Friday, December 30, 2011

Shelves, plucking

Supriya Nair interviews Teju Cole:
I privately think to myself of Open City as a response to 8 1/2, which is weird. But it is episodic, it is concerned with structures of consciousness and I think it is immaculately curated. That is what I was going for: the curation of incident that to a careless observer seems like randomness.
On a more personal note, I am alarmed by the revelation that Butler Library won't be open again till Wednesday.  That's just wrong!

Closing tabs

The year is ending for me on an unexpectedly somber note.  I got a call late yesterday afternoon to let me know that a college friend had killed himself the day before.  It was more sad than surprising news, as he had spent many years fighting the legacy of a childhood and adolescence marred by deeply neglectful parents and a terrible stint in foster care and then coping with a diagnosis in adulthood of bipolar disorder, but it is such a loss.  In adulthood it is often too late to remedy this sort of damage, and I think the only takeaway is that if you know a child or teenager in need of help, reach out and give whatever help you can!  Spent the evening at a sort of unofficial wake at a mutual friend's apartment in Brooklyn; combination of emotional distress and alcohol consumption have now exacerbated my cold, which has moved from lungs to sinuses and which clearly mandates another day of no exercise...

Some links, in no particular order:

Language Log on the twitter hashtag.

Wage slavery in its natural habitat.

George Pringle's new blog.

Greg Zinman on Bravo's Work of Art.

It seems likely that I will post again between now and the official end of 2011, but just in case not, I hope that you all have a very happy and healthy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


RIP Cheeta.

Lung grumbling

Feeling quite glum as this minor cold has now settled into the lungs: they are so raw and itchy that I would stick a pencil down there to scratch them were it compatible with the human gag reflex!  Clearly another day with no exercise in the cards, though I am hoping I'll be well enough for yoga tomorrow morning with out-of-town friend B. (and am seeing out-of-town friend A. and her husband K. for tea late this afternoon).  I don't otherwise feel sick at all - strong arms, strong legs, clear head - just this annoying lung vulnerability.

Novel revisions are underway as of yesterday, thank goodness, so I can't really complain otherwise.  I need to get as much of this work under my belt as I can: three weeks from today I'm in the classroom again, and I can't afford to let any of this uninterrupted time escape me!

Light reading around the edges: Sara Henry's Learning to Swim (clear why I bought that one! not bad, but not really the kind of crime fiction I like most); Val McDermid, Trick of the Dark (highly readable despite huge huge impossible implausibilities at center of the story); Erin Kelly, The Poison Tree (hmmm, very Barbara Vine in mood, not so much what I like either as I didn't care about the characters and the twists can be seen coming a mile away); Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase (I loved this one, it was great: it has all the qualities lacking in the others, despite the fact that they all fall under a crime fiction rubric); and Nicholas Royle's strange and haunting Regicide.  I am not so crazy about dream landscapes, I prefer my fiction to have more rational narrative logic, but I do think this was an unusually interesting novel of its kind (and I am interested to see fiction still being written under the sign of Robbe-Grillet!).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Looking back

Really this is the "books I read that stuck with me this year" post (I make it by quickly skimming back through blog posts, so I'm sure I've missed things), but I do feel the need to note one painful failure for 2011 - I didn't get to the start of my projected Ironman race, due to bronchial illness stemming from ongoing lack of mastery of exercise-induced asthma, training loads and life stress. 

I am on a higher dose of asthma controller medication now, and I think I have a better handle on how to manage that particular aspect of bronchial vulnerability, but I am still overextended in a more general sense and I am not going to attempt an iron-distance triathlon in 2012, as I think I need to do more work on various building-blocks first.  If plans go as I hope, though, I'll volunteer for the inaugural NYC Ironman next August and get some kind of preferential status re: registering for a slot for the 2013 race.

On a brighter note, it is also the case that in 2011 I finished drafting the novel formerly known as The Bacchae on Morningside Heights, revised it and found a publisher; I am just now undertaking an extensive further revision/reimagining (this will make no sense to those who have not read it, but I can see now that a whole game is missing!).  I also revised the style book, and it is as of a month or so ago out with publishers again, but I have no news yet as to its fate and fortunes: books can take a long time from start to finish, a fact that horrified and appalled me when it first dawned on me many years ago but that I've had to reconcile myself to in the meantime.

I feel that I had a very good year of teaching: I was eager to be back in the classroom after an overly quiet sabbatical year in 2010, and the charms of teaching have been particularly alive to me.  The surprise for me this fall was how much I loved teaching the required MA seminar to entering graduate students in our department; I had undertaken it as a 'service' class, but it was truly as much of a pleasure as any class I have ever taught.

