be done, if the stars are in alignment; but it is my job to make them be in alignment, and one way of ensuring that this all happens is to keep working on my swimming in the playful and serious and self-examining and altogether compelling spirit of Doug Stern.

It is the strict truth rather than any kind of exaggeration when I say that for the rest of my life I'm pretty much going to remember Doug every time I get in a pool. And other times besides, of course, but I like the regularity of remembering by swimming.

One of the last classes I saw him at was the final meeting of the level I swim clinic. He'd already had this major neck surgery and he was just in pain and feeling totally awful. For some reason my form was particularly dire that day, and as he watched me swim my sort of "test" length for form and I looked over at him he was just throwing his hands up in the air in comical despair; it was hopeless....

(I remembering him saying to me another time, a couple weeks later and in genuine perplexity rather than sarcasm, with regard to the question of opening the hip properly, "It's funny, you're getting it right some of the time!" It is one of the great mysteries of life and particularly of swimming why our grasp on these things is so tenuous!)

But then we did the timed ten-minute swim (to see how many laps you can swim in ten minutes as opposed to the first class six weeks earlier), and even though my left arm was still hanging down in some incredibly pointless and inefficient way I really swam to the utmost of my ability, strongly and steadily and working really hard and not pausing at the wall for a moment. I had religiously swum at least three times every week outside of class (and obviously I do all this other exercise also, running and yoga and strength training including a million pushups and jumping rope and stuff) and this was where it kind of showed, in conditioning and steadiness and speed.

And as I sped up in the final few seconds and raced towards the wall, I looked over and he was holding up his hand in that A-OK gesture and just beaming at me, and I could see that with his X-ray coach eyes he had watched my swimming and seen that in spite of my pretty bad form and general forgetfulness of many important half-learned things I was swimming in a way one could be proud of, a way that showed I was reaping the rewards of hard work and mindfulness about what I was doing.

To earn the approval of a magically good teacher by hard work rather than by talent is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.

On remembering

Chaohua Wang at the LRB on the memory of Tiananmen:

Eighteen years is not a short time; it’s long enough for a baby to become an adult. On 4 June this year, a strange incident occurred. In Chengdu, the capital of the province of Sichuan, a city with a population of 11 million, the small-ads pages of an evening newspaper contained a short item that read: ‘Salute to the steadfast mothers of the 4 June victims.’ The entry was noticed by some readers, scanned and uploaded onto the internet, where it rapidly circulated. The authorities jumped to investigate. Within days, three of the paper’s editors had been fired. How had the wall of silence been breached? The girl in charge of the small ads, born in the 1980s, had called the number given by the person who placed the ad to ask what the date referred to. Told it was a mining disaster, she cleared it. No one had ever spoken to her about 1989. Censorship devours its own children.

Also, and more light-heartedly (I am in need of light-heartedness!), Frank Kermode has a very enjoyable piece on the letters of A.E. Housman:

The life of a bachelor fellow of Trinity could hardly be described as arduous; the company was distinguished, the wine excellent, the menus subject to his approval and the professorial teaching load fairly light. The days could be given to Manilius, the evenings to extensive reading or to such avocations as research into Latin obscenities. He had a private lavatory and, declaring himself to be a philosophical hedonist, refused on principle to allow his less fortunate neighbour, Wittgenstein, to use it. Vacations were filled with luxurious journeys.

And yet it is likely that few men, even taking into account these amenities, would envy such an existence. Housman’s own pronouncements, in prose and verse, on the meaning of life tend to be stoical; there were things he enjoyed, but he did not seem to enjoy them very much. And one is driven back to the position that it was the private pleasure of his divinatory exercises that made everything else tolerable. That was the view of his colleague A.S.F. Gow, who remarked that ‘a man whose mind is so perfectly adapted to the difficult and delicate tasks he has chosen out . . . cannot be wholly unhappy.’

And here's another good bit, which includes part of what is undoubtedly my favorite Housman poem (I believe it was introduced to me by one of the novels of Nicholas Blake aka Cecil Day-Lewis, and that I found the full version in the Faber Book of Light Verse):

Even if one leaves the poems out of account, it seems that whether or not he was unhappy he was capable of describing the state of man as one of just tolerable discomfort; and of claiming that there were ways of relieving even that degree of misery. He would tour Europe in a chauffeur-driven hired car and fly to France on the fledgling air services, claiming to conquer his fears by reflecting that every crash reported reduced the probability of his being involved in one himself. He invariably celebrated the New Year with a feast of oysters and stout. On hospitable London evenings he liked to entertain his guests at the Café Royal before taking them to a music hall.

And even dons can sometimes have fun in their donnish way, as Housman did when he became a gourmet, a connoisseur of wine, and a drinker of beer at lunch because beer produced a languor conducive to poetry. A frequent visitor to Venice, he seems to have fallen in love with a gondolier. Paris offered its own pleasures. A quieter entertainment was the composition of light verse, in which long practice made him remarkably skilful. The concluding lines of ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’, written when he was at school, are here quoted as evidence that Housman could giggle learnedly:

Eriphyle (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw:
And that in deed and not in word alone.

Chorus: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.

Eri: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more; he purposes to kill me dead.

Cho: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.

Eri: O! O! Another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.

Cho: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

Beer producing a languor conducive to poetry! Hmmm, not any poetry I would care to write, though I like beer...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Turkish delights

Mildly edited/redacted correspondence that passed through my inbox yesterday, reproduced here with permission from my correspondent Richard Nash, dear old friend and independent-publishing superhero.

Jenny Davidson to Richard Nash:

I am 99% sure that this is just one of those random things that turns up in blog comments, but thought I would check with you on the off chance that Heredity really might have (like something in a dream!) been translated into Turkish!

hope you're well--see you soon--


>>> Forwarded message ---------- Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2007 06:59:01 -0400 (EDT)
>>> From: ece arar
>>> To:
>>> Subject: [Light reading] New comment on Dynamite No. 1.
>>> ece arar has left a new comment on your post "Dynamite No. 1":
>>> hi. I read "Heredity" in Turkish and I loved it. I was willing to write
>>> a review about it. I found your blog and couldn't stop writing to you.
>>> The book was wonderful and I'm looking forward to reading your new
>>> book. Thank you.

Richard Nash to Jenny Davidson:

I told you, didn't I? I coulda sworn I told you! I remember you being very taken aback and excited! It's also mentioned on your most recent royalty statement. Well, anyhoo, it is not a dream, it is for sure, real!

I've not seen copies yet myself, but should hopefully get them soon.

Jenny Davidson to Richard Nash:

I think you said something along the lines of "There's a possibility," not that it was actually happening! Very cool. If you e-mailed me the royalty statement then I pretty certainly did not open it, sorry... will open this thing now & sign off & send back, I have been in a haze of obligations...

Richard Nash to Jenny Davidson:

Ha, I'm such a fool. Sometimes I make it seem like a possibility, when it's definite, just so as to make sure the author isn't really disappointed when it doesn't pan out. And then, obviously I totally forgot to tell you it was for real!!!!

Ah, well!


I can't wait to see a copy! (Also--oh, dear, this is a ridiculous train of association--I wonder if I get a really passionate Turkish fan whether I could get him/her to surface-mail me some sour-cherry Tang in exchange for a signed copy of the English-language edition of Heredity!)

Fish with wrists

Carol Kaesuk Yoon has a great article on evolution and development in today's Science Times. I love this stuff--if I was in the life sciences, I would be doing developmental biology for sure. Lots of other good stuff this week too--it's an evolution-themed issue.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tristram Shandy helped him get over it

James Meek interviews Gunter Grass at the Guardian.

For those who arrive here

seeking more information about Doug Stern's life and death, there will be a memorial service this Thursday, June 28, from 1 to 3pm at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Avenue between 90th and 91st. No flowers, no stuff, just people and stories.

