Tuesday, April 07, 2020

NYC 17-20

Just as in normal times, the ease of posting to Facebook multiple times a day leaches the energy away from the blog! Staying light-hearted over there (lipstick, grilled cheese) so much as it is possible.

My Monday class went well, though 2 of 8 students couldn't be there. We had a riveting discussion of Convolute C of Benjamin's Arcades Project!

Nice Zoom chat this morning with a student in Korea who can't join the Clarissa seminar live but has stayed very involved with the material. She's just declared an English major - joyous news....

Light reading: The Stand, which somehow I don't think I ever read! Was slightly sorry to read the introduction and see that this is King's restoration of a lot of text that was cut from the original. Both as scholar and as reader, I am more interested to see what was initially out in the world (and there have been paragraphs here and there that cause me to speculate, with grim humor, that they simply couldn't - or at least rightly shouldn't - have been in the original published edition!). But yes, it's highly engaging....

More later perhaps, but I thought I'd at least get something down before the day bears down heavily on me.

Oh, and two things that caught my eye yesterday. A good Spec story about the devastating impact on universities like Columbia of the loss of revenue from medical faculty practice. Also, Kate Tulenko's Facebook post, text copied here: "This is from an obstetrician on Long Island. 30% of their asympto[ma]tic pregnant women in labor are COVID Positive. Health workers need to wear a full protective equipment for all patient contact.
“We started testing all patients on L&D a week ago. So far, in our weeks worth of data, 30% of asymptomatic patients tested positive. We are now wearing full PPE on L&D for all patient encounters.”" Sure does seem like one of the clearest indicators I've seen of true viral penetration in this area....

Friday, April 03, 2020

NYC day 16

I've had a lot of nights these past weeks where I slept a first shift (after a lifetime of insomnia I have finally found the perfect safe sleep drug for me, trazodone - it actually makes me for the first time ever feel sleepy at bedtime when I am tired, this is a miracle for which I am now especially grateful as otherwise I'd be cycling round a clock of 4am, 5am, 6am times after tossing hotly in bed for many hours), woke for a couple hours and read news online, then slept for another few hours in the very early morning. Last night I was actually able to sleep for 8 hours more or less continuously - I got through the middle of the night pee break without full wakefulness. Of course, those eight hours were 8pm to 4am. It will be good as dawn gets earlier and I can run outside super-early!

A surprisingly good day today, with lots of work things that were stimulating and fully immersive. Some email about rescheduling as online the book events that have had to be canceled, that's good (I am due a real Duchess of Angus post soon). Gonna have a drink now, read a novel on the couch and go to bed at 7:30!

(Even the idea of being able to take this picture and show MORE THINGS CHECKED OFF THE LIST did not get me to complete any of the more manageable tasks that remain undone. It will have to be tomorrow....)

A good recent light reading recommendation: a pair of haunting crime novels by the excellent Marcie Rendon. The first is Murder on the Red River, the sequel is Girls Gone Missing. They are pretty certainly the best new(ish) crime fiction I've read so far this year, with both writing and setting far above the usual and remarkable in kind as well as quality - highly recommended.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

NYC days 14-15

I was again just too wiped out by the end of the day yesterday to write anything - trying a new and probably better strategy of writing a short one in the morning instead!
I made a cumulative Wed.-Fri. to-do list yesterday, and seem to have only knocked a small number of things off it. That's OK....

Top (only) priority for today is finally finish that op-ed that I drafted a month ago and send out a pitch for it. I would like to do some Duchess of Angus publicity work over the coming week: I haven't had the concentration for it, but it is such a great book, I shouldn't just let it sink like a stone without fighting a little bit! Maybe tomorrow's post here will be a Duchess post.

Incentive to work properly for a few hours this morning would be to then really try and break away from 24hr internet news in the afternoon and do one or both of the following: (1) watch Nixon in China on the Met's free stream (it's not just watchable at 7:30 on the designated evening, i.e. last night, but available for the 24 hours following); (2) read Emily St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel. It popped up on my Kindle on Tuesday, and though I've read only the first couple chapters, I deem it sufficiently riveting to have a chance of dissipating the corona news fog!

