Thursday, December 18, 2014

Closing tabs

Twin talk.

Building the fictional bridges on Euro notes in the Netherlands.

Henry Blodget interviews Jeff Bezos.

An interview with my high-school classmate (and scriptwriter for The Interview) Dan Sterling about the response the film provoked from North Korea (and the Washington Post on the Sony hack).

What are MOOCs good for?

The uncomfortable desire to be writing books

I am having a very nice quiet week in Cayman: not completely off from work, but there wasn't any single obvious thing that I needed to motor ahead on, so I'm just taking care of bits and bobs as they come up.

It is always sort of awful to have to write a title and description for a future talk that is as yet not even begun, and this one has the typical flaws of vagueness and grandiosity, but I did enjoy contemplating it this morning and getting some sentences down on paper for the draft program:
“Talking Pages: The Eighteenth-Century Variorum Page”

Jenny Davidson will consider the form and function of the variorum page in Johnson’s Shakespeare editions in the context not just of eighteenth-century scholarly editing but of Scriblerian takes on the edited page. She will look closely at the workings of several specific pages of Johnson’s Shakespeare, but her larger concern is to consider Johnson’s literary career in the light of a late-stage revisiting of the quarrel of ancients and moderns. After telling a sort of prequel story about Swift, Bentley, Theobald and Pope, she will turn to Johnson’s editorial work as an effort of reconciliation and resolution in response to still unresolved tensions between the Scriblerian critical project and the reading techniques of a triumphalist modernity. Johnson’s reclamation of a “conversational” and relatively civil variorum page for what is in some ways a conservative literary project seems to represent a critical turning point in eighteenth-century literary history, and Davidson will conclude by considering analogies between Johnson’s use of the variorum page and the theme of generosity in present-day relationships with the past elsewhere in his writing, with brief excursions to Gibbon and Burke as points of comparison.
This made me think about how there are now three projects I am urgently desiring to work on (four if you count the "Gibbon's Rome" offshoot of the ancients-and-moderns project as a separate book), and how that feeling of desire is so satisfying and yet also so uncomfortable, almost so much so as to make me feel out of breath with anxiety and dissatisfaction that I am not doing anything towards any of 'em RIGHT NOW! I think getting new books started is my single highest priority for 2015, though calm and freedom from anxiety are always the highest thing on the list (time spent on my own work is good for this, so the two goals are not inherently incompatible).

I am still really excited about the Clarissa book, and as I'm teaching that seminar in the spring (and no other course - course release for the Tenure Review Advisory Committee, which keeps me very busy, but it's nice to imagine having the mental space free for doing some bits of actual work on this), it seems not implausible to think I might get some actual pages drafted. But higher priorities for January are to put in some of the groundwork for the Johnson's Shakespeare talk and to draft a proposal for a book that would be something like this only titled "Reading Jane Austen"!

If I'm not miscalculating, I have a full year of sabbatical coming up for 2016-2017: I've been considering taking it as two separate semesters (teach fall and take spring off for two years in a row), as in certain respects you get more bang for the buck that way (two very decent stretches of writing time rather than just one long one, and the fall-semester load of letters of recommendation and job market candidates is heavy enough that it doesn't always feel like leave if you're not teaching), but really if I have all these different books on the go, I should just take both at once, make as much progress as I can and then perhaps apply for a year of fellowship somewhere in the couple years following to finish up what remains undone. A project has to be pretty far forward before I can write a really good fellowship application for it, I think; this is not true for everyone, but seems to be for me....

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Light reading catch-up

I hate it when I leave it too long between logging one tranche of reading and the next, it becomes a nuisance rather than a pleasure to write it up here. But since I am now genuinely enjoying a quiet day in Cayman, I thought I would get a grip on it and clear the backlog....

Kiese Laymon's essay "My Vassar Faculty ID Makes Everything OK" caught my attention for obvious reasons, and I immediately got hold of his two books (I've been hearing great things about his YA novel from Sara Ryan and others for a while): How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division. Both are superb, and I am buying copies for my mother and several others for Xmas; the essays are reminiscent of James Baldwin, in the best possible way (it is a strain I miss from the neurasthenic subdivision of contemporary essay-writing: I want to hear much stronger and more widespread crypto-preacherly rage!), and the novel is absolutely a delight.

