Friday, May 27, 2011

Bicycle sweets

Wayne Koestenbaum on shame and humiliation. (Courtesy of Dave Lull!)

David Bromwich on Obama's mental bookkeeping.

Dinner last night was infinitely better than the play! I was curious to see this production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning; I read it (I think from the Friends Free Library) as a teenager, as part of a general interest in the Eliot-Auden-London-in-the-1940s sort of nexus of stuff, but had not really thought of it as viable for contemporary staging. And it is not! The actors were doing a stalwart job, and the theater at 46 Walker Street is a lovely little place, but the play is pretty dreadful: pastichey, longwinded, clever locally in ways that do not at all contribute to one's enjoyment of the THREE-HOUR whole!

So we weren't out of there till 11pm, and had to stop in at a bunch of places before we could find a restaurant whose kitchen was still open - we were very happy to find Cercle Rouge very much still open. It is an attractive and welcoming space, with very pleasant staff, but I also note that the food is much better than it needs to be. They had a lot of off-menu specials: I had the fluke ceviche to start (interestingly quite different from Aureole's last week - that was an obvious crowd-pleaser, definitely delicious and with avocado and citrus, but this one was much more unusual and striking, and the fish was lovely: in long thin slices, with thinly sliced radish layered between them and red peppercorns and an unusual light vinaigrette), G. had a rabbit-and-pork pate that looked very good too (the sort that is baked in a crust), and then we both had the Dover sole, which was (as the waiter had promised) exquisite. Two special desserts were on offer as well as the regular menu, and I simply had to order the bicycle-themed Paris-Brest, described by the waiter as the performance-enhancing drug of the early stage cyclists!

Denning under a softball field

The secret lives of free-roaming cats! Some very good quotes in this piece... (Via Roger Ebert.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Subdued to what it works in

Interesting CNN bit on Edmund White and HIV in the 1980s.

Something I found absolutely inspiring: Michael Wood's LRB review of the latest volume of my colleague Edward Mendelson's edition of Auden's prose. I have to reread The Dyer's Hand, a book that made a great impression on me when I was a teenager but that I don't think I've read again since; but also, hubristically on my part, Wood made me want to strive to be a critic more like Auden!

I have a full draft of my theater-and-the-novel essay, but it needs a lot of editing and considerable library work to replace piecemeal editions with proper ones. I had a very good workout (double spin class) yesterday evening, but it caused my lungs to fill up with more phlegm this morning, so I'm taking a recovery day. Raced through Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star last night; strange to say, it manages to be at once rather preposterous and quite excellent! The writing is very high-caliber, that I suppose is what lets him pull it off.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Things organized neatly

The milk bottle grosses me out (don't mind milk in things, but can't stomach it straight), but the cookie arrangement is exquisite!

Had a needlessly emotionally tumultuous day, but did get dug back in on my long-overdue theater and the novel essay and spent some very nice hours in the evening with old friends, also beneficial. Lungs seem sufficiently stabilized that I think I may be able to make a stab at actual exercise tomorrow, which would also be good for the morale.

Light reading: William Ryan, The Holy Thief (interesting milieu and appealing main character, surprisingly vague plotting); Adrian McGinty, Fifty Grand (some underlying and fairly entrenched implausibilities about character and voice, but really wonderfully gripping in every important respect - this would make a great movie!).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Abundant recompense

It was a strange week.

I spent way too much time on the phone to my health insurance company trying to figure out things about sleep specialists and what would or wouldn't be covered depending on who I saw, and I also had my teeth cleaned at the dentist's, something that always causes me to contemplate the Francis-Bacon-like aspects of human embodiment!

Tuesday was ceremonially meaningful; I gave congratulations to graduating English majors and their families and handed out awards in the humanities at a college-wide event. I had meetings this week with a couple of my graduate students who have made the significant step forward from passing their orals (qualifying exams) and are beginning to work on dissertation prospectuses; on Wednesday I succumbed, horribly, to a sinus infection, but I also attended a very lovely party at the Century Associationin celebration of my emeritus colleague Martin Meisel's receiving an honorary doctorate from Columbia (and it was his eightieth birthday to boot!). These things caused me to reflect that I typically underrate the ceremonial; I am anti-ceremonial and something of a debunker in temperament, I much prefer to cut to the chase and I do not enjoy pomp and circumstance, and yet there is a place for them, there is some meaning in this sort of show of things...

