Sunday, March 30, 2008

Nom de porn

Novelist Rupert Smith on his happy second career as pornographer James Lear:
I think that erotic literature serves the same purpose as other genre fiction, but with a more literal outcome. A good crime novel, be it by Agatha Christie or Alexander McCall Smith, provides a failsafe formula of crime, investigation and solution. The porn parallel is encounter, seduction and sex. While a whodunnit plots this pattern across an entire book, a porn writer must repeat it several times within one novel, allowing the reader time to recover before revving up the engines again. The reason why dirty books remain in the shadows is very simple: the book trade is not comfortable with masturbation. Books in which children are abused, women murdered and men brutalised crowd the shelves of WH Smith. Books in which consenting adults enjoy each other for the healthy entertainment of literate wankers do not.

One disgruntled customer on Amazon described a James Lear novel as "smut with pretensions", and I think this is actually quite a good summary of the Lear method. It is unashamedly smut; let's face it, most readers like good sex scenes, whether they're dressed up in literary drag or not. The "pretensions" are the added extras: I try to provide a ripping yarn, some decent character development and a lot of good jokes. Humour is as essential to pornographic literature as yeast is to bread: without it, nothing is going to rise. Ideally, I would like to provide every reader with a packet of tissues, but as that's not possible I offer them high literary production values instead.
A literalization of the contrast: James Lear's Myspace page; Rupert Smith's author site.

(Courtesy of Sarah Weinman.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The collecting gene

At the Guardian, Simon Garfield on mid-life crisis and compulsive stamp-collecting. A good list there in the middle, although I am made slightly suspicious by the ease of the psychological conclusions he draws:
I had a basic catalogue, but it was far too crude a compass to steer me through so many subtleties of shade and printings and plate numbers and postmark cancellations, all of which affected price. I would have been dissatisfied with any purchase; I could never afford the best and it pained me that someone somewhere - actually, almost everyone everywhere - owned a better example.

The one place that tried hardest to dispel this feeling of helplessness was Stanley Gibbons, but I found it had the opposite effect. The weight of its history was imposing and its main showroom, with its ornate ceilings and gilt cornices, far too grand for a shop. The staff tried to entice young collectors with a huge selection of accoutrements; even if you couldn't afford the stamps, surely the pocket money would stretch to a tin of hinges and a set of Showguard mounts. Or perhaps tweezers, or one of the new albums with names from nowhere: the Number 1, the Gay Venture, the Improved, the Safari, the Swiftsure, the Worldex, the Devon, the Exeter, the Plymouth, the Abbey Ring, the Philatelic, the Senator Standard, the Utile Standard, the Oriel, the Windsor, the Tower, the New Imperial, the New Pioneer, the New Thames, the Strand, the Nubian. They were all unbelievably similar.

Dutch wives

Brian Appleyard has a good piece at the Sunday Times on David Levy's book about love and sex with robots.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What For or Hail Columbia


In general I would have to say that reading literary things on the internet is one of my absolute favorite and most reliably relaxing pastimes, but that really it is more on the time-wasting front than the utterly delightfulness-inducing...

But now and again there is something utterly delightful, and I have just read one of these things with great glee!

A long and thought-provoking (and frequently--characteristically!--sardonic) essay by Margaret Atwood, at the Guardian, on Anne of Green Gables. Here's a bit:
in actual life, an orphaned girl like Anne would have had few prospects. "What a starved, unloved life she had had - a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect," thinks Marilla; and it's this starved, unloved life that Budge Wilson has explored in her "prequel". Judging from what we know about the lives of orphans at that time, including the many "London street Arabs", as Marilla calls them, that were being sent to Canada by the Barnardo homes, a statistically accurate Anne would have continued to be poor and neglected. However, through luck and her own merits, Anne is rescued by the Cuthbert siblings, thus joining a long line of redeemed fictional Victorian orphans, from Jane Eyre to Oliver Twist to little Tom the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. Fairy-tale endings, we call these; for, in mythology and folklore, orphans were not merely downtrodden outsiders: they might be heroes-in-training, like King Arthur, or under the special protection of the gods or fairies. (There is certainly something uncanny about Anne - a "witch", she's often called - and a few centuries earlier she might well have been burnt at the stake.)

Outside of fiction, however, orphans weren't only exploited, they were feared and despised as fruits of sin: children with no identifiable fathers, resentful and even criminal Bad Seeds who'd do things like setting fire to people's houses "on purpose", as Rachel Lynde informs Marilla. This is why Montgomery goes to such lengths to provide Anne with two educated, respectable parents who were married to each other. But a real-life Anne would have led a Dickensian life of grinding child labour and virtual bondage as an unpaid mother's help - Anne has performed this function earlier in her life, once in a bare-bones backwoods household that sports three sets of twins. In my sourer moments, I confess to having imagined yet another Anne sequel, to be called Anne Goes on the Town. This would be a grim, Zolaesque epic that would chronicle the poor girl's enticement by means of puffed sleeves, then her sexual downfall and her subsequent brutal treatment at the hands of harsh male clients. Then would follow the pilfering of her ill-got though hard-earned gains by an evil madam, her dull despair self-medicated by alcohol and opium-smoking, and her sufferings from the ravages of an incurable STD. The final chapter would contain some Traviata-like coughing, her early and ugly death, and her burial in an unmarked grave, with nothing to mark the passing of this waif with a heart of gold but a volley of coarse jokes from her former customers. However, the presiding genius of Anne is not the gritty grey Angel of Realism, but the rainbow-coloured, dove-winged Godlet of the Heart's Desire. As Oscar Wilde said about second marriages, Anne is the triumph of hope over experience: it tells us not the truth about life, but the truth about wish fulfilment. And the main truth about wish fulfilment is that most people vastly prefer it to the alternative.
I loved those books when I was a kid, but I think that even at the time they struck me as more strongly wish-fulfilling than almost anything else I liked to read at age seven or eight...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Le génitif saxon

Luc Sante on men in matching suits.

Secret friends

At the Sun, Eric Ormsby on Elizabeth Bishop. Also, Otto Penzler praises the Mercantile Library--and it is true, if I worked in midtown I would so have a membership there, it is a most lovely place... (And a heads-up at the back end of the column about Dick Francis's poor health! Hmmm, that is too bad--his name really is enshrined on my very short list of particularly most favorite writers, it's just one of those things, I love those books...)

Orphans, miscellanies

The opening night of the Orphan Film Symposium 6 was a particularly lovely tribute to my friend Helen Hill, who was killed in January 2007 in New Orleans.

As someone who doesn't spend much time thinking about film at all, the notion of orphan films has only recently dawned on me, but there's a strong archival and historical component to the work people are doing on this material that obviously speaks to me, and a combination of modesty and dedication in the orphanistas that I enjoy and admire...

It is always very delightful to see Helen's films, which are joyful and visually rich to an extraordinary degree. (A couple ones tonight I hadn't seen before, including a very beautiful short one called "Termite Light.")

They were interestingly interwoven with complementary material that highlighted certain aspects of Helen's work much better and more strikingly than a chronological ordering could have--I was especially enjoying contemplating the mind of Dan Streible, whose imagination shaped tonight's event and (I am guessing, to a great extent) the whole field of orphan film as it has begun to emerge.

Treats included an amazing--and beautifully restored--color silhouette film, made by Lotte Reiniger in 1957, called "Helen La Belle" (imagine the Trojan War, paper dolls that could have come from turn-of-the-century Vienna and an Offenbach score...); and films by Naomi Uman and Jimmy Kinder, winners of the Helen Hill award, each of which in quite different ways spoke to some highly Helenesque themes and techniques (I was especially tickled by Uman's rather magical and very amusing use of black-and-white pornographic films in which the women's bodies had been daubed out in a way that left them as lovely amoeba-like blobs of light, but best friend A. had to cover up her eight-year-old's eyes and hurry him out of the theatre!).