I have just finished reading what I think is my favorite novel of the year, Murakami's 1Q84.  Haunting, immersive, lovely! 

My other single favorite novel in the loose category of 'literary fiction,' a term I hate but that does serve to differentiate it from thrillers and young-adult dystopias and so forth, was probably Teju Cole's amazing Open City.  Others I particularly enjoyed in this sort of broad category (all newish though not all from 2011): Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child; Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; Vanessa Veselka's Zazen; Cody James's The Dead Beat; Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding; Emma Donogue's Room; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad; Tayari Jones's The Silver Sparrow; Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky.  Neal Stephenson's Anathem was as immersive as 1Q84 and probably belongs in this group rather than with science fiction and fantasy below (Reamde, on the other hand, was enjoyable but forgettable).

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods deserves a category all its own!  Another uncategorizable but excellent book: Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti's collaboration The Chairs Are Where the People Go.

Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is definitely in my top ten favorites for the year.  I also loved Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, that's another strong recommendation.

Megan Abbott's novels Bury Me Deep and The End of Everything were among the most interesting crime fiction I read all year, but there was a lot of other exceptional stuff too.  Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Taylor Stevens's The Informationist; Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours and Trackers; Lawrence Block's A Drop of the Hard Stuff (which also prompted a reread of the amazing When the Sacred Ginmill Closes)

Nonfiction: John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead; Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned; Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons; Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child; Sarah Bakewell's Montaigne biography; Peter Terzian's interesting little anthology Bound to Last; and (I am late to the party) Michael Lewis's Moneyball.  It was a reread, but Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built remains one of the few books I can think of that it pains me not to have written myself.

Most prized addition to book collection, courtesy of my mother: Green's Dictionary of Slang.

Didn't read a ton of YA this year, but can definitely recommend Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books and Catherine Fisher's Incarceron series.  Tow Ubukata's Mardock Scramble was a surprise and a delight; also very delightful was Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Much enjoyed new installments in ongoing stories by Lev Grossman, Charlie Williams, Kate Atkinson.  Also: LEE CHILD!

Most perfect light reading: Doris Egan/Jane Emerson's Ivory omnibus and City of Diamond.  But I was lucky in my light reading this year, I'd have to say: I loved Mira Grant's zombie trilogy, and found the first two installments of Patrick Rothfuss's fantasy series utterly addictive.  Best zombie book was Max Brooks's World War Z, though: I couldn't get it out of my head after I read it, and kept on telling people about it at parties even when it was not suitable.

A small selection of books I reread that still speak to me very loudly (really I'm always rereading a lot for teaching- and research-related purposes): Roland Barthes's The Neutral; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew; Markson's Reader's Block; Conrad's The Secret Agent; Dostoevsky's Demons.

A few performances that especially astonished me: Stravinsky's Nightingale and other fables at BAM (and the ombromanie of Philippe Beau!); Philip Glass's Satyagraha, at the Met; and Krapp's Last Tape, with John Hurt and also at BAM.  Music from Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett has been an ongoing delight.  

The film that most preoccupied me: Helen Hill's The Florestine Collection, completed after her death by Paul Gailiunas. 

The TV series that I want to live in, thus recent preoccupation with fictions of alternate realities: Fringe.

I don't listen to enough new music to make good recommendations in a broad sense, but new albums from P. J. Harvey and Gillian Welch are both remarkable.

Books to look out for in 2012: Sarah Manguso's The Guardians: An Elegy; Marco Roth's Transmission; and Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers.

I probably read a better range of books in 2010, but that is because I was on sabbatical.  In 2011 my thoughts were much engaged with books I was writing and books I was teaching, most of which are not really prominently represented here.  I continue to have a deep-seated obsession, though, with Swift's Tale of a Tub...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Perfectly good at it"

How much does it cost to make a hit song?

(NB not sure how much marketing had to do with it, but this Rihanna song has been played at something near to 100% of all spin classes I've attended in the last year!)

A plan

I made my chart...

 I bought my supplies...
(I don't know why Blogger will only import these pictures in sideways rotation!  That is irksome.)

Let the wild revision begin!

