Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Literary footwear

Young-adult novelist Justine Larbalester has recently acquired a mighty lovely pair of boots...


Next Monday, if you're so inclined, come by The Kitchen at 7pm to talk realism: On Monday, March 3, The Kitchen will present Reading and Talking Realism: An Evening with Open City and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood.

The two-part evening will combine the fun of a typical reading with a rare opportunity for readers and writers to talk about the strength of the realist mode, its dominance in fiction and its influence on other genres, in the past, present and future. The first segment will feature writers Keith Gessen, Jenny Davidson, Frederic Tuten and Eileen Myles reading portions of their own work.

In the second segment, the writers will participate in a panel discussion about the tradition of realism in literature and how their work both derives from and criticizes it. The panel will be led by Patrick Gallagher, a contributing editor to Open City and former managing editor of Mr. Beller's Neighborhood.

Keith Gessen is a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1. He has written on contemporary Russian and American literature for Dissent, The Nation, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. Gessen’s first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, is forthcoming from Viking Press in April 2008.

Jenny Davidson is the author of the novels Heredity, from Soft Skull Press and The Explosionist, forthcoming from HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2008. Davidson is also an Associate Professor in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

Frederic Tuten is the author of the novels The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Tallien, Tintin in the New World, Van Gogh's Bad Café and The Green Hour, in addition to many stories and essays. Tuten is also a Professor in the graduate fiction-writing program at City College of New York. In 1973, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing and in 2001 he was given the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Eileen Myles is the author of numerous poetry collections, including The Irony of the Leash, Sappho's Boat, On My Way, and, in 2007 Sorry, Tree from Wave Books. She is also the author of the short story collection Chelsea Girls and the novel Cool For You. Myles’s newest project is The Importance of Being Iceland, her first full collection of art criticism.

Reading and Talking Realism will take place at 7:00 P.M. at The Kitchen (512 West 19th Street). Tickets are $5.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Adela contemplates the charms of the eighteenth-century lapdog.

Live and let die

In the Times, Michael Smith on the Bondian license to kill:
In fact, a surprising amount of the Bond story was true. The first “C”, as the head of MI6 is known, was Mansfield Smith-Cumming who – like Bond – was a Royal Navy commander when he started his new career. Cumming, whose name was shortened to C to protect his identity, was a particularly tough bird. Trapped by his car after it ran into a tree in wartime France, he hacked off his leg with a penknife in an attempt to save his dying son.

Compton Mackenzie, a secret service officer during the first world war, described how Cumming gave him the swordstick he had taken with him on spying expeditions to Germany before the war. “That’s when this business was really amusing,” Cumming told him. “After the war is over, we’ll do some amusing secret service work together. It’s capital sport.”
And along similar lines, I read a most delightful novel this weekend while laid low with a bronchial ailment (still fairly under the weather, I'm afraid): Charles Stross's The Atrocity Archives. Absolutely delightful! Len Deighton-H. P. Lovecraft mashup, with rather entrancing mathematical and computational asides--pretty much the perfect light reading, my highest compliment for any book...

(I reread The Ipcress File in the relatively recent past as part of some vague novelistic investigative project, thinking I suppose about models for my current ones, and I must say that I found it absolutely incomprehensible! Much more stylized and strange than I remembered it having been at the time I first read it as a teenager. I have never been a great John Le Carre fan--his best books are quite good, but I find his writing especially more recently has a pompous blowhard self-consciously literary quality that I can't abide... Deighton has a sort of hipster cred that Le Carre in any case lacks.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Drawing and Painting the Undead

Paul Collins contemplates the oddest book titles in 2007.

Mither tongue

The Harry Potter books may be translated into broad Scots.

(And I wonder, why is it always "broad" Scots? It is as though "broad" is needed for clarification...)

"It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed"

How can you resist a novel that contains the sequence of words "She left in an all-species pod taxi"?!?

At any rate, I was in need of some high-quality light reading (I sent out the final revisions of my academic book manuscript on Monday), and really there seemed nothing so suited to requirements as Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, Matter...

I'm a longtime Banks devotee (here are some back Light Reading posts), though with a preference for his non-"M." novels (the science fiction ones are published as Iain M. Banks, the others just Iain Banks). I think my couple favorites (though of course The Wasp Factory and Crow Road are the classics...laziness is making me only post in a single Banks Amazon link rather than separate ones for each book) are Whit and The Business, with Canal Dreams and Complicity also particularly to my taste--but really you can't go wrong, his last couple have been very enjoyable also.

(I have said it before, but one thing I like about Banks' writing is that his characters seem to live in a world and experience it in a way that is recognizably familiar to me! Not, of course, that I am floating around in tanks with spiniform creatures, or arming myself with high-tech weaponry, or indeed working for a mysterious global business enterprise--but his female characters in particular just seem to think about things and make decisions in a way that makes sense to me...)

