Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

I have been steeling myself for the death of Oliver Sacks since he made his terminal illness public earlier this year, but it's still a hard one to process.

I never really met him personally (I saw him speak several times, and we exchanged letters), but he was my literary hero, and more than just a literary hero: more like my childhood hero Jane Goodall, I think, than like most of the many writers I've been obsessed with since, many of whom one couldn't really persuade oneself it would be actually enjoyable to meet (Gore Vidal, Anthony Burgess - I felt significantly reconciled to the fact that I never met Burgess before he died when I read Paul Theroux's "my other life/my secret history" piece about AB).

I found so many things to love in Sacks's last memoir (powerlifting!), but one thing I didn't really write about in that post is the way that Sacks inspires me because he is both hero and everyman: his struggles with depression and weight gain and substance abuse, his wrestling with his sexuality, his long periods of self-dissatisfaction are balanced out by his joy in the natural world, his remarkable empathy, his love for music and his lucid literary intelligence. What a life!

Some links:

Here's what I wrote in Bookforum some years ago about his hallucinations book.

A delightful NYT bit from 2008.

Maria Popova's thoughts on the recent memoir (great pictures).

I am 90% certain that Oliver Sacks had a membership at Chelsea Piers, unless it was some other increasingly frail elderly Englishman who swam there so regularly. I did not want to accost him and introduce myself, not least in case I was mistaken but mostly because I didn't want to bother him! But I wished I could invite him to come to our powerlifting club at the "Iron Arena" by the sand volleyball court. I think he would have liked the vibe...

We had one good friend in common, a friend who died about six months after I met him but who left an indelible impression on me. That is swimming teacher and life coach extraordinaire Doug Stern, who I wrote about here and also here in connection with Sacks.

Doug was a remarkable person. I signed up for his deep-water running sessions when I had to stop running due to a stress-fracture (this was about 1.5 years into my mega-fitness mid-30s transition), and I knew right away - THIS WAS THE GUY WHO WOULD TEACH ME HOW TO SWIM PROPERLY SO THAT I COULD START DOING TRIATHLONS! It was all wrapped up in a slew of emotions, distress about the stress fracture and then more intensely distress at my friend Helen Hill's murder, which happened the first week of January 2007 and which sent me into a mental tailspin. Signing on for swimming lessons with Doug was like entering a magical new world, a refuge from real life but also something more real than life itself usually feels.

But Doug had something wrong with his shoulder and neck that turned out to be cancer, and those lessons that spring were bittersweet due to his frighteningly rapid physical decline. (I remember staying after the session one time because Doug wanted to get in the pool and he'd promised family members he wouldn't swim without someone else present, but he had lost so much fat and muscle that it was too cold for him to stay in: he had to get out after just a few minutes, it was heartbreaking.)

Doug was anxious to tell his life story, and I sat down with him and a tape recorder for one initial session. He was too sick after that to record anything more, and the piece (which I shared with his family and a few friends) had to stand alone. He talked about being a patient in hospital, empathy, pain, life, death and bicycles.

(Links: Tom Demerly wrote this letter to Doug after Doug first got the cancer diagnosis; here's Doug on arm recovery; and here's a memorial thread for Doug on the Slowtwitch forum.)

Doug ran an annual swim camp in Curacao. I was hugely keen to attend - only Doug died, and also I am romantically involved with a fellow who lives on another Caribbean island, so there was no way it made sense to go there for the swim trip the following year (January is my precious Cayman time), though his friends and swimmers kept it going.

But I was tantalized by my knowledge (I am a person of the internet, Google is one of my natural senses!) that Oliver Sacks had once written a short piece about the Curacao swim camp, and I got up my nerve to write Dr. Sacks a letter in which I enclosed a copy of Doug's thoughts and asked him whether he had access to the old story in Triathlete magazine, which not all the powers of Columbia library access and internet persistence seemed to be able to grant me.

This is what I got back in the mail. (I've transcribed the text at the bottom.)


Jan 3/10
Dear Jenny Davidson.

Thank you for writing to me - and especially for sending me that immensely moving, and utterly Doug-like, comment/conversation with Doug about being disabled, trussed up, losing muscle and strength, foreseeing his end, being maddened by the stupid rituals of the hospital (being woken at 2AM to have one's BP taken, etc), but, equally, his characteristic efforts + power to make personal, human contact with his fellow-patients - his nurses, his doctors etc. --

I enclose a copy of the "Triathlete" piece I wrote in 1997.

