Saturday, October 15, 2016

Saturday evening snippet

End of week 1 (of 8) in Oxford. Really nice week! Though need to buckle down and start working properly - adjustment period is properly coming to a close....

A Saturday evening Gibbon snippet (new title for book is Gibbon's Rome: A Love Story - it is amazing how just sitting quietly and reading allows ideas to flow, I was having insane thoughts last night about how you would write an opera libretto that would bring the juxtaposition of the father-son dynamic, the father marrying and preventing the son from being able to do so - and not sending the money he promised so that Gibbon has to keep his brokeness a shameful secret from the friends he has been traveling with - and then the moment of impact when Gibbon actually meets Rome the city - but in my book, it's my own love story with the Decline and Fall as well):
I owe it to myself, and to historic truth, to declare, that some circumstances in this paragraph are founded only on conjecture and analogy. The stubbornness of our language has sometimes forced me to deviate from the conditional into the indicative mood.
Main task for remaining weeks is to draft as much of the Austen book as I can (I'm optimistic that I should be able to get most of it down on paper in at least a rough version, top limit of 50K I think for full book so 8 chapters at 5-6K each should be doable in a 1.5K production of quota fashion); glory in libraries and read massive amounts of general footnote stuff (mostly amazing primary sources, especially history and poetry, with footnotes); and (re)read a chapter a day of Gibbon to put myself in the mood.

One of my two talks for the end of term now has an explicit commitment to talk especially about Gray's and Gibbon's footnotes, so I will do some Gray reentry also in between the other footnote reading. Exploration of library system to begin Monday, must first have a proper writing session on Austen and must before that finish typing up notes for the first chapter so that I can proceed to the next stage!

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Fast running

Jon Day has a really nice piece at the LRB on two new books about Emil Zatopek:
By modern standards some of his achievements seem modest. He was the first person to run 10,000 metres in under 29 minutes, but runners are now getting close to 26 minutes. He would not have qualified for the 10,000 metres event in the 2016 Olympics, and his marathon times are now matched by those of strong amateurs. The range of his abilities, however, remains unequalled. He was 174.3 cm tall and weighed 68 kg. He had long legs, but his left was slightly thinner than his right. His resting heart rate was measured, on different occasions, at 68 and 56 bpm. Both rates are high for a runner, though it was noted that he was able to recover quickly after exercise. He had an odd diet, fuelling himself before races with beer, cheese, sausages and bread. He drank strange concoctions that he thought would improve his performance: the juice from jars of pickles; a mixture of lemon juice (for vitamin C) and chalk (he thought the calcium would protect his teeth). He ate the leaves of young birch trees because he had noticed that deer did so. Deer run quickly, he reasoned, so he might too.
I will definitely reaad Richard Askwith's - I loved his book Feet in the Clouds more than almost any other book about running....

(This is what I had to say about it at the time I read it - though actually I am really starting to move in the direction of trail-running despite my horrendous sense of direction and fear of heights, as I have been inspired by SWAP teammates! Albeit last time I hitched a ride with Liz to a trail run I was so freaked out by the first five minutes of rock-clambering with ice that I backed out and ran laps on a flat trail around the lake instead!)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Light reading update

I have said this before, but I really do have a resolution to try and log light reading once a month or so - otherwise it piles up so much that the task becomes off-putting.  Going to try and get at least something down here, without links to purchase as that is so much the most troublesome part of doing a long list at once....

This is about three months' worth I think!  Not in chronological order - putting strongest recs up top and then sorting things more or less by category.

Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me - dynamite!

Reread the first two of Paul Cornell's Secret Police series in order to prepare for the third, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?  I really love these books - the storytelling across volumes is particularly masterful - one of my favorite things in this vein going down.

A pair of YA historical fantasy novels that I liked so much I almost wept when I finished the second one - out of hunger for more - I could tell as soon as I was reading the first one that I was in my absolute favorite kind of fictional world.  These come with my highest recommendation - Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night.

Natalie Baszile's Queen Sugar is PERFECT thoughtful immersive story-telling - again, it so pained me to come to an end of the story.  (It was the fact of the TV series that drew my attention to it, but I don't know that I am enough of a watcher to really get into it - the book is really wonderful though.)

Max Gladstone's latest Craft novel is particularly good (I love this series too): Four Road Cross.

Discovered a new favorite crime writer, James Oswald, and DEVOURED all the books in the Inspector McLean series, despite glitch of latest ones not being available in US for Kindle and having to be ordered from the UK in paperback.  Then I read his OTHER series which I love too, Ballad of Sir Benfro - was mortified to get to the end of what I THOUGHT was final installment and realize that there is still at least one more chunk of story yet to be published.....

I am especially keen on these "it's MOSTLY straight crime only slight occult strand" novels and another very good one I read recently was Barbara Nickless's Blood on the Tracks - hungry for next installment!

