Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Light rereading

It was my pleasure this week to reread what is surely one of the very best of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels, Thendara House.

I must have read it at least half a dozen times before, including several times in adulthood. I picked this copy up a few years ago; it's the original 1984 DAW paperback, surely the same edition I read it in as a young teenager; even at the time, I think it was clear to me the extent to which it is a novel about gender relations in the United States in the late 1970s!

I do rather love this book - I group it in memory with two others that I must have also read around age 12 or 13 (I am having a fit of nostalgia for those public-library wire carousels stuffed with fat mass-market paperbacks!), Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue and Zoe Fairbairns' chilling Benefits, a book I have not reread since I was a teenager but that haunted me much more than Margaret Atwood's better-known Handmaid's Tale.

In an alternate universe I am going to science-fiction conventions and writing feminist science fiction myself! Oh, I am so nostalgic for the magical world-building fantasies of the 1970s: the best of Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley really are pretty much unbeatable as far as light reading goes, though they have both published some books that are so much less good than their best ones that you have to wonder how much of a hand they even had in them. The thing that is distinctive about this kind of imagination is that the world-building combines so fruitfully, in these cases, with a strong interest in character and a feel for the traditional forms of narrative - they have the pleasures of a novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, only in a quite wonderfully debased form!

Hmmm, there must be at least half a dozen Darkover novels that I have never read; my habits have biased me against obtaining them, they are just the sort of thing one cannot request through a university library. Might be I will purchase 'em from used booksellers on Amazon and get home in mid-January to find an amazing selection of little boxes of musty but magical books....

The celestial fix

From Survival in Antarctica, a pamphlet published by the National Science Foundation Division of Polar Programs (1984 ed.). Click to enlarge.

"Monkey college"

Rebecca Skloot has an interesting Times Magazine piece on service animals.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clouds and bergs, bergs and clouds

From Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica (and thanks to Dorothy for reminding me this book existed and prompting me to hie myself to the library and snatch it from the shelf and read it myself):
People from the boat called them ugly, but that doesn't quite catch the aesthetic disaster of the elephant seal. It is more that they are utterly ill-suited for this planet. They might, it occurred to me, have been dropped or fallen from an alien vessel and landed - splat - as we saw them, on the sea shore, to do the best they could in difficult circumstances. Gravity bore down on their enormous bulk (a big bull seal can be up to twenty-two feet long), in the same way that large stones are piled up to squash pressed beef. A grey jellied mountain results, whose sides slope down to their inadequate-looking flippers. One more stone on the pile of gravity and the whole strained substance would rupture, exploding flesh and blubber through its skin for miles around. They lay around as if exhausted, which I suppose they were, their relatively small heads sunk wearily on the black sand. The females and babies had the anthropomorphic advantage of huge, round wet eyes which rolled wide open as someone passed them by, with a fatigued but appealing look as if to say "Can you imagine?" The cows and pups turned on to their stomachs to scratch their bellies idly with the claws at the end of their flippers, so you began to think, "Well, maybe it's not so bad." The bulls didn't roll; the attempt to move their mountain of flesh would probably have burst their hearts. And while they might have just as corny eyes, I hardly noticed them because of my disbelief at the sight of the truncated trunks from which they get their name. Elephant seal is one of those euphemistic names humans give creatures who remind them of what they don't want to be reminded of. If an honest name were to be given, they would be flaccid penis seal, because the wrinkled concertinaed length and the bobbing, swinging floppiness of those extended noses is a satire on the male reproductive member.

"Watch your head"

Ed Park on invisible epigraphs. Some very good sentences in this piece, it is a funny one!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Miscellaneous light reading

Hmmmm, dodgy internet connection + holiday paucity of literary news = blog tedium! Miscellaneous light reading catch-up: Michael Phelps, No Limits: The Will to Succeed (highly readable, but nothing much to it); Liz Robbins, A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York (compulsively readable to me on account of its subject, in fact I read it in a single sitting, but quite wooden in the writing - it definitely does not transcend the genre); Sarah Strohmeyer, The Sleeping Beauty Proposal (I had only a few minutes to pick something out in the bookstore at the train station in Philadelphia, and this seemed by far the most literate option - in my light reading I prefer fantastical creatures and/or murder, but I was not sorry I got this one instead of one of the more formulaic and clumsy mass-market paperbacks that seemed to fill the shelves, the prose is lively and engaging).

Sunday, December 28, 2008


From Anatole France, Penguin Island:
"To clothe the penguins is a very serious business. At present when a penguin desires a penguin he knows precisely what he desires and his lust is limited by an exact knowledge of its object. At this moment two or three couples of penguins are making love on the beach. See with what simplicity! No one pays any attention and the actors themselves do not seem to be greatly preoccupied. But when the female penguins are clothed, the male penguin will not form so exact a notion of what it is that attracts him to them. His indeterminate desires will fly out into all sorts of dreams and illusions; in short, father, he will know love and its mad torments. And all the time the female penguins will cast down their eyes and bite their lips, and take on airs as if they kept a treasure under their clothes! . . . what a pity!"