Spinal narratives

I am in a bleak mood this afternoon, having just heard that my inspiring swimming teacher Doug Stern died this morning.

My only consolation here is that I feel very fortunate to have gotten to know him over the past six months, and in fact for that I must thank my wretched stress fracture--it was absolutely awful, and not being able to run in December and January made me a miserable wreck, and though the injury itself is now healed I am still worried a lot of the time about lingering muscle tightness--but without that I would never have taken deep-water running, which is how I met Doug & ended up in his swimming class.

I'll write more about him sometime when I'm less upset, he was definitely one of the great teachers I've had in my life, but for now it's enough to say that he'll be very much missed. I am going to go for a Doug Stern memorial bike ride this evening (my first one, actually--I've been too stressed out and busy and over-exercised, also talked myself into a frenzy about fear of flat tires etc. etc., but I must learn how to be a good cyclist so that I can do triathlons, I am too timid!), and tomorrow I am going to go and see about a swimming membership at Riverbank State Park where I believe there is an Olympic-sized pool, and next summer I am going to do four or five triathlons, and all the while I will remember Doug's advice, which is that the important thing about all this stuff is holding on to the sense of playfulness. He wanted his students to live the fullest possible lives, of which triathlon might be a part but not the whole; he was against obsession and the monomaniacal pursuit of excellence, though he showed how the pursuit of excellence might itself be supremely and light-heartedly enjoyable. I am going to remember him often and well.


Last week I issued a challenge that Ed Park took up: following the model of Nina Katchadourian's Sorted Books project, could he and his readers assemble some interesting tales by putting together various spines from the books in their collections? (The original link came from Bookshelves of Doom.)

Ed's posted a few (this one's hilarious), and here are my contributions for the day, both rather sad I'm afraid, but the second one with a more demented twist.

What might happen when you look away, even just for a second:

Some people don't just languish due to disappointed love, they turn to the dark side:

Saturday, June 23, 2007


David Kynaston had a fascinating piece in last week's Sunday Times on how he came to write stealth best-seller Austerity Britain. I have got to read this book, it sounds quite amazing! And it turns out it's just the first installment in a sort of Powell-inspired roman fleuve:

I kept a part of my brain reserved for postwar Britain, continuing through the 1990s to think about it and collect material, especially obituaries, in what was becoming a golden age for that genre. By summer 2002, the week after Beckham’s penalty against Argentina, I was at last ready to go. I now envisaged the project as owing something to two types of artistic inspiration: the thickly textured panorama of a 19th-century “loose, baggy monster” realist novel, with perhaps a dash of Frith’s Derby Day painting; and the roman-fleuve of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time novels. I wanted to write a rolling narrative in which “high” history jostles with “low”, in which significant events and themes are viewed as much as possible through the prism of the individual witness or participant.

After anaesthetics and before television

Nina Raine on the Moscow rehearsals for the Russian production of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy.

If I was a footloose and fancy-free millionnaire I would go and see these plays in Russia and not understand a word of them. I am an idiot not to have seen them in New York--everything mitigated against it, the fact that two of the last three Stoppard productions I saw in New York were awful, my reluctance on principle to spend several hundred dollars on theater-going (this is ridiculous, but I have gotten used to going to plays for free!), my state of stress about work that meant it seemed hard to give up a whole day or a weekend to theatergoing--but then in May when I was reading Anthony Grafton's piece in the NYRB one night when I was very tired and stressed out I almost burst into tears, I was so upset at having missed it! This is foolish, I do not believe in having regrets. I should just in any case get the book, that will be almost as good, I can use my imagination...

A gelatinous variety of white offal

Somehow I missed this delightful story in last week's FT; I must start reading beyond the books section!

Destroyer of worlds

Gino Segre's Faust in Copenhagen (reviewed in the NYTBR by George Johnson) sounds like one I must get. That's where my new novel opens, only a bit later: alternate-universe Copenhagen in 1938 (Sophie has fled Scotland at the end of almost-retitled-formerly-Dynamite No. 1 and taken refuge with her friend Mikael's mother who is the housekeeper for Nils Bohr--I had an interesting trip there a couple years ago to visit the Institute for Theoretical Physics and see what it's like. The archivist there is quite wonderful, and answered even my most random questions with great brio--when I asked where the scientists would usually have eaten their lunches (cafeteria, with cook? did they go home for lunch?), she looked at me quizzically and said with great conviction, "No, no, the Danish are a nation of boxed lunches!" Which I believe is true--so we can imagine all those physicists sitting in the lunchroom eating the lunches their landladies and/or wives had packed for them...

I saw Romeo and Juliet last night in the park, I thought it was very good. Clear and effective line delivery, which is the thing I care about most, and some nicely farcical touches, especially in the opening half. There was a great bird in one of the trees behind the stage, I wish I could tell you what it was--something with a very dramatic wingspan--very magical seeing pretty much anything in that Central Park setting, it's exciting being in the park after dark. The set was rather attractive, with a sort of lake of water covering the half-moon of stage in an appealing way--only it painfully reminded me of my beloved grandmother, she would have liked the production very much only the main thing she would have said afterwards was how awfully cold it must have been for the actors whose clothes got wet, and also what a lot of trouble for whoever had to do the laundry!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The best thing this week

was the Tuesday evening run at the track in the East River Park. It's a surreal effect--the track's right next to the river, with a very abrupt landfillish kind of a drop-off, so you get this great slightly sordid view east towards Brooklyn and also a sense I always cherish of being in a bizarrely manmade landscape. The west side south of Houston along the river always makes me think (I loved that show!) of the scenes on Star Trek: The New Generation when they go back to Earth and hang out at the Starfleet Academy, there is something similarly dated and 1980sish but attractively grass-and-sky-with-shiny-metal-things-dominated about the landscape; the east side is a bit dingier, and I feel faintly sick to my stomach as I cross over the pedestrian footbridge that gets you over the FDR (I do not like heights), but it's pretty great once you get there.

The workout itself was amazing. The challenge was to regulate pace based on perceived effort, and the coach started by stripping us all of watches, heart-rate monitors, etc. The goal was to run a mile on the track at a pace slightly faster than usual, then run 4-5 miles along the riverfront (it was meant to be 4 but as usual I got mixed up about where to turn around), then come back and run a final timed mile at a speed identical to or faster than than your initial one. The coach then asked us to say whether we thought we'd gone faster or slower on the last one before telling us our times.

It's an appealing multiple challenge--you're trying to match paces, you have to go out strongly enough to have a great mile time at the outset but also to conserve strength on the middle part of the run so that you have some hope of matching it at the end, and you also get a chance to assess your own pace and tell (rather than simply being told!) whether or not you met your matching goal. I did not quite match--it was clear to me as I ran the final one that though I was ardently striving for the same thing, I was definitely a hair slower, not to mention I was afraid I would be literally sick to my stomach if I ran any faster, it was very hot and humid even aside from how hard I was working!--but I am absolutely delighted with my times: 7:46 for the first one, 7:58 for the last. Pretty good, eh?!?

(I never ran a mile that fast before!)

I always thought I was the slowest runner in the world. I liked the idea of running when I was a kid--I remember when I was eleven or so going once with my brothers and our temporary and much-loved (what should I call him?) foster brother Richard Sabune (a refugee from Uganda who was about a hundred times better of a runner than any of us were, it was surely his idea) very early to "train" at the track nearby--but I was always a terrible sprinter, and a pretty slow regular runner too, and I never had the right gear to run properly when I was a teenager (sports bra and decent sneakers really are essentials!). I remember getting timed in the mile maybe around sixth grade and then again around 10th or 11th grade and both times coming in at exactly 9:04 and feeling that this was genetically my maximum pace, the pace that it was inconceivable I could surpass.