I will now take advantage of the fact that it's 58F and sunny to go and scout a few of the three or four neighborhood locations that I intend to make more use of in the next draft.  My plan for the next three weeks is pretty clear.  I will go to Philadelphia this weekend for a couple of days, arriving home Monday evening.  I then have three full weeks of writing time before school starts: week of Dec. 26, week of Jan. 2, week of Jan. 9 (I'll be in Cayman for a spell, Jan. 7-15).  I should be able to eke out a couple more weeks of decent writing time once school starts, but a practice of morning writing during the semester can only be sustained for so long, and I know it will collapse a couple weeks in.  So the next 2 weeks are designed to generate as much new material as possible, then the week in Cayman I'll take the whole thing apart and put it back together again with new pieces, doing blow-by-blow start-to-finish revisions over the rest of January.  Get a good new version to my editor by Monday, Jan. 30, and let it sit for 1.5 months so that I can do my final tough pass through over spring break in March.

I do think the book needs a new title: The Magic Circle is fine, but a little too bland.  (The Bacchae on Morningside Heights was abstruse and unpronounceable, but is still of course how I think of the book in my head.)  I will see if some obvious name emerges as I work on the next round.


Sarah Weinman's favorite crime novels of 2011.  I have just downloaded all the ones I haven't read already, it's a great selection; I think the one I am most impatiently awaiting of her list of forthcoming ones is the Carol O'Connell.

Also: Adam Thirlwell's bootleg Havel.


Is Jonathan Ames a stunted Grey Gardens bachelor drowning in kipple?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Two moons

I think it is now really and truly the end of the semester: I was still finishing up little leftover bits of business this morning, but the way now seems to be clear towards novel revisions...

Read a lovely book the other night, Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons: A Memoir.  It is fantastic, and this copy is now destined for my mother, who will love it at least as much as I did.  It makes me think now that sometime I should teach a seminar on pedagogy that would be constructed around this and other books that shed light on great teaching?  At any rate I will start trying to collect readings around that theme, and suggestions are welcome in comments or by email.

Main fact of last few days is that I have fallen hard into the amazing stream of words that is Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  It is the perfect novel that I most want to read of all things in the world!  I bought a real copy of the book when it came out, as I figured it was the sort of thing I like to keep on the shelf after I've read it, but the physical book seemed so cumbersome (it is beautifully designed but hard to hold) that it went unread.  So I bought a second copy for Kindle (and IMO this is what publishers should be trying to do, i.e. sell bundled copies in multiple formats) and am completely and passionately smitten by it.  Alternate-universe fiction at its very best: I think it probably gets my vote for favorite novel of the year.

(Oh, yes, I think I read one other novel as well, a good recommendation from Maxine: Jussi Adler-Olson's Mercy a.k.a. - same book - The Keeper of Lost Causes.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"xxxx and xxxxx---"

Have spent the rest of the evening since my previous post reading Joan Didion's two books of grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.  Sideways research, as it were, for the review I'm writing for Monday (I had speculated that the relationship between the book I'm reviewing there and its author's previous work of nonfiction might be akin to the asymmetrical pairing of these two books of Didion's, and I think it is probably the case). 

I have not over the course of my life been a great admirer of Didion's writing, but here is a sequence I found entirely arresting (these should be regular indented sentence/paragraphs, with no space in between):
"What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx---

"xx," he said.

"xxx," she said.

"How she:

"How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx---

"How he, and also she---"

The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted.  I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it.  In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.  Many of the marks I set down on that page were no more than "xxx," or "xxxx," symbols that meant "copy tk," or "copy to come," but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings.  A single "x" different from a double "xx," "xxx" from "xxxx."  The number of such symbols had a meaning.  The arrangement was the meaning.

Retributional geology

So tired I can't do anything!  And have made no progress today on the couple of work things that stand between me and book revision.  But I just finished reading an amazingly good novel, Vanessa Veselka's Zazen: Richard Nash sent it to me some months ago, but somehow I never opened up the file on my Kindle.  Can't find the link now, but I must have seen it mentioned this past week on some indie-best-of-end-of-year list that described it as being set in a parallel universe; since I am still in a painful condition of wanting nothing more than to submerge myself in infinite as yet unaired and in some cases unmade episodes of Fringe, this seemed like a godsend.  I loved it.


Frank Felstenstein's talk the other day on "Smollett Then and Now" was exceptionally interesting: he summarized some insights that emerged from his editing Smollett's Travels Through France and Italy for Clarendon (published in 1979, and composed of course primarily on a manual and then on an electric typewriter), and then reediting it over the past few years for a new Broadview edition.  All sorts of fascinating reflections on how things have changed in terms of research tools, but I was captivated by the detail that when Frank edited the volume for the Oxford World's Classics edition, Oxford was just transitioning from type to digital, but had only an italic digital font for Greek: which posed a problem because Smollett at one point describes a building he sees as being much like the Greek character π - and an italic font produced an entirely unfounded Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa effect!  They tried using II instead, and in the end had to substitute a handdrawn figure prior to photoprinting, which is a bit of an eyesore on the page....