But I was especially enchanted by a quite lovely film called Think of Me First As a Person. (Some more links--here's the gist of it.)

In other news, my main job is to survive until the end of the semester. A little light reading here and there around the edges:

I spent a delightful evening rereading Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, which I must have read at least five or six times as a teenager and was glad to have a good reason to revisit. (The voice is still so fresh, so intelligent!)

One of the panelists at Friday's conference is a friend from college days, Aoibheann Sweeney, and some blend of guilt and genuine enthusiasm prompted me to dig out her novel Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking from the archeologically-scaled book heaps (I liked the look of it when it first came my way, but it vanished into the pile anyway!) and read it in several rather blissful sittings. It's just the kind of book I like, a novel for adults that's also got the appeal of young-adult fiction (a coming-of-age story with a first-person narrator), deeply appealing in terms of character and voice but also containing some absolutely lovely descriptive writing, especially of what happens when protagonist Miranda looks at modern art. (And there's swimming!)

I was somewhat disappointed by Charles Stross's The Family Trade. The narrative builds momentum in the second half, so that I finished feeling rather more eager to read the next installment than I would have imagined around a third of the way through, but the novel feels slightly as though it's written from outline, with none of the distinctive voice and humor I've liked so much in his other books. As though he's writing with one hand tied behind his back--and in fact it is still much better than many (most?!?) other ones. But marred, through no fault of his own, by the contrast I couldn't help drawing (it is unfair, this appeared before the other) between this and Paul Park's haunting and surpassingly strange A Princess of Roumania.

Finally, though I am really not equipped to write anything remotely like opera criticism, I did see Peter Grimes at the Met last week and will just say that it is a sinister and beautifully written opera indeed. But I wish the Met would abandon this awful practice of double intermissions in relatively short operas...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foxes, hedgehogs

As a constitutional recluse, I have a great deal of internal grumbling at this time of year, when academic events take me out of the house to what I regard as an excessive degree. But this evening's speaker was excellent.

A delightful string of words was uttered in the course of his career retrospection (gracious contextualizing occurred in the talk format, but I will offer links as the blog equivalent): "I'm a sad hedgehog and a happy lumper."


1. I am a resigned splitter and a happy fox!

2. Despite the gist of the second Wikipedia article, the two definitional systems are not congruent.

3. I agree with this evening's speaker (the point was implicit rather than articulated) that lumper-fox is the most desirable intellectual configuration.

4. Splitter-hedgehog is potentially tiresome, or at any rate less intellectually stimulating than the other configurations--but a great deal of valuable scholarship is done by splitter-hedgehogs.

5. Fox-hedgehog is the more democratic of the two axes, since it can apply to various measures of personality; lumper-splitter is only applicable to those with a fairly developed intellectual practice of accounting for large-scale phenomena of one kind or another (historical, cultural, economic, biological, etc.).

(This is all pursuant to recent conversations about Gygaxian aspects of Myers-Briggs-type personality instruments. I am imagining a Pynchonesque secret history in which aspects of the D&D "alignment" system turn out to have been inflected or influenced by top-secret early-1960s LSD research by the US Department of Defense!)

Amazing monkeys

If I ever had actual art on the walls, I would have these!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Egg day

Wendy responded to my plea for eggish material with a lovely clutch of links!

Egg babies. (Hmm, not sure quite what I think about that one!) The biggest Easter egg in the world. More pictures of the biggest Easter egg in the world. Eggs online for those inclined in the natural-historical direction. Good news if you enjoy eating eggs. (I had two poached eggs for my post-run breakfast this morning, with toast, granola and a double skim cappuccino, but on the eating front, I am not an egg enthusiast--more of an egg pragmatist.) Egg handbags. (Very desirable, but perhaps slightly too literally Faberge? If I were going to make slavishly Faberge artifacts, I would make them in a delicious edible medium--chocolate! On which note, demented as it may be, I kind of want one of these! But these are more tasteful, as it were. This is rather extraordinary but in my opinion built on the wrong scale--sometimes small really is far more appealing than large...)

My own offerings are meager in comparison! Egg-related New Yorker cartoons. (Here's an apt one!)

Nigel Jones's Telegraph review of Toby Faber's Faberge's Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces that Outlived an Empire.

A great egg passage from Larissa MacFarquar's profile of chef David Chang, in this past week's New Yorker (not available online):
Serpico noticed a giant eggshell next to Chang's computer.

"Is that the ostrich egg you cooked up the other day?" he asked. "How was it?"

"It was awful," Chang said. "I wanted it over easy, you know---I wanted to pretend I was Fred Flintstone. So I got a big rondeau, put like two inches of oil, and I was gonna deep-fry the motherfucker, but there was so much water content in the white that it just sort of dispersed. It looked like cottage cheese."


"The egg yolk, though--the egg yolk was massive. Equivalent to twenty-four chicken eggs."

A delightful egg-related moment from one of my favorite novels from childhood, Eric Linklater's The Wind on the Moon:
(Also highly recommended: Rob Nixon's Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion, Food and Fortune.)

Finally, for those who were children in the 1970s and fought with their siblings for the prize of the infinitely alluring plastic egg-shaped container Mom's panty-hose came in: The L'Eggs Idea Book.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Angels on horseback

For no reason, other than that Hilary Mantel is a very good writer and I have a strange fancy for the name Cuthbert--the opening paragraphs of Mantel's review of a new book about the dissolution of the English monasteries:
St Cuthbert had a lucky start in life; lame at the age of eight, he was cured by an angel who came by on horseback, and who recommended a poultice made of flour and milk. A shepherd and a seer, Cuthbert became abbot of Melrose and Lindisfarne, and after a spell as a bishop took refuge from spiritual sensation-seekers on a tiny and remote island, where he lived with demons, seabirds and seals. He died in 687, and his body, taken to Lindisfarne, became an object of veneration; dug up after 11 years in response to pilgrim demand, the corpse was found to be mummified.

After many adventures, Cuthbert came to rest in Durham, where the great cathedral was in effect built around him, first of timber and then of stone. Pilgrims visited from all over Europe, and the site became fantastically wealthy; to take advantage of the enthusiasm, the saint had two feast days. Cuthbert's cult became a marker of regional identity, and the prince-bishop of Durham became a figure of national importance; a large community of Benedictine monks guarded the saint's relics, which included a tooth and a hair impervious to flame. At Flodden in 1513, the English fought beneath Cuthbert's banner. Only women were excluded from Cuthbertian junkets; a blue marble line in the cathedral pavement kept their polluting influence distant from the holy remains.

In the dark winter days of 1539, Henry VIII's commissioners arrived to strip the shrine. They took away an emerald which in the previous century had been valued at more than £3,000, and dispatched the priceless Lindisfarne Gospels to distant London. St Bede's shrine was also at Durham, but when it was opened there was nothing to see. His bones were elsewhere, or had been distributed among the faithful. But the commissioners brought in a blacksmith to smash open Cuthbert's coffin, and "found him lying whole incorrupt with his face bare and his beard as if it had been a fortnight's growth, and all his vestments upon him as he was accustomed to say mass withall; and his meet wand of gold lying beside him there". One leg broken in the raid, the ancient saint was bundled into the vestry for a year or two, till he was re-entombed in plainer style. His emerald was never seen again.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Moscow monster manual

This month, Ed Park's column in the LA Times concerns Ekaterina Sedia's delightfully appealing-sounding The Secret History of Moscow:
After "American," the most overused but irresistible prefix for titles might be "The Secret History of." Unscientific trend-spotters (me) attribute the popularity of this modern-day usage to Donna Tartt's 1992 novel, "The Secret History." Now bushels of articles and books promise to reveal secret histories of disco, the Beatles, Paris, the potato, emotion, various wars, myriad subcultures. (If someone writes a biography of Tartt, it should be called "The Secret History of 'The Secret History.'")