In my twenties I had quite a few spells of regular running, I liked it very much; I remember running two times around the Central Park reservoir every weekday morning the summer I was studying for orals, for instance, with the poems of John Donne recorded on a tape that I listened to on my walkman so as not to waste study time ("Tis the year's midnight and it is the day's"!--that was the same summer I destroyed my long-distance vision by reading three times through the Riverside Shakespeare). I ran quite often in New Haven during grad school, and I remember checking out of the public library there Running for Dummies and reading it very avidly.

But the thing was that everyone I knew in those days who ran was a simply excellent runner--you know, like sub-6:00 marathon pace-type excellent. I never found anyone to be a running mentor, and I thought that you had to be a really good runner already to be a long-distance runner. (I was wrong!) I would have loved it if someone took me under their wing running-wise, but as a self-sufficient and highly independent person I didn't really like the idea of asking for help in any case, and who would I have asked? The runners just seemed happy in their own running and too much better at it than me for me to want to hold them back. (Also the internet sort of did not exist then in its present form, now it's a lot easier to find out how to do these things online.)

So this is a really good thing. I was determined last summer to make this running thing happen--I'd been running very regularly on the treadmill, but was having a mental obstacle towards seriously moving it outside--and took this beginner's class at The Running Center, and now it all really is happening just as I always wanted it to. I am going to work really, really hard so that I can run to the absolute best extent of my natural abilities, and I think that will actually be pretty fast. In fact, it is ironic with this whole triathlon thing that the running is least what I need to work on--when I was a little kid I actually have to say I loved swimming and riding my bike, but running not so much.

More thoughts on bicycle-related matters once I've actually put in some time on the bike, it has not been a good week for it due to work-related stresses of various kinds, I need to get really dug back into my other book project before I can spare the attention!

What they called a 'quote'

It won't be published in the US till September, but in London in May I picked up a copy of Sebastian Faulks' Engleby and I am happy to report that it's quite wonderful. I've loved Faulks's books for a long time, ever since I first read Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, and this one is maybe even my favorite yet. It's at once darker and much funnier than his others--the intellectual-academic satire in Mike Engleby's deadpan descriptions of Cambridge in the 1970s is altogether delightful--I was laughing out loud at points, and yet really it's an unsettling or even dismaying novel (it's not at all like Gulliver's Travels in its texture, but Engleby is a kind of Gulliver for our time, with that criminally detached descriptive mentality that makes Book Four of Gulliver's Travels basically the single most indispensable work of English literature, maybe along with King Lear).

I'm not sure how readable it will be (click on it, and the image gets bigger), but I'm going to scan a page to give you the texture of the prose--this is Engleby having recently finished his degree getting his first break in 1970s London as a journalist:

Between Ealing comedy and film noir

Trev Broughton at the TLS on the recent reissue of three novels by Margery Allingham. I gobbled up her novels as a child, but I feel that in a way I appreciate them more now than I did then--I have had several spells in adulthood of compulsively rereading them, in fact my favorite five or six I must have read at least ten times each--in many respects they cannot be said to be good books exactly, they've got some very obvious flaws and lazinesses in the writing and so forth, and yet I can hardly think of a better writer in terms of creating atmosphere. Her characters are very appealing also, and the writing's consistently good, but it's the sensibility that's so striking--both the physical settings (primarily London and East Anglia) and the sensation of being in the presence of evil are extraordinarily well rendered. She's almost a fantasy novelist rather than a mystery writer--a few of her novels explicitly include supernatural elements, but more generally she's a great novelist of the uncanny, and the feeling you get reading her books is very much the feeling I want to get across to the readers of my own new novel.

The middle strainer post

Patrick Anderson's review of Peter Temple's latest novel at the Washington Post basically takes the words out of my mouth. (Thanks to Sarah Weinman for the link.)

Here's the link to buy The Broken Shore from US Amazon--oh, dear, there is a funny Harriet Klausner review there, I should go and write one to counteract the impression it might leave...

You've got to read Temple if you haven't already, this guy is an extraordinary writer--I defy anyone not to read his books with (a) the avid attention and deep enjoyment elicited by the very best crime fiction and (b) the drooling envy that accompanies the experience of a truly great prose style (well, maybe if you are primarily a reader rather than a writer you can do it without the envy--but this is a kind of envy I particularly enjoy, so I highly recommend it...).

And here's the Amazon link for Bad Debts, the first novel in Temple's staggeringly good Jack Irish series. I am too lazy to link to all my previous posts on Temple, but here's the total list and here's my post from September 2005 on The Broken Shore.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Alternate universes

The thing that I like about the urban fantasy genre is one of the same things I like about leading an alternate fitness-related life alongside my real regular one--it takes you to this secret other world that's mapped on top of the one you know, but has all sorts of hidden places and unexpected treasures (like the shabby but beautiful pool in the basement at Teacher's College, or the Central Park loop at dusk on a late fall evening). If you know Philadelphia at all, or even if you've just looked out of the windows on the train as you pass through the bleak North Philadelphia station en route to 30th Street Station, you will be familiar with that intriguing but deeply depressed cityscape of low-rise row-houses and urban blight; but there is a magical alternate life there of urban cowboys, chronicled in Fletcher Street, a rather lovely book of photographs by Martha Camarillo.

Here's the book's cover image, and there are a host of other equally good ones inside:

(Here's where I first heard about these riders--Mike Newall's Philadelphia Weekly article can be found here.)

The dead body contract

Colleen Mondor has a very striking post on one of the more amazing aspects of her Alaska flying life. I can't wait to read this book!

An estate is not for me

Toni Schlesinger in particularly good form this week at the Observer.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I am sure I am far from alone in having fond childhood memories of smashing wintergreen lifesavers with a hammer in a dark stairway in order to see the flashes of light--Kenneth Chang has a good article on the phenomenon in the Science Times today. And there's a great quotation in the middle: "In 1753, Father Giambattista Beccaria wrote 'A Treatise Upon Artificial Electricity.' In it, he noted, 'You may, when in the dark, frighten simple people only by chewing lumps of sugar, and, in the meantime, keeping your mouth open, which will appear to them as if full of fire.'"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Why did I not

realize this sooner?!? Helen DeWitt has a blog! Helen DeWitt is a genius, she wrote a novel called The Last Samurai that is basically just one of the best things ever and also rather describes my own interior life at times, it is a must-read, it is hilarious and completely delightful. The blog looks good too... (Thanks to Lowebrow for the link.)

The most exciting news round here

is that I got my bike! I rode it home quite unscathed on Saturday afternoon, though thunder and rain (not at all torrential in fact, but it seemed like the skies might massively open at any moment) made the thing slightly more nerveracking than it would have been otherwise--I am going to give it at least a couple weeks before I try riding with the clipless pedals, I was frankly cowardly and walked the thing over to the west side bike path and rode it wearing my regular shoes rather than the cycling ones.

Light reading around the edges: Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss (very enjoyable--highly atmospheric gothic fiction, contemporary coastal Maine settings against 1970s CBGBs dead junkieish backdrop, an arresting first-person voice--there's always an alternate-self appeal about these artistic burnout narrators for me, I think it is perhaps not in my nature to be a total burnout indie type but I won't say the notion doesn't have a certain appeal, especially when thronged about with responsibilities!); The Woman Triathlete (not bad, but not particularly revelatory, you can get a lot of this stuff for free online anyway); and The Triathlete's Guide to Mental Training.

This last one is a particularly good read--I feel the one area of triathlon-related stuff where I have a distinct advantage is the mental side of things, over the years I have built up fairly unnaturally high levels of concentration and self-discipline, it is my belief that it will translate fairly directly into being able to race to the best of my abilities. Probably I was always a person of iron determination in any case, it's just one of those things...

