Monday, April 30, 2012

The prithee-perchance problem

Hilary Mantel on the art of making the dead speak.  I think she may go slightly too far in the direction of flattening the language and making it undistinctive: I loved Wolf Hall and am very eager to read the sequel, but language is the least interesting part of the fictional world she creates.

Sent off the piece I had due today about twenty minutes ago; have a couple of school things I really should do this afternoon, but they are going to have to wait till tomorrow!  Struck with a slight cold or sinus infection of some sort, alas; it is the inevitable consequence, I fear, of a spell of working too hard and the struggle to get out of town without leaving too many loose threads.

Friday, April 27, 2012

"I once met an aristocratic woman who had trepanned herself"

Christopher Turner on a new exhibit at the Wellcome

Friday night miscellany

Closing tabs:

Pankaj Mishra is unforthcoming at the FT on Susan Sontag (site registration required), to an extent that caused me to look up his earlier review and find it also somewhat withholding.  I must confess that I am vaguely negative on Sontag; her abuse of her personal charisma (or at any rate the way that it distorted her ongoing intellectual development) is unattractive to me, and the only book of hers I can say really had a deep influence on me was Illness as Metaphor, which I read when I was quite young (14, 15?) and which along with Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, which I read around the same time, opened up to me a vision of the sort of book I might want to write.

Maud Newton interviews Alison Bechdel about Are You My Mother?, which I must acquire as soon as possible.  Here's the bit that most interested me (more details in Judith Thurman's New Yorker piece, unfortunately not available online - and I left my copy in the seat pocket on the plane, so I can't retype the relevant bit):
I do write first, but my writing is very drawing-based. I actually write in a drawing application, in Adobe Illustrator. So I'm not just writing in a word processing program, I'm creating these panels on the page and I create little text boxes for the narration or dialogue and I'm able to move that stuff all around. I'm thinking about the page as a two-dimensional field as I write, which feels to me like a kind of drawing even though I'm not drawing with a pencil or not drawing much. I will do occasional sketches. So that takes a really, really long time and that's how I get the whole story mapped out. If you saw the pages at that point, it would be just blank boxes with the text and the dialogue, with the narration and the dialogue and maybe a few images dragged in here and there.
Super-librarian Dave Lull already left this link in the comments, but the opening chapter of Edward St. Aubyn's latest is a must-read.

Miscellaneous light reading around the extremely frayed edges:

Sherwood Smith's Banner of the Damned, which I found appealing but also frustrating (Smith is one of the most hugely talented fantasy novelists of her or indeed any other generation, and yet she writes books so idiosyncratically that it hugely limits enjoyment and readership - in many respects this is much better than George R. R. Martin, only I thoroughly see why his books have reached a much wider audience and hers have internal constraints that will prevent them from doing so).  Cannot imagine that I or, really, anyone else will ever teach such a class, but it would make a very interesting student assignment in a novel-writing class oriented towards epic storytelling and fantasy: it is such an unusual mix of the remarkable and the perverse in terms of storytelling virtues and vices.

Anthony Neil Smith's depressing and mesmerizing All the Young Warriors, which I highly recommend (it will thoroughly depend on your own reading preferences whether you will read either Smith or perhaps neither).

And now I am going to go and consume brain candy in the form of the second half of Robert Crais's Taken....

"The menus were not printed until 2003"

Site registration definitely worthwhile: a history of the Lunch with the FT feature!  (It must be said that on my very short list of things that would make me feel like I had 'arrived' in the world, being asked to lunch with the FT would be pretty high up: though I truly love this feature most for its stylistic range and variety, along the lines of Toni Schlesinger's brilliant variations on a theme in Five Flights Up.)


It is sent.  That is a relief.  I do have this little piece to write for Monday, but it's not a proper review, just minor thoughts in the form of an essay, so I think it should be easier and more enjoyable than usual to write (hope those are not famous last words).  I am weary! 

Very happy at the prospect of taking the next few evenings off from work, also at having a good deal of time to exercise over the coming week.

Mid-morning update

9:45am (Cayman doesn't observe daylight savings).  Just typed in final edits for first half (parts one and two); it will only now need printing out and a final proof against the marked-up edit where new typing may have introduced new errors.

