Sunday, July 31, 2011

Acrobatic historians

Tim Adams interviews Simon Schama for the Observer. On self-doubt and big projects:
You are not thinking hard enough if you are sleeping well. And you would have to be unhinged to take on a subject like the French revolution, or Rembrandt, and not feel some trepidation. There is always the possibility that you will crash and burn and the whole thing will be a horrible, vulgar, self-indulgent mess.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The writing life

Why Steph Swainston wants a day job. I really liked the novel of hers that I read, and thoroughly endorse the notion that teaching and writing are for many a much richer mix than writing could be alone: it is truly not for everyone, the life of the full-time writer, even putting aside financial considerations...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh happy day!

Brent stopped at home mid-morning with a Book Depository package for me that had arrived at his post-office box (there is no home mail delivery in Cayman). Initial slight disappointment, after I ripped it open, that it was not the new Hollinghurst novel (but that should be coming in near future!), soon remedied as I immersed myself in one of the most lovely books I have read this year, something I had forgotten I'd ordered at the same time: Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky. Trapido is one of my favorite novelists, and it's a slight mystery to me why she's not better-known in the U.S. I couldn't put it down! Alas, it is now finished, but it was bliss while it lasted...

Still feeling somewhat ill, but definitely on the mend compared to yesterday. I would think it will be Monday before I can exercise again, I am resigned to it. Have spent most of these week lying on the couch feeling fairly languidly ill and reading some good books.

(Work proceeds in fits and starts on the style revision, but I think I got quite a bit done in the first half of the week before illness made me lose momentum. Will pick up again properly on Monday.)

Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf really is very good indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Also enjoyed Lydia Millet's young-adult novel The Fires Beneath the Sea.

At the very good local bookstore on Wednesday (I was putting in a special order for three books I 'need' for the style revision, they should be here in about two weeks: you will see the lines I am thinking along if I tell you that they are three particular favorites, Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built and Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew and David Markson's Reader's Block), I spotted a book that I had no idea existed: Ann Brashares' 10-years-later followup to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (to which my lovely student Lynn Copes introduced me some years ago), Sisterhood Everlasting. I will slightly remorsefully add that I did not purchase it at the bookstore, but downloaded it onto my Kindle when I got home.

The other novel I read this week was a reread of something I liked very much when I first encountered it as an undergraduate (I don't think I read it for a class, either I just picked it up somewhere or possibly it was a recommendation from Marina Van Zuylen), Dostoevsky's Demons. I found the first third or so quite difficult to get into (I wasn't sure whether it might have something to do with the translation, or possibly reading on the Kindle), but after that it is highly immersive, and the last third or so is so propulsively written that it's pretty much impossible to put down: it is a strangely structured and narrated book, interesting, very modern in its topics and preoccupations (it is a genealogy of terror that recognizably links Dostoevsky's Russia to what happened last week in Norway). I think the next one to reread is Conrad's The Secret Agent, which also made a strong impression on me when I first read it (really it is the only novel of Conrad's I have a lot of time for, something about his writing is anathema to me elsewhere!).

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lagos faits divers

Teju Cole's small fates. (Via Sarang.)

Improvement of the breed

"If you’d like to call your pet Kubla Khan, King Kong or Kevin you can always move to Belgium. . ."

I'm in low spirits: I'm totally sick again! Very raw lungs on Monday the day following my long bike ride (heat and humidity exacerbate exercise-induced asthma), and now the predictable course into wheeziness and lung squeaking, phlegm, sinus congestion, etc. In short, another chest cold/bronchitis episode. The first thing I do when I'm back in New York will be to make another appointment with the pulmonary specialist I saw last year about six months after I first realized that I actually had asthma; I also need to find an allergist.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Retail therapy

One reason staying in Cayman is surprisingly frugal for me is that it prevents me from ordering things online: it takes forever for stuff to get shipped here, shipping costs are huge and customs duty must be paid on anything that comes in (books excluded, fortunately).

