Thursday, March 31, 2011

What the starling said

I was slightly mesmerized by Seamus Perry's very good essay on Thomas Hardy for the TLS; I have a secret internal other life as a Hardy critic, I think (I have been meaning to read D. H. Lawrence's Study of Thomas Hardy, but that edition is expensive enough that I will be better off getting it at the library...).

Sterne's starling has been much on my mind recently, so it is not surprising that this is the bit of Perry that especially caught my attention:
The history of a poem such as “The Caged Goldfinch”, not one of the central masterpieces but absolutely pure Hardy, demonstrates all the virtues he discovered in keeping mum:
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
It is a poem all about not knowing what is going on: the poem knows so little about the subject on which it has elected to speak that it hardly exists at all; and, since seeing people out of their depth can always be funny, it is “a little joke” in one way, amused at the thought of bringing the graveyard manners of Thomas Gray and Robert Blair into the sceptical, hesitant voice of modernity. But there is a real perplexity at work in the poem as well, feelings too unassuaged for the spirit of a joke wholly to absorb them. When Shelley (whom Hardy greatly admired as one might regard one’s opposite) addresses a skylark you know he is finding a way of speaking about his own selfhood and song. But the identification in Hardy’s poem between the trapped bird and the clueless figure of the poet, quite unable to perform in the high old Shelleyan style, is left implicit and the poem’s element of self-exposure remains tantalizingly oblique.

The whole context of a person

One further postscript: I am slightly relieved that I do not need to muster my attention to write a proper bit about Teju Cole's fantastically good novel Open City - at the New Yorker, James Wood wrote pretty much exactly what I would have said if I weren't so lazy!

I especially loved the "intensely Sebaldian" aspect of the book, and of course also the narrator's "well-stocked mind" (to borrow a few choice Woodean phrases); I defy you to read the review and not feel that this is a novel that must be read, but that will also be uniquely pleasurable to read! Another of Wood's sentences partly explains why I read this book in a sort of fanatical state of breathless attention, feeling that it had been written peculiarly and particularly for me out of all possible readers: "This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person."


I seem to have spent the whole day narrowly avoiding a minor meltdown, for no evident reason, though I definitely wasn't feeling well yesterday either - and have made myself feel very bad by skipping the workouts I should have done, which is doubly foolish because doing at least one of them would almost certainly have made me feel better! The weather in New York right now is not conducive to bike-riding, it must be said, though I intend to get out for my long run tomorrow afternoon even if it is snowing...

But now that the short list has been announced for the Young Lions Fiction Award, I am free to say that this was the award I was reading for earlier in the year. I won't say anything about books I read and didn't like (I have studiously avoided mentioning them here!), and the structure is such that one hasn't necessarily read all of the finalists, so I can only say that the two I did read from this list of five, John Brandon's Citrus County and Patricia Engel's Vida, were both highly worthwhile (my personal preference was slightly for the latter, but both are really worthy of recognition). And the book that I was startled didn't make it onto the short list (but it is the nature of group decision-making and consensus that things go this way) was one that I truly loved, Rosecrans Baldwin's You Lost Me There. Highly recommended!

Light reading catch-up

Miscellaneous bits and pieces around the edges of what seems to have been a demoralizingly busy week (how am I going to make it to the end of the semester?):

Duane Swierczynski's delightful time-travel Philadelphia noir Expiration Date, which I liked very much (I wanted to introduce it to Charlie Williams' Stairway to Hell!)

Emily St. John Mandel's The Singer's Gun, which I also liked very much (it reminded me of several other books, though in a generalized sense that makes it hard to name them - that was the only thing that would stop me from raving about it - it's really good, though)

Finally, Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water, which I liked certain aspects of very much (but I wanted more about swimming!) - I don't think I can give it an unadulterated rave, for my taste it's too much on Kathy Acker-Lance Olsen lines, a bit too literary, composed and presented in pieces - but I particularly liked the last stretch, which achieves more tranquility amidst chaos and disruption and also homes back in on the swimming stuff that was what mainly made me pick it up in the first place. Certainly a book one can't easily put down...

Authoritative pangs

John Jeremiah Sullivan on David Foster Wallace (via The Rumpus).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The political classes

A very interesting piece by Philip Hensher at the Guardian on how he went from being an unemployed PhD in eighteenth-century satire to a junior clerk at the House of Commons - just in time to witness Margaret Thatcher's downfall...


Neil Gaiman's post about Diana Wynne Jones brought tears to my eyes!

