Friday, May 30, 2014

Mr Curly and the carrot clarinet

Musical instruments made out of vegetables (FT site registration required):
Then there’s my rubber-glove bagpipe, which has gone through a range of transmutations. There are more than 230 types of bagpipe all over the world and people have used all sorts of things for the bag – the Macedonians use a whole goat, while the Scots use stitched leather. The first bagpipes I experimented with were made out of a plastic wine bag. Then I moved on to the rubber glove. The current version uses the glove, an irrigation water pipe and a reed made from a bit of vibrating garbage bag.

Monday, May 26, 2014


Ian Parker profiles Edward St. Aubyn for the New Yorker (gruesome, gripping):
James met me in London. Within a few minutes, he said, “I have an odd relationship with Teddy, because he has never, ever been, in any way, cruel to me.” He described going with St. Aubyn and Shulman to a weekend party held by “the Earl of somebody or other,” at which the flirtation between St. Aubyn and a fellow-guest was painfully obvious. James also recalled how St. Aubyn sometimes reacted, at dinner parties, to a stranger’s careless remark: “A not terribly bright girl might say, ‘Ooh, that’s fun,’ and he would play with her use of language in a way that humiliated her.” He added, “It was like a wolf savaging a sheep. It was absolutely terrifying, and difficult to interfere with.” I later spoke with a woman who had had exactly this experience, in France: “I said something about a book I didn’t really know. He made me feel very young, and very stupid.”

James placed this behavior in a generational setting. “That’s what Teddy’s father used to do,” he said. In the fifties, James’s parents, both psychoanalysts, had a second home in Cornwall. David Astor, the owner of the Observer and a family friend, encouraged them to visit Arthur Koestler, who was staying nearby “with this person called Roger St. Aubyn.” (“Such was the ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ nature of things,” James said.) Roger, in his early fifties, a qualified but inactive doctor, had by this point divorced his first wife—Baroness Sophie von Puthon, an Austrian—and married St. Aubyn’s mother. Alexandra, Edward’s older sister, had just been born. “My mother described it as an incredible situation in which you had this sadistic, horrible man being vicious to his young heiress wife,” James said. “She was looking after this baby, in this doomy, bleak Cornish place, with Arthur Koestler being intellectual and not particularly nice.”
A reread of the Melrose books is on my list of near-future things to do: I was going to write an essay about St. Aubyn (and may still do so), only laziness and a preference for advancing my own large-scale projects will probably get the better of me. I also have an idea for a class I want to teach on a certain strain of contemporary fiction (projected syllabus to follow - one thing I really like about this time of year is the fact that I am bursting with thoughts and ideas that I haven't had time to pursue during the school year, and now have three months of liberty to do exactly as I like).

I read Lost for Words the other day. Minor work, but with sentences of exceptional sharpness and clarity (I try and avoid using the preposterous "lapidary"): "Her openness to infidelity filled him with an optimism that her choice of infidelity discouraged" (!).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Ted Trautman on the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships:
“The inveterate punster,” Leacock wrote, “follows conversation as a shark follows a ship.” What is missing from the Pun-Off, then, is this conversation; onstage, we inveterate punsters are forced to play only with the words we can find inside ourselves, rather than lying in wait for a punworthy moment in the course of normal dialogue. Hence the excess of gimmes like “philosophers Kant hold their liquor,” as opposed to a more organic, transcendent play on words, as when I misremembered the color of a friend’s car years ago and he told me that “it must have been a pigment of my imagination.” Or when a friend interning for a congressman confessed that he snuck a glance at John Boehner’s crotch in a Capitol restroom and I declared him the Peeker of the House. Such turns of phrase are unlikely to appear in any serious writing I attempt down the road, and yet the elation they produce is among my favorite feelings: a credit to their author and a gift to anyone with the wit and good sense to enjoy them.
B. is a mighty punster whose lines are often delivered with a deceptive blandness that means the non-language-attuned may miss them altogether. One I remember particularly fondly, as we traveled by boat in Costa Rica and an enormous flock of seabirds came into view: "One good tern deserves another!"


the name of the restaurant I couldn't remember the other day and liked so much: Basher Fromagerie.