Ben Winters, Underground Airlines - hopefully it was a storm in a teacup around publication re: white authors and race (let's NOT think about Lionel Shriver's dreadful latest comments), but I thought this was haunting and powerful, highly recommended.  And even more deeply recommended: Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.  The novel I have been waiting for him to write - I loved his first one The Intuitionist more than almost anything, and though I think he's written brilliantly since then, no single book of his has captivated me the way that first one did (lack of female protagonist is clearly part of it).  This is incredible - I couldn't put it down.

Alison Umminger, American Girls - I loved this!  One of those books that makes me regret I am no longer writing YA (maybe I will again sometime).  Highly recommended.

Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers - a very good recommendation from Becca S.  I cannot imagine who would not like this novel - it reads like Bonfire of the Vanities only written out of a much finer sense of humanity.

Gina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting - first pages have off-puttingly long list of names to keep track of, and it did give me cause to think with relief that I am not myself living a life so bound up in the lives of others - but it is really, really good, highly recommended.

Nina Stibbe, Paradise Lodge.  She is a comic genius, what more is there to be said?  This book is slighter I think than the previous installment, but still very much worth reading.

Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow - excellent psychological thriller, better than the over-hyped Gone Girl for sure!

Duane Swierczynski, Revolver: a lovely novel of crime and Philadelphia, reminiscent in some good ways of Pete Dexter but quite fresh too.

David Swinson, The Second Girl - very good - again, reminiscent of Pelecanos but fresh and very much its own book.  I will look forward to reading a next installment on this one.

Chuck Wendig, Invasive: a true heir to the Michael Crichton of The Andromeda Strain era.  Do not read if you find ants creepy or are worried about Zika and genetically modified mosquitoes!

Robin Wasserman, Girls on Fire (I enjoyed this one very much too - beautifully written - a little reminiscent of another novel I loved, Martha O'Connor's The Bitch Posse).

Amy Gentry, Good as Gone - another good one (made me want to reread the series of favorites along similar lines, from Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar through Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree and perhaps best of all Father's Arcane Daughter, horribly renamed My Father's Daughter for a younger generation of readers).

Susie Steiner, Missing, Presumed: I like this sort of police procedural-plus-psychological thriller - there are things that don't quite work here, but I thought this was very good.

Robin Kirman, Bradstreet Gate - a voice- and character-driven literary thriller, very enjoyable, beautifully written.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, inevitably - have read too many things in this time-travel vein I think, it's overused as a trope, but I hear the stage production is really magical....

Jilly Cooper, Mount!  It is so politically incorrect, I don't know what to do about that aspect of it (it's actually quite disturbing) - but really these books are just set in an imaginary time and place that never existed, where late-middle-aged men's cocks "rise like Concorde" with no thoughts on the obsolescence of the metaphor - strange to think how long ago the first installment of the Riders series was published...

Louise Miller, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living - not as whimsical as the title suggests, I enjoyed it (slight, though).

Evelyn Skye, The Crown's Game: very enjoyable alternate-history YA fantasy.  Keen for more!

Michelle Belanger, Conspiracy of Angels and Harsh Gods - very well-written and appealing new urban fantasy series, I liked these enormously.

Seanan McGuire, Once Broken Faith - one of the most consistently excellent genre writers working today.

A reread of a book I liked a long time ago,  Laurie R. King, A Darker Place: she writes extremely well about cults and their internal dynamics.

Charles Stross, The Nightmare Stacks: I like this series so much, but the first-person voice doesn't vary enough to be persuasively the voice of different characters - it's probably worst for the Mo narration, but here too I just don't believe it's a young guy with a different personality than Bob!  That said, very fun, enjoyable light reading...

Other good Scottish crime fiction: Lesley Kelly, A Fine House in Trinity; Douglas Skelton, The Dead Don't Boogie.   Was tipped off to Stuart MacBride via Oswald and read the whole of the Logan McRae series to date, not quite so much my favorite sort of thing as Oswald but extremely good.

Melissa Olson, Nightshades: appealing new paranormal series.  Also Boundary Born (#3 in her other series)

Linsey Hall, four books in Dragon's Gift series - a little bit silly but very enjoyable.

Reread the first two books of Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy in preparation for the third - I still see much of merit in the first two, but the third was a huge disappointment, not least because it has what might be The Worst Magical Negro Problem in the history of genre fiction but also because the voice of Fanning just seems so preposterous.  The limitations of the vision (and its overly eschatological flavor) came through much more clearly as things wrapped up - I wish it could have just stopped with vol. 2!

Daniel O'Malley's second Rook Files installment, Stiletto: not bad, but not perhaps up to the standard of the first, which I really liked.

