Monday, December 30, 2013


(It was not a minor resurgence of the old lung ailment. It was an entirely new one laying itself over the base of the old!)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Invisible libraries

Minor resurgence of lung ailment is making me take the day off exercise, but the good thing about that and the gradual winding-down of holiday family obligations is that I am finally having a much-needed day at home cleaning up the floods of paper that accumulate over the course of the semester. Will probably post a stern to-do list later: it is not interesting, but it provides accountability....

(I am also due an end-of-year reading roundup which I hope to put together in the next couple of days.)

I read a funny book a couple weeks ago, a good recommendation from Brian Berger. It is George Steiner's My Unwritten Books, a title and a concept I wish I had thought of myself (I suppose I can revisit it if I get an opportunity late in my career!). I found a couple of the essays not very interesting, "School Terms" disturbingly elitist and judgment-oriented and "The Tongues of Eros" - about what it is like to have sex in different languages - so grotesquely embarrassing that I could read it only with a kind of appalled horror.

But "Chinoiserie," on Joseph Needham (his wildly wide-ranging history of embryology was one of my favorites of all the books I encountered while reading for the breeding book), is an excellent opener, and I thought "Invidia" was absolutely brilliant and striking, rather like Adam Phillips at his very best.

Here is a bit:
What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante is, as it were, in the neighborhood? To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch? "How can I be if another is?" asks Goethe. Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand: "You are so young and already you have done so little."
Also of interest: at the FT, Emma Jacobs on the life of ghostwriting (site registration required).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The wound and the gift

Scott Stossel on coming to terms with anxiety.


The cats are one of the few bright points in Inside Llewyn Davis, which I saw last night with G. It is a watchable but bleak film, minor in its ambitions. I liked Luc Sante's account (that's the movie I saw, unless I'd been reviewing it for Cat Fancy or similar!); here's another interesting related link.

Closing tabs:

Indestructible but non-delicious gingerbread houses; the great Finnish gingerbread ticket fiasco of 2013.

I need to do a proper light reading end-of-year roundup, but that entails reading back through the year's blog posts, and I am not sure I have the vim to do it this evening. Currently having very enjoyable Susan Howatch reread - I reread the three St. Benet's books and now am on the second of the Starbridge novels. Appealingly both like and unlike Trollope.

The year's and the day's deep midnight

I missed the right day for posting this, but I had a slightly mangled version of the last line of this poem running through my head on the subway home from hot yoga....

(Also Wikipedia offers relevant thoughts about whether the placement of St. Lucy's Day on Dec. 13 results more directly from the difficulty of measuring the shortest day without modern devices or from the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars!)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

10 books that have stayed with me

No point writing this one again in the same form; I already did it last year for my ideal bookshelf! So, ten books of nonfiction that have stayed with me, in chronological order and off the top of my head:

Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man
Harlan Lane, The Wild Boy of Aveyron
Martin Gardner, Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight
Richard Holmes, Footsteps: The Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
A. O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests
Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth
Michael Chorost, Rebuilt
Roland Barthes, The Neutral

The white lady

At the Observer Review, some of Andrew Hussey's thoughts on art and heroin, the subject of his new documentary. This is Will Self:
"I think the relationship between heroin and cities, or cityspace, is very interesting," he says. "It has more to do with spatiality, how the inner world of the user connects with the outside word of reality. And what we're really talking about is the psychogeography of heroin. William Burroughs knew this when he wrote The Naked Lunch, the great heroin novel set in the Interzone of Tangier, and Lou Reed knew this. The first Velvet Underground album is essentially a day in the life of a heroin addict in New York City, and a map of where he goes and what he sees and what he feels. And the music sounds like heroin, with its drones and impatient feedback and stuttering words. It's the perfect soundtrack to the junkie life. There is a heroin psychogeography – where to find it, where to buy it, where you can smell it." He goes on: "The point is that heroin users occupy a certain negative space in the world, in society. Burroughs writes in The Naked Lunch how, strung out in Tangier, he could sit and look at his shoe for eight hours. Heroin users don't need to do anything or go anywhere: they just are."
On a related note, I am a huge fan of Let's Get Lost, which I saw because of my friend Phil Nugent's description of Baker in the film as a "junkie vampire".

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Portrait of the artist as an old laptop

At the FT, Douglas Coupland fantasizes about what might be discerned from writers' laptops stored in archives (FT site registration required):
Here’s the most important question: what would I really like to see? Well, here’s a thought: many writers email themselves a copy of their novels at the end of every day, using the cloud as a back-up mechanism. Imagine if one were able to take all of those daily backups and then place them into a sort of stop-frame animation, one could see how an author constructs their work: words per day; words cut and pasted; paragraphs deleted; items shuffled about; typos; notes to self. Then, when the editing process begins, one could watch how a novel is hacked and pruned and reshaped – an organic process displayed in a dynamic organic mode. This would be a fascinating new way of appreciating a book’s creation – a visual language to describe a verbal process. And while this is just a fanciful idea, it does point out a chasm that now exists before the old manuscript and the new, and gives a taste of a visit to the archives of tomorrow.

