Thursday, June 25, 2009

The fantastical capybara

"When he's happy he sounds like a Geiger counter." (Thanks to Brent for tipping me off to the BoingBoing bit I missed.)


The reissue of Len Deighton's cult cookbook.

The fabric of the world

The day's page quota came fairly easily today - I am having a productive week of novel-revising, though still with a slightly anxious eye on my August 1 deadline. Right now I'm in the midst of a stretch of entirely new writing, which is enjoyable though somewhat nerve-racking (due to the aforementioned time issues) and causes me to contemplate Samuel R. Delany's description of what it means to revise fiction, which seems to me by far the best thing I have ever seen on the topic.

I read a great book this past week, Peter Terzian's collection Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. I've been looking forward to this book ever since I first heard about it, and it well lived up to expectations. Only a handful of the albums written about here play any significant role in my own internal discography, so it is perhaps not surprising that two of the essays I liked best are both on albums that matter to me also: Benjamin Kunkel's "Still Ill" (The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead) and Colm Toibin's "Three Weeks in the Summer" (Joni Mitchell, Blue). (The first of these two in particular is an unmissably good pieces of writing!) I also liked pieces by Sheila Heti, Martha Southgate and Peter Terzian for reasons that had nothing to do with the albums they described.

But the real standout here for me is an odder and more unusual piece that struck me as absolutely and divinely sublime, to the point that I have just Amazoned its uncanny subject American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897-1939). I've been a huge fan of John Jeremiah Sullivan ever since I read his book Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, and this essay is basically the thing I magically most wanted to read in the world without at all knowing it yet!

Check out this paragraph:
In what is surely a trustworthy mark of obscurantist cred, one of the sides on Pre-War Revenants was discovered at a flea market in Nashville by the person who engineered the collection, Chris King, the guy who actually signs for delivery of the reinforced wooden boxes, put together with drywall screws and capable of withstanding an auto collision, in which most 78s arrive for projects like these. The collectors trust King; he's a major collector himself (owner, as it happens, of the second-best of three known copies of "Last Kind Words Blues") and an acknowledged savant when it comes to excavating and reconstructing sonic information from the wrecked grooves of pre-war disc recordings. I interviewed him a couple of years ago. A perk of magazine journalism is you can call up fascinating strangers and ask them questions on absolutely no pretext. King, like Fahey, graduated with degrees in religion and philosophy. He described "junking" that rare 78 in Tennessee, the Two Poor Boys' "Old Hen Cackle," which lay atop a stack of 45s on a table in the open sun. It was brown. In the heat, it had warped, he said, "into the shape of a soup bowl." At the bottom of the bowl he could read the word perfect: that's a short-lived hillbilly label. "Brown Perfects" are precious. He took it home and placed it outside between two panes of clear glass--collector's wisdom, handed down--and allowed the heat of the sun and the slight pressure of the glass's gravity slowly to press it flat again, to where he could play it. Now he could begin finding out what it remembered
The next two paragraphs are equally good - the volume is worth picking up for this piece alone (and you really do have to read that Smiths essay!).

Here's a playlist Peter did recently for the Paper Cuts blog at the Times.

(And here's a bonus link which I missed at the time, Lee Child's earlier installment in the same series! Much of it doesn't particularly catch my eye, but check out this description of why Child thinks of Pink Floyd's "Money" when he writes the action scenes in a Jack Reacher novel: "The lyric is O.K., but what I really like is the time signature change between the saxophone solo and the guitar solo — at that point, we really get down to it, and that’s a feeling I try to replicate whenever I start a major set-piece scene. Like saying: You want action? Try this." It is no surprise that this fellow is such a genius of light reading....)


D. Graham Burnett interviews Anthony Grafton for Cabinet on deception, forgery and the early modern historical sense (via Bookforum):
In the early fifteenth century, an exceedingly learned Latinist, Lorenzo Valla, rolled up his philological sleeves and red-penciled a copy of the Donation. “Wait a second,” he says, “this doesn’t look to me like the kind of Latin they were writing in the fourth century!” And he amasses this magnificent demonstration that the Donation could not have been written when its author claimed. They just didn’t use the language of the document in those days. Now, people had argued about this text since forever, but everyone before Valla had basically been preoccupied by its juridical elements (as in, exactly what implications did it have for the proper relationship between emperors and popes, etc., etc.). Valla bracketed those thorny legal questions and went after the document in a different way.