Yesterday I had a really lovely lunch with someone I admire greatly and am hugely grateful to for what I've learned from him over the years, my dissertation advisor Claude Rawson; he was doing some work in the Berg Collection at the NYPL, and we had an altogether decadent and delightful lunch at Aureole (we both had the same very delicious selections from the prix fixe lunch menu: fluke ceviche with citrus, endive, avocado and shallots, roasted skate with pureed potato, spinach and capers and a strawberry macaron with lavender lemon sorbet and perfect little freshly baked thumbnail-sized madeleines).

Last night I started going crazy when I realized I was still getting, as it were, more sick and that I would be an idiot to do the triathlon this weekend that I've been so much looking forward to (I am looking to a longer-term goal of a race about five weeks away and cannot afford the bout of bronchitis that I risk by pushing myself under such circumstances); it was a bitter pill to swallow, that I really shouldn't do it, something that my state of health when I woke up this morning made very clear, and I was languishing in self-pity all morning despite having had what otherwise would be described as a very nice week...

It was clear, really, that literature was going to be the best remedy for mental insanity: the intolerable noise of the facade cleaning they're currently doing on my building finally drove me out of the apartment, and I hit the public library and got a good haul of crime novels, came home and devoured Karin Slaughter's Broken, which I thought was very good.

Casting around for what to read after this, I was saved from less good crime novels by the arrival from Amazon of my graduate school colleague Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy. I started reading, and I really and truly couldn't put it down; it's a pretty extraordinary book, I kind of think everyone should read it!

Like Oliver Sacks, Priscilla manages to write about a life of deficits and losses in a way that shows, without minimizing the associated difficulties and costs, the magical forms of recompense that come along with them; she also manages to pull off something that often makes me cringe, the attempt to articulate (as opposed to taking as given, which is what I do) that literature is meaningful in some large part because of what it tells us about life. "As someone who has lived to learn," Priscilla writes of herself (she is a Yale graduate and taught at Yale and at Vassar before becoming a literary agent), she found in her son Benj, who has never been diagnosed with a specific label but who has battled a wide range of motor and social deficits that leave him perhaps best described as 'borderline Asperger's,' her "greatest and most meaningful coursework": and the book is an emotionally authentic and intellectually illuminating account of what she learned as Benj's mother and how it changed her.

Really I probably have time to read one more book before I go to sleep, but it is going to be difficult to top that one!...

Light reading catch-up

Very, very grumpy about the traditional end-of-semester cold which is ruining my training week and preventing me from doing the race I was looking forward to tomorrow. Nothing to be done about it but wait for it to go away and try not to go too crazy in the meantime. Am pursuing insomnia treatment options as it seems clear that almost everything bad in my life can be attributed to insufficient sleep!

Last week I raced through four novels that were so much my perfect kind of light reading that I now can't seem to find anything else quite right: Seanan McGuire's October Daye novels. I think I had heard of them and previously avoided on grounds of cutesy name, but once I'd read and loved her pseudonymous Feed it seemed an obvious next thing to get and read. They are great - better than even the very best early before-it-all-devolved-into-erotica Anita Blake books, and certainly far better than anything Laurell K. Hamilton ended up doing with her "faerie" series - highly recommended to the reader of urban fantasy.

Then I tried one more novel by Sophie Hannah, The Truth-Teller's Lie, but that's it for me, no more Sophie Hannah novels, they are too full of absolutely preposterous things!

Mined the Theakstons Old Peculiar crime fiction award longlist for some new fodder. I have read a number of them already, and some others are annoyingly not available in the US yet, but I thought Belinda Bauer's Blacklands was superb and S. J. Bolton's Blood Harvest really very good too, though not perhaps as unusual as Bauer's.

Since the only thing I really feel well enough to do is lie in bed with a novel, I will now go and see what else I can find for my Kindle. Recommendations will be taken in the comments!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Of cake-holes and cracking birds

Charlie Williams' novels about unhinged nightclub doorman Royston Blake are some of my absolute favorites; the first three are being reissued in the next few months, and a fourth will appear in August (it has the excellent title One Dead Hen). These novels are true classics of dark comic noir; "Blakey" has the same sort of life off the page that Harold Bloom attributes to Shakespearean characters like Falstaff and Cleopatra!

Blakey has been on a blogging spree recently, and when I suggested to Charlie that perhaps a guest post for Light Reading would be in order, he was happy to serve as middleman...