But I was finding myself in need of some retail therapy today, and have ordered some things to be sent to my New York apartment for retrieval in September: a down jacket on sale at Patagonia, which is immaterial for Light Reading purposes but may speak to fantasies of winter, and a great set of books and 'stuff' from Amazon. The latter set of stuff counts as a birthday present from my mother and my brother and sister-in-law, who sensibly sent me Amazon gift certificates when I couldn't suggest actual presents for my birthday!

The glorious list (it accumulated by way of me adding things piecemeal to the shopping cart over the last month or so, but I think it gives a good profile in miniature):

"The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications"
David Deutsch

(This one's more or less self-explanatory: Brent and I were talking about David Deutsch, and I realized that really I might want to read his book)

"Field Notes on Science and Nature"
Michael R. Canfield

(Saw an image from this one a few weeks ago online and realized it was a book I had to have)

"Dover Solo: Swimming The English Channel"
Marcia Cleveland

(Self-explanatory! I am not a fast enough swimmer, unfortunately, to undertake something as epic as the Channel swim - you have to start with considerably higher baseline speeds in order for it to be realistic. Not that I am not tempted...)

"Lobster: A Global History (Reaktion Books - Edible)"
Elisabeth Townsend

(Do not like lobster for eating purposes, but could not resist this book's title and the beautifully designed cover!)

"The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by ... Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes"
Adam Thirlwell

(Curious to see whether this might cast any light for me on what I want to do with the ABCs of the novel book)

"Humiliation (Big Ideas//Small Books)"
Wayne Koestenbaum

(Can't wait for this one - also, I like the idea of writing something for the big ideas/small books series...)

"Marpac 980A Sound Screen Sleep Conditioner White Noise Generator Dual Speed"

(The upshot of reading Farhad Manjoo's piece about sleep noise-canceling devices)

"Jimbo"
Gary Panter

(Gary is one of the most interesting people I know, but I have never read any of his comics - this should be remedied...)

"Gary Panter"
Robert Storr

(...and also perhaps it is worth seeing what others have to say about the stuff Gary makes.)

"City of Diamond"
Jane Emerson

(Same author as "Doris Egan," and another recommendation from Jo Walton: pretty much convinced that this will be more perfect light reading.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This side whimsy

I thoroughly enjoyed Misha Glouberman's collaboration with Sheila Heti, The Chairs are Where the People Go, after an initial round of disappointment that came to an end when I realized that it was completely unreasonable of me to expect this book to be exactly like and as good as Georges Perec's "Species of Spaces". I think it was the book's title that made me feel I'd be getting something so much along those lines: and no, it is not as good as that paragraph I just linked to indeed or that whole work, but it is very much worthwhile nonetheless (Perec sets an impossibly high standard).

Most attractive to me were the thoughts on groups and their working dynamics; Misha has had an interesting and unusual career thus far teaching improvisation and doing odd and highly imaginative sorts of classes, and his descriptions of this stuff really spoke to me. Interesting things to be gleaned here by anyone in education or the arts, I'd say, with particular focus on the productive tension between verbal and non-verbal forms of art, the nature of collaboration in a group and a cluster of related topics, including ephemeral art forms, games and the relationship between participation and performance (games and group dynamics being central topics of interest to me in BOMH). (Sheila Heti has done an interesting and imaginative job shaping the material into a book.)

Here's one of my favorite bits, a list of "some hard Charades clues" that emerged from years of teaching a workshop on charades (this is the sort of counterintuitive class in which Misha has specialized):
the Symbionese Liberation Army
Sum 41
"The more things change, the more they stay the same"
Guam
Being and Nothingness
Sometimes a Great Notion

the Dutch tulip craze of the seventeenth century
Fletch
Soren Kierkegaard
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice
the Koran
"Bootylicious"
"The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides"
E Pluribus Unum
Vinnie Barbarino
Koyaanisqatsi
Troilus and Cressida

the lambada
1984
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Mr. Snuffleupagus
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"
"Que Sera, Sera"
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Godel, Escher, Bach
Soylent Green
shock and awe
The Metamorphosis
"'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe"
trickle-down economics
Also, some very wise thoughts on conferences and why it is a pity that their current structure "doesn't just ignore the existence of the Internet, it ignores the existence of the printing press":
It's a medieval idea about how information should be disseminated--to imagine that if you want to know what someone thinks, you have to go sit in a room with them while they read out loud to you their thoughts. But at a lot of conferences that's the primary thing that happens.