Nonfiction dominates the secret history of "The Secret History of" titles, but Ekaterina Sedia's "The Secret History of Moscow" (Prime Books: 304 pp., $12.95 paper) really feels like a secret: an alternative world a half-dimension removed from ours, a place woven out of whisper and shadow, populated with forgotten creatures and even less-remembered thoughts. It's a satisfying quest novel not only because of the story line (which has the appealingly rambling feel of a good Dungeons & Dragons campaign, in which chance encounters and improvised alliances modulate the narrative) but also for the way the Escher-ready landscape reflects the fragile psychology of Sedia's main character, Galina.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Art, lies, statistics

My Columbia colleague Andrew Gelman forwards notice of the first annual Applied Statistics Center Art Contest! Entries due March 31st, so go and take a look...

And this is a good opportunity to note that Helen DeWitt had a characteristically delightful and incisive series of observations recently as to why novelists might benefit from knowing a little bit of statistics. I am going to paste in some paragraphs, because I was so struck by them, only I am too lazy to really plunge into the conversation properly now--another time!

Here's some of what Helen has to say, at any rate:
Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters. Once upon a time persons of color could only get parts in films playing servants, often with amusing eccentricities which confirmed the supposed preconceptions of the audience; the sort of person who grapples with data analysis is either not seen in fiction or appears as some sort of eccentric.

As I write the Fed has cut its key interest rate by 75 points, down to 2.25%. The Fed has brokered a deal with Morgan Stanley; Bear Stearns, the fifth largest bank in the country, has been bought by MS at $2 a share, down from $160 a share last year. All this comes as a result of the collapse of the subprime market - a market dependent on financial instruments which were the pride of the finance industry only a couple of years ago. One thing fiction could have been doing all this time was enabling people to see on the page the way those in the risk business think about risk; it could have used the techniques of Edward Tufte's information design, for example, to present data in a way that did not numb the mind of the general reader.

This looks interesting from a formal point of view: fiction has made use for centuries of free indirect discourse, in which narrative is presented in the inner language of a character who is not the author, but has steered clear of the sort of inner language that helps itself to the bag of tricks of Tukey, Mosteller, Bill Cleveland and others too numerous to mention. It looks important simply because the management of risk is integral to our society; if fiction ignores the way this actually works, its view of the world is not much less primitive than one in which storms blow up because Odysseus angered Poseidon.
I have been obsessed this last year or two with the questions that arise from the use of free indirect discourse; I like the notion of free indirect discourse as a formal protocol that might yet be joined by some host of unimagined other tools drawn rather directly from the more analytic and mathematical disciplines. Hmmm, there's one to ponder...

Seemingly benevolent Overlords?

Ed Park has a very nice piece about Arthur C. Clarke at the LA Times.

Dog wool clothes

Nico has sent me a link that is too strange not to blog...


At the New York Sun, Eric Ormsby on Alberto Manguel's new book about libraries:
Mr. Manguel frames his forays into the world of the library, ancient and modern, real as well as imagined, with an account of his own rather stupendous personal library. A native of Buenos Aires who lived for many years in Canada, he has for the past eight years housed his collection of more than 30,000 volumes in a painstakingly renovated hilltop barn in France. At each stage he faces perplexing problems, and his resolution of them leads him into consideration of wider issues, all of which illustrate the "labyrinthine logic" of libraries. At first, he wants all of his books to be shelved within easy reach; when this proves impractical and he must build his shelves from baseboard to ceiling, he discusses the solutions other bibliophiles have entertained, some of them quite fantastic. The poet Lionel Johnson, for example, "was so pressed for room that he devised shelves suspended from the ceiling, like chandeliers." In the Althorp library, in Northampton, the Earl Spencer constructed a towering mahogany ladder on wheels that sported a crow's nest at the top where he could read in peace. (The book is beautifully illustrated, and there's a particularly imposing reproduction of this eccentric contraption, which looks more like a siege machine than a library ladder.)
I think I have probably missed my moment, but I have always had a fantasy of living in a loft-like apartment into which has been imported a full set of old-school steel staircases and shelves and floors salvaged from some defunct library--it seems to me the ideal design for living. The main branch of the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts had a very good instance of this--and at Columbia, the best example that I've encountered is in the science library...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The British Interplanetary Society

Arthur C. Clarke has died at the age of ninety. Hmmm, rather good obituary, gives the flavor of a lost world--I grew up reading that guy's stuff, I remember "The Nine Billion Names of God" making a very strong impression on me as a child!

Tips on becoming a running novelist

Courtesy of former student Gautam, I have just finished reading an advance copy of the book I have been most coveting of all things in the world, Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It is a small and altogether lovely volume, and here is one of my favorite bits:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being, and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.

. . .

[W]riters who aren’t blessed with much talent—those who barely make the grade—need to build up their strength at their own expense. They have to train themselves to improve their focus, to increase their endurance. To a certain extent they’re forced to make these qualities stand in for talent. And while they’re getting by on these, they may actually discover real, hidden talent within them. They’re sweating, digging out a hole at their feet with a shovel, when they run across a deep, secret water vein. It’s a lucky thing, but what made this good fortune possible was all the training they did that gave them the strength to keep on digging.

The future in a crate

At the LRB, Steven Shapin on Craig Venter's autobiography:
Venter is a hugely ingenious scientist, but his greatest originality has probably been in the design of new arrangements for doing genomic research and new ways of situating that research in the force field between science and capital: the scientific experiments are made possible by practical experiments in the sociology of organisations. The non-profit bit was called the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), paired with a commercial biotech company, Human Genome Sciences (HGS), that was meant to take ownership of TIGR’s intellectual property and turn it into commercial drugs. Then, in 1998, the instrument-maker Perkin Elmer laid out $300 million for Venter to found a commercial organisation, Celera Genomics, set up specifically to win the race against the NIH-Wellcome public initiative to sequence the whole genome. Venter was convinced that he could do the genome a lot faster and a lot cheaper if only he didn’t have to deal with the dead hand of government or academic bureaucracies. If you want free, unconstrained and risk-taking science, then you more or less need to do it in, or with the support of, the commercial sector. Science and capital have a relationship as vital as it is sometimes uneasy. So sublimely convinced was Venter of the organisational and technical superiority of his private enterprise that at a joint meeting of public and private scientists he proposed that he should go after the human genome while the public initiative did the mouse genome. The public scientists were outraged. ‘I almost punched him in the fucking mouth,’ one of them recalled. ‘Craig,’ James Watson announced, ‘wanted to own the human genome the way Hitler wanted to own the world.’
And Allen Orr had a good piece in the NYRB a few weeks ago, but it was subscriber only (that link should work if you are Columbia-affiliated).

Monday, March 17, 2008


It is clearly Egg Week here at Light Reading. Readers are invited to submit curious egg-related links via e-mail or in the comments, and if I get enough of them I will do an Egg Round-up on Friday...

Lords of the flies

At this time of the school year I am always driven to think of Hume's remedy for "philosophical melancholy and delirium" (in my case, nothing more elevated than simple overwork): "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther." Dinner and a game of backgammon are possibly more effective, but as a constitutional recluse I have turned, as usual, to light reading...

Over the weekend I read Charles Stross's The Jennifer Morgue, sequel to The Atrocity Archives, which I read recently and loved. This fellow's novels are just absolutely delightful to me, the perfect light reading! Funny and appealing and lively and super-intelligent, sparking with energy of all kinds...