2 writers

Two writers who meant a lot to me when I was growing up died recently; a few links to mark their passing.

Farley Mowat died at the age of 92. Here is a wonderful appreciation by Dorian Stuber. Both Never Cry Wolf and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be were very important to me (though as Dorian says in his post, the books of Gerald Durrell were probably more influential the long run - I too was a child who imagined a future as a sort of hybrid of Durrell and Jane Goodall, and spent untold hours cleaning out the cages of rabbits, guinea-pigs, snakes, lizards, etc. in the school science room!). Two things that have always stuck with me: the claim (possibly fabricated) that Mowat peed around the perimeter of his camp in order to mark it as his territory; and the wonderful cover for the edition of The Dog Who Wouldn't Be that lived at my grandparents' house in London.

Also: Mary Stewart dies age 97. Both the thrillers and the Merlin novels were among my absolute favorites when I was ten or eleven - I have read them all about a million times (again, they were on the shelf at my grandmother's house in London, I reread the whole set every two years when we visited).

23 and me

This really made me laugh!

Light reading round-up

It is very bad when I go for too long without logging - the books mount up at an alarming rate, especially when I have been spending so much time on airplanes and in airports. It's the need to paste in links that slows me down - I work faster than the computer does, and if I'm not careful the Amazon page hasn't yet loaded and I paste in the same link as previously! I think I will sort them rather than just listing in the order I read them - a few deserve special singling out.

(I am going to rot my brain if I keep on reading so much random fiction. I contemplated and then discarded the notion, at the beginning of this calendar year, that I might resolve to have a year of reading only nonfiction - that would just be needlessly punitive. But I do think I should read a lot more complex and interesting stuff this summer and less of the pap....)


An absolutely stunning novel, an excellent recommendation from Marina Harss: Delphine de Vigan's Nothing Holds Back the Night. It is more novelistic (though really the material is mostly true to life) than many of the nonfiction novels I have been reading and pondering recently (Sebald as progenitor perhaps, and V. S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, but Teju Cole and Sheila Heti and Jenny Offil - I want to teach a class on this!), but it is extraordinary - a must-read.

It got me through a very tough night on the flight to Tel Aviv - I had a gruesome day of travel, first Ottawa to LGA, then the bus from there to JFK and then the horrible realization that the check-in desk for El Al was not even going to open for almost 4 more hours (it was just before five, my flight was 11:30pm, the desk only opened three hours before - I should have checked, but I was making plans in haste, and it really didn't make sense to go home in between - if I set foot inside my apartment, I was not at all sure I would have the resolution to leave again, and traffic and taxis are both costly). JFK Terminal 4 is one of the terminals that is both under construction and also with nothing (well, one diner, mercifully) on the outside of security. No air-conditioning, very few bathrooms, no seats (people are sprawled all over the floor surrounded by luggage). I was singled out for special security screening, which wasn't especially stressful in itself except that it meant I was stuck at the gate for a very long time with no hand luggage other than wallet and Kindle, and a reluctance to go and get food in case my bags were about to be returned (they were not). Then when I finally boarded, almost an hour after the flight was supposed to have left, I discovered - it was the cost of the security screening, I'd been rather flustered and hadn't looked at boarding pass when check-in person issued it to me under stern eye of security guy - the flight was completely sold out and I was in a middle seat, not the aisle seat I believed I'd booked when I bought the ticket. It was a low moment - I had left the hotel in Ottawa about 16 hours previously, and still had an eleven-hour flight to come - I couldn't sleep at all, too wired and too tired and too claustrophobically surrounded by neighbors (they were very nice actually), but the de Vigan novel was so gripping that it calmed me down and got me through the night!

Then I read her earlier novel No and Me, which is less formally unusual but really wonderful as well - very highly recommended.