And so even though I still need to learn how to ride it properly (also to change tires and do basic maintenance and all that sort of thing), I am now a significant step further forward towards doing triathlons...


I remember being very shocked when I first found out about the existence of this sort of arrangement in publishing. It is a conspiracy! Sarah Weinman gives the grim details...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A world without numbers

It's not available online (the link might work, though, if you have a Columbia affiliation), but at the end of a strikingly interesting and full account of Steven Johnson's book Ghost Map, Helen Epstein (writing for the NYRB) turns to related matters in an imaginative turn that made me envision a most wonderful middle-school math curriculum unit (one of my alternate selves is teaching eighth-grade math):

What would it be like to live in a world without numbers? I got a sense of this on a recent trip to East Africa, where the failure to register births and deaths and monitor diseases is responsible for thousands of deaths each year. I was visiting a program called the Tanzania Essential Health Interventions Project, or TEHIP, which was established in two of Tanzania's 127 districts in 1997. By 2002, the death rate of children in both districts had been cut dramatically but it had remained stable and high elsewhere in the country. In 2005, the Tanzanian government began to implement the program throughout the country, and by 2007, the national child mortality rate, which had barely improved at all between 1990 and 2000, had fallen by 25 percent. Elsewhere in East Africa, no such decline has occurred. TEHIP's budget is tiny by foreign aid standards —the districts spent on average about $1 per resident on the program, an amazing bargain compared to other health initiatives funded by donors such as the US government, the World Bank, and the Gates Foundation.

What was the secret of TEHIP's success? Record-keeping and statistics. The first thing you see when you walk into a TEHIP clinic is a wall chart, drawn in magic marker on butcher paper, showing graphs and tables indicating the case rates of different diseases. From this, health workers can tell which drugs they will need the following month. They also keep detailed ledgers of spending on salaries and procurement of supplies and spare parts for vehicles and radios, staff absences, and so on. Inspectors from the district headquarters visit each clinic from time to time, to ensure that records are being kept properly.

Before TEHIP, it sometimes seemed as though chaos reigned. Medicines were supplied in pre-packaged kits shipped from Europe, but their contents had been decided on in the early 1980s, and since then, the epidemiological situation had changed considerably. The population had grown and rates of malaria had increased in the lowlands, while rates of pneumonia had risen in the highlands. Thus the drugs to treat these conditions often ran out before the next kit arrived. Bizarre mistakes sometimes occurred: "Once we opened the kit and it was full of epilepsy drugs, but there are no cases of epilepsy around here," one doctor told me. Medical staff members complained, but because the consequences of this epidemiological shift were not being measured, nothing changed.

The arrival of salaries was desultory, so some doctors and nurses, unpaid for months, sought other livelihoods. The system for procuring spare parts functioned poorly, so radios and vehicles often broke down, making communication with the health care system all but impossible. Measles and cholera killed hundreds of people because reporting an outbreak often involved a long trek by foot through the bush to a main road followed by a public bus ride to a faraway town where the district health authorities were located. Help might take days to arrive. Now epidemics can be reported instantly because the supply chain for spare parts functions; since the program started, there have been virtually no deaths from measles or cholera in the TEHIP districts.

I don't think the connection between statistics and real-world consequences of the gravest kind is always made clear to students, even at the college level. My friend A.'s most serious advice to college journalists looking to make a professional career of it is to take a statistics class, and that seems to me very sound. (I say this in almost complete ignorance myself of statistics! Ah well...)

The dynamite romance

An interesting article by Tom Armitage about the genre of the dynamite romance:

These 19th-century terrorists achieved something their modern-day counterparts have not yet done: they captured the imagination of both writers and readers, giving rise to the now-forgotten genre of the "dynamite romance". The culture of the dynamitard - with its secret societies, code names and meetings by moonlight - appealed to the Victorians, who had such a taste for suspense and sensation. Today, such a genre would no doubt be criticised for trivialising a serious issue, or for offending the victims. Then, however, it was a way of channelling fear and uncertainty into a few hours' entertainment.

The slim fictions of the "dynamite romance" depicted shifty, intelligent young men in dark coats, darting about the city, smoking doctors' bags in hand. Most of these books are now out of print, and not without reason: they were the airport thrillers of their day. The genre had an influence on literature that did stand the test of time, however - notably through Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and G K Chesterton's surreal comedy The Man Who Was Thursday (both published in 1907). Conrad's book has a dark, satirical edge, while Chesterton plays up the more absurd elements of anarchism, parodying the conventions of passwords, disguises and secret meetings.

Still title-searching...

Sunken scholarship

Ed Park at the LA Times on the literature of civilizations disappearing into the sea.

The mystery of things

Robert McCrum interviews Gore Vidal at the Observer.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The moving toyshop of the heart

I feel like I've got a number of widgets or accessories as a reader, but one of the most noticeable to me is what I might call the "light reading detector." Certain books just emanate on the "read me" frequency and I have a heightened sensitivity to that emanation, there are of course many books I love that are not particularly popular and that do not set off this detector (and also there are bestsellers that are just plain bad that I have no desire to read) but I've mostly got an almost physiological instinct for which ones are going to appeal to a wide number of readers. Lee Child's Jack Reacher books set off this detector, and so does Philip Pullman; sometimes all I have to do is hear a title or a one-sentence description and I can tell it's a must-have that other people's hearts will also thrill to. (Other widgets: one that tells me at what point a piece of prose is along the 0-to-100% continuum from rough draft to completely-polished-and-would-only-suffer-from-further-tweaking; one that tells me which books I want to reread; and an "Occam's Razor" device that tells me--more about this below--about overelaborate point-of-view shifts that could be eliminated.)

All this is a roundabout way of saying that on the train to Cambridge last weekend I plunged into the most delightful piece of light reading, and I must commend it to your attention! Of course it's sort of perfect for me anyway--a novel about the eighteenth century!--but really I was imagining it might be more literary and less appealing, and it is wholly a compliment to the book to say that as soon as I actually had my hands on it it was clear to me that this was the piece of light reading I most wanted to read in the whole of my book-laden apartment. It's Sophie Gee's The Scandal of the Season, a novel about how Alexander Pope came to write The Rape of the Lock, one of the most altogether delightful poems in the history of English literature. And it exists at the happy place where David Liss's A Conspiracy of Paper meets the novels of Georgette Heyer--which is to say it is altogether wonderful and a complete and utter page-turner.

There's a mystery plot here, and sexual intrigue, and very nicely realized settings (I am also glad to see that someone other than myself has found Swift's Directions to Servants a rich trove to plunder!), but the real stunner about the book is the warmth that Sophie Gee shows for her characters. This is something that can't be faked, and it's a great part of what draws me to reread, say, Heyer again and again (Mary Stewart had that quality also). I don't share Sophie's take on Pope, I find him a mean-spirited and self-serving and generally pretty impossible guy, but I am charmed by her vision of him, and undertake an altogether willing suspension of my disbelief over the course of the novel. And I love the way she exerts her imaginative authorly sympathy on each of these characters in turn; Martha Blount and Arabella Fermor are both very well drawn.

Of course, the real drama of the poem isn't the story of Arabella's love affair (which concluded in the unfortunate episode of public hair-cutting that provided the occasion for Pope's poem) or the nascent Jacobite rebellion but rather how and when Pope's going to come to write his great poem, and it is just delightfully well handled here. Good stuff! I think people are really, really going to like this novel.