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Spam is better than ham"

Dan Visel interviews Helen DeWitt at if:book.

Kid art

When my mother moved from her old house to her new one, she got rid of a ton of stuff, but she wanted to keep at least one piece of art made by each of her children in their youth! She now has three framed childhood pictures of ours (there is quite a bit of other later-stage art by my brothers around the place, it was not so much in my line once I got older), and I thought I would blog 'em! Click to get a closer view.

A picture of my beloved cat Lamb Chop holding a tiny me on a swing:

Jonathan's crocodile:

Michael's rocket-ship (including an appealing detail that cannot quite be seen in the picture, the NASA Barber Shop - if you click you can see it, though, and also that there is a tiny ferris wheel in the background!):

Bonus link - a group of clay figures I made in third grade, when I was obsessed on the one hand with making things out of clay (I was very upset when the main wizard figure slumped down before it was fired!) and on the other with an elaborate game of witches that I played in the graveyard behind the school with my friends Debby and Dara. The figure in the foreground isn't deformed - it's a chimpanzee!

All pictures courtesy of Jessi - thanks!


Phil Nugent's best of 2008. Arghhhh, I should see more movies, this list puts me to shame!

(And I forgot to mention Encounters at the End of the World on my list, too!)

Another pretty amazing though perhaps less immediately useful end-of-year commentary: the annual jane dark's sugarhigh! single of the year countdown...

The year in reading

If you haven't already been checking it out, Max at The Millions has assembled a truly wonderful series of posts by a wide variety of writers on what they most enjoyed reading this year.


It has been an interesting year.

I saw two of my own books into the world, the work of the past five or so years. It was tiring! I have no desire to create another book index in the near future...

I moved to a new office and a new apartment. I stayed in the same job.

(I got tenure!)

I went to Disneyworld for the first time. I fed Romaine lettuce to giraffes and nectar to lorikeets at Busch Gardens. I played with a penguin at the Tampa Aquarium, and fed it a fish or two. I went scuba-diving in the Caribbean, and saw blue iguanas in the wildlife refuge on Grand Cayman!

I did my first two triathlons. I ran my first marathon! I joined an actual swim team. I continued to become a better swimmer, but I still can't do a flip turn with any ease or comfort - a goal for 2009.

I had acute insomnia, and then it slowly returned to the standard-level kind ("Too much traffic"!).

I met Dick Francis for the second time in my life - the last time, I was in seventh grade!

I read very few books, all told, so I will only give a handful of recommendations of things that especially struck me. I am too lazy to paste in links in most cases! My mind was especially colored this year by the things I was teaching - Richardson's Clarissa, Shakespeare and his eighteenth-century incarnations, the voices of Swift and Burke.

First, a couple other domains in which I really checked out so little new stuff that these picks are pretty much contextless, just things of excellence with a sensibility that appeals to me.

A few plays I especially liked: Jay Scheib's Untitled, Mars; the Flea's production of Addison's Cato; the spectacular Wig Out!.

Some music of friends that has tickled my ears (I link to Nico too often to do it again here!): Thomas Bartlett's utterly lovely Doveman albums (which seem to be often compared to Nick Drake, but I thought a better description would be Big Star minus the part of Big Star that's like T. Rex - anyway, they are some of my favorite things, I have been listening to them constantly in recent weeks, everyone should have them on the iPod - get 'em here right now!); Tarvo Varres's old band Röövel Ööbik's Popsubterranea (go and read the list of tracks, the names are irresistible!).

Some absolute top picks among the books: Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1; Rosamond Purcell's Egg and Nest; Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay; Martin Millar's Led Zeppelin, Suzy and Me (I have pasted in the link because I particularly think everybody should read that one, it made me laugh more than any other book I read this year!) and Lonely Werewolf Girl; Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; and Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (which may have been published a year or two ago, so perhaps it does not count as a 2008 book - I do not care about the technicalities, it is a lovely and wonderfully well-written novel!).

Most delightful and laugh-out-loud and intellectually stimulating light reading: Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archives and sequel The Jennifer Morgue (I liked Accelerando very much too, but it is not so perfectly suited to my tastes). I also very much enjoyed John Steakley's Vampire$ and Iain M. Banks's Matter.

There were new installments in two favorite series of mine, Lee Child's Nothing to Lose (Jack Reacher) and Naomi Novik's Victory of Eagles (Temeraire), as well as a very strong conclusion to Jo Walton's tremendous Farthing trilogy, Half a Crown.

