Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Lavish kind of thing

(And I did get Making Money, and I did read it, and it is quite delightful...)

Sunday self-indulgence

Oh goodness, I desperately want to read Terry Pratchett's new novel Making Money. In fact though it seems singularly and inappropriately self-indulgent I may even mosey on over to the bookstore and just buy it and read it immediately rather than trying to scrounge a copy somewhere...

Bonus link via BoingBoing: the ideal reading order for the Discworld novels. Here's the direct link.

Down the shore

Yesterday was a first for me: a forty-five mile bike ride. I was rather dreading it, but of course really the thing is that I failed to conceptualize it as a ride rather than a race: it was if anything much too slow and easy, it would have been more enjoyable to go considerably faster and more freely!

It was my lovely sister-in-law's idea that a group of us should do this City to Shore bike ride together to raise money for multiple sclerosis. (Here's the link if you find yourself inclined to donate.)

I meant to do some serious bike-related training for it but various life-related things (book manuscripts, teaching, swimming, running, yoga, weights, bicycle-related trepidation) got in the way and I was completely underprepared! However in the event it was fine, and a great confidence-builder.Team Davidson

Bicycle-related thoughts:

1. Turns out New Jersey Transit is extremely bicycle-friendly; good to know. Taking the bike on the subway was not as awful as I expected, though I feel that I am carrying this bicycle under false pretenses--it makes me look as though I'm a better cyclist than I actually am! I should worry less and trust more that it is possible to breeze through life with the world coming into alignment with the needs of the moment! Esp. re: bicycles...

2. At the last minute I flaked out on the clipless pedals. I put the cycling shoes on in the parking lot as we got ready to go and wore them for the first five minutes--but it was a crowd of thousands, we were packed together, terribly stop and start at the beginning, and I suddenly just thought, "You know, if I just ride in my regular sneakers, I will feel super-calm and confident and have no worries other than mild brake-related anxiety, whereas if I'm clipped in I will (a) be on the edge of my seat with anxiety and (b) actually risk toppling over at one of these stops and bringing others with me. Fear and the greater good are both saying switch shoes, just swallow your pride and wear the other ones!" It was a pity not to get the practice, but I am sure it was the right decision. I dismounted and did a quick switch back to my sneakers, I was back on the bike even before we got going again...

3. Takes a lot of concentration to ride in a big group like this. All back roads (from Hammonton, NJ to Ocean City), some of them closed off but some of them just with a very narrow shoulder and at least in theory all of us (thousands!) riding single file. A lot of people are not thinking about the needs of riding in a group--I was glad of my friend R.'s lessons on bicycle safety...

4. I think I like riding a bike! (I also think I like my bike very much, it is better than I currently deserve but I will endeavor to earn the right to ride it...)

5. The only really bad moment: two bridges a couple miles away from the end of the ride. I am pretty much afraid of heights, when I have to run over a significant bridge I just do it as fast as possible, resist the urge to throw myself to the ground and crawl along on my stomach & also hope that I will not actually be sick from nerves. So the course marshal stopped us all at a light and very sternly warned us that these two very windy and steep bridges were coming up and that we should walk over them if we were worried about our riding ability. Going up and over was fine, I'm pretty strong so I had no worries whatsoever and I just didn't look over the side and concentrated on feeling like I had good control over the bike. But I think I was literally saying out loud to myself on the downhills (as I clutched the brakes with total Death Grip) "Oh, god, make this be over, make this be over soon..." Hmmm, bridges not so appealing...

6. I think I can make some minor accommodations and find myself much more courageous about bicycle-related training. I can walk my bike over to Central Park if I need, or ride over in sneakers and switch into cleats over there. I can ride my bike with cleats along the West Side greenway without having to ride on the road at all, or with only riding the twenty blocks down Riverside to get into the park proper. This is all slightly cowardly but it is not inherently insane to think of being cautious before making the move to using clipless pedals in city traffic. Really as my brother pointed out they are designed for the kind of long ride where you don't really need to stop and start much at all, and even quite experienced cyclists may find it troublesome to be clipping in and out at traffic lights. Patience....

Hmmm, really it is too soon to say, but if I found a good half-iron distance triathlon for next summer, I think I could do enough bike training to have a decent race. I'm good already on the running and swimming, assuming some more bricks and open-water practice. And if I do it by early August, I can switch over to marathon training without schedule conflict re: long runs...

Further thoughts on charitable endeavors:

Oh, I am such a terrible cynic about all things to do with organized charity, and really this time round I am absolutely ashamed of myself, because this has been a really wonderful experience! And it all must be chalked up to the excellence of my lovely sister-in-law Jessica Zenquis Davidson. We would never have done it without her. It was her idea, she persuaded the rest of us to join her and she raised rather more money than any of us did--but she deserves the credit even for a wider round of philanthropy than these numbers suggest. My mom did some fund-raising on our behalf at the school she teaches at, and a number of teachers decided as a result to get together as another team of riders, and in short Jessi can be considered directly responsible for several thousands of dollars' worth of fundraising for this very worthwhile cause. I am so proud of her and grateful to her for including me!

Most of all, I was touched by several comments left on my original blog post concerning this ride. As a person slightly inclined to skepticism about group enterprises of a charitable nature, I forget that these things are really meaningful apart from the money, and I will close by pasting in the really moving words of an MS sufferer named Mark who wrote to thank us for doing the ride:
I am a trained musician who was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive MS last year. I still can't listen to Jaqueline Du Pres (or any performance of the Elgar 'Cello concerto) without bursting into tears. However, life goes on and you smile through it.

I particularly want to say how good my local MS Society group has been in coming to terms with my condition and how understanding my employer has been considering I had been with them only 6 months when I had a major MS attack and was correctly diagnosed (I had an incorrect dignosis of CFS 3 years before and was subsequently made redundant on the back of that diagnosis) I'm a very lucky man to have such friends and employers; both + beta inteferon give me hope and strength.

I've since found out the complications from the condition (you can't catch it, it just happens) killed my Great Uncle 50 years ago, so thank goodness there are people in this world like you who do give a damn and want to help.

I experience prejudice against me almost every day as an obviously disabled person so people like yourself that give me hope and strength make a huge difference in my life.

Thank you so much.

The thanks, though, should go not to me but to Jessi and to all of the volunteers in New Jersey who made the ride such an enjoyable and rewarding experience.The finish line

(There were a lot of spectators lining the last mile or so of the ride, with a real finish-chute feel and lots of cheering and even some cowbell--I thought about how I am going to feel as I finish my first Iron-distance triathlon three years from now!)

Friday, September 28, 2007


No posts here for the next couple days. I am embarking with great trepidation on a cycling-related enterprise--full details late Sunday night, assuming I survive more or less unscathed....

A suspense

Elizabeth Samet at the Times Magazine on teaching poetry to West Point cadets. A good piece...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

We all otter write like that

Michelle Pauli interviews Neil Gaiman at the Guardian.

Bach and smoked salmon

A lovely interview with Oliver Sacks at Wired (link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull):
Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The non-representational but indescribably vivid emotional quality is such as to make one think of an immaterial or spiritual world. I dislike both of those words, because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly — in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said.

So if music is not directly representative of the world around us, then what's inspiring it? One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings. This feeling is very, very strong with Cicoria, the surgeon in my book who was hit by a bolt of lightning. He felt that he was actually tuning in to the music of heaven — that he had God's phone number. I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart. I feel differently about Beethoven. I think of Beethoven as a sweating Prometheus, a terrestrial figure.