This one's a very enjoyable read. The writing is extraordinarily lively and vivid in the places where we're really just getting descriptive context on the interplanetary world of the Culture, those are the most fun parts (it's perhaps a bit long in terms of the sub-Shakespearean faux-medieval-with-comic-sidekicks planetary scheming?!?), but it builds to a really excellent conclusion, a great fast stretch at the end that I raced through with considerable enjoyment.

I am especially pleased to report that there's a very good swimming scene in the middle! Which I believe I will transcribe for your reading enjoyment...

(And first I must also quote again the lovely sentence Steven Poole mentioned in his Guardian review and which was frankly the thing that made me know I had to read this book. Poole: "You can watch the prose clicking into a kind of rapturous hard-sf overdrive as Banks begins to describe [the planet]: 'Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.'" Mmmmm....)

Forthwith, swimming-related...
As on most Morthanveld ships, the water was generally kept as clean as desirable by fixed and static scrubbing units; nevertheless, the fact was that the bait species and accrescent flora the Morthanveld liked to feed on needed water with nutrients in it, and the Morthanveld themselves regarded having to visit some special place to relieve oneself of waste as the mark of a species insufficiently at home with itself. Or gas-breathing, which was almost as embarrassing.

The water they lived, swam, worked and played within, then, was not perfectly unclouded. However, it was always plasant to have a clear view, especially in such a vast space.

The Morthanveld very much approved of themselves, and the larger the numbers of their kind there were present, the more self-approval they felt. Being able to see the hundreds of millions of their fellows a Great Ship normally carried was generally regarded as an extremely good thing, so rather than rely on their naked eyes to see their way round a space as vast as that of a Great Ship's interior, they used thin-film screens covering their eyes to present them with the view they'd be able to see had the water been perfectly clear.

Djan Seriy had decided to adopt the same strategy and so swam with a modified thin-film screen over her own eyes. She moved through the water in a dark suit like a second skin. Around her neck was what looked like a necklace made of fluttering green fronds; a gill arrangement that provided oxygen to her nose through two small transparent tubes. This was somewhat ignominious to her, as with her old upgrades her skin would have ridged and puckered over whatever area was required to absorb the gases she needed straight out of the water.

The thin-film screen was stuck across her eyes like a flimsy transparent bandage. She had switched off her blink reflex; the alternative was to let the screen bulge out far enough for her to blink normally, but the air-gap introduced unwanted distortions. The screen provided her with the virtual view of the real space, showing the cavernous semi-spherical spaces of the Great Ship like some staggeringly vast cave system.

She could have patched directly into the ship's internal sensory view to achieve the same effect, or just swum with her own senses and not bothered with the greater, seemingly clear view, but she was being polite; using the thin-film screen meant that the ship could keep an eye on her, seeing, no doubt, what she could see, and so knowing that she wasn't getting into any Special Circumstances-style mischief.


Djan Seriy powered up and to the left to avoid a fore-current, found a helpful aft-current, curved round a set of long, bulbous habitats like enormous dangling fruits and then struck out towards a tall bunch of green-black spheres each between ten and thirty metres across, hanging in the water like a colossal strand of seaweed. She switched off the prop unit and swam into one of the larger spheres through a silvery circle a couple of metres across and let the draining water lower her to the soft, wet floor. Gravity again. She was spending more time aquatic than not, even including sleeping, as she explored the huge space vessel. This was her fifth day aboard and she only had another four to go. There was still much to see.

Her suit, until now coating her body as closely as paint, promptly frizzed up, forcing the water to slide off and letting it assume the look of something a fashionable young lady would choose to wear in an air-breathing environment. She stuffed her necklace gill into a pocket and -- as the suit's head-part flowed downward to form an attractive frilled collar -- flicked one earing to activate a temporary static field. This sorted her hair, which was, today, blonde. She kept the thin-film screen on. She thought it looked rather good on her; vaguely piratical.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wilsonian acting

There will be staged readings of August Wilson's full Century Cycle at the Kennedy Center in DC this spring, running from March 4 to April 4.

I saw the Signature revivals of three of Wilson's plays last year and found them utterly magical--if you live in the DC area, this is essential, do go and see at least a couple of 'em!

Here's the link to the theatre's page.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The ductile mind

From this week's Clarissa installment, for the enjoyment of prolific bloggers everywhere...
And indeed, my dear, I know not how to forbear writing. I have now no other employment or diversion. I must write on, although I were not to send it to anybody. You have often heard me own the advantages I have found from writing down everything of moment that befalls me; and of all I think and of all I do that may be of future use to me—for, besides that this helps to form one to a style, and opens and expands the ductile mind, everyone will find that many a good thought evaporates in thinking; many a good resolution goes off, driven out of memory, perhaps, by some other not so good. But when I set down what I will do, or what I have done on this or that occasion; the resolution or action is before me, either to be adhered to, withdrawn or amended; and I have entered into compact with myself, as I may say; having given it under my own hand, to improve rather than go backward, as I live longer. (p. 483)

Game, sett and match

This morning's e-mail brought a particularly delightful bit of correspondence from Brent Buckner:
Subject: Lou Aronica BBC Nightmare (*)(+)

"Just like _Watership Down_... only with BADGERS!"
It's an extraordinary story, make sure to watch the clips (especially the fight scene!)...