Rebecca Cantrell, Joe Tesla book one

Clare Mackintosh, I Let You Go (more or less readable but preposterous in its details)

Mark Billingham, Die of Shame (not recommended!)

S. J. Watson, Second Life (not so keen on this one - very artificial)

F. Paul Wilson, Panacea (arghhh, wouldn't have read this if I had realized it was part of author's Grand Mystical Scheme)

J. M. Gulvin, The Long Count: A John Q Mystery - quite readable (the storytelling is good) but preposterously not anchored in real-seeming time and place - the last straw was a reference to (I think - it's too long since I read it now) "dissociative identity disorder" as a diagnosis in Vietnam-era psychology - jury's out on this, will probably read next installment but will hope it is more probable in its details (I may have been reading too much Gibbon!).

On a totally different note, Abby Wambach's Forward, which I read because of a blurb that liked it to Andre Agassi's memoir - not on that level from a literary standpoint or in terms of psychological interest, but certainly worthwhile.

OK, that's most of it, a couple books deserve separate posts.  Have loaded a ton of stuff onto my Kindle in preparation for long flight to Australia....


From Anthony Ervin, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, a very good recommendation from Jessica S. (I have followed his career with interest because of his connection to my beloved first adult swim teacher Doug Stern, and it is a very interesting book):
Distance freestylers use a hip-driven stroke, arms gliding long in front and legs acting like an engine in the rear.  You can swim far like that.  But a shoulder-driven stroke is better suited in the 50, the shoulders driving down and the legs almost rising up behind you.  I still use my legs for propulsion but additionally employ them as a leveraging tool to rotate my body.  Instead of just trying to move the water as fast as I can, I try to anchor it with my leg to slip around and over it.  That way, I don't need to generate and expend as much power to get into my catch. 
The center for all of my strength is an X axis that crisscrosses my core, from opposite shoulders to opposite hips.  A line of tension runs through me from my fingertip to my opposite toe.  The hardest part in training is to maintain the flexibility and strength through that X axis, through the core from the shoulder to the opposite hip. If I don't have that deep interconnection and unity, gears start flying and my swim breaks down.  In sprinting, the entirety of the body needs to be solid and connected, from fingertip to toe.  It's almost like reverting to the state before you l earn how to swim, when you're tense in the water.
Bonus links: five books for the swim-obsessedtwo of my favorite books about swimming.

Closing tabs

Leaving for the airport very early for a flight to LAX en route to Sydney, and having the usual scramble to get ready to leave town (it's almost 8 and I haven't gotten out to run, must at least do SOME kind of a run though 2hr may at this point be overkill given that I'm not going to sleep much).  Austen notes woefully behind where I'd hoped they'd be, but I can at least bring the LETTERS chapter with me to work on, having made a little packet of xeroxes and selected three out of the ten volumes whose bits are more extensive & haven't yet been transcribed by me into typed notes.  I've mostly packed.  Cleaning up some tabs (was really looking to find one on Austen's letter-writing that I opened a while ago, but will have to use Google to find that again as it does not seem to be here):

Charlie Stross on why interruptions are a disaster when you're trying to work.

That said, Marilyn Berlin Snell on the disaster of the meditation retreat!

Perec in Australia.

Elizabeth Bishop's alcoholic admissions.

An interview with Mary Gaitskill.

Luc Sante on the art of nonfiction.

Geoff Dyer's new book sounds good.

Hermit crabs make homes out of beach trash.

Eighteenth-century documents discovered in birds' nests during cathedral renovation.

Last but not least, a charming bit of nomenclature: "Johnny Blue Pants"!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

School books

Also I don't think I linked here to the essay I wrote about why I wish I could read more novels set in classrooms, Crossfit boxes, etc,  I wrote this first as a talk about a year and a half ago (it was my literary classrooms talk) and I am pleased to see it now available to a wider readership!  There are so many things I didn't get to talk about there - Diana Wynne Jones's Magid committees for one which in my theory must have been strongly influenced by how many of her close friends and family were professional academics, there is nothing so much like my day-to-day work life as the administrative conversations in the great underrated Deep Secret!

The dining-room table

I am long overdue a light reading update - I have a resolution to do that at least once a month going forward, otherwise the titles mount up so alarmingly that the task begins to seem overly Herculean - but this is really what I have been working on this month.  Working intensively on a new book project always feels like coming home; smaller or shorter things don't have that feeling of entering a real intellectual world, and my only regret is that I can't have one hemisphere of the brain working on Austen while the other works on Gibbon, which is also at the alluring early stage where everything seems possible and there are almost infinite amounts of appealing new material yet to be unearthed and assembled into some kind of a sensible narrative.