­He went after it historically.

Yes, philologically. And to do that, you really have to have a very deep sense of how language works, to be sure, but you also need to have an equally deep sense of how time works; you need to understand that a given period has a style in everything that it does, from plumbing to personal relations, and that any product of the period has to show the traits of that period and style.


William Boyd on the Leopold Museum and the paintings of Egon Schiele. On Schiele's “Self-portrait with Head Inclined” (1912):
Most unusually, Schiele has a moustache in this portrait—the only image of him moustachioed that I can recall. Luckily for posterity, Schiele was fond of being photographed and in all the many photographs we have of him he appears clean-shaven. I don’t mean to be facetious, but Austro-Hungarian Vienna was, among everything else, the city of facial hair. Was it a mark of rebellion not to grow a beard or a moustache in those days and thus distinguish yourself from the hirsute complacent burghers and whiskered bemedalled soldiers? I think of another of Schiele’s Vienna contemporaries, another harbinger of the modern 20th century and a ground-breaker in his field, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—lean, ascetic and permanently clean-shaven, like Schiele. Does the demonic stare in this portrait, the added black stripe of the moustache, gesture towards the schizophrenic nature of Viennese society in those days before the Great War? This may be the wisdom of hindsight but another contemporary of Schiele (and of Wittgenstein and Freud) in pre-war Vienna was Adolf Hitler, then an embittered and near-destitute down-and-out, roaming the streets, living in squalid hostels, nurturing his paranoid fantasies. Twenty years later he would be chancellor of Germany.
(I am thinking I must have seen the Schiele exhibition at the Royal Academy in December 1990 - it certainly made an impression on me...)

"Pouring linseed oil on the school cormorant"

Henry Gee on the need for new cliches.

"Novelistic gloss"

Facebook movie?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Inauthentic as well as disgusting"

At the TLS, Peter Parker reviews two new editions of Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows:
Food and drink are vital elements of the novel, and while Gauger supplies a delightful history of Burton’s Ale as well as a recipe for Captains’ Biscuits from Robert Wells’s Bread and Biscuit Baker’s and Sugar-Boiler’s Assistant (1890), and reproduces instructions for making “Mr Grahame’s Coffee” to his exacting standards, she supposes Palermo to be the home of a famous sherry, and her description of trifle, with its “layers” of, among other things, ice-cream and gelatin, is inauthentic as well as disgusting. She also occasionally gets into chronological muddles: in depicting Otter as a “gentleman adventurer”, Grahame can hardly have had in mind T. E. Lawrence, who was an obscure undergraduate at the time, and the horse in Milne’s Toad of Toad Hall cannot be “an early version of Eeyore in the Pooh books”, since these books predate the play.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Perversity incarnate"

The inimitable conversational style of Thomas Bernhardt (link courtesy of Linden):
What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there's no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that's harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can't find them anymore. That's the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can't find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he's muddled, either way they're gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it's either ruined or impossible to find.

Proxy battles

The Cute Cat Theory of Internet Censorship. (Courtesy of Amy.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Light reading catch-up

Before I left New York, I obtained a huge pile of books by Barbara Hambly and Patricia Wrede via the BorrowDirect library system - spinoffs from the original Jo Walton recommendation. These are the sorts of books that are difficult to get hold of usefully through the library, a used bookseller of quality would be better - it is often hard even to tell where something is in a particular series (it only gradually dawned on me, as I read Traveling with the Dead, that it must be a sequel - it is the publisher's rather than the author's responsibility to mark this in some way! - and Wrede's The Magician's Ward is also a later installment in a story begun elsewhere, though in this case it was both marked inside the book by way of a list of titles in various series and also more effectively handled by the author).

