Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cracked kettles

From Madame Bovary, part II (translation by Lydia Davis), one of my favorite passages in all of nineteenth-century fiction:
He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them.  Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.  He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression.  Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

The jerky renaissance

"A group he calls 'lululemons.'"  (Via BoingBoing.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Closing tabs

A conversation with Randall Munroe, including a fascinating description of the origin of the What If? series (via GeekPress):
It actually started with a class. MIT has a weekend program where volunteers can teach classes to groups of high school students on any subject you want. I had a friend who was doing it, and it sounded really cool -- so I signed up to teach a class about energy, which I always thought was interesting, but which is a slippery idea to define. I was really getting into the nuts and bolts of what energy is, and it was a lot of fun -- but when I started to get into the normal lecture part of the class, it felt kind of dry, and I could tell the kids weren't super into it. And then we got to a part where I brought up an example -- I think it was Yoda in Star Wars. And they got really excited about that. And then they started throwing out more questions about different movies -- like, "When the Eye of Sauron exploded at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and knocked people over from this far away, can we tell how big a blast that was?" They got really excited about that -- and I had a lot more fun doing it than I did just teaching the regular material.
So I spent the second half of the class just solving problems like that in front of them. And then I was like, "That was really fun. I want to keep doing it."
A journey into the opium underworld.

Miniature car models photographed (via Things).

Uganda's Royal Ascot goat races!  (Via Khakasa.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012


It is very exciting - good blurbs are coming in (there were no blurbs for my YA novels, not sure why), and I saw a mock-up of the cover earlier in the week.  Wasn't sure if it was legitimate to post it here, but it's now up at the Amazon site, so I think I can share it!

Living for style

At the TLS, Ben Masters on a new edition of The Clockwork Orange.  (Speaks to my past teenage obsessive self who has read every single one of Burgess's books!)  Here is Masters on Burgess's style:
He held firmly to the conviction that a novelist’s primary job – even more important than any matter of form – is to play with language, and that language in itself is quintessentially human: it is slippery, indeterminate and attached to the messy stuff of everyday life. Above all, language is fallen. Appropriately, then, very little in Burgess’s prose is allowed simply to be. A peach is not just a peach, it is “a large mushy globe, maculate with ripeness”, a “rosary sweetness”; Enderby doesn’t take medicine, he takes “a powerful black viscidity that oozed sinisterly from a tube to bring wind up from Tartarean depths”; Napoleon doesn’t merely sit on a chair and look at his companion, he chooses “a gilt bowlegged masterpiece of discomfort and gape[s] up at the clean proud young raised stupid chin”; and Shakespeare doesn’t drink in a pub, he “down[s] it among the titbrained molligolliards of country copulatives”, while observing the “robustious rother in rural rivo rhapsodic”. Sometimes (as here) the results are ridiculous, sometimes they are deliberately funny, and often they are sublime.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Objective correlatives

I must confess that I became ridiculously excited during today's class on Madame Bovary. Check out these sentences (Lydia Davis's translation):
Yet she resigned herself: reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satin shoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.

He had his cap pulled down over his eyebrows, and his thick lips were quivering, which gave a stupid look to his face; even his back, his placid back, was irritating to look at, and she found displayed there, on his coat, all the man’s dullness.

The letter was a tangle of spelling mistakes, and Emma followed the gentle thought that clucked its way through them like a hen half hidden in a hedge of thorns. The writing had been dried with ashes from the fireplace, for a little gray powder slid from the letter onto her dress, and she thought she could almost see her father bending toward the hearth to grasp the tongs....

[Justin cleaned Emma's boots,] which were caked in mud—the mud from her rendezvous; it would fall away as dust under his fingers, and he would watch it rising gently in a ray of sunlight.

It was the first time Emma had heard such things said to her; and her pride, like a person relaxing in a steam bath, stretched out languidly in the warmth of the words.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The rabbit died

I ran into my former student Bridget Potter by the elevator in Philosophy Hall yesterday, and was delighted  - but not surprised, as she is fantastic! - to learn that a piece of hers was included in last year's Best American Essays, edited by Edwidge Danticat.  Here is the essay.  Looking forward to the book to come!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Closing tabs

Very tired! Mondays are demanding; it is my preference to schedule it that way, but it leaves me somewhat flattened at the start of the week....

Saw a couple of plays at the end of last week, both quite enjoyable: Job, at the Flea (actually the Book of Job was one of two things I taught in Lit Hum that made me want to write some kind of adaptation, the other of course being The Bacchae - Richardson's Clarissa is a take on Job...); An Enemy of the People, in a new adaptation. 