One caveat or quibble, though I think it may have to do with a peculiarity of my own as a reader. I've got a strong preference in my light reading for first-person narration or for the kind of third-person-limited voice that hews very close to the point of view of a single character. I focused a lot on this while revising the-novel-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-Dynamite-No.-1, and it made me almost hyper-attentive to certain point-of-view shifts (similarly I have an aversion to dill, and can taste even the slightest hint of it in some otherwise delicious food). And I am not sure that Sophie Gee's managed to justify to me the to-my-eye-distracting technique of shifting within a single scene to multiple characters' point of view. It's technically well within the bounds of what's conventionally allowed, I think, I just feel as a reader that the potential benefits are greatly outweighed by the disadvantages, and it's hard for me to imagine what would justify it. (As opposed to the more neutral technique, which I have not used myself but can quite see the point of, which involves following different characters in different scenes--that one, for instance, gives you the obvious benefit of being able to tell a story in which the focal character is not invariably present.)

Here's an example:

Alexander kicked himself for speaking. Once again he had been naive, thinking that he could presume on so insubstantial a friendhsip. With all her wit and cleverness, Mary Pierrpont had made him forget that she was the daughter of an earl. She was at liberty to speak to him, and she delighted in so doing, rejoicing in her ability to flout convention. When she had addressed him earlier, it had no doubt been partly in an atttempt to make Wortley jealous. He had been a fool not to see it--not to see that however unsatisfactory a suitor Wortley might be, his intimacy with Lady Mary was well established, hardly likely to be dislodged by the son of a Catholic textile importer. The night had delivered a good number of lessons in folly to himself and to others alike. But though he knew that he should have been ready for it, Lady Mary's slight piqued him--the attentions paid to him this evening had spurred his ambitions. Now that he had been noticed at last, he could not bear the thought of being insignificant once again.

Martha watched with interest while these events unfolded. She saw Arabella's face go white when Lady Mary won; she saw Lady Mary collect the money from Lord Petre without a flicker of apology. Their reactions prompted her to reflect that even if Lord Petre had fallen in love with Arabella, the gulf between the nobility and commoners was profound, perhaps deeper even than that between Catholic and Protestant. She wondered whether Arabella would ultimately possess the iron nerve required to succeed in Lord Petre's world. But then Martha watched as she left the card tables, laughing as Lady Salisbury put a hand on her arm, glancing neither right nor left. Perhaps she would have what was needed after all.

As a reader, I experience these shifts as a perspectival disorientation that's almost like seasickness. And that seems to me not worth provoking for the mild incremental benefits of being able to enter into multiple characters' visual and emotional points of reference. In other words, the costs incurred so greatly outweigh the benefits that I wish people would avoid it as a narrative strategy unless for more deliberately disorienting or avant-garde reasons! I am mostly ignorant of film, it is not my thing, but the analogy between film and prose narration can be usefully invoked to explain why certain tricks are not worthwhile unless for very deliberate effect. Visually a scene in a movie in which the camera followed this kind of progression would be strikingly disorienting, perhaps for good reason but perhaps due to lack of technical skill; and it seems to me that there is usually a more economic solution to the problem of how to include multiple viewpoints than to switch about like this.

Enough said! A minor caveat about a really delightful bit of light reading...

Air miles

David Wighton interviews cellist Steven Isserlis at the FT. Lots of interesting details there; I love the "Lunch with so-and-so" feature, and will observe (as I probably have before) that (a) even quite expensive restaurants in New York are far better value than their London equivalents and (b) I am glad to see this time the writer did get the dessert he wanted! The funniest and most painful ones are where the journalist's really looking forward to eating and drinking delicious things and the abstemious interviewee thwarts his plans, there's a sort of subdrama in each piece about the ordering! Structurally interesting--might think about that, it's giving me some kind of idea for a story...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A poor, bare, forked animal

At the TLS, John Stokes reflects on a handful of new books about performing Shakespeare. Here's the link for the Michael Dobson collection of actors' perspectives on performing Shakespeare's tragedies--sounds well worth a look.

A dark aberration of Sievers' Carmelite

I have had a restorative day off (I can see it's going to be the most blog posts ever, what's up with that?!?), a run in the morning and a swim just now and in the afternoon I finished reading Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays.

Fadiman is an all-out wonderful writer--I remember reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down not long after it came out and just being jaw-droppingly tongue-slatheringly gobsmacked by it, it's the sort of book that renders you almost speechless. Ex Libris is also wonderfully appealing, and in fact I've bought multiple copies of both these books over the years because the best and truest thing I can say about them is that they make you desperately want to share them with others.

The new collection is also a delight--at the back of my head I was arguing with myself over who of the three or four obvious candidates I am going to pass this copy on to when I'm done, but in fact I really just will need to buy another copy or two for various people and perhaps xerox an essay here and there also. A couple of the essays aren't as strong (the ones on flags and the culture wars, for instance, perhaps bear too many traces of the moments in which they were respectively composed), and I know a bit too much about Lamb and Coleridge (though these essays are excellent, it is more a reflection on me than on anything about the writing) to find those pieces really striking.

But the essays on childhood lepidoptery and the pleasures of getting mail are quite magical, "The Arctic Hedonist" (Colleen must read this one!) is absolutely brilliant and the two most amazing essays of all are a delightful pair: "Ice Cream" and "Coffee." My heart thrills more to coffee than to ice-cream, I am not actually a big ice-cream eater (though I have a soft spot for a chocolate-and-vanilla soft serve swirl in a cup, with rainbow sprinkles--I have about one of these a year and it is never quite as good as I think it will be), but really the ice-cream essay is the best of all. It ends with an anecdote (including recipe) about making ice cream with liquid nitrogen that's altogether excellent.

The great thing about these essays is not their topics but their style; Fadiman's sentences verge on being a little too fussy, too precise, and yet they are so absolutely perfect in their precision and fussiness (and so funny and dry, with a sense of humor even about their own fussiness and about the quirkiness that takes us in a single paragraph from the Hippocratic writings to the Ohio State University Department of Dairy Technology and the problem of ice cream abstinence) that I covet her style for myself, in true collector's vein. Her sense of words in particular is unparalleled, it is very striking: I can't think of anyone else who relishes them in quite this way, it is almost my favorite thing, this relishing of the language of expert knowledge rather independently of the things the words are meant to represent!

Jokeless prose

Andrew O'Hagan has a fascinating essay on Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

I haven't read the DeLillo (I'm agnostic to negative on DeLillo--I thought the opening sequence of Underworld, for instance, one of the best things I've ever read, but the jaded knowing tone of the later segments and the, oh, slightly embarrassing datedness and self-seriousness of the art stuff--or maybe I always would have been one of those people who was rolling my eyes at gallery shows which my alternate-universe 1970s self would only have attended for the free wine...--struck me as distinctly annoying, and I think White Noise is one of the most overrated novels of the second half of the twentieth century) but have a strong suspicion I will respond the same way if I do.

DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy have virtually nothing in common as writers but neither one of them is funny and in the end that just kills the pleasure for me! I imagine there are non-funny writers that I'm fond of (but who are they?!?), but DeLillo's knowing affectless cleverness and McCarthy's histrionic masculinity just make me want to punch somebody--or at least to go and read something less status-conscious, more playful or more demented.

(Also I think in the end I am not really interested in death as a topic, or at any rate death-and-modernity-kind-of-death which is central to both these guys' work--I am more on the Terry Pratchett line with the death thing. I like my serious non-funny novels--oh, Kazuo Ishiguro, that's someone whose writing I absolutely love who really cannot be said to be a funny writer...--to be strange, unsettling, uncanny rather than self-conscious. You get the feeling sometimes reading DeLillo and others [hmmm, the name David Foster Wallace springs to mind] that irony in the serious intellectual novelist's mode is virtually incompatible with having a sense of humor.)