That said, I will provide a comfort reading rec for those in need. Amanda Craig had a Facebook post today about Joan Aiken, and though I think that the opening books in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series are surely her supreme achievement (plus of course the extraordinary short stores!), her romantic suspense novels for adults were books I checked out of the library again and again as a child. A favorite: Last Movement (though I wonder how its representation of a significant trans character bears up these days?). Of course if you want the simplest and most pleasant books in this vein, you should turn to Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground was a particular favorite of mine.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

NYC day 12-13

I taught Decline and Fall chapters 15 and 16 yesterday (Gibbon's devastating and possibly ill-placed attack on miracles!) and the chunk of Clarissa that includes the mad papers today. Both classes went well, I think (really it is for students to say, not me!). I am very lucky to be teaching small humanities seminars this semester rather than the big introduction to the major lecture I did in the fall - I mean, I'd still basically be, like, "Everybody passes!," but the logistics of trying to look out for students and keep them engaged would have been far more overwhelming.

Monday morning is my Policy and Planning Committee meeting, we were already in a budget crisis before coronavirus and now things are looking grim indeed. Two hours of that and then two hours of teaching in the afternoon left me so tired yesterday evening that I went to bed around 8:30, slept maybe 9-3, then woke wide awake and took advantage of feeling adequately rested to respond to some student emails that I've for some reason been having a very hard time getting to. Did get a couple hours more sleep maybe 5-8, then a mad scramble in the am to get my materials ready for class. I had hoped it would be easy to set up with iPad and laptop as dual monitors, it was not self-evident to the help desk guy either (but they are outsourcing now). Have ordered a monitor that is supposed to arrive Saturday - I can work with what I've got, but if I'm using screen share in a big way it would be helpful to have all the students' faces in gallery view on a separate screen. Toggling today was less clumsy than yesterday but still felt somewhat hapless!

Comfort reading recs #6 and 7: two series that concern the Church of England! The first of course is Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire (a must-read for academics in particular, since it seems that the 19th-century cathedral is basically the twin of the 21st-century university - even the character types are the same....). Second, Susan Howatch's Starbridge series and the spinoff St. Benet's books. These are books I can reread over and over....

Sunday, March 29, 2020

NYC day 11

I still need to reread for class tomorrow, but it was a pretty good day. Tidied up the three "real" rooms plus the kitchen in preparation for full-on Zoom work mode and teaching tomorrow. The living-room table is where the work lives when I'm not doing it (the three main piles are for the Epic Histories class, the Clarissa class and Duchess of Angus stuff). I normally sit at my desk in my study with my back to the window, but that's not great for video (backlighting makes face invisible), so I've been sitting on the other side of the desk. Now I've cleared up the stuff in the background (including putting away the massive pile of clean laundry that normally lives on a little white plastic armchair) and set up a standing desk thing to elevate the computer slightly for a more flattering view! Finished reading Clarissa pages for Tuesday but still haven't been able to get to grips with returning emails: usually I'm quite good about this, but they've mounted up and they all seem to require an emotional commitment I can't quite muster.

Comfort reading rec #5 (the third in the trio with Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones): Robin McKinley. If you haven't read her at all, Sunshine is a great one to start with (baking, vampires); I do love The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown although I agreed when I saw in some old interview that McKinley herself is a bit embarrassed by the first one especially (I think she said "it has a whiff of The Sheihk about it"!); her saddest and darkest book Deerskin might be my favorite of all. All of her books have very good animals in them....

Saturday, March 28, 2020

NYC day 10

A reassuringly typical Saturday: I did my long run (90 as 3:1, with virtually no soreness in problem area of lower back/hip/glute/R posterior chain - still can't get over the near-magical efficacy of just putting a second orthotic in left shoe to counter leg length discrepancy), got into bed with my copy of Clarissa and promptly went to sleep for two hours. Haven't read as many pages as I'd intended to, but that's fine.

I was somewhat unsettled last night by the all-pervasive sound of sirens - I always hear them, I'm only about two and a half blocks from St. Luke's Roosevelt, but with so little other traffic and more covid-19 cases arriving in ambulances, it was pretty dramatic, and again when I woke up in the night for an hour or so.

Comfort reading recs #3 and 4. Two novels about music and dysfunctional families and love: Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows and James Baldwin's Just Above My Head. Really these are two of my absolute all-time favorites, and I am due for a reread on the Baldwin. Interesting to me that Baldwin and West are in some sense most admired for their nonfiction - Baldwin of course is much superior to West as a serious novelist, she didn't write another one that's really up to the standard of this. I contemplated adding a third rec here, Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing; it's my favorite novel of his, I do really love it, but I think it may be more of a niche book than the other two.