Mangel Informer
I were in a lock-in down the Volley once when Filthy Stan the motor man suggested I can't read. To prove how wrong he were, I picked up a copy of the Mangel Informer, the premier news wossname in our town, and started reading the top story out loud. "MAN GETS NOSE BUST," I shouted, starting with the headline. You gotta shout it so they knows it's in big letters that are capital. "Filthy Stan the motor man, a stumpy little cunt from Norbert Green who has got hair so greasy he can fry his breakfast in it on a warm day, got his nose bust in the Volley last night. There was no witnesses and the whole thing were an accident caused by not thinking things through before he opens his cake-hole. In future, he ought to be more careful." I put down the paper and gave Stan a look that asked him if he had any comeback. The answer were no, I reckon, cos he turned arse and pegged it for the exit. Only it were a lock-in, like I says, and he bounced off the door and fell on his arse, clutching his hooter that were dripping red.

If you're looking for a grot mag, you can't get no better than Penthouse. I found this particular copy in a skip when I were about 5, and it's followed us everywhere since then. Which ain't actually that far, being as I still lives in the same house I growed up in. Same bedroom and all, although I moved my old man's double bed in there after he carked it so I can stretch out and shag birds. But I still got that old Penthouse under the mattress for when I can't pull.

Rocky vs Clubber Lang
This is my favourite book. It is about how the famous heavyweight boxer Rocky Balboa has to fight Clubber Lang, played by B.A. Baracus from the A-Team, after B.A. kills Mickey the coach by shouting at Rocky. This book were so successful they made a film of it, and that also starred B.A. Baracus as Clubber Lang. I reckon it's important that they keeps the same actors when they turns a book into a film, else it'll confuse intelligent folks like meself who read it as a book first.

First Blood
This is the opposite of Rocky vs Clubber, cos they turned it into a book after they done the film first, getting some called David Morris to do it (I ain't sure about that last name cos a bit of the cover's gone). Personally I reckon he had a piss easy job, this Morris feller, cos all he had to do were watch the fucking film and write down what happens. And he couldn't even do that right cos he's got Rambo dying in the end, which he don't in the film. What I reckon is that he fell akip before the film finished, and had to guess what happened. But you fucked up, didn't you, Dave? That's why they never came back to you for Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Quay's Catalogue
I've had this one since being a youngun. You don't see catalogues much no more but everyone used to have em in them days, and you could buy anything from them, even boring shite like ironing boards. But the best bit were the lingerie section. I never found out what lingerie is, but I didn't really care - the whole section were full of birds wearing hardly nothing at all. And we're talking cracking looking birds here. Even the older ones are well fit, in their cross-your-heart bras that you could lug a couple of frozen turkeys in if you had a mind to. But it's one in particular that caught my eye, from the age of five right up to now, with me taking it down every now and then for another peep at her. She's fucking beautiful, I swear, and yet everything about her is wrong. Dark brown hair, normal size tits, pale skin... but there's a look on her face that says she's been waiting all her life to put this bra and knickers on and have me look at her, and that she's held out for me. I always wondered if one day I might find her. I'd ask her out and bring her some flowers and take her down by the river for a picnic. Then I'd find a quiet spot and pull her dress off, her looking at us the whole while like this is all that ever mattered. But I wouldn't take her knickers and bra off - no way. To do that would be to destroy her purity. I'd just yank the gusset aside.

Ford Capri Haynes guide
Anyone with a motor needs a book on how to strip her down and fix her. I found this one in the boot when I first got my Capri, which were a 2.8i model in gold with a black vinyl roof. Mind you, I reckon they got the pages mixed up or summat, cos I can't make tail nor arse of it.

The Bitch - Jackie Collins
This were my mam's book, and I keeps it there on the shelf so I can remember her by it. She died when I were a youngun, but sometimes she comes to me in my dreams and says she's left a load of letters to me and hid em somewhere no one will look except me. But I've searched everywhere and I can't fucking find em. I ain't giving up, mind. I'll be looking for them letters until the day I carks it. I reckon they might be in the cellar or summat.

Knight Rider Goes to Hazzard County
This were my favourite book as a youngun, but I seem to have lost the pages and I just got the cover now. I went to have a read of it the other day and when I opened it a load of old folded up bits of letter-writing paper fell out, which I chucked in the bin. Fucking vandal, whoever done that.