Went to Philadelphia on Saturday to eat cake in honor of my niece's third birthday. 

Read and taught Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden and Madame Bovary.

Did a lot of exercise here and there (great running weather!) and read a few novels on the side: one more Peter James novel (it was very affordable and there are a lot of them, but I do not think I will read any more, they have a curious air of unreality despite being seemingly well researched); an excellent crime novel called The Eyes of Lira Kazan; the first half of Victor Lavalle's The Devil in Silver, which begins with a sequence that makes me wonder whether it is possible that Lavalle is as obsessed with Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels as I am (I will finish it later in the week when I'm less tired, but it's strangely flat in the writing, and it's not gripping me hard like his last novel did).  Now immersed in Arnaldur Indridason's Outrage, which I will finish reading later this evening once I detach from the computer.

During a quiet office hours this afternoon, I read a couple fascinating chapters in Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree (I was tipped off that Nico features in the chapter on prodigies, and couldn't resist obtaining to read at my earliest convenience); interesting stuff, from a writer I much admire.  Another book I'm looking forward to rereading in its final version is my friend Marco Roth's The Scientists, which I couldn't put down when I saw it in manuscript.

Other links of interest:

Jessamyn West on how not to write about libraries.

Teju Cole on the trouble with Instagram  (includes immortal line "your pug wasn't born in 1979"!).

Charlie Jane Anders on the possibility that science fiction might bring back the epistolary novel.

Levi Stahl on what is possibly my most-favorite novel of all time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rushdie's naive beguilement

At the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra on Salman Rushdie's memoir (link courtesy of Walid):
Yet the memoir, at 650 pages, often feels too long, over-dependent on Rushdie's journals, and unquickened by hindsight, or its prose. Ostensibly deployed as a distancing device, the third-person narration frequently makes for awkward self-regard ("The clouds thickened over his head. But he found that his sentences could still form … his imagination still spark"). A peevish righteousness comes to pervade the memoir as Rushdie routinely and often repetitively censures those who criticised or disagreed with him. The long list of betrayers, carpers and timorous publishers includes Robert Gottlieb, Peter Mayer, John le Carré, Sonny Mehta, the Independent (evidently the "house journal for British Islam"), Germaine Greer, John Berger and assorted policemen "who believed he had done nothing of value in his life". Small darts are also flung at James Wood, "the malevolent Procrustes of literary criticism", Arundhati Roy, Joseph Brodsky, Louis de Bernières and many others.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Closing tabs

I am all tuckered out from the combination of much culture and much teaching!

Too many nights out in a row, to tell the truth; it doesn't suit me.  But it was all very good stuff: the Joshua Light Show on Friday (I was turned on to this by Gary Panter, whose Dal Tokyo is certainly the most amazing-looking book currently in my apartment!); on Saturday, Toni Schlesinger's The Mystery of Oyster Street (very good dinner with G. afterwards at Jacques, including an amazing dessert of coffee and vanilla ice-cream in a martini glass with whipped cream and chocolate sauce and a shot of [decaf] espresso); and on Sunday, the mesmerizing Einstein on the Beach, which I loved.  It seems implausible, but at the end of 4.5 hours, all you want is for it to keep on going forever!  Interesting, too, how the Wilsonian visual semaphore language really converges on Glass's idiom in the last act (this is amazing!).

The friends I was with got a piece of good news after the show and we went and celebrated with oysters and champagne at Walter's, prompting considerable regret on my part that I had not done more of my work earlier in the day...

Got up at an ungodly hour to finish rereading Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity and crank out a few letters of recommendation (the season has begun!); Austen lecture in the afternoon.  Shortly I will collapse?

Miscellanous light reading around the edges: several more Jack Reacher rereads (One Shot and The Hard Way); Deon Meyer's excellent Seven Days; Peter James's Dead Simple (not sure about this one, might have to read the next before I can decide); Chuck Wendig's amazing Blackbirds, which I absolutely loved; and G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

And on a happier note

remote-controlled cockroaches!  (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Wolf's hubris

I don't often link to a negative review, but I must confess that I hugely enjoyed Zoe Heller's takedown of Naomi Wolf's new book about the vagina at the New York Review of Books:
After consulting many research papers and interviewing many scientists, Wolf has decided that the sex–creativity link can be “explained” by dopamine, one of the brain chemicals involved in female orgasm. Dopamine, according to Wolf, is the chemical that fosters female focus and motivation. It is what makes women leap up from the rank sweat of their enseamed beds to write novels. Modern women who complain of depression need better sex and more dopamine, but patriarchal societies, fearful of sexually empowered women, prefer to fob them off with antidepressants. “Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.”
Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too. By repeatedly confusing correlates with causes, she grossly exaggerates what neuroscience can reliably tell us about the functions of individual brain chemicals. Dopamine undoubtedly has a role in female orgasm. But it also has a role in schizophrenia and, by Wolf’s own admission, a panoply of addictions. Given this, it seems foolhardy on Wolf’s part to designate it “the ultimate feminist chemical.”

