Monday, June 30, 2014


Alas, I am increasingly resigned to the fact that if I work incredibly hard from September to May, June is always going to be a bit of a wash work-wise! It is regrettable but I don't think there is a great deal to be done about it, especially when I also always want June to involve large amounts of exercise.

That said, I am ready to kick off what I hope will be an extremely productive July....

Having cleared from the desk what is for once not an overdue reader report on a journal article, I am facing a happy week with only two major responsibilities.

First, I need to revise the article I got back with reader comments in AUGUST, should have dealt with then but have instead had stressfully on my to-do list for, oh, let's say about TEN MONTHS (relatively minor revisions, but it was a complex set of reports - two from primary readers and two additional ones from editorial board members, one of whom clearly felt that the article was pernicious in every aspect and offensive by dint of its very nature!). It also needs some library work in the matter of correcting to appropriate scholarly editions, which meant it couldn't be done in Cayman, the place where I am usually better off in the matter of uninterrupted work time. Anyway, I am saying it here for accountability (I am not I suppose, on the continuum from procrastination to not-procrastination, especially an offender, but when putting-off does coalesce around a particularly undesirable task, it coalescesces mightily!) - it will be done by the end of the week, sooner if I have any control over the matter.

Second, I need to plunge into the complex but exhilarating task of drafting my syllabus for Literary Texts, Critical Methods, the one required course for undergraduate English majors, which I am teaching this fall for the first time. Here is the description - it is very open-ended, my colleague E. has been teaching a wonderful version of it but contemplation of his syllabus has told me I want to do it entirely differently - I will probably be canvasing for suggestions here over the week:
This course is intended to introduce students to the advanced study of literature. Students will read works from different genres (poetry, drama, and prose fiction), drawn from the medieval period to the present day, learning the different interpretative techniques required by each. The course also introduces students to a variety of critical schools and approaches, with the aim both of familiarizing them with these methodologies in the work of other critics and of encouraging them to make use of different methods in their own critical writing.
I often leave syllabus-making until the last minute, but in this case I teach in tandem with five graduate student seminar leaders who will customize and modify the base syllabus with their own additions, so it is only reasonable that I should have it to them by mid-July at the latest. It is going to be really fun, I have all sorts of ideas percolating about what I want to do!

(After that, The Ten-Week Clarissa and some reading and thinking for my exciting next project on the battle of ancients and moderns and why it mattered!)

Miscellaneous light reading, some of it more brain-rotting than others: Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm (very good, better than the first one I think - JKR is just a real pro, great storyteller - also it reminded me of childhood favorite Thou Shell of Death); Megan Abbott, The Fever (superb - I have loved all her books, but this one has the potential to reach a huge audience, and I'm delighted to see how much attention it's getting); Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes (contemplating a short essay on King, so won't say more here, but I thoroughly enjoyed it); Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex (I love this series - new one out shortly, had to catch up on the previous); and finally, much worse than any of these others, Tom Rob Smith's The Farm, which I should have put aside but instead speed-read in increasing irritation - people's lives and pathologies just don't sort themselves into neat boxes like this, it is a fraud, and I hated the way the Kindle edition used huge type to narrate the mother's account!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The suggester

Final post for the week at the CUP blog. I was supposed to write one more myself, but though I still have several good ideas, I ran out of time and steam for actual composition, so my editor kindly excerpted a bit from the beginning of the book instead. Among other things, it explains the cover picture:
I strongly experience the allure of a cer­tain type of box of chocolates not so much because of the chocolates themselves as because of the exquisite nature of the choice offered in map or legend. In my mother’s fam­ily, that paper guide was known as a “suggester”: a chart of sorts representing each chocolate’s exterior and signal­ing (graphically, verbally) the delights contained therein. If I were choosing a box of Jacques Torres chocolates for some­one else, I would pick the dark-chocolate selection because of its clear gastronomical superiority, but if I were buying it just for myself, a decadent and unlikely prospect, I would choose milk chocolate; dark chocolate may be aesthetically preferable to milk, but I like it much less than its sweeter, less pungent counterpart. My taste in prose differs from my taste in chocolate, but it similarly lacks a sense of propor­tion (“Truth is disputable, taste is not”). I love anchovies, I hate dill, but it would be absurd to construe my prefer­ences as objective verdicts on the respective merits of those two foodstuffs. When I loathe a book, though, my passion­ate contempt is colored partly by my conviction that it’s morally as well as aesthetically pernicious. I feel furious or even outraged by, say, the sentimentality of Markus Zusak’s young-adult holocaust novel The Book Thief or the cultish paranoia of Mark Danielewski’s intricately self-protective House of Leaves; this is one of the ways in which morality enters into even the most stringently formalist ways of read­ing, and I will return later to the complex antagonisms and interdependencies that unite reading for the sentence and reading for the heart.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Closing tabs

I am regularly promising myself that I will post each link separately, in that it translates better to Twitter - but really I love the conglomerate closing tabs blog post!