The Magus - John Fowles
I chanced upon this book when I were about ten. We used to have a bookshop in town in them days, and I were knocking about around the High street with Legsy and Fin when we decided to have a gander in it. Thing was, all the other shops was on the look-out just then, so you had nowhere you could hone your shoplifting technique without fear of getting caught and the coppers brung in, which wastes your whole afternoon. One look in the bookshop and we knowed it were the place - there were some speccy bird behind the counter and no fucker else. So Fin steps up first, swipes a book off the side and slies it down the front of his trolleys, thereby contaminating it with his unwashed regions but it don't matter cos no one's gonna read the fucking thing anyhow. He's going for the door, pretending to look at some postcards or summat on the way, and the speccy bird stands up and blows a whistle, pointing at Fin like he's got the lurgey (which he has, like as not). Next thing we knows, and while we're still trying to suss out what's taking place here, a massive baldy bloke with a beard hares out from the back and starts eyeballing us, fists clenched like swollen pig hearts. He follows the bird's pointy finger to Fin and goes for him, grabbing him by the elbow before Fin, twat like he is, could piss off out the door. So I picked up the nearest, fattest book I could find and used it to pummel the beardy bloke's head a few times until he let Fin go and we was all happy. That book were The Magus by John Fowles, or someone.

Deadfolk - me (but typed up by Charlie Williams)
This is the one the Writer is meant to have typed out and got turned into a book. Personally I ain't ever seen a copy, so I dunno if it's true or not, but I can vouch for the words in it so long as he wrote em down just the way I telled em. Every one of them words is true, I fucking swears it. Even the lies is true, and there ain't none of them at all. In case you're wondering, Deadfolk is about me - Royston Blake, being head doorman of Hoppers Wine Bar & Bistro (as the new owner insisted on calling it). It's about how I came to have a joint stake in that operation, and features a lot of cunts who was trying to stop us and besmirch my name. You can't have that, cunts besmirching your name. When that happens, the only thing you can do is try to smirch em back, and this here book is about how I done that. There's also a bit about Rocky III in it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Light reading catch-up

I took the weekend completely off from work, which was hugely beneficial; have now spent this morning writing up comments on MA essays and doing one last proof of an interview I've been involved with, and am now steeling myself to plunge into the week's most substantial job, grading the final assignments for the two courses I was teaching this semester. Flying back to NYC on Wednesday evening; midday Friday onwards is very thoroughly booked up with school-related things, so I am hoping the grading will all be done by Friday lunchtime...

(After that I need to get back to my long-overdue essay on Restoration drama and the novel; with luck, I can send that out before the end of the month? Next week's still looking a bit busy with school stuff, but the week after is relatively empty and I should be able to polish it off then.)

Plans are starting to come together for my Coeur d'Alene trip at the end of June, which is pretty exciting (even if it remains absurdly complicated and/or expensive to transport a bicycle cross-country!).

I was really so busy in the past few weeks that I lost track of logging my light reading!

I read two quite different 'trilogies' of books that shared the quality of being both addictive and somewhat bad (or at least not ideal representatives of their respective genres); the first was three novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books I've never been able to get into but who comes very warmly recommended by Jo Walton, whose books I love. These were The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt. They are totally addictive, I started a new one as soon as I'd finished the previous one and looked forward to subway travel so that I could dig back in on whichever one it was I was reading, and yet they are also strangely shallow, facile; the storytelling is completely fluent, the writing is fine, but there is something quite unsatisfactory about the characters and the stories as well, they miss being really good books by a long stretch. Can't put my finger on it more precisely, but there is just a slight pro forma feel.

(I don't know whether I already said that I'd read Charlie Huston's The Shotgun Rule and Holly Black's Red Glove - worthwhile contributions by two writers I particularly enjoy. I am sure I did already say that I loved Henning Mankell's last Wallander book, which I felt rose to greater heights than most of its predecessors.)

Then I read three serial-killer thrillers, also quite addictive even as I was internally grumbling about the way they seemed like Patricia Cornwell 'lite' (also they are full of the most outrageous implausibilities and some quite melodramatic writing here and there): Cody McFadyen's Shadow Man, The Face of Death and The Darker Side. Couldn't put 'em down, though!

On the plane on Thursday I enjoyed Molly Jong-Fast's The Social Climber's Handbook. Also catching up on last few issues of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books...