Friday, March 27, 2020

NYC day 9, with some thoughts on online seminar logistics

Moving forward with preparation for my first real online class on Monday. I'd been procrastinating on putting together the packet, but now that I've figured out a down-and-dirty technique (I am certain there is some more streamlined way to do it, but really this will work very well for now, one of these times when the fact that I'm lazy is really to my advantage!).

If you read my teaching logistics post yesterday, you already know that I'm offering a stripped-down reading option in that seminar for those who are having a hard time concentrating. Provisos: this was easy for me to do because (a) it's a small seminar and (b) I've taught the class once before, under circumstances that were conducive to keeping an unusually detailed set of notes. Each individual class will invite its own tailored solutions - I teach by looking closely at individual passages, so this should work really well for me.

(I partly saw it because of the wonderful session I had with one of my senior essay advisees on Wednesday afternoon. If what you want to do is look very closely through comments on a draft, the share screen Zoom feature is brilliant.)

For me, making the remaining weeks of the semester feel more manageable seemed clearly depend not just on reducing the pages but reducing format obstacles - all the student in this class really do have their books with them (and the critical readings are always online as pdfs), but I thought it would make sense to put the essential pages into a single PDF that you could, say, read on your phone lying on the floor if you felt like it. Otherwise they're reading pages not just from a primary source but from a couple different PDFs.

(If you are more adept than I, you can probably snip the relevant pages right out of those PDFs, but this is clearly easier for me for now. Never have I been more relieved that I am entirely slapdash rather than being at all a perfectionist!)

I'm planning to use the Zoom share screen feature to show each page we're discussing during class so that students aren't fumbling to find the right place, especially when I can't imagine most of them have dedicated desk or private table space under the current circumstances.


1. I upgraded CamScanner on my iPad (I've used it casually for photographing pages during archival research) to the Pro edition, which has much fuller functionality.

2. I used my beloved Brunnen book stand to prop up Gibbon and coursepack and photograph each page of reading (about twenty-five - I'm shooting to have weekly minimum reading doable in ninety minutes max).

3. I used the internal CamScanner feature to combine the page images into a single PDF.

4. I have a Windows laptop and had to fiddle a bit with easiest transfer of that file onto my laptop (Snapdrop for some reason wouldn't work for me), but emailing it to myself from iPad is simple and painless.

5. I uploaded it to Courseworks in a new folder that is basically going to be these "quarantine packets."

The goal here is to do what I can to foster highly efficient direction of intensive attention. One of the things I teach in all my classes is how to read smart rather than getting bogged down in large quantities of material (this especially matters if you're a slow reader), focusing on skills for how to know which parts of something you need to read more closely (a central question in my introduction to the major); in this case I am skipping that step altogether and taking the students straight to the parts that I consider really important and that we'll cover in class. These are the things I'd hope they might remember a year from now - it's not a time to ask them to slog through all the difficult pages and probably have limited retention of anything!

In other news, how many more days is "clean bathroom" going to stay on my secondary list of tasks before I give in and actually do it?!?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Comfort reading for day 8

I forgot to put this in my diary post, but I think that my next favorite comfort-read author is Diana Wynne Jones. Some of her books for younger children are very good reads (the Chrestomanci Chronicles are superb - Witch Week is my favorite - and would work well to read to the under-10 crowd). But my three absolute favorites are really written more for adults: which is to say, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock and (maybe my favorite of all - rec #2 for the week of comfort reading recommendations) Deep Secret.

NYC day 8

A delivery from CookUnity, another one from MaxDelivery. I did finally get a FreshDirect slot but it's not till next Wednesday.

A very good day for me actually but a tiring one. Woke at 4, realized around 5:30 that I really wasn't going back to sleep and that I should just get up. A non-run day, 50 mins brisk exercise walk. Busy morning of reformulating Gibbon, some media follow-up (!) from the Washington Post piece, the two-hour Columbia UP publications committee meeting (on Google Hangouts). I am exhausted and intend to lie down with Kindle soon in bed.

Epic histories remix

I had a very good concentrated spell of work this morning, the task being to revise the syllabus for my Epic Histories class and get the new information out to students. (I've promised them a digital "packet" as well - a single PDF with all the pages for option 1 - on the grounds that sometimes when things are overwhelming it's easier to just read one thing that you could even open on your phone as opposed to wrangling different books and digital files. Planning to use CamScanner - upgraded today to Pro and am hoping that I will be able combine individual page images into a single file within the app.)