Finding out what someone has to say in their paper isn't a reason to travel across the country and stay in a hotel room. A reason to travel across the country is to have conversations with people and actually form human relationships. Most of the stuff that happens at a conference not only does not help create that, it hinders it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Slightly, no, no, NO"

Martin Gayford's 130 hours sitting for Lucian Freud.

Five-year planning

I did indeed email BOMH to my agent at the end of the day yesterday. Very glad to have it off my desk for a while! It will inevitably need further rounds of revision, this is the way of book-writing, but I'm pretty happy with it for now and will be interested to see what comes of it.

(When I was first starting out, I fantasized about big offers and huge corporate publishers, but now that I have published one novel with a small independent press and two with a corporate behemoth, the small-press option is looking pretty good to me again! What I am most hoping for, with this book, is an editor who loves it and who will be able to follow through on that commitment by securing strong in-house support: the book will then have to take its chances in the world, of course, and I think it is too intellectual and peculiar a tale to end up with monstrously large sales, but one of the most painful things about publishing The Explosionist was that my absolutely brilliant and wonderful editor - from whom I learned a huge amount about novel-writing and story-telling as we worked together on revisions - was laid off a couple weeks before the official publication date. The marketing group saw a bunch of lay-offs at the same time, and I don't think I'm breaching any secrets when I say that though the subsequent editor I was assigned is herself an extremely talented and inspiring editor, someone I'd be very happy to work with again in future on a project of her choosing, the in-house support and marketing for that pair of books was basically negligible! I will very much hope not to end up in that sort of situation again on either of these next two books I've got in the pipeline [i.e. BOMH and style].)

Every time I write a novel, by the way, I say I will not write another one! I don't know that I feel it quite so strongly this time as I felt it after the last one (that time I was mostly suffering from tenure-related fatigue plus the dispiriting knowledge of the likelihood of little support from the publisher as far as selling the book went). Novel-writing remains a uniquely interesting way for me to work out a question or problem and think through a set of issues, and ever since childhood I have secretly felt that there is no other worthwhile activity than novel-writing, or at least that there is no substitute for it in my life.

And yet everything to do with publication and book promotion seems deeply unsatisfactory and uninteresting to me, and there is an increasing suspicion in my mind that it is hardly worth writing the book if one is not going to put some decent further additional chunk of energy and dollars into promoting it. This is what I don't know that I really have time and vim for: surely that time and energy are better spent doing perhaps unstimulating but more deeply necessary work like writing student letters of recommendation, evaluating manuscripts for journals and presses, writing tenure review letters, etc.?

In other words, I have a strong inner need to write and to teach, and will always be doing both of those things for love rather than primarily for money (of course one must earn a crust!), but when it comes to the less immediately gratifying set of secondary responsibilities, I have some pretty time-consuming ones that arise from my 'real' job, and the book promotion stuff is always going to feel to me (let's say) tertiary rather than even merely secondary!

My promotional energies, this next time round, are really more likely to be centered on the little book on style than on BOMH. I've been thinking a lot over the last year or so about longer-term career stuff (I think it is a natural process of post-tenure reexamination), and it's come clearer to me what my priorities really will be over this next stretch.

I have a major and ambitious academic (or rather let's call it intellectual) project in its early stages, the ABCs of the novel book. Pushing that forward will be a priority, and I'll probably try and get outside funding for a year-long sabbatical of the residential-fellowship sort sometime in the next couple of years.

I'll continue to do bits and pieces of professional reviewing as they come my way, but I won't seek out a huge amount of it: it's not particularly lucrative, the short-term deadlines kill me when they fall during a busy teaching semester and the enjoyment-to-stress ratio is deeply unfavorable!

What I'd really like to do more of is speaking engagements. Guest lectures (distinguished or otherwise) at colleges and universities of course, but also speaking on literature to a wider range of different kinds of audiences: it would take a while to build this up as an actual income stream, lots of that sort of engagement doesn't necessarily come with dollars to speak of, but I think it is better suited to my core interests and concerns than trying to do a lot more reviewing.