Probably my other favorites were another pair of books that (BECAUSE I AM AN IDIOT) I read in the wrong order: however, third installment in trilogy will come soon and I expect I will read again from the start at that point, I liked 'em that much. I blame Adam Roberts, whose best SF round-up was where I got the recommendation and which didn't mention the fact of the book in question being a sequel; BUT I also blame my own voracious and forgetful nature as a reader - I could tell something wasn't quite right about the opening, but wasn't willing to put the book down to figure it out. When I finished and went to find whether there was yet a sequel (it's coming in May 2015), I realized that in fact I had already bought volume one the year before, only it wasn't on my current Kindle - it must have been on the one I left in the pocket of a plane that took me to Portland, ME when I was travelling for The Magic Circle. Anyway, these books are PERFECT - it's massive Soviet-era alternate history of a fantastical stamp, more on the Ballard-Pynchon axis in terms of style than the Pullman-Aiken-Explosionist one but still pretty much exactly the sort of thing I most enjoy reading. Hungry for vol. 3! Here's the author's site; the books are by Peter Higgins and are titled Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear.

Many novels by Patricia Briggs, very convenient for purposes of travel (I wish she was still writing fantasy as opposed to werewolf, but I suspect market pressures drive one pretty strongly towards the latter), some Eva Ibbotson rereading for comfort, Michael Connelly's new novel (these are always readable but increasingly thin, confirming my sad conviction that 90% of bestselling fiction will be much less good than the 5% of genuinely brilliant genre fiction that is too violent or troubling to be enjoyed by all); a couple other good recommendations from the Adam Roberts piece (other pet peeve: when will we have a world of simultaneous publication in all English-language markets?!?), Dave Hutchinson's rather delightful Europe in Autumn and Joe Abercrombie's Half a King.

Oh, and one other one I really loved, though I can't remember now where I got the recommendation: Terry Hayes' I am Pilgrim.

I have a bit of a breather this week at B.'s, then home Sunday for a few days of maniacal end-of-semester grading, brief holiday interlude and then three weeks of INSANE WORK AND FITS OF EXERCISE! I am excited about the latter - I have two different book proposals I want to work on, and two talks I need to get some kind of a handle on (one for a general audience at a liberal arts college, one for a plenary address at a conference I really want to have something good for). Various other things churning around at the back of my mind, but time is finite, I must reconcile myself to that in advance.

I ran a 10K on Saturday and got back to hot yoga today for the first time since August, both of which bode well for exercise prospects in upcoming weeks, but it is certainly still possible that I have one more major respiratory ailment in me for 2014, so I'm trying not to count my chickens....


Edinburgh University gives a library card to a cat.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sweetness and light

Paris was amazing partly just because walking around and thinking about past and present and looking at things is so amazing. About the only thing I did my last day there was lunch with a friend and Columbia colleague near the beautiful Reid Hall (conversation included exploring the possibility that I might teach there in some future semester).

I do not have the gift of assiduous museum-going, and really my only goal was to hit this one, which quite lived up to my expectations. I am not a good photographer, but this gives a little bit of a taste of the wares on offer:

Afterwards, a cupcake from Bertie's Cupcakery! (The proprietor is ""The Girl" of DC Rainmaker fame, and also made some custom-designed cookies to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's acquisition of their first boat, a Nimble Nomad named Gunny.)

No discredit to an excellent cupcake, but the best dessert I had in Paris was with A. at Le Stella (after a dinner that started with a green bean and parmesan salad, then scallops and sole): a vacherin glace of utter deliciousness!

I had another very good dessert that involved a sort of almond and pistachio foam with raspberries in it, and the other thing I ate several times and most enjoyed was the "filets de dorade" (sea bream), in one case with anchovy butter and in another with sauteed fennel....

Small houses

A short history of the doll's house (FT site registration required). I wish I'd gone to see that shop while I was in Paris (though truthfully I already did about as much as I can manage): but it does seem as though I should see the exhibition when I am in England next summer....