Alas, my afternoon's family meet-up has been canceled; it might be that I should go to the bookstore and see if I can find a few of the bits of the DWJ oeuvre that I have not read so many times I've practically memorized them...

On procrastination

I should have fallen out of bed this morning, donned cold-weather running garb and headed straight out the door for my long run, but in truth it just seemed too gray and chilly to bear! I know I warm up quickly once I'm out there, but temperatures in the 20s do give me a problem with asthma, so it was not wholly rationalization that I decided coffee and breakfast and work would be preferable, and that I would run once it had warmed up a bit...

The crucial thing for me to have a productive morning is not to while away the hours on the internet, so I withstood the temptation to turn on the computer and instead had a morning of massive and useful productivity while lying flat on my belly in bed (I find the horizontal position more conducive to thinking than any other): I finished marking the assignments from my drama students (good thing too, as I also have a full set of papers from my other class to comment on for tomorrow), I finished reading a very good book (I have a 1600-word review of it and one other - finished that one earlier in the week - due on Friday), I finished rereading Dryden's All for Love and wrote my lecture for tomorrow.

Still have to reread The Sorrows of Young Werther and deal with that other set of essays, but I will have no time later for grading later as I am meeting my Texas brother and his family at a Brooklyn beer garden mid-afternoon. I can read Goethe on the subway, but an early morning of frenetic work will be in order tomorrow, I think, because the most important thing now is to get out the door for that run before any more minutes spill through my fingers...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On invention

My friend Ed Park's sensibility and our mutual friend Jane Yeh's awareness of it are both so particular and vivid that I immediately labeled this NYT profile of Columbia radiation scientist David Brenner a "Jane reads the paper" bit:
He may have inherited his knack for industrial design from his maternal grandfather, a mechanical engineer who was one of the inventors of the Kit Kat candy bar and the machinery to mass-produce it.

I am mournful

that Diana Wynne Jones is dead.

Really I have read many of her books so many times that they are part of my internal landscape, but my two absolute favorites are probably Fire and Hemlock (that was the edition I had, and I read it countless times as a teenager) and Howl's Moving Castle, which I checked out again and again from the school library (but I can't find a picture of that cover online) and have owned in several different editions since.

The first book of hers I ever read was The Magicians of Caprona, which I found absolutely spellbinding (and continue to do so); her most autobiographical novel (it is not her best, but it is interesting, and it takes up a notion that she revisits so often that it clearly had some special personal significance, of the parts of a person's identity being split up in a way that erodes their selfhood) is surely The Time of the Ghost.

I think of all of these books very frequently, it is difficult to explain how deeply I have been steeped for many years now in Diana Wynne Jones's fiction; the one that I have the strongest urge to reread right now, though, and would download to my Kindle if I could (I don't own a copy, though I have given away several), is Deep Secret, which includes among other good things one of the best depictions EVER of a science-fiction convention...

Friday, March 25, 2011

On frivolity

There is always much that is good in the FT's weekend arts section, but I think my favorite piece this week is Jancis Robinson's nearly mock-epic account of the 58th Varsity Blind Wine Tasting (site registration required). Reminds me of the Dorothy L. Sayers story "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste"....

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

X, Y and Zee

Phil Nugent on the passing of the spangled steamship that was Elizabeth Taylor.

On slothfulness

Sloths in the NYT; and a very good further bit here (courtesy of IHD).

"20 or 30 legal pads"

Jennifer Egan interviewed at the AV Club (courtesy of Phil N.).
Also, Pankaj Mishra at the LRB on Egan's latest novel.

It is the sort of detail

that can hardly be noted without plunging into sentimentality, at least in fiction, and yet it seems to me quite persuasively true. From John Henley's profile of Henning Mankell for the Guardian:
Besides the theatre, Mankell does a lot of charity work in Africa, including a project called Memory Books, which helps parents dying of Aids to record something of themselves in a book, to be passed to their children when they go. "I was in a small village outside Kampala, Uganda, years ago now," Mankell says. "It had only very young and very old. Everyone in between had died. There was a small girl who showed me a folded scrap of paper in her hand, and in it was pressed a dead blue butterfly. She said her mother had loved blue butterflies. That was one of the most important books I've ever read."
(It might be that the italics on the words most important are also an attempt to counter readerly cynicism and the threat of the sentimental?)