(I have had some fun invitations in the last couple weeks: I'll be lecturing on Gulliver's Travels to the students in BU's core class at the end of November, and on Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year to the students in Siddartha Deb's Introduction to Fiction class at the New School in the spring. Both will pay honorariums, plus travel expenses in the case of the BU one, and I have a deep sense of the rightness of this sort of activity as fitting well with my core values and priorities! I think I am only an average reviewer, I bring to it fluency as a writer and a fully developed critical voice and of course a wide knowledge of literature but I do not feel it to be my particular metier, just a sort of side competency that arises from other things that are my true core strengths. But speaking about literature to an audience, bringing what's on the page really alive in terms of language and ideas and cultural contexts: that's my real thing!)

Anyway, I do have a simple and I think quite effective plan to help some of this happen: even if I only get very meager dollars for both books, I am going to do whatever it takes to retain the excellent Lauren Cerand in her capacity as independent publicist! With the style book and the notion of building a broader audience for literary speaking engagements as the primary mandate, and the novel as part of the bigger picture but not the central priority.

I am teaching two new classes in the fall, one an undergraduate seminar on Swift and Pope that I know will be huge fun (it's a new rubric for a class, but I've taught a lot of the individual works before, especially the Swift stuff), the other my own version of the MA seminar we require of all of our incoming graduate students. That was an interesting chance to think about what I assume as the fundamentals of my own discipline; I'll probably write a separate post on that, or perhaps even paste in the readings I ended up choosing.

I find myself with little desire to get extremely strongly engaged in the professional organizations for my discipline (MLA) and subfield (ASECS), though some presence in both is a basic component of my responsibilities as a faculty member at Columbia; I am more interested, I think, in questions about education as they affect my home institution, and I would guess I would be much more likely to move in the direction of dean of undergraduate or graduate education than to be the editor of a major journal in my field or the head of a professional organization like ASECS. Surely it will be the case at some point during the next stretch of my career, too, that I will serve as Director of Graduate Studies for my home department! Now I am in the realm of indiscretion, but I am currently protected against huge institutional service requirements by the fact that my salary is so low that I cannot in good faith take on a job like that without a significant raise, and raises are not traditionally given in academia as a consequence of that sort of a commitment (it is assumed that some release from teaching is a sufficient compensation); raises only come from outside offers; QED if someone asks me to do something huge and I say "I only can say yes to that if you raise my salary at least 20K," it is effectively the same thing as saying no!

It is one of the great benefits of getting older that one comes to know oneself much better than is possible at age eighteen. If I assess what I've done in the last ten years, I would say that I have done well on the count of working hard and getting a lot done, but that my own impatience to be always doing something has led to inefficiencies and often wasted effort (i.e. a preference for writing the next book rather than sinking additional resources in trying to get people to read the previous one): the notion for the next few years (it is a project of midlife!) is to consolidate and build, not so much to forge out in completely new directions.

(That said, if interesting new opportunities present themselves, I am there!)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Robopocalypse redux

Roomba art!

Natal update

It is my birthday today; I spent yesterday afternoon thinking intermittently of the fact that while I was sure I wouldn't be finished with BOMH today, it was strangely difficult to predict whether there would be one further day of work on it remaining or one further week of work. Very happy to be able to report twenty-four hours later that it really is only one more day I need; I've just finished an edit all the way through (including a couple of new scenes drafted for the final section), I'll type it all up tomorrow morning and then read through a hard copy with pen in hand for final corrections. Truly if everything goes as it should, I will be able to email it to my agent by the end of the day tomorrow and enjoy a guilt-free weekend...

(All this sense of urgency is largely self-created, as it is most likely that then nothing at all will happen with it for some weeks or months, but it will make me feel good to have it off my desk, and it frees me up to get back to the neglected little book on style, which I am eager to revisit. I have made a slightly wrenching but very sensible decision not to go to Ottawa after all in August; I need to stay here and concentrate on getting that other revision done before school starts.)