Each project asks for its own method - and its own combination of stationery and writing implements! - but this one is more colorful than the last few I've done.  I've already modified the plan from my proposal, and I currently intend to write the book - Reading Jane Austen, an installment in a new Cambridge series that began with Reading William Blake and continued with Reading John Keats - in eight chapters, coded by color here.  First I reread through the complete works plus biography and letters, marking up with a pen.  Then I set up the provisional topics for individual chapters - Letters, Conversation, Revision, Manners, Morals, Voice, Teeth (someone is going to make me change that title later I suspect! But basically, all the gruesome details of social history and ailments of the body that lurk around the edges in Austen's writing), Mourning and Melancholy.  Each one has its own page and a color-coded set of post-its, so that when I then went back through my marked-up volumes, I stuck a post-it to categorize points in the books and also transferred a cryptic notation under the appropriate heading, loosely organized on the page though certainly not rigorously so.

The next step will be to type up these notes in individual files, then to start working on the chapters - I like "pushing" a project in its entirety through from stage to stage, so I'll probably get all the notes typed up and only then start writing rather than taking chapters one at a time.  I had this in retrospect quite unrealistic fantasy that I could type up ALL THOSE NOTES (the book is only supposed to be about 60,000 words, not a long one) before I fly to Australia on Sept. 19, but that does not seem likely to happen - it would take more time and concentration than I probably have available to me in this coming week, which also features quite a few evening work engagements, to manage notes on a chapter-per-day basis.  That said, it is worth trying - or else B. will be wondering why I have brought a very heavy bookpack of work stuff on vacation with me, as once I get going on a job like this I really hate to put it aside before it's done!  (More sensibly, if I have "Letters" notes typed up I could work on drafting that chapter from notes, that wouldn't require bringing such a heavy load with me.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Conjectural histories

I have completely succumbed, by the way, to the allure of Gibbon.  Excited about working on this project!  Here are two small bits that may convey some of the quality I find so irresistible in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

On Gordianus, father and son:
When he reluctantly accepted the purple, he was above fourscore years old; a last and valuable remains of the happy age of the Antonines, whose virtues he revived in his own conduct, and celebrated in an elegant poem of thirty books.  With the venerable proconsul, his son, who had accompanied him into Africa as his lieutenant, was likewise declared emperor.  His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father.  Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.  
(The note to that last sentence reads: "By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children.  His literary productions, though less numerous, were by no means contemptible.")

Or again, in a more contemplative vein (on the difficulty of writing about the empire c. 248-268 CE):
The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration.  Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.

Ruin porn of the 18th century

Have just Amazoned a copy of James Crawford's book, reviewed a while ago by Mary Beard for the TLS (I had a copy via BorrowDirect briefly but it was recalled before I had a chance to read it - I think my borrowing privileges have been suspended three or four times this year for overdue recall books, and I've got another overdue BD book - Louise Curran's fascinating book about Samuel Richardson's correspondence that I forgot to return before I left NYC and that can't be renewed again, I read it but haven't transcribed my notes yet - that has probably just tipped me over again today into delinquency....).  This is Beard's opening:
Inside the monastery of S. TrinitĂ  dei Monti, which stands at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, is a room decorated in glorious trompe l’oeil as a ruin. Created in 1766 by Charles-Louis ClĂ©risseau, and originally intended to be the cell of the monastery’s resident mathematician Fr Thomas Le Sueur, it imitates a decaying classical temple, with tumbled columns, a roof open to the sky, encroaching vegetation and a large parrot perched on one of the apparently surviving crossbeams. 

Analytic rage

I wrote about Jenny Diski's life and memoirs for Public Books.  I always feel that this sort of a piece should just trip lightly off the fingers in an afternoon, but really it took quite a lot of my reading and writing attention in June as well, further contributing to my sense of being a useless layabout!  The self-castigation of the academic who is not making progress on her own book projects is not to be believed....

Field review

Remember this?  My review of the year's work in Restoration and eighteenth-century studies is up now at JSTOR (I've also posted it to my profile).  This was a big piece of work - lack of productivity in June and July is probably partly a consequence of pulling all this together in April and May, along with the intensity of the tenure committee obligations.  I feel it as a real accomplishment.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Closing tabs

Quiet summer on the blog - Facebook is getting the sort of idle thought that used to show up here, and I think there is no point resisting the drain in that direction.  Have a lot of open tabs to close, as well as a light reading update that I will write separately.  Funny summer in life - I have done no substantive work of my own, it's all life stuff (apartment declutter, 100 runs in 100 days, family Disney trip etc.) and other people's work stuff - but I am going to have to accept that sometimes I have to pay attention to things that are not a book that I am writing....

The Clown Egg Register.

The beautiful afterlife of Edward Gorey's mink stroller coat.

Starbucks card value exceeds money on deposit at many financial institutions.

Eighteenth-century note-taking (and the interesting underlying link).

Secrets of the London Library.

Roger Luckhurst on trouble in Lovecraft Country.

Sheep View 360.

Baroque wigs of paper.