Sunday, July 31, 2005

NY noir

Just read an excellent NY noir novel, Disturbed Earth by Reggie Nadelson (who is described in this Bookreporter profile as "an international woman of mystery"--I think this is an unfortunate coinage; actually, there's a funny but slightly grotesque Austin Powers reference in the novel, but still...).

Prose style isn't Nadelson's particular strength--this novel called to mind Jim Fusilli's Hard, Hard City and the Mo Prager novels by Reed Farrel Coleman, but where both Fusilli and Coleman are really angelic sentence-writers, Nadelson's sentences are more serviceable than stylish (and the punctuation definitely could have used another go-through--yes, yes, I know I am ridiculously pedantic with this, I have the soul of a copy-editor). But Nadelson more than makes up for it with her journalistic-sociological sensibility--the characters are all appealing and complex and the stuff about NY truly excellent, there's some great Russian-Brighton Beach stuff and other very nicely observed scenes in different social milieux. Definitely recommended--it's an interesting book a s well as being a highly readable one, you get the feeling that Nadelson would be an excellent person to hang out with.

(Incongruously Nadelson's novel is blurbed by Paul Theroux and Salman Rushdie. Disconcerting! Clearly she moves in rather elevated circles...)

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Michael Chabon

has a great quotation from S. J. Perelman on his website: "Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws." Now that's a novel I want to read... or perhaps it can be a scene in my sequel to Dynamite No. 1.

Casting about last night for something good to read

I came upon a random used paperback I bought some time ago, A Cold Day In Paradise by Steve Hamilton. Within a few pages I realized I was reading a low-key but spectacularly good private-investigator novel, with excellent Upper Peninsula setting, appealing main character, great writing--I don't know why I didn't pick it up sooner, except that it's a weird little paperback promotional copy with a special cover of the "Dear Reader ... we've taken the unusual step to create advance reading copies of a book that's already been published in hardcover" kind. It is amazing how rarely such messages make a book sound more appealing. However I found it absolutely delightful, and best of all there are at least five more in the series, I am going to go and get them from the library as soon as possible.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Oh and

here's a better selection of interviews with Antony. Scroll down and there's a great one with Lou Reed, plus lots of other good stuff.

An outrageously good concert last night

I went to see Antony and the Johnsons last night with a lovely group of people that included this blogger and another one I'm tempted to link to but won't in case it exposes the connection between her daytime identity and her top-secret exciting blogger one. The concert was truly spectacular, just magically good--it was at the Town Hall, every seat was full and everyone in the audience was completely mesmerized. (The last thing I saw there, randomly, was David Remnick interviewing Sy Hersh at the New Yorker festival. Clearly this is a high-quality venue.) I loved every single minute of it, Antony is an extraordinary musician and with the most amazing voice and a really lovely rapport with his band members as well (that bass player is adorable), and I have been listening to the albums like crazy and every single song is great. He has the gift of ratcheting up the emotional intensity so that everyone's on the edge of their seat, and meanwhile his voice is as silky and powerful as ever. Here's a review of a show that sounds much like the one last night--I thought highlights were "Dust and Water," where he asks the audience to hum and sings a quite haunting little song a capella except for, oh, it must be something like 4,000 people very quietly humming; and the Lou Reed encore, "Candy Says," one of my favorite Lou Reed songs of all time. Seriously, if you're not listening to Antony, you must get hold of his albums and start to do so RIGHT NOW, you will not regret it: here's the first and the second on Amazon, or of course you can get it from iTunes but I can't be bothered to link.

Addendum: I recently almost put down a novel after the first few chapters (see fuller account here), and it was a reference to Antony and the Johnsons that made me keep reading, I felt it signaled something more offbeat and appealing about the author's taste than I had yet seen in the first chapters.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

An excellent NY noir/eve of WWII thriller

Hour of the Cat, by Peter Quinn. This is a model of its kind: great characterization and settings, well-constructed and complex but also very clear plot, ominous world-historical backdrop. I often have a gripe with novels of this type--in general, I would prefer a stripped-down, leaner noir novel without so much of the real-major-players-in-history counterpoint--but in this case it's so well done (Admiral Canaris is particularly well-drawn) that I had no objections. Very, very good.

Just read

a really disturbing (in a good way) young-adult vampire novel by M. T. Anderson, Thirsty. I was particularly taken aback by the ending--it definitely wasn't what I was expecting.

I'll also note that Thirsty has one of the funniest Amazon customer reviews I've seen for a long time. It's got the heading "thirsty for lies"--I'm 95% sure it's a joke, but there's a slim chance it's for real:

This book is good but it has many lies. First,people just dont TURN into vampires, they have to be blooded. Second, they CAN tell who other vampires are in a crowd, but not by their shadows, they have an aura (a scent a vampire gives off).

This book was very missleading. If you want a book that is true, I would strongly recommend a different book. If you are looking for a fairy tale, this would be your book.

So there!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Kepler's Eye

Just finished an uncannily good fantasy novel, A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park. (Recommended by Gwenda and others I can't seem to find links to.) It's quite excellent, rather Pullmanesque (including some interesting animal stuff) but completely original and of its own kind as well. And here's a good interview with Park about the book. I want the sequel NOW!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Because I have a brain like a sieve

and also read too many novels I all too often find myself opening up a book whose author's name is completely strange to me and rapidly discovering that I'm already familiar with the series--in the worst-case scenario with the actual book itself. However in this case it was the happy version--I started reading It's Raining Men by Naomi Rand and remembered the main character Emma Price immediately--the first two books in the series are great, and this one's absolutely excellent. A must-read for anyone who likes urban private-investigator-type crime stuff, or good New York noir--really appealing characters, and also excellent writing of a low-key and understated but immensely skillful variety. (It is not a coincidence that the author bio reveals that Rand has an MFA in fiction. She has an excellent prose style, but also a really good sense of what makes a page-turning crime novel. Would be a good thing if more MFA graduates turned to writing this kind of book, the crime novel has always been a hospitable place for good stylists.)

I have only one complaint about the book. I am not going to spell out what's wrong with the following exchange--either you don't know anything about Scotch and you will find my explanation completely pedantic or else you will see the ridiculousness for yourself and your jaw will drop at the fact that multiple editors missed it. Here's the conversation in question (Emma's on the job at a post-Oscar celebration party where her film-editing-ex-husband's evil boss has made an appearance--he's behaving badly to the waitress at the River Cafe):

"Sweetheart, do me a favor, would you? Ask what you've got by way of