These books are well-written but derivative - in particular I find Wrede's novels very delightful (I was halfway through another one, too, only didn't want to pack library books in my luggage!), only too strongly derivative of Georgette Heyer, who invented a world and an idiom that continue to influence popular fiction of various kinds in a fashion that is interesting to observe.

I have finished the Ross MacDonald (Jack Reacher avant la lettre!) and Cold Comfort Farm (hmmm, some funny moments, but I cannot say I was captivated by it - I kept on wishing I were reading I Capture the Castle instead!).

On the plane the other day I gulped down Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow - Connelly is not my personally absolute favorite crime writer, but I think he really is a genius of light reading, he is such a compelling and skillful writer of genre fiction, absolutely and wonderfully reliably so - and Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects (could have been better plotted, but for the most part very appealing).

I've got a bit of a hodgepodge of light reading with me on this trip. I am planning to restock at several junctures: an expensive and thus necessarily modest amount of precautionary book-shopping at the excellent Caymanian Books & Books, a thrillingly chancy bet that there will be 10-12 hours' worth of stuff at some airport store in Miami that I would be willing to read and then an absolutely lavish spree at Heathrow for the trip home and beyond!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


A history of British druidry.

The secret order of things

At the FT, George Pendle has a truly delightful piece on Mark Miodownik and his Materials Library (site registration required):
The Materials Library has no star chamber through which its materials must pass for inclusion. Other than those Miodownik and his staff track down themselves, each week they are sent a handful of parcels and envelopes holding the weird and wonderful. One week they were sent a lump of floating concrete. Another week, a dress made of parachute silk floated in. Through fellowships and grants from Nesta, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and a host of other acronyms, Miodownik keeps his library alive. He is adamant about not commercialising it. “It’s such a narrow way of looking at materials. We don’t want to enslave them, we want to nurture them.”

And, half-joking: “Ask not what materials can do for you, but what you can do for materials.”

Commercialising would also mean streamlining. Miodownik estimates that barely 5 per cent of the materials in his library are also in Material ConneXion’s. “The Materials Library has a big tub of mercury in it,” he explains. “Now you’re never going to specify a product with mercury in it. It’s toxic. In fact everyone’s trying to get rid of mercury. But it should exist in a materials library, because it may give you an idea about something, it may embody some philosophical thought. It’s a physical embodiment of something in an Aristotelian way.

“I really don’t think [utility] is a criteria for having things in a university. The world is run by people who want things to be ‘useful’ and that’s great, but universities should be these places of awe and craziness – they shouldn’t be the ‘real’ world.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

"The attention that makes a piece of writing something special"

Jenny Diski served as guest editor for a student magazine and wrote an introduction that (along with her selections) caused the student editors to "sack" her:
"How do you tell the real writers from those in search of a pot of fame and gold? You look at the writing and find engagement with the world (even if it is in the form of disengagement), a deep concern with precision of thought and language, a willingness to risk originality. It doesn't happen very often. Good writers have always been rare, and they are not the same as adept sentence-makers who can contrive a story that reads well enough but leaves you wondering why anyone bothered to write it. That's the test: the best writing leaves you feeling it was inevitable, that it has been crafted into existence of necessity for the writer and the reader.

"All the stories I read for this selection were competently written, but only a few struck me as having come from that necessity. There were genre pieces and memoir, and quite a few stories that depended for their existence on something that has been written before. All writers do that to start with, you have to clear a space for yourself to work in. What surprised me most was how many of the stories felt unfinished, as if I were reading a early draft. Problems with structure, sentences that need to be worked on, far too many easy clichés not rejected - all of this normal for a first draft, even a second. For me writing is the editing. It's where the you make the story your own. Draft, redraft, let the thing sit, and then consider it again, read closely, carefully, cut away everything that you haven't properly thought through, and some things that you have. A few of the stories I reviewed read to me as if they had received the attention that makes a piece of writing something special, and they're to be celebrated. Good writing is hard to come by. It's what I understand Beckett to have meant when he wrote, towards the end of his life, what any writer must take as essential instruction: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"

Alternate topographies

At the LRB, Iain Sinclair walks the Thames.