Of butter and buttercream

At the TLS, Alex Danchev on two new books about food and art. It includes a luscious description of a book I have been meaning to look at ever since I first saw some of these cakes (I would buy a pink Thiebaud cake if I lived in the Bay Area) and this amazing passage written by Henry James (quoted by Mary Ann Caws in the other book under review):
I had an excellent repast – the best repast possible – which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed. “La plus belle fille du monde”, as the French proverb says, “ne peut donner que ce qu’elle a”; and it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can reasonably be expected of it. But there was a bloom of punctuality, so to speak, about the eggs of Bourg, as if it had been the intention of the very hens themselves that they should be promptly served. “Nous sommes en Bresse, et le beurre n’est pas mauvais,” the landlady said with a sort of dry-coquetry, as she placed this article before me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound or two of it; after which I came away with a strange mixture of impressions of late gothic sculpture and thick tartines.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Knowlesian dispatches

Nico on Beyoncé's new album.

(Also - more along my taste axis, I am regrettably deaf to the charms of Beyoncé - see Peter Terzian on Throwing Muses.)

Lungs still horribly full of junk, and it will be at least one more day before I can exercise, but I have submitted all my grades for the semester. Various other tasks remain (including two letters of recommendation that I must write tomorrow), but I am going to take the rest of the afternoon and evening off!

Monday, December 16, 2013


Pretty grumpy at this end, thus lack of blogging (my general policy is to stay offline if I'm down in the dumps) - I have been mostly horizontal with a dreadful cold!

(At the end of last week I was still able to persuade myself that I was just having raw lungs of some minor description, but really I spent the weekend almost entirely in bed; managed to get one set of grades in today, but it left me feeling the need for more horizontality. I think it will be Wednesday at the earliest before I can exercise, which has a strongly negative effect on morale....)

Closing tabs:

Cat stars of the new Coen brothers movie!

"It glows when you lick it."

Mike Tyson, philosopher.

Standardization of the "last meal."

Resurgence of the Presto direct-to-acetate audio recorder. (It is a very cool project, and the Rosanne Cash bit is especially worthwhile.)

What's your OED birthday word? (Via Anne F.)

Friday, December 13, 2013


Interesting story. In Cayman, it is the green iguana that is the charming invasive species - as native Philadelphian/New Yorker, I am amazed by tourists that want to take pictures of squirrels (and charmed by presence of black squirrels in Ottawa), but really they are a pest....

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


This might be the most dreadful Xmas list I have ever seen, to the point that I wonder if it's satire - it seems to be without a byline....


It has been an extremely busy week, and I haven't yet started my end-of-semester grading, though I think it shouldn't take too long. It will be the middle of next week at the earliest, I would guess, before I can do any of my own work.

Have had some pleasurable distractions in spite of pressures of work. On Monday night, saw my friend Elliot Thomson's little gem of a comedy (he and actor Peter Hirsch call it his "Faberge egg roll"), Le Refuge.

Last night I met up with G. for the highly enjoyable Le Jazz Hot. The documentary joining-together bits are a little amateurish, though the footage is interesting, but the musicians are superb: I would definitely go and see them again. (The Anderson brothers are twins, and I was strongly reminded of my own twin brothers by the way each referred to the other as "my brother"!) Extremely delicious dinner afterwards at Bottega del Vino; I had beef carpaccio and spinach gnocchi before confirming my previous impression that this restaurant serves the best tiramisu in New York.

Closing tabs:

Colin Wilson is dead. Ritual in the Dark is more an artifact of its time than a great novel, I think, but it's a fascinating phenomenon, that mid-century period of British occultism. You get a bit of it in Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson biography - I don't think there's a Wilson biography, but there should be.

Teju Cole on truth and reconciliation in South Africa and elsewhere.

Light reading around the edges: several more Eva Ibbotson comfort re-reads; Charlie Williams' excellently titled Love Will Tear Us Apart; Michael Connelly's The Gods of Guilt (the plot is too intricate and the characters too shallow, but fairly readable regardless); Paul Cornell's London Falling, which is so exactly the sort of book that I like to read that I fell into a psychological slump when I came to the end and realized the next installment hasn't yet been published; and Laini Taylor's really delightful novella Night of Cake and Puppets (more books should have the word "cake" in their titles). I am contemplating a resolution for 2014 to read more nonfiction - one does occasionally, especially when reading something like the Connelly, get the feeling that the brain will rot on a diet of so much pap - but I would have to reserve the right to consume a good deal of light reading regardless, perhaps just not the fodder-level books.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

"Life as a tube"

Let us welcome our new snake overlords.

Mundanities, a.k.a. "Thursday is my weekend"

Thursday this semester was always my "weekend," unless I had complex meetings or a deadline, but the day after the last day of classes always brings particular relief!

I slept late (late enough that I am not going to hot yoga this morning - may hit a class in the early evening if I have the energy, but it's fine if not).