Second half (part three) still needs a few 'bits'; I will write them on my computer at Cafe del Sol (I have spent many happy hours here working on something or other!), then go back to the condo and print the whole thing out.  Determined to be done by 5pm.  If I finished by 2:30, I could go to yoga at 3, but that seems a bit of a stretch (!)....

Two thoughts in the meantime:
  • I overuse the words "as" and "that"
  • Though I think that sometimes the effect of elegant variation should be deliberately embraced, it is probably just as well that I have only used the word "confiture" once (there are seven instances of jam)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


It's 10pm on Wednesday and I have just finished typing in the last of the edits.  I still have a list of three 'bits' and two elliptical phrases on notecards that need to be written and integrated, plus a couple of stray paragraphs in an outtake file that I want to keep but don't have a place for.  Can't do any more work tonight (need to get the apartment ready for the catsitter and also pack), but should be in Cayman by lunchtime tomorrow and will trust that Thursday afternoon/later evening and Friday daytime give me sufficient time to write and integrate these last bits and then perform a final copy-edit and proof.  It is going out by the end of the day on Friday come hell or high water, a promise one should be cautious about making on an island at sea level....

Taught my last class of the semester today.  The final Clarissa seminar on Monday was a treat; rather sad to see that one end!  Am bringing more work with me on this trip than I had ideally hoped: in addition to the novel stuff, I have time-sensitive school things (2 MA essays to comment on, plus final set of assignments from lecture students that will need at least brief emailed comments if not full marking), a book review to write for Monday and the stack of Austen novels I want to reread in preparation for an essay I owe for a forthcoming Blackwell Companion to English Literature (due date of May 15).  However I say with a combination of guilt and glee that if I'd stayed in town, there are three work-related parties I would have had to attend, and another party I probably would have felt I couldn't avoid, and really I will much prefer quiet time working, so that is fine!  Not a holiday, in short, just a very pleasant temporary removal.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Good news in the interim

Got written confirmation today that I am authorized for spring semester leave from teaching at full salary.  Will teach full load in the fall and then have spring 2013 totally off from teaching.  (It is not a sabbatical as such but rather a benison of the mysterious TFRP; it does not affect sabbatical eligibility for one semester in 2015-16.)  I like teaching very much indeed, but there is no doubt that this is extremely good news!

24 hours behind schedule

Par for the course with this sort of thing.  Visitors over the weekend complicated work schedule.  Can't work such long stints as I used to in the old days, when I would toil maniacally from 8am to 4pm, nap for a couple of hours then work again from 8pm to 3am: it was exactly that sort of work habit that led over many years to huge amounts of insomnia and anxiety, and I've been trying recently not to work after about eight at night unless absolutely unavoidable.  Next three nights it will be unavoidable, I think, though I will have to see how it goes.
  • Still have six little slips of paper that need writing/amplifying as real inserts or passages because they were too complicated for me to write easily (an imitation New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about the BoMH game; a cryptic conversation between two characters, overheard by a third; notes that just say "present is a game and game play precipitates an argument that moves forward rel. of Ruth and Anna" and "lipstick/bullet returns in pt. 3" respectively; "old and new signs in Morningside Park," which I remember seeing and which was also noted for me by E. but which I now can't precisely locate in my memory, so that I need to walk back over there and remind myself where they are; one note even more inchoate that I am not sure I will act upon)
  • Haven't yet started typing revisions
  • But have written up all other new 'bits' from my notecards
Today I will basically be knocked out of action for book work from 10:30am till 7pm (last Clarissa seminar, hasty commenting on assignments I'm hoping to give back in lecture, Austen lecture, office hours, allergy shots at Columbus Circle plus quick meetup with catsitter to hand over keys).  But I have to have a second work session this evening; if I don't get a good chunk of these edits typed in before I go to bed tonight, I'm not going to be happy!

