Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In bed with Raymond Williams

I was on the verge of writing B. an email earlier - "Getting into bed with Raymond Williams" - only I realized that what I really needed was a straight-up nap, not nap-pretending-to-be-reading-a-book! I have been remiss in not mentioning this here sooner - Facebook and Twitter leach energy away from this sort of announcement - but I've got a fun gig tomorrow night, joining Geoff Dyer (one of my literary heroes) and Nikil Saval (Columbia grad and author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, which I haven't read yet but which I sent a copy of last year to my father, longtime "cube" occupant) for a panel discussion of a new reissue of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review.

At the Strand Bookstore, Thursday, March 26, 7pm (828 Broadway @ 12th St.).

Monday, March 23, 2015

New York living

One of the services the professional catsitters provide is a very funny note to greet you on your arrival home (NYC often outdoes even your most extravagant imaginings!)....

Friday, March 20, 2015

The last...

At the end of January my father and I were both keen to read Antonia Fraser's memoir of childhood, My History; it's not properly published in the US, i.e. unavailable for Kindle, so he kindly ordered us each a copy from the Book Depository in the UK. Thus leading to my painful awareness, as I read the book this week with considerable pleasure, that this is the last book my father will ever send me....

A passage that I know would have caught his eye, as Enid Blyton was also famously banned by the librarian in the Kirkcaldy of my father's childhood:
One author was never allowed to pollute our imaginations and that was Enid Blyton. In an excess of Thirties moralistic disapproval - the only example of such that I can remember - my mother banned her works. Unusually for me, I took no steps to get hold of the books in question later from the library. Indeed, I followed my mother when dealing with my own family, more for reasons of intellectual snobbery, I suspect, rather than anything else. My daughters, however, showed more spirit: it was not long before a stockpile of the dread works came tumbling out of their wardrobe. 'Jane' - a lively schoolfriend - 'gave them to us' was the explanation. 'She felt sorry for us not being able to read them. It was so exciting reading them in secret.' (A lesson, surely, in the dangers of censorship.)
To a curious degree, I share some of Fraser's influences in the matter of childhood reading: I suppose these were my English grandmother's books rather than even my mother's (Our Island Story and the unforgettably good Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies). When it came to Our Island Story, I was particularly fascinated by the story of the coming of Hengist and Horsa, which Fraser doesn't single out here but which I cannot resist quoting:
Then Hengist said, "You have indeed given us lands and houses, but as we have helped you so much I think you should give me a castle and make me a prince."

"I cannot do that," replied Vortigern. "Only Britons are allowed to be princes in this land. You are strangers and you are heathen. My people would be very angry if I made any one but a Christian a prince."

At that Hengist made a low bow, pretending to be very humble. "Give your servant then just so much land as can be surrounded by a leather thong," he said.

Vortigern thought there could be no harm in doing that, so he said, "Yes, you may have so much." But he did not know what a cunning fellow Hengist was.

As soon as Vortigern had given his consent, Hengist and Horsa killed the largest bullock they could find. Then they took its skin and cut it round and round into one long narrow strip of leather. This they stretched out and laid upon the ground in a large circle, enclosing a piece of land big enough upon which to build a fortress.

If you do not quite understand how Hengist and Horsa managed to cut the skin of a bullock into one long strip, get a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. Begin at the edge and cut the paper round and round in circles till you come to the middle. You will then find that you have a string of paper quite long enough to surround a brick castle. If you are not allowed to use scissors, ask some kind person to do it for you.

Vortigern was very angry when he learned how he had been cheated by Hengist and Horsa. But he was beginning to be rather afraid of them, so he said nothing, but allowed them to build their fortress. It was called Thong Castle, and stood not far from Lincoln, at a place now called Caistor.
It's a very interesting memoir, but shallow rather than deep: you only get glimpses into more complicated ideas and states of feeling (I liked the aside where Fraser notes of her father that his trait of marking a book with a strong pencil as he read was so characteristic and ingrained that "after his death, I was able to identify a copy of the New Testament left behind in the House of Lords library, without an owner's name, but full of those ritual stabbings"). And here are a few of the passages that most resonated with me:
It is a fact that, being a quick reader, apart from enabling a person to study good books such as Macaulay and Gibbon, enables a person to read a lot of bad books as well. It would however be ungrateful to pick out the titles that gave me such pleasure and stigmatize them as bad books; besides, I would maintain that such books can teach you narrative skill, which certainly never comes amiss in writing History.
And again:
It was now for the first time that the pleasure of what for tax purposes I came to term (perfectly accurately) Optical Research was revealed to me. It also could be called Going to Places and Looking at Them. But what an essential process it is in the making of a historical biography! With the respectful handling of the original documents, it ranks as one of the major ways of reaching what G. M. Trevelyan in his Autobiography called 'the poetry of history': 'the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another . . .'
(Note to self: you must write that little book about Gibbon's Rome!)

Other appealing details concern the "Fish Furniture" at Admiralty House and Cecil Beaton's pedantic habit of preferring the plural "gins-and-tonic": a life of privilege needless to say, which has irked some readers I think, but I couldn't put it down.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


A lovely interview with Dorothea Lasky at P&W (via Robert Polito):
I use that word “performance” a lot when discussing teaching, and I really believe that what the teacher is doing is a performance. You are saying that this set of behaviors has some meaning. That’s what you’re doing is a spell as well, and that’s definitely what you’re doing in a poem. A poem asserts: I’ve made this line, and this is going to have some effect on you. Just the act of believing does make it have an effect. For example, in a class, if I am going to get ten oranges and ask students to write a poem, just the fact that a teacher has decreed that as important—it does become important. You have a classroom of students who have not only thought deeply about oranges, you also have a classroom’s worth of poems about oranges. Or if we say that we’re going to read John Donne, then that becomes really important. A whole group of people will see his work in a new way—it wouldn’t have happened otherwise, if the people had simply read him on their own. It may seem arbitrary and specific to the particular teacher, and it is, in a holy way. Every teacher brings their style into the classroom in ways that both crucial and critical and this why we still need real-life teachers, not machines, to teach our students.