Here's the new version of the rest of the semester. I've cut a few things altogether (Nadar's memoir! Benjamin on photography!) and given a bare-minimum option for those whose concentration is failing them. In going through my old class notes and the pages of the Arcades Project, I kind of fell in love with it all over again....

p.s. I think I got the idea of three different levels from the way you show poses as a progression in a yoga class!

Revised syllabus (spring 2020)

3/30 Option 1:

Decline and Fall 1:446, 1:471-74, 1:518-21, 1:524, 1:576-81
Pocock, “Gibbon and the primitive church,” 50-53, 66-68
Pocock, “Putney, Oxford and the question of English Enlightenment,” 44-46

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of chapter XVI

Option 3: original reading

Decline and Fall chapters XIV-XVI (vol. 1)

*J.G.A. Pocock, “Gibbon and the primitive church,” in History, Religion, and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750-1950, ed. Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 48-68
*Pocock, “Putney, Oxford and the question of English Enlightenment,” in Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-1764 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 13-49
*David Womersley, “Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: Revision and Religion in the Decline and Fall,” from Edward Gibbon and Empire, ed. Rosamond McKitterick and Roland Quinault (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997),190-216
*B. W. Young, “Gibbon, Newman, and the Religious Accuracy of the Historian,” from The Victorian Eighteenth Century: An Intellectual History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 70-102

4/6 Arcades: an introduction

Option 1:

Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 13
Convolute C: epigraph through C6 (82-83), C4 (90-91), C6a,2 + C7,1 (95), 9a,2 (100)
Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” 7-11
Johnson, “Passage Work,” 82-84

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of “Paris, the Capital…” and Sieburth

Option 3: original reading

Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935) (AP 2-13)
Convolutes A, C and P: “Arcades, Magasins de Nouveautés, Sales Clerks” (AP 31-61), “Ancient Paris, Catacombs, Demolitions, Decline of Paris” (AP 82-100), “The Streets of Paris” (AP 516-526)

*Richard Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” Assemblage 6 (1988): 6-23
*Barbara Johnson, “Passage Work,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, ed. Beatrice Hanssen (London and New York: Continuum, 2006), 66-86
*“Encounters,” from Peter Buse, Ken Hirschkop, Scott McCracken and Bertrand Taithe, Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided tour (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2005), 1-12

4/13 Baudelaire I

Option 1:

Convolute J: J1,5 (230), J3,2 (233), J3a,1 (234), J41,3 (302), J44,3 (308), J51a,5 (321), J55a,5 (329), facing pages 332-33
Baudelaire, “The Sun”/Le Soleil,” “The Swan”/“Le Cygne”

Option 2:

Option 1 + further reading in Convolute J

Option 3: original reading

Convolute J: “Baudelaire” (228-386)
Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”

*T. J. Clark, “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” boundary 2 30:1 (2003): 31-49
*Max Pensky, “Tactics of Remembrance: Proust, Surrealism, and the Origin of the Passagenwerk,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, 164-189

4/20 Baudelaire II

Option 1:

The four spleen poems
Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” 182-85
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”

Option 2:

Option 1 + Haroutunian 62-67 (not on original syllabus)

Option 3: original reading

*Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” from Illuminations (155-200)
Selections from The Flowers of Evil: “To the Reader”/“Au lecteur,” “Correspondences”/“Correspondances,” “A Former Life”/“La vie antérieure,” “The Ideal”/“L’Idéal,” “‘I love you as I love . . .’”/ “‘Je t’adore à l’égal,” “Spleen” 1-IV, “The Taste for Nothingness”/“Le Goût du néant,” “The Sun”/“Le Soleil,” “The Swan”/“Le Cygne,” “To a Woman Passing By”/“A une passante,” “Gaming”/“Le Jeu,” “Meditation”/“Recueillement”

4/27 Baudelaire III

Option 1:

Convolute M: M3a,4 (423), M5,6 (427), M13a,2 (442), M16,3 (446), facing pages 447-48
Convolute m: m2,1 (801-2)
Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur,” 33-43

Option 2:

Add full Buck-Morss

Option 3: original reading

Convolutes M, m: “The Flâneur” (AP 416-455), “Idleness” (AP 800-806)

*Susan Buck-Morss, “The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, 33-65
*Françoise Meltzer, “Money (La chambre double)” (selections), from Seeing Double: Baudelaire’s Modernity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 138-180

5/4 Knowledge, Progress, History

Option 1:

“Theses on the Philosophy of History”: IX (257), XIV (261), XVII (263)
Convolute N: N1,3 (456), N1,10 (458), N1a,8 + N2,1 (460), N3,4 (463), N4,2 + 4,3 (464), N7a,7 (470), N9,6 + N9,8 (473), N9a,6 (474), N10,3 (476), N15,2 (481), N19,2 (487)
Rolleston, “The Politics of Quotation,” 13-17
Arnaldo Momigliano, “Historicism Revisited,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 365-73

Option 2:

Option 1 + all of Convolute N and the “Theses”

Option 3: original reading

Convolute N: “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress” (AP 456-488)

*Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (253-64)
*Letter from W. Benjamin to G. Adorno
*James L. Rolleston, “The Politics of Quotation: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project,” PMLA 104:1 (Jan. 1989): 13-27
*Stathis Gourgouris, “The Dream-Reality of the Ruin,” in Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project, 201-24
*“The Angel of History,” from Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided tour, 95-104

*Arnaldo Momigliano, “Historicism Revisited,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 365-73

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

NYC day 7

A satisfying but very tiring day. I got through three of my four essential tasks and had several other Zoom meetings of various kinds; this was highly worthwhile! Those reading this may be thinking "gosh she is a shill for neoliberalism," but Zoom worked incredibly well for my meeting with one of my senior essay advisees: I made my comments on Word and tracked changes (yes this is more time-consuming, I prefer my usual scribble method), then we had it up on the screen and went through it together, it worked really well.

I found a nice little notebook on the shelves to use for daily to-do lists. Clearly there is going to be frequent carry-over of even essential tasks to the next day.
The day started with an excellent run and is going to end with novel-reading and a whisky on the couch.

I think that for this first week or so, I'm going to recommend just one absolutely tried and true piece of comfort-reading: books I have read again and again and think might arrest your attention for long enough that you can tear yourself away from the news cycle!

#1: Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift. All of Ibbotson's books are absolutely delightful; I read them again and again, especially when I'm so fatigued during a teaching semester that I don't know what to do with myself. This I think is my favorite - and there are lots more along very similar lines (that is a feature, not a bug...) if you pick this one up and like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NYC day 6

I had good intentions about doing some initial reading recommendations today here, but by the time I finished all the other important things, I was all tuckered out! Tomorrow, I think - I've got Zoom meetings with advisees starting around 3 or so but should have some morning time to do a real post here as well as taking care of one or two more logistical things for next week's classes.

It was a good day for me. I had a lovely 1hr as 1:1 jog-walk in the morning (having had quite serious chronic back pain for the last 3 years I finally figured two major fixes out about a month ago and the fact of running and walking without extreme soreness is really helping my mood). I did some rethinking for my Clarissa seminar (Richardson's million-word-long epistolary novel - one of my two classes semester is dedicated just to reading that book from start to finish) and had a great Zoom conversation with about 2/3 of the students in our normal time slot. The university extended spring break through tomorrow, so we didn't have "real" classes yesterday and today, but it was extremely good for my morale to see those faces and hear about how and where everyone is.

Ordered some hot-weather UV+ protective buffs for when the weather gets warmer. I'm using my winter one as a mask outdoors, for running, walking and errands (and yes, it gets washed after each use), but it's a bit scratchy and these ones will be better once I have them in hand.

Predictions are pretty much useless, but I'm figuring I'm home here like this for at least two months. Fingers crossed that I still get to exercise outside during that period!....

Monday, March 23, 2020

NYC day 5 (?)

I'm counting quarantine from Thursday.

When I was a small child, I was obsessed with the idea that if I just had a bathroom off my bedroom, I could seal myself off and float away in it like a little boat. My apartment is now that little boat.

The landmark days have come fast and furious.

On Thursday, March 5 I hosted a small book party for a friend. I didn't think of canceling it (it was perhaps fifteen people in my living room, not thronged), but I bought extra hand soap and paper towels and made sure everything was spotless so that being in a social gathering wouldn't provoke undue anxiety.

On Sunday, March 8, Columbia emailed us to say that Monday and Tuesday classes were suspended in preparation for a move online starting Wednesday. (Spring break was the following week and would give us additional adjustment time.)

I was following the news closely; Columbia recommended against non-essential university travel, but I weighed the pros and cons and did indeed fly to Cayman on Wednesday. My main reservation was that I was coming from a high-spread area to a low and that it might be irresponsible; Brent noted that since 10,000 cruise passengers were still coming ashore every day, the additional risk I might contribute was negligible.