Tomorrow has annoying bits and bobs scheduled (wish it were a complete blank): 8am doctor's appointment to get prescription refills on asthma stuff; noon department meeting; 2-5pm blocked out for meeting on college honors, though I think it won't take that long; 5pm meeting with a student.  I don't teach on Wednesday till 2:40, and it's a shorter day for me than Monday, so I should be able to keep working well into the evening so long as I get my packing done as well.  (Need to bring books for two different pieces I'll be working on while I'm at B.'s, a short piece for Bookforum that will require 4-5 tomes and the Blackwell Companion essay on Austen that means I probably will bring my complete set of Austen World's Classics volumes.) 

Flight Thursday requires departure from home by 5:45am, so though I should be in Cayman by lunchtime, it pretty much knocks that out as a workday given near absence of sleep.  I will prefer to email the final manuscript to my editor before I leave for the airport, but I can do my final pass through the manuscript on Friday if I need to and still be able to get it out before the end of the business day.

Friday, April 20, 2012


From the base of the Samuel Tilden memorial on Riverside Drive:
In the Biblical Garden at St. John the Divine:

Pictures from an institution

I finished the initial big edit this morning.  It will sound overly intricate if I try and explain my method in words - to me it seemed the simplest way of handling a complex revision situation!  But: I went through the manuscript from start to finish, doing quite a bit of copy-editing and some story streamlining, editing where I could but marking anything that was too complicated or demanding for me to figure out on the spot on an external card or piece of paper, coded by color depending on what strand of the story it belonged to:

Green (4): Ruth's game "Trapped in the Asylum."
Blue (12): Anna's game "Places of Power."
Red (2): "The Bacchae on Morningside Heights." 
Yellow (12): posts for Anna's blog, titled Anna's Aphorisms. 
White (9): general story stuff. 

That means I now have 37 little 'bits' to write, some just a couple sentences of what E. calls 'counter-history' for a neighborhood spot and others more complex in terms of needing to establish something about a relationship or a plot development or even serve as an entire new scene (only a couple of these I hope).  About to go out and tromp round the neighborhood for a few final physical details; will probably be writing these 'bits' over the next three days.

The novel falls into three parts, so once I've finished with the new 'bits' for part I, I'll go ahead and start typing in those revisions (the goal is to have written precise enough inserts so that it really is merely transcription, with only occasional need for an extra sentence or two of transition or alteration to reconcile contradictions).  I work best when I am away from the internet, which is why I prefer to keep things in the realm of pen and hard copy for as high a proportion of my work time as possible.  I will pick off the 'easy' bits first rather than doing them either by category or in order from start to finish; once they get written, they will get clipped or stapled to the relevant page of the manuscript.

So: Try and finish all new writing by Sunday morning, type the remaining edits on Sunday and Monday, print out the full new version Monday night, perform fiendishly intense copy-edit on Tuesday, type revisions and do a final proof before sending to E. on Wednesday afternoon.  This schedule may be impossibly compressed; if I have to, I'll take the manuscript with me to Cayman on Thursday and finish up with proofreading and corrections on Friday during the day.  I would prefer to be done by Wednesday evening but Friday end of day will certainly do.

I am teaching the final tenth or so of Clarissa on Monday and need to reread those pages this weekend (roughly 100K words); also have to give two lectures this coming week on Austen's Persuasion (I've taught the course before, so I don't need to write them fresh, but 'reinhabiting' old lecture notes is its own obligation, and I prefer to reread even very familiar novels before class).  A morning doctor's appointment and an afternoon with a good many meetings scheduled on Tuesday, so work time will be unfortunately curtailed; I also need to get allergy shots on Monday and Wednesday as I will be out of town the whole subsequent week.  Slightly overdid it on exercise on Wednesday and Thursday, so am taking today as wholly devoted to novel revision; it gave me a pang to skip midday boot camp downtown, and midday spin class, but there is something sore at the back of my left knee, it needed the rest....

A fan's notes

I am not sure whether it was idiocy or insanity that made me say yes to an invitation to participate in Sharyn November's blog book tour in celebration of Diana Wynne Jones; this time of the school year is so busy anyway, and on top of that I have a vast amount of work to do on my novel revision before I leave town for a few days next Thursday!  I was supposed to write yesterday, but it just didn't happen, and I was smitten with guilt when I got home in the later evening from a work event and found Sharyn's email wondering what had happened to me....