Last night I devoured a book I've been keenly awaiting (a lot of good Kindle pre-orders appeared magically overnight from Monday to Tuesday, including Jo Walton's new novel, which I am really looking forward to): Paul Cornell's The Severed Streets, sequel to the excellent London Falling.

Miscellaneous literary fiction: William Boyd, Waiting for Sunrise (at first I couldn't get over my fundamental perplexity that people write books like this any more - not that we exactly choose the books we write, but still.... - I think of Boyd as having much in common with an older generation of novelists who were already themselves out of time, Anthony Burgess for instance, colonial novelists writing in a postcolonial era - Boyd is very good, but he is curiously not at all of his own generation - then once it turned into a spy thriller, it made more sense to me - but read this one instead I think if you want a more contemporary take on what can be done in the genre - certainly not all books can or should be funny, but all things being equal, I will prefer one that is very funny to one that is not!); and a Margaret Drabble novel I'd never read, a good recommendation from Karen Valihora for lady academics traveling to lecture in far-flung locations, The Realms of Gold.

Miscellaneous urban fantasy: Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road (very much the sort of book I like - really she can't write a bad book, though I am surprised she can write so many good ones, and wonder as with Charlie Stross whether she wouldn't be better off writing fewer really exceptional ones rather than spreading the imagination so thin - it does not have the density of imagination you see in Joe Hill's Nos4A2, but that is the cost of writing many books versus few - certainly shares DNA appealingly with that and with Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls).

Random science-fiction reread: Joan D. Vinge, Psion (what I really wanted was to reread The Snow Queen, I can't remember now what it was but something had caught my eye that reminded me of the very striking cover of the sequel - traveling in really unfamiliar parts of the world always makes me think of the more anthropological kind of science fiction - but it wasn't available on Kindle, and really I have a hard copy at home anyway, not that this would have stopped me from buying an electronic edition for immediate consumption!).

Miscellaneous crime: Laura McHugh, The Weight of Blood (pretty good I thought); Denise Mina, The Red Road (very good series); Doug Johnstone, The Dead Beat (not dissimilar from the previous - Scottish journalism noir - and quite good, barring some wildly implausible plotting - but I think there needs to be a moratorium on the title!) Oh, and a very poor one on the plane on the way home, one of a couple paperbacks I bought in the Ottawa airport as a precaution against possible Kindle fail (the idea of being trapped on a long flight with nothing to read is basically my worst nightmare - I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it is not really an exaggeration): one of these thrillers with a female protagonist who is so idiotic and oblivious that you can't even really care what happens to her.

Miscellaneous other: Warren Ellis, Crooked Little Vein (I liked it and found it very funny and appealing, though I think it is not as much to my taste as the true gonzo weird of Heath Lowrance, who is less well-known than he should be).

The two books I mentioned in my last post, Ari Shavit's My Promised Land and Pamela Olson's Fast Times in Palestine. I have already had a couple very good recommendations by email of books on Israel and Palestine - please let me know if you have more suggestions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Things I saw and ate and thought about this week

On Tuesday: looking down at the Baha'i Temple from the panorama in Haifa; a walk around Nazareth, followed by lunch at Al-Reda (the best grilled vegetables I have ever eaten, and an angelically good salad with oranges, pistachios, bean sprouts and baby greens) and then a dessert from a bake shop, evocative to and devoured by the Israeli friends I was with but slightly overwhelming to me (I was still just wiped out from travel, and feeling a bit queasy!), an incredibly rich flat square of pastry with a layer of cheese topped by a layer of shredded phyllo dough all drenched in syrup and warm out of the oven (we waited for a new batch, it came out in a huge tray); then to Tiberias/Capernaum in the Lower Galilee for a walk through the church and monastery grounds at (I think) Tabgha.

We had two more sites on the day's projected itinerary, but it was nearly five o'clock, we'd left from the hotel at 9:30 and I was absolutely dropping - I had to plead fatigue and beg for us to return to Tel Aviv!