Here is Stross's protagonist, Bob Howard, demonology hacker extraordinaire and employee of the penny-pinching British covert government agency known as the Laundry:
Most of what we get up to in the Laundry is symbolic computation intended to evoke decidedly nonsymbolic consequences. But that's not all there is to . . . well, any sufficiently alien technology is indistinguishable from magic, so let's call it that, all right? You can do magic by computation, but you can also do computation by magic. The law of similarity attracts unwelcome attention from other proximate universes, other domains where the laws of nature worked out differently. Meanwhile, the law of contagion spreads stuff around. Just as it's possible to write a TCP/IP protocol stack in some utterly inappropriate programming language like ML or Visual Basic, so, too, it's possible to implement TCP/IP over carrier pigeons, or paper tape, or daemons summoned from the vasty deep.
And speaking of the vasty deep, the other absolutely delightful book I've just finished reading is Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museu. Utterly magical!

The official US publication date is not until August, which is very frustrating as my immediate impulse is to buy multiple copies and send them to various people I know who will particularly love this altogether delightful book! (Also, why has "Store Room" been changed to "Storeroom" for the American release? I refuse to assent to the transformation!)

Hmmm, I am so impatient to press this on others that I might need to order a copy or two from Amazon UK...

In the meantime, I will turn to my favorite format, the list, in an attempt to plumb its lovely depths and lay out some of the wares on offer in this portrait of the Natural History Museum as Gormenghastly house of treasures:

--A description of the steps the specialist goes through on discovering a new species, including "writing an accurate description . . . in language as dry as a James Bond martini" (shades of Bob Howard!)

--An account of the difference between "truffles" and "false truffles," and speculations on what insights genomic tools might provide into how the truffle shape or "truffle habit" might have originated independently in multiple locations

--A sly aside that were Fortey an opportunist, he "might well be penning a book suggesting Jack the Ripper as the guilty party in the Piltdown fraud"

--The fact that one part of the museum's basement used to be known as Lavatory Lane:
There were two different lavatories; one was labelled "Scientific Officers," the other labelled "Gentlemen" where the other ranks were allowed to pee. However, in both of these establishments the lavatory paper was a remarkably hard, shiny variety that had the words "Government Property" printed on every sheet.
--. . . that the mineral called Proustite, whose blood-red color fades when exposed to light, "was not named after the novelist Marcel Proust, though one feels it should have been"

--. . . that the mineralogist who directed the museum from 1968 to 1976 "had the curious distinction [during the war years] of growing the largest crystal of Trinitrotoluene (TNT) known to mankind, and would suddenly produce it from a large matchbox to discombobulate his visitors"

--. . . and that the model of the blue whale has a secret hiding place inside, to which one obtains access via a trap-door in the stomach . . . .

Fortey has an amazing ear for the humorous or striking detail, as when he quotes the Keeper's Annual Confidential Report from 1979 on the "'problems . . . inherent in the fish section manned by a number of "prima donnas"'" or lists the "wonderfully suggestive names" of the insects involved in corpse decay: the coffin fly, the burying beetle, the sexton beetles and the larder beetle, also known as Dermestes, capable of reducing a human body to bone in twenty-four days (the tank in which this process is encouraged to take place is called a Dermestarium), but his writing's quite lovely throughout.

Some altogether magical straight science bits, and some scientific stuff appealingly interwoven with personal reminiscence ("My father had fishing-tackle shops, and sold maggots to fishermen; they were known by the euphemism of 'gentles' and came plain or colored" and were "supplied to the trade by a farmer known simply as Wormy").

(And how can you resist a book whose author reveals, during a discussion of recent changes in the understanding of the ancestry of termites and cockroaches, that it has been "one of my life's unfulfilled ambitions to eat the giant mushroom Termitomyces that grows deep inside the termite mounds in Africa--it is reputed to be delicious"?!?)

(Also, I wonder whether there is any chance that the name of eminent zoologist Edwin Ray Lankester might have been borrowed by novelist Eric Linklater for the gentleman zookeeper in a favorite novel that featured very largely in my childhood life of reading and rereading, The Wind on the Moon? Sir Lankester Lemon!)

Finally, an egg-related bit:
In other cases the collecting compulsion takes a pathological turn--they have to own an example of a desired species. . . . [Another visitor] raided the birds' eggs. This is one of the more familiar obsessions, and one that I can understand, because as a young boy, before it became illegal, I briefly collected eggs myself, as had my countryman father before me. I am ashamed of it now, but I can recall the excitement of coming across an uncommon species; and birds' eggs are fragile and beautiful objects. They are just the kind of thing to attract an oddball kleptomaniac. This particular thief appeared in a wheelchair; he secreted the desired birds' eggs inside women's tights that he then tucked into his trousers and made good his exit. He was discovered and prosecuted. It later transpired that the reason he was in a wheelchair in the first place was that he had had an accident stealing copper from electrical installations.
(Many thanks to Lauren LeBlanc for sending me the book!)

Big eyes, long lashes, a long neck

Camel aesthetics. I must say that the camel has always been near the top of my list of particularly favorite animals...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lapis lazuli

My favorite Faberge egg--because it looks most like a real egg! This picture does not do justice to it--enamel is one of the most beautiful of all materials... (I strongly recommend the exhibition catalog for Faberge in America--that was a very striking show...)

Self-taught oologists

I have been having a funny egg-related correspondence with my friend Wendy over the last few days. It is enmeshed in a series of other e-mails that are on the whole non-reproducible here, but it was spurred by a funny message from my mother, to whom I had recounted another friend's description of herself running up the hills of Prospect Park with her two twin babies in the jogging stroller and feeling like Sisyphus. . .

This is late summer or fall of 1973, in London (I was born in July 1971, my twin brothers in June 1973):
I see myself pushing the big pram up Muswell Hill with the three of you in it; then doing the Supermarket shopping and landing up with a case of canned baby formula tucked in the luggage rack under the body of the pram, and you beside me as we race down the hill trying to stop the pram from running away from us it is by now so heavy!!

I also see us at the bottom of the hill in the little shopping center, where the babes are snoozing in the pram at one end like sardines, and you and the shopping tucked in side by side at the other end, and as I pay for some veg you are opening the box of eggs and handing a single egg graciously to the lady behind us in the queue!!
All of this is a long preamble for a piece that caught my eye in the Yale alumni magazine--it's not available online, but it seemed worth scanning in for the enjoyment of oologists everywhere. Here's a related link, and here's the Amazon link for Carrol L. Henderon's wonderfully titled Oology and Ralph's Talking Eggs: Bird Conservation Comes Out of Its Shell (hmmm, reminds me of childhood favorite Meg's Eggs!). It might be worth a quick visit to the Peabody Museum next time I find myself passing through New Haven...

"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs"

At the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich on revolutionary euphemism (no subscription required):
Euphemism has been the leading quality of American discussions of the war in Iraq. This was plain in the run-up to the war, with the talk of "regime change"—a phrase welcomed by reporters and politicians as if they had heard it all their lives. Regime change seemed to pass at a jump beyond the predictable either/or of "forced abdication" and "international war of aggression." Regime change also managed to imply, without saying, that governments do, as a matter of fact, often change by external demand without much trouble to anyone. The talk (before and just after the war) of "taking out" Saddam Hussein was equally new. It combined the reflex of the skilled gunman and the image of a surgical procedure so routine that it could be trusted not to jeopardize the life of the patient. It had its roots in gangland argot, where taking out means knocking off, but its reception was none the worse for that.

Are Americans more susceptible to such devices than other people are? Democracy exists in continuous complicity with euphemism. There are so many things (the staring facts of inequality, for example) about which we feel it is right not to want to speak gratingly. One result is a habit of circumlocution that is at once adaptable and self-deceptive. "Their own approbation of their own acts," wrote Edmund Burke of the people in a democracy, "has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favor." Since the people are not always right but are by definition always in the majority, their self-approbation, Burke added, tends to make them shameless and therefore fearless. The stratagems of a leader in a democracy include giving the people a name for everything, but doing so in a way that maintains their own approbation of their own acts. Thus a war the people trust their government to wage, over which we have no control, but about which we would prefer to think happy thoughts, gives the widest possible scope to the exertions of euphemism.