But really it wasn't idiocy or insanity.  It was the sheer fact that there is no single author whose novels I love more or whose books have brought me more pleasure over the years.  I have a lot of different kinds of favorite novelist.  I might name Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Ishiguro or Muriel Spark; Lee Child and Dick Francis occupy another axis of favorite reading, with Dorothy L. Sayers and Chester Himes popping in their heads at different angles; at the age when I first encountered the novels of Diana Wynne Jones, other favorites (this is a slightly funny list!) were Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, Robert Graves and Mary Renault.  Austen and Dickens were favorites then and remain favorites now.  Teju Cole is a new favorite; Charlie Williams and Ken Bruen are favorites on the five-year horizon, and really I could name about a hundred other favorites if I spent ten more minutes racking up the list.  There are always the Narnia books, too, which so thoroughly imprinted me at age six when I got the boxed set for my birthday that I think probably every other novel I have read since them has been an attempt to find something as thoroughly and magically transporting!  But there is some core sense in which Diana Wynne Jones is my absolutely favorite novelist.  Her books have an unusual quality of being both delightful and emotionally true; they are also quite complex, although to the best of my knowledge they were published almost exclusively for children or young adults.

If you haven't read her before, you couldn't do better than to order the Firebird reissue of Fire and Hemlock (it has a new introduction by Garth Nix, another favorite of mine whose new novel I am eagerly awaiting).  I had a battered paperback copy of this as a teenager that I must have read twenty times.  Howl's Moving Castle is probably her most formally perfect book, and I have a particular soft spot for the Chrestomanci books and for the absolutely wonderful and probably underrated Deep Secret, which describes the occult layout of the convention hotel more persuasively and accurately than any other novel ever written.  There are also revealing oddities like The Time of the Ghost, not her best novel but her most revealingly autobiographical one.  It is a trope of all of her novels that some people and some situations are so toxic that they leach the most important aspects out of our personalities, so that we forget our most authentic selves and can be dimmed into partial 'split' selves that lose any ability to make decisions or maintain autonomy or self-respect; one reason that fantasy is a particularly cherished genre for me is that it seems to me invoking magical explanations and histories is the single best way to describe this dispiriting aspect of human psychology....

I am still feeling the loss of Diana Wynne Jones.  I hate it that I won't get to read a dozen more new books by her, and I always secretly thought that one day our paths would cross.  It was not meant to be!  Her books are a treasure trove, though, and almost persuade me what I have sworn off, that it would be worth sitting down every few years to write a new novel if there was any chance it could capture some small part of the magic of one of hers.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tactical bacon

The secret lives of avalanche rescue cats.

No relation!

Amy Davidson's media diet.  It is a great description - Amy and I were college roommates (we've been close friends since I was seventeen, well over half our lives by this point!), we both live lives in which we are immersed from dawn till dusk in the written word but there is relatively little overlap in the nature of our consumption...

(On the "no relation" problem, see also this recent Columbia Spectator piece - Davidson is a relatively common last name!)

Closing tabs

No Pulitzer for fiction this year.  It wasn't a suitable shortlist, I think: only one 'real' novel, the other two of the three were a reprinted novella from almost ten years ago and a posthumously cobbled-together book.  It is an oddity of group decision-making that this sort of situation can easily lead to a deadlock, especially when two different groups are responsible for the shortlist and the final determination.

Pitching a 33 1/3 book. (Via.) I've long had a yen to write one of these, but I have too many other projects lined up already, I think.

One of the 'places of power' for my novel rewrite: I will have to see what I can do with this.

I want this book!  (Phenomenon of really useful out-of-print books = prohibitive pricing; I will get it from the library....)

Last but not least: Japanese penguin goes shopping!

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Slogging away at novel revisions in short frequent sittings.  Think I am still on track to finish for the 25th.  Ready for semester to be over!