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

And here's the Sacks iPod playlist.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The ham reigns supreme

Julian Barnes at the LRB on Luc Sante's translation of Feneon's Nouvelles en trois lignes:
Flaubert, in despair at the Franco-Prussian war, and trying to maintain the primacy of art, commented that in the long run, perhaps the only function of such carnage was to provide writers with a few fine scenes. So here, the function of the octogenarian Breton woman who hangs herself, or the 75-year-old man who dies of a stroke on the bowling lawn (‘While his ball was still rolling he was no more’), or the 70-year-old who drops dead of sunstroke (‘Quickly his dog Fido ate his head’) is to provide a sophisticated Parisian with a witty paragraph. As an aesthete-anarchist, Fénéon had always cultivated a detached gaiety of tone: a bomb became a ‘delightful kettle’ and the manner in which it killed six people showed ‘intimate charm’ (we are not far from Henze’s quickly retracted description of the World Trade Center attacks as ‘the greatest artwork ever made’). So with the Nouvelles: are they a Modernist’s evocation of a harsh and absurd world, a subtle continuation of propaganda by word; or are they simply a classier expression of the press’s traditional heartless sensationalism? Though they could, of course, be both.

Shelf space

Austin Kelley at the New Yorker on the Strand's Books-by-the-Foot service:
Although prop books are meant to be seen and not read, they have to evoke a mise en scène, inside and out. For Indiana Jones, the filmmakers specified that the books cover such topics as paleontology, marine biology, and pre-Columbian society. They had to be in muted colors and predate 1957. “People have gotten so character-specific nowadays,” Jenny McKibben, a manager at the store, said. “It can’t just be color anymore. With high-def, they can just freeze the film and say, ‘Oh, that’s so inappropriate.’ ”

Since the program’s inception, in 1986, the Strand has built scores of imaginary reading rooms, from the prison library in “Oz” to the Barnes & Noble clone in “You’ve Got Mail.” Clients also include window dressers, commercial architects (the Strand furnished each floor in the Library Hotel with a different Dewey decimal category), and people with more shelf space than leisure time. Kelsey Grammer requested all hardback fiction in two of his homes, while Steven Spielberg, who, incidentally, is the director of the new Indiana Jones movie, allowed a wider range (cookbooks, children’s books, volumes on art and film) to penetrate his Hamptons estate. “There have been a lot of biographies on him, so I put those in there, too,” Nancy Bass Wyden, a co-owner of the store, said.

Customers can choose from eighteen basic library styles, for purchase or rental. “Bargain books,” a random selection of hardbacks, is the cheapest, at ten dollars per foot of shelf space. For thirty dollars, clients can customize the color. For seventy-five, they can get a “leather-looking” library, which, as the Strand’s Web site puts it, “is often mistaken for leather.”

To those of us whose problem is how to subdue the excess of books we accumulate, there is something counterintuitive to the point of perversity in the idea of deliberately importing many feet of books into one's dwelling-place...

White pomeranians

A challenge at the Dizzies, based on this musing by Roland Barthes. Make your own at home...

(I was struck after writing my own list by the crudeness of my own sensibility, in contrast to Barthes' striking aestheticism.)

I like/I don't like

I like: grapes, trashy novels, being lazy, the eighteenth century, irises, yellow freesias, good friends, salted cashews, anchovies, e-mail, miniature things, luridly iced cupcakes, the buttery taste of yellowtail, performing animals, glass eyes, Fabergé eggs, any and all cats, Jameson on the rocks, cold beer, autumn, filet mignon, salt bagels, fruit tarts, primates, blogging, working as hard as I can, the idea of north, training, swimming, running, racing, teaching, reading, writing, cardigans with zippers, nineteenth-century novels, Shakespeare, Chanel lipstick, revenge tragedies, my iPod and what’s on it, Annick Goutal Eau de Sud, making good things happen, New York, cities, the ocean when it’s cold enough to wear a sweater outside, blue aquamarine.

I don’t like: mayonnaise, dill, nutmeg, cellphones, slow elevators, balls bouncing loudly, crackly plastic bags, nostalgia, things that crash my computer (Internet Explorer, electronic letters of recommendation), sleeplessness, second thoughts, having my judgment questioned, being read aloud to, narrative jokes, grading papers, Cormac McCarthy, losing things, loud music in restaurants, unsalted butter, New Historicism, being bored.

Once, some years ago, I told my students (we had been putting together a list of things we knew about Michel de Montaigne’s likes and dislikes, in an attempt to get a handle on his style) that our passionate dislikes—however trivial and irrational—say much more about us than the things we like. This struck them as unduly negative; they dissented. . . .

(I don’t hate nutmeg, I’m just not crazy about it—also I do not believe it belongs in creamed spinach, an otherwise delicious food. On the other hand, I dislike dill so much that I almost feel it’s poisonous. But I am very fond of cilantro, and it is clear that many people feel as strongly negative about cilantro as I do about dill. Conclusion: neither should be banned. . . .)

Eight novels on her little phone

Yukari Iwatane Kane at the Wall Street Journal on Japanese cellphone novels:
When Satomi Nakamura uses her cellphone, she has to be extra careful to take frequent breaks. That's because she isn't just chatting. The 22-year-old homemaker has recently finished writing a 200-page novel titled "To Love You Again" entirely on her tiny cellphone screen, using her right thumb to tap the keys and her pinkie to hold the phone steady. She got so carried away last month that she broke a blood vessel on her right little finger.
(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)


Errol Morris has a fascinating long post at the Times about two different versions of Roger Fenton's "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" photograph from the Crimean War. It's a rather gripping account in itself, but I'm especially interested because of the way it lays bare the work of investigation in an archive: normally this sort of work only shows up as a sentence or two in a footnote.

The question: which one of these two pictures came first, and which one is "staged"? It's a detective story, and a story about sloppy scholarship and the danger of making assumptions, and I love it...

Monday, September 24, 2007


Sarah Weinman at Time Out New York on the mysterious 1975 deaths of the real-life twin gynecologists on whose story the film Dead Ringers was based. Hmmm, very unsinister-looking apartment building...

The lottery

Jerome Karabel at the New York Times on the inequities built into the admissions process at America's elite colleges:
Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile.
Another dismaying piece of information: "by the conventional definition, which relies heavily on scores on the SAT, the privileged are the meritorious; of all students nationwide who score more than 1300 on the SAT, two-thirds come from the top socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

Hamlet at the Pearl Theatre was very good (barring the unwanted aspect of concentration needed to suppress annoying manifestations of ongoing lung ailment). Modest, small-scale, suited to the size of the organization. Some of the acting a bit uneven, but the crucial folks very good (the actor playing Hamlet is like a sort of mini-Christopher Walken, only lighter on his feet, very good stuff!).

The first few scenes caused me to reflect, not with pleasure, on the effects of British acting styles on American Shakespearean actors. There was a sense of slightly affected diction, something too staccato or choppy, in some of the actors' delivery; and Hamlet was occasionally prone to overly rhetorical delivery. Those RSC-type actors can just about get away with that very precise diction, partly because RSC style so heavily emphasizes keeping the through line of the speech. I think the best American Shakespearean actors are well-advised to adopt a slightly more colloquial style--of course everything still needs to be carefully enunciated, but there's an unfortunate tendency (which probably just comes from years of exposure to the British version) as things get more deliveryish to let the vowels become a bit English so that the language slides into a rather non-naturalistic style of speech that I find very distracting. (Obviously delivery onstage is always in some sense non-naturalistic; I'm referring to a more substantive departure from the spoken accent.) However it mostly came right before too long...

I am so steeped in eighteenth-century Shakespeares that I am sorry to say I also kept on finding myself thinking of Garrick as Hamlet, and having wishful thoughts about how--barring some early performances of Beckett, I suppose--there is no past performance of a play I would be more enthralled to see than Garrick's Hamlet!On the other hand, I've read so many descriptions and seen so many pictures that perhaps it is almost as though I have seen it, I was certainly thinking of it often...

(Image courtesy of this interesting article by Alan R. Young.)

Sex for le Creuset

Rosie Blau lunches with Jeanette Winterson for the FT. I am glad to see for once that they had a really decadent lunch, too often the poor journalist's gastronomic hopes are thwarted by the interviewee's parsimoniousness!

(The puddings at that restaurant have most evocative names...)

