Monday, September 30, 2013


Ken Auletta's profile of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger makes for an extremely interesting read.

Tabless in Morningside Heights

It's partly that I've been busy, but it's more that I've been sad and discombobulated in the wake of my friend K.'s death, and thrown further off balance by a lot of additional obligations in the way of telephonage and friendly and/or memorial gatherings. Blogging mostly happens effortlessly for me as a consequence of curiosity and natural exuberance, but when exuberance is damped down, I am much less likely to flag things mentally as interesting in the first place. Anyway, gradually regaining some equilibrium.

Read a very good long novel that I am reviewing for Bookforum (I am not sure what the rules are, but I always consider titles under embargo until the issue is published!); got that review drafted yesterday and need to revise it to send before I go to New Haven on Thursday for NEASECS.

Dinner on Friday night was much superior to the play, but on the other hand I am not entirely sorry to have seen what is surely the very rare professional theatrical production with a prominent role not just for bicycles (they are mostly represented by a single wheel and stem/handlebars, which the actors jog around on in a fashion that's reminiscent of those pogo-stick-style inflatable balls that children ride on - someone had fun making these) but for a stationary trainer as well.

It is the week of Pamela-Shamela convergence in both of my classes!

I am on two university committees this year that are both going to be quite demanding, in very different ways. That plus three students on the job market and the usual fall spate of letters of recommendation are going to keep me busy. I had a horrible moment last night - really I hadn't forgotten it as such, just hadn't quite fully remembered either - I was thinking, oh, I don't teach till 11:40, if I do one more hour of work now and then get up at 7 I will have plenty of time to do all the absolutely necessary preparations for class etc. and also go for a run - then it suddenly came to my attention that I had a committee meeting from 8:30-10 and a student meeting scheduled for 11 and that my notion of running was an idle fantasy....

Light reading around the edges: Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens (excellent); Robin McKinley, Shadows (I loved it - it is perhaps too similar in its contours to Sunshine, which has the more complex and memorable voice of the two books, but that just means that if you like this kind of book you should read both - I will read any book by Robin McKinley with pleasure, but I liked this one much more than her last two - basically if there were an infinite number of books like this, I would read one every day). Halfway through Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie's Americaneh, which is very much living up to my high expectations for it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Closing tabs

Keeping my head above water, with some good help from funny activities and companions! Including these two.

(Party pics from Friday night. There is a pact among some of the ladies that next year floor-length evening dresses must be worn.)

Arguendo was slight, but dinner afterwards at Malbec was spectacular. (Not cheap, but very very good indeed, and a beautiful and hospitable place to sit and eat.)

Sunday's service for Khakasa in Yonkers was heartbreaking, but I was glad to be able to be there. Another memorial for friends and family will probably be scheduled for sometime a month or two from now.
Started teaching Pamela today, and it's Manon Lescaut tomorrow in my seminar. Two favorites.

Counterintuitive to go out mid-evening on a school night, but a week when you lose a friend is a week when you don't want to turn down any friend's invitation! College classmate Thomas Lauderdale and his band Pink Martini are playing a small private concert at Indochine at 10:30 tonight, and I couldn't say no - it should be a lovely occasion.

Closing tabs:

Simon Singh on freeze-frame gags and the mathematical bent of The Simpsons.

A history of idiosyncratic punctuation marks. (Via GeekPress? Tab's been open long enough that origin is now lost in obscurity.)

Robert Macfarlane on urban exploration.

Last but not least, "Belle Amie" - a lovely video from a friend's daughter's band.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Closing tabs

Not sure if this link is gated or not (I think not, but it's hard to tell with on-campus ethernet!), but my colleague Rachel Adams' book Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery has received a wonderful review from Jerome Groopman in the New York Review of Books.