Over the weekend I completely devoured Mira Grant's Feed. I was initially suspicious, as the book seemed a bit too clearly to jump on bandwagons I have seen too much of already in recent years: like, put together one pinch Hunger Games, one pinch M. T. Anderson (who really already had that title!), two pinches Justin Cronin and a tiny dash of Bruce Sterling's Distraction. But I soon changed my mind: I thought it was excellent, I can't wait for the next installment!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

SEAL-themed pitches

"A SEAL who travels in time to the land of the vikings": the universe of Navy SEAL romance novels!

(I read one of these books once by accident; I bought it in the airport in Grand Cayman, which has a total selection of about 15 mass-market paperbacks to choose from, under the mistaken impression that it was a straight thriller, and was startled and slightly disturbed as a multi-page sex scene several chapters in alerted me to my generic misapprehension!)

Reconstructing life from tiny artifacts

Emma Brocke profiles Jennifer Egan for the Guardian. Egan says something that is basically exactly what I think about the daily practice of writing (I don't write like this all the time, just when I am actively at work on the initial draft of a new book project):
[S]he strives for five to seven pages a day, by hand. "And that can happen really quickly; I can be done with that in an hour or two. But I sometimes spend a lot of time avoiding doing it, taking four hours to do what I could've done in one. I try not to write more than that, even if I'm tempted to, because if I go too far I'm really drained for the next day. I can't do more than seven or maybe eight without jeopardising the rhythm."
Some interesting thoughts, too, on how reading Proust over the course of seven years led to ruminations on how to represent entire lifespans in fiction (one of the unusual features of A Visit from the Goon Squad).

Self-regulating schemes

At the FT, Sam Knight follows one of London's bikes-for-hire for a day (site registration required). It is an interesting piece throughout, and this fellow sounds delightful:
The scheme itself has its headquarters on Penton Street, near King’s Cross railway station, in an old taxi depot, where I met Nick Leigh, the gap-toothed and optimistic Serco manager in charge. In the corner of his office was a whiteboard covered in equations and hand-drawn graphs attacking the logistical quandaries of the machines. “The scribblings of a madman,” he said. On paper, Leigh explained, London’s cycle system was only going to need a fleet of 14, non-polluting electrical buggies called “Alkis” to supplement the random movement of bikes across the city, chiefly by dealing with the inevitable daily tide of bikes washing in from the edge of zone one and back out again. But it has not worked out like that.

“I think we believed there would be more natural redistribution than maybe there is,” said Leigh. The Alkis are currently off the roads, unable to take the workload, and have been replaced by 18 less green cars and vans. The main force that Serco has to contend with are the commuters, who tend to ride the bikes in straight lines from the stations to the City and back again. As a result, Serco has recently had to rent storage space at King’s Cross, Waterloo and Holborn to avoid the dreaded sin of “double-handling” – ferrying the same bikes twice in the same day. When I asked Leigh whether he thought the bikes would be ever able to flow without any intervention at all, he looked wistful. “I have dreamed of lots of things,” he said, “but not self-regulated schemes.”

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The libido and the desire for fame

I'm excited about this one: my interview with Cintra Wilson appears in the May issue of The Believer! Only an excerpt is available online - buy the issue...

"Nothing can come of nothing"

King Lear at BAM was excellent - not, perhaps, transcendent, but the production as a whole is impeccable and Derek Jacobi is extraordinary. This is my favorite Shakespeare play - my favorite Shakespeare tragedy, anyway (The Winter's Tale and Midsummer Night's Dream are two others that are particularly close to my heart); I've taught it half a dozen times and must have read it at least a dozen more, I know it very well indeed. Very, very lovely...

Only one more day of classes! A couple additional days of insanity and then on Thursday I am going to go and see Brent for a few days before coming home and finishing up grading and the other bits and bobs of end-of-semester business.

In other news, I'm just finishing up week 6 of training for Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Last week's big weekend training was a bit of a bust, so I am happy to report that this week's seems to be going much better - I did my long run and long swim on Friday (bookending a dissertation defense for which I wore comically different garb), and Triathlete Lauren is picking me up in her car shortly and we are going to go and do a five-hour bike ride in New Jersey. It is finally beautiful weather for bike-riding; I have had to do almost all of my training in preceding weeks indoors, and am still feeling a little nervous about riding in the real world instead, though it should be very nice...