"Getting off at Mill Hill"

From the LRB letters column:
From Susan Pedersen

I can understand Bob Hall’s glee at having (as he thought) found me out, but I’m afraid the Blackburn residents Kate Fisher interviewed for her study of birth control did use ‘getting off at Mill Hill’ as a metaphor for withdrawal, for the simple reason that their ‘Mill Hill’ was a suburban train station on the way into Blackburn (Letters, 11 June). Had they been Londoners it would obviously have made no sense, but they weren’t and adopted their own local bus and train stations to get across what they meant. One of the Lancashire residents Lucinda Beier interviewed for her study of public health advised that one should ‘get off the bus at South Shore, don’t go all the way to Blackpool.’ It’s hard to imagine an activity (or a phrase) less conducive to linguistic standardisation.

Susan Pedersen
Columbia University, New York

From Bill Peppe

As any sailor could have told Susan Pedersen, the safe procedure is to ‘get out at Fratton’, the last station before Portsmouth.

Bill Peppe
Carbost, Isle of Skye

From Dorothy McMillan

My version of the ‘getting off’ expression for coitus interruptus is ‘getting off at Paisley’, the station before the terminus at Glasgow. I am also reminded of a Glasgow colleague’s expression, ‘getting off at Govan’. Tom Leonard has a poem ‘A Priest Came On at Merkland Street’, and Merkland Street was the old Partick Station underground stop, the one before Govan, itself the stop for Ibrox, the Rangers football ground. Can anyone decode this?

Dorothy McMillan

From John Cashmore

It would seem that it is in the history of each major English city to have an alighting point. Perhaps its proximity to the final destination is a reflection of the inhabitants’ approach to risk.

John Cashmore
London W9

"Lovelily dreadful"

A new adverb for Light Reading?

"They were reduced to despair"

Via the Times Archive Blog:
Curiously, just the other day I was contemplating The Tale of Two Bad Mice:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Breaking news

As per my previous post, an offer you can't refuse - get an advance copy of The Adderall Diaries (which will be published in September) by following these instructions...

(There is a slight "chain letter" element, but do not be alarmed!)

(And if you have not already read his novel Happy Baby, you are missing out on one of the great novels of our time!)

"My life sits next to me like a jar of paint"

From Stephen Elliott's mesmerizing The Adderall Diaries, which I absolutely loved:
People often feel exploited when they find themselves in my work. It doesn't matter if I call it fiction; I know as well as they do that's not an excuse. I don't bother trying to defend myself. It's not defensible, it's just what I do. I spend years crafting a two hundred-page story, all the time my life sits next to me like a jar of paint.

"O to tie parcels once more!"

At the TLS, Claire Harman on the latest volume published in the scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf's essays:
“writing articles is like tying one’s brain up in neat brown paper parcels”, she wrote to Ethel Smyth. “O to fly free in fiction once more! – and then I shall cry, O to tie parcels once more!”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Escape is entertainment"

New York City's comptroller is a Star Trek fan...

Literary sex

From Lauren Collins' New Yorker profile of Nora Roberts (site registration required):
Whether or not her characters use condoms depends, she said, on the circumstances: "I'm not a public-service announcement. I'm not going to screw up the mood just so I can be politically correct." She continued, "My favorite use of condoms was in 'Montana Sky,' when Tess goes to seduce Nate at his desk and he's kind of like, 'Well, you know, I'm not prepared,' and she pulls out like twenty of them, and he doesn't know whether to be flattered or afraid." When Roberts doesn't mention birth control, she said, it is an artistic omission, and the reader can assume that the characters took care of it.
Also (unrelated): how Blackadder changed the history of television comedy (hmmm, that is a box set I might have to obtain...).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"When we first became interested in chicken..."