I hate to make this juxtaposition, but I am still reeling from finding out late last night that a close college friend died earlier this week. Probably by her own hand but the details are still shrouded in obscurity. Checking Facebook, email and phone obsessively to see if I can find out more, even though really there is nothing to know except that it is an awful loss. Here is a picture: she was a great beauty, as well as one of the strongest and most focused and accomplished people I know. One of the last times I saw her properly was for drinks after our mutual friend Carey's memorial service last year. Very strange and sad to think that they are both gone.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Novelistic detail

I had a great time teaching this morning - students had read the introductory chapter of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel and Roland Barthes' "The Reality Effect." I am eternally preoccupied with both of these pieces, and I think the students were excited about them too.

The Barthes essay is quite abstract, definitely harder to follow than the Watt, but hard too in the sense that it is virtually impossible to find genuinely "insignificant" details of the sort he designates!

I put together these three passages on a handout so that we'd have something to look at; to state the obvious, "the reality effect" is never relevant for first-person narration, so that the Defoe passage is already out of the question; in the second passage, we briefly think the shoes might be a "look at me, I'm real" detail, but the narrator immediately moralizes and "meaningizes" them for the reader; the third passage is closest to what Barthes is talking about, but shows with exceptional clarity how hard it is for novelists and novel-readers not to fold insignificant details back into the world of meaning (the notation of the cost of the postage tells us something about the family's precarious finances; Mr. Garth's saving the red seal for his daughter speaks to his warmth as a family man).

I walk’d about on the Shore, lifting up my Hands, and my whole Being, as I may say, wrapt up in the Contemplation of my Deliverance, making a Thousand Gestures and Motions which I cannot describe, reflecting upon all my Comrades that were drown’d, and that there should not be one Soul sav’d but my self; for, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any Sign of them, except three of their Hats, one Cap, and two Shoes that were not Fellows.

- Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (1719)

Her trip to La Vaubyessard had made a hole in her life, like those great chasms that a storm, in a single night, will sometimes open in the mountains. 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.

- Flaubert, Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways, trans. Lydia Davis (1859)

In watching effects, if only of an electric battery, it is often necessary to change our place and examine a particular mixture or group at some distance from the point where the movement we are interested in was set up. The group I am moving towards is at Caleb Garth’s breakfast-table in the large parlour where the maps and desk were: father, mother, and five of the children. Mary was just now at home waiting for a situation, while Christy, the boy next to her, was getting cheap learning and cheap fare in Scotland, having to his father’s disappointment taken to books instead of that sacred calling ‘business’.
The letters had come – nine costly letters, for which the postman had been paid three and twopence, and Mr Garth was forgetting his tea and toast while he read his letters and laid them open one above the other, sometimes swaying his head slowly, sometimes screwing up his mouth in inward debate, but not forgetting to cut off a large red seal unbroken, which Letty snatched up like an eager terrier.

-- Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Closing tabs

My only complaint about this week, if it is a complaint, is that it was too full of a rich and complex variety of things!

On Tuesday I taught The Princesse de Cleves and on Wednesday, A Journal of the Plague Year. These are two of my particularly favorite books of all time, and I'm really excited about this semester's courses.

On Thursday I went with G. to see Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The third act is brilliant and genuinely haunting - I am not quite so sure about the long first act, which seems to me to have too much of the sort of conversation that seemed fresh when we heard it in Pulp Fiction but which strikes me on the stage these days as overly rambling and a little self-indulgent. The three acts of the play take place in the near future, seven years later and seventy years later - it covers some familiar ground in terms of thinking about linguistic and cultural transformations after an apocalyptic break (think Riddley Walker or other post-nuclear scenarios), but the originality comes from the way that we see time morphing the "Cape Fear" Simpsons episode together with Gilbert & Sullivan and all sorts of other random cultural snippets, especially musical, into a postapocalyptic morality play, with Bart Simpson as familiar to modern audiences as the medieval Vice would have been to audiences many hundreds of years ago. The acting is very good, and so is the production. (Dinner afterwards at the West Bank Cafe, which is currently offering a very good prix fixe dinner - $20 for appetizer, main course and dessert. I had spinach ravioli, a very delicious skate with capers and an even more delectable lemon mousse.)

