Thursday, July 25, 2013

Running away to join the circus

In my ideal world, I live in a monastic cell with no housekeeping responsibilities and a divine disregard for all matters material. In practice, it is clear that at least every couple weeks, it is important to take a morning to catch up on business, alas. I haven't quite cleared the deck - I need to write a conference-paper abstract and put away some clean clothes - but I have usefully spent the morning doing things like consolidating large amounts of cardboard and taking it down to the recycling area (between Amazon, FreshDirect, etc. an extraordinary amount of packaging enters my apartment on a regular basis), booking catsitting for August travels, unpacking glassware from my adopted grandfather's house in NJ (soon to be sold - more boxes!), tidying up overflow triathlon bits and bobs, etc. etc.

Part of that kind of housekeeping is closing tabs here and logging light reading. Enjoyed Mira Grant's novella How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea and Ben Winters, Bedbugs (the latter didn't quite live up to the strength of its opening, and has given me a desire to reread Tana French's Broken Harbour - another recommendation in this vein is Kelly Link's strange and haunting story "Stone Animals.")

It has been a good week. It was my birthday on Sunday, and I saw a play I loved, Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy - amazing performances, and some of the best integration of music into a theatrical script that I have ever heard. An evening of cake and champagne afterwards with old friends and family: very nice indeed.

It's the time of year when various former students pass through town, and I've had lovely evenings with Adela and Wei, who was one of my very first students at Columbia (you can read his marathon-running guest post here) and whose beautiful wife and two-year-old son I was delighted to meet for the first time.

Last night, courtesy of Tanya (whose book is coming out soon - she answered some questions about it here), another extraordinary theatrical performance, really remarkable: Aurélia Thierrée's Murmurs.

At the beginning she is moving house, but then there are all sorts of other transformations, haunting and enchanting - amazing use of props and of a historically evocative set of circus and clowning techniques. My favorites were the transformations into anthropomorphic animals (a handbag that when A., kneeling, puts her head into it turns out to have eyes that make her into a cartoon quadruped, a suited man with an anteater head that has previously been seen in its incarnation as old-fashioned leather bellows), and also the phantom-limb dummy bits with real people as the dummies that seem to be alive - you can always see the seams of the illusion, but that doesn't make it any less uncanny. Here's another trailer for her previous show, which I don't see; and the amazing backstory of the performer's mother, co-creator of the show.

(On which note, I add that this is a book I read repeatedly as a child: it troubled me that under no stretch of the imagination could I imagine making a living as an acrobat, but I comforted myself with the fact that playing the clarinet in a circus band and taking care of performing animals would probably suffice in a pinch.)

I didn't quite hit the five-hour mark on my long ride yesterday, but almost - triathlon training is going well, if one concentrates on what one has accomplished rather than on omissions and shortcomings!

Miscellaneous linkage:

Friend and sometime catsitter Joanne McNeil on the Bradley Manning trial.

Two good links from B.: eradication of an enormous nest; telegraphic love!

How can you not want one of these as a pet? (Via Jane.)

For diagram purists, a New York City subway map in concentric circles.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dope literature

From the TLS archive, a 1938 review of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca:
The conventions of a story of this kind are not the conventions of the so-called realistic novel, and it would be absurd to reproach Miss du Maurier for her fine, careless rapture. In its kind “Rebecca” is extraordinarily bold and confident, eloquent and accomplished to a degree that merits genuine respect. Hundreds of novelists to-day try to write in a similar vein: the few who produce novels as readable as this are household names. It is fair, no doubt, to call this type of fiction “dope”. But it is no good pretending that everybody would read Tolstoy or Proust if there were no dope literature.
I read a lot of Daphne Du Maurier's novels when I was a teenager - I think the one that has most stayed with me is The House on the Strand - which in turn reminds me of another childhood favorite, Anya Seton's Green Darkness....

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Closing tabs

Hot weather is not conducive to thought or activity! I did make the necessary additional pass through my style manuscript to reduce the length of selected block quotes - my editor gave me a very intelligent list of page numbers, nicely distinguishing between long passages that truly couldn't be cut and ones that would not suffer excessively from trimming or cutting....

Miscellaneous light reading: I read and loved Steve Hamilton's latest Alex McKnight novel, Let It Burn; its description of present-day Detroit is so amazing, it sent me back to a book I only dipped into when it first came out, Mark Binelli's Detroit City is the Place To Be, and also to the next-to-last book in the McKnight series, which I must have missed at the time, Misery Bay. Also, the second installment in Ben Winters' Last Policeman series, Countdown City

Closing tabs:

Martin Amis interviewed at the Telegraph.