On Wednesday, I was working frenetically to sort out the second of my two talks and put together appropriate handouts for both - normally this is what I would have done before I left (I especially prefer to travel with all the copies of handouts already made, and hard copies of speaking notes in case of some computer-related calamity), but B.'s father's death and the unexpected trip to Ottawa knocked out the two days I'd set aside for that last week (right up until I left town, I was reading huge stacks of other work stuff - on Wednesday last week, for instance, I had a meeting to decide on Whiting fellowships for which I needed to read sixty applications, and then on Thursday the last thing I did before leaving for the airport was a meeting to pick the award-winning departmental MA essays, which also involved hundreds of pages of reading).

I should have done the prep Monday, which was my quiet day at the hotel, but I was too tired. Bad moment Wednesday late morning when the computer suddenly restarted itself (I suppose it was 11 or 12 Tel Aviv time, i.e. 3am or 4am EST) - Word has this wretched habit of not preserving the autosaved document unless the program has shut down irregularly, i.e. not when the computer shuts everything down for updates, and I wasted a good half an hour trying to retrieve five minutes of work that fatigue made me feel I could hardly bear to recover from brain as opposed to hard drive, though really it would have been easier and less stressful just to write it again!

Both talks went very well, I think, and I had dinner afterwards near the university with my friend and host. It is slightly comical the extent to which I am most myself - happy, focused, energetic - when I am in a classroom.

On Wednesday night I slept well, and I woke up Thursday feeling much better. We went to Jerusalem, which was as extraordinary as one might imagine (the only other place I have been in my life that is so shockingly visually iconic was Red Square, Moscow). An amazing thing: you can pay a modest fee and walk the ramparts of the Old City (here's more information - they were built by Suleiman in the sixteenth century, and it gives you an intense albeit historically fuzzy feeling of the crusades etc.!). What you can see, what you can imagine - really quite extraordinary.

The stairs are very deep, but modern railings make it quite safe; there was only a precipitous metal spiral staircase or two to give me a bad moment. We walked quickly round many of the main sites (Golgotha, the Western Wall) and ate amazing hummus and falafel at Abu Shukri. Pleasant delayed-onset muscle soreness in following days from genuinely strenuous walking.

Quiet days on my own in Tel Aviv Friday and Saturday, doing a lot of walking along the promenade (to Jaffa, where I saw the so-called Andromeda rocks, and also north to the old port). It is a gorgeous city, incredibly easy and enjoyable to visit (more so I think than any other place I have ever traveled to.

Alas, I was coming down with a respiratory infection, so I neither ran along the promenade nor had another swim in the amazing 50m Gordon Pool - but walking is good regardless....

I especially liked the hotel I was being put up in by the university, the Melody Hotel. It was one of these small boutique hotels that is somehow perfectly comfortable - not lavish exactly, but really amazing breakfast (also daily happy hour with wine and delicious snacks) and free wifi and a roof deck the like of which one can hardly imagine. Little fridge in the room, and super-convenient markets and ATM and so forth nearby, also a ton of restaurants (I had a particularly good meal on my own at one deli-type one, one of these meat and cheese platters that turns out to be just sublimely delicious, but I think I have misplaced the card and cannot reconstruct the exact name).

And a final very nice dinner with my friend at Rustico (pasta puttanesca), followed by toffee ice cream from Iceberg.

Minor reading on related topics (I am a person who mostly prefers to avoid thinking about politics, but really one cannot do so all the time, and the most disconcerting and, really, dismaying moment I had on the whole trip involved an enjoyable conversation with two extremely nice young journalists from London, visiting on a promotional trip funded by the Israeli tourist board - we were all watching the sunset from the hotel roof - during which it rapidly emerged that they knew nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, about Israel's twentieth-century history: nothing about the expulsion of the Palestinians, nothing about the history of hostilities with Egypt and Lebanon and Syria, nothing whatsoever about the Occupied Territories; I am a professor to the core, I could not help but give a short impromptu lecture, though it is really not one of my preferred topics! Their eyes were like saucers!): two books, each of which is about 60% great and 40% less so, the first because of a sort of columnist's liking for airy and/or emotional generalizations and the second because by necessity it includes so much not-very-interesting detail about a young visitor's coming-of-age post-college - though of course that is precisely the detail required to make the other content so shocking.