(*)Brent's gloss: In a panel at the 1988 World Science Fiction Convention in New Orleans, publisher/editor Lou Aronica commented on facing his least favourite type of slush-pile manuscript, summarized as a one-sentence pitch (paraphrased): "It's just like _Watership Down_, only with BADGERS!"

(+) My further gloss: I DESPERATELY want to read _Watership Down_ with badgers! Anybody?!?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"What Caligula used to live like"

A bizarrely good interview at New York Magazine--I don't look over there that often, but the word Caligula caught my eye!--comic Patrice O'Neal interviewed on his eating habits (most of the people interviewed in this column seem not to eat enough to keep a sparrow alive, so this is especially appealing...);
My favorite place where I eat dinner three times a week is Plataforma — it is where I eat. I get a scallop potato, sushi, salad. They bring out all these little fried bananas, broccoli, cheese bread, and stuff, but I don’t fill up on that. These dudes walk around and cut meat on your plate — it’s like what Caligula used to live like. They come with dead animals on a stick and just feed you. I’ll have a sausage, a piece of chicken, a slice of garlic steak… You gotta fight to get some lamb chops, but it’s always worth it. I’m a big buffet dude, or I’m a big cheap-food-and-order-more-when-I-need-it dude.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Is it fun?"

Came across this just now while looking up another reference, and couldn't help but read it with avid interest--a rather lovely and quite thought-provoking essay by Michael Warner, "Tongues Untied: Memoirs of a Pentecostal Boyhood" (2004).

A book of allsorts

At the Sunday Times, Jenny Diski considers The Daring Book for Girls:
How old are the readers of The Daring Book for Girls supposed to be? Old enough to be fascinated by the periodic table, sleepover parties and the Heimlich manoeuvre. Not so old that they will be too busy drinking alcopops to make a willow whistle or play jacks – although learning French terms of endearment and how to put your hair up with a pencil are handy at any age. Definitely under 19, up to which point, apparently, it is possible to ignore boys.

The section on Boys goes on to explain that “boys are people”, and that for those who haven’t managed to ignore them it’s essential to remember “if a boy doesn’t like you the way you are, the problem is him, not you”. Adding, for balance, “don’t try to make a boy change for you – it’s important to appreciate people for who they are”. Oh, I foresee terrible repercussions for both sexes if they are really persuaded by this; an epidemic of niceness draining whatever passion the alcopops have allowed to remain.
Hmmm, I feel developmentally stunted, I never learned to put my hair up with a pencil...


A bit from Norma Clarke's biography of Laetitia Pilkington, one of Swift's circle in early eighteenth-century Dublin before she became a "fallen woman". Nice to see this book getting so much attention in England, not sure if it's been published here yet...

Stable emulsions

At the FT, Brigid Grauman talks to molecular gastronomist Herve This.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bernard Shaw in skirts?

At the Guardian Review, Stefan Collini considers Rebecca West's criticism. Interesting thoughts here on the differences and overlaps between reviewing and criticism, I should get that one...

Also, this caused me to reflect that though I am drawn to psychogeography (ley lines!), I have come to find the situationists very annoying!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The language of cat-monkeys, or Meerkat Manor avant la lettre

It might be that Samuel Taylor Coleridge translated Goethe's Faust into English!

Fortification patterns

Oliver Sacks has a very lovely piece at the Times about migraines and the visual hallucinations that accompany them:
As a child, I was fascinated by patterns, starting with the patterns in our house — the square colored floor tiles we had on the porch, the tessellation of small pentagonal and hexagonal ones in the kitchen; the herringbone pattern on the curtains in my room, and the pattern on my father’s check suit. When I was taken to the synagogue for services, I was more interested in the mosaics of tiny tiles on the floor than in the religious liturgy. And I was fascinated by a pair of antique Chinese cabinets we had in our drawing room, for embossed on their lacquered surfaces were patterns of wonderful intricacy, patterns on different scales, patterns nested within patterns, all surrounded by clusters of tendrils and leaves.

These geometric and scrolling motifs seemed somehow familiar to me, though it did not dawn on my until years later that this was because I had seen them not only in my environment but in my own head, that these patterns resonated with my own inner experience of the intricate tilings and swirls of migraine.

Much later still, when I first saw photographs of the Alhambra, with its intricate geometric mosaics, I started to wonder whether what I had taken to be a personal experience and resonance might in fact be part of a larger whole, whether certain basic forms of geometric art, going back for tens of thousands of years, might also reflect the external expression of universal experiences. Migraine-like patterns, so to speak, are seen not only in Islamic art, but in classical and medieval motifs, in Zapotec architecture, in the bark paintings of Aboriginal artists in Australia, in Acoma pottery, in Swazi basketry — in virtually every culture. There seems to have been, throughout human history, a need to externalize, to make art from, these internal experiences, from the decorative motifs of prehistoric cave paintings to the psychedelic art of the 1960s. Do the arabesques in our own minds, built into our own brain organization, provide us with our first intimations of geometry, of formal beauty?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ten signs

Dorothy had a good meme on her blog this morning, one that I am irresistibly impelled to try my hand at--with slight modification.