At the Observer, Stephen Bayley has a very funny piece about the new permanent exhibition in Leeds on the history of Marks & Spencer:
Because of Marks & Spencer, the introduction of tights and the nationwide distribution of chilled chicken are, at least in my imagination, interwoven in cultural history. And each was, for rather different reasons, a cause for celebration. The chickens were a product of Macmillan-era futurism: the result of experiments by the government's Low Temperature Research Station mingled with the entrepreneurialism of Britain's chicken revolutionary, Colonel Corbett of Sun Valley Farms, Hereford. New technology refrigerated trucks shipped chickens hither and yon in "the cold chain process", a coinage worthy of Dr Strangelove. The president of the Board of Trade said: "There should be a law against it."

At about the same time, experiments in a "fabric of tomorrow" known as Cantrece allowed American tan tights to go on sale in 1962. The sinister caramel hue of American tan had weird gastronomic associations, just as its name suggested yearnings and frustrations for exotica among pale local women just then beginning to sense the opportunities of turboprop package holidays; a period ad shows immaculately coiffured travellers boarding a British European Airways Vickers Viscount. Meanwhile, at home and in the dark, even as many apprentice Casanovas found tights a manmade obstacle to natural curiosity, as a functional innovation in the area of decorum they made miniskirts possible.

Food and sex are inextricable and, strange for so conservative a company, it is pleasant to record that Marks & Spencer helped modernise both. While freshly chilled chickens motored at 70mph up the new M1, daring combinations of synthetic knickers and bras made functional underwear into a colour-co-ordinated and fetishised commodity. For many with memories of student life in the 70s, with its bizarre privations and opportunities, an alarming juxtaposition on show in Leeds of a packet of Chinese style chicken and cashews against turquoise floral knickers brings a Proustian memory rush of nights of undergraduate passion, at the same time summarising a great deal of the pathos in life's appetites and desires.

“He gets that monk stuff from the History Channel”

Not in the spirit of mockery, but because it is an amazing quotation! From Michael Winerip's Times story about a thirteen-year-old who persuaded his father to start taking him to church:
Among the many reasons Ryan wanted to go: he’s a big reader, enjoys fantasy literature and has seen theories suggesting the world may end in 2013 due to the configuration of magnetic forces.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Glimmering images

From Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book:
Why, when the lights go out and the storytelling begins, is the most compelling tale (most convincing, most believable) a ghost story? Since most of us have no experience of ghosts in the material world, this should be the tale we least easily believe. The answer is that the story instructs its hearers to create an image whose own properties are second nature to the imagination; it instructs its hearers to depict in the mind something thin, dry, filmy, two-dimensional, and without solidity. . . . It is not hard to imagine a ghost successfully. What is hard is successfully to imagine an object, any object, that does not look like a ghost

"Nectarine Fruits"

At the Guardian, John Mullan offers a list of ten of the best pieces of fruit in English literature. It is curious, either I am an extreme fruit-lover (it is possible!) or else a lot of very good literature is about fruit - the first four on his list are indeed four of my particular favorite works in all of English literature, and I endlessly as a child reread the abridged version of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" as illustrated by Ellen Raskin. Here is Mullan, in any case, on that strange and appealing poem:
Luscious fruit bring some strange sexual perdition in Rossetti's beautifully weird verse fairy tale: "Crab-apples, dewberries ... / Dates and sharp bullaces, / Rare pears and greengages, / Damsons and bilberries, / Taste them and try". There are more varieties in the first paragraph of this poem than anywhere in Eng. lit.
(Illustration taken from this site.)

"There are three key steps to disappearing"

Former "skip tracer" now helps people disappear (FT site registration required).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Light Reading round-up

Hmmmm, what have I been doing with myself? Reading interesting things about cognition and counterfactuals (Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel seems to me very good - she has quite a lot of stuff up at her website if you are curious), obsessing about bicycles and triathlon-related matters (uncharacteristically I wrote a full-on review of a triathlon training book at my other blog), generally going crazy in the way that I always do as I try to make the transition to my own work after the end of the school year...

I enjoyed Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child and Barbara Hambly's Stranger at the Wedding - this sort of thing is my ideal light reading (I think both were recommendations of Jo Walton's at the Tor website).