Wardour Street confectionery

At the Guardian Review, James Fenton considers the phenomenon of rooms moved from one country to another, musing on the revelations of John Harris's Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages:
On a foggy July morning in 1945, a US B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, killing its crew of three, and over a dozen office workers, and setting fire to the 78th floor. Armand Hammer, the international wheeler-dealer, profited from this opportunity to acquire the 78th floor and refurbish it for one of his companies, United Distillers of America. Here he installed a Tasting Room, which had once served as Council Chamber in a Medici palace near Florence, in a small town called San Donato in Collina.

Large numbers of historic rooms were dismantled, packed up and transported to warehouses in the States at the time. American taste of the period ran to very large fireplaces, cloisters, wainscoting, coffered ceilings and all manner of architectural antiques. William Randolph Hearst (the original Citizen Kane) was the leading accumulator in this field. When he was forced to sell off some of the warehouses full of material he had bought but never used, it was Hammer who organised the disastrous sales of 1940. The paintings were sold at Saks Fifth Avenue, and the architectural pieces at Gimbel Brothers, another department store. None of the European dealers could bid, there being a war on, and the prices were only a fraction of what Hearst (who had never been in the habit of bargaining) had paid to the trade.

Hammer, clearly, was in a strong position to find historic rooms, and he decided that his Medici Council Chamber was not enough. He acquired, as his own office, the Treaty Room from Uxbridge. This was a panelled interior in which, it was said, Charles I had attempted to come to terms with Oliver Cromwell in 1645. It had been dismantled, along with a smaller room known as the Presence Room, to be sold to an American museum, possibly Philadelphia. Now these, too, found a home on the 78th floor. No doubt the offices were extremely grand, and some way was found to ease the transition from Renaissance Tuscany to Uxbridge.

However, in 1953, Hammer decided to present the Uxbridge interiors, as a coronation gift, to the young Queen Elizabeth II. The rooms returned to England, where the V&A decided that the best use for them might be in Uxbridge, in the pub from which they had been taken: the Crown and Treaty, 90 Oxford Road. So these rooms spent eight years in the Empire State Building, before returning to what became a Thai restaurant. Now the Crown and Treaty is a venue for live music. The rooms were never large enough to accommodate the retinues of Charles and Cromwell together. This is a history of bogusness.

A man without a side

Robert McCrum interviews V. S. Naipaul for the Observer.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Swords and sandals

I am not sorry I saw Conversations in Tusculum last night at the Public Theatre--I am a sucker for anything Roman, and if I hadn't seen it, I always would have wondered whether it was actually kind of great! In practice, not--I think the Times reviewer was too kind.

1. Very wordy. Very undramatic!

2. Second half much worse than first half.

3. On the other hand, marred by earnestness rather than cynicism. The one thing that drives me absolutely crazy in the theatre is a slick cynical opportunism combined with contempt for the audience, and that certainly wasn't the problem here...

4. Either the parallel between Caesar and George Bush is so blindingly obvious and naive as not to deserve further elaboration, or else it is clumsy and malapropos enough that the especially awful scene in the second half with Brutus and Cicero ranting is just pointless! Also it would be more interesting if we were not quite so sure what the play thinks of Caesar, as it were...

5. Indeed the playwright's view of human psychology and of politics both seem fatally thin--people just don't act like this, it is not so clear-cut!

6. The costuming and the men's body language so strongly recall a sort of backroom Belle Epoque American costume drama that I kept on thinking that (a) really it was going to turn out to have been written by Gore Vidal on an off day and (b) I couldn't help expecting that an actor dressed as Mark Twain would suddenly appear on stage and start doing an annoyingly folksy story-telling frame!

7. Awkward tension between extreme faithfulness to the real history and overly colloquial language and delivery--but with slips (colloquial narration in contemporary America for instance so often has the speaker slip into present-tense verbs for the "saids" that past-tense verbs plus strikingly casual wording and modern American accents are jarring on the ear).

8. The acting is for the most part very good--but though this is nobody's fault, I kept on getting distracted by the startling resemblance between Aidan Quinn and my nephew Jack Maverick, who is shortly coming up on his first birthday!

It was definitely one of those evenings when dinner was better than the play--in fact it was a most enjoyable excursion, the next best thing after a magically good play is a fairly watchable play that hospitably invites one to itemize its flaws!

The human stain

Lovely images from the Wellcome Images Awards 2008. (Via also-lovely Maxine!)

The Marconi Archive

Justin Cartwright on new plans for displaying treasures at the Bodleian.

The passport got it

Iain Banks reserves the right to own a sports car--the Tesla Roadster!

Mad genius

Corvid learning. (Link courtesy of Mike Doe.)

Obsolescent technologies

Alice on clunkpunk. It's a great post, go and read it if you have ever enjoyed a William Gibson novel or mourned the passing of the typewriter. Alice also regularly (and this is a good example of it) does an interesting thing with the form of the blog post that isn't quite like how it works in most writers' hands--blogging becomes a uniquely useful imaginative investigative tool for thinking! Let us now contemplate the appeal of the speculative mode...

Friday, March 14, 2008

The early abysmal drafts

Rachel Aviv has a great little piece about Grace Paley at the Poetry Foundation website. (Link courtesy of The Dizzies.) I have never read Paley, strange to say, but really this must be remedied! Here's a good bit (hmmm, I could take a leaf out of her book...only not so much with the pies!):
Paley worked on Fidelity sporadically in the 15 years before her death. “She had very little time for writing,” Nichols says. “When the volunteer fireman asked her to make a pie, she’d make a pie. She was open to everything.” Throughout the book, she repeatedly alludes to how difficult it is to complete a piece of writing: “To translate a poem / from thinking / into English / takes all night / night nights and days.” In “The Irish Poet,” she describes a class of poetry students studying the masters and worries that none of them will ever put in enough work:
flashed onto a screen the poems
are by Shelley Yeats Bishop

they are serious teachers these poems
are the early abysmal drafts
of great poets the students are
encouraged they have many abysmal
drafts themselves they have usually
stopped at oh their second or
third draft what if their longing
for their own true invention
of language is not strong enough what
if they are satisfied too soon
Paley often spoke of her own indolence (“I laze. I mean really hang out”) and was rarely able to write pieces longer than five or six pages. She blamed it on her temperament: she was fairly happy. She put out few books—three story collections and four books of poems over nearly six decades of writing—because she was raising two kids, traveling, and protesting three wars. “It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy to hang out and / prophesy,” she writes in “Responsibility,” perhaps her most famous poem. Paley once said that she started writing when she got “a strong language feeling”—when she heard a phrase she liked, sometimes uttered by a friend—and, from there, decided whether there was enough momentum to make it more than a poem. Many of her best pieces sat around as first lines for months before she figured out a way to move on.

Light reading round-up, thirst-things edition

Mmmmm, I have just read a most delightful vampire novel recommended to me the other week by a vampiricist of my acquaintance. It is John Steakley's Vampire$, and it is the most heavenly mix of Western and oozing ichor and vampire-hunting, very Jack Reacherish avant-la-lettre only with supernatural infusions--and the Pope is a character!

Lovely gruesome horror-genre writing, made me desperately want to write a book along these lines (or indeed to become a vampire hunter, only I think it is not my skill set, I have never fired a gun for instance, I think I would have to be on the research team delving into the vampire literature in the Vatican Library--but genre conventions allow the team researcher to make a heroic late-stage doomed intervention in a particularly bloody battle!).

My favorite moment is the surprising but inevitable revelation introducing an unexpected narrative shift:
She hung her head. Then she reached down to the hem of her khaki skirt and took it in her fist and raised it up, exposing the perfect silken lines of her golden legs and the sharp heartache contrast of yellow panties. . .

. . . and there, there high on her left inner thigh . . .

Like the bite of a monstrous spider.

It could be no other kind of wound.

"Help me," she whispered.