Forthwith, the ten signs a novel has been written by me (it is a pity that I cannot convey the humor of this list, it will only be visible to those who have actually read both of my novels--the second one's not yet published--and know that they are in many respects comically different from one another, so that this list of similarities is distinctly hilarious to my eyes!):

1. Set over the course of six or eight weeks in June and July.

2. Female protagonist suffers from insomnia.

3. Would give the reader an impression I know the city it's set in well. A false impression: I have a terrible sense of direction and detailed walking-around scenes are produced only via poring over maps of one kind or another.

4. Full of true scientific facts.

5. Also full of made-up scientific facts.

6. Full of true historical facts.

7. Also full of made-up historical facts which I cannot now disentangle in my imagination from the real ones!

8. With very few metaphors.

9. But multiple visits to museums, doctor's offices and cultural monuments of one kind or another.

10. And an ending that makes the reader think there might be a sequel...

A cloacal kiss

In honor of Valentine's Day, Olivia Judson contemplates the conjectural sex life of T. Rex.

Huntington fidget pies

Nico sends a nice little story from the Guardian about the current popularity of regional foods. I link to it mainly for the lovely list in the middle, words to savor:
Bath chaps (breadcrumb-coated pig cheeks); Bakewell puddings; Eccles cakes; Yarmouth bloaters (smoked and salted herring); Grasmere gingerbreads; Dundee cake; Carmarthen hams; Wensleydale cheeses; Huntingdon fidget pies (apple and bacon); Tewkesbury mustards; Pershore plums; Cumberland rum nickies (sticky tarts); Hereford perry (cider); Blackpool rock; Whitstable oysters; Oxford sausages; Yorkshire curd tarts[.]

Monday, February 11, 2008

"My hurry of spirits is allayed"

Sentences in this week's Clarissa reading most likely to appear, unrevised, in a stream-of-consciousness e-mail written by me:
Forgive me, my dear friend, breaking into my story by these reflections. Were I rapidly to pursue my narration, without thinking, without reflecting, I believe I should hardly be able to keep in my right mind, since vehemence and passion would then be always uppermost; but while I think as I write, I cool, and my hurry of spirits is allayed. (Clarissa Harlowe to Anna Howe, Letter 78)

The want of tails in young cats

Checking quotations is one of the final jobs that must be done for an academic book manuscript before it is sent to the publishers, and also one of the most tedious. I have been very lucky this time round to get some high-quality help from an extremely accomplished graduate student who has done almost all of the work for me, and in a quite wonderful fashion!

We're just tracking down the last few things this week, and I am delighted to have found online a facsimile of the correct edition of August Weismann's altogether wonderful Essays on Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems (1889).

This means that I can tell you all to go and read one of the couple very best things I came across as I read for this book (John Passmore and Timothy Nourse are possibly my other two personal favorite discoveries, though there were all sorts of other lovely things like the seventeenth-century botanist John Ray's Wisdom of God Reflected in the Works of the Creation): Weismann's essay "On the Supposed Transmission of Mutilations" (1888).

I cannot figure out how to paste in page images from the PDF file, but I especially recommend the discussion on pages 426 and following (the whole essay is about thirty pages long, but it's taken from a book with continuous pagination) of tailless cats...

Impact on the breed

Richard Sandomir has a funny article in the Times about dog breeding:
Chilled or frozen semen is collected from a stud dog egged on by a “teaser” female in heat, a practice similar to what is used in horse breeding. Once the sample is received, it is injected into the female or implanted into the female’s cervix, said Bill Truesdale, a veterinarian who owns the International Canine Semen Bank franchise in Seekonk, Mass.

In Seekonk, stud fees run from $800 to $1,500, depending on the qualities, merits and rarity of the breed.

“The advantage to frozen semen is storing it forever, but the problem is, once you thaw it, the active motility is 12 hours, so we have to make sure the bitch is fertile,” Truesdale said.

Truesdale’s bank holds more than 1,000 cryogenically frozen samples. About half are derived from deceased or now-sterile dogs, including a few collected from a golden retriever 21 years ago and 40 from his boxer Biff (Ch. High-Tech’s Arbitrage), who was profiled in the New Yorker in 1995.

Friday, February 08, 2008

No sleep, only dreams

More on sleeping and dreaming.

The contemporary decline in nocturnal literacy

At the Telegraph, Brian Dillon consider Eluned Summers-Bremer's cultural history of insomnia. (Jonathan Sale weighs in also.)