Lots of meetings with graduate students - I think I have finally reached critical mass. Also was given a brand new iPad for a major committee assignment, something that presages huge amounts of online reading.

On Friday I had dinner at La Lunchonette with an old friend from graduate school who has invited me to come and speak at Tel Aviv University in May, a trip I am very much looking forward to.

On Saturday I went to Governors Island on the ferry and met up with my brother and his family at FĂȘte Paradiso. Among other things we rode the world's first bicycle carousel.

Today I finally had time to write my race report for Ironman Wisconsin.

This coming week is very busy too, though after that I am hoping things will settle down a bit. I could use a few quiet days at home with little to do!

Light reading around the edges:

Seanan McGuire's new October Daye novel, Chimes At Midnight, which ends very abruptly but regardless confirms my impression of McGuire as one of today's great geniuses of popular fiction in the fantasy/science-fictional vein; and Gwenda Bond's lovely The Woken Gods, which entirely lived up to my very high expectations.

Closing tabs:

Open up this essay by Mark Kingwell in a new browser tab and save it to read later!

A humble plea for the bumblebee.

Costs of seduction

On a more serious note, I think it is important to link to Joyce Maynard's piece about Salinger and why we shouldn't give great artists a free pass on behavior:
It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art. Richard Schickel, writing of Salinger’s activities, expresses the view that despite the disclosures about Salinger’s pursuit of young women he lived “a ‘normal’ life.”

“He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” writes the film critic (and father of daughters) David Edelstein. The implication being, what’s the fuss?

One of these girls, 14 when Salinger first pursued her long ago, described him in terms usually reserved for deities, and spoke of feeling privileged to have served as inspiration and muse to a great writer — though she also reports that he severed their relationship the day after their one and only sexual encounter.

Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?

But we are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships. Most typically, those who do this are men. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.

I am now 59. Let a man tell me now that I am of no worth or value, and never will be and the man will be diminished in my eyes. But when a man who had become for me the possessor of all wisdom told me these things, when I was 18, the one diminished was myself.

I am as troubled by the use of the word “woman” to describe the 18-year-old object, briefly, of a 53-year-old’s affections as I am by the use of the word “lover” to describe my 18-year-old self, in the context of that relationship.

"Blobbed by hand"

Roald Dahl on the golden age of British chocolate. (Via.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Socratic fitness

An interesting article by Eric LeMay at Salon on the ethos of CrossFit.

Seven-league boots

I wish I could be there in person, but it's simply not possible - my flight was very much delayed, and I only got home from Madison last night after 2:30 in the morning! Teaching at 2:10, and had hoped to get down to Lincoln Center for at least a half-hour of it, but really it's not feasible. But the memorial service for the great Albert Murray will be streamed on the web here. It starts at 1 today.

Saturday, September 07, 2013


Good article at the FT about cinematic hair (site registration required):
Warn was also a hair designer on The Great Gatsby, a follicular showcase featuring 300 extras – only 100 of whom sported their own hair. “Director Baz Luhrmann is very pro-hair, he loves it and wanted the styling to be extreme,” says Warn. “But, because he was shooting in 3D and HD, we had to be really careful about stray hairs, so it was a like a military procedure to keep each hair in place.”

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


I have to go to this restaurant when it opens and eat the "egg"!
A few weeks ago, in the temporary test kitchen, Mr. Richard was working on a pastry “egg.” It was made with a white chocolate shell filled, with Italian meringue for the white and lemon curd for the yolk. “I dropped an ice cube in melted chocolate by accident,” he said, “and voilĂ , I had a shape. So I started playing with it. I froze water in empty egg shells, removed the shells and used the egg-shaped ice cube to make my chocolate eggs.”
No pictures at the website yet, but I hope there will be....