My colleague Edward Mendelson on priestly language and the cathedral of Apple.

Digitization of the Board of Longitude archive.

Olga Khazan on drinking in Antarctica.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


At Language Log, a guest post on forensic stylometry from the analyst who examined The Cuckoo's Calling.

Closing tabs

Miscellaneous light reading: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (very good); and, inevitably, 'Robert Galbraith,' The Cuckoo Calling. It is quite decent, but feels very artificial: just as the Potter books were curiously redolent of Enid Blyton, so this one recalls a lost Agatha Christie world of 'mansion flats' and high-end women's accessories! (I think, too, of the Margery Allingham novel set in similar fashion-world environs only of 1930s; and there is a touch of course of Brat Farrar also.) I will read further installments with enthusiasm, and I commiserate wholeheartedly with Rowling's desire to write and publish a book with no pressure or expectations.

Unrelated, though perhaps touching on some of the same underlying questions about fame and expectations and pressure: Andrew Hultkrans gives me a strong desire to see the Big Star documentary.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Home comforts

Always very good to see little cat Mickey, who is ridiculously affectionate after I have been away for a bit! Now need to have life re-entry: I tend to forget the extent to which the day after travel pretty much needs to be written off as a recovery day. I need to catch up on miscellaneous minor business and pick up dissertation chapters from the office to read for upcoming meetings, but the only two substantive things I intend to accomplish other than that are picking up my bike post-tuneup and going to 6:30 masters swim workout at City College.

During yesterday's travels, for some reason all of the novels I had on my Kindle seemed inadequate or offputting, but I found myself completely immersed in a very interesting and unusual memoir, Alysia Abbott's Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father. I couldn't put it down - highly recommended.

Closing tabs:

Interesting article on introvert teachers. (Via.)

An unusual scavenger hunt. (Via Al Coppola.)


Suzanne Koven interviews Oliver Sacks for the Rumpus. (Courtesy of Dave Lull.) This one really is amazing - lots of good stuff in there, but check out this bit:
I have it less now, but with my first book, with Migraine, there were many, many problems, including a sort of mad, internal threat in which I said to myself, in September of ’68, You have ten days to write it and if you’re not finished by ten days, you’ll commit suicide. This sounds even madder than it was. You have to know some of the background. Anyhow, under my own threat or joke, I first started writing and within hours the feeling of terror was replaced by a feeling of joy in the writing and, in particular, a feeling that I was taking the book down to dictation. It came to me absolutely fluidly by a sort of inner voice. I was excited. I didn’t want to go to bed. I slept for two or three hours a night and no more. Perhaps I was hypomanic. I’m not sure what word to use.
Also, though many will have seen it already - Sacks's thoughts on turning 80.

Monday, July 08, 2013


Waiting at the airport for my flight back to New York. Figure it's a good time to get the light reading log up to date: when I don't have tabs to close, I tend not to get around to blogging what I've been reading either.

Two books I loved: Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, which is almost unbearably bleak and sad and true to life; and Gabriel Roth's altogether delightful The Unknowns, which I am tempted to blurb as Ready Player One for grownups! I can't imagine what novel-reader wouldn't love this one - it's super.

Also all quite good: A. S. A Harrison, The Silent Wife; Max Barry, Lexicon; Karin Slaughter, Unseen; Todd Robinson, The Hard Bounce; Aric Davis, Nickel Plated; Lavie Tidhar, The Projected Girl; and Ian Tregillis, What Doctor Gottlieb Saw.

Only book I read this week that I really didn't like was J. M. Ledgard's Submergence - in retrospect, the presence of the word "lyrical" in so many of the descriptions should have warned me that it is a book with a portentous sense of its own importance and little sense of humor - really I am just not the target audience, I should have put it down right away but I was slightly mesmerized by my dislike for it!

Don't seem to have anything on my Kindle that I'm quite in the mood for - will go and trawl now for some reasonable crime fiction, I never can get quite enough of that to have a sufficient pipeline. If I really can't find anything, I might reread World War Z - seeing the movie gave me an irresistible desire to reread the book (the movie is very poor - Despicable Me 2 was much superior!). I enjoyed this piece about Max Brooks, as I too seem to spend a good deal of time contemplating the zombie apocalypse....

Thursday, July 04, 2013

"His countenance fell"

Jesse Barron interviews Karl Ove Knausgaard at the Paris Review. I have slightly sworn to myself not to write another novel for the foreseeable future, I have three (at least) critical books I am keen to write and novel-writing does not have a beneficial effect on quality of life, but this interview makes me think I may not be able to hold out against it....