The paragraphs in this past week's Clarissa reading that most desperately made me want to write an over-the-top epistolary novel myself:
I have been frighted out of my wits--still am in a manner out of breath--thus occasioned--I went down under the usual pretence in hopes to find something from you. Concerned at my disappointment I was returning from the woodhouse, when I heard a rustling, as of somebody behind a stack of wood. I was extremely surprised: but still more, to behold a man coming from behind the furthermost stack. Oh thought I, at that moment, the sin of a prohibited correspondence!

In the same point of time that I saw him, he besought me not to be frighted: and still nearer approaching me, threw open a horseman's coat: and who should it be but Mr Lovelace! I could not scream out (yet attempted to scream, the moment I saw a man; and again when I saw who it was) for I had no voice: and had I not caught hold of a prop, which supported the old roof, I should have sunk.

I had hitherto, as you know, kept him at a distance: and now, as I recovered myself, judge of my first emotions when I recollected his character from every mouth of my family; his enterprising temper; and found myself alone with him in a place so near a by-lane and so remote from the house. (Letter 36)

Clearing the deck

It is mildly absurd, and may also be diagnosed as wearing the taint of procrastination-related rationalization--but just as I can't (unless in chaotic final throes of book-finishing, which I hope will shortly be the cacse!) really sit down to work properly until things are reasonably tidy in the physical world around me, so I feel that I have to mentally clear the deck before I can concentrate on my book manuscript!

So--the light reading backlog...

(I have read an extraordinarily small number of books this past year, partly as a result of life stress and general busyness but also and more obviously as a consequence of my triathlon obsession--it's not just the training hours--the amount of time I have spent contemplating swimming-related matters in the past twelve months is pretty much beyond belief!)

Nothing like reading a Dick Francis novel for the fifty-millionth time when it comes to calming oneself down....

(I am surprised that I have not leached all the pleasure out of every single one of his books by excessive rereading, but it seems they still have the power to lull me in a most attractive way. I have found a few other writers who seem to me to capture some of the Francis charms--the Australian crime writer Peter Temple writes Dick-Francis-died-and-gone-to-heaven novels that are really more like Beckett in their austere and lovely texture, Lee Child's Jack Reacher books produce in my reading brain the same delightful effects as Dick Francis in his prime--but there is nothing quite like a Dick Francis novel. If my spirit took me that way, I would start writing 'em myself, because it came clear to me a few years ago that if there is a book you most want to read and it does not yet exist, you had better write it yourself--that's what I've done with The Explosionist, there were no more unread novels by Philip Pullman or Garth Nix!--and in fact I wonder whether I could not indeed find some way of writing a vaguely Franciscan crime series--I have the premise, it would be series rather than standalone--and indeed it is the same thing as the Upper Manhattan animal shapeshifter novel I have been contemplating for some time--only now my main character is also a triathlete! But with an ethical dilemma about whether she can compete in USAT-sanctioned triathlons, because of her cougar blood--if I write these books, it is possible that all triathlon-related expenses would be retroactively tax-deductible, assuming I could dig out all the receipts...)

I had this for a train ride, only I have put it aside without finishing it, because it struck me as implausible and romanticizing in a way that marred my reading pleasure. (I vaguely mix up Robert Crais and Harlan Coben in my head, only Crais's novels are much more to my taste--Coben is very talented, but his books just don't take me the same way!)

I read Robert Harris's Imperium in dribs and drabs over a couple weeks. I enjoyed it, but any novel of this sort will suffer by comparison with the work of genius that is I, Claudius. Harris's hands are also tied by the decision to write what is essentially a biographical novel about Cicero's career from start to finish. He's got a narrator, Cicero's slave Tiro, a historical figure who really did write a (now lost) biography of the orator, and it seemed to me that there's the germ of a really wonderful novel here--about the invention of shorthand! But neither narrator nor subject are really psychologically developed.

It might have worked better if Harris had decided to write the whole novel around the episode of the trial of Catiline--things pick up, dramatically speaking, in the last part of the book. I felt the novel's shortcomings could be summed up by quoting a series of passages that unfortunately snagged my attention as I read:
At the center of all this whirling activity, as in the eye of a tornado, walked the candidate himself, clad in the gleaming toga candida which had already seen him through three victorious election campaigns. It was rare that I was able to watch him from a distance--usually I was tucked in behind him--and for the first time I appreciated what a natural actor he was, in that when he donned his costume he found his character. All those qualities which the traditional whiteness was supposed to symbolize--clarity, honesty, purity--seemed to be personified in his solid frame and steady gaze as he walked, unseeing, past me. (p. 283)

As I watched him come down the stairs in a freshly laundered white toga, his face washed and shaved and his hair combed and scented, I thought that no one could have guessed that he had not slept for the past two nights. . . . He smiled at [his wife] and said something, and at that moment I realized for the first time just how close they had become over the years, that what had started as a marriage of convenience was now a most formidable partnership. (p. 296)
I give the page numbers because of course the problem resides in having the narrator, so close to his subject, still pondering that subject's fundamental unknowability so late in the novel...