Interesting Bukowski bit.

Pornography in the Lenin Library.

"A dream of toasted cheese."

Vanishing shorthand.

DIY fjords (but can I get one made out of sugar?).

Megan Abbott's playlist for her magnificent new novel The Fever, which I devoured the other night.

Books books books

At the Columbia UP blog, ten of my favorite books about reading.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


First of four posts at the Columbia UP blog: I answer some questions about how I came to write Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:
Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Closing tabs

I'm slammed with work just now: lingering post-semester/post-travel fatigue and lots of exercise are at odds, alas, with the monstrous productivity I otherwise desire!

Two dissertation defenses this week, and a host of other student meetings. I have also rashly agreed to write four tenure letters this summer - it was three, the first two I automatically say yes to as a matter of principle and the third is someone I know quite well and would like to help in any way possible. But then I couldn't say no to the fourth, either - though I now have declined #5, as that is genuinely too many.

Happy to be back at home with cats, but a little dismayed at how fast the summer is slipping through my fingers - hopefully if I can really have a productive week, I will get myself back in a good work groove?

Closing tabs:

Tiny Dubliners. (Via Becca, if memory serves, though that tab has been open for a while now....)

And an additional bit of Joyceana from Anthony Burgess (via Andrew Biswell).

Enjoyed The Gloaming at LPR last night.

Have had some very decent light reading (airports, planes, subways, etc.): a teaser for Taylor Stevens' forthcoming Vanessa Michael Munroe novel, The Vessel (this is the only other series I know of that approximates the pleasures of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books - I really like 'em); Stephen King, The Shining and Doctor Sleep (will save thoughts on this for elsewhere, as I am blogging this week to celebrate publication of the style book at the Columbia UP site and still have four more posts to write!); Rachel Howzell Hall, Land of Shadows (unfair of me to single this out, there's really nothing wrong with it other than a pervasive air of unreality, but I am now officially swearing off the police procedural for a while, I'm sick of 'em!); and James S. A. Corey, Cibola Burn. I loved it - this series is amazing, though I do wish that they would stop having so many different characters have the gift for MacGyveresque engineering problem-solving - it is plausible that one or two would have that sort of imagination, but once you bestow it on everyone, the whole thing starts to seem remarkably fictitious!

Cole unfiltered

Emma Brockes interviews Teju Cole for the Guardian:
Art history is a passion, but some way into the course, he started to find academic writing frustrating."While doing the dissertation, I wrote two books – so both of these books are acts of procrastination. They also became acts of understanding a form of address that satisfied me, or that I found more fulfilling. I guess you're never satisfied, really. But as a writer, as a creative person, the very stringent, offensively foot-noted writing that was required to be an academic art historian lost its shine for me."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Slow books

From T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), p. 599:
The length of his novels has probably done Richardson's reputation even more harm than his moralizing. It has kept Clarissa from being read. Or it has caused it to be read in a version which curtails those minutiae which, Richardson rightly pointed out, are the strength of his method. Or it has caused readers to sample Pamela and reject Richardson on the basis of that book. . . . If one likes to read, there is no necessary assumption that the sooner one gets through reading a book the better. In spite of Poe, it is our opinion that neither poetry nor prose need aim exclusively at sharp, simple effects--length itself, if the details are not dull and are so organized as to support each other, may contribute to an effect unified in complexity and gaining cumulative impact. Whether Richardson succeeds in making his details interesting and in unifying them, each reader must decide. Tennyson, speaking of Clarissa, told FitzGerald that he loved 'those large, still, Books'. It does not seem to us that 'still' is quite the right adjective, since almost every episode in Clarissa is written with considerable intensity. 'Slow' might be more accurate. Clarissa is long not because, like War and Peace, it is rich and varied in incident and character, but because, like The Remembrance of Things Past, it wrings the utmost possible out of the incidents and characters it has.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Thinking with the hand

One of the appealing things about having a very quiet week is that under the right circumstances it leads to great mental fertility! I've been hungry all semester for some thinking and writing time; the most immediate project that I want to get underway is a book I've been thinking about for a few years now, a little book whose provisional title is The Ten-Week Clarissa.

Not as instructional as something like this, though not entirely dissimilar - but more for readers and students and teachers who want some assistance tackling Richardson's million-word-long novel, which I hope to persuade obsessive readers should as much be on their lifetime bucket lists as Proust.

