Sunday, May 31, 2009

Closing tabs

The fact that I have read three of these five books about running (FT site registration required) makes me wonder whether that is because I am obsessively bookish or just obsessed with running. Simon Kuper is too hard on Murakami here, I think (I loved that book, though admittedly I am the perfect target audience for it), not at all too hard on Liz Robbins and quite right, too, about Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. At first I was a little wary of McDougall's facetiousness and certain journalistic habits of chapter-structuring, but it is really a wonderful book, in the writing as well as in the subject matter - this one is strongly recommended if you have a serious interest in the physiology (especially the biomechanics) of distance running and/or the history of endurance sport. I read it in one sitting the other night, and wished it were longer.

Another book I read with absolute delight and in one sitting was Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow. I went so far as to have it Amazon Primed (along with Charlaine Harris's Dead and Gone) to my hotel in Florida so that I could read it on the plane home - I was cracking it open in the Orlando airport, and pretty much the next thing I knew, I was turning the last page as the plane began its descent into LaGuardia. Lee Child is a genius of light reading - in fact, I am hoping to channel a little of that genius as I inject some superior thriller-type pacing into my sequel rewrite...

Also: Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem, which I bought some time ago without quite realizing the extent to which it would fall under my self-imposed ban on reading academic novels. One year post-tenure, my disgust for such books has worn off - I needed a small light entertaining paperback to take with me on the subway the other day, and in fact I polished the rest of it off later that night with considerable enjoyment. It is an appealing and engaging novel, with some funny similarities to Fear of Flying; though I will say again that the academic novel I am most wanting to read is Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals, forthcoming in October (hmmm, maybe someone has an ARC for me?).

Other things that have struck me over the last couple days:

Nancy Drew as childhood role model for female Supreme Court Justices.

"Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future" (a review of Giles Foden's Turbulence, which it looks to me I should pick up a copy of in England in July - ditto Jake Arnott on the fictional lives of Aleister Crowley).

"Five crosses and the Rasmussen factor": belief in the overriding power of the female line in horsebreeding continues to characterize twenty-first-century American breeding practice...

Finally, Christopher Ricks very much likes Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats, and Oliver Sacks is speaking about hallucinations and the life of the visual brain on Wednesday at 5pm as part of the "Narrative Medicine Rounds" - might be that I should temporarily slip out of the coils of sequel-revising and triathlon training and go to that one...

Friday, May 29, 2009

Terra cognita

It has been a week of PONDERING. Pondering the nature of the revisions for the sequel to The Explosionist! Revising the draft is my main job for the next couple months, though I do have a couple talks and articles that I also need to write, and I really want it to come out good. Unfortunately I am quite sure that this means taking the whole thing to pieces and putting it back together again - I have just unearthed scissors and tape, in fact, as I am a literalist at heart...

The main thing I have to show for the last couple days, sad to say, is a two-page chart in tiny handwriting of all of the plot developments in the first novel, with loose ends and mystery back-story marked in various colors:

(I used the camera for that one, as it gives a better sense of the 11"x15" watercolor pad I purchased the other day for precisely this purpose; the scanner images below are probably more legible.)

I had a couple stages of chart-making when I was writing the first book - this was a preliminary map of the whole plot:

And this was a reconfigured version once I had a clearer sense of what needed to happen in the second half of the book, which was largely a blank when I began (barring Sophie's discovery of zombiefied girls at IRYLNS and the dynamite factory showdown):

I am contemplating introducing epistolary interruptions into the sequel, but it remains to be seen whether I can find the right voice for the letters I envisage - I suddenly wonder whether I could turn the whole thing into a kind of pastiche of letters and documents? But no, perhaps that is not really the right idea...

Bit players

Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France makes a minor appearance in the MP expense scandal.