"Help me. . ."
It's totally over the top and pulpy, and wonderfully good at the same time--reminds me of how my one regret about the Hard Case Crime books is that none of 'em have werewolves or vampires!

The excellence of this one drew my attention to the poor quality of recent light reading hereabouts. I have had a lot of travel and a serious case of stress/work burnout, including the wretched lung ailment--too many books purchased in airport newsstands! James Hetley's The Summer Country was a reasonably enjoyable read--hmmm, that's the one I did not purchase at an airport, why am I not surprised... I was ashamed when I reached the end of Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes that I had not put it down about fifty pages in and instead reread (if I could have magically obtained a copy while on the road) Lionel Shriver's infinitely superior We Need To Talk About Kevin or indeed any one of half-a-dozen other school shooting novels. Picoult's is readable but shlocky, with an absurd "twist" at the end--in particular the mother-daughter relationship seemed straight out of some already fairly cliched television drama. Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books are usually fairly reliable pleasures, but The Overlook has a certain thinness to it that's no doubt related to its origins as a weekly serial.

Or perhaps I am just too jaded and worn out to appreciate the usual light reading!

In short, I must acquit myself tomorrow morning of a few pressing work responsibilities and then I am going to have an utter collapse for a few days--mercifully it is Columbia's spring break next week. What my health is calling for: read four or five novels; be supremely and impossibly lazy; write some soothing blog posts; and try and get some sleep! I really need a few days off, with no obligations whatsoever... but I think that is what I can now have, so all will doubtless be well...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Let's split!"

This is a very delightful article:
Male and female sand dollars typically reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs into the water where they join and become baby larvae. Sand dollar larvae had previously been observed cloning themselves to accelerate a population boom when food is abundant.

But Ms. Vaughn wanted to see what defenses the baby sand dollars had evolved to avoid being eaten.

She took four-day-old larvae and placed them individually into shot glasses — the glasses more commonly used for downing tequila — together with water, algae for food, and mucus she had swabbed off Dover sole, a fish that happily eats larvae.

Within 24 hours, many of the single larvae had become two, either by simply splitting in two or, more commonly, by growing a bud that then detached and developed into a smaller larva. The cloning process is too slow to save a baby sand dollar if a predator, mouth open, is closing in on lunch. But if the larva detects the predators when they have just entered the neighborhood, there is often enough time for it to split.

None of the larvae placed in shot glasses without fish mucus split.
Sometimes one must fall back on the Amazon formulation statistically improbable phrases....

Dead mole voodoo

Post-diagnosis, Terry Pratchett makes a substantial donation to Alzheimer's research. That is a good cause--awful disease, Pratchett's description of it as "stripping 'away your living self a bit at a time'" is far too apt.


Julian Barnes has a lovely piece at the TLS on the latest volume of Flaubert's correspondence. Hmmm, I have not really read Flaubert or Maupassant since I was a teenager (I was a very serious teenager, though!), it is coming up time to go back to that stuff--because I think my next (academic) book is going to be an elegant little book on style, pretty much the opposite in every way of the book I have just finished on breeding--whose final subtitle is "A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century," and which is simply bursting with stuff, while the style book will be very quirkily subdued and understated in its manner...

Here's Barnes, anyway:
This final volume begins with the very last letters of Flaubert’s long and key exchange with George Sand. To the end she is preaching optimism, human virtue and social progress, still rebuking him for his obsession with novelistic form, still dismissing his belief in authorial absence as an “unhealthy fantasy”. He takes her well-meant scolding in good heart, and explains yet again: “I cannot have a temperament other than my own. Nor an aesthetic other than the one which is the consequence of my temperament”. His life, he tells other correspondents, has become “austere and farouche”; it consists of nothing but “work, memories and dreams”. More than once he complains that the “mainspring” of his mechanism is broken. He is finishing the Trois Contes and writing Bouvard et Pécuchet; apart from that, these last four years are a time of solitude and waiting for the end. The Hermit of Croisset has reached his final eremitic stage.

It is true that his body is now running down: he breaks a leg, and has only one “domino” left in his upper jaw; he suffers lumbago, blepharitis, boils on the face, and that perennial complaint of the sedentary writer, haemorrhoids. His nerves, however, are the main problem: in 1879 the local doctor, Charles Fortin, chidingly calls him a “big hysterical girl” – a judgement which accords with Dr Hardy’s diagnosis five years previously (“a hysterical old girl”). It is also true that these letters depict the life of an elderly uncompanioned man in all its mundane detail. He writes of sponges and mouthwash and the high price of cauliflowers; he gets his Strasbourg slippers soled; he has a pedicure; he buys sugar and apricots for marmelade; he mends the doorbell using a poker rather than wire, loses the irrigator for his haemorrhoids, has the tiles in the bathroom and lavatory relaid. His dog “humiliates” him with its constant erections, though amuses him by throwing up on the rug.
And another very funny bit at the end:
Maupassant represents the best hope of the next generation; in consequence, Flaubert is both avuncularly encouraging and “severe but just”. He sees a young writer of high talent and poor discipline. He tells him to work harder, explaining that the religion of art demands the sacrifice of life. He warns against the dangers of too many whores, too much rowing, too much exercise: “A civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim”. Maupassant complains that sex is becoming monotonous; Flaubert tells him to cut it out for a while. Maupassant complains that “events are repetitive”; Flaubert orders him to look at them more carefully. Maupassant complains that “There aren’t enough phrases”; Flaubert replies, “Seek and ye shall find!”. Maupassant appears to be sinking into self-indulgence and self-pity; Flaubert warns him, “Sadness is a vice”.
"A civilized person needs much less locomotion than the doctors claim"!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Death lit

Sarah Weinman on the genius of Derek Raymond. Which I was just contemplating yesterday morning myself, after following Helen's link to the wonderfully good Telegraph obituary for Paul Raymond (vague thematic Soho vice connection):
Many — particularly male journalists — found Raymond's candour charming, and he could be generous to employees. Nor did his lifestyle follow the American fashion of vain exclusivity and pretence; he remained a louche and unhealthy man of vulgar tastes, though he wore good suits.

Tall, with an artificial tan that mummified his skin like cracked toffee, a mane of hair like brittle silver lamé and a smear of moustache, he latterly evoked Dracula lurking in the guise of an Oxford Street spiv.

He sported heavy gold jewellery, a gold Rolls-Royce and had a penthouse next to the Ritz. He did not affect intellect; fearful that reading could destroy his instinct for the popular, he claimed he had not touched a book since infancy.

Though he had a son, Howard, the two were estranged, and Debbie was heir designate, until she died in 1992 after consuming quantities of cocaine and alcohol. Her father was distraught, became reclusive, and his own health gradually failed. A nephew took over the running of his enterprises.

More badgers

In this week's New Yorker:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fear of flying

Later this month, an event that promises to be very enjoyable and interesting! Columbia/Barnard-based, but open to everyone...

"Fear of Flying"
Can a Feminist Classic Be an American Classic?

Friday, March 28, 2008, 2-8pm, Social Hall at Union Theological Seminary, 3041 Broadway at 121st St.

Welcoming Remarks:

Marianne Hirsch, Institute for Research on Women and Gender
Michael Ryan, Columbia University Libraries

2:15-3:30pm Fear of Flying at 35
Moderated by Natalie Kampen, Barnard Center for Research on Women

Susan Rubin Suleiman, writer and critic, Harvard University
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writer and critic, Stanford University
Aoibheean Sweeney, novelist, CUNY Graduate Center

3:45–5pm Can a Feminist Classic be an American Classic?