The repackaging of the KitKat

Nigel Slater's book about English food (Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table) sounds rather appealing, though perhaps a bit much:
Lift the lid of a biscuit tin and you enter a world of chocolate Bourbons, understated, knobbly Lincolns, crumbly digestives and Jammie Dodgers. A secret place where there are lemon puffs, gingernuts, Jaffa Cakes and, if you are lucky, the occasional chocolate finger. No other country whose grocers' shelves I have encountered offers the punter and his purse such a display of sugar-sprinkled flour and butter, blobs of jam and drizzles of chocolate, crème fillings and white icing. We are the everyday biscuit capital of the world (the Dutch hold sway at the top end of the cookie market). What France is to cheese and Italy is to pasta, Britain is to the biscuit. The tin, with its tight lid and cute pictures, is a playground for those who like their snacks sweet and crisp and reeking of tradition.

But there is more to it than that. While some of our biscuits, such as the custard cream and the Bourbon, have become icons of our time, there are others whose everlasting success must always remain something of a mystery. What sort of person chooses a pale, dry Rich Tea when there are so many other more interesting biscuits to choose from? Why would anyone want to eat a wafer that sticks to their lips like glue, or hurt their tongue on the sharp little point of an iced gem? Does anyone honestly like the pink wafer anyway? And who took the last of the chocolate ones? Welcome to the British biscuit tin.

The British biscuit tin is central to my memories of childhood visits to English grandparents.

(The Penguin biscuit! And indeed Slater is quite right about the unfortunate repackaging of this sort of chocolate biscuit more generally--I think I grew out of the taste for Penguin biscuits in any case, but really, who would want one once they were no longer wrapped in that alluring foil?!? I will have to dispute, though, his position on the Rich Tea--that is a very perfect biscuit, in a minimalist way. And as a small child I had a truly obsessive fondness for iced gems, they really are the most dry and pellet-like biscuit but oh, the allure of that strange rock-hard icing in its lurid colors...)

For those who have never experienced them, some more information on iced gems (actually I am going to paste in the text, because it includes the wonderful phrase "small shrunken biscuit"--very apt, too...):
These little biscuits began life as a biscuit called "gems". They were produced when Huntley and Palmers were experimenting with biscuit technology in 1850. They use the ingredients wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oil, salt, milk protein, citric acid and flavourings. A small shrunken biscuit about 1.5cm in diameter was produced. They sold well. The biscuit is a hard bland sweet tasting biscuit.

In 1910 Icing was put on one surface standing up in little pointy stars by a 10-point nozzle. The icing colours are white, yellow, red and purple.

These biscuits were available in small 30g packs as multi packs of 6. These retail for about a pound. The packets are blue with a picture of a polar bear offering an iced gem.

The icing is a variant on royal icing, made with sugar and egg whites, whisked together with water, and coloured five ways - shades perhaps optimistically referred to as raspberry, blackcurrant, orange, lemon and white.

Here's another good iced gems link.


Tim Adams profiles Stuart Hall at the Guardian. An interesting piece about an interesting thinker:
I wonder, thinking about the debate over the Danish cartoons, where he stands on the right to comment on other cultures, on the right to offend?

'I tend to think some things are off-limits,' he suggests. 'Not in the sense that you should not be able to say them, but you need some care about how and when you go into them. If you wanted to make a joke about concentration camps you should think twice. At least twice. Given the complexity of relations between Islam and the West I would think at least twice about those cartoons. You cannot simply say it is my right to do it and then be surprised at the consequences. You have to take on the personal risk and decide whether it is worth the price.'

Isn't that a remit for intimidation?

'I think you always need the double perspective. Before you say that you have to understand what it is like to come from that "other" place. How it feels to live in that closed world. How such ideas have kept people together in the face of all that has happened to them. But you also have to be true to your own culture of debate and you have to find some way to begin to translate between those two cultures. It is not easy, but it is necessary.'

Hall first encountered the nuances of such conversations at his home in Kingston when he was growing up. He was born into a middle-class family in thrall to what he calls 'the colonial romance'. People think all Jamaicans are black, he suggests, and don't understand the gradations that can exist within a single family like his. 'My mother's connections to England were more recent. My father's side was not pure African either, it had Indian in it, and probably some English somewhere. I was always the blackest member of my family and I knew it from the moment I was born. My sister said: "Where did you get this coolie baby from?" Not black baby, you will note, but low-class Indian.'

His mother's maiden name was Hopwood and she once suggested to her son that she thought she might have some Habsburg blood in her. 'I mean: craziness,' he says, laughing. He believes cultural studies was born for him when he was first told he could not bring black school friends home, even though, to white eyes, he was black himself. 'It was the subaltern position, on the knees to the dominant culture. After the war you could hear the voices in Kingston whispering "independence, independence independence". I could not understand why my family was not part of that.'

Saturday, September 22, 2007

She buys frocks

Two great links via thoughtful friends:

Dwight Garner interviews the miraculous Jenny Diski at the New York Times blog Papercuts (this interview also includes the absolutely lovely phrases cake annex--cake annex!--and plain elegant).


(Links courtesy of Carrie--who also drew my attention recently, and tantalizingly, to a delicious-sounding bacon chocolate bar that I am actually tempted to try--and Amy respectively.)

Further thoughts:

I think I need to start reading the sports section more regularly. I read an absolutely delightful young-adult novel last night, Chris Crutcher's Deadline--it is very inspiringly about football among other things, only I could not really understand those parts properly at all! However I am in favor of expert knowledge in fiction, so the fact that I can't visualize it does not seem an insurmountable problem...

I am doing the remarkably unusual thing of taking the whole weekend off from work (on the grounds of mental health I'm afraid, and physical health too I suppose). I had an absolutely delightful long run and a very good swimming lesson. Tomorrow I will have a long ride on the trainer and then go to see Hamlet. Mmmm, good combination of activities...

What I will do now is finish reading Kathleen Duey's excellent Skin Hunger and hope that a long night of sleep will dispel the inevitable back-to-school ailment that seems to be settling into the lung area...

Friday, September 21, 2007

Almer mater

If you know me even a little bit, you may know that I find Steven Pinker's books extremely provoking, but I cannot resist linking to Oliver Burkmann's interview in the Guardian. It's a good interview, but it was a misspelling that caught my eye:
Pinker graduated from Montreal's McGill University in 1976, reading experimental psychology, then completed a PhD in that field at Harvard, in 1979. (He has spent the rest of his professional life in the neighbourhood of Harvard, moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then back to his almer mater.)

Funny, eh?!?

Miscellaneous thoughts:

1. I really don't like the phrase alma mater, I would never use it myself unless perhaps mildly satirically...

2. This is conceptually the mistake--i.e. the mistaken interpolation of an "r"--my brothers and I made when we were little, due to our mother's English accent! I think I made it less, because I learned how to read sooner; but really we all thought that the long yellow fruit that you peel from the top was called a "bernarner," and for many a year I believed that there was a mud-colored tint mysteriously known as "car key" (khaki).

3. This is also related to the notorious question of "cockney rhymes". On which note, I offer up Andrew Lang's poem on the topic (these are the first three stanzas):
Though Keats rhymed "ear" to "Cytherea,"
And Morris "dawn" to "morn,"
A worse example, it is clear,
By Oxford Dons is "shorn."
G-y, of Magdalen, goes beyond
These puny Cockneys far,
And to "Magrath" rhymes--Muse despond! -
"Magrath" he rhymes to "star"!

Another poet, X. Y. Z.,
Employs the word "researcher,"
And then,--his blood be on his head, -
He makes it rhyme to "nurture."
Ah, never was the English tongue
So flayed, and racked, and tortured,
Since one I love (who should be hung)
Made "tortured" rhyme to "orchard."

Unkindly G-y's raging pen
Next craves a rhyme to "sooner;"
Rejecting "Spooner," (best of men,)
He fastens on LACUNA(R).
Nay, worse, in his infatuate mind
He ends a line "explainer,"
Nor any rhyme can G-y find
Until he reaches Jena(r).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In the pages of a magazine today

I found a place I wanted to go (it's Francine du Plessix Gray writing at the New Yorker about Marie-Laure de Noailles, a sort of wealthy muse to the French surrealists):
After the Noailleses finished decorating their Paris house, they began to look for an architect for a villa they wanted to build in the South of France, in Hyères. Marie-Laure was pregnant with their first child, Laure, when they travelled to Germany to seek out Mies van der Rohe, who was too busy to take them on. They then visited Le Corbusier, whose didactic personality put them off. So they settled on a young French modernist, Robert Mallet-Stevens, the first French architect to have seriously studied the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. His creation, a forty-bedroom house made of reinforced concrete, looked like a Cubist cruise ship.