Other good things: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book; Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow; Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box; Mal Peet's Tamar; Aiobheann Sweeney's Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking; Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost; Wendy Townsend's Lizard Love; Julia Hoban's Willow; and on a delightfully light-hearted note, Justine Larbalestier's How to Ditch Your Fairy, which seems to me much her best book so far (and I am a great admirer of the Magic or Madness books, too, it is just that this one takes an exciting leap forward).

Ed Park's Personal Days, of course! Tana French's pair of thrillers, In the Woods and The Likeness, which have left tens of thousands of slavering suspense-fiction addicts drooling in anticipation of successive installments.

Two books by Joshilyn Jackson, Between, Georgia and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, which make me not understand why she is not yet the absolute critical darling and anointed writer of her generation - anyone who writes and reads novels will read one of hers and feel themselves to be in the presence of someone with exceptional gifts and powers of execution, I would rather read fewer reviews of John Updike's new novels and more of Jackson's!

Triathlon-related ringers: James McGurn's On Your Bicycle, Kathrine Switzer's Marathon Woman. Non-fiction more generally: Jim Enderby, A Guinea Pig's History of Biology, Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People, Barbara Sjoholm, The Palace of the Snow Queen.

And I have almost forgotten - last but CERTAINLY not least - the reissue of Joan Aiken's Armitage stories, The Serial Garden. This book belongs in every reading person's library!

I have various ploys on for 2009. I am planning to run two marathons, and if things go as I imagine one of them will be a bit faster than the one I ran in November and the other will be considerably slower, and that will be as it should be! I have signed up for the same two triathlons I did last year and it should be that I can improve my times in both of them, and continue to become a better runner and swimmer and a more fully competent cyclist.

I have to finish a book that is the promise of a long-ago self who no longer exists!

More interestingly, though, there is a book I want to start thinking about and working on, a magical alluring unwritten book that has yet to have the magic shaken out of it by being put into actual fleshly words. This is the post where I most directly mused on that notional project; and as a bonus, I will link again to my top five book recommendations for the swim-obsessed...

Thank you, as always, for reading. Best wishes for a happy, healthy and productive year in 2009!

Friday, December 26, 2008

"A blank, a question mark"

At the FT, deaf-blind pianist Mark Pampel talks about performance (free site registration required):
Without my hearing aids I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation. My current ones make the piano sound “natural”. But they are not as sophisticated as they could be and I hear harmonics and overtones that I shouldn’t hear, so I have to put a blanket behind the piano to soften the sound.

I’ve had a lot of problems with hearing aids. Once, after coming home from the audiologist with a new pair to try, I ran straight to the piano and started to play. The music programme on the hearing aids sounded odd. The top two octaves were distorted and there was a terrible booming sensation. It made me feel awful. I could feel a black cloud of depression coming on, not being able to cope. The NHS told me that most people want to hear speech, not music, so because I was in a minority they couldn’t help me.

"Seal steak and biscuits and pemmican and chocolate"

At the Guardian, John Crace interviews Roland Huntsford on his histories of Nordic skiing and polar exploration. The flavor of bygone days:
How someone who was born in Cape Town in 1927 came to develop a Nordic mentality is a story in itself. Huntford's father was both a soldier and a farmer, while his mother was a Ukrainian exile who had escaped the Bolshevik revolution. Huntford came to London after the second world war to study physics at Imperial College, but lasted only two years before he was asked to leave - "not a high point in my education" - and he disappeared to the continent to do nothing gracefully. "I felt my mind had been deformed by science in the UK," he says. "Over here scientists seemed to have a tunnel vision, whereas the ones I met abroad had a wide range of interests and were happy to discuss Italian literature.

"To be honest, I was a drifter, and probably still am in some ways. I ended up in Florence where I hung out with the other would-be artists, fraudulent or otherwise, that gathered there. I don't know if I had a good time, but one would need to have had a heart of stone not to be affected by its atmosphere, its Renaissance painters and writers: to this day, Dante remains my favourite poet."

He moved back to London in the late 50s, found digs in Chelsea and met a Danish communist double agent who was to change his life. "He was obsessed with Ibsen," Huntford said, "and ordered me not to read him in translation. So I started to learn Norwegian and found the language came to me naturally." On the back of his newly acquired passion for Ibsen, Huntford moved to Scandinavia, spending time in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and though the provincialism sometimes got to him, he loved the landscape, the winter darkness and, most of all, the snow.

"Sing willow, willow, willow"

My former student Susanna O'Kula was kind enough to interview me on matters eighteenth-century and otherwise for the Columbia Political Review.

And another former student provided me with some extremely good Light Reading material this week; I will not indulge in super-lavish praise lest I be charged with nepotism, but look out for Julia Hoban's forthcoming (and excellently well-written) young-adult novel Willow...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cascades of ice

At the Elegant Variation, Francisco Goldman offers an appreciation of the fiction of Roberto Bolaño in the form of an elegy for Goldman's wife Aura.