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Mimi sandwich

Life is full of good things just now, only so many good things that I don't have time and leisure to appreciate them fully!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading on Wednesday night with Mimi and Jenny O., but stayed out much later than was really advisable.

The St. Thomas Messiah on Thursday was extremely good: while the soloists are capable though nothing extraordinary (sparkly soprano!), the sound of the boys of the choir is truly the most amazing thing you will ever hear!

After being stuck on a subway platform for almost an hour yesterday on the way to doctor for allergy shots and flu vaccine (high frazzle factor), and also just being out late two nights in a row, I got up at an ungodly hour and then couldn't get into the dreaded RAPS to read files - very stressful couple hours as I developed a few workarounds with the help of a colleague and an office computer - but at some point I had a sad epiphany that really I should not go to my old friends' holiday party in Brooklyn this evening, it was going to prompt a minor nervous breakdown to have another night out given that I also need to be in Prospect Park tomorrow morning at 9am to run 10K for a good cause (and flying out of the country again on Monday).

Much light reading and other Paris catch-up to do still, but not sure how much I will get through this evening. Bed may be on the agenda SOON!

One of those days

I am not super-prone to having "one of those days," as I am (though a victim to mood swings and melancholy like the rest of the world) of a relatively even temper, but I have to say that today started very badly - I got up shortly after 6 (that's never good!) to read electronic files for a 10am meeting, only to find I was locked out of the system. Spent almost an hour frenetically waiting/re-attempting password on two different devices, neither of which wanted to accommodate me - Facebook complaint garnered help from an extremely kind colleague, and by 8:30 I was at the office reading legitimately on a desktop there, but it was certainly not a good start to a long day!

The day ended well, though, with a meeting for my smallish group of eighteenth-century students and associates who need to think about job talks and how to prepare for them; and then I came home and was handed an absolutely delightful package by doorman Felix. It was clearly from its shape a tin of something delicious (hahaha, if it had been something like bicycle cleats instead it truly would have been devastating!), and as he knows I love sweets we were possibly equally excited; I came upstairs and tore it open and it was a really lovely present from my dear friend Helen's mother Becky Lewis, selector of treats par excellence!

With a nice note, too; it is Becky and my dear sister-in-law Jessi who read my style book and responded by sending me amazing boxes of chocolates! Thank you, Becky - what a lovely treat - THIS WILL AID MY PASSAGE THROUGH COMING DAYS!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Paris was absolutely lovely, but I am very happy to be back at home with two funny cats and a real computer (the technology conspired against "real" blogging - there is a very complex and roundabout way to post pictures taken on my iPad in entries here, but the device kept crashing and I gave up and posted to Facebook instead - will put some of that stuff up here later on at a quiet moment, though life re-entry is now slightly daunting).

I really might have to read this book, though it's a minor splurge (and too new to be available yet at the library) - have pasted in the bizarrely steampunk (of course colonialism really did produce this kind of effect, it's not a novel observation) photograph of a nineteenth-century New Zealander with pet tuatara.

Jonathan Losos' Anole Annals blog is one of my great internet pleasures. I cannot really say that in another life I am an anole specialist, as really I do not have the eye or temperament for a natural historian (in a near alternate life, I am writing about Melville and Dickinson, and in a further-away but still plausible one I am an epidemiologist!), but I do really love 'em, and I like the styles of looking and writing on display here - makes me think of another book I very much liked, Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1.

My morning's first meeting has been rescheduled from 10:45 to 12:45, buying me an extra hour before I need to be on campus at 11:30: that is good, I must just now try not to waste it all delightfully on the internet....

Thursday, December 04, 2014

A perfect day

(Though with the proviso that given that I am in Paris, it did not include any patisserie or other sweets - that may be remedied in coming days.)

I am staying in a cozy little maid's room on the top floor of a small apartment building near the Pasteur metro (will move tomorrow to stay with friends near the Champs Elysees). Got up at a very dark 8 o'clock to type up my notes for the dissertation defense this afternoon, then had a lovely thirty-minute run down the hill to Les Invalides and back home; really probably had time for longer, but this sort of occasion (i.e. dissertation defense) prompts feelings of anxiety about being ready in time, untoward disasters, etc. so I thought I'd better leave some slack!