Here are the crucial paragraphs of O'Hagan, at any rate, who has made a much better-informed and better-phrased argument about style and history than I am currently capable of putting together:

The hallmark of those novelists who have tried to write about the attacks is a sort of austere plangency—or a quivering bathos —that has been in evidence almost from the moment the planes hit. Those authors who published journalistic accounts immediately after the event failed to see how their metaphors fell dead from their mouths before the astonishing live pictures. It did not help us to be told by imaginative writers that the second plane was like someone posting a letter. No, it wasn't. It was like a passenger jet crashing into an office building. It gave us nothing to be told that the South Tower came down like an elevator at full speed. No, it didn't. It collapsed like a building that could no longer hold itself up.

Metaphor failed to do anything but make one feel that those keen to deploy it had not been watching enough television. After the "nonfiction novel," after the New Journalism, after several decades in which some of America's most vivid writing about real events was seen to be in thrall to the techniques of novelists, September 11 offered a few hours when American novelists could only sit at home while journalism taught them fierce lessons in multivocality, point of view, the structure of plot, interior monologue, the pressure of history, the force of silence, and the uncanny. Actuality showed its own naked art that day.

DeLillo the novelist prepared us for September 11, but he did not prepare himself for how such an episode might, in the way of denouements, instantly fly beyond the reach of his own powers. In a moment, the reality of the occasion seems to have burst the ripeness of his style, and he truly struggles in this book to say anything that doesn't sound in a small way like a warning that comes too late. Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal resounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say? What is left of the paranoid style when all its suspicions come true? Of course, a first-rate literary intelligence can eventually meet a world where reality acknowledges the properties of his style by turning them into parody, and in these circumstances, which are DeLillo's with this particular novel, the original novelist may be said to be a person quietened by his own genius. This is another American story—the story of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles—and it gives us a clue to the weakness of Falling Man.

But the novel itself is packed with clues, the first and most obvious being the author's inability to conjure his usual exciting prose. In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly—but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger. Good prose in a novel depends on its ability to exhale a secret knowledge, to have the exact weight of magic in relation to the material, the true moral rhythm. DeLillo had all of that in many of the novels he published before September 11—so much magic, indeed, that it was initially difficult to absorb the events of that day without thinking of his writing. On September 11, however, novelists of his sort ceded all secret knowledge to the four winds: to CNN, to the Web site of The New York Times, to CCTV, and to the widespread availability of video cameras in Manhattan, each of which captured the event in real time.

This is criticism of the first order: thought-provoking, stimulating, suggestive.

Summer treats

The excellent Colleen Mondor (Chasing Ray) has organized a massive and wonderful-sounding young-adult summer blog book tour which will start next week and whose full details can be found here.

On the topic of summer treats, I have just found an open-water swim workshop to sign up for....

Finding aids

The latest issue of Bookforum confirms my sense that this is the most interesting publication of its kind in the country. I love it! Intellectual, playful, eclectic, interesting--not a hint of that dreary worthiness that stops me from reading certain novelists and critics... Tons of high-quality and thought-provoking stuff.

I especially liked Jonathan Shainin on car bombs and suicide bombing--relevant for my novel, the soon-to-be retitled Dynamite No. 1--the last day and a half have vanished as if into a black hole as I desperately try to come up with a new name for the book, I've got some decent candidates and I suppose I can also say I've reread a large number of Shakespeare plays and poems by Donne, Marvell, Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Yeats, etc.--no definite winner yet, but a very reasonable short list which I will not divulge except to say that the literary allusion line of thinking did not pan out--I was laughing to myself as I read D. T. Max's interesting New Yorker article on the Texas archive and learned that even Don DeLillo had this problem:

The DeLillo finding aid shows which folder contains which draft of which novel, but not whether the draft is different in important ways from a previous one. It records that DeLillo’s 1972 novel “End Zone” originally bore the title “The Self-Erasing Word,” but you have to open the proper folder and look at the title page to see that it also had been called “Modes of Disaster Technology.” (The phrase appears in the book.) Similarly, the finding aid tells you that DeLillo’s original title for “White Noise” (1985) was “Panasonic,” but you have to burrow into his correspondence from 1984 to discover how upset DeLillo was when the Japanese electronics manufacturer that owns Panasonic declined his request to use the name. “‘Panasonic’ as a title is crucial for a number of reasons,” DeLillo wrote to his then editor, Elisabeth Sifton. He went on, “The novel is filled with the sounds of people’s voices, with sirens, loudspeakers, bullhorns, kitchen appliances, with radio and TV transmissions, with references to beams, rays, sound waves, etc. . . . Jack, listening to people talk on the telephone and musing on his own death, thinks ‘all sounds, all souls.’ (Page 369.) Again the notion of pan-sonus connected to a fear of death. There is still another instance in which Greek roots are important. Jack associates the god Pan with his fear of death.” The archive also contains two pages of other titles that DeLillo concocted—from “All Souls” and “Ultrasonic” to “White Noise”—written in jumpy capital letters.

Anyway, things in this issue that specially caught my attention: Eric Banks on Marianne Wiggins; Geoff Nicholson on Anna Kavan; Ed Park on Matthew Sharpe; Stefanie Sobelle on Gabriel Josipovici (I've got to read that guy!); Janine Armin on Wayne Koestenbaum; Carla Blumenkranz on Anne Fadiman (I bought that collection this weekend in Cambridge and read most of it last night, what a delightful artifact--post to come...).

Biggest puzzle: Tom LeClair's scathing takedown of Matt Ruff's new novel. He really, really hated this novel; go and take a look at the review if you want to see an example of just rabid dislike! The puzzle for me--I haven't read the new one, Bad Monkeys, it's not out till August [ARC, anyone?], but I think it sounds absolutely wonderful!--is that two of Matt Ruff's three previous novels are among my particular most-recommended favorites. If you haven't read Fool on the Hill and (especially) Set This House In Order, you are missing out on two magically good books!

And though LeClair's piece is rather passionately negative, it only makes me want to read the new one more, it sounds to my tastes altogether delightful! This is clearly the inverse of another phenomenon I have noticed, the glowing review that convinces me I would absolutely hate the book (Jennifer Egan on Cormac McCarthy's latest is a good example on this, I simply cannot read a book where people cook and eat a human baby and it's not savagely funny).

The sports section

is really something I should read more regularly, I might have missed this article if my friend Jane had not kindly sent it my way: Kate Torgovnick in the Times on the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

I can safely say that I'm never going to do that long a swim, but it's true that I've been checking out the Manhattan Island Foundation webpage and in fact (not coincidentally) I have a doctor's appointment later this afternoon whose main purpose is to get a tetanus booster shot so that when I'm up to speed for registering for one of their swims it doesn't hold things up...

(I also have to get certified for swimming a mile continuously without stopping in the pool, which seems to me certainly feasible but also something I have not yet done; must find a biddable lifeguard and get down to business on this one.)

They do some open-water swim clinics that I would like to get in on, only the information is not readily available on the website--hmmm, judging by last year's information, it looks like I only need to swim a certified half-mile to register for the entry-level one, that's convenient--we quite often do a timed 500-meter (500-yard?) swim at the clinic I've been taking, wouldn't take a lot of extra time to add on the additional lengths....

The blush

Here's what Jo Walton says in the dedication to the excellent Tooth and Claw:

I grew up reading Victorian novels. People since, from Joan Aiken to John Fowles and Margaret Forster, have done fascinating things with writing new Victorian novels from modern perspectives, putting in the things the Victorian novel leaves out. That gives you something very interesting, but it isn't a Victorian novel. It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

And the particular novel to which this one pays homage is Trollope's Framley Parsonage! I've got a special relationship with Trollope, I always liked him a lot in any case & read quite a few of his novels as a child but during the long dissertation-writing years of graduate school I basically ritually spent the week-long Thanksgiving break each year rereading either the Palliser novels or the Chronicles of Barset. Most soothing--the Barsetshire novels in particular seem to me to capture most strikingly the chief qualities of academic life today, obviously the nineteenth-century Church of England is a very close parallel for twenty-first-century American academia, the character types and their negotiations around power and reputation and money strike many chords of familiarity...