Light reading: Karin Slaughter's Fallen (quite good, despite a strangely unmemorable ending: I got sick of this series at some point, but it is a good example of an instance where killing off one of the main characters breathed new life into the series as a whole!); Karen Marie Moning's Bloodfever (many good things going for it, especially the lively narrative voice, but I think that may be it for me for the series: the proportion between content and pacing is off for me, so that I am basically reading the pages almost as fast as I can turn them over trying to increase the density of 'stuff' I'm getting from them, can't quite explain it but it is a strong subjective sensation I get with certain kinds of popular fiction); Megan Abbott's superb The End of Everything, which I loved; Robert J. Sawyer's pleasant enough but lightweight Frameshift, another Ottawa Chapters discount purchase.

Currently halfway through Glen Duncan's excellent The Last Werewolf: how come I never heard of this guy before?!? He has written a lot of novels, now I can get them all and while away an hour or two....

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Books do furnish a room"

At the LRB, Alan Bennett's life in libraries. Interesting reflections, too, on the problem bookshelves pose for set designers in the theater:
Books and bookcases cropping up in stuff that I’ve written means that they have to be reproduced on stage or on film. This isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. A designer will either present you with shelves lined with gilt-tooled library sets, the sort of clubland books one can rent by the yard as decor, or he or she will send out for some junk books from the nearest second-hand bookshop and think that those will do. Another short cut is to order in a cargo of remaindered books so that you end up with a shelf so garish and lacking in character it bears about as much of a relationship to literature as a caravan site does to architecture. A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.

That someone’s working library has a particular tone, with some shelves more heterogeneous than others, for example, or (in the case of an art historian) filled with offprints and monographs or (with an old-fashioned literary figure for instance) lined with the faded covers and jackets of distinctive Faber or Cape editions, does not seem to occur to a designer. On several occasions I’ve had to bring my own books down to the theatre to give the right worn tone to the shelves.

'Muggletonians and animals'

Good piece at the Telegraph about naturalist Charles Davies Sherborn and his 'little slips of paper'. (Link courtesy of Brent, who saw it here.)

A related bit, loosely speaking: Ann Blair at Rorotoko on her new book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. (Via Bookforum. Here Blair describes her own favorite chapter in the book:
For the most committed note-takers one German professor, Vincent Placcius, published in 1689 instructions for building a large closet in which to store one's notes taken on slips of paper: when opened out the closet could store up 3,000 topical labels, each with a hook onto which to stick the slips that corresponded to that topic.
If you missed it the first time I linked to it, take a look atthis lovely LRB piece by Keith Thomas on his own reliance on little slips of paper.

(I seem to write regularly here about indexing...)

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Well done the biscuit"

"Tabloid readers love pink wafers."

(Peek Freans made an appearance on an episode of Fringe we watched in the last day or two and prompted much mouth-watering on my part: really they make all sorts of cookies, but the one I used to be particularly addicted to in my youth was the classic "fruit creme"....)

Creating the doldrums

Diana Nyad intends to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Key West...

(Here was my post on her memoir. Ugh, I still haven't completed my Ironman goal, that was 2007 and I was optimistic that 2010 was realistic...)

(At the wedding I went to in June in Baltimore, I sat next to someone who knows Diana Nyad well from college days; I was very tempted to see if he could arrange an introduction!)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"The tender new catch"

An absolutely delightful interview with Oliver Sacks at the Times. (Link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull, who kindly steers my way interesting things Sacksian and Koestenbaumian!) Two of my favorite bits:
I don’t know what Facebook and Twitter are since I don’t use a computer. But a friend gave me a hat with a built-in compass, since I have no sense of direction. It beeps when you face north and the intensity of the beeps shows how close you are. I like to think it’s improving my awareness but truthfully, I don’t think I’m getting any better. And I get a little embarrassed wearing a hat that beeps.
...
I buy lumps of metals because I’m a periodic-table freak. I bought rhenium for my 75th birthday, osmium for my 76th birthday, iridium for my 77th birthday. But I may not be able to afford more than a tiny pellet of platinum for my 78th birthday this year.