“Innumerable rooms, rectilinear, uni-colored” was the way the painter Jean Hugo described the house in his memoirs. “Like the blocks of a child’s game tumbling one into the other, forming a strangely obscure labyrinth in which guests constantly lost their way.” Each of the monastic guest rooms had its own flowered terrace. There was a Cubist garden with block-shaped shrubbery and sculptures commissioned from Brancusi and Giacometti, who later made several portrait busts of Marie-Laure.

The Noailleses may have been the first family in Europe to have a covered swimming pool, an athletic center, and a personal trainer; their gymnasium was outfitted with parallel bars, punching bags, and volleyball nets, and was overseen by a blond gym teacher named M. Taré. All guests found striped swimsuits and exercise pants in their rooms. The house became the place where intellectuals cultivated their bodies. Even André Gide, an austere man in his sixties, found himself playing volleyball, “more or less naked,” he wrote in his diary. “I hope you’ll do a gymnastics workout with me every morning,” Charles wrote to Buñuel before a visit, according to Benaïm. “I’m not hopeful about the athleticism of the others in the group” (Auric, Cocteau, Christian Bérard).
I don't want to go there now. I want to go there then...

The whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom

And another interview, this one with Dennis Potter (following his diagnosis with terminal cancer). Go and read it, it's amazing!
We all, we're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into ... Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.

We're born, we look around, we die

At the Guardian, Damien Hirst on the experience of reading David Sylvester's Francis Bacon interviews at age sixteen:
Sylvester and Bacon leave no stone unturned in their joint search for language and meaning, debating painterly solutions to painters' problems and the changing role of subject matter. I bought Hobbes' Leviathan because someone told me that a lot of Bacon's ideas came from there. I didn't really get the connection at that time, though I picked up a few good, nasty quotes: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Some other phrases I have used in my work have a good Hobbesian ring: "We're born, we look around, we die."
It seems to me one of the few genuinely good things about being a teenager that we can have this kind of amazing encounter with some startling thing and then fanatically pursue it by doing things like reading Leviathan--of course I still do this in adult life, but it becomes less likely that one will encounter something genuinely outside of hitherto-experienced reality. (Not saying that it doesn't happen; just not so frequently, or so utterly mind-blowingly...)

And here's an extract from the interviews in question. Lots of extraordinary stuff packed in there, I think this is a book I must get, but here's a quite lovely bit:
Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal. But using the meat in that particular way is possibly like the way one might use the spine, because we are constantly seeing images of the human body through x-ray photographs and that obviously does alter the ways by which one can use the body. You must know the beautiful Dégas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back. And you will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether. And this gives it such a grip and a twist that you're more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally up to the neck. He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh. Now, whether Dégas did this purposely or not, it makes it a much greater picture, because you're suddenly conscious of the spine as well as the flesh, which he usually just painted covering the bones. In my case, these things have certainly been influenced by x-ray photographs.
(Link via Neil Gaiman.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lucky pig

A story about Helen Hill at the magazine called 02138. It seems to me both true in its essentials and overly romanticized in the writing; the tears came to my eyes.

Flirting with utopianism

Terry Teachout offers up a lovely passage of Primo Levi's:
The idea of writing 'for everyone' flirts with utopianism, but I feel distrust for whoever is a poet for the few, or for himself alone. To write is to transmit; what can you say if the message is coded and no one has the key? You can say that to transmit this particular message, in this specific way, was necessary to the author, but with the rider that it is also useless to the rest of the world.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Word as word

So after an insane marathon work day "yesterday" (a long yesterday that really included much of the large part of today that fell between midnight and noon) I safely delivered the marked-up copy-edited manuscript of my novel to my editor and we had a very nice lunch and then I went back to the office to meet some folks there.

I really need some weeks without any deadlines now--this living-on-one's-nerves phenomenon is no good, and it is unhelpful for my training when I get so little sleep!

It is a luxury having such a good editor, and the copy editor was remarkably good also. I thought about scanning a page and explaining how it works, but in the end I simply didn't have time! As a former copy editor myself, though, I really appreciate having a great one.

The copy editor fixes things for house style (hyphens, for instance, and various other things to do with format, like marking certain features of layout so that the typesetters will put the document together properly), but most importantly is checking for various kinds of inconsistencies and facts. So that, for instance, I got a lovely sheet with all the page references for which classes meet at which times, with a question about potential inconsistencies (in fact, the schedule is not the same on different days of the week, but it was still worth clarifying that the girls have a Monday-morning English class, history first-period Tuesday and double chemistry lab first thing Friday mornings). And lots of really attentive and thoughtful questions about dates, usage, etc.

(I stood by a couple British usages that I want to keep for flavor: pavement rather than sidewalk; knave rather than jack; a few others...)

My favorite thing: the marginal notation, next to certain markings of italics, of word as word! When a word is used as a word, it is italicized, whether or not it's in dialogue...

So (this was one I added myself, it hadn't been marked), an example:
Sophie went back to bed. Her feet were freezing cold and she folded her left foot behind her right knee to warm it up, then switched sides to warm the other foot. It took longer for her heart to stop hammering in her ribcage. If this was perfectly safe, what must grave danger feel like?
I rather have the soul of a copy editor (a term I prefer to hyphenate--"copy-editor"), so all this is of great satisfaction to me...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Tricho treatment

At his blog Weekend Stubble, Paul Collins offers a deeply disturbing account of the massive and little-known public health calamity that followed the widespread use, in the 1920s, of X-rays to remove women's unwanted hair. The full essay appears in the New Scientist, by subscription only, but what he gives us here is fairly extraordinary... and quite horrifying.

Elves redux

Gary Lachman has an interesting piece at the Independent about a rather wonderful-sounding Covent Garden bookstore specializing in the occult and owned by Christina Oakley Harrington:
Twenty years ago, the idea of doing research on an occult subject would practically guarantee you'd be unemployed. Today that's changed and, on a visit to Treadwell's, you'll hear names like Baudrillard, Deleuze, Bataille and Foucault dropped as often as that of Aleister Crowley. It's a post-modern, post-Crowley generation here, and the results can be surprising. One of Christina's speakers was honoured with a mention in Private Eye's "Pseuds Corner". It noted Dr Stephen Alexander's lecture series on "Zoophilia", which, in a talk on Eve's encounter with the serpent and the "transhuman future", mooted the question of "sexual congress with snakes". Less challenging perhaps were the lectures by Cyril Edwards, a Germanist and respected translator of Parsifal, who is also "the world expert on elves". "He's a wonderfully engaging man," Christina said, "and he's spoken here a few times and the place was packed to the rafters." All Treadwell's visitors aren't so highbrow, though. Kelly Osbourne, whose dad has his own occult interests, pegged the shop as her favourite in some celebrity magazine. The boost was lost on Christina. "I was here when she came in but I had no idea who she was."

The explosionist

Here's a great video of the chemistry experiment that the girls are doing in the first scene of my novel.

Here's another good link that shows why chemistry used to be a more exciting activity for children than it can possibly be in our safety-conscious modern age.

Oliver Sacks's autobiography Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood was where I first read about this experiment and realized it was what I needed.

Fifty years of careless prose

From David Ulin's piece on Kerouac in the latest issue of Bookforum:
Kerouac . . . had been trying to write On the Road for two and a half years before he started working on this version; he’d struggled through several drafts that lacked the necessary immediacy and voice. That’s one reason the book has so much power—it’s the expression of an artist wrestling with a problem, the problem of how to make language and experience explode off the page. As a cultural ideal, though, it’s a disaster, directly responsible for fifty years of careless prose. It may be true, as Kerouac wrote to Viking editor Malcolm Cowley on September 11, 1955, that “what a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for,” but it’s also the case that this kind of “first thought, best thought” authenticity is often little more than an excuse for not putting in the necessary work.