The only trouble with these Jack Reacher books is that they are so short! Done. No new one again for another year....

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Closing tabs

A very good day in many respects, but tiring.

In the morning I had a gorgeous short run along the river (excessive humidity, though).

In the afternoon I taught my first class of the semester, in a strikingly beautiful third-floor room at the Union Theological Seminary. Lots of familiar faces, which is always nice, and a syllabus full of books I particularly enjoy - this one should be good.

Four exciting pre-ordered books appeared on my Kindle, and one of them is the new Lee Child novel.

I have printed out final versions of all course materials for tomorrow's lecture.

Now I am going to shut down my computer and go and read Never Go Back!

(The only other thing I have to do tonight is my back stretching exercises, or I will regret it come Sunday evening, and perhaps a spot of meditation: but all other minor bits and bobs can wait till tomorrow, things like allergy doctor visit - I haven't been for way too long, I need to get back on the weekly habit of shots! - and booking a car for the airport trip Thursday and writing a conference paper abstract and getting various start-of-semester logistics sorted out and finishing the utterly complex triathlon organizing and packing that must be done before I leave.)


Secret fore-edge book paintings!

Philip Pullman is a yeoman. (Via Monica E.; FT site registration required.)

A dispiriting but fascinating story about the U.S. demographic changes that have led to a huge drop in life expectancy for poor white women lacking a high-school diploma.

The lost sausages of WWI.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Swim bit

Thoughts on Diana Nyad's memoir from six years ago.

(I thought it would be a three-year quest from September 2007 to Ironman, but it has turned into a six-year one due to factors largely beyond my control - am going to write something about this once I have done my race next weekend. I hope I get an official finish, and I believe that I will, but on the other hand I am just happy to have been able to do the training properly this time round - getting to the start will be a victory in itself, and I have promised myself to take what the day brings with good cheer.)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

"The myth prescribes the garret rather than the Guggenheim"

I have been exhausted all week, but I think I am finally starting to feel more normal - failed to get up for projected early-morning bike ride today, but it was for the best, I needed the sleep more. Had a good swim yesterday but am feeling much thwarted by August swimming-pool closures.

All sorts of Seamus Heaney-related tabs open, waiting for a proper send-off, but I realize that I could wait forever, so here are a few good ones (I never took a class with him, but he was an active and benevolent presence during my undergraduate days in Adams House): Henri Cole interviewed Heaney for the Paris Review (this one's a must-read, all sorts of the things he says are quite arresting, including thoughts about living in two places); Andrew O'Hagan at the LRB on car trips with Heaney and Karl Miller (note blethering discussion, which strongly reminded me of my Scottish grandfather - it was a word he loved - that and shoogly are two Scots words that remain in my personal idiom).

A good interview with Ruth Franklin about the art of criticism.

Lee Child has an amazing apartment! (I like my current apartment very much, indeed it is somewhere I will very happily live until the day I die if that is the way things go, but at this time of year I hugely regret not having central air-conditioning - it is the nature of the Columbia housing stock to be pre-war and very beautiful/spacious, but the humidity right now is killing me, and it leaves me with the impression of my apartment being a sinkhole, even though really it is the same as always.) Very impatient for the new Jack Reacher book - if I am sensible, I will save it to read on Thursday in the airport en route to Madison for my race.

Light reading around the edges of copious trivial errands and obsessing about upcoming race and digging out books and papers for fall-semester classes: Mick Herron, Slow Horses.

Also I forgot to say I read Adam Phillips' Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life as my "airplane book" (I am ready for the silly rule about not using electronic devices during takeoff and landing to be abandoned - but in the meantime, I will continue to have some kind of nonfiction or essay collection with me to while away those stretches of Kindle-banned time). There are only about three worthwhile paragraphs in the whole book, but on the other hand it is a very short book. At his best, Phillips is transfixing, but one also feels he spools this stuff out without regard to quality - he could use a more challenging interlocutor at this point, I suspect, than his own ears!