Pern, Darkover

What is your all-time favorite fantasy or science-fictional world?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Closing tabs (strangulation edition)

I have always had a preference for writing in coffee-shops as opposed to libraries; I like the buzz of background noise, I find it soothing and mildly stimulating and it makes it much easier for me to concentrate than when I'm in an environment that's totally silent. The same thing goes for city living: New York makes me feel comfortable and able to concentrate because there's this constant mid-level surrounding buzz, whereas Cayman presents difficulties for me due to smotherationally high levels of quiet.

Alas, I have spent the whole week on the verge of total meltdown, or really at times in actual meltdown mode (thus relative broadcast silence, as I prefer not to blog when I am mildly hysterical!), but will take advantage of a moment of relative inner calm to close a few tabs and report on some minor light reading.

(Ottawa worries continue to be overwhelming, and I regretfully observe that really I think I will need to go back there again in August to help with various bits and pieces of next-stage planning: I had hoped to have a spell of weeks in one place with no travel, but on the other hand the "no-travel" preference is at odds with the "urban environment" one, so perhaps there is a silver lining....)

(Note to future self: don't sublet New York apartment in future for more than a month, unless absolutely locked in on irresistible year-long out-of-town sabbatical opportunity i.e. residential fellowship! Over the summer, and especially when I'm going to be away quite a bit anyway, the dollars are the great temptation; it is my best way of getting my finances annually back into whack, as my NYC rent is a bit more than half my monthly take-home salary and I can't really afford it. However, two months is clearly too long to be without access to city life!)

Fascinating piece about an exhibit on Wittgenstein and photography that explores the relationship between photographic composites and the philosopher's idea of a 'family resemblance'. (Via Marjorie Perloff.)

Evan Goldstein profiles Wayne Koestenbaum for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the occasion of the publication of Wayne's new book Humiliation (hmmm, very copious and weird collection of Amazon reviews for a book that has not yet been published!). I am much looking forward to this book, I am a huge fan of Wayne's (really he is one of my couple most important literary and intellectual role models!). (Link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull.)

(Side note: I had dinner earlier this spring, after Stefan Collini's talk at the humanities center, with sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, whose late husband Robert K. Merton was the person who actually coined the term role model!)

At the NYRB, David Bromwich on Obama's distaste for politics. (DB is of course another one of my role models, in this case perhaps a more impossibly aspirational one!)

Sophia Hollander profiles academic and bestselling novelist Mary Bly for the Wall Street Journal. (Via Bookforum.)

Two good links via Marginal Revolution this morning: How much would it cost to attend Hogwarts?; parrots have individual 'names' in the wild.

Sasscer Hill's Full Mortality does indeed call to mind Dick Francis in its rich and full bringing-to-life of appealing racing settings, but the voice isn't as compelling to me, and it is no discredit to Hill's writing abilities (it speaks more to my own state of mind, and to recent excesses in the way of light reading!) that this was the book, last weekend, that induced a fit of absolute self-disgust at the lack of any nutritional value in much recent literary fare, and a resolve to seek more things out to read that do not simply bathe my brain in cheap serotonin.

That did not stop me from then reading one of the worst novels I've read in a long time (a bargain purchase at Chapters in Ottawa). Then I was truly self-disgusted!

I have read two other books (both nonfiction) that deserve posts of their own, about which more anon. But the hours loom long, and light reading remains necessary; I thoroughly enjoyed Karen Marie Moning's Darkfever, which has some of the appurtenances of trashiness and is not perhaps up to the standard of Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye books but is really very good with regard to any reasonable set of expectations (I have downloaded the next one, and I would evaluate the series as being enjoyable and smart on a level with Charlaine Harris's books, which I also like quite a bit).

Somehow I had never read Connie Willis's Lincoln's Dreams, though I think I've read almost all of her other novels, so that was an excellent way of whiling away an hour or two, and we are also watching an episode or two most nights of the extremely appealing Fringe, often with a chaser of Black Books.

BOMH proceeds in fits and starts; I had a very good work day on Wednesday, yesterday not so much, but this morning I got a decent hour and a half in early and will hope to have another session on it this afternoon.

Finally, I am completely mesmerized by Gillian Welch's latest album The Harrow and the Harvest. There are two songs on it that I like as much (by which I mean to say am absolutely fixated on and can't stop listening to) as any songs I have ever heard in my entire life: "The Way That It Goes" and "Tennessee". Buy the album!