(Hmmm, side note, those "Catiline Orations" of Cicero's really are quite extraordinary; I remember working my way through bits of them in the intensive Latin class I took my last semester of college, and to this day the word extirpate gives me a lovely Ciceronian shiver...)

I've saved the best for last, though the length of this post means that I wonder whether anyone's still reading! Mal Peet's young-adult novel Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal has my whole-hearted endorsement. At times I felt the territory was a bit too familiar to me (Dutch resistance, WWII-era narrative spliced together with first-person narration by one of the earlier characters' granddaughter in present-day London)--there's very much the feel, for instance, of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong and Charlotte Grey, both of which I really loved (especially the latter). In the end, though, I really don't think this is a problem--it was a hugely significant time, it is not surprising people should be still writing novels about it...

Reading it, especially the scenes in which one of the SOE operatives nerve-rackingly transmits coded messages by radio from Holland to England, made me think very strongly of my Scottish grandfather, who died almost fifteen years ago but to whom I was very close in my childhood and teenage years as well as through the early years of adulthood.

He was a gentler character in the time I knew him than he had been earlier in his life--he had a bossy or even bullying streak that had clearly been more dominant at one point, perhaps exacerbated by his position as headmaster of a school. His adult life was in many ways very much colored by his experience during WWII, a history he did not speak much about until the last years of his life.

I may have some of the details wrong here, and of course I cannot now check with him (my father will perhaps correct some of these details for me later!), but he was an ordinary soldier in the Royal Signal Corps who had the bad luck to be captured in North Africa in 1941, while my grandmother was pregnant with my father. He spent the whole rest of the war as a prisoner, first in very intensely unpleasant conditions in Italy (he only spoke about this to me once or twice, but it was the Italian part of his prisoner life that was almost unbearable for him to think about, and in fact as I understand it he never could face the idea of setting foot on Italian soil after the war--he was locked up with about a hundred and twenty others in a barn, and at the end of three months more than a third of the men had committed suicide) and then in a huge and Kafkaesque work camp in Germany.

There he was able to receive Red Cross packages and send letters, and to forge alliances with other prisoners due to some talent for and knowledge of languages. Indeed, he had a strange and moving story about being sent as representative of a group of prisoners lobbying for better treatment (I think he weighed not too much more than a hundred pounds when he got home after the war, maybe a hundred and twenty, and he was at least 6' 2", maybe taller, and a person of considerable physical substance in later years--another family story involves him exploding at my grandmother, during his first months home, for throwing away the outside leaves of a cabbage), and having a moment of connection with the military man who was the director of the--what to call it? camp, factory?--when they realized that they had both received degrees in Old English and Anglo-Norse in the same year in the 1930s.

When we were little, he told us about how he escaped in the chaos of the war's final days by stealing a car, with a fellow prisoner, and driving it west across Europe and home to Scotland and my grandmother. We liked to hear this story again and again, and indeed in one respect I expect it fairly accurately described what happened. But Peet's novel conveys the feeling of those days in a more persuasive and wholly unromantic way. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tied to the keyboard for three months a year

At the Guardian, Sarah Kinson interviews one of my favorite writers, Iain Banks (but I always have self-reproach for not having read his science-fiction novels--it's the other ones I so much love...):
What are you working on now?

I'm at the stage of gearing up to thinking about the next novel. I don't have to touch the keyboard until October so it's a bit early. It's an entirely necessary stage I have to go through and is not at all to be confused with laziness. Actually, I am working on a piece of music. I have pretensions to be a composer, and hope to be as successful a composer as Anthony Burgess, if not less so.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The puff of desire

At the TLS, Robert Irwin's amusing musings on a new (and voluminous!) anthology of erotic literature (edited by Gaetan Brulotte and John Phillips):
For my taste, far too many obscure French hacks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been awarded entries. To judge from the Encyclopedia, France leads the world in the production of erotic literature, with China a poor second. Just as every country should have its own airline, so it should have its own pornography. Holland, The Happy Hooker notwithstanding, “has produced but few writers of erotica of its own whose works have been able to stand the test of time due to their inherent quality and/or the extent of the scandal they caused”. Ireland, meanwhile, is “not a country readily associated with the erotic”. Arabic and Persian erotica (the area I am most familiar with) is well covered by learned and capable authorities (except that I am not sure that all the erotica ascribed to the sixteenth-century Egyptian religious scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti really is by him). It is good to come across Zakani’s definition of a “virgin” as “a noun with no referent”. The articles on Persian erotica by Paul Sprachman and Dick Davis relay many good things, including “the puff of desire” that rises from the pages of the romantic epic Vis and Ramin, a description of Vis’s brilliantly orchestrated accidental striptease, a defence of the eroticism of the chador, and a quotation from a medieval mirror for princes to the effect that boys are best for summer and girls for winter.