In a more-hodgepodgish-than-ever move

I'm taking a break from regular programming to make an appeal about some kittens.

I had a lovely side trip last night en route to my friend A.'s, where I had arranged to watch the America's Most Wanted episode about the murder of our friend Helen Hill. Some months ago I promised A. I would obtain a kitten for her little boy, but in practice there are many obstacles to obtaining kittens and though I had several leads (thanks, Ed and Dizzyheads!) nothing panned out right away. But as of a month and a half ago, I did find a lead on some kittens who just needed a bit more growing-up time, and their rescuer e-mailed me Friday to say he thought they were ready to go.

Well, it was clear that no single errand in the whole world could more thoroughly offset the bleakness of the evening's main entertainment, so I took the subway out to Bed-Stuy and met the most lovely little family of kittens and chose one to take with me. And kittens are really the best thing in the world, I'm smiling just thinking about it now!

They rescued the mother and her litter of three from their back yard, she had clearly been domesticated before as she took very readily to life indoors; the kittens have been living in a small bathroom upstairs and are all clearly going to be great pets. They're still a little shy and skittish, but very interested in people and very healthy, shots up to date and spayed, etc. I suppose they're about five months old.

The two remaining kittens are both girls, and they need homes. If you might be interested, drop me an e-mail at jmd204 at columbia dot edu and I'll forward it to the kittens' rescuer. They really are quite lovely, needless to say! From top to bottom: the two girls and the boy (I think!)...

Saturday, September 15, 2007


A story about Helen Hill's murder will air tonight at 9pm on the Fox show America's Most Wanted.


Angus Watson on British snorkelling at the FT:
We flipper-kick slowly through stage one of the trail, the Japanese Seaweed Garden. Vibrant blue snakelock anemones and seaweeds in various greens swirl in unison, anchored on purple algae-encrusted rocks (touch the anemones’ fronds – it doesn’t hurt but you can feel the stickiness that traps little fish). Rainbow-patterned male corkwing wrasses, colourful as any reef fish, flit about, eyeing us nervously. Pity the male corkwing wrasse – he weaves an ingenious seaweed nest each spring, then floats hopefully nearby. Female corkwings approach, lay eggs if the nest passes muster, then head off for another year, leaving the hapless male to fertilise the eggs and bring up their sprats alone.

“Sea hare!” Thatcher cries, breaking my reverie. There are, in fact, two, making love three feet below us. Sea hares are black, the size of a small Cornish pasty, with antenna-sprouting heads and flowingly skirted bodies – like snails crossed with flamenco dancers. I’ve seen similar things before, in pink, but that was in Indonesia, not Dorset.

The fun continues. As we cling to a chunk of rock, blennies come to peer at us as anemone fish might in warmer seas. Large orange edible crabs run from miniature caves into seaweed copses and back again, waving claws aggressively. One tiny electric blue fish loiters a foot from the surface in a non-committal pose. It is about one metre deep all the way and sunny, so the water is brilliantly clear. At high water on the springiest of spring tides, Kimmeridge is never more than 3.5m deep. The bay is essentially one big rock-pool. It’s not as good as the world’s top dive sites, of course, but I reckon it’s on a par with Malta, which is meant to be the best in the Med.

The closed circle

On Monday I tackled the squalor of my office and after an hour's work had really done a tolerable though in many respects fairly superficial clean-up. (Motivated not so much by squalor-erasing fervor as by the fact that I really needed to find the original for a course packet already overdue at the copy shop...) Initial squalor dates back to the aftermath of the second major mold infestation--after the first one, the cleaners did indeed take every book off the shelf and attempt to eradicate the mold problem, and of course this is very good of them but the way the books went back on the shelf all higgledy-piggledy needed some major rearranging; and then, after the second one, though it really was the case that many of them hadn't even been put back with spines facing outward, I could not quite face restoring order to something that seemed so likely to undergo further disruption. But restore order I did, and in the process uncovered a rather delightful volume that had vanished under junk--I started reading it during a quiet moment in office hours on Thursday, and have just now polished it off: Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle, and a very good novel it is too (though not perhaps with the deep pathos of The Rotters' Club).

Aside from everything else (many things to like here), Coe is extraordinarily adept with viewpoint--I am often irritable about novelists' handlings of the points of view of multiple characters, it seems to me often done with slight or sometimes considerable clumsiness, but this is an exceptionally graceful and tactfully handled instance of same, worth a look I think if you are trying to write such a thing yourself (which I will never do).

Hmmm--office much better now it's tidy, though air quality still poor--and just in case I did not already inadvertently cast aspersions on my place of employment, I think I am resolved to throw away the mousetrap on Monday, it creates such a bad impression in those who notice it! And it must be said that though I would prefer no mouse presence whatsoever, I would rather see a little mouse scuttling across the floor than a dead or half-dead one in a trap...

Friday, September 14, 2007

The will to live, the love of life

David Grossman has a very striking piece in the Guardian Review about how he came to write the extraordinary novel See Under: Love. Lots of good things there, but here's a bit that especially struck me:
I know that when I read a good book, I experience internal clarification: my sense of uniqueness as a person grows lucid. The measured, precise voice that reaches me from the outside animates voices within me, some of which may have been mute until this other voice, or this particular book, came and woke them. And even if thousands of people are reading the very same book I am reading at the very same moment, each of us faces it alone. For each of us, the book is a completely different kind of litmus test.

Franklin redux

A preliminary investigation online yields this charming quotation:
CARLYLE told the following story to Milburn, the blind preacher, while the latter was sitting in Carlyle's garden at Chelsea, London, in 1860.

"When Benjamin Franklin was toiling as a journeyman printer in London, prior to the Revolution, he was accustomed to stroll of an afternoon along the banks of Father Thames, and this end of Cheyne Row was usually his goal. One day as he walked discoursing with a friend, he declared himself able to swim from here to London Bridge, distant five miles. His friend offered a wager that it was impossible; and he, upon the instant stripping, plunged boldly in, and started for his mark, while his friend, bearing the clothes, strode down the bank; and a great multitude of spectators, growing ever greater as he proceeded, followed to see the feat. He, with brave stroke and lusty sinew buffeting the tide, gained the bridge. Whereupon, amidst just acclamations, the people suggested that he should start a swimming school. But God had other work for him to do; for in later years he was to teach the people of your continent how, by Frugality and Labor and Patience and Courage, any man might buffet the waves of misfortune, and swim straight on to prosperity and success. And that was the swimming school which he was to establish."
I want to buffet the tide with brave stroke and lusty sinew...


I am on a minor mission to unite two of my obsessions, one longstanding and one more recent, by getting to try a pair of the swim fins invented by Benjamin Franklin. I think this would make a great essay--I really want to write something good about swimming, and starting out by going to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and checking these out would be good, I think. But I want to get to try them in a real pool!

(Strictly speaking, as far as I can tell, these are what we would call swim paddles rather than fins...)

(I had a great swim workout this morning by the way, quite inspiring...)

Two further triathlon-related things:

1. I read the most delightful book the other day, Roman Mica's My Training Starts Tomorrow: The Everyman's Guide to Ironfit Swimming, Cycling and Running. It is at once quite hilarious and full of true and useful things, highly recommended if you're at all interested in this stuff... (Roman blogs at EverymanTri. And thanks to Wendy for quite rightly telling me I had to read this book!)

2. I've been of two minds about this, but I took the plunge (as it were) and set up a triathlon-related blog of my own. I so much like the way this blog works as a way of me keeping track of what I'm reading and thinking about, I decided it was a pity not to try it out for the training thing also. It will mostly just be brief posts about workouts, really only of interest I think if you're also training for something--I'll continue to write here about fitness-related things, and I will cross-link as seems appropriate (i.e. if I do a race report here I'll link to it from that one, and if I end up having deep musings about education and improvement over there I'll link to it here).