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges: Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising; Garth Nix's Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz; and an exceptionally charming self-published novel by a talented newcomer whose book I came across because I fell for his wife's triathlon training blog last year when she and I were both training for Ironman Coeur d'Alene.  (She successfully completed the race; alas, I didn't make it to the start due to a particularly bad bout of bronchitis.)  So, strongly recommended: M. H. Van Keuren's Rhubarb.  I think comparisons of a book in this sort of vein (aliens, paranormal radio, pie!) will inevitably be first of all to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books; there's a little bit of the feel of the appealing TV series Supernatural; but really it's a very fresh and appealing novel in a mode I especially enjoy.

Bonus link:  crab computing!  (And more here.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Closing tabs

Feeling a sense of moderate but pronounced well-being I haven't had since probably early November or so.  End of the school year in sight! 

A few links:

Why Kevin Hartnett started writing by hand.

Amanda Hesser's advice to aspiring food writers.  This piece is a must-read for anyone hoping to make a living as a professional journalist: the financial underpinnings of that sort of work have changed radically in the last fifteen years, and almost everything she says here is equally apt for other kinds of journalism as well, including arts journalism.

More on Teju Cole's small fates.

New Haven trip tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An update

Six days in a row of chipping away at the thing have been beneficial.  I've finished a line edit all the way through, and the manuscript is now bristling with post-its in places where I need to draw out or amplify or weave together different threads.

Today I made this chart (click for a fuller view!), with color-coding for the three main games the characters develop and play: Trapped in the Asylum, Places of Power and The Bacchae on Morningside Heights.  (The yellow pen I used for the fourth element, a blog called Anna's Aphorisms, has not reproduced very vividly.)  The colors show very clearly the extent to which I pick up a game and then let it drop; I need it all to be much more thoroughly interspersed, including some new material that still needs to be written.  One afternoon very soon, too, I will go and wander around Morningside Park again and pin down locations for the reconceived final showdown.

I have what seems to me a fairly natural and in that sense 'hard' deadline of April 25 to send the book back to my editor; that's the last day I'm teaching, too, so it's not exactly intuitive, but I'm going to B.'s the day after for a week (if I don't go right when I finish teaching, I then can't get away until after graduation, so it's better to seize the moment), and I also have a book review due on the 30th and an academic essay due May 15 that I think I will need to clear before it makes sense to come back to the novel.  So, two weeks of intensive revision: I've bought a lot of pens and post-its and other supplies and am ready to dig in. . . .

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


My interview with Heidi Julavits is up now at The Awl.

(I really loved her new novel The Vanishers; those who know me well and have read it will see what I mean when I say it is sort of the perfect Davidsonian novel, one that I wish I had written myself!)

Bonus link: Christopher Bollen's much fuller and more literary interview with Heidi, which I waited to read until I had composed my own questions....

Over the hump of the week?

Radio silence here largely due to the fact that I've been so frazzled that sharing was contraindicated!  Really I have just been disastrously busy from mid-February to late March, and I always pay the price in terms of insomnia and stress.  However I had a very useful day yesterday knocking things off a school-y to-do list; today's still busy with school stuff, but I then have four days completely clear of all obligations (Thursday-Sunday) and a lighter load than usual for next Monday, so I think I am finally going to be able to dig back in on the wretched novel, which has been fruitlessly calling for my attention in the face of an extremely demanding work schedule!

(Absolute priority once I clear this next bunch of deadlines and finish the teaching semester: lower stress levels!)

Miscellaneous light reading: Jonathan Mahler's Kindle Single Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno (a bit luridly written as well as titled, and not reported from interviews but more like a synopsis of published sources, but informative and worthwhile); Barry Graham's The Book of Man; Lewis Shiner's Dark Tangos

Have also burned through most of the first two seasons of The Good Wife on the theory that it might be good if I spent evenings not just reading books so compulsively, but really good TV episodes are at least as addictive as light reading, so I am not sure that this is any kind of a solution.  Stayed up late last night reading the first half of Tim Parks's odd but compelling Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic's Guide to Health and Healing, recommended to me recently by a colleague to whom I was lamenting my lack of work-life balance.  (Afterwards, though, I realized that it's not really the right term: I don't want work-life balance, I just want to be able to work a lot and be calm and quiet the rest of the time!)

Bonus link: Lee Child's lessons for success.