Apropos of which, a bit I like from one of Burke's Letters on a Regicide Peace:
I remember in a conversation I once had with my ever dear friend Garrick, who was the first of Actors, because he was the most acute observer of nature I ever knew, I asked him, how it happened that whenever a Senate appeared on the Stage, the Audience seemed always disposed to laughter? He said the reason was plain; the Audience was well acquainted with the faces of most of the Senators. They knew, that they were no other than candle-snuffers, revolutionary scene-shifters, second and third mob, prompters, clerks, executioners, who stand with their axe on their shoulders by the wheel, grinners in the Pantomime, murderers in Tragedies, who make ugly faces under black wigs; in short, the very scum and refuse of the Theatre; and it was of course, that the contrast of the vileness of the Actors with the pomp of their Habits naturally excited ideas of contempt and ridicule.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


At the LRB, Daniel Soar contemplates the arobase:
The new global battle for ownership of @ is in a way heartening: the old orthodoxy had it that it was merely a ligature used for accounting purposes. It was a combination of the letters ‘e’ and ‘a’ to designate ‘ea(ch)’, or of ‘a’ and ‘d’ for the Latin ad: ‘at’ or ‘to’ or something of equally diabolical simplicity. Either way, it had an aura of empire, whether derived from Britain or Rome. It was certainly in accounting for stuff that it made its way into the 20th century: it appeared as a key on the 1902 Lambert typewriter, made in New York, and it was as shorthand for pricing items – 60 widgets @ $2 = $120 – that it subsisted until 1971, when Ray Tomlinson of arpanet invented email. And now, of course, it’s ubiquitous. No one would know where anything was meant to go if it wasn’t for the amazing @.

Tomlinson, when interviewed on the subject, claimed that he simply needed a handy symbol to separate the user (‘nixon’) from the domain they resided at (‘’). He also said: ‘I sent a number of test messages to myself from one machine to another. The test messages were entirely forgettable and I have, therefore, forgotten them.’ This insouciance – or evasiveness? – is clearly suspicious. What was he trying to say?

Penguins of incongruity

One set metaphorical; one set edible (scroll down to relevant pictures)!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Acoustic Kitty"

From Dominic Streatfeild, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control:
The Office of Research and Development seems to have been especially interested in the idea of implanting microchips into the mammalian brain. By November 1961, 'feasibility of remote control activities in several species of animals' had been demonstrated. Six years later the Agency actually produced a cat ('Acoustic Kitty') that could be guided via remote control. The idea was that the cat, which contained hidden microphones, could be steered close to surveillance targets. Results were not good. A memo detailing plans for the first test, to take place on Monday, 20 February 1967, explains that the cat's operators should beware of traffic and that the team should 'secure gear and remove animals before rush hour'. They didn't. On its first field test the cat was run over by a taxi.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Susan Bernofsky has a fascinating piece at the WSJ (link courtesy of Marginal Revolution) on the history of the German obsession with Donald Duck:
When the Ehapa publishing house was founded in 1951 to bring American comics to German kids, it was a risky endeavor. Ehapa’s pilot project, a monthly comics magazine, bore the title “Micky Maus” to capitalize on that icon’s popularity. From the beginning, though, most of the pages of “Micky Maus” were devoted to duck tales.

Donald Duck’s popularity was helped along by Erika Fuchs, a free spirit in owlish glasses who was tasked with translating the stories. A Ph.D. in art history, Dr. Fuchs had never laid eyes on a comic book before the day an editor handed her a Donald Duck story, but no matter. She had a knack for breathing life into the German version of Carl Barks’s duck. Her talent was so great she continued to fill speech bubbles for the denizens of Duckburg (which she renamed Entenhausen, based on the German word for “duck”) until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 98.

Ehapa directed Dr. Fuchs to crank up the erudition level of the comics she translated, a task she took seriously. Her interpretations of the comic books often quote (and misquote) from the great classics of German literature, sometimes even inserting political subtexts into the duck tales. Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barks’s often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular children’s comic in Germany to this day.

Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell”; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, “The Bell,” in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Hölderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, “Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

The sporting life

"During the war years a wooden cheese was used due to rationing."

