Friday, April 17, 2015

Guilty pleasures?

At the FT, Jenny Linford on the "new milk chocolate" movement (FT site registration required - NB I am very happy with the old milk chocolate too):
Danish chocolate maker Mikkel Friis-Holm of Friis-Holm produces two “dark milk” bars, one at 55 per cent cocoa solids, the other at 65 per cent. Having experimented with different beans and fermentation periods, Friis-Holm settled on a “full-bodied and tasty” cocoa from Nicaragua. What he wants from his dark milk bars, he says, is to move through creamy and caramel notes but “importantly to end up with cacao flavours”. This way, milk chocolate is no longer the “stepchild” of plain. “At first people bought it as if they had bought a naughty magazine,” laughs Friis-Holm. “They would hide it under the dark bars!”

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Minute particulars

Someone was recently asking me to write a post about time management and writing, it is something I should weigh in on: but I am not always a good role model, to say the least. I like the part where I read and think and get a first draft down on paper as a speaking script, but it is not as enjoyable to turn it into something publishable: I am pleased with this essay, but also full of self-reproach that I did not turn it into an article shortly after I first wrote up the basic material in 2006!....

(This essay may also be the first publication in which I have cited Facebook crowdsourcing as a scholarly source.)

Available through JSTOR now, anyway: "The Minute Particular in Life-Writing and the Novel."

Saturday, April 04, 2015


It was February and I was finishing Heidi Julavits's The Folded Clock on the train home from Philadelphia after a visit to sit with my mother by the side of her dear companion Jim Kilik during his final days in the ICU at Hahnemann. I was all at sixes and sevens: I came across a passage that shocked me with its aptness to my mother's situation, I am not sure if tears were actually rolling down my face or not but I think they probably were, and then somehow I left the ARC on the train and was thwarted in my compulsion to post the passage on my blog!

Heidi is my friend and neighbor and kindly gave me another copy so that I could post this unforgettable passage (it is about why we gossip about other people's relationships - and by now the book is actually out and I could have bought a replacement copy, I have not been on top of things):
The day's tagline was a simple one. One of three things would happen to us: we would stay married, or we would leave, or we would be left. We are in our forties, and this is what our futures have winnowed down to, these three possibilities. The purpose of the stimulating task in which we were involved was to help us figure out how to deal with this clarified future. How, as one man put it, to "best maneuver through the situation."

I don't maneuver. I distill. I distill from the many possible anxieties a primary one. I can imagine that point in time, if my husband and I stay together, and I believe we will, where our future will function like this: every night we'll go to bed wondering who won't be alive in the morning. When we kiss good night, it won't be as we kiss now in our forties. I won't be worrying whether or not I should be more passionate more regularly because if I'm not he might leave me for another woman. I'll be kissing him wondering if we'll never kiss again. I'll be wondering if this is not good night but good-bye. I can imagine, too, that this anxiety is somewhat purifying, because it is so simple, so unavoidable. You believe you can prevent your husband or wife from leaving you for another person--this is one reason we gossip in our forties. But someday we will leave or be left, and it won't be anyone's fault or anyone's choice. There is no available gossip to teach us how to avoid this fate.
The New Yorker also published an excerpt that gives a good feeling for this book's delicate and appealingly irritable treatment of marriage and mortality, and Becca wrote about Julavits and Manguso for the Globe.

Light reading catch-up

I missed my chance to write a review of Sarah Manguso's riveting new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, but I highly recommend it (and have been keeping a few links open to post, namely a Rumpus interview and good account by Michelle Dean at the Guardian).

I obsessively devoured Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, which gets my vote for book of the year (only it will make you cry): won't say more now, as I am indeed reviewing this one, but it's really something remarkable.

Seanan McGuire's Pocket Apocalypse was delightful (I liked it even more than the earlier installments in this series, as it switches characters and modes to something more like the Mira Grant books - good additional use of Australia research done for How Green This Land).

A rather good pair of urban fantasy novels, Michelle Sagara's first two Queen of the Dead Installments (link here), and then, addictively, the first six in Diana Rowland's Kara Gillian series (demon summoning, serial killers, slightly too much demon sex for my taste and also less good when it moves to the demon world as opposed to the very fully rendered Louisiana life - reminiscent of Charlaine Harris, very well-written). Fortunately for me the next installment is due to drop in a few more days....