It will have elements in common with funny books like Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage and Jonathan Coe's B. S. Johnson biography; it will also bear a respectful but somewhat ironized relationship to Alain de Bouton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.

(It will start with an opening essay that addresses the question "Why bother?" and considers the topic of immersive reading - then it will proceed through Richardson's novel in ten chunks that have worked well for me as subdivisions in the classroom, with an interlude after each chapter in which I consider some interesting question of relevance (changes in kinship structures and inheritance law, hypergraphia, epistolarity and letters in both their material and conventional aspects, novels and the counterfactual mode, detail and description, clothing, readers kicking back against the ending in a sort of proto-"fanfic" culture, the culture of death as instantiated in mourning rings, coffin designs etc.). I have to write this book quickly because I have a sabbatical in two years that I want to devote wholly to the battle of ancients and moderns, with a few months on the side for a long essay to be called "Gibbon's Rome" - reread Decline and Fall, tromp around Rome, look at the medals and inscriptions and books that he consulted, write it up after the manner of Sebald!)

With a couple more weeks of reading, I feel (it is probably a delusion) that I will be able to sit down and let the proposal just pour out of me like a stream of water. I made a map for it the other day: there is nothing quite like illegible thinking with the hand....

Ovoid opulence

I have to get this book! (Here is a gallery of some of the images.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Just a taste, to whet the appetite (I am hungry to be back at the library so that I can check out a huge pile of books about biblical criticism), from the Theological-Political Treatise:
Possibly someone will say that I am completely undermining Scripture by my manner of proceeding, since it may lead everyone to suspect that the Bible is everywhere full of mistakes. But on the contrary, I have shown that my methodology works in favour of Scripture by preventing passages which are clear and pure from being corrupted to fit defective passages and simply because some passages are defective, we are not justified in placing every passage under suspicion. There has never ever been a book without mistakes: has anyone (I ask) therefore ever supposed that they were defective throughout? Of course not, especially when the expression is lucid and the meaning of the author is clearly evident.

Tractor, truck-like vehicle

Enjoyable week of reading here: Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (I was recently almost overwhelmed with a yen to read books by and about Spinoza, and obtained some immediately, but this was the first week it was practical to dig in); the first half of the Kimpel and Eaves Richardson biography, which I have dipped into but never before read straight through from start to finish, and which I am thinking will put me in the right mood to plunge into my Clarissa project (about which, more soon, along with the other more notional projects that also have me in sway to them); and My Struggle vol. 3, which I have just finished.

It is hard to explain why the Knausgaard is so mesmerizing, but I was again absolutely riveted. Here's a bit I especially liked:
Even though history didn't exist for me when I went there as a child and everything belonged to the moment, I could still feel its presence. Grandad had lived there all his life, and in some way or other that influenced the image I had of him. But if there was one image or notion that embodied Grandad, it was not everything he had done in his life, of that I knew very little, and the little I did know, I had nothing to compare it with, no, the one thing that embodied Grandad was the little two-stroke tractor he used for a multitude of purposes. That tractor was the very essence of Grandad. It was red and a bit rusty, needed to be kick-started, and had a small gear stick, a column with a black ball on top, on one hand lever, while the accelerator was on the other. He used it for mowing, walking behind it while an enormous scissor-like attachment on the front cut down the grass in its path. And he used it to transport heavy items; then he put a trailer on the back with a green seat, from which he steered what all of a sudden had become a truck-like vehicle. There was little I rated higher than being with him then, sitting on the back and chugging toward the two shops in Vagen, for example, where he would collect cans of formic acid or sacks of feed or artificial manure. The vehicle was so slow you could walk beside it, but that didn't matter, speed wasn't of any consequence, all the rest was: the rattle of the engine, the exhaust fumes that smelled so god and wafted across the road as we drove, the feeling of freedom in the trailer, being able to hang over one side, then the other, all the things there were to see on the journey, including Grandad's slight figure and his peaked cap in front of me, and getting out at the shop, where the Bergen boat docked, and being able to walk around, often with an ice cream in our hands while Grandad did whatever he had to do.
I am a little worried about the way my summer is slipping away from me! Have had a truly lovely quiet week here, homemade Spa Week with yoga and running and green smoothies and a lot of reading time - only problem is distinct shortage of cats! - but we are already in the middle of June, and I haven't at all gotten started on proper work. I have 3 dissertation defenses in the next four weeks, and rashly also agreed to write four tenure letters - the first two because they came in first, the second two because they are people I know and want to help - and 3 PhD students going on the job market for the first time. I need to make the syllabus for the "Literary Texts, Critical Methods" class I'm teaching for the first time in the fall - this is much more complex than usual syllabus-making. I also want to write a proposal and some pages for the Clarissa book and do substantial reading and thinking about my ancients-and-moderns book; this may be cumulatively unrealistic, as there are of course all sorts of other bits and bobs that must be taken care of too....

