Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Recent reading

The Spiral Staircase : My Climb out of Darkness

Remarkable memoir by Karen Armstrong, former nun and controversial writer on religion.

The Time of Our Singing

I've previously found Richard Powers too cerebral, but this book is absolutely mesmerizing. For some reason I am particularly fond of the music-oriented bildungsroman; this one now joins Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, Albert Murray's Seven-League Boots and James Baldwin's Just Above My Head on my list of official favorites.

For Love of Insects

I have never seen such beautiful photos. The narrative's pretty funny too. Highly recommended.

Last Samurai' Writer Helen DeWitt Found

Guardian Unlimited | World Latest | Last Samurai' Writer Helen DeWitt Found

This is very good news. It is the most lovable and brilliant novel, I wish everybody would read it. It is also a novel that made it easy to believe its author had killed herself--it is thoughtfully but fairly compulsively obsessed with suicide (as well as with being a child prodigy/riding the Circle Line/watching a film over and over again/learning many languages/generally caring more about books and ideas because it is so painful to care about people instead). Go and see for yourself, I can't do justice to its charms.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Barbara Trapido

Here's a short piece by novelist Barbara Trapido about how she came to write her first novel: Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | The awkward squad.

Trapido, born in South Africa, is well known in the U.K., but deserves a wider audience here. She is a ggenius novelist: one of the rare ones where you finish the last page of the book and wish you could just sit down and read the whole thing all over again. My favorite is Juggling; The Traveling Hornplayer is also particularly good; most of her novels depict the same big cast of characters, concentrating on different individuals and different angles. Really magical stuff, anyway.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

When I first read about the vegetable lamb of Tartary last year, my main sensation was amazement that I hadn't ever heard of it before. It's exactly the kind of thing I'm obsessed with. For more details, see the picture of a specimen of the Lamb at Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: Darwin Centre Phase 2:

"It is very likely that Sir Hans Sloane (founder of the Natural History Museumcollections) acquired the 'Vegetable Lamb of Tartary' through his connections with the Royal Society, of which he was the Secretary from 1693 to 1712. This is actually a rhizome of the fern Cibotium barometz, an arborescent fern that was eventually introduced into Britain in 1824 from China. This example was not entirely naturally formed, but was aided by careful removal of excess parts of the rhizome. It would originally have been white, so the confusion with wool would have been more apparent. It was variously called 'The Borometz' (this being the Tartar word for lamb), 'The Scythian Lamb', and the 'Vegetable Lamb of Tartary'.

"These so-called 'lambs' were considered from the fourteenth century to be a zoomorphic plant (one having the attributes of an animal). It was supposed to grow from a seed, and to be attached to the ground by a stalk. This allowed it to graze only on the grass in the near vicinity, at which point the 'lamb' then broke away from the stalk, leaving it to die. The myth also states that an arrow could be fired at the stalk to free the lamb."

Here's a seventeenth-century picture--look closely to see a cute little Vegetable Lamb, swaying on his stalk: Parkinson's Paradisi

Parody gone wrong

Of all the literary blogs out there, my favorite is Maud Newton: Blog. No reflection on all the other folks writing, but Maud's site is both excellent and also completely to my taste. She had a bit of a situation there this week: a friend posted a parody of her website called "Fraud Newton" (I'm not going to link to it, because it's clearly one of those jokes where hostility bizarrely outweighed humor). She provided the link, then took it down later in the week:

"I've deleted the post to the 'Fraud Newton' parody site. Someone I know created the site because he thought it would be funny. It didn't make me laugh as much as it made me want to kill myself. It's a pretty accurate takedown of the self-indulgent bullshit I post here. "

Unnecessary self-flagellation! Maud's site is hilarious and self-deprecating, not in the least self-indulgent. Go see for yourself.

Nobel in Scotland

Nobel in Scotland

I'm finishing the last scene of Dynamite No. 1, and it's set at the Nobel Dynamite Factory in Ardeer, a desolate stretch of sandy dunes on the west coast of Scotland. It was one of many far-flung outposts of Nobel's munitions manufacturing empire.

Alfred Nobel is the presiding spirit of my trilogy; this alternate-universe 1930s is a world that wouldn't exist without his contributions to technology and industry in the 19th century.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Dynamite No. 1

In recent months I've become addicted to reading literary blogs. I've also become addicted to coffee, after quitting smoking last August and realizing that I then spent every morning taking hours to wake up and drinking as many as five or six mugs of tea. My friend A. claims that scientific studies show that nicotine exaggerates the power of caffeine. If this isn't true, it should be. I never used to drink coffee, but I always smoked lots of cigarettes. Now I drink lots of coffee and pine for the old days.

I've been on sabbatical this year from my teaching job. I've used the time to get a new academic book underway, as well as to write a new novel, now almost finished. I'm going to use this site to chronicle the path from finding a publisher for it all the way to actual publication and beyond. As an inveterate advice-giver, I intend to include various helpful tips for would-be novelists, as well as accounts of all the funny and/or harrowing things that happen along the way.

But before any of this can happen, I've got to finish writing the book.

More to follow...