Perhaps I will see you in Curacao one year, tho' I am still somewhat disabled myself at this point from two operations (L knee replacement, R hemilaminectomy) on top of each other.

With all good wishes,
Oliver

And the article itself:

Katrina

Nothing much to say, only it's been much on my mind these past few weeks. The event itself is especially clearly marked in my mind because it was the week I moved into a rather desolate and lonely sublet year in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I felt unanchored there, but also shamed by the much more profound exodus I saw on television.

(That was the only year in adulthood that I've lived with broadcast television, and I am sure the scenes are more strongly seared onto my mind for that reason; I think I stayed calmer than many, during the months after 9/11, by dint of consuming news only through newspapers and a dial-up internet connection.)

Just sharing a few pieces (old and new) by friends more immediately affected than I was:

Alan Chin was on site taking photographs.

Phillip Dyess-Nugent wrote this piece about the friend we both lost in Katrina's long aftermath.

And a lovely song I can't listen to without tears flooding into my eyes, the inimitable Pete Sturman's "Wasn't Plannin' on Leavin'" - you can hear it at that link, don't miss it....

Closing tabs

Pictures of chickens.

Goat Uber, a.k.a. Rent-a-Ruminant.

Julia Cheiffetz had a baby and cancer while working at Amazon.

Ten steps to PhD failure. (The book is 57 Ways to Screw up In Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students, and I have already ordered a copy.)

Light reading round-up (as always, I seesaw between panic that I will never again find anything good to read and huge relief when I come upon mention of something appealing - have just downloaded a good new batch of stuff and feel relatively calm about it just now!):

John L. Parker, Jr., Once a Runner (not sure why I didn't come across this one sooner - it's very good fun - a bit melodramatic, but a nice companion for In Lane Three, Alex Archer!);

Chuck Wendig, Zeroes (good, but the premise and storyline are perhaps overly familiar by now);

Karin Slaughter, Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes (I find this "teaser" approach for new crime fiction woefully effective - now gnashing my teeth waiting for Pretty Girls - ditto the delectable Small Wars, teaser for the forthcoming Jack Reacher novel Make Me, which will be my reward after my first day of teaching - assuming I am not so greedy as to read it on the Tuesday night before my first lecture);

The first two books in Hakan Nesser's Inspector Van Vetteren series, a good tip from Jane Y.;

Ruth Ware, In a Dark, Dark Wood (I liked this quite a bit, but I wished it hadn't been told in flashback/memory loss mode - I think the story could have stood on its own);

Ellis Avery's second installment in her Family Tooth series, On Fear, about which my only complaint is that it's much too short, I want to read a whole book's worth of this;

Nick Holdstock, The Casualties (odd, appealing);

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (I really, really liked it, despite the way it's almost too much of the zeitgeist - shades of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play! - I've had it on my Kindle for a while, and I guess I was holding out against it because I am suspicious of "literary" novels that get singled out for "genre" content/acclaim, but I should have read it sooner, I liked the earlier book of hers I read and this one is exceptionally good);

And my top pick from this batch, a really wonderful trilogy by Robin LaFevers (this was a recommendation from Sara Ryan), the His Fair Assassin trilogy. I love these! They have some of the appeal of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series, only much less sex (for me this is a plus); really, really appealing historical fantasy.

The two other posts I am going to write now are more mournful (Oliver Sacks, Katrina).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

One last gasp

Two full weeks before the first week of classes. They include a dissertation defense and a number of meetings of one kind or another, but I am still hopeful that I can get in one last gulp of work before the roller-coaster takes off....

(Minor Works and Pride and Prejudice are at the office I think - will have a foray there tomorrow to collect!)

This is for a book proposal that I am determined to get out by the beginning of September. Additional incentive provided by the fact that I am signed up for an October departmental work-in-progress talk, and I've already committed my Johnson-Shakespeare stuff to the Book History Colloquium (spring schedule isn't yet posted), so I really need to be able to present this project instead: a hard deadline will concentrate the mind like nobody's business!

It is my eternal regret that I habitually let so many summer days go by without tapping into the vein of maniacal productivity; it was a stress factor in June and July that I had to prepare that talk for Oxford, but really in the end I was extremely glad of it, as it meant I did a good chunk of research and drafting (chaotically, under the gun) in a summer that otherwise might have passed by without me getting much traction on anything in particular. If I can just get this one thing done additionally, I will feel OK about summer accomplishments.