Monday, July 11, 2011

"He was wedded to his sans serifs"

Jon Ronson's fascinating 2004 piece about Stanley Kubrick's collecting practices. (Via Brent, who saw it here.) Almost every sentence is grippingly excerptable, and the piece is full of wonderful phrases too, but here is a bit I especially liked:
"I was just talking to Tony about typefaces," I say to Jan.

"Ah yes," says Jan. "Stanley loved typefaces." Jan pauses. "I tell you what else he loved."

"What?" I ask.

"Stationery," says Jan.

I glance over at the boxes full of letters from people who felt about Kubrick the way Kubrick felt about stationery, and then back to Jan. "His great hobby was stationery," he says. "One time a package arrived with 100 bottles of brown ink. I said to Stanley, 'What are you going to do with all that ink?' He said, 'I was told they were going to discontinue the line, so I bought all the remaining bottles in existence.' Stanley had a tremendous amount of ink." Jan pauses. "He loved stationery, pads, everything like that."

Chairs, houses

Interesting bit by Mischa Glouberman at the Paris Review. It is about going to Harvard, and what it means if you are Canadian:
If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here. There are equivalent upper-class communities to some degree, like maybe people who went to Upper Canada College prep school, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. I mean, partly there just aren’t the same heights to aspire to. There’s no equivalent to being the editor of The New Yorker in Canada, or being an American movie producer or anything like that. Partly, the advantages of class aren’t as unevenly distributed in general.

So while going to Harvard constitutes an invitation to join the American upper class, this invitation is pretty useless if you’re living in Canada. I often think about how I was given this invitation—this tremendously valuable thing—and I just kind of threw it away. I’m not sure how I feel about this.
That's an excerpt from the book The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work and Play in the City, by Misha in collaboration with Sheila Heti; they are doing an event this Thursday in Brooklyn at the powerHouse Arena that I am sure will be worth your while if you are local, and here are details on some other tour events.

On format

Strange to say, I like the first section of BOMH much, much more when I read it through in a double-spaced hard copy than when I'm working through it single-spaced on a small laptop screen.

That is all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Taste of chlorine

A swimming-pool romance...

Summer thoughts

Just now printing out a next-round draft of BOMH. It is still incomplete, because I don't like editing on-screen and lost patience about halfway through: it is more productive for me to work with a pen on the hard copy, especially as I still need to write some new scenes to sort out this thriller plot and the new character I have introduced.

(In fact I am slightly hating this book right now, but that is all the more reason to work very hard on the revision and get it off my hands by the end of next week...)

Saturday, July 09, 2011

"Fosberg's love grass, Franciscan manzanita, giant Palouse earthworm"

From Lydia Millet's (lovely, bleak) How the Dead Dream (highly recommended):
What wings lifted him then, what banks shored him up along the river of work? Not the mechanics of the deal: rather it was the faces and the words of those he moved through and past and with in seeking his object, the nuance of his own approach in knowing and predicting the impulses and calculations behind them, that captured his interest. In pitching his company's plans or services it fell to him to read the tics and quirks of investors as he sat across from them in restaurants, county commissioners as he rode the elevator beside them, urban planners across tables in well-lit rooms. He caught the small tells that accompanied a lie, the fluster and the cover-up that followed an inadvertent truth, the way these varied among persons: but he was most astute in that he gave the appearance of being caught up in his own velocity when in fact his mind was carefully fixed on the other.

Although always watchful, always wedded to the close observation of detail, he pretended otherwise. He projected a confident nonchalance, an air of serene neutrality, and with this attitude would casually make reference to vast sums. The rules for his own comportment were few and simple, and first among them was, always speak as though unimpressed by large figures; always convey the impression that the grandiose is commonplace.

And so it will be.
There is also an unusually beautiful list of names in the acknowledgments...

"Somehow old-fashioned, gladatorial"

Tom Robbins lunched last week with cyclist David Millar for the FT (site registration required). The material is extremely interesting (I am eager to read Racing Through the Dark, but alas, there is no Kindle edition available), and they had a fantastically delicious-sounding and decadent lunch!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Thursday linkage

Settling back into a routine is very good!