Ari Shavit's My Promised Land is extremely absorbing, especially in its account of the country's early years. I was fascinated by the story of how the "Masada ethos" came into being - I had been wondering why my host didn't mention Masada at all, as it looms relatively large in my imagination of Israel due to the TV series, which I did not see but which was very much talked about by my classmates - I suppose the year it came out I was in fifth grade or so? Shavit's book makes it much clearer to me than it had been before why a present-day Israeli leftist might not automatically single out that particular site for visiting! The description of the Israeli nuclear program is also fascinating. Here is a thoughtful review of Shavit's book; my criticisms would be more literary (why, oh why do these reporters have to narrate things in the present tense, and attribute to real historical individuals impossibly specific sequences of thoughts at specific times and places sixty or seventy years in the past? plus aforementioned columnist-style verbiage).

Pamela Olson's Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland is also highly worthwhile. It claims the authority not of deep knowledge and longtime expertise but rather of witnessing. I've seen quite a bit along these lines before, obviously, but this gives a much more detailed account of the ordinary lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories over the last ten years or so.

I'm taking suggestions for other reading. I can't read really dense policy stuff, the narrative history mode is more of a default for me, but please recommend in the comments or by email anything you think I would find particularly worthwhile. I think I'm going to go and get some of the academic history from the library - I have been meaning to read this one for instance for quite a long time, now I really will get it and crack it open....

After this, then, the irony (the shame?) of posting this record of what the texture of my week was like!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


The emerging science of "superspreaders" (via GeekPress):
... Sen and co found similar results when they examined the network of scientific dissemination in journals of the American Physical Society as well as in subsets of the networks on Twitter and Facebook. Users of all these different networks showed the same information-spreading behaviour.

Bad apples

Forbidden fruit!

Also: I would eat these.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Jet lag/speed read

Alas, I experienced an intense bout of wakefulness after those optimistic last posts - still at the computer rather than winding down, it's 1:30am here and I was really hoping to run in the morning before 9:30am departure for sightseeing. Probably that is not realistic....

But I saw a funny link I had to share....

Brendan Byrne at Rhizome on speed-reading caught my attention anyway - and then I came upon this paragraph:
"If only I'd known about RSVP while in college, I may have actually gotten through all 1,000 pages of Tom Jones," writes Jim Pagels in Slate. The initial impulse to question Pagels' purity of spirit should be quashed. No one can read Tom Jones the way Fielding's initial audience did in 1749 (unless someone were to construct an immersive VR world, complete with memory wipes, to enable full reading-experience). And, indeed, the first page or so of Tom Jones goes down easily enough on Spreeder, if only because it is primarily table-setting. Stick the first couple of paragraphs of The Manifesto of the Communist Party in there, and you'll get the gist, but you begin to see the delicate impact of the loss of subvocalization. The twin delicious names "Metternich and Guizot" cannot be chewed over, nor can the inadvisable nostalgia associated with the phrase "French Radicals and German police-spies" be indulged in, even briefly.
Obviously I had to click through that link - Jim Pagels was my Columbia student, that may well have been my Tom Jones assignment! Here is the underlying link.

I think I am not in agreement with the Byrne commentary - I have never endeavored for speed reading, but I can't remember not knowing how to read and I have always been able to read at a not preternaturally but certainly implausibly fast rate. I can only think of a few times when I actually had to pause after and digest - I remember a spell of daily reading in the Rare Books and Manuscripts room at the British Library when I would request the maximum number of books (fifteen, maybe, or was it only twelve?) per day and basically just go through them all (many were shorter eighteenth-century things like Jethro Tull's The New Horse-Houghing Husbandry, more pamphlet than book) so that I could get my full total of new ones the next day.