Thursday night I realized I shouldn't go to Friday 6am hot yoga in case I was an asymptomatic carrier. Downloaded a hot 26 timer app and did a session on Brent's balcony. Started soft social distancing (worked at home rather than heading to Cafe del Sol), though we had early (deserted) dinner at Fidel's that night and picked up pizza from XQs to take to Gord and Enoka's on Saturday evening. But

The first Cayman death was announced later on Friday - an Italian man in his 70s, in bad health, who was rushed from his cruise ship to Health City for cardiac treatment. Health City closed down its hospital for two weeks to sterilize everything.

I was watching the news closely. My ticket home was for Saturday, March 21. It wasn't a disaster if I got stuck in Cayman (friends in NY urged me to stay there), but it equally wasn't a choice between two options - I am on a tourist visa there, and the health system isn't robust (patients with serious illnesses are usually treated in Miami, and the per-capita hospital bed count is lower than NYC; rationing would prioritize Caymanians).

On Monday, March 16, Cayman announced that the following Sunday, the island would close to passenger air traffic for three full weeks. Visitors would be prohibited entry from Thursday.

The next day, JetBlue emailed me to cancel my flight. I hastily booked myself onto a flight the next day, Cayman Airways GCM-JFK.

I was nervous, but it went incredibly smoothly. The airport was underpopulated. I had a mask from my friend Dr Enoka (I failed to press it down over my nose, I should have looked it up on the internet, I couldn't understand why it was making the bridge of my nose so sore!) and didn't eat or drink anything once I was in the airport. Last pee in airport bathroom, with soap and water handwashing, but underhydration sufficient that I didn't need to use the toilet on the plane (they are hives of germs at the best of times and I had a little bottle of sanitizer). I paid $150 for a business upgrade and it was almost like having my own little room - the seat next to me was empty and I could reach my legs out straight at a right angle to my torso and still not touch the bulkhead.

Taxi driver at the airport (it was maybe 8:30pm) said he'd been in the queue since 7am and I was his first fare. He was going to drive an hour and a half home to Long Island after he dropped my at my apartment in Morningside Heights.

So I'm counting from Thursday. Hard social distancing, a couple brief shopping trips. I'm running outside (and walking the 2 non-run days) with a buff as face cover and a pair of running gloves - it stops me touching my face and makes it less likely I'll get droplets on anybody else.

Without testing, none of us really know what's going on. I'm pretty sure that I haven't had COVID-19 already in its asymptomatic variant - I get lung involvement even with minor colds, and I haven't been sick at all since early January. Risk of exposure from when I arrived in Cayman on the 11th seems to me quite low.

I've brought Light Reading back to life so that I can write here for the duration. Facebook is ephemeral, chaotic. I would like a record. And I will be making light reading recommendations too.....

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

End of year, end of decade

My decades do run from 0 to 9 currently.

2010-2019? A decade of unrelenting losses.

The first and worst was Brent's beloved sister Wendy. It put us into a downward spiral of Ottawa eldercare worries, adding a third country and a huge amount of added stress to our already somewhat strenuous two-country life.

Brent's dad Chuck died in 2014. My mother's dear husband Jim was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at the end of 2014 and died a few months later after some brutal weeks in the ICU (here was my eulogy for him). Implausibly, my father died suddenly about two weeks later, and it was a "dog ate my homework situation" when for the second time that month I told my powerlifting coach that I had to go to Philadelphia in the aftermath of the death of someone very close to me. I wrote too many eulogies that year.

Time with our beloved step-grandfather Gene was always a gift, but it was tough watching him go, slowly, over the final six months of congestive heart failure. I wrote his obituary too: it's a little more than two years ago now and we are only just starting to regroup in the wake of his loss. Gene also left money that has put me in a position of financial security that I did not think I would ever achieve: I retain humility in the face of it and am very happy to be in a position now to fulfill the dream of my twenties, which was to pick up the restaurant tab for a table of friends or students without worrying about how much it costs!

Brent's mother had a series of strokes that took away first independence then movement and speech; she died in June of this year. Brent is still handling various estate business, but as a consequence of her death, he was able to spend his first Christmas at home in Cayman since he moved here in 2005.

At the same time - 2010-2019? A decade of rich simulating writing and fitness and friendship and family - a decade of enormous pleasures and privileges.

I wrote and published three books - a novel (I need to write another one of those soon or I will lose the thread!), a literary-critical memoir of my life as a reader, a short book about Jane Austen. I drafted another book that's close to done now and I had a surprise bonus book project fall into my lap as well: after Gene died, I got his and his wife's literary manuscripts, Margaret's novel The Duchess of Angus turned out to be an unsung masterpiece and will be published in a few months by Trinity University Press. See you at the San Antonio book festival in April!