Antlers festooned with gold leaf

For some reason I have been obsessed these last few weeks with the idea of eating a delicious slice of bûche de noël. Chocolate buttercream icing! Obsessed to the point that I have enlisted my friend E. to obtain one from a fancy bakery and bring it to Christmas dinner at my mother's house...

In the Times today, Steven Erlanger and Basil Katz weigh on the Parisian culture of the over-the-top bûche:
Lenôtre actually hires a prominent designer — this year, Hubert de Givenchy — to create a special bûche. Given that St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunters (and of mathematicians, by the way, but of course you knew that), Mr. Givenchy designed a cake with two stag heads at each end, cast in clear sugar like crystal, their antlers festooned with gold leaf like a Buddha and lighted from underneath by two tiny LED lamps that last 12 hours.

The flavor is chocolate, sourced from Tanzania, Ghana and São Tomé and Príncipe, with a hint of Earl Gray tea. And it is swathed in chocolate colored and textured to look like maroon velvet.

There is a golden ribbon of pulled sugar, “like Murano glass,” and, of course, the Givenchy signature on a chocolate plaque. Don’t forget the light dusting of 22-karat gold.
Happy holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The strains of 'Lillibulero'

At the LRB, a strange and mesmerizing bit of memoir from Hilary Mantel about her time in Jeddah:
I was ill in those days, and subject to a fierce drug regime which gave me blinding headaches, made me slightly deaf and, though I was hungry, unable to eat. The drugs were expensive and had to be imported from England; my husband’s company brought them in by courier. Word of this leaked out, and the company wives decided I was taking fertility drugs; but I did not know this, and my ignorance made our conversations peculiar and, to me, slightly menacing. Why were they always talking, on the occasions of forced company sociability, about women who’d had miscarriages but now had a bouncing babe in the buggy? An older woman confided that her two were adopted; I looked at them and thought: Jesus, where from, the zoo? My Pakistani neighbour also joined in the cooing over the offspring that I would have shortly. She was in on the rumours, but I put her hints down to the fact that she was carrying her first child and wanted company. I saw her most mornings for an interval of coffee and chat, and I would rather steer her to talking about Islam, which was easy enough; she was an educated woman and keen to instruct. Monday, 6 June: ‘Spent two hours with my neighbour,’ my diary says, ‘widening the cultural gap.’

The passion for dumbness

Aurora borealis. (Courtesy of Tarvo.)

Not having a fully functional internet connection at home is making me batty! No chance of getting it sorted out before next week, maybe longer than that, so expect blogging to continue light through early January. I'm in the office today, though, so will hope to sneak in a few posts here and there...

Coincidentally I read what I thought was a wonderfully good novel last night, Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. It is a novel that asks to be read in one sitting (Ken Bruen would love this novel!), magically well-written in an understated way - and the heroine is named after Richardson's Clarissa, not Woolf's!

Miscellaneous other light reading (moving turns up interesting books that I fully intended to read when I first got 'em!): Kage Baker's In the Garden of Iden (very good - made me want to reread Connie Willis); Reginald Hill's A Pinch of Snuff (I burned out on this series in its later stages, but the early ones are better - formulaic but good); T. Jefferson Parker's Storm Runners (must have purchased in an airport and then never gotten to it - farfetched, shallow).

And dipping into some non-fiction that is absurdly directly speaking to me: Gayle Greene's Insomniac, which I highly recommend - Greene's website gives you a taste); and Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One.

Here is a bit of Dylan that I especially liked (the book gives me a surreal feeling that it must have been ghostwritten by Toni Schlesinger, as it has a deadpan noir New York voice that I strongly associate with her!):
[I] went into another room, a windowless one with a painted door - a dark cavern with a floor-to-ceiling library. I switched on the lamps. The place had an overpowering presence of literature and you couldn't help but lose your passion for dumbness. Up until this time I'd been raised in a cultural spectrum that had left my mind black with soot. Brando. James Dean. Milton Berle. Marilyn Monroe. Lucy. Earl Warren and Khruschchev, Castro. Little Rock and Peyton Place. Tennessee Williams and Joe DiMaggio. J. Edgar Hoover and Westinghouse. The Nelsons. Holiday Inns and hot-rod Chevys. Mickey Spillane and Joe McCarthy. Levittown.

Standing in this room you could take it all for a joke. There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox's Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles' Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides' The Athenian General - a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It's like nothing has changed from his time to mine.
This is the passage in Thucydides that I've been obsessed with every since I first read it, & which I obsessively cited to the students in my Swift and Burke class this fall. My copy of the book is still boxed up in some more or less inextricable fashion, so I borrow the text from this post at Crooked Timber:
To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence . . . and indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simple-mindedness honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second. (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War III, 82, trans. Rex Warner, The Penguin Classics, pp. 209-210)

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I am in my new digs - but without internet for now. It may be a week or more before I am connected again from home - slightly insanity-inducing, but I thought I had better explain in case any of my usual correspondents are alarmed by the lack of a near-instantaneous reply to e-mail!