Permutations and combinations

At the LRB, Gavin Stamp has an interesting piece on Mackintosh and the destruction by fire of the library at the Glasgow School of Art (gated for subscribers):
The dramatic west front, with its towering oriels, is an abstracted Tudor composition which, as John Summerson pointed out, may owe something to the central reference library in Bristol designed by a distinguished but less applauded English near contemporary, Charles Holden. But there was no precedent for the extraordinary library space behind those tall metal oriels.

The library was at once very practical and very strange. Made entirely of dark timber, it was dominated by tall square piers rising from floor to ceiling which supported the balcony running around the room on all four sides. The piers were placed far in front so as to be conspicuous. Was the idea of a Forest of Knowledge in Mackintosh’s mind, in which symbolism was so important? Oddest, and most personal of all, were the timber pendants on the balcony front, each with what might be hanging tassels, but with little ovals, like bubbles, in the gaps. Each one was slightly different.

Closing tabs

Ayn Rand, cat fancier.

Vanilla is the old black.

Rebecca Traister on the violence of adolescent girls. (Joyce Carol Oates and Megan Abbott are two great novelists on this theme - I am much looking forward to Megan's new novel The Fever.)

This is interesting. (Via GeekPress.)

Have been doing some very interesting reading this week, about which more anon, and am more strongly resolved than ever to stop rotting my brain with so much junk! I am not contemplating denying myself light reading altogether, that would be simply penitential, but I would guess only about a third of the novels I read are things I am really avid for, the others are just to fill up the time. More nonfiction for the rest of the year, and I have some research topics I'm excited to begin reading in more deeply, so that's perfect.

(I think this disgust was particularly prompted by two poor books I read last week. Usually I link to bad books without naming them - I have a protective feeling that minor authors of minor books should not have to read me saying cruel things about their novels in the first page of Google results! But these two were ones by high-profile authors that inevitably have a lot of buzz, so my scruples in that case do not apply - instead I think I am doing a bit of public service in warning others about their demerits....)

I have let it go too long without logging light reading - it becomes a pain when I have to paste in a ton of links!

First of all, and very good (though I find the spin put on things at the end quite bizarre), Jo Walton's My Real Children, which among other things confirms my suspicion that the novel as a genre is built upon a scaffolding of counterfactuals!

A reread of Dorothy Dunnett's first Lymond book, but I am not sure I am really in the mood for this (I like having a long series on the go in a month when I am spending time in airports - started the second one but have left it idle for now).

Deborah Coates's Strange Country, which is frustratingly slow in opening (as if you set Alice Munro to rewrite the first half of a Lee Child thriller!) but picks up speed to become one of my very favorite kinds of novel. The writing is really exceptionally good, and the characters are very appealing, though I wish she were getting more crime-series-type editing (I don't know that you would enjoy this without having read the first couple in the series, whereas I think some editing ought to have made it into a more satisfying book in its own right).

Now the two really poor ones.

First of all, Mo Hayder's preposterous Wolf. The violence in her books has always been polarizing, and they are also uneven in quality, but the best couple are in my view superb. This one is terrible! The writing is still quite good, and I can't fault it for readability, but the central drama (with ridiculous twist at the end) hinges on a family who are being kept hostage and the detective trying to figure out who they are (and as a consequence where they can be found and rescued), with chapters alternating between the hostage scenes and the detective's quest to identify them. But in fact the information he has plus five minutes with Google would have answered this question immediately!

Then Greg Iles' Natchez Burning, which is particularly cartoonishly written in its sequences set in the past and which more generally just reminded me of the dreadful John Grisham at his most portentous on the topic of race relations in the South (A Time to Kill is possibly one of the most banal and silly books I have ever read). It's marketed as the first in a trilogy, but really we are supposed to know the characters from a prior series of books that I hadn't read - hadn't read and don't intend to! I really, really didn't like this one, though it is competent enough that I read it to the end rather than putting it aside. In fact I dimly recall that I have read one or two others by this author and didn't like them either - this one is a mass of good intentions but didn't work for me.

Finally, Mary Rickert's The Memory Garden, which I wasn't keen on at first but which grew on me as I read further. The first half is dreadfully whimsical, but it becomes much more satisfying as the engagements with the past grow more substantive.