Biscuits

Lucy Sparrow's world of felt. (Via Becca.) This is my favorite:

Cross-referencing: Alan Hollinghurst on "the Bourbon, the sugared Nice, the rebarbative ginger-nut". Also, though in general Icelandic hotel breakfasts are superb, there was an additional frisson at the Geo Hotel Grindavik to find that in addition to lavish spread of eggs, breads and rolls, ham, salami, pate, salmon-roe-in-a-tube (shades of this!), cheese, pastry, fruit, yogurt, etc., there were also two little canisters of biscuits next to the tea and coffee station: Bourbon biscuits and custard creams! Which remind me so much of my English grandmother....

Turtle soup

At the Guardian, John Mullan reviews Christopher Plumb's new book on exotic animals in Georgian London:
The Earl of Shelburne, later to be prime minister, kept an orangutan and a supposedly tame leopard in his orangery at Bowood House. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham liked to stroke the leopard when he visited. Sir Robert Walpole’s pet flamingo warmed itself by the kitchen fire. Sir Hans Sloane was followed round his Chelsea home by a tame, one-eyed wolverine. He also owned an opossum and a porcupine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Travels part III - Iceland!

By the time we got there, we were pretty much just due to collapse in the hotel room! (This was predicted in advance.) Fortunately it was an incredibly nice hotel.

(Our final two nights in Iceland were at the Geo Hotel in Grindavik - both of these hotels are pretty much brand new - I was initially a bit horrified that I had rashly taken us from lovely cosmopolitan city to isolated country location, but really it is good to see something a bit different - we had an interesting walk around small town and harbor, and the nearby restaurant was surprisingly good - I think this is it - we ate three meals there as options in walking distance were limited.)

Food in Iceland in general was ridiculously good. I don't have links for everything (or even most things), but we had fantastic Thai food here, very decent random local pizza, tons of good fish (with and without chips), a beer at Nico's favorite place, steak lunch here with my friend J. and his two older kids after an episode of puffin watching and delicious cocktails in the lobby at our hotel.

The Golden Circle bus tour was a little overwhelming (the landscapes are amazing, but there are too many people - tourist infrastructure really isn't up to current volume); I loved the small zoo in Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon also exceeded expectations.

(We had two very fancy meals in Iceland, food on New Nordic lines: one at the Lava Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, the other at Haust in our hotel lobby. The regular-place food is so good, the fancy food is slightly wasted on me & B. - but it was genuinely exceptional, and I would especially single out lovely desserts. Not so photogenic - subtle rather than flashy - but utterly delicious: at Haust, a rhubarb victoria with almond sorbet, roasted almonds and arctic angelica syrup, and at Lava a poached pear with ginger sorbet, praline cake and elderflower syrup. Divine!)

Pictures below are piecemeal: the final ones are only a small fraction of what was on offer at the glorious Saga Lounge at the airport on the day we left!



18th-century bits

Two nice eighteenth-century bits:

"Puzzle purse" a.k.a. love token at the Houghton Library;

Road maps! (Heyeresque....)

Tidal playgrounds

Swimming in the Thames.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Travels part II - Oxford!

In short, one of the best conferences I've ever attended. Incredibly stimulating and enjoyable: also, they treated us like kings and queens! (Unfortunately I came down with a sinus infection that turned into a chest cold, I was laboring with it the following week also and passed it on to B., but this is perhaps just the reality of international travel for me). Good times with friends old and new, including a dinner with Claude R. and co. at Gee's, sundry meals and drinks with a remarkable former student of mine and generally lavish hospitality. Here are some highlights:

We left Sunday after the final plenary talk (missing the college wine-tasting, alas, not to mention the staged reading of Irene!): traveled by car to LHR, where we killed some hours in the Aer Lingus lounge (reciprocal privileges with IcelandAir, which gives lounge access even with the Economy Comfort fare).

And thence to Iceland!

Travels part I

In Cayman, my mother and I saw blue iguanas and dined lavishly at Michael's Genuine and Casa 43 (not to mention Fidel Murphy's), with lots of visiting of Cayman friends.