The movers were bad but cheap. They were full of interesting tales!

The driver was from Surinam and had recently relocated back to New York after thirteen years in Atlanta, where he worked as a dental technician and pioneered the use of dental bling on the hip-hop scene - gold, diamonds - there was a lot of money in it back in the day, but now that everyone has been doing that stuff for a while, the bottom has dropped out of the business, so he is picking up extra work as a van driver.

The boss was a manic and voluble Russian who spent much of the day on the telephone to various irate customers as my job stretched out ever longer and he failed to show up to successive appointments (they were at my place almost an hour late to begin with, and I concluded that there was a certain amount of optimism in play with regard to scheduling - he was planning on working until 2:30am, he moonlights as a bartender/party service provider, or perhaps the moving is the moonlight bit).

About six hours later, as we waited for the van so that I could double-check that there was nothing actually precious to me among the stuff that they (very kindly - they were only bad on the count of efficiency, partly because of the bottleneck created by the small freight elevator in my old building, but all four movers were really wonderfully good-natured and obliging) were going to take for me to the Salvation Army, he began one last wonderful verbal riff about how, before he branched out into the moving business, he used to work the most lavish parties.

"Craziness, baby! You can't believe those parties! We had lions! Tigers! Bear cubs!"

(Increasingly skeptical looks from me & crew members.)


(Mirth ensues.)

"No, really! It was Miami - Puff Daddy had a party, they got sixteen, eighteen penguins in there - it was hot, the penguins were passing out all over the place" (this bit accompanied by suitable flapping gestures) "and the papers got hold of it the next day, they wouldn't let it drop..."

I was especially tickled because there is a penguin-related adventure in my future, only it involves something so implausibly and extremely exciting to me, I still slightly believe it is not really happening - I will perhaps wait a bit longer for it to sink in, & for private gloating & contemplation, before I share the news...

Blogging will be sporadic over the next week or so, unless somebody has special pull with CUIT and can get me an Ethernet connection in my apartment with apparatchik-like celerity!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey jockeys

America's favorite, or America's only? (Courtesy of BoingBoing.)

"Graham, James (1745-1794), quack"

At the Telegraph, Vic Gatrell on a new biography of the eighteenth-century sex therapist:
Installing [in his Temple of Health] a 'magnetic throne', Graham energetically advertised his discoveries (a pioneer in advertising guff, indeed, in an era of expanding consumption) and pulled in well-heeled audiences to hear his lecture 'On the Generation Increase and Improvement of the Human Species'.

His recommendations were filtered through metaphors and grandiloquent rhetoric.

The daily cold washing of the genitals, for example, would not only 'lock the cock and secure all for the next rencontre', but also much improve the testicular condition: 'certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf's bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be[come] like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet!'


When I was little, I was always writing something - but starting when I was around ten or so, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing a novel called The Purple Cow. It was known in the family as "Jenny's bestseller" - "Where's Jenny?" "She's in her bedroom working on her bestseller."

(There was no ironic freight to the usage, but neither was there anything delusional - it was just always my life ambition to write a trashy novel a.k.a. bestseller, an ambition I have slightly reluctantly given up as I realize that I have missed the moment in life when I might have actually written my Upper Manhattan animal shapeshifter urban fantasy...)

I have just unearthed the box with the novel in it - it is in a green plastic binder, both the original manuscript and a partially typed version - I cannot resist scanning and posting the first page of the typed version. I am guessing it was drafted when I was ten or eleven and typed up a year or so later!

Hmmm, I cannot spare the time right now to do a further selection, though I have slightly mesmerized myself by looking at the middle stretch of pages and I do think I'll redact some of this stuff later on. The book is episodic rather than arc-like in structure, but the main central episode involves a book-writing competition that everyone gets involved in, with charts and calculations! I definitely recognize the person who now likes to make to-do lists and training schedules - really this was an utterly demented project...

NB I learned to type because we only had two cartridges for our TI-99/4A - Munchman and the Touch Typing Tutor!

Cold wars

The beginning of a spy novel.