In any case, the only thing that pained me about this novel is that it was the last one of Walton's that I hadn't read, and now I have none left! The opening sequence is in truth a bit slow, but everything about the rest of the book is absolutely perfect. I am especially impressed with Walton's gift for chapter titles. She has chosen the slyest and most modest little phrases and they do devastating comic work in conjunction with the incidents in the relevant chapters! My favorite cunning chapter title/incident contrast, for instance, surely comes in the chapter simply titled "Office Politics."

I hope Tor does reissue this in the near future, though the Sulien novels are so good that I'd bump them up a bit if I were choosing (and put them in a really fat handsome one-volume edition with a more historical and less fantasyish cover); it might even find some classroom use, it would teach well with the Trollope, and really should also be paired with the excellent introduction on the physiology of the blush in Ruth Bernard Yeazell's Fictions of Modesty.

The Natural History of Teeth

It's not available online, but I am fascinated to learn (from a piece in Time Out London) that a major character in David Mitchell's new novel is a Japanese student of surgery who journeys to London to learn about eighteenth-century surgical developments (I assume this is in the eighteenth century, not in the present day, though the phrasing's open to ambiguity!). Thanks to Becky for the serendipitous clipping, in which Mitchell praises surgeon John Hunter.

The Hunterian Museum (which makes an important appearance in my first novel) has a very spiffy website these days, by the way; go and take the virtual tour....

In other novel-related news, Heredity gets a ringing endorsement from the writer formerly known as the Washingtonienne! Very fun stuff.

The inky and unpredictable Humboldt squid

This story is so appealing that I think I will just have to paste in the entire text (something about the diction makes me think it must have secretly been phoned in by Toni Schlesinger!):

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. -- The inky and unpredictable Humboldt Squid is back in big numbers in the coastal waters of California.

The sizable cephalopods, which can weigh 30 pounds or more, appear and disappear off the coast with no predictable pattern.

They last showed up in significant numbers two and a half years ago, when they swarmed up and down the California coast by the thousands, with hundreds washing up on beaches.

"We used to associate them with warm water," said Norris Tapp of Davey's Locker Sportfishing. "But now we're seeing them when the ocean is cold."

Many sport fishermen love struggling against the squirting, squirming beasts.

"It's out of control. They're squirting ink and water when they're brought aboard, and they're flashing their colors," said Chris Fowler, who works with Tapp.

Tapp said the fish are a handful when hooked, but it's not hard finding bait to make them bite.

"They'll eat about anything -- other squid, sardines, even sculpin," he said. "Open up one of these squid, and you'll find lots of fish eyes. It's weird."

(Thanks to Nico for the link.)

In other news, I have been uncharacteristically paralyzed by work-related stress this week, and will spend the rest of the morning indulging in what I hope will be therapeutic blogging with the goal of dispelling the feeling of constriction in the chest area that afflicts me at such times! Thinking about giant squid is certainly soothing, though...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Wind instruments made from herring heads

I want to go on this trip. (Thanks to I. for the link.)

On ice

Jenny Diski likes Michael Chabon's latest novel very much.

The Bondo mystery ape

Phil Nugent on monsters, YouTube and the 1970s.

Nice legs

A funny two-part article at the Guardian on which of their own body parts people love or hate most.

Here's Lionel Shriver:

Curiously, my legs are the part of my body with which I am most prone to identify, yet which I am also most prone to objectify. If they are me, the best of me, they are also my responsibility. They are innocent, a gift. I am their protector, as we are all our own protectors - both owner and possessor, custodian and ward.

It would be safer to write about some part of my body of which I feel ashamed, some lesser bit of meat to throw to the lions, a sacrifice for our mutual sport. I could mock my teeth, which stain so badly after a single cup of coffee that they might have been unearthed from an archaeological dig (self-deprecation is such a sure route to endearment in this country that when anyone plays that manipulatively humble card, you shouldn't trust it). But I will be brave. My legs are lovely.

And not because I'm athletic. The most fetching parts of our bodies came that way in the box. I am merely fortunate. The sculptural rhythm to these narrow ankles, full calves, and slender knees is not of my making. (Since the fundamental shapes of all our bodies are neither to our credit nor our fault, it's peculiar that we ever conflate our looks and our selves.) After all, when someone else is generous and tasteful enough to give you well-proportioned wine glasses for Christmas, the appropriate response is gratitude, not arrogance. So for me to submit that I was blessed with fine stemware is not a boast. All that falls within my power is to ruin them - to drop the glasses on the floor.

As their guardian and master, I put them through their paces. I take them running a nine-mile course every other day along the Thames. I hook them into the pedals of my bicycle and send them churning off to Hammersmith, when my publisher would have been more than happy to send a car. I set them bouncing comically through 3,000 jumping jacks in front of the Channel 4 News. They do as they're told. They rarely complain. They know that I have their best interests at heart.

I live in constant terror that something will happen to them - that Master's briefest inattention in the vicinity of a bendy bus will destroy at a stroke these faithful servants that have for decades spun me up the Alps, jogged me alongside the Mediterranean, and whisked me down airport hallways just in time to catch the plane. I sometimes have flash, nightmare visions of these thighs, pallid and melting in a wheelchair, or cut off just below the pelvis and reduced to stumps. Foolishness of course, but I've prayed after close-calls on my bike that if I have to have a serious cycling accident, please let it be fatal. Even typing 'cycling accident' makes me superstitious, and I'm tempted to delete.

My aim occasionally to do justice to these sturdy twins explains my seemingly uncharacteristic fondness for high heels. A girly predilection for me, but yes, the higher the better. Stilettos curl that delectable accenting comma under the calf, tense the front thigh, and realign the pelvis. You never get that effect flat-footed, as any woman knows.

Sure, my legs will fall apart - plump, crenulate, and dimple. But they will fall apart over my dead body - or attached to it. Indeed, that's the other vision. I did have that bike accident. I'm on a slab. A morgue orderly takes a sly peek as he pulls up the sheet. 'Pity!' he mumbles. 'Nice legs.' As an epitaph, mercifully short, and not half-bad.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A room the color of blood

I like the "Writers' Rooms" feature at the Guardian, but I'm often struck by how similar all these writers' rooms are--it's partly, I suppose, a function of London's particular housing stock, but the sameness becomes a bit much. That's why it's such a pleasure to check out (though I do not think I could work well in a room like this!) A. L. Kennedy's office. It's nothing like the others!

Here are a few paragraphs from Kennedy's novel Paradise, by the way, that will give you a small taste of her great genius:

You are now approaching forty and have already spent far too long washing underwear in a theatre, stacking shelves, cleaning rental power tools--which are, I would mention, often returned in revolting states. You have slotted together grids of doubtful purpose, you have folded free knitting and/or sewing patterns into women's magazines, you have sorted potatoes (for three grotesque hours), you have telephoned telephone owners to tell them about their telephones and you have spent one extremely long weekend in a hotel conference suite, asking people what they found most pleasing about bags of crisps. Every prior experience proves it--there is no point to you.

At least at the end of the crisps job, I got to take some home. But selling cardboard was a godsend: flexible and satisfying in a way that involved no pressure at any stage, because--after all--what sane person could possibly care about who might be buying how many of which kind of box. The job actually managed to be more trivial than me, which seemed to produce this Zen glow across my better days and enabled me to lie my head off in a consistent, promotional manner with hardly a trace of nauseous side effects.

At the moment, though, there's nothing doing: not in cardboard. Nobody wants me any more and yet, for the usual reasons, I continue to want cash. So, on a sodden Tuesday lunchtime, I'm forced to admit I've been driven to make the drinker's most conventional mistake. I've started working in a bar.