But I had been hoping that the Encylopedia’s coverage would be trashier. The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once remarked of pornography that it was “rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony by having someone tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars”. While there are many who read erotic literature in order to get some sort of ersatz sexual pleasure out of the reading, there have always been plenty of young people who read the same books simply in order to discover what sex is. In the Encyclopedia’s rather good article on “Women’s Magazines”, Janice Winship is quoted: “It was disappointing that my mother had only Women’s Weekly. Mrs Marryat gave little away on her problem page. But I used to love the romance and adventure of the serials . . . mainly because of one (or so I remember it) highly erotic scene in which the heroine lets down her sari to reveal and offer up her nakedness to the man she loves”.

The Encylopedia’s entry on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos observes that “no instruction in the mechanics of sex can be obtained from reading Les Liaisons dangereuses, outside of the fact that it is often performed in bed and often at night”. Most novels about initiation into sex do not perform that task for their readers. I remember that in the 1950s and early 60s, it was jolly difficult to learn about sex from reading novels. Books like Peyton Place, Angélique and Forever Amber gave little away, though the undressing scene in Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong was more helpful.

"Anthony was never a good-looking man"

Edward Champion on the timeless charms of Anthony Burgess.


An amazing article at the Scientist about non-Mendelian inheritance. (Thanks to Wendy for the link.)


Nico has snagged the full text of Rebecca Mead's profile and posted it on his blog for your reading enjoyment...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"I'm not a trained monkey"

Not available online, but Rebecca Mead profiles Nico Muhly in the current issue of the New Yorker. The magazine's website offers links to some of Nico's music.

An exciting arrival the other day:

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Clawing wrong notes

At the Guardian, James Fenton offers fascinating thoughts on various aspects of musical performance (spurred by a book that sounds altogether most like what I am curious to see, Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance--I must get this!):
Applause between movements appears to have died out some time around 1940-50, later than I would have expected. Hamilton implies that silent appreciation began with Dutch audiences, but spread through the influence of recorded music: one wouldn't applaud a record. But there is a creeping gentility involved as well, and a feeling of being overawed by your neighbour's disapproval, a fear of committing a faux pas.

At the same time as the applause shrivelled away, the pressure was on for pianists to become note-perfect. This they simply had not been. Hans von Bülow almost instructed his students to make mistakes: "In large leaps, now and then you must claw a wrong note; otherwise no one will notice that it is difficult." The audience liked this. Wrong notes, we are told, were considered a sign of genius. Eugen d'Albert was celebrated for the wild inaccuracy of his playing. Busoni told one player who had ventured to demur: "If you put as much conviction into your right notes as d'Albert does into his wrong ones, then you'd have cause to criticise."

The player as improviser was contemporaneous with the pianist who was required to play from memory. The great Alfred Cortot was very bad at this, and used to try whatever came to mind. Beecham recalled conducting with him: "We started with the Beethoven, and I kept up with Cortot through the Grieg, Schumann, Bach and Tchaikovsky, and then he hit on one I didn't know, so I stopped dead."

If your memory failed utterly, Theodor Leschetizky advised you to turn angrily to the audience and complain that a certain note was disgracefully out of tune, then leave the stage demanding a tuner. "The pianist," Hamilton tells us, "could then surreptitiously consult his score in the artist's room while the tuner dealt with the allegedly offending note."

"The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic"

At the Telegraph, Anthony Horowitz (author of the Alex Rider adventures) considers James Bond:
Bond doesn't have much character. Rather, he has mannerisms. Those fine clothes (many of them brand names), the martinis, the 60-a-day cigarette habit - they are all mentioned by Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier, the first and most serious examination of Fleming's work (he also wrote the first and, for many, the only decent sequel - Colonel Sun, published in 1968 under the pen name of Robert Markham). But as Amis concludes, 'His mind is a completely utilitarian organ.' Which is to say, Bond never reads. He doesn't listen to music. He has no interest in sport - unless it's bridge or golf. He has no sense of humour, telling only one joke in all 14 books (in Goldfinger - and it isn't very funny). He seems to have no hinterland or family history - his parents, Scottish and Swiss, died in a climbing accident when he was 11. Perhaps it is for this reason that the screen Bond has managed to change so often without anything being damaged along the way. From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig is quite a leap but they're both inhabiting an empty vessel.

'We don't want to have Bond for dinner or go golfing with Bond or talk to Bond. We want to be Bond,' Amis continues. In the dossier, he identifies the hero as 'an intruder from another age' - in short, the Byronic hero. 'Mr Fleming has brought off the unlikely feat of enclosing this wildly romantic, almost narcissistic and (one would have thought) hopelessly out-of-date persona inside the shell of a secret agent, and so making it plausible... and to all appearances, contemporary.'

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Damsels and steeds

In the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan remembers what it meant to "grow up online" as the result of anomalous demographic conditions affecting New Hampshire teenagers in the 1980s.