Also: iceberg calamity!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Superior pudding-basin haircuts

At the TLS, Oliver Reynolds on T. S. Eliot's plays:
Eliot was a rare, mostly silent presence at rehearsals of his plays. (Gwyneth Thurburn, who coached the Chorus for two of the plays, described how he “once came up to me . . . and murmured very confidentially, ‘That should be a colon, not a semi-colon’. I think this was the only spontaneous remark he ever made in rehearsals”.) His considered comments on actors (in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama”, 1920) were antagonistic: “A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable . . . we need, unfortunately, something more than refined automatons”. Eliot’s writing for the actor is mostly undynamic. Even so, one of the pleasures of this Reunion is watching actors making the best of refractory material. Penelope Wilton, as one of Harry’s aunts, gives a masterclass in listening: this is how – and when – you blink. (She also says the word “flute” in a way that evokes the bassoon.) Eliot’s explanation of the play’s failings was bloodless: “. . . an elementary fault in mechanics . . . a failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”. The engineer traces the problem back to the blueprint. An early scenario, from around 1937, introduces Mary (a possible sweetheart for Harry): “She enters and soliloquises, about 5 inches, arranging flowers”. There is an actuarial dryness to that “about 5 inches”; in the play, the scene’s emotion is stillborn. Though the final text does not specify what kind of flowers, Eliot did so for the first production: hyacinths.

Fearful striving

"It's a novel, but better, because it's all real."

I am due for a fit of reading - I am having a strong urge to write, which is good - I will not be able to indulge it till next week, but next week is soon in the grand scheme of things - but what I really want to do is sit down for a few months and read a couple hundred books!

Petrol pump

Compulsive swearing - in sign language. (Via The Dizzies.)

NB Personal Days has been getting some great end-of-the-year attention, including a prominent spot on Time's top ten novels of 2008 list (I cannot use the expression "fiction books," sorry - I guess they use it to cover stories as well as novels - "fictions" would not be quite accurate either - but still, it is almost as bad as "fiction novels"!) and on Edward Champion's also.

I am not going to write a top ten, since I seem to have read very few books this year, but if I have a quiet moment over the weekend I'll skim back through this year's blog posts and put up some holiday book recommendations of one kind or another.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Fishy business

Dinner was incomparably better than the play.

(For those following at home with rumbling stomachs: I had the pesci azzuri appetizer [marinated sardines with peperonata, grilled sardines with capers, raisins and pinenuts, marinated anchovies with preserved blood orange] and the Sicilian-style fish stew; we had a delicious verdicchio, which my grandfather picks mostly because it is the kind of wine I particularly and ignorantly like - light and sparkly! - and for dessert I had toasted pistachio gelato with almond milk and pear sorbetti - that is three separate flavors, with delicious waffle cookies. The plate of petits fours they bring at Esca is utterly delicious - they are very understated to look at, nothing Ritz-like or pastryish in an excessive way, more like biscotti and lemon cake and sesame biscuits, but we always eat up every bite by the time we are ready to leave!)

The thing itself

I have just had an exciting delivery from my editor, who was so kind as to leave it downstairs with the evening doorman in my building - the first copy of Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century!

Due to packing-related chaos, I was hard put to find a clear spot in the apartment for photographic documentation, but there was a temporary opening on the couch...

The sad fact about book-writing is that the part where you actually write the books is much more enjoyable than the part where they go out into the world; the latter might seem superficially more exciting, but it does not give you anything to really sink your teeth into!

I was actually going to add that for the purpose of cultivating mental tranquility I have a devout intention not to write any books in 2009, only then I remembered that I am hoping to finish a good chunk of one in January and that I will almost certainly be unable to resist starting a new one (partly on swimming!) over the summer - but I will write it very slowly, that is what I am thinking, over the course of a number of years...

E di tutto questo mare, cosa faccio?

From Andre Aciman, "In Search of Blue," in False Papers:
Thinking - as any bookish man is always reminded when confronted by the hard-and-fast business of life, of the body, of pleasure - comes after, not before, and certainly not during. To the question "What am I to do with all this water?" the answer should have been "Swim."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Table-talk for December 7

1. I do not like the holiday season - there is a paucity of fresh literary news, it is all unsurprising best-of lists!

2. Some weeks ago I was combing desperately through my apartment for the lightest of light reading - something really trashy.

(In an ideal world, I would read or reread something of the highest quality light-reading-wise, only books of that ilk are so rare and are subsequently reread so frequently by me that they are finally leached of their rereading potential!)

Afterwards I was laughing at myself, because I really and honestly feel that I literally found the trashiest book in the entire apartment! It was this; I suppose I bought it a few years ago when it first came out as a delightfully fat mass-market paperback, and read it then. So I read it again and enjoyed it very much - light reading is soothing to the frenzied brain! And then in a train station bookstore a week or two later I was delighted to find the sequel, which I read with considerable enjoyment.

It has an embarrassingly awful cover, but really these books are highly readable - in a slightly different universe from this one, where I am not a professor but am instead a reclusive author of cult-classic science fiction, I am writing sultry Darkover-Pern style romans fleuves and keeping bees and training hawks and generally living an insane faux-medieval lifestyle and attending the odd fantasy convention in a far-fetched get-up...