Words for Anton Segal

Also Harvard-class-of-1992-purposed, my apologies, but it seems to me that there's something in the nature of this occasional writing that's weakened when you take out the references specific to the audience. Here's Anton's memorial website.


I was fifteen when I met Anton, and almost at once I was just devastatingly in love with him. Strange to say, he seemed to feel the same about me, which I found extraordinary but of course also completely delightful! We were going out long-distance our whole senior year of high school, and in fact I doubt I’d have come to Harvard in the first place if not for Anton—my high school teachers firmly told me that I should go to Yale because Harvard was anti-intellectual…

We broke up shortly after making our college decisions, and in the ensuing years we only ran into each other now and again. What’s strange and moving to me now is how strongly present the seventeen-year-old Anton is to me all the time. When Kurt Vonnegut died this spring, I really felt as though Anton was just there out of the corner of my eye making some more or less disrespectful wisecrack about the genius who wrote Cat’s Cradle, one of Anton’s particularly favorite books at the time I knew him. I read a quite wonderful book recently, American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China (in short, skinny American kid drops out of Princeton in the early 1990s and goes starry-eyed off to China in search of the kung fu training at the Shaolin Temple—mishaps ensue…) and it was so much the kind of book I imagined Anton writing that I sort of felt like we’d just slipped over for a moment into an alternate universe where Anton got exactly the writing career he’d been working towards.

After Anton died, I went through the copious hoard of letters he’d sent me that senior year of high school in which we were conducting our desperate passionate stressed-out young-person’s correspondence. There were all sorts of gems, but I thought what I’d read you today is Anton’s list of possible yearbook quotes, from January 1988. It gives you a strong sense of Anton, and also a terribly strong flavor of 1988, a formative year I’m sure for many of us!

January 1988. Anton's list of possible yearbook quotes:

"Life is a pool table, after the breakshot" (Nietzche)

or how about "So much depends on a little red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water among the white chickens" (Massive Misquoters of America)

or "Enter life at your own risk" (Duncan (?))

or "Life is not a spectator sport" (Reebok Advertisement) or "Root Beer" (Alan)

or "Is it live--or is it Memorex?"

or "Holy Shit, Batman!" or "If life is just a waste of time, & time is just a waste of life, let's all get wasted and have the time of our lives" (Katie (?))

or how about quoting the Warning on a box of Valium? That could be neat.

or "I saw Mikhail Gorbachev having sex w/ Mr. Zulman the other day in London, when Bruce Jenner ran by and the Crunchberry beast swallowed them all whole" (Warren Xevon (spelling?))

or "Aw, Fuck You" (Big Bird, Oscar, & Snophalopagus, all in unison)

or "A Woman is a hole. A man is a stick" (Max) or "Don't tell me what kind of day to have" and "Happy Trails" (my nefarious English teacher)

or "It's a rubber, a condom, a building, a condominium" (someone doing pictionary) or "I did it my way" (The Sex Pistols)

or "Don't drink and drive" (Everyone) or "I'm on Hayes' Street" (Taxi commercial) or a Bartles & James quotation or...

The original list goes on a bit longer, but I like the string of dots this one ends with, the sense of possibility and energy and excitement. Like our other lost classmates, Anton made great use of the time he had, and those of us lucky to have known him will not forget him.

Words for Helen Hill

On Saturday afternoon, there was a screening of Helen's films in Adams House as part of our fifteenth reunion (the whole idea of reunions makes me crazy with irritation, they are so much not what I like about the whole business of these universities, not to mention the events are so expensive that a normal person quite simply cannot afford to attend, but I will attempt to contain my spleen and get down to the main point). Those films are quite the loveliest thing and I will link when they're being shown elsewhere--there should be a screening in New York sometime next year, at any rate. This is what I said about Helen afterwards.


A disproportionate number of my memories of Helen contain some kind of sweet, usually cake. I remember going to an academic conference in New Orleans in the spring of 2001, for instance, and receiving a most lovely welcome visit from Paul and Helen at my hotel the evening I got in—I was supposed to see them a couple days later, but Helen just didn’t think it was right not to welcome me personally. She had with her a slab of extremely sticky and dense-looking vegan cake, which she was fully bent on leaving with me in case I needed a snack, and only my most earnest entreaties and truthful warnings that I wasn’t going to eat it led her to take it away with her again!

But we had beignets at Café du Monde, of course, and the next time I saw Paul and Helen in New Orleans, in May of 2003, we went on an expedition to see the Bindlestiff Family Circus again bearing left-over cake—that technology that lets you go to the grocery store and get a photograph sort of laminated onto the top of the cake icing was peculiarly well suited to Helen’s aesthetic, this cake bore (am I remembering correctly?) an enchanting blue-haired portrait of Helen & was left over from her birthday (the cake had been carefully cut around the rim of the portrait so as to keep the important part of the picture intact).

There’s a sort of platonic ideal of cake that I see in my head when I think of Helen—personally I’m a fan of the luridly iced cupcake—and the cake I’m thinking of now is like what you’d see, oh, in one of those original Babar the Elephant illustrations, or an English children’s book from the 1950s. It’s a modest little cake, just big enough for one person, with beautiful pink icing and a little cherry on top, with a sort of classic outline and symmetry that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

I’ve been kicking myself all spring for a terrible missed opportunity. I never got to talk to Helen about teaching! Helen was an immensely talented person whose modesty led her to downplay many of her achievements. Her sense of playfulness may have sometimes been misleading, though in my opinion all the best artists in any field (from tennis-players to ophthalmologists) retain that sense of high-level play in their work. Good teaching more than most other things requires a sense of play as well as imagination, generosity of spirit and a high-level quality of attention, and of course these were exactly Helen’s qualities.

As I read the memories from film-school classmates and film students of Helen’s in the memorial zine, I was overwhelmed with the glimpses they gave me of an inspired teacher at work. Madam Winger Makes a Film shows us that side of Helen also. What a teacher Helen must have been—both by nature and nurture, I strongly suspect this was partly a gift from her mother—and the thing about teaching is that it leaves so much good stuff behind even when it’s gone. The results may not show up in concrete form, like a film or a poem or a song, but those students of Helen’s are out there in the world now not just remembering her and celebrating her when they make their own films, but also remembering and celebrating and carrying on her work in their teaching as well.

We can’t all make films (though Helen would say we can!), but we can make other things—we can even make cupcakes!—and we can teach other people how to stretch and expand their own minds and hearts, and when we do those things we will be doing them very much in Helen’s memory, and Helen’s spirit.


[Postscript. The eye doctor with a sense of playfulness and passion for his work--I am not sure if ophthalmologist really is the right term, but I thought it sounded better that way--is someone I actually met last week, I can't remember the last time I met someone so enthusiastic about his job! It was hilarious--the thing that got me in to deal with the eye thing is (a) needing prescription sunglasses for safe cycling and (b) really I have gotten awfully short-sighted, I must start wearing glasses much more of the time rather than just for plays and movies (I destroyed my eyesight by reading three times through the Riverside Shakespeare over one summer as part of a maniacal orals-studying initiative), just because I like wandering around in a short-sighted daydreamish haze does not mean it's a good idea and (c) I thought glasses-wearing would be more likely to happen if I got some new ones with more exciting frames and the non-reflective lenses I was too cheap to spring for the last time. So this guy just loves his job, I can't even tell you how much! "So, what color do you think the inside of your eye is?" he asked me as he bounced like a slender Tigger around the examining room. I disclaimed any knowledge of the color of the inside of my eye. "It's a pinky-orange, like raw salmon!" he said. The other highlight was him quite gleefully telling me that I had a harmless but interesting birthmark on the inside of my eye with the quite wonderful name Mittendorf dot. "So if anyone's ever looking into your eye in the future and wonders about it, you can tell them you have a Mittendorf dot!"]