We took the bus to the Sorbonne; first the examiners had lunch together as a group, then we did the defense in a highly ceremonial room (the candidate sits facing the five jurors, then rows of audience behind, including friends and family). In the break, we were lucky enough to get in to see the chapel, which is not usually open to view: rather splendid and haunting sight.

I am relieved to say (and intend to write an email to thank my excellent high-school French teacher) that I was very readily able to understand the presentations of colleagues speaking in French, though it is absolutely beyond me even to comprehend let alone produce a brief bit of colloquial conversation in bar or restaurant! Both the dissertation and the defense were very good, and we then followed the traditional proceeding and adjourned to a cafe for the small party the candidate throws for examiners and family - champagne and delicious snacks were involved.

Just now catching up on internet at the corner cafe with a glass of wine and a rather substantial cheese and charcuterie plate. A day truly well spent!

Tomorrow, I have the leisure for a longer run I think....

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Life in the modern world

(or perhaps just the world of prosperous adulthood?) is more manageable than it used to be.

I am writing from Cafe Pasteur (free wifi), having just had a truly Davidsonian lunch (you should be able to order this more often in the US - beef carpaccio, buffalo mozzarella, salad and fries - not ordered separately, that's how the whole thing comes!).

Travels went pretty smoothly: I flew Premium Economy on the way over, though I'm in the regular economy class on the way back (daytime flight doesn't matter so much), and it was well worthwhile. Skipped lines to check in and go through security, and the seats are much more spacious: I didn't really get much sleep, maybe an hour and a half dozing, but it's nice not to be so claustrophobically tucked up against others and seat backs and so forth.

(I just remember the days when you had to have traveler's checks and what have you - pretty amazing to take out euros at an airport ATM and use a credit card to buy a train ticket from a machine - and the internet is a pretty nice thing too for those who are prone to homesickness!)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three links and then three more links

Hearing the voice of James Weldon Johnson.

Melville's marginalia.

Charades and puzzles in the Lady's Magazine (shades of Emma!).

Posting will probably be light for the rest of the week, as I'm only taking my iPad with me to Paris rather than my extremely heavy laptop. It has required an insane frenzy of work in order to get ready to leave town: I'm all packed, I will go and do teaching meetings and give my final lecture for LTCM, then come briefly home and fall into a taxi to the airport!

As well as the dissertation defense at the Nouvelle Sorbonne that is the real purpose of my trip, I will see a few friends and generally wander/soak up atmosphere. Three places I'm hoping to hit: the Sade exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay; the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature; and last but not least, Bertie's Cupcakery!

"'Tis first"

#700, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin:
The Way I read a Letter's - this -
'Tis first - I lock the Door -
And push it with my fingers - next -
For transport it be sure -

And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock -
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock -

Then - glancing narrow, at the Wall -
And narrow at the floor
For firm Conviction of a Mouse
Not exorcised before -

Peruse how infinite I am
To no one that You - know -
And sigh for lack of Heaven - but not
The Heaven God bestow -

Friday, November 28, 2014

A language thing

This tab's been open for a while: a long and interesting interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard by Kyle Buckley for Hazlitt. Here's a good linguistic bit about radical Norwegian and conservative Norwegian:
Written Norwegian is basically Danish. Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun wrote in Danish. There are these small modifications, but it is still very Danish. That’s the conservative. And then you have another language that is invented, that a man travelling the countryside wrote down everything and invented a language, which is based on the way people speak, which is very different but still, both are Norwegian.

And then you have the thing in between, a kind of radical language, BokmÃ¥l, which is also a sociological thing. If you were on the left side in the ’70s you would talk in way to side yourself with the workers, and so on, and it is a language thing. When I was growing up the writers I liked wrote like that, but when I started writing my first book I needed a kind of a distance, and I took that distance in that conservative language. At the same time Marcel Proust was translated for the first time into Norwegian, and his language is very conservative and has a very French feeling to it. It was something completely new in Norwegian language and I was obsessed with it. There’s a lot of it in my first book. Kind of French-conservative-Norwegian language, long, long sentences. I don’t think it’s possible to relate this to English, because you have a kind of standard English, don’t you?