At a loose end, I delved into the shelves of paperbacks here and found several unread used ones that clearly had been deemed not so immediately compelling that they had to be gulped down instantly and yet proved thoroughly satisfactory on the light reading front: Sheri Tepper's The Family Tree (I loved it, why did I not read it sooner?!? I am sure I purchased it with a bunch of others - $2 a pop - years ago from the fellow who sells used books outside Milano Market on Broadway, and then just tucked it onto a shelf and never got to it); Reginald Hill's Exit Lines (plucked from my adopted grandfather's New Jersey shelves for train-reading purposes, and never called upon for such).

I have a strangely large number of books on the go, I can't seem to settle into any of 'em properly - Ross Macdonald's Blue City; Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, which strange to say I have never read; Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million. Better finish one or two of these before I start any others - and I am also reading (it is resting at the kitchen table where I eat my meals - books set aside for this purpose, when I have run out of New Yorkers and New York Reviews of Books and so forth, must be interesting enough that I want to read them at every meal and yet put-down-able i.e. non-narrative enough that I do not just end up reading the whole thing instead of going back to whatever else I was doing, which pretty much rules out fiction!) Toby Tanser's More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way, which would have benefited from more professional editing and copy-editing but which is nonetheless an enthralling read...


From Niall Ferguson, introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, quoting Hippolyte Taine as quoted by Isaiah Berlin in "The Concept of Scientific History," in Philosophical Analysis and History, ed. Dray (hmmm, better track that one down to the source and see where the original passage can be found, this is too much of a remove!):
According to Taine, the monograph was the historian's best tool: 'He plunges it into the past like a lancet and draws it out charged with complete and authentic specimens. One understands a period after twenty or thirty such soundings.'

"The Enthusiastically Sticky zone of the Self-Love Continuum"

A.L. Kennedy on how rehearsing her comedy show feeds back into the writer's "voice" on the page:
It's been fascinating, working on my literal voice again for a while (in order to be audible and flexible) and seeing that work slowly have an effect on the "voice" on the page.

I've always been in favour of writers working with their voices. Although we are usually fugitive creatures, often grating (at best) in person and rambling of tongue – writers (especially poets) will almost inevitably end up reading their work in public for many pressing financial reasons. This will very often involve standing in a space specifically designed to make spoken-word events impossible and to irritate as many of those involved as possible. There will be noise, there will be atrocious sight-lines, there will be non-functioning mikes, there will be wild pigs in the foyer … you simply have to accept that nothing will run smoothly. Meanwhile, as the writer, you have to make the experience as nice as possible for the ladies and gentlemen (I never like kiddies to hear my versions of adult life in case they become disheartened and go all Tin Drum and stunted) who have turned out for the event – who may even have paid money for it to happen at them. This is not only polite, it's also deeply practical.

If a writer can experience their words being enjoyed by others, can make strangers laugh, or go "hmmmmm…" or sigh, or cry, or clap, or sit, alarmingly, with eyes closed in an attitude of profound concentration, sleep, or death – then the writer can feel more confidence in his or her words and move forward with them. This short-circuits something of that "playing alone with people you made up earlier for the benefit of strangers" aspect of the typing life.
Closing tabs: Stephen Fry on the joys of being a member of English Heritage's blue plaques panel; “If you need cake, eat the cake”; a secret history of the New Criticism and counterintelligence; Levi Stahl on why self-publishing was the perfect choice for Caleb Crain's latest book, a "meatspace edition" of some years' worth of very high-quality blogging (and Caleb gives a direct link with discount); and a delightful piece by one of my favorite sports journalists about the Flowers Sea Swim in Grand Cayman, which I will hope to do next weekend (this weekend, it's the Park to Park 2-mile Hudson River swim - the start is at W. 125th St., less than a mile from my apartment!).

Friday, June 05, 2009

Chicken and champagne

From Clement Freud's collected racing columns, as reviewed at the Guardian by Stephen Moss:
"I asked a friend who had been to a West Country course to assess the meal he had eaten, to be told that: 'If the soup had been as warm as the champagne, the champagne as old as the chicken, and the chicken as fat as the waitress, it would have been adequate." At Yarmouth, he recalled, "a fish and chip van was on hand to sell what St Paul in his letter to the Philippians called 'the piece of cod that passeth all understanding'."