Sympathy for the devil

Gore Vidal's morning-after revisionism.

Logging catch-up

Have had a good miscellany of light reading, but it's been too long since I logged it: better do some catch-up, with recommendations.

Lavie Tidhar, The Violent Century: I had been awaiting this one avidly, and it more than lived up to expectations. I loved this book! It's even better than Ian Tregillis's Milkweed books. And also rather better than another not-bad Zeitgeist twin I read the same week, Justin Richards's The Suicide Exhibition.

A book that could have been written for me and me alone: Jo Walton, The Just City. Read this if you grew up on The Last of the Wine and/or ever wished you could live in Plato's Republic!

A wonderful novel that rightly bears comparison to The Fountain Overflows and I Capture the Castle: Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm.

A new installment in a brilliant series (everyone who likes crime fiction should be reading these): Adrian McKinty, Gun Street Girl.

A book that is pretty much exactly what I most enjoy in fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor. Hungry for next installment NOW!

A perfect light-reading novella: Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo (and I'm also halfway through her excellent story collection Spirits Abroad). Someone must get me an ARC of her forthcoming novel Sorceror to the Crown!

A novel of Cayman, Elke Feuer's Deadly Bloodlines (well-written once you swallow the demographic implausibility of a Caymanian police detective whose mother is a notorious serial killer!).

An also implausible but reasonably well-written thriller/police procedural (it couldn't decide which element was more dominant): Rachel Abbott, Only the Innocent.

Ian Tregillis's latest, The Mechanical (too much of the imaginative energy has gone into the concept and not enough into characters and voice).

Comfort read: Patricia Briggs, Dead Heat.

Comfort reread: Robin McKinley, Shadows.

Also, appealingly, my friend "Lilia Ford"'s Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bionic wearables

The bionic bra (via GeekPress):
'The easiest way to explain it is if you're sitting down, the bra is relaxed and comfortable, and it's not constraining you,’ she says. 'If you were suddenly to get up and run for a bus and your breasts are bouncing, the bra will sense that and tighten up to give you the support that you need.

‘Then when you're on the bus it realises you don't need that support anymore and just relaxes. So it's responding to women's physical needs.’

The bionic bar [sic] would improve on current sports bras, which offer a lot of support but tend to be tight and uncomfortable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Two bits

Charlie Stross and Lavie Tidhar on the late great Terry Pratchett.

(My favorite books of his are the Death books in the Discworld sequence and the Tiffany Aching books, but really you can't go wrong.)

Birds bearing gifts

Shiny things! (Via B.)


Rock-climbing cats (via Jane); unwarranted pouncing (ditto).

Two teas in London

This, this.

Madonna Songs

Nico on Madonna:
I am similarly frustrated and yet moved by Madonna’s resistance to giving us any real personal details. Many of the songs here are generically, rather than specifically, intimate. I am actually quite interested to know the ugly practicalities of Madonna’s life: where is her actual dwelling-place? What happens in the morning, before the many punishing hours of Ashtanga yoga? She has four kids: what’s that like? When she says, “Each time they take the photograph/I lose a part I can’t get back,” doesn’t it feel like it’s missing one crucial or personal detail? When Kanye says, manically, “I’ll move my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay,” we can picture the move; we see the family packing clothes — Spanx and faux-fur shrugs folded into convenient shapes — and thinking about nannies and schools. When Michael and Janet made “Scream,” didn’t you find yourself envisaging the horrors of Michael, alone in that huge house, amidst all those allegations, the giraffes quietly and deferentially nibbling on acacia outside their master’s window? And perhaps more relevantly, the heart-shattering detail Joni Mitchell gives us when she says, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide” — we picture that precise old frying pan, its greasy patina informed by various fried Canadian delicacies, and shimmering with remembered arguments and intimacies with her lover?

Little house

At the NYRB blog, April Bernard on Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"No stripes please"

At the LRB blog, Inigo Thomas considers the sartorial flair or lack thereof of Guy Burgess:
From Moscow, he carried on paying his annual membership fee to the Reform. He banked at Lloyds on St James’s. His clothes came from tailors on Jermyn and Bond Streets. The actress Coral Browne, who met him in Moscow, bought clothes on his behalf and sent them on. Their correspondence was the inspiration for Alan Bennett’s play An Englishman Abroad.

‘Thanks for your kindness in shopping for me and visiting my mum,’ Burgess wrote in an undated letter. ‘I really begin to think that English women, like Russian ones, are better characters than men.’ He tells Browne he is impressed not only with her shopping but with her thoroughness: she knows how to ‘dot the ‘i’s in “miaow”’. Having had suits made for him and ordered Homburg hats with their rims turned up from Locke’s, Burgess has a last favour to ask: pyjamas.
What I really need, the only thing more, is pyjamas. Russians ones can’t be slept in – are not in fact made for that purpose. What I would like if you can find them is 4 pairs (2 of each) of white (or off white, not grey) and Navy Blue Silk or Nylon or Terrylene [sic] – but heavy, not crêpe de chine or whatever is light pyjama. Quite plain and only those two colours… Don’t worry about price… Gieves of Bond Street used always to keep plain Navy blue silk. Navy and white are my only colours, and no stripes please.
(Reminds me rather of this....)