The perfect martini

Top ten real-life spy gadgets.

Bred and born

Starting tomorrow, The Valve will host a week-long book event on Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century (the book's introduction and first two sections are available online here).

I think I won't link to individual posts over there, but will perhaps provide another link once I can conveniently link to the entire archived version - in the meantime, I'm very grateful to Scott Eric Kaufman for deciding to organize the event!

Invisible worlds

Colleen Mondor recently interviewed me about the research I did for The Explosionist, as well as touching on some more general questions about the relationship between research and fiction-writing, science fiction versus fantasy, parasites, brain-washing and other matters of mutual interest.

(Colleen has also put together a project to get books into the hands of teenagers in the LA County Juvenile Justice System - here's their wish list at Powell's, though you'll need some more details from Colleen's initial post if you want to purchase anything there - but it's a great list of recommendations for boys of all ages who may be reluctant readers.)

The hum

Jenny Diski is blogging at the LRB site.

(Hmmm, it is my pet peeve with these official-media-type group blogs that there does not seem to be a way just to subscribe to the one blogger one particularly wishes to read as opposed to the group as a whole - in this case, they do not seem to have over-frequent posts, and most of the contributors are interested in things that are up my alley, but I have several times recently had to unsubscribe to something I genuinely want to read because of all the other stuff that comes along with it too. Any tips from readers who have discovered a way around this problem? I use Google Reader, and would prefer to stick with it...)

The rose of Texas

Ring roads of the world (via strange maps).


At Publishers Weekly, Gwenda Bond has a fascinating piece on trends in paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Home again

in the land of easy internet access, though I am resolved to start spending much less time online as part of multi-pronged anti-insomnia strategy. Various links to follow - here is Simon Schama at the FT on the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (site registration required). I saw that original production, and it was indeed one of the most lovely things I have ever seen in my life...

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I am in a non-wireless location on holiday - posting will be very light for next week or so! I hit the airport bookstore for some lighter-than-light light reading en route out of town (anything of that ilk that comes into the apartment gets read immediately, so there is not usually anything quite right to hand for when I travel): Jennifer Weiner's Certain Girls (very good, only with the minor flaw that the voices of the 40-something mother and 13-year-old daughter are strangely indistinguishable!); Charlaine Harris's From Dead to Worse (these books are quite delightful).

Tomorrow: a very warm triathlon!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Molecular prisons

At the Times, Eric Asimov:
Water not only changes the flavors, it almost magically alters the appearance of the absinthe. As you slowly add water, the liquid in the glass seems to thicken, and transforms into an opalescent pastel cloud. The French call this effect the louche (which has the wonderful double meaning of turbulent in French and disreputable in English).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Piracy vs. obscurity

(But Stephen King might have gotten carried away with his phrasing.)

Late-night reading

Sleep schedule now thoroughly distorted by post-semester schedule fluctuations. This book is based on an utterly ludicrous premise but I read it through to the end anyway. Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age is addictively readable and I blame it for one (not all) of my recent late nights. (I am surprised the Amazon reviews are not more positive - it is a novel of considerable charm, written by an evidently talented novelist whose subject in this book is perhaps too trivial to deserve the attention lavished on it - but it is an unusual gift, to write a book that so strongly compels the reader to the end, and I will eagerly look out for her next one.) Saskia Noort's Back to the Coast strikes me as excellent. High-caliber Dutch noir; caused me to reflect that novelists in some sense write books that are like themselves, ditto readers and their preferences, and that my subjective experience suggests that my own life, though it might not look so on the face of things, is far more Noortian than Smith Rakoffian...

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ace cartography

At the TLS, Peter Hennessy reviews Brian Harrison's new history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. An interesting topic, and some very good snippets:
From a journal to which I was hitherto a stranger, Heating and Ventilating Engineer, [Harrison] has gleaned that in the UK, the “average living room was over 5° Fahrenheit warmer in 1970 than in 1950[.]”