(Frank has also recently been involved with an amazing project that originated with  his discovery of a remarkably complete set of records concerning library borrowers and the items they read in Muncie, Indiana from 1891 to 1902.)

"LACK occasional tables"

Via Carolyn, what Lisbeth Salander bought at Ikea!

Friday, December 16, 2011


Perfect play, perfect performance.  (Only I wish people would not cough so much in the quiet parts!)  Afterwards we took the subway from BAM to Chambers St. and had a beautiful dinner at Odeon.  (I had a pan-roasted cod special, with nicoise olives and tomatoes and soft-baked baby onions, then macerated berries with mascarpone for dessert - delicious.  The dessert list there is amazing: there are two lists, and I was mighty tempted to get a root-beer float in honor of a recent episode of Fringe although really that is the sort of sweet that is better on an empty stomach as a full-on snack.  I was hemming and hawing over whether to get the berries or the warm doughnuts with jam dipping sauce - I asked the waiter for his advice, he looked stymied and said he would eat both - dining companion G., with a wicked twinkle in his eye, said "Get both!"  Of course really it would be both unseemly and nutritionally unsound, but it is a beautiful idea that one could actually do that in a restaurant!)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Just taking a short breather for a quick blog post!  My student's dissertation defense went very well yesterday, I think, and I am hugely happy to see her clear the final obstacle before receiving the degree (minor revisions will be made to the manuscript before it is deposited about a month from now, but this was the last institutional hurdle). 

Chipping away at huge pile of end-of-semester tasks, but the end is in sight. Will see Krapp's Last Tape on Friday evening at BAM, family lunch on Sunday, but otherwise pretty much just meeting end-of-semester obligations and looking forward to next week and my schedule being very much more clear and full of time for novel revision.

Finished Stephen King (I think Connie Willis's vision of time travel in the Blackout-All Clear volumes is more emotionally resonant for me, but I did enjoy King's book quite a bit, and he remains an exceptional storyteller).  Read Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, which I enjoyed a good deal but didn't quite see the larger point of: it is not dissimilar to The Art of Fielding, but I guess I would say that I thought Harbach's was the more appealing book of the two.  (For a different take, see Sharon Marcus's excellent review of The Marriage Plot.)  For my last student independent study meeting tomorrow, I need to try and finish Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, although I'm not sure I'll have time as I have to go to a seminar this evening...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"A 'lobster trick' rewriteman"

This article has just introduced me to the phrase "the lobster shift."  Green's Dictionary of Slang gives a first usage from 1927 (of the variant "lobster trick") and suggests it derives from "the slow pace of the crustacean; i.e. such a shift, usu. between 2:00a.m. and 9:00a.m. is rarely busy."  It would make a great title for a novel...

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Had a very good session yesterday with the eighteenth-century reading group on Fielding's Tom Thumb.  During a lull late in the conversation, I was able to pick everyone's brains about a class I have proposed to teach next year, a graduate seminar with the rubric "eighteenth-century modernities."  I had imagined it built around Swift's Tale of a Tub, Pope's Dunciads and Tristram Shandy, and I wanted to hear other obvious suggestions from consciousnesses not my own, including critical and theoretical readings.  It may be that Bacon and Descartes and Locke and Shaftesbury and Addison and Adam Smith have to be in there, along of course with Johnson's Dictionary; but I am also persuaded that I should teach a sequel semester on Post-Shandyism!  Boswell's Life of Johnson, Burney's Cecilia, Godwin (perhaps the Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication), Peacock's satirical meta-fictions, Don Juan...

(This is the first time I've used my new printer to scan anything, but I am hoping it is possible to click and enlarge for a better view of my utterly illegible notes to self!)

School year blues

I have nothing interesting to say when I see colleagues and students except for the ever-present observation that it is a bad time of the school year!  This coming week will again be very busy.  I have managed to finish all my reading for Monday today (for the final undergraduate seminar, Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," Pope's "Epistle to Arbuthnot" and several pieces of criticism including a very lovely essay by David Womersley with the suggestive title "'now deaf 1740'" from this volume, and for my graduate class David Markson's haunting novel Reader's Block).  A long list of tasks to get done tomorrow before the whirlwind final end-of-semester week, which includes a department meeting, two committee meetings, a dissertation defense, one final independent study meeting (better remember to read that book this week!) and a host of other student meetings.  If I do my grading promptly, though, I could submit grades on Monday the 19th (I also have a review due that day) and transition shortly thereafter to novel revision...