I was still in the grip of triathlon at the start of the decade, had to back off training for my first Ironman the summer Wendy died, tried for it again the next summer but got horrible bronchitis after my peak training weekend and took a DNS, had a year off to regroup and then finally did really pull it off: completing IMWI in 2013 remains my proudest and most unlikely achievement!

Back problems started in a big way in 2011 and have plagued me on and off ever since; I am currently on a mix of running, yoga and swimming and am bent on continuing to regain mobility and running with less discomfort in 2020. My run coach is a voice for sanity and joy in my life, and I am extremely grateful for him and the community he has created.

I had amazing stints at the American Academy in Rome, at Balliol College, Oxford and at Reid Hall in Paris. I made friends in all three places and continue to pick up funny nice friends everywhere I go. Specially precious friends are Darren and Jane, who cared for Gene and Christine respectively in their final months. We could not have done all this without them.

Teaching continued to be one of the greatest pleasures of my life, and it was in this decade that it belatedly sunk in that the work I do as an educator is pretty certainly more important than the work I do as a writer. I was a reluctant leader in various institutional capacities, and there is a good chance I will be elected to chair the committee in 2020 that has most been driving me crazy and wiping me out over the last four months! (If I am chair I have more control over how it goes....)

I started teaching at Columbia in 2000 which means that I'm coming up on year twenty; from a professional point of view, I saw more change in the conditions of my work life from 2000 to 2009 than I did from 2010 to 2019, but really I've just been doing the same thing pretty happily since I started grad school in the mid-90s. The thought of two more decades in the same job is a little daunting, but the job changes as you age and grow, so I trust it will remain stimulating and sufficiently challenging!

I am at an interesting juncture in my professional life: there is a constant tug towards administration, but I believe that my temperament truly better fits me for quiet time alone, reading and writing and exercising and cuddling with cats. WHICH WAY WILL IT GO? Even I don't really know, though I am pretty sure that if I get the chance to back off significantly, I will take it. (But if someone asked me to be the dean of the graduate school, I would also find it hard to say no....)

My specific goals for the coming year: more consistent PT exercises, yoga and mobility work to improve baseline back functionality; work less, rest more. I really think my most important agenda for the year is to write much, much less - between fall of 2016 and now I have essentially written two books, a host of essays and introductions as well as the normal slew of work-related documents (tenure and promotion letters especially), and my brain needs a recovery period.

Brent and I will continue to live in two different countries - neither of us is movable, and having two separate establishments suits us both in many ways - but I believe we will be able to spend more time together (fostering cats while I'm in Cayman turned out to be the last piece of the puzzle, everything is better about being here now that I have lovely cats!). My own cats continue to delight me - Jose had a health scare this summer and every day I get with him now is precious.

I am certain that the new year will bring me more joy than sadness, and what else could I wish for?

Friday, December 27, 2019

Some favorite books of 2019

A list of some books I loved in 2019. No particular order within sections, and doesn't include work reading or books I read in paper.


Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (and Where Reasons End, though I think the former will be more universally compelling)
Emily Bernard, Black is the Body
Ellis Avery, The Family Tooth: A Memoir in Essays
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias
Asne Seirstad, Two Sisters
Anna Funder, Stasiland
Rachel Louise Snyder, No Visible Bruises
Ann Marlow, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z
Lawrence Weschsler, And How Are you, Dr. Sacks? (falls apart towards the end, but there’s a lot of new material)
Emilie Pine, Notes to Self
Imani Perry, Breathe
Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives

Top general fiction:

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Minae Mizumura, A True Novel
Maurice Ruffin, We Cast a Shadow
Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People: Stories (possibly the very best book I read this year)
Susn Choi, Trust Exercise
Johannes Lichtman, Such Good Work (standout first novel)
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Everything
Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a great rec from Garth Greenwell)

Top general fiction, SFF subcategory:

Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection (sequel)
Sarah Pinsker, A Song for a New Day
Chuck Wendig, The Wanderers
Fonda Lee, Jade War (sequel to the unmissably good Jade City)
Annalee Newitz, The Future of Another Timeline
Aliya Whiteley, The Loosening Skin (exceptional, must get and read her other books)

Two excellent novels in a genre that is not mine:

Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, The Nest

I would recommend Neal Stephenson, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell with certain reservations– I actually really enjoyed this while also finding it periodically maddening; basically, NS’s retelling of, as it were, a mashup of Paradise Lost and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Interesting to see a gifted storyteller write a novel that essentially refuses all the pleasures of fiction....