Moderated by Margo Jefferson, journalist, Columbia University School of the Arts

Min Jin Lee, novelist
Nancy K. Miller, writer and critic, CUNY Graduate Center
Rebecca Traister, journalist,


Erica Jong in conversation with Jenny Davidson, Columbia University


Hope to see some of you there...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Life changed by Harry Potter

At the Times, Adam Rogers on Gary Gygax and the world he created. There's a great chart! I always feel slightly sheepish that I did not seriously play either video games or fantasy role-playing games as a child, it seems very much the kind of thing I would have liked only I was always excessively book-oriented--but a lot of the items on the chart made me laugh, I do indeed remember my handmade Gandalf costume from fifth grade and it is even possible that I used it again the next year...

(And Ed Park has had a good string of Gygax links and remiscences at the Dizzies this week.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008


At the Times, David Colman interviews Oliver Sacks, who is wearing a particularly delightful T-shirt in the picture that accompanies the article:
“I love dense things,” he said cheerfully, ticking off the densities of tungsten, iridium and platinum.

He also loves ferns and cycads, believing that plants that make a garish show of their sex organs — what we call flowers — are perhaps a bit vulgar. “I feel that flowers are Johnny-come-latelies,” he said, noting that ferns predated flowering plants by more than 200 million years.


A nice piece at the Times about my college classmate Eisa Davis.

Friday, March 07, 2008


John Lanchester's appealing essay in this week's New Yorker persuades me it would be well worth getting hold of a copy of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's Perfumes: The Guide. Here are Lanchester's final paragraphs:
There are fashions in smell, too, and the heavy-duty perfumes of the nineteen-eighties, in particular, come in for a hard time from Turin and Sanchez. They give some of these perfumes a rating of five out of five, while at the same time more or less begging the reader not to buy them. Opium is “unquestionably one of the greatest fragrances of all time,” Turin writes. “Yet I would hate it if anyone wore it near me today.”

That, it turns out, is relatively mild, as their criticisms go. Consider 212, from Carolina Herrera: “Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut.” Amarige, from Givenchy? “If you are reading this because it is your darling fragrance, please wear it at home exclusively, and tape the windows shut.” Heiress? “Hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches.” Princess? “Stupid name, pink perfume, heart shaped bottle, little crown on top. I half expected it to be really great just to spite me. But no, it’s probably the most repulsively cloying thing on the market today.” Hugo, the men’s cologne from Hugo Boss? “Dull but competent lavender-oakmoss thing, suggestive of a day filled with strategy meetings.” Love in White? “A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me. If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice.” Lanvin’s Rumeur gets a one-word review: “Baseless.”

This is fun to read—and a rare pleasure, too, since the importance of perfume advertising means that one doesn’t often get to read strong criticism of multimillion-dollar-earning fragrances. The joy of Turin and Sanchez’s book, however, is their ability to write about smell in a way that manages to combine the science of the subject with the vocabulary of scent in witty, vivid descriptions of what these smells are like. Their work is, quite simply, ravishingly entertaining, and it passes the high test that their praise is even more compelling than their criticism. Here, in full, is Turin’s review of Lancôme’s Trésor:
I once sat in the London Tube across a young woman wearing a t-shirt printed with headline-size words ALL THIS across her large breasts, and in small type underneath “and brains too.” That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Trésor. Up close, when you can read the small print, Trésor is a superbly clever accord between powdery rose and vetiver, reminiscent of the structure of Habanita. From a distance, it’s the trashiest, most good-humored pink mohair sweater and bleached hair thing imaginable. When you manage to appeal to both the reptilian brain and the neocortex of menfolk, what happens is what befell Trésor: a huge success.
You don’t have to like perfume to like “Perfumes: The Guide.” Its blend of technical knowledge and evocative writing is exemplary in the strict sense: people who write about smell and taste in any context should use it as an example. Turin may be wrong about what appeals to the male neocortex, however. As Sanchez says, “The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this: ‘What scent drives men wild?’ After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon.”

The Model 11A

At the Telegraph, Nakki Goranin on the inventor of the photobooth:
By September 1925 he had opened up his Photomaton Studio on Broadway, between 51st and 52nd streets. Crowds, as many as 7,500 people a day, would line up to have their photos taken for 25 cents for a strip of eight: the place came to be known as 'Broadway's greatest quarter-snatcher.' The New York governor and a senator were among those waiting for the fun of the automatic photo strip. A white-gloved attendant would guide people to the booth and, once inside, direct them to 'look to the right, look to the left, look at the camera'.

An authentic utterance from a soul beyond the tomb

James Lovegrove has a very nice piece on four new books about spiritualism at the FT.

Also quite delightful to me: Peter Aspden speaks with Jeffrey Archer about prison life and other matters. Here's the opening, it really is a great piece:
One Arcadian summer in Cambridgeshire’s idyllic Grantchester Meadows, about 25 years ago, I was taking part in a charity cricket match that pitted the local newspaper’s team against a smattering of local celebrities. The scene was exquisitely lyrical; more to the point, I was batting well. I middled a ball to the square leg boundary, confident of adding four more runs. But the man fielding there moved sharply to one side, and had the audacity to catch me.

Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, or plain Jeffrey Archer as he was then, intercepted me in the pavilion at tea. “That was a good catch,” he said of his admittedly impressive effort. “You were going well.” And the exchange stayed with me, for its sheer brazenness and slightly tactless tone of self-congratulation. But that was 25 years ago, and in truth, we hadn’t seen anything yet.

I recount the details of the catch – but not the tea-time remark – as we sit in Archer’s spectacular penthouse apartment on Albert Embankment, and his face beams. “How very rude of me,” he says, twice, but he doesn’t mean it of course. Nothing could mean more to him than a compliment on his sporting prowess. He is the cat that got the cream, sidled away, and then discovered a whole vat of it round the next corner. “I couldn’t bat and I couldn’t bowl but I could field,” he says, managing to sound both self-deprecatory and self-satisfied, a frequent Archer trope.
I've had kind of a thing for Jeffrey Archer ever since I first read the amazing piece about him in Iain Sinclair's striking book Lights Out for the Territory...

Matter of fact

At the Guardian, John Kerrigan considers Daniel Defoe's history as a spy and the importance of his Scottish experience for the technical breakthroughs of Defoe's prose:
Take the moment in 1706 when the Edinburgh crowds attacked the house of Sir Patrick Johnston, one of the treaty negotiators:
His Lady, in the utmost Despair with this Fright, comes to the Window, with two Candles in her Hand, that she might be known; and cryed out, for GODs Sake, to call the Guards: . . . one Captain Richardson, who Commanded, taking about thirty Men with him, March'd bravely up to them; and making his way with great Resolution thro' the Croud, they Flying, but Throwing Stones, and Hallowing at him, and his Men, he seized the Foot of the Stair Case; and then boldly went up, clear'd the Stair, and took six of the Rabble in the very Act; and so delivered the Gentleman and his Family.
It was Sir Walter Scott who noticed that Defoe creates "an appearance of REALITY" as a novelist by presenting himself as "a man of plain sense" and by including "some point which ascertains the eyewitness". In the assault on Johnston's house, we are persuaded that Defoe was there by the two candles in the lady's hands, by the mixing of honest-sounding approximation ("about thirty Men") with persuasive exactness ("six of the Rabble in the very Act"), and by Defoe's location as an observer: "the Author of this had one great Stone thrown at him, for but looking out of a Window". All this is designed to convince us that Defoe knows enough to sustain his charge that the protesters were a rabble led astray by Jacobites, yet the construction of the scene recalls the milling crowds in Moll Flanders. The motive is propagandist, but the fruit is a breakthrough in realism.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Further frivolities

To Alice, Pepperidge Farm tastes like disappointment. Go and read it, it's a geographically oriented baked-goods musing!

I too have strong Pepperidge Farm thrift shop memories...

When we were kids, our father worked for a few years at a company that was also near a Pepperidge Farm "thrift store." Periodically he brought home an amazing and thrillingly exciting haul of stuff--the gallon cartons of goldfish (catering size!), the strange frozen cakes with a weird hump out of 'em that was what led to the thrift-store mark-down...

I must confess, Alice, that my own taste in Pepperidge Farm cookies runs to the non-chocolate ones that are fairly plain--I have been known to eat Chessmen, and I like the Gingerbread Men. Now and again I eye the cakes in the freezer section, but I have not actually tasted one in adult life, and I think it might be better to leave them with the delicious sheen of childhood cake-eating memory!

Thursday frivolities

Slightly Cosmo-quizzical--but can you resist the appeal of finding out your personality type? (Mine seems an apt description--but what made me laugh was the list of famous INTJs at the end--who writes these things?!? The selection of fictional characters is particularly farfetched!)

(Via Harley Jane Kozak, author of an altogether delightful string of crime novels that I wholeheartedly recommend.)

In other news, I woke up from a dream yesterday morning in strong possession of the conviction that there was a field called dinosaur casuistry...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Jailbait vampires

Hmmm, I have just read Doree Shafrir's Observer piece about the craze for teen vampire fiction with the most demented readerly and writerly longing, I really am going to write a vampire novel one of these days! I want to read all of these:
Despite some recent attempts at getting away from vampires and anointing the next hot paranormal genre (Publishers Weekly recently declared that 2008 was the “year of the zombie”), publishers are continuing to fuel the vampire craze. Authors who have long written for adult audiences are making the jump, including Nancy A. Collins, whose Vamps (another Gossip Girl-with-vampires conceit) comes out in July. Zombies, werewolves, faeries and ghosts are all showing signs of popularity, but as Ms. Howard said, “I think vampires are always the leading edge in the interest in paranormal fiction.” One YA imprint gave its editors what essentially amounted to a mandate to acquire fresh vampire stories; the list of new vampire books coming out in the next few months, in addition to the ones just acquired, is a long one. Vunce Upon a Time, about a vegetarian vampire, comes out this fall; Evernight, a book about a vampire boarding school, will be published in May; and a new book in Ellen Schreiber’s Vampire Kisses series comes out in June. Recently sold YA vampire books include Vamped, about a fashionista vampire; a new book in Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series; two more books in Heather Brewer’s Chronicles of Vladimir series; Svetlana Grimm and the Circle of Red, about a middle-schooler with the power to destroy vampires; another book in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series; Kimberly Pauley’s Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe); and Mario Acevedo’s Jailbait Vampire, a book in a series about a vampire private detective.
Mmmmm, vampires...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Something out of the usual run of things

For the Columbians amongst you, this Friday (I cannot tell you exactly what it will be like, but it should be interesting!):
An Interdisciplinary Conversation

Jenny Davidson, English and Comparative Literature
Geraldine Downey, Psychology
Coco Fusco, Spanish and Portuguese
Eugenia Lean, East Asian Languages and Cultures
Beth Povinelli, Anthropology

The speakers will address a range of topics, including the significance of the body as a site of meaning, especially as it relates to embodied subjects; the body's potential for interdisciplinary analysis; the boundaries of the body; the role of medical discourse and technology in their conceptualization of the body; and whether the human body is always already gendered (if de-gendered or transgendered bodies are considered "human").

Organized by the IRWaG Graduate Colloquium

WHEN: Friday March 7th, 1:00 - 3:00 PM

WHERE: 614 Schermerhorn

Please join us for this unique opportunity to see interdisciplinary
dialogue in action! A reception will follow in 754 Schermerhorn

Questions? Contact for further information or directions.

Brooklyn Ghost Investigations

Useful to know who to call...

Monday, March 03, 2008

"The hyenas are the least of your trouble"

This article gave me an extraordinary pang of regret that I have not spent my life as an observer of baboons or spotted hyenas. On the other hand, I do not really have an adventurous soul:
To understand the social intelligence of hyenas, Dr. Holekamp and her colleagues track the animals from birth to death. Their work begins in the communal dens where the cubs live for their first few months. Crawling into the dens, a network of underground chambers, is Dr. Holekamp’s least favorite part of her job.

“The hyenas are the least of your trouble,” she said. “You know when the mom’s there and when she’s not. But is there also a warthog in there that’s going to take off your face with its tusks? Is it a cobra?”

Dative plural

At Open Letters Monthly, Garth Risk Hallberg on Helen DeWitt's altogether wonderful novel The Last Samurai. Helen's blog paperpools is also one of my personal internet delights...

(Link courtesy of TEV.)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Contributional compulsions

Widely linked to already, but Nicholson Baker has a great little essay on Wikipedia in the latest New York Review of Books:
Say you're working away on the Wikipedia article on aging. You've got some nice scientific language in there and it's really starting to shape up:
After a period of near perfect renewal (in Humans, between 20 and 50 years of age), organismal senescence is characterized by the declining ability to respond to stress, increasing homeostatic imbalance and increased risk of disease. This irreversible series of changes inevitably ends in Death.
Not bad!

And then somebody—a user with an address of, a "vandal"—replaces the entire article with a single sentence: "Aging is what you get when you get freakin old old old." That happened on December 20, 2007. A minute later, you "revert" that anonymous editor's edit, with a few clicks; you go back in history to the article as it stood before. You've just kept the aging article safe, for the moment. But you have to stay vigilant, because somebody might swoop in again at any time, and you'll have to undo their harm with your power reverter ray. Now you're addicted. You've become a force for good just by standing guard and looking out for juvenile delinquents.

Some articles are so out of the way that they get very little vandalism. (Although I once fixed a tiny page about a plant fungus, Colletotrichum trichellum, that infects English ivy; somebody before me had claimed that 40 percent of the humans who got it died.) Some articles are vandalized a lot. On January 11, 2008, the entire fascinating entry on the aardvark was replaced with "one ugly animal"; in February the aardvark was briefly described as a "medium-sized inflatable banana." On December 7, 2007, somebody altered the long article on bedbugs so that it read like a horror movie:
Bedbugs are generally active only at dawn, with a peak attack period about an hour before dawn, though given the opportunity, they may attempt to feed at your brain at other times.
A few weeks later, somebody replaced everything with:
A piece of antivandalism software, VoABot II, reverted that edit, with a little sigh, less than a minute after it was made.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Walking the cat back

At the Times, Ben Macintyre on spyspeak.

Also--Marina Warner's essay on Beckett in this week's TLS had some lovely bits on Mallarme and strange English proverbs:
Thèmes anglais contains a gathering of a thousand English phrases, proverbs, adages and saws, all conscientiously marshalled in order to illustrate a rule of English grammar: first the definite article, then the indefinite, first the possessive pronoun, then the relative pronoun, etc. The contrast between the austerely dry objective of the examples and their fantastical oddity, the disjunction between the scrupulous lexical and grammatical rigour and the free-association lexical chain of words, achieve an exhilarating absurdity. A native speaker of English would know precious few of these locutions at the very most, and use them – never. The ones that you might know you would find stale; and you would have done so then, in the late nineteenth century – since some of the proverbs Mallarmé cites were already archaic by the seventeenth. He was using an anthology he had come upon in Truchy’s bookshop to glean a myriad equivalents to “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, regardless of current usage.

What is entirely seductive about his lists is their irreducibly foreign character. But this strangeness turns his collection into a kind of prose poem, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weirdly comic: “Under water, famine; under snow, bread. / Prettiness makes no pottage”. These enigmas are offered to illustrate how, where French uses a definite article, English does without. Besides “Who can shave an egg?”, phrases such as “You can’t hide an eel in a sack” are included in order to illustrate the use of the indefinite article. The quirkiness of these rules inspires a riddling sequence:

It is hard for an empty bag to sit upright.

To cut down an oak and set up a strawberry.

Undone, as a man would undo an oyster.

You ask an elm tree for pears.

You shall ride an inch behind the tail.

These adages – proverbs or whatever – teeter on the verge of incomprehensibility. But their cumulative effect is melancholy: failure stalks them, regardless of syntactical exactitude.
Who can shave an egg?!?