Halfway through Knausgaard volume 3 and very happy to have temporarily arrested the brain rot!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Stormy romance

Taking sex to the gutters. (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Tea for two

The case can definitely be made that breakfast is the best meal of the day.

Defeating Hitler

From Avraham Burg, The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes, an interesting book recommended by David B.:
Once we decided to accept K. Zetnik's testimony in the Eichmann trial verbatim, without questioning, we exiled ourselves to "another planet" on the Shoah platform, and our lives are a journey between dark planets. As far [as] we are concerned, we live on the Auschwitz planet. All is Shoah and everything is weighed on its scales. The rays of light that reach Israel break as they pass through the prism of crematoria. When it happens to others, we move to the next planet, where there is no room for the other's suffering, no genocides, no atrocities, and no holocausts that are not ours.

We are on the side [of] the Turks in their denial of the Armenian Holocaust, and we are beside the U.S. right-wingers, not knowing anything about America's original nations. We supplied arms to those who perpetuated the massacres in Rwanda and our denial reaches inside the Balkans. Soon after the Eichmann trial concluded, the Israeli government, and society in large, denied Hannah Arendt's argument that the Shoah was a human crime, committed by human beings, made possible by a new type of a murderer, the bureaucrat. The rejection of Arendt's Eichmann Trial was brief and fatal. No, protested the Shoah establishment. The Shoah is unique. It happened only to us; do not contaminate our Shoah with other people's troubles. In this manner Israel isolated itself from profound world processes and became a denier of other peoples' holocausts.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Free samples

Taste a bit of the style book at the CUP site!

Closing tabs

Trying to get school-related tasks done this last two weeks has been like wading through marmalade - that always happens at the end of the semester. I have two more minor tasks to finish this morning before I can guiltlessly (a) go to midday hot yoga [ED. This did not happen - I was interrupted in my post by the need to visit a friend in the hospital, and we ended up staying with his wife for a bit while she waited for scary tests to be conducted] and (b) write the luxuriantly copious blog post about summer writing thoughts that has been percolating for many days now. But before any of that, I think, some tabs to close....

A good Knausgaard interview by Scott Esposito (scroll down and click the link to open).

It really was bound in human skin! (More here and here.)

Documenting the last living Chinese women whose feet were bound in childhood.

Rebalancing acts

The busiest Citi Bike in New York! (This would make a funny children's book.)


At the FT, Teju Cole travels to Ramallah (a place I am increasingly keen to spend some time in myself - must explore possibilities along these lines):
How does one write about this place? Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but for what it leaves out: have we acknowledged the horror of the Holocaust? The perfidy of the Palestinian Authority? The callousness of Hamas? Under these conditions, the dispossessed – I will leave aside all caveats and plainly state that the Palestinians are the dispossessed – have to spend their entire lives negotiating what should not be matters for negotiation at all: freedom of movement, the right to self-determination, equal protection under the law.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

"Goats are awesome"

Kidding around.

7 reasons not to write novels

Javier Marías offers seven reasons not to write novels and only one to do so:
Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen. The so-called realistic novelist, who, when he writes, remains firmly installed in the real world, has confused his role with that of the historian or journalist or documentary-maker. The real novelist does not reflect reality, but unreality, if we take that to mean not the unlikely or the fantastical, but simply what could have happened and did not, the very contrary of actual facts and events and incidents, the very contrary of “what is happening now.”

Baton Rouge, New York, Miami

At Bookforum, Wayne Koestenbaum considers Hervé Guibert's unbridled eroticism:
A born diarist, Guibert regarded the genre of “novel” with a fatigued, valedictory suspicion: “It is perhaps preferable to circle around the idea of the novel, to dream it, like in Gide’s Marshlands, and to botch it, rather than succeed, since the successful novel is perhaps a very banal form of writing.” He wants writing to be a form of physical adventure—a leap, a plunge, a way to befriend the abyss: “I would like one day to throw myself into a narrative that would be but an event of writing, without a story, and without boredom, a true adventure. . . . The other day I wrote that it was necessary to surrender to pure events of writing (just as the most pure photos are pure events of light).” What is a pure event of writing? Certain French thinkers called it “writing the body,” a phrase that doesn’t get sung a lot these days, though I hope that Guibert’s journal will bring this philosophically inclined subset of body-smeared literature back into prominence. What else is there to write but the body? “Pains in my left eye where it seemed I let a bit of semen penetrate by rubbing my eyes after having jerked off . . .” As in Monique Wittig’s pronoun-slashed The Lesbian Body, every organ within Guibert’s literary body intramurally huddles with its mates; his journal invents a body where “semen” and “left eye” belong to each other, even if their spunky wedlock causes distress.