A. J. P. Taylor’s celebrated English History 1914–1945 has stuck to the Velcro of my memory, for example, partly because of his use of the brilliant cameo biographical footnote of which the second one in his first chapter was particularly unforgettable: “George V (1865–1936), second son of Edward VII: married Princess Mary of Teck, 1893; King, 1910–36; changed name of royal family from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor, 1917; his trousers were creased at the sides not front and back”.

Science-fictional penguins

At the Guardian, Alison Flood blogs on the design of Penguin's science fiction line. The Penguin science fiction site is here. (Triffids!)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Double exposure

An evocative story in the Science Times about a deserted site on Long Island associated with Nikola Tesla - reminds me of the photos my father took on the old Nobel factory site at Ardeer in Scotland.

NB the illustration below is what it feels like inside my head at this time of the school year!

"Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint"

From Jane Austen, Love and Freindship:
Janetta was then only fifteen; naturally well disposed, endowed with a susceptible Heart, and a simpathetic Disposition, she might, had these amiable Qualities been properly encouraged, have been an ornament to human Nature; but unfortunately her Father possessed not a soul sufficiently exalted to admire so promising a Disposition, and had endeavoured by every means in his power to prevent its encreasing with her Years. He had actually so far extinguished the natural noble Sensibility of her Heart, as to prevail on her to accept an offer from a young Man of his Recommendation. They were to be married in a few Months, and Graham, was in the House when we arrived. We soon saw through his Character--. He was just such a Man as one might have expected to be the choice of Macdonald. They said he was Sensible, well-informed, and Agreeable; we did not pretend to Judge of such trifles, but as we were convinced he had no soul, that he had never read the Sorrows of Werter, and that his Hair bore not the slightest resemblance to Auburn, we were certain that Janetta could feel no affection for him, or at least that she ought to feel none. The very circumstance of his being her father’s choice too, was so much in his disfavour, that had he been deserving her, in every other respect yet that of itself ought to have been a sufficient reason in the Eyes of Janetta for rejecting him.

"Who killed John Keats?"

My favorite stanza of Byron's Don Juan:
John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,
Just as he really promised something great,
If not intelligible, - without Greek
Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,
Much as they might have been supposed to speak.
Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate: -
'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,
Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The miscellany

Sometimes I blog as I read, sometimes not so much...

Martin Millar is a genius (why do all his main characters have to have an X in their names?) and Lux the Poet (a new re-release from Soft Skull) is utterly delightful. Millar is one of only a handful of writers I can think of who combines the style gene with the light reading gene - it is an unusual pleasure to relish sentences so much at the same time as compulsively following developments in the lives of characters...

I happily whiled away an hour or two with Christopher Fowler's Full Dark House: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery, only it set me off on wondering about the history of occult detectives in literature (results of inquiry yet to be determined); I also recently read the first book in Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, and though I like this sort of book very much, it occurs to me (belatedly!) that perhaps it is not the freshest idea going round...

Richard Stark's The Hunter (thanks, Levi!) was too short to last the whole plane trip, but I am willing to forgive it almost anything for introducing me to the past-tense verb vagged (arrested for vagrancy - transitive and intransitive, as far as I can tell)...

Terry Pratchett's Nation is a lovely book - I think I like his young-adult fiction even more than the best of the Discworld novels. It is made out of the same cloth as the seafaring adventures of Joan Aiken's Dido Twite and Eva Ibbotson's Edwardian little girls, with stiff infusions of Victorian adventuring fare, but very distinctively Pratchettian also - highly recommended.

Last but not least, I raced through my friend Farai Chideya's Kiss the Sky in two sittings. It is addictively readable, and there is a description of the protagonist, as a child home alone after school, breaking her mother's rules and eating things secretly out of the fridge that is so vivid and beautifully written that it is going to stay with me for a long time...

Losing the plot

At the Observer, Adam Mars-Jones on A.S. Byatt's new novel - a model for a thoughtful but largely negative review.

The study of whiskers

Poets ranked by beard weight.