3. Happily this weekend, as I packed, I found a much more delightful bit of light reading - I do not know why I did not read it when it first arrived in my apartment, but it has my very high light reading recommendation! It is Jenn Reese's Jade Tiger, and it is altogether excellent, like a divine mash-up of a romantic thriller by Mary Stewart and the most adventurous and superb of all kung-fu novels.

It has tipped me over into thinking I really have to sign up for the elementary fung-fu class at the gym, I eye it every semester but have hitherto foregone it due to the lure of triathlon - but now it is time to dip my toes in those waters.

My only complaint, other than the fact that there are not ten other Reese novels for me to get and devour at once, had to do with the handling of set-up and back-story: I could not shake the feeling that there was a missing introductory section, one which laid out a bit more of the female protagonist's present-day home-base setting, that had either existed in an earlier draft and been rashly cut or else needed to be there to pave the way for certain later developments in the story. It is an editing rather than a writing flaw - the book where I first consciously noticed this as a phenomenon was the also very well-written Blood Engines. But this is a supremely enjoyable novel! The serendipities of book-packing - Jenn Reese, write more novels at once!...

4. I cannot agree with everything Burke says, but his prose amazes me. Tomorrow's the last session of the class I've been teaching this semester on Swift and Burke, and we are reading among other things the astonishing Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). (I recommend David Bromwich's edition of Burke's speeches and writings if you are finding a lack of Burke in your life.)

Three of my utterly favorite passages, not just in this letter but in all of English literature:
Astronomers have supposed that if a certain comets whose path intercepted the ecliptic had met the earth in some (I forget what) sign, it would have whirled us along with it, in its eccentric course, into God knows what regions of heat and cold. Had the portentous comet of the Rights of Man (which "from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war," and "with fear of change perplexes monarchs"), had that comet crossed upon us in that internal state of England, nothing human could have prevented our being irresistibly hurried out of the highway of heaven into all the vices, crimes, horrors, and miseries of the French Revolution.

Happily, France was not then Jacobinized. Her hostility was at a good distance. We had a limb cut off, but we preserved the body: we lost our colonies, but we kept our constitution. There was, indeed, much intestine heat; there was a dreadful fermentation. Wild and savage insurrection quitted the woods and prowled about our streets in the name of reform. Such was the distemper of the public mind, that there was no madman, in his maddest ideas and maddest projects, that might not count upon numbers to support his principles and execute his designs.


All this, in effect, I think but am not sure, I have said elsewhere. It cannot at this time be too often repeated, line upon line, precept upon precept, until it comes into the currency of a proverb, 'to innovate is not to reform'. The French revolutionists complained of everything; they refused to reform anything; and they left nothing, no, nothing at all unchanged. The consequences are before us, not in remote history; not in future prognostication: they are about us; they are upon us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. Our business is interrupted; our repose is troubled; our pleasures are saddened; our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation. The revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell, or from that chaotic anarchy which generates equivocally "all monstrous, all prodigious things," cuckoo-like, adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighbouring state. These obscene harpies, who deck themselves in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey (both mothers and daughters), flutter over our heads, and soused down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.


Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the principle of evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil. It is no easy operation to eradicate humanity from the human breast. What Shakespeare calls "the compunctious visitings of nature" will sometimes knock at their hearts, and protest against their murderous speculations. But they have a means of compounding with their nature. Their humanity is not dissolved. They only give it a long prorogation. They are ready to declare that they do not think two thousand years too long a period for the good that they pursue. It is remarkable that they never see any way to their projected good but by the road of some evil. Their imagination is not fatigued with the contemplation of human suffering through the wild waste of centuries added to centuries of misery and desolation. Their humanity is at their horizon—and, like the horizon, it always flies before them. The geometricians and the chemists bring, the one from the dry bones of their diagrams, and the other from the soot of their furnaces, dispositions that make them worse than indifferent about those feelings and habitudes which are the supports of the moral world. Ambition is come upon them suddenly; they are intoxicated with it, and it has rendered them fearless of the danger which may from thence arise to others or to themselves. These philosophers consider men, in their experiments, no more than they do mice in an air pump, or in a recipient of mephitic gas. Whatever his Grace may think of himself, they look upon him and everything that belongs to him with no more regard than they do upon the whiskers of that little long-tailed animal that has been long the game of the grave, demure, insidious, spring-nailed, velvet-pawed, green-eyed philosophers, whether going upon two legs or upon four.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Herter’s Famous No. 153 Saskatchewan Goose Call

Paul Collins on oddball George Leonard Herter:
His enchantingly bombastic catalogs included listings for more than a dozen of his self-published works, bound in metallic silver and gold covers, and bearing titles like “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month” — which apparently involves moving to Alaska and zapping up fresh fish by running two car batteries into a stream’s shallows. (If you don’t have batteries, “drop 10 pounds of quicklime” upstream.)
Bonus link: the patent for Herter's Fish Calling Device.