Natural histories

Chimpanzees should not be kept as house pets.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Widener deeps

At Hilobrow, Matthew Battles on the Benjamin Translation Machine...

"Their heads were full of Durkheim"

At the LRB, Hilary Mantel has a merciless piece on her time as a social work trainee in the early 1970s:
I was getting a crash course in what age can do to the body and brain. Through writing them down repeatedly, I became familiar with some of the worst phrases in the English language: you can’t beat ‘terminal’, but a close second is ‘immobile, disorientated and doubly incontinent’.
And this:
Who’d be a social worker, anyway? The problem was the same then as now. Communal expectation was riven by contradiction. You were a busybody and a do-gooder, interfering in private life; or you were a useless, gormless, uncaring drain on the public purse. Whichever role you were cast in you had to get on with the job. My next stop was the community worker: Ruby’s estate was such a trouble spot that it needed its own staff. He was a jaunty young man, and he balled his fists in his pockets as he told me he knew the stepfather: ‘Nah, he’s all right.’ Shrugging, he made it clear that he intended to do precisely nothing. And there was nothing more I could do. I’d liaised with the ‘appropriate agencies’. I’d told my seniors. Ruby’s allegations were not so particular that I could go to the police, and she was in no state to be badgered for specifics. She complained of a climate of violence, not one discrete incident. Even if they were willing to investigate, a police visit with no follow-through might make things worse. Certainly, I’d never get into the house again.

What sort of judgment was the community social worker making when he swore the stepfather was a nice feller? Was he frightened of the man? That was possible; but more likely he wanted to be his mate. The young social workers of the time, coming up through university courses – postgraduate training after a sociology degree – thought it a sin to be judgmental. In fact they were making judgments all the time. Uneasy about their own middle-class backgrounds, and always feeling vaguely uncool, they believed they should not ‘label’ clients or assess ‘working-class’ people by their own middle-class criteria; so they treated them as if they were dogs and cats, not responsible for their actions. They had a whole set of interesting beliefs about the uneducated and the poor. They didn’t see that they were being grossly condescending, while pretending to be the opposite. Aspiration was a middle-class trait, they thought; the working classes preferred to muddle along. The privileged had their ethical standards, but it was unfair to universalise them. The workers had their own amusements, bless them, and should be allowed their vices. Their houses were dirty, but it was petty bourgeois to worry about grime. And if they were drunken or semi-criminal, and beat each other, wasn’t that their culture? These young graduates took as typical the malfunctioning families with whom their case files brought them into contact. Worse, they wanted their clients to like them. They dressed in recidivist chic and roughed up their accents. Their heads were full of Durkheim, their mouths full of glottal stops. They were occupied in creating a moral vacuum; theirs was a world safe for theory but profoundly unsafe for any child who needed them to shape up and go to work.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Streets of crocodiles

Not freely available online, unless you have registered at the site already, but the New Yorker fiction issue includes a must-read piece by David Grossman on Bruno Schulz, the writer whose stories spurred Grossman's extraordinary See Under: Love.

Hmmmm, that novel is due in my life for a re-read; and so is Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, as this Open Letters Monthly piece by John Cotter reminded me (link via Maud Newton).

I vividly remember reading both of those books for the first time. The Grossman was given to me by an Israeli friend in grad school, and I read it with amazement and delight. The Burgess conjures up an almost hallinatorily intense scene of me sitting (it was a very beautiful spring day, with clear blue skies) on the bleachers on the school playing fields, age 13 and dressed in the glen plaid skirt and polo shirt that were our team uniforms, reading frantically and desperately hoping that I would not catch the coach's eye and spur her thought that she should put me in at point for the remainder of the lacrosse game - a sport I truly, truly did not enjoy playing, and gave up very happily after that ninth-grade year...

"Licensed to chill"

Limited-release ice lolly in shape of Daniel Craig (via Maxine).

Able Baker

Plaintive space monkeys (via BoingBoing).