A few links of interest:

Maxine offers a useful list of her Twitter likes and dislikes. (I cannot get into the Twitter vibe, it seems; I've had an account for a while, and I look over there occasionally to see if anything has changed that might make it more appealing to me, but it gives me an irritable feeling of being peppered with unwanted pellets of information and really I mostly steer clear of it. For some reason Facebook seems much more innocuous, though I do appreciate Twitter's utility for those who are actually following news closely as it develops - that is not me, though!)

A fascinating piece, of particular interest to novelists and would-be novelists, by Alex Shakar at the Millions about getting a 300K novel advance in 2000, then having his book come out just after 9/11. Interesting glimpse of Bill Clegg there... (Link courtesy of Sarah Weinman, who by the way has a grasp of Twitter's potential and best Twitter practice that is matched by few of the other users I "follow" there!)

Also at The Millions: highly anticipated books of upcoming months. Lots of extremely desirable stuff there: I think I am especially excited to get my hands on the next installments from George R. R. Martin and Lev Grossman, Colson Whitehead's zombie novel (Colson is also a gifted Tweeter!), new novels from Helen DeWitt and Lauren Groff, Neal Stephenson's Readme and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, but the biggie there for me is Alan Hollinghurst's new novel, which is already out in England and which I think I will go ahead and order from the Book Depository (free international shipping, to the Cayman Islands as well as the US...).

And after I do one piece of work that cannot be postponed (overdue reader's report on a journal article), I am going to get back down to work on BOMH...

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Post-vortex update

It is not quite true homecoming (no New York, no cat!), but it is a tranquil point of rest, something for which I am extremely grateful!

Ottawa was tough, but it was important to be there.

I read some great books in airports and airplanes en route there from Philadelphia last week (in particular I loved Doris Egan's Ivory books - a Jo Walton recommendation - extraordinarily good lucid storytelling and an immensely appealing voice t o boot, making me hope that she had published tons of other books I could now read too, only it seems that really she is [probably sensibly] writing for television mostly these days - her blog is full of interesting things that would be useful for novelists as well as writers of television episodes, though). A mediocre Tanya Huff novel, purchased in the Detroit airport, helped pass the time. Katherine Howell's Frantic is a pretty high-quality rendition of a genre I like very much (in this case, it's paramedics and cops in Sydney, with more of a thriller than police-procedural vibe), and I'm now near the end of the next one in the series: definitely recommended. Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse (Brent warned me!) is markedly inferior to Max Brooks's amazing World War Z: definitely read Brooks instead if you haven't already but are pondering the purchase of Wilson. (Wilson has some notable gifts as a storyteller but he is not truly curious about the more logistical elements of what would happen if robots took over the world, how resistance fighters actually organize their resources, etc., which makes him ill-suited to excel in this particular genre.)

After that we got sucked into the VORTEX, so there was pretty much no time whatsoever for reading or websurfing, thus the silence here. Did manage to read one really amazingly great novel, Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. What a book! There is an obvious comparison to James Ellroy, not just because of the nature of the subject matter (and the charge of the writerly investment in that sort of material) but also because it is so unusual to find propulsive storytelling in combination with such an amazingly distinctive writerly voice. For this book Abbott has come up with the most extraordinary idiom, lush and baroque and stylized yet also with the sort of concision and selectivity that one thinks more often of spare prose only possessing: anyway, I really loved it, and am eager to read more of hers, including the brand new one called The End of Everything, which I have pre-ordered for Kindle...

And so it was a great relief to be back in an airport yesterday and with all the time in the world to read books again! I could not resist purchasing a huge armful of real old-fashioned paper books at Chapters in Nepean, many of them on deep discount, and the travel time was honestly at that point just a great respite from what had gone before! Two very good crime novels, really exactly to my tastes: Mark Billingham's Bloodline and Denise Mina's The End of the Wasp Season. Two writers I can't get enough of...

Finally, a couple of links:

The real-world setting for the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine.

My favorite bit of Roland Barthes on Cy Twombly