(Now I have to figure out how to change the blog template so that I can have links in the sidebar! Arghhh...)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The drums of affliction

At the LRB, Hilary Mantel reviews two new books about AIDS in Africa.

Monkeys in the news

It's not that I'm skeptical about the substance of this story, it seems to me perfectly plausible, but doesn't the picture look awfully staged? Delightful, however... (Thanks to Nico for the link.)Also, if you like monkeys and did not already see this, the Japanese snow-monkey hot-pool webcam is a nice place to visit at times of stress, the fact that you do not always get a sighting makes it more exciting when you get a really good one...

On jumpsuits

On an entirely frivolous note, this article about jumpsuits for me comes on the heels of reading a jumpsuit-saturated novel that reminded me how very, very much I believe a highly utilitarian but mysteriously glamorous jumpsuit would be the perfect item of clothing. My friend Becca says not, and I have certainly never owned or worn such a thing, but I really do think it would be...


Will Self at the Guardian on the reissue of Derek Raymond's novel How the Dead Live by Serpent's Tail:
Cook was remarkably faithful to the hardboiled genre. If anything, How the Dead Live is more Chandler-esque than Chandler, right down to the incongruous quotations from Shakespeare, Spenser and Mrs Gaskell (!), and an allusion to Socrates that has to be oddly obscured in order to make it plausible mental content for a sergeant in Met.

Then there's the lexicon of Cockney geezer slang, terms recondite even when Cook was writing in the mid-1980s. With his darlings, loves, shtucks, bunny rabbits, artists, berks and wooden-tops, Cook hearkens back to an earlier era, when 'the code' prevailed, and there was a difference between good, honest, working crims, and dirty little toe rags; an aristocracy - believe it or not - of crime, the upper reaches of which his solitary jaundiced hero feels a certain affinity with.

And then there are the lacunae with which these books proceed: the frontal lobe discombobulating occasioned by intoxication. For Hammett it was usually opiates - for Chandler, liquor. Cook's characters swim in the stuff. In How the Dead Live the drinking begins at 9.30 or 10.00 in the morning and pours on unabated. There's also coke, smack and dope, but you can sample this boozy stream as if it were contaminated river running through the text: Kronenburg, vodka martinis and plenty of Bells (or ring-a-ding as our man jocularly refers to it), sherry, more whisky. When the bent copper is cornered he tries to buy his way out of it with a single malt, when the villain's catamite comes out shooting his hand is unsteadied by a tumbler of whisky. When the tragic Dr Mardy's guerrilla surgery fails, his patient is numbed by morphine "on a whisky base".
Derek Raymond really is a total genius, the intensity of my serious encounter with his books in the late 90s will always stay with me--must reread some of 'em....

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

'Oh God, no more elves'

At the TLS, Jon Barnes reviews Diana Pavlac Glyer's rather irresistible-sounding academic book The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in the Community. Some interesting thoughts about draft endings (shades of Harry Potter!) and the dynamic of the group known as the Inklings:
Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty (“he is ugly as a chimpanzee”, wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic (“the inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me”, wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best (“You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please!”). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.

On things with flaws

I'm not being a contrarian when I say that I like things with flaws, just stating something true about my sensibility. I will take the flawed and interesting any day over the aesthetically perfect (hmmm, except that it is true that I appreciate perfection in things like very beautifully iced cupcakes, or other attractive and miniature things whose perfectly-formedness is part of their appeal).

Anthony Burgess really was my favorite novelist for many a year, and while he is not any more his writing shaped me more than almost any other writer I can think of. Almost every book he wrote is flawed in one way or another, sometimes in multiple ways, and yet his work as a whole seems to me more stimulating and more energetic and altogether more enjoyable than the work of many greater novelists--70 strange and interesting and provoking books > 3-4 really perfect ones.

(Is any novel perfect, anyway? It's something against the nature of the form--it's kind of wrong for novels to be perfect...)

I think Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the strongest defense of the beauty of flawed things, though his dappled things are nothing like mine in sensibility (the layout is not going to properly appear):
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
So, three flawed things that I loved:

1. A very strange, often ludicrous and altogether rather wonderful novel by Christopher Fowler, Roofworld. There is a far more tasteful and elegant alternate-universe version of this novel, sort of Matrix-like, in which a motley crew of dissident/dropout types dressed in Pradaesque black nylon jumpsuits use a secret system of cables and climbing tools to travel the rooftops of London and battle a warring gang. In the this-world version, there is also a ludicrously cliched Chief Inspector (still reeling from the bad publicity he received as "the officer in charge of last summer's notorious and controversial 'Leicester Square Vampire' case"), rather too many horror-movie scenes of impaling and flaying (there's a hilarious "keel-haul" scene that strained my capacity for plausibility, I do not think if you used this sort of pulley system thing to drag someone up and down fire escapes and a brick building that they would indeed end up in the condition described--oh, let me find the exact language, it is rather priceless, and by the way he really does use the word "keel-haul" which is delightful!--oh, yes...--"By the fifth floor he had bitten clean through the gag and his tongue as he left a bloody track up the building and the bricks rasped over areas already scoured clean of skin. When he finally reached the top and they had laid him out on the surface of the roof, he had mercifully lost consciousness. He lay, a bloody skinless puppet of raked meat, barely breathing, nose shattered, face unrecognizable." Strictly speaking, this is not at all good writing, and yet there is something attractively irrepressible in the phrase "a bloody skinless puppet of raked meat," this is a writer relishing his own powers!) And Hargreaves has a primitive computer system that tells him that the chief villain Chymes is steeped in the lore of alchemy and may be a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn! In any case, it is an imaginative and extremely exuberant novel, I enjoyed it very much... (Thanks to Brent for the recommendation.)

Oh, and a fortuitous illustration pinched from a recent story in the Times:
2. Robin McKinley's Dragonhaven. I pretty much loved this book, reading it was a minor illicit injection of mental health into an otherwise rather stressful week, and yet McKinley (it must be said) has dispensed with a great many of the features that we assume novels should have! Her narrative is rambling, chock-full of excessive and probably cuttable exposition, covers a number of years in a rather higgledy-piggledy way. Maybe more damagingly, many of the novel's elements reminded me very strongly of other books of McKinley's that may have used them in a more satisfying manner: for instance, the description of raising the orphaned puppies in Deerskin is probably more moving and more vivid than the descriptions of baby-dragon-raising here; and the novel's voice (also its basic premise, of supernatural creatures rather persecuted by an oppressive alternate-U.S. near-future-feeling government) is very similar to that of Sunshine, only it was more plausible as a mid-twenties female than as a teenage male, and there's more variety in that novel too; and the animal-conversation stuff in Spindle's End was also more fully worked out. (In case you can't tell from the way I talk about them, I have read each of these books at least five times...) And yet Dragonhaven is also one of the most enjoyable and satisfying novels I've read for a long, long time, in spite of these rather pronounced formal peculiarities. I think it will be fairly polarizing--the more animal-oriented of McKinley's fans will surely love it (there's some great stuff in here, esp. if you're interested in state parks and wilderness preserves and zoo-keeping!), the more romance- and fairy-tale-oriented ones maybe not so much.

(Thanks by the way to Gautam for his angelic ability to make books magically appear in my mailbox, a singularly cheerfulness-inducing phenomenon.)

3. Oh dear, I fear this one's a bit controversial. All weekend I've had the link in my browser and not quite known what to do with it. Madeleine L'Engle is dead. I loved her books in childhood and adolescence, the Wrinkle in Time ones and the Meet the Austins ones and indeed pretty much all of her others also are among my most-reread childhood favorites. (Like twenty-times reread!) She was a mesmerizing story-teller with a remarkable imagination and unusual levels of interest in the kinds of high-stakes question that are closer to theology than ethics, and this is a great part of what gives her books their interest. But I also feel it must be said that I do not find her finally in the first rank of children's book authors. Books of that vintage that I consider really superlative in terms of writing and so forth, and that I think stand up to the closest scrutiny (of course this is just a matter of taste, but I could show you what I meant if we were talking in person, and I have chosen ones written in quite different styles to hint at the ways it's not a question of genre preference): Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy; Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia; the best couple books by Susan Cooper and Alan Garner and E. L. Konigsberg. In contrast, there's something self-indulgent or wish-fulfilling about L'Engle's books. She's soft on her main characters in certain ways that detract from the achievement in a literary sense. But the way she makes things feel like they matter--that's what I always loved most about her writing, and in the end I suppose she becomes a greater writer than the actual writing in individual books might perhaps lead one to assess her as.