Friday, December 05, 2008

On writing

From Jonathan Raban's NYRB essay (subscriber only) on Jay Parini's Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, some words of Vidal's concerning John Updike from a 1974 interview in the Paris Review:
He writes so well that I wish he could attract my interest. I like his prose, and disagree with Mailer, who thinks it bad.... With me the problem is that he doesn't write about anything that interests me. I am not concerned with middle-class suburban couples. On the other hand, I'm not concerned with adultery in the French provinces either. Yet Flaubert commands my attention. I don't know why Updike doesn't. Perhaps my fault.


D-Day is next Friday.

Today I bought ten boxes at the hardware store.

Demurring at hardware-store box prices, I subsequently cadged eleven more boxes from a pleasant fellow at the liquor store. These boxes are in any case more appropriately sized for books, even if they carry a faint and mysterious scent of the grape....

I learned that the local branch of the public library will accept book donations. I loaded up the shopping cart and a couple of carrier bags and now have a tax receipt for 33 hardcover and 55 paperback books (the first of about three or four similarly sized loads, I am hoping). They were excited to get a good haul of newish hardcovers for this weekend's Holiday Book Sale!

(And I can donate clothes, bedding and housewares early next week at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.)

I returned c. 40 library books to Butler.

(I also broke the shopping cart - it is not designed for transporting books!)

I haven't started packing, but I am thinking it might be time to take the plunge.

Hmmmm, tip of the iceberg...

In the lab

In the Writers' Rooms series at the Guardian, Heston Blumenthal's development kitchen:
People imagine I wake up in the morning saying something like "I'm going to make an ice-cream that walks", but 80% of the time I'm doing 40 versions of the same ice-cream recipe with different amounts of egg yolk. We're currently working on a new dish called the Mock Turtle Soup Mad Hatter's Tea. There are lots of Alice references and it comes together when the diner dips the most upmarket, gold-leafed, fob-watch-shaped stock cube into a bowl of broth to produce a gold-flecked consommé. However, to serve 250 of these a week will require a heavy-duty freeze drier that costs £40,000. You have to think about it. And the pie on the table? It's for a TV series on feasts, which will be shown next year. It looks traditional enough, but you should know that the inspiration came from the nursery rhyme with four and twenty blackbirds ...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jam stain

From Joseph Bristow's TLS piece on Thomas Wright's new book about Oscar Wilde's reading:
It is evident that Wilde treated his copy of Sententiæ Artis (1886) by the aesthete-despising journalist Harry Quilter with some contempt. This piece of hack art-criticism took a bruising when Wilde was drafting his vitriolic review of it for the Pall Mall Gazette, and Wright notes that Wilde’s copy, which is in private hands, has a badly cracked spine and bumped corners. Similarly, Wilde’s copy of W. H. Mallock’s satire on modern intellectual fads, The New Republic (1877), which is held at Magdalen College, Oxford, has, appropriately enough, a jam stain visible on page 30. As Wright notes, Wilde “gorged himself on books and food simultaneously”.
[ED. What I really want to know - what kind of jam?!?]

Otters in literature

Ed Park mourning.

Monday, December 01, 2008


Deborah Eisenberg has a lovely piece in the latest issue of the NYRB on the first volume of Susan Sontag's letters and journals, edited by her son David Rieff. The whole thing is well worth reading, but here's a nice bit:
It must always be fascinating to observe a child going about unwrapping the package that is herself and starting to inventory the contents. And how much more fascinating it is when the child is able to chronicle the process and the contents themselves are fascinating! Not that Sontag's rhapsodizing or her disdain are remarkable in a fifteen-year-old, and neither, particularly, are the objects of her rhapsodizing and disdain; this was a period during which it was fashionable among certain adolescents to read serious literature and listen to serious music, and adolescents of many periods have considered their parents to be morons. And Sontag's intellectual precocity, though striking, is hardly peerless—just think of the age Mozart was when he was writing some of the music she listens to with such discrimination!

Very startling, though, is her unhesitating sense of purpose—the sense that she is an acolyte, engaged in some devotional practice, continuously purifying herself in preparation for a predetermined destiny that she has yet to fully understand. Naturally, we in the future happen to know that the child whose diary we're reading is to become Susan Sontag, but oddly enough, so, it seems, does she.
There is a short passage by Wittgenstein that this reminds me of, but I cannot lay hands on the book - I will poke around at the office tomorrow and see if I can find it there (I think I have two copies and that they are both at the office!)...

Arctic climates

Emma Brockes interviews Alison Bechdel.


Education for all.

Liberal scatterings of obscenities

At the Tor blog, Jo Walton considers the question of when it started to be permissible to allow characters in genre fiction to swear...