My favorite animal that I saw in Costa Rica was neither indigenous nor wild. We were sitting at a roadside place eating tipico for lunch and something caught our eye: a little boy walking along the side of the road with the most adorable little black piglet tucked under his arm! The woman he was walking with had another one (each was wrapped in a bandana), and they came over and let us hold them ourselves; NB these were not rustic pigs, they were pigs bred for the pet market, our guide gathered that they cost about $85 each and wouldn't grow to be very large. These little pigs were the cutest things you ever saw! I wanted one desperately...

(There were also any number of appealing dogs wandering around - pets, but untethered pets - dogs of all shapes and sizes, and even a cat or two, including a slightly battle-scarred gray-and-white cat that seemed to live at the Hotel Fonda Vela. Costa Rica is a nation of animal lovers!)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Light reading on the road

The Kindle is a godsend for travel; I cannot imagine what peculiar, unsatisfactory and yet physically backbreaking a selection I would otherwise have been lugging around during the past week and a half. I read a few books that were truly exceptional; I had a frantic downloading session the night before I left, when it suddenly occurred to me that ten days requires a pretty large number of words if I didn't want to have to fall back on hotel pickings, so I had a lot of good stuff to choose from.

The two really spectacular books were Teju Cole's Open City, which I loved so much that I really must write a separate post about it; and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which I also just loved. I bought a copy of that in hardcover some time after its initial release - an ill-timed purchase, given that the paperback was about to come out, and that it is really too physically cumbersome a book to want to read in the heavier format. Also the opening 15% or so (I am a Kindle reader, the percentages are unavoidable!) is pretty awfully static; it's not unreadable, but it is the sort of thing that a less well-known writer would almost certainly have been made to cut, and I feel sure that there would have been some way to plunge much more quickly into the 'real' action of the book. But truly it is a wonderful novel; I even ended up talking about it in class yesterday (we were reading Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist and I was pondering questions about the relationship between dialogue in fiction and the philosophical dialogue - is the coincidence of the name just that, i.e. fundamentally a bit misleading, or do the two genres have something more seriously intimate to do with each other?).

I actually had some very good other books too, only they are slightly diminished by the dauntingly awesome nature of these two. I loved Lauren Beukes's books Zoo City (GENIUS! especially the pastiche material, and its witty and depressing reimagining of Pullman's daemons) and Moxyland. Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches is the perfect light reading; among other things, it is so very refreshing to read a book with a female scholarly protagonist who so completely and utterly rings true to my own experience of the scholarly life. Taylor Stevens' The Informationist is also fantastically perfect reading material - how can this woman just have burst out of nowhere? Really I feel she must have been writing thrillers already under another name, this one is so very perfectly crafted and so very much to my taste; but whatever the deal, it has my strongest recommendation, I found it just fantastically gripping.

Other miscellaneous novels, good in their way but not as well suited to my reading preferences: Jennifer Crusie, Faking It; Ekaterina Sedia, The House of Discarded Dreams (I think well of Sedia's books, but they are not exactly what I like - I'm not truly a Jonathan Carroll fan either, though I have read most of his books and enjoyed a few of them very much indeed - I did really enjoy what she does here with the horseshoe crabs); Robin Hobb, Dragon Keeper (led astray in this case by my panicky search for long books), Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (this one made me think strongly of my grandmother, who would have loved it).

Hmmm - I had better get a move on with my real day, only inertia has overcome me!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The blue-jeans frog

Also known as the strawberry poison-dart frog. We spent our day on the water at Tortuguero with a very knowledgeable young boat guide in addition to our regular guide; at one point, he moored the boat at the side of the forest and vanished into the undergrowth in search of one of these guys for us to look at up close! The leaf is a temporary home, in other words, sort of like something out of Beatrix Potter or The Wind in the Willows...
(Click for a bigger image.)

The origin of species

The Costa Rica trip was pretty amazing: by my approximate count, we saw at least sixty-eight different kinds of bird. I am not one of life's natural bird-watchers, but our amazing guide was able to help us pick them out and identify them...

(I liked the end-of-day sessions with the checklist, as I am perhaps a lover of lists and of names even more than I am of actual birds: the bare-throated tiger heron, the slaty-tailed trogon, the broad-billed motmot, the green-and-rufous kingfisher, the red-legged honeycreeper and the great kiskadee and the red-capped manakin! One of the most beautiful little birds: Passerine's tanager. One of the biggest bullies, though with striking looks: Montezuma Oropendola!)