In closing, I will say that there are many reasons I find my life at Columbia rather magical, but one of them is surely that I am living very much in the (more salubrious twenty- or thirty-years-later version) of the Morningside Heights neighborhood L'Engle describes so well in The Young Unicorns and A Severed Wasp.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Two pieces in this week's New Yorker, complementary in interesting ways.

The first is Mark Singer's quite mesmerizing account of how William Barrington-Coupe tricked thousands of knowledgeable people into believing that his wife, pianist Joyce Hatto, was an unrecognized genius. One of Singer's more perceptive summings-up:
Just about every anecdote Barry shared, or invented on the spot, conformed to a fundamentally sentimental narrative that retained at least a quotient of plausibility, allowing him to harvest a bit of sympathy for two lifetimes’ accumulation of grievances. Of course, there was a transparent poignancy to the con: Hatto had possessed genuine talent but there had been no brilliant career. The con had a genius and the revenge a sweetness, the false persona providing a balm for her failed ambition. Still, how satisfying could it have been to live merely the simulacrum of success—to read about “her” inspiring renaissance, to hear “her” music so extravagantly extolled? The name-dropping, the evasiveness, the delusional stories, the woundedness, the self-pity, the resentment toward the establishment: it formed a ziggurat of self-deception. It was also a love story, one that would have been right at home on Sunset Boulevard.
And then a very nice juxtaposition to an equally mesmerizing and mysterious story by Paul Theroux, "Mr. Bones". Mr. Bones is the persona the child narrator's browbeaten father adopts for a one-off minstrel-show performance--the tone of the story's almost like something from the wilder regions of Stephen King or Clive Barker, it's quite excellent...

Monday, September 10, 2007

An unbearably poignant obituary

for Alex, the African Grey parrot who knew more than a hundred words:
Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Dr. Pepperberg said, Alex looked at her and said: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, and was determined to have died late Thursday night.

Novel as act of atonement

Sarah Crown has a rather wonderful interview with Joyce Carol Oates at the Guardian. All sorts of interesting things in there:
Rebecca's very deliberate transformation - via make-up, haircut and dress - from German-Jewish Rebecca into all-American Hazel reminded me, I say, of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, in which mixed-race women "pass" themselves off as white and marry white men who know nothing of their heritage. There must be, I suggest, a deep loneliness at the heart of a marriage in which you're unable, as Rebecca is in her second marriage, to talk about your past with your husband. Oates readily accepts the comparison with Larsen, whom she admires, but offers a more ambiguous view of the substance of marriage itself. "I don't know what marriages are like in general," she says, "but there are many things which I don't talk about with my husband. We discuss practical problems, but I wouldn't sit down with him and talk about the distant past. It's somewhat in contrast to other Americans, who feel that they have to confess things, but I'm really not like that. It all comes out in the writing; that's enough. And my husband doesn't read my writing either." He doesn't read any of it at all? "Some of it, here and there," she qualifies, "but not this book. He doesn't" she adds, lightly, "really know much about my family."

Was that, I ask, a conscious decision on her part?

"Yes - I asked him not to read it," she replies. "He's an editor and publisher, he's reading all the time. I wouldn't inflict a 600-page manuscript on him in the evening - or expect some reaction from him, which maybe he can't, or doesn't want, to give ... In fact, the only people who read my novels are my agent and my editor. You look at acknowledgment pages these days and it's astonishing how many people are involved in reading one book. My students often say, "My roommate read this story and really liked it", and it's hard to convince them that there are things wrong with it. I say, "well, people who love you want you to be happy. But I'm your professor and I'm supposed to be teaching you something."
I must say that Joyce Carol Oates is one of my absolute heroes...

Taking things apart

Today I have to do two funny little jobs that are unfortunately highly congruent with each other. I am not particularly looking forward to them, though neither should take more than five minutes (well, maybe ten...):

1. Replace the keyboard on my laptop. Hmmm--the T came off about a month ago, but there was a funny little plastic nipple-type thing underneath that worked perfectly well--the left index finger hits that letter, it wasn't like last year when the space bar fell off and I really had to do something about it immediately. But this week it was getting a lot of use, and the little rubbery thing came off too--still more or less functional, but now just a flat panel that needs a gentle sort of stroke of the finger, NOT very good! It is very nerve-racking, though, taking something important apart when it's not quite clear how it's going to come back together--Dell sent me another keyboard, I'm under warranty, but I never opened the box--I thought I'd better wait till after the book was done....

2. Get my bicycle onto this! My swimming teacher has loaned it to me, very exciting--and really this should be the work of a moment--but I am still at the stage where it makes me rather nervous to contemplate popping the wheel off...

We will just hope that at the end of the day my apartment is not a pile of spare parts...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Supersonic detection

Excuses for not having a TV license.

(England really is a foreign country, this is a heartening reminder, globalization can only go so far...)

(Thanks to Nico for the link.)

A penny bun or a Marmite sandwich

John Carey reviews Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. It starts out pretty bleakly:
The slaughter of a generation of young men in the first world war left a generation of young women without their normal chance of marriage and motherhood. Their fate was already apparent before the war ended. In 1917, the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls stood up before the assembled sixth form and broke the news: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of 10 of you girls can ever hope to marry.” Her estimate, a former pupil later recorded, proved exactly right. What this generation of women made of their diminished lives, and how the rest of the population regarded them, are the questions that Virginia Nicholson’s pioneering book confronts.

The answer to the second question is – with astonishing spite, resentment and lack of sympathy. When the 1921 census revealed that women outnumbered men by almost 2m, it unleashed a frenzy of vituperation. “The superfluous women,” proclaimed the Daily Mail, “are a disaster to the human race.” They were labelled “limpets” and “bread-snatchers” for taking jobs from demobbed soldiers. They were reviled for forming “unwholesome female friendships” and mocked for lavishing their stifled affection on cats and lapdogs. Sexual psychologists pronounced them unnatural, and Oswald Mosley found them “distressing”. A popular solution was that they should be exported to the colonies. Canada, it was pointed out, had an excess of male trappers and lumberjacks, and even Australia offered many “simple pleasures”.

When, desperate to fill the gap in their lives, they wrote for advice to women’s magazines, they met with heartless optimism (“Cheer up, dears”) or insulting tips on man-catching (“If you use a henna shampoo, don’t overdo it”). Self-help books, with titles such as Sex Philosophy for the Bachelor Girl and Live Alone and Like It, prattled on about taking up folk dancing, astrology or amateur dramatics. But for women whose men had died, the need was to find some way of appeasing their desire for love and their guilt at surviving. An advertisement in the Matrimonial Times read “Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Cloning, ex-marathon runners, psychiatric institutes

Ed Park has a particularly good Astral Weeks column at the LA Times this week. The first book he's writing about in particular sounds like a dementedly magical hodgepodge of many of my favorite things!

The introduction of the bicycle

I like the FT books section partly because there's a real intellectual sensibility at work in the selection of books and pairing with reviewers--it's unusual among newspapers, I'd say, in having such a clear and appealing vision. Here for instance is a very appealing review by John Thornhill of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France.

(I am slightly ashamed to confess that I only clicked on the link because I saw the word "cycle"--Robb's means of getting around the country... Hmmm, I wonder if this is the book that would make a really useful addition to my unsatisfactory collection of cycling-related reading material...)

I think I've really got to read this one in any case, it sounds like a magically interesting book:
One of the most fascinating threads running through The Discovery of France is the role of language in shaping identity. It is striking to learn that only 3 million people – or 11 per cent of the population – spoke French by the time of the 1789 revolution. At the time the “French” spoke some 55 major dialects, and hundreds of sub-dialects. As late as 1863 one quarter of army recruits spoke only patois. During the first world war, Bretons were shot by French soldiers because they could not speak French and were mistaken for Germans.