Jane Harper, The Lost Man
Ron Corbett, Cape Diamond (Frank Yakabuski installment 2)
Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home
Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar
Denise Mina, Conviction
Kate Atkinson, Big Sky
Adrian McKinty, The Chain
Robert Crais, A Dangerous Man
Karin Slaughter, The Last Widow
S. L. Huang, Null State
Alex North, The Whisper Man
Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (her best yet IMO)
Rene Denfield, The Butterfly Girl (sequel)
Soren Sveistrup, The Chestnut Man
Lee Child, Blue Moon
Robert Bryndza, Nine Elms
John Sandford, Bloody Genius
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets (very solemn, but the writing is extremely good)
Alison Bruce, The Silence
Sophie Hénaff, The Awkward Squad


Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Katherine Arden, Winternight (conclusion of trilogy)
S. A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass and The City of Copper (love these books so so much!)
Tom Sweterlitsch, The Gone World
Alex White, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe and sequel
Zen Cho, The True Queen (#2 in series)
K. Chess, Famous Men Who Never Lived
Emma Newman, Atlas Alone (Planetfall)
Rebecca Roanhorse, Storm of Locusts (Sixth World #2)
Joan He, Descendant of the Crane
Leo Carew, The Wolf and sequel (Under the Northern Sky series)
Ben Aaronovitch, The October Man
Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, Vita Nostra (very good, unusual)
Sarah Painter – a happy discovery, first two Crow Investigations book very enjoyable, then I devoured her whole backlist, then Crow #3 came out at the end of the year
Paul Cornell, A Long Day in Lychford
Emily Tesh, Silver in the Wood
Laurie Marks, Air Logic (final installment of Elemental Logic series)
Kali Wallace, Salvation Day
Claire O’Dell, The Hound of Justice (Janet Watson #2, flaws perhaps a bit clearer here than in the first one but still very appealing)
Ada Hoffman, The Outside
Craig L. Gidney, A Spectral Hue
Garth Nix, Angel Mage
Christelle Dabos, the Mirror Visitor books (these are new favorites, really good)
Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (haunting, has stayed with me)
Kai Ashante Wilson, The Sorceror of the Wildeeps
Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven Boys and sequels (obtained after I read https://maggiestiefvater.com/the-years-without-words/)
Stephen King, The Institute
Paul Cornell, The Lights Go Out in Lychford
James S. A. Corey, Auberon (Expanse novella, not as good as The Churn which is my favorite, a bit cookie-cutter and politically schematic, but still of course highly readable
Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropic of Orange

Urban fantasy/paranormal romance:

Melissa Olson, Boundary Broken (#4 in series)
Anne Bishop, Wild Country
Patricia Briggs, Storm Cursed
Deborah Blake, Wickedly Unraveled
Nalini Singh, Wolf Rain, Archangel’s War
Ilona Andrews, Sweep of the Blade, Sapphire Flames


Hoang, The Kiss Quotient (a recommendation from Roxane Gay)
Charlotte Greene, Legacy

Good rereads:

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Naomi Novik, Uprooted
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, in preparation for new installment
Deborah Coates’s Hallie Michaels series

Others I enjoyed and would recommend to those to whom subject matter or genre appeals:

Richard Kadrey, The Grand Dark
Jean Kwok, Searching for Sylvie Lee
Angie Kim, Miracle Creek (not my genre but very good)
Liz Emens, Life Admin
Lewis Shiner, Outside the Gates of Eden (long novel exploring aftermath of the 60s, too unstructured and could have used one more serious female character but it has stayed with me)
Olivia Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe, The Killer in Me (decent police procedurals, Irish setting)
Claire McGowan, What You Did
Helen Phillips, The Need
Alan Russell, LA Woman (Gideon and Sirius book, they’re not especially well-written but I really enjoy them)
M. T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family
Catherine Kirwan, Darkest Truth
Joshilyn Jackson, Never Have I Ever
Jo Nesbo, Knife
T. Kingfisher, Minor Mage
Ben Winters, Golden State
Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Seanan McGuire, The Unkindest Tide
Michael Connelly, The Night Fire
Leah Bobet, An Inheritance of Ashes

Biggest disappointment of the year: The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth! The book just felt like a sustained assault against Lyra, and the uncritical use of Great Game-style politics is insufferable.