Friday, September 07, 2012

26 locations

Places Jami Attenberg slept over the first six months of this year.

(Reminds me slightly of some notes of Georges Perec in my favorite Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.)

For an even bleaker account of the financial woes of the forty-year-old novelist, read Benjamin Anastas's gripping and horrifying Too Good to Be True.

Losing track

Gamblers want to get into the zone. (Via GeekPress.)

Motorcycle separation anxiety

Great interview with Deon Meyer at the FT (site registration required). I am super-excited to read Seven Days....


The book Joyce Carol Oates wishes someone else would write (other good stuff in this interview too):
A work of such brilliant prose, such imaginative powers, such sweep, such flair, with such an irresistible story and riveting characters that simply by reading it attentively one could understand those discoveries of molecular biology, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, “philosophy of mind” and “string theory” in the way that their discoverers/creators understand them.

"I am Philip Roth"

Philip Roth's open letter to Wikipedia.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The anternet and other wonders

I had the Mondrian cake on my Facebook page the other day, but here's a much fuller account by the cake's creator Caitlin Freeman of the art cake enterprise...

If you find yourself in Chelsea, make sure to go and see Julian Hoeber's amazing and truly queasiness-inducing gravitational mystery spot!

A charming link whose tab I haven't been able to bring myself to close. (Courtesy of B.)

Taught my first class yesterday, got another first class meeting on Monday and then things are really properly underway; in the meantime I've mostly just been having a pretty quiet week and gearing up mentally for Sunday's big race.

All I could persuade myself to do over the weekend, other than exercise, was reread the selected works of Lee Child!

I have read the early ones too many times already to revisit them again now, but a mere one or two previous reads leaves pleasure still to be leached, so I devoured Without Fail, The Enemy and Bad Luck and Trouble (I especially love the installments that fill in Reacherian backstory). Then I mourned the loss of Dick Francis and the fact that there is only a finite number of books in the Francis and Child canons, and new Reacher installments cannot come fast enough to sate the monster.

Then I read Charlie Stross's The Fuller Memorandum, which I felt was the book already on my Kindle most likely to scratch the Jack Reacher itch (it did, very enjoyably so - not that they are at all similar in tone or style, but Stross's Laundry books, like the Reacher novels, represent the pinnacle of light reading!).

Then I happily realized that Gwenda Bond's Blackwood, a modern-day YA novel about the occult history of the Roanoke disappearance, was now officially published; I loved it, and it was a particular pleasure to read a novel by someone whose blog I've been reading and enjoying since the very early days of literary blogging. It definitely had something of the feel of my favorite Margaret Mahy novel The Changeover; both main characters and geographical settings are especially well rendered.

It is possible that I will revisit the Reacher barrel and dig out a couple more that I can stand to reread....

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Loaves Conference Room, Layer Cake Area

Genius piece by Leon Neyfakh at Slate on visiting the Pepperidge Farm Cookie Factory!

(I have a mild obsession with that brand dating back to childhood, when my father worked for a spell at a company located near to the Pepperidge Farm outlet store. This was in the days before outlet stores were common, and the bags of stuff he brought home now and again from Pepperidge Farm were truly otherworldly - we had homemade treats at home, but as you know if you grew up on delicious homemade treats, nothing is as exciting as store-bought! Layer cakes with one corner slightly mangled, deficient crescent rolls, one-gallon cartons of goldfish; I always give a longing look to the Pepperidge Farm cakes in the freezer section at the supermarket, though I do not think my adult self would find them so delicious, and I still get a bag of Gingermen or Bordeaux cookies now and again.)

[ED. Alice has reminded me that it was the Pepperidge farm "thrift store"! Nomenclature is important.]

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Jersey Metal Detectorists' Society

This news item reminded me of a Roald Dahl tale in a volume I read again and again as a child.

(I think the stories I read most obsessively at that age were inevitably the Sherlock Holmes ones, and certainly R. L. Stevenson and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tales of the uncanny, but Dahl's children's stories and also the stories of Joan Aiken were also a major influence....)

"They paid in fish"

Gideon Lewis-Kraus on why the Internet chose cats.  (Via B., who got it here.)