And we saw a brown-throated three-toed sloth high up in a tree along the road to Tortuguero and a number of Hoffman's two-toed sloths, not to mention the rescued sloths at the sloth sanctuary in Monteverde; and three different kinds of monkey (including a very fetching mother and baby white-faced capuchin pair who crossed over a canal by following one tree until it bent down far enough to allow passage to another one on the opposite side, as well as countless mantled howler monkeys); and many coati, a charismatic but slightly sinister raccoon equivalent, as well as agouti, a more innocent little critter like a very large guinea pig with longer hind legs; plus a pair of very slippery and attractive neotropical river otters in the canals of Tortuguero. More lizards than frogs, on the whole, including some handsome iguanas and a number of the brilliantly green and appealingly named (they walk on water!) Jesus Christ lizards. And lots and lots of butterflies, including the ones at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden (these, too, have names almost as lovely as the creatures themselves: the blue morpho, the small postman, the glasswing and the stained-glass and the big owl and Halloween and green malachite butterflies).

These lists are not exhaustive; I am not much of a photographer, but will post a picture or two, I think, to give the flavor. We stayed in some very lovely hotels, though it is cumulatively too many of them no matter how nice they are: the Marriott in San Jose (very nice indeed), the Pachira Lodge in Tortuguero (too much like summer camp, but the wildlife viewing out on the canals is extraordinary - unmissable), the lovely Hotel Fonda Vela in Monteverde, the Arenal Observatory Lodge (volcano!) and for our final night the spectacular Xandari, where we had a private villa whose view is captured in the snapshot below.
Thanks to Brent for a really lovely holiday (it is rare, too, that we are both on vacation at the same time, usually one of us is visiting and the other is working!), prompted by our visit last summer to the amazing Amazon and Beyond exhibit at the Miami Zoo (go there if you get a chance, it is not to be missed) and a certain amount of subsequent prodding to tweak me out of my natural inclination to always stay at home if given the choice!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Breaching the peace, lightening the load

At the LRB, Colm Tóibín on the importance of aunts (he moves to this point from an argument about Austen's treatment of Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park):
The novel, after all, is not a moral fable or parable; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments about their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel is never simple. A novel isn’t a piece of ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatisation of how these energies might be controlled and given shape. Characters in fiction are determined by the pattern, and they determine the pattern in turn.


The title of this post slightly makes me laugh, but yes: Nadia Sirota and her viola!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Antediluvian, charnel, eldritch

Possible source for a few sentences to add to the new and improved little book on style, which I will be coming back to after I get back from vacation. It is the project for April and May, and if it spills over into June that is fine too; The Bacchae on Morningside Heights can wait, and I think that revising that will be my main summer project after I do this (direct link here) on June 26.

(Yes, I am going on a vacation over spring break - to see monkeys, sloths and venomous frogs, plus a host of other creatures [the resplendent quetzal!], in Costa Rica! Blog hiatus during travels: I'm not bringing my computer, and I think it will be good to have some time well and truly offline, though I am sure I will check email sporadically when there is convenient access. I'm leaving Friday middle of the day, and have a ridiculous pile of work that must be done before I go!)

"Like life"

Shelley Jackson's new sub-"Skin" story.

Monday, March 07, 2011


The only reason I got a mini-subscription to BAM this spring was that I desperately wanted to see Derek Jacobi in Lear, and you had to buy tickets to four different shows in order to qualify for the special early advance-purchase set-up that would ensure I got the tickets to the one show I really desperately wanted; I picked the others more or less at random, without much investigation, and the thing that sold me on The Nightingale and Other Short Fables was just the basic attractions of Stravinsky and Hans Christian Andersen plus the mention, in the brief description on the website, of a twelve-thousand-gallon on-stage water-tank. (I am a sucker for aquatic spectacle!)

When I read the Times review, though, I knew that it really was going to be something special, and in fact I would have to say it is one of the most absurdly lovely things I have ever experienced. The loveliness of the voice of the Nightingale (it is the most beautiful music, absolutely otherworldly and perfectly performed in this case too) plus the extraordinary fluttery nightingale puppet, the massive skeleton that rises out of and really directly from the emperor's bed, dozens of other details - everything about it was utterly delightful!

My absolute favorite bit of all was the "Berceuses du chat" in the first half - they are doing the most extraordinary things with shadow puppetry! All I can say that if I were a young person with even the most moderate professional interest in this sort of thing, I would buy a plane ticket and show up on the doorstep of Philippe Beau and just stay there until he promised to teach me everything he knew....

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Things of minor note

Closing tabs:

High Gygaxian (via The Dizzies).