On Saturday, August 1, B. and I flew to Miami and thence overnight to Heathrow (lie-flat beds!). Four nights at the Premier Inn Waterloo (slightly inferior to the companion hotel at County Hall, but still very good value for the money), the Mission Impossible movie at the nearby IMAX theater, mother's-side family meal at aunt's in Islington Monday night, father's-side family day in Greenwich (the queen's deer!) Tuesday (including a very convenient and pleasant but gastronomically undistinguished meal at Jamie's Italian - it is a great place to go with young kids, though I was suffering here as elsewhere with the English lack of air-conditioning - it was a warm week and everywhere inside was incredibly stuffy!), lunch meetup Wednesday at the Anchor and Hope with Jane and then on to Scootercaffe for a meetup with my cousin George before her shift started.

Thursday to Oxford! Part II to follow.

Closing tabs/light reading roundup

Life re-entry is always a bit overwhelming, especially when it's so hot in NYC and I've been away for many weeks. I have just spent a couple of hours responding to emails, making travel plans and to-do lists, etc. and feel a little calmer about my chances of getting everything I need to done before school is properly underway.

(I made an initial stab at laptop battery replacement effort on Monday, but the tech support call got cut off and I didn't have the time or psychological wherewithal to pursue further - must either get back at that tomorrow morning or hand it over to an office staff person if I really don't think I am going to be able to get it done myself!)

I'm planning to fight the Facebook creep by belatedly posting some catch-up vacation photos here, but first I'm overdue for a long light-reading roundup and some closing of tabs.

Tabs:

A good list of reading recommendations.

A non-embarrassing classical music scene in a blockbuster movie! (Via Nico, and I totally agree. B. and I saw this movie the day we arrived in London - movie-going is a good activity for the jet-lagged and sleep-deprived....)

Light reading, international travel edition (that's three weeks' worth, I guess, though I was still working pretty frenetically on Johnson and Shakespeare that week in England):

Max Gladstone's latest Craft book, Last First Snow (these books are extremely good - I found this one a little slow in opening, but I suspect it had more to do with poor attention on my part than anything to do with the actual writing).

A reread of Garth Nix's wonderful Abhorsen sequence, starting with the most recently published by chronologically earliest and then proceeding with the central trilogy - ah, if only there were way more books as good as these and in this vein!

Blake Crouch, Pines (NOT recommended - I skimmed through it with increasing incredulity and dislike!)

Sam Reaves, Mean Town Blues (not bad).

Maggie Mitchell, Pretty Is (I liked this a lot - the voices of the two main characters could be more clearly differentiated, and the ending is implausible, but the writing is extremely good, and the protagonist teaches Richardson!).

Then (ah, my Amazon recommendation algorithm is going to flog all sorts of unfortunate things for years to come - I was in Cayman still, I like digging in to a long book that is first in a series!) the first Dune (a mixture of appealing and silly) and then subsequent two installments, which become increasingly silly - I think I can do without reading any more of these!

By then I was in England, and took up a very good and suitable urban fantasy series set in many of the same places I was spending time: Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series. These are extremely good, very appealing light reading: not quite as funny and original, I think, as Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London books, but certainly worth mentioning in the same breath.

A very silly book I regretted wasting my time on: the storytelling isn't bad, but I really just wish characters wouldn't stop to have sex in the middle of my nice suspenseful genre fiction, I wouldn't have picked it up if I realized it was more on the romantic suspense lines....

Two installments that I LOVED in a new series by Rachel Aaron (haven't read her others and brief sampling persuaded me I wouldn't necessarily like them as much, but these are delightful, whimsy notwithstanding): Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another. Less "indie" in sensibility than Martin Millar's extraordinary Kalix the Werewolf books, but not totally dissimilar in sensibility and appeal.

Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall (quite good, and yet flawed by a deep romanticism that is not at all subjected to critique - I think I am tough on Hand's books in the way that one is overly critical of books that have a lot in common with someone one would want to write oneself - but I really prefer the Pamela Dean vision of such things).

By now I think I was in Iceland....

Peter Robinson's latest Inspector Banks book, In the Dark Places (not earth-shattering, but well-conceived and -executed - these books are always readable).

An amazing novel I've had on my Kindle for a little while but for some reason hadn't tackled (possibly due to the word "Love" in the title), Alaya Dawn Johnson's Love is the Drug. Highly recommended.

A reread of Nos4A2 because I couldn't find anything I liked and decided it would be better to have something good for the second time than something bad for the first, and then a reread of Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls to see if the two had as much in common as I remembered (yes and no - definitely share the same DNA - Beukes' main characters are more fully individuated, but Hill's storytelling is perhaps slightly more gripping).