Not much time for light reading this past week, but I have read a few books here and there around the edges of the vast mounds of paper that have demanded my more immediate attention (dissertations, writing samples, job letters, etc.)  Finished Moneyball, which I enjoyed a great deal despite knowing virtually nothing about baseball.  Read Michael Connelly's latest, The Drop - Connelly's novels are a very consistent pleasure, and he never just seems to be going through the motions even in these installments of long-running series.  Read a very unusual mystery novel by Alice LaPlante, called Turn of Mind, after reading about it here: it has some flaws as a crime novel, but as a portrait of a narrator/protagonist with Alzheimer's it is mesmerizing.  About halfway through Stephen King's 11/22/63, as I knew I would need something long and narrative and relatively undemanding to get me through the week.

Monday, December 05, 2011

"Language is a poison"

Jacob Gross interviews Ben Marcus at Harper's (via Blue) on his new book:
... I was exhausted by, or just done with, certain techniques. I kept using the same shovel, digging up the exact same shit. I wanted to change my shovel. Maybe use my hands. Maybe dig up into the air instead of down into the soil. I wondered if my endless return to the same ideas and concepts could maybe be blamed on my regular reliance on the same techniques — the syntax, the tones, the rhetoric. I felt that if I changed those I might be able to uncover a different part of my imagination, maybe some little untouched place the other tools weren’t reaching. A different kind of surgery on whatever place I look to for fiction.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Took the plunge

and ordered tickets for Cycle 3 of the Ring Cycle at the Met - found a good friend who would do it with me, that was the clincher.  Who knows when I will have the chance again?  In a best-case scenario, it is a truly magical and transporting experience; in the worst-case scenario, parts of it are somewhat boring and it adds an onerous number of hours to a busy week, but I think there is no huge downside, it will be worthwhile whether or not I absolutely love it.

(Have uncharacteristically watched some hours of television this weekend - usually I only watch seasons of television on DVD with B. in Cayman, but we were very near the end of the third season of Fringe when we parted ways at the end of the Thanksgiving odyssey, it is a program which is very perfectly suited to my tastes, and my new laptop makes it very easy to watch videos from Amazon anywhere in my apartment - I watched the last three episodes of season 3 and then, regrettably, the first seven of season 4, which is as far as it now goes - am in horrible desiring limbo now of wanting all the rest of the season in one fell swoop, when really it will only be doled out WEEK BY UNREASONABLE WEEK over the rest of this year.  Anybody who has secret early access, tell me and get me in on it too!  Though I do observe, as always with this series, that they play overly fast and loose with the alternate universes: I feel that though high-quality television does a good job creating investment in characters over a season and its successors, the provision of too many alternates in this sort of a plot erodes general belief in and concern with the characters, to a sometimes problematic degree.)

"That rain-forest experience"

I enjoyed this profile of a choirmaster who lives in the Cathedral Close at St. John the Divine.  I need to go and prowl around the cathedral sometime in the next couple weeks; I have a list of local spots of interest (Grant's Tomb, Sakura Park, Morningside Park) that I need to do some more footwork on so that I can make more of them in the revision of BOMH that I'll be working on over the winter break.  I am most anxious for the semester to be really and truly over so that I can clear the mental space for experiencing places and thinking those revisions through!  Two more very busy weeks, but if I am diligent and not overly dilatory about paper-marking I am mentally and logistically free from the 19th...

Determination and a towel

At the Observer Review, Kate Kellaway recommends Susie Parr's new book about wild swimming.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Swan songs

It is tempting to introduce this piece by John Banville about Harold Bloom's latest book under a rubric something like "Banville reads Bloom so you don't have to," but really it is a sympathetic and effective summary of some high points, and reminds me of what a great impression Bloom made on me when I took his Shakespeare seminar many years ago at Yale:
At a fundamental level, all of Bloom's work constitutes a sustained superlative for the Bard. "As a secularist with Gnostic proclivities," he writes, "and above all as a literary aesthete, I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions." For him, simply, "Shakespeare is God".
Also: Diana Nyad, marathon swimmer.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Closing tabs

Very glad to be home again, but so tired that I really do not know what to do with myself!  (But probably it would be a good idea to get off the computer!)  Assignments to mark and letters of recommendation to write, but cannot face them quite yet...

Closing tabs:

Caroline Dworin's lovely and poignant piece about growing up inside of a stage set.

An interesting piece by Colleen Mondor about her book The Map of My Dead Pilots.