Digital collecting at things magazine (I believe the original site link was via L. Lee Lowe; the underlying link to Things Organized Neatly is particularly worthwhile, as a cake theme seems to predominate!).

Light reading around the edges of an especially busy couple of weeks: Patricia McKillip's The Bards of Bone Plain, which I found evocative and engaging but much too reminiscent of the books of hers I endlessly read and reread when I was young, the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy; a quite mediocre novel by Robert Crais; two novels by Jennifer Crusie on the recommendation of Jo Walton (I preferred Maybe This Time to Faking It); a comfort reread of A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs (not Victoria Clayton's best novel, but the one that came most readily to hand); and - last but most certainly not least - the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's series, The Wise Man's Fear. It is not that those Rothfuss installments are the perfect books, but they are so wonderfully readable, I finished this one with a huge sense of loss when I realized how long I am likely to have to wait for the next installment. However I have just started reading a novel that seems to me wonderfully appealing also, so that is some small consolation: more anon!

(Saw a bunch of movies last week too, and a show, but don't know that I feel that need to blog any of it here.)

The Smurfberry binge

I have found myself thinking of this story so regularly since I first read it (courtesy of Brent) that I think I had better actually link to it here: at the Washington Post, Cecilia Kang considers the issue of in-app purchasing in children's games.

The duckling of Riverside Drive

Sigrid Nunez on what it was like to spend time (a lot of time!) with Susan Sontag. The book-length memoir of their relationship, Sempre Susan, sounds like something I really must read...

Friday, March 04, 2011

Performing fleas

The Rochester visit went very well, I think, but I am now so tired that I am contemplating going to bed at eight and cannot imagine what I will do in the meantime except finish reading Patrick Rothfuss's new book on my Kindle! But it is good to be home.

I thought Hanif Kureishi's essay about writing was very good:
I must give at least one interview a week, and I don't mind it much, unless the journalist calls me irritable, or diminutive. It does mean that the questions and the answers will always seem pre-packaged, although they may appear to be new to someone somewhere. If you are asked the same question repeatedly, you either sulkily refuse to answer it, or you are forced to find ways to make it appear interesting – mostly to yourself. Over a period of time, in interviews, you work up an account of yourself, then you develop it and one day you find you even believe it; finally it has become the story of your life.

The problem with being interviewed is that, on the whole, the two people are at cross-purposes. One wants to flog a few copies of their new book at full-price and escape without personal injury, while the other wants to find out something new, and perhaps shocking, about the subject, which they will then inform the world about under a lurid headline.

Fortunately both are usually disappointed. At the end, you always ask yourself, how many people are there who can only sell their product by also selling a part of themselves?

These days you can't put a cigarette paper between a writer and a performing flea.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

"The tautology hut"

My flight from LaGuardia to Rochester last night was delayed, and I didn't arrive at the Inn on Broadway until after midnight. Now I am ensconced in my hotel room mentally readying myself for the graduate seminar I'll conduct at noon and the lecture later in the day.

A passage I love, from Jakobson's essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" (in addition to the informal seminar for the grad students, I was also asked to recommend to them a couple short pieces of critical reading - I chose this piece and Roland Barthes' "The Reality Effect," another favorite of mine, not because I will speak about them directly but because they seem to me two such compelling instances of the delights of non-historicist work in literary studies):
In manipulating these two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity) in both their aspects (positional and semantic) -- selecting, combining, and ranking them -- an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences.

In verbal art the intersection of these two elements is especially pronounced. Rich material for the study of this relationship is to be found in verse patterns which require a compulsory PARALLELISM between adjacent lines, for example in Biblical poetry or in the Finnic and, to some extent, the Russian oral traditions. This provides an objective criterion of what in the given speech community acts as a correspondence. Since on any verbal level -- morphemic, lexical, syntactic, and phraseological -- either of these two relations (similarity and contiguity) can appear -- and each in either of two aspects, an impressive range of possible configurations is created. Either of the two gravitational poles may preval. In Russian lyrical songs, for example, metaphoric constructions predominate, while in the heroic epics the metonymic way is preponderant.

In poetry there are various motives which determine the choice between these alternants. The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called 'realistic' trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details. In the scene of Anna Karenina's suicide Tolstoy's artistic attention is focused on the heroine's handbag; and in War and Peace the synecdoches "hair on the upper lip" and "bare shoulders" are used by the same writer to stand for the female charactesr to whom these features belong.