Paradise Road

At the Independent, a great short history of 100 years of Mills & Boon novels (curiously unbylined, in the online edition--this must be an oversight, I will be happy to edit this post to restore full credit to the author!):
The sea-change in the company's post-war fortunes was its decision to split its titles into genres, and to package and market them accordingly. "Before that," said Karin, "we just trusted the readers to know which kind of books they liked. Now, the mass market for romance is fragmented, and it's a matter of managing multiple niches." They rely on readers' advice, but rather more on the instincts of their authors, who invariably began life as M&B readers. Of the 12 niche imprints, "Modern" always features jet-set luxury, "Romance" deals in the now-traditional sheikhs, ranchers, billionaires and tanned Europeans (their titles are hilariously interchangeable: The Spaniard's Captive Bride, The Italian Billionaire's Pregnant Bride, Wedded at the Italian's Convenience and my favourite, The Sheikh's Convenient Virgin). "Historical" is love accessorised by ruffs, doublets and mob caps. "Medical" is basically Holby City with more heaving bosoms. The "Blaze" imprint promises readers fairly explicit smut, even going so far as oral sex (with ice cubes) and hot lesbian action. "I was on the team that worked on that," said Lesley Stone, a senior editor. "It was a spinoff from the Temptation series in 1995, which was light and flirty and fresh, and everyone liked the extra sex, so Blaze became a series by itself. Just like a TV spinoff." Did the readers actually say, "We'd like some soft porn, please?" Lesley looked aghast. "It's not soft porn. They just wanted it to be more realistic. People do go on holiday and they do have flings. They'll have sex, but it would still end up as a committed relationship, and it's still character-driven so it's still a romance."

"I chased the little beasts away with Disneyesque abuse"

At the Times, Peter Stothard on Bambi and child pornography.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The serendipity of the archives

At the LRB, Charles Nicholl considers the lexicons of Ripperology in a review of Charles von Onselen's new book about (hmmm, this is in bad taste, really...) "Saucy Jack":
‘It all fits!’ is the axiomatic cry of the conspiracy-theorist, but of course it only does so after a stringent process of selection, in which convenient pieces of the evidential jigsaw are accounted significant and many others less convenient are discarded. Inevitably, van Onselen’s argument proceeds in this way, but it feels cogent and compelling even when there is little more than self-belief holding it up. This is certainly a more meaningful kind of inquiry than the more fashionable sub-genre of the celebrity suspect. Over the years these have included Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence; a celebrated doctor, Sir William Gull; a Liverpool merchant, James Maybrick, supposed author of the manuscript known as the Ripper’s ‘Diary’; and the artist Walter Sickert. Sickert’s candidacy has been energetically championed by the thriller-writer Patricia Cornwell, though she did not originate the theory. Sickert had a louche interest in the London underworld, and in the Ripper in particular, and he did a series of paintings, the ‘Camden Town Nudes’, loosely inspired by the murder of a prostitute in 1907. But Cornwell seems to have missed an early and major fork in the biographical highway, where one road leads off to the painting of pictures on disturbing sexual themes and the other to the actual perpetration of sex crimes. That one might be seen as actual evidence of the other is psychologically implausible (do we suspect the author of Titus Andronicus of cooking up children in a pie?) and logistically absurd (being rather a giveaway after he had concealed his identity so well at the time). Cornwell’s book is now mainly memorable for its enormous research bill – she reportedly spent $6 million acquiring Sickert works and memorabilia – and for her alleged folie de grandeur in destroying a painting in the hope of finding traces of the artist’s DNA, to match with traces on one of the letters purportedly (but almost certainly not) written by Jack.

"We had to look it up on Wikipedia"

At Petrona, Maxine blogs a funny story in the Times about what happened when Woolworths slapped the name "Lolita" on a bed designed for six-year-old girls...

Plugra unsalted butter, Wilkin & Sons raspberry jam, Roland extra strong Dijon mustard, Maldon salt, Marvis Aquatic Mint toothpaste

At the FT, Holly Yaeger interviews Phoebe Damrosch (Per Se alumna) about her book Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. Some details of the culinary training on offer:
“We tasted and discussed French and Italian olive oils ... We learned the difference between forced infusion done in the kitchen for something like the thyme oil, often paired with lamb, and oils infused with, say, lemon zest, at the press ... We also tasted Banyuls, truffles and 20-year aged balsamic vinegars,” recalls Phoebe Damrosch, who was among those hired to work at the restaurant before it opened. “One day we tasted nine different salts and another day we tasted 16 kinds of chocolate.”

There was even coaching from a specialist in 18th-century dance. “When holding two hot plates of Snake River Farms calotte de boeuf with crispy bone marrow and a rissole of marble potatoes, one was wise to hold them close to the centre of gravity, learned in curtsy training, so as not to make the marble potatoes roll around the plate like their namesakes[.]”
(Hmmm, personally I have a strong preference for salted over unsalted butter--and I do not like Plugra at all, it tastes too strongly of animal fat, I like Irish butter instead--also it reminds me of my grandmother!)