The first two-thirds of The Three-Body Problem, which I enjoyed very much but found too little character-driven to keep my attention during a day of travel (I will finish it tomorrow or the next day I expect).

On the plane back from Iceland, grippingly, a book I was excited for at the time but somehow never quite opened up (or maybe I did and found the opening pages bleak?), but it is GLORIOUSLY appealing and what I most like: Nicole Kornher-Stace's Archivist Wasp. Throw this book in the face of anyone who suggests that the dystopian YA genre is all tapped out!

Then a reread of the four Arnaldur Indridason books I had in my Kindle library, to get into the Icelandic frame of things (the most recent four, basically - there's a new one out in England but not yet in the US I think). These books are thoughtful in a way that rewards rereading: I like the way he gives different characters the detective role in different books (a good way to avoid the kind of series burnout that afflicts certain writers I will not name).

Then, last night, a really delightful novella by the superb Mira Grant (she is a genius of light reading), Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus.

That's it for now, I think....

Monday, August 17, 2015

"their most recreative & dulcet croaking"

At the LRB, Tom Keymer on the latest edited volume of Burney's court journals (subscriber only):
Burney’s writing process was highly self-conscious. There are what she calls her ‘alives’: brief letters to intimates, typically functional, often dashed off in lulls during attendance on the queen. Then there are her daily memoranda: candid, fragmentary but copious notes on court life – ‘memoranduming scraps’, she calls them at one point – which she then wrote up. The memoranda are intensely private, but dried up at times of emotional strain, such as the death of Delany. The missing experiences were reconstructed in retrospect: ‘a general sketch’, she calls her account of one month, ‘for I kept no journal, not even a memorandum’. She abandoned the memoranda when the king’s first bout of madness disrupted the life of the court. ‘I have now no more fair running Journal – I kept not now even a memorandum for some time – but I made them by recollection afterwards, & very fully, for not a circumstance could escape a memory that seemed now to retain nothing but present events.’ There’s something novelistic in the mismatch between tense and deixis (‘I kept not now … a memory that seemed now’). Often the journals were written up a year or more after the events they describe, then immediately sent to Susanna, who received the journals for November and December 1788, for example, in January and February 1790. The immediacy is still there in them: they often portray a writer grappling with unresolved experience, ‘tormented with a sort of indefinable perplexity’. But they also possess a layer of considered analysis; and though Burney always resists explicit prolepsis, sometimes they’re coloured by events that have taken place between the original memorandum and its revision. ‘Troublous Times’ (from the Book of Daniel) is her summary comment in the December journal on the king’s descent into madness, which was already destabilising state affairs. But the institution of monarchy was in much deeper trouble in 1790 when Burney wrote those words. The Gothic style of her response to George’s condition – ‘nothing before us but despair & horrour!’ – has an unmistakable, albeit implicit, political inflection.

"Can you cook an egg on a book?"

Meakin Armstrong interviews Etgar Keret at Guernica. Here's a bit that especially caught my eye (I want to read this book):
Hebrew is this unique thing that you cannot translate to any other language. It has to do with its history. About 2,000 years ago, people stopped speaking Hebrew because of the diaspora. So people who went to Rome spoke Latin, people who moved to the US spoke English, people spoke Yiddish, but they didn’t speak Hebrew. They knew the words, but it was a written language—they read prayers, they knew the language well, but it wasn’t spoken. I think the logic behind it would be that you don’t need to use the language of God to ask where the restrooms are.

Then somebody took this frozen language and defrosted it in the microwave of history, and people spontaneously started speaking it. And the thing that happened when people started speaking this language is it was kind of a miracle. If Shakespeare were to come here and hear us speak, he wouldn’t understand a word we were saying, but if Abraham or Isaac took a taxi in Israel, they could communicate with the taxi driver. He’d understand what they are saying because the language didn’t organically change. It was frozen, like frozen peas, fresh out of the Bible.

We import words from other languages and we put them in Israeli verb form. Like for cocaine, we say in Hebrew, lesniff. We have many words like this from Russian, from Arabic. What happens when you speak colloquial Hebrew is you switch between registers all the time. So in a typical sentence, three words are biblical, one word is Russian, and one word is Yiddish. This kind of connection between very high language and very low language is very natural, people use it all the time.