Mass migration to the cities in the late 19th century, the introduction of the bicycle, and the impact of the first world war [probably the first news event to be transmitted across the whole country on the same day] all contributed to the “discovery” of France. Robb claims that greater mobility brought about by the bicycle even contributed to an increase in the average height of the French as more people married outside their blood relatives.

Robb’s book is scattered with such vivid gems. His rediscovered France is populated by Pyrenean shepherds who had their own whistling language, by postmen in the soggy Landes who used stilts on their delivery rounds into the 1930s, and by the smuggling dogs of northern France, trained to transport goods across internal borders.
Pretty great, eh?!?

The pettiness of the man

At the FT, Ramachandra Guha reviews a new collection of essays by V. S. Naipaul.

On pacing oneself

This past week for me was one of those ones where you switch into hyperdrive and get slightly unbelievable amounts of work done--there is a certain mad enjoyment to being in this mode, I have an affinity for it, and yet the price paid also seems to me very high. It's not just sleeplessness, it's the living-on-your-nerves aspect--it really takes it out of you. I paced myself steadily but hard all week for a 3pm deadline yesterday, and I made it within ten minutes of that time--I've been doing this kind of thing for a lot of years now. But I had better not have another week like this again any time soon, or I really will have a nervous breakdown--I need to make it through to the end of the school year, this is a question of September-to-May pacing with a race-within-the-race checkpoint, as it were, of making it through the fall semester without mining my internal resources so deeply that there is nothing left for writing in the interlude between semesters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I then ran an absolutely awful race this morning! Comically awful, and partly because of questions of pacing--actually I'm fairly cheerful about it, all things considered--but I am going to write up thoughts here as a reminder to my future self...

Four things that didn't bode well, though to some extent not within my control:

1. Sleeplessness this week (averaged about four hours a night, not good, though on the whole not a huge factor in the actual race--it would matter more for a longer one)

2. Temperature (in the seventies already when we started, with humidity at 81%--it was hot out there)

3. Lack of mental preparation (I couldn't think about it this week at all, and I couldn't really face thinking about it last night either, so when I got up this morning I had not even thought about what running clothes I needed to wear, had not picked up race number in advance, etc. etc.--scrambling even to get ready on time--literally the only thought I'd had was that with conditions favorable, I should be able to hit an 8:30 mile pace, but that temperature alone was going to make this impossible and I should simply not worry about it)

4. Pacing!

The pacing was the clincher. (For the non-runners among you, it is closely related to items two and three on the list--if I had had proper mental preparation, I would have thought about the implications of 8:30 pace plus hot and humid conditions and sensibly adjusted to 8:35-8:40 and done as well as I could.)

The thing was, I totally just took off thoughtlessly and ran way too fast for the first two miles! The comical thing was that my friend Liz ran almost exactly the same bad race that I did (she finished a bit sooner, but similar trajectory), so it must be structurally related to the stage of our running lives we're at...

(At the water station at the two-mile marker, I actually had to stop and walk for twenty yards or so--which is not what you should have to do in a four-mile race--and there was Liz walking next to me! For a second I was, like, "Liz! Liz! Don't ruin your race just because I am a bad walking-related influence!" But of course really we both had just gone way too fast in opening and now felt like we were about to die! It was pretty funny even at the time, certainly heartening in a strange way...)

Mile splits (approximate, these are from the Device which is slightly inaccurate in its distance measurements): 8:17, 7:58 (?!?), 9:11, 8:42. And my pace for the last little minute of running up to the finish time was 7:03, I definitely still had finish-line vim, it was just that my HR was in the 170s the whole time and I really did feel rather queasy whenever I stepped up the effort level... 34:59 time, 8:44 mile pace, which is also what I had for that 10K in May--I have gotten somewhat faster over the summer, so this is too bad, but on the other hand it really was quite hot out there...

Lesson for future: follow appropriate self-imposed pace guidelines, and take the time to think things through in advance!

The only reason I ran this race is that I am kind of on a quest to get the nine races required for guaranteed entry into the 2008 New York City marathon. My main thought after finishing this morning (other than thinking that fortunately though I felt acutely queasy I was not actually going to throw up just after the finish line, unlike the woman right next to me!) is that I need to reconsider this. If you spread them out over the year, it's not at all difficult to accomplish. But I couldn't race till May because of injury, and then injury-related caution also made me want not to mess up my big goal race by overdoing it on other races in between, and in short, the four-mile race this morning was only race #3. And I've got a couple weekends out of town for various work- or family-related things this fall, so the calendar means that literally I have to do every single remaining race I'm in town for, barring a 60K that is obviously not appropriate, or I will fall short.

(And actually I just realized earlier this week that one of the remaining ones I must do for guaranteed entry is pretty much certainly in conflict with this conference I'm participating in at the humanities center at the beginning of December, I cannot be haring off from real work responsibilities in order to run races, so all of this may be in any case moot...)

This is simply not sensible. A Saturday morning spent racing, aside from everything else, is a Saturday morning I do not get to do the lovely longer slower training run that is what I most like. And though the New York marathon is special, I don't absolutely have to do that one this time round. I can enter for a spot through the lottery, or try and wangle one through another route, and in fact maybe Philadelphia is a better first marathon in any case: it's certainly a faster course, I will have home-town supporters and there is an upside as well as a downside to not having the frenetic NYC marathon energy... (Including the fact that it will be significantly easier to adhere to a pacing plan in Philadelphia conditions than New York ones!)

I'm locked in on any case for the two upcoming half-marathons: I'm doing the Queens one in two weeks as a training run, which will be rather delightful (first ten miles at 10-10:15 pace, then race the last three as close to 8:45 pace as I can manage just to get a feel for what that's like in that context--if it is a hot day, it will not of course be that fast!), and I've got the Grete's Great Gallop half in Central Park in October as the goal my training's currently directed towards. (Aspirationally sub-2:00!) But it may be that my running resources are better directed towards training this fall than doing quite so much racing, and that I should lay aside what seems a somewhat counter-productive program of action...

Slivers of occurrence

James Fenton has a rather lovely little piece in the Guardian about anarchists and other matters (including Luc Sante's translation of Novels in Three Lines which I am now sort of Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-level slavering for):
Tailhade had been an anarchist, as had the mysterious writer Félix Fénéon, whose newly translated Novels in Three Lines I have been reading. According to Luc Sante's introduction, during a series of anarchist bombing activities in Paris, a man called Ravachol planted bombs intended to kill two judges in a recent case. Although no one was killed, Ravachol was guillotined. In 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. Again no one was killed, but Vaillant went to the guillotine, where he predicted his death would be avenged. The prediction was fulfilled in an incident at the Café Terminus near the Gare Saint-Lazare: one killed, 20 injured.

Tailhade notoriously remarked on this occasion: "Qu'importent quelques vagues humanités, si le geste est beau?" Sante's translation: "Of what importance are a few vague people if the gesture is beautiful?" It is one of those lines that seem to sum up an epoch, and Tailhade paid for this observation - as Sante says - "with unimprovable irony", by losing an eye, as the sole victim of the next major bombing. A bomb had been left on the windowsill of the restaurant where he was dining with his mistress.

The person who left the device in the restaurant was never identified; clearly he, too, would have been guillotined if he had been. The writer Fénéon was among those arrested in the aftermath, and had to explain how a search of his office cupboard turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 10 detonators. Fénéon claimed in court that his recently deceased father had found them in the street. The prosecutor suggested this was unusual.

Fénéon's reply gives us a flavour of his sly wit and insolence: "The examining magistrate asked me why I hadn't thrown them out the window instead of taking them to the Ministry [where he worked]. So you see, it is possible to find detonators in the street." Mallarmé, among those who came to Fénéon's defence, said: "You say they are talking of detonators. Certainly, for Fénéon, there are no better detonators than his articles."