Basically I'm just about keeping my head above water; this week, that's been managed by doing the bare minimum required for work and life, but I am coming up on a very busy couple weeks that are going to require me to keep my wits about me. Going to Philadelphia this evening to hear what promises to be a glorious performance of one of my favorite pieces of music EVER. Trying not to think about the long list of tasks that I am neglecting but that will no doubt get done in the end. School is "over" in four more weeks (plus about three additional weeks of still fairly demanding obligations): after that I am going to go into an orgy of exercise and writing.

Greaves and pauldrons

Mark Kingwell on Paul Fussell. It was at age thirteen or fourteen I think that I first read Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. (I also had a treasured copy of Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, loaned to me I suspect by my singularly inspiring teacher Deborah Dempsey!) I had the electrifying sense of reading a book that was something like what I wanted to write myself someday - I had already had that feeling very strongly based on novels by Robert Graves, Anthony Burgess and a few others (Gore Vidal?), but this was a new vision of what might be possible....

The best thing about Mark's Hilobrow shout-out to P. Fussell was that it reminded me of the existence of a book I heard about on its first publication but never read, and which was perhaps more perfectly suited to my current state of mind than anything else imaginable: Sam Fussell's Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. Happily for me, this book has just been reissued, and I devoured this week (again, curiously, thinking - this is inspirational in terms of a book I might write myself one of these days!).

Here are a few snippets. First, on coming across a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder in the autobiography section of the Strand in September 1984:
As for his body, why, here was protection, and loads of it. What were these great chunks of tanned, taut muscle but modern-day armor? Here were breastplates, greaves, and pauldrons aplenty, and all made from human flesh. He had taken stock of his own situation and used he weight room as his smithy. A human fortress--a perfect defense to keep the enemy host at bay. What fool would dare storm those foundations?
Pre-iron, I'd spent my days convicting myself of avarice and envy and sloth. To become something else seemed the only alternative. As long as I covered myself with the equivalent of scaffolding and labeled myself a "work in progress" I could escape the doubt and uncertainty that plagued my past and spend every second of my present concentrating on a pristine future. I hated the flawed, weak, vulnerable nature of being human as much as I hated the Adam's apple which bobbed beneath my chin. The attempt at physical perfection grew from seeds of self-disgust.
It had begun to dawn on me that the whole building thing might be merely a parody of labor, and I myself a well-muscled dilettante. What would Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, think of bodybuilding? He had to be turning over in his grave. After all, the iron we lifted didn't help build a bridge or a battleship or a skyscraper. It enlarged our biceps and spread the sweep of our thighs. The labor of farmers and factory workers and longshoremen had a kind of dignity and purpose that ours didn't.
Here's an excellent interview with Fussell about the bodybuilding, the book and the paths his life has taken since.

Bonus link: Lionel Shriver on the body as a trench coat.

"Copiousness is the desired effect"

The vortex of the spring semester has engulfed me. (That, and Facebook leaching off minor life commentary.) A lot of tabs to close and light reading to log, only perhaps not just now. Instead, a delightful piece by John Mullan about George R. R. Martin and fantasy fiction more generally. Here's his description of the pilgrimage he paid to Tolkien as a teenager:
I vividly remember one day, aged 14, climbing like a pilgrim the worn wooden steps to Tolkien’s room in Merton college, Oxford in the company of his grandson, who was a school friend. I was clutching my battered paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, much reread. And there was the great man in his beautiful room, crowded bookshelves up to the ceiling, a vision of lawns beyond. He sucked his pipe and chatted benignly. I was encountering the most important writer in the world, as it then seemed, though I was struck by the mismatch of this tweedy English grandfather and his lofty Wagnerian creation. He was telling me of the physical pleasure of writing. “Did I enjoy the sensation of using a really good ink pen?” I could see why he might be asking this when he signed my copy of his magnum opus: runic is the only word for the style of the inscription. Seeing Professor Tolkien in situ suddenly made it obvious how bookish an endeavour it was, this business of creating of an alternative world.

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.