I finally made two phone calls that I've been meaning to take care of for weeks: scheduling a house call to get my two cats a proper checkup (they both had initial kittenage vaccinations, but I have been remiss about vet visits - this is long overdue!); scheduling an appointment with my asthma doctor to discuss ongoing exercise-induced asthma issues but more particularly to ask what I should do about the fact that my indispensable asthma control medication Flovent will no longer be covered by my prescription health coverage plan as of January. This is frustrating, it has worked very well - it would cost about $200/mo. if I am paying for it out-of-pocket, so really I need to find out what I can take instead, but I wish they weren't messing around with some solid basics!

And I have a haircut appointment at 2 and will go from thence to the allergy doctor for shots - missed last week due to Thanksgiving-related scheduling issues.

Not an exciting day, in short, but a very useful one, and the best part of it is that in half an hour or so I will head out for a lovely quiet run. The weather is foggy but very mild, with temperature in the mid-50s - short sleeves!

(I do have to write one more letter of recommendation, but that won't be too bad....)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


This is the book I wish I could have in my hands right now: The Islands of Chaldea, left incomplete by Diana Wynne Jones when she died and completed by her sister Ursula Jones.
Picking up where her sister left off was an "odd journey", said Jones. "Diana was very much my eldest sister, and I was very much aware of a fury from her, either that I was doing it, or that I was not doing it fast enough. I had awful nightmares about it. It was curiously traumatic," she said. "I was conscious of her looking over my shoulder in many different ways. To start with, there was this disturbing feeling of fury. Then once I'd got under way there was almost a moment of rather grumpy 'oh all right then'. I'm not a believer in any of this sort of thing but I tell you it was palpable, and quite uncanny.

"Then it went ahead very easily. I did notice I was moving things around and changing structures or settings almost at her prompting, possibly because I knew how to get right inside the book at that stage. I certainly managed to erase my style."

And writing the last sentence, she said, "was an unbearable second parting from her: as if she had died again".

Circles redux

At Bookslut, Colleen Mondor has some kind words about The Magic Circle in an end-of-year roundup.

(Alas, I remember saying to B. sometime last year something like "I think this novel might really be a big deal!" In fact it sank like a stone and was barely reviewed, though I got some very nice feedback from actual readers. The world is telling me to be a critic and essayist rather than a novelist, I think - and indeed it is my resolution for the coming year to write at least an essay or two after the manner of Hazlitt!)


Rather arduous week, but I taught my last class of the semester today and I should be able to have a bit of a breather as long as I keep chipping away at tasks: I have one more letter of recommendation to write tomorrow, and a lot of comments on student assignments and various other similar, but it is very good to have a temporary reprieve from the form of public self-performance, however enjoyable and stimulating, that we call teaching!

(This week's reading: Justine, which is sufficiently disturbing that at 11pm on Monday night, though I still had several hundred pages left to read for Tuesday's class, I instead downloaded a favorite novel by Eva Ibbotson and read it in its entirety as a remedy!; and Persuasion.)

Lots of meetings and appointments still over the next two weeks, but I am looking forward to getting more sleep and doing massive amounts of exercise, particularly the hot yoga, which I have a yen for right now (was too tired to get there this afternoon, but with luck I will make it there tomorrow morning).

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (excellent, memorably so); Jakob Arjouni, Happy Birthday, Turk!, a good recommendation from Chase Madar; Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's Version (excellent); Kelly Braffet, Last Seen Leaving (I've liked all the books of hers I've read, but I think this one is my favorite); Garth Nix, Newt's Emerald (not bad, but it made me think about how Georgette Heyer's Regency pastiche has been so influential that anyone who writes in that period is almost bound to sound exactly like Heyer - it makes me wonder whether there is any other literary period ripe for colonizing with this kind of a verbal and world-building reimagining?); and Gordon Ferris, Truth Dare Kill. I think I am going to spend the evening rereading several other Ibbotson books; they are immensely and indescribably soothing, second only to the works of Diana Wynne Jones I think.

Really I am hungry for something genuinely intellectually demanding, but I think I need a few days of downtime first, and some more light reading to bathe the tired brain. Minor tasks for December include doing the final revisions on my article about particular detail and reading and reviewing an academic book that I promised to write about a long time ago; in January, I think I will be working on a proposal for my long-contemplated little book about Clarissa....

Mind games

Great letter by Mary Midgley on women and philosophy. (Via Matt Hart.)

Monday, December 02, 2013


Lauren Klein's slideshow on the long arc of visual display. (And an associated course syllabus here.)

Faux bedroom synthtronica

Simon Holland's bedroom cassette masters project erases the line between history and fiction:
I began to be approached by people who wanted to have their music on the compilation but who had not even been alive in the eighties. They were contemporary bedroom musicians, usually with a small collection of vintage analogue instruments and equipment who were committed to producing work using authentic vintage methods. So I had an idea: let them produce their music in-the-style-of lo-fi, cassette-based, bedroom-recorded demos and provide a short biography suggesting they had in fact been produced between 1980-89. They had to carefully date their recordings based on the manufacture dates of the vintage synths they were using to avoid any anachronisms and think of artistic motivation based on age, sex and geography. And so I re-wrote the submission brief to include the sound-alikes, and the music kept coming in but I no longer knew if I was listening to something truly historic or retro-perfect facsimiles.

Red in tooth and claw

Action sequence!