It's not quite skimming, it's definitely speed-reading in some sense, and assuming I'm not trying to read something densely philosophical, I can probably under real pressure get through about 2000 pages in 8 hours and have decent recall (this works best when you are reading purposefully, i.e. for research for a book or because you need to write a report on a dossier or similar - for real serious reading i.e. of narrative history or non-theoretical scholarship, 100pp/hr is more realistic, or perhaps more comfortable is the better way of putting it). That particular library session was almost the only time I remember when I didn't read a novel on public transportation on the way home - I was clearly still letting it sink in and sort itself out. It was an interesting feeling but doing it too often would probably take years off your life!

I read Bleak House as a teenager in not much more than one sitting, maybe eight or ten hours, and I reread War and Peace a few summers ago also just over a couple of days, in three or four longish sessions - an average crime novel c. 75K will probably take me less than two hours to read, and I do like really long novels that will give me better value for money! This is a gift, especially for work purposes, but it is also a curse in terms of the gaping maw always needing to have more things fed into it (I had a shock of recognition when I saw this scene at the end of Fargo - it is a little frightening, but I have never seen a better depiction of my relationship with books!).

One of the things I write about in the style book is the impact of duration on the experience of reading - I think War and Peace at 10 hours is a quite different animal than War and Peace at 50 hours....

Order wrangling

How Thomas Piketty's book was really marketed. Don't believe what you read in the papers! (Link via Ken Wark.)

Swim and other bits

I have a lot of tab-closing to do, and various updates, but just a few bits for now - I need to wind down and get some sleep.

Had an idyllic day today in Tel Aviv, the first day I have really had to myself for what seems like an impossibly long time. Beautiful walk along the boardwalk (sunburn!). A swim in a gorgeous 50m saltwater pool! Then a great talk on my beloved Kafka aphorisms at the university by Paul North and dinner on an outside terrace in highly congenial company at Suzanna's.

One special link: the obituary for Brent's father.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal on Andrew Stauffer's BookTraces project:
A woman named Ellen received a book by the sentimental poet Felicia Hemans. Years later, her seven-year-old daughter died, and she adapted lines from Hemans to create a memorial inside the book. Mary, Mary, Mary.

Moved by this, Stauffer looked at another edition of Hemans in the UVA library and found a similar tribute to a lost child. "This really tells us something about how people were using Hemans and this book to refract their own grief," he said.
A short piece, but full of interesting bits.

In other news, I am what can only be described as thoroughly discombobulated! I have two meetings tomorrow (plus an allergy doc appointment), then a day off before flying to Israel on Saturday night to give two lectures at Tel Aviv University; but I woke up this morning to the news that B.'s father died early this morning in Ottawa. I will fly up there tomorrow evening so that I can keep the bereaved company and help out with practical stuff for a day and a half; then I'll fly back to NYC and go straight from one airport to another for my Saturday evening flight. Head about to explode from complexity of packing requirements, compression of preparation and packing time, etc.!

(Chuck was a very dear man, kind and thoughtful; he had been suffering from Alzheimer's for almost a decade, and it had begun to really get the better of him, even as his hearing and vision had almost completely deserted him: not a good combination. That said, he and Brent and I had one particularly lovely day out together two years ago - I don't seem to have the photos on my computer, but I will retrieve one from B.'s fridge door and post later on.)

Friday, May 02, 2014

De La Heaven

Reading this piece gave me a huge pang of nostalgia for my first year of college - the sound of this album, hanging out with Kevin Young in Canaday (Columbia has a dorm of this etiology too, East Campus - bunker-like silos built in the wake of the riots of the late 1960s).

It is a fantastic album across the board, and I don't know that this is my favorite song on it, but - irresistibly - Jenny!

(It certainly beats the other teasing anthem of my childhood....)

Big bucks

Two royalty checks this week: $29.41 from Cambridge; $76.82 from Columbia. I always remember my friend Heather describing how at her first university press editing job, writers with freshly inked contracts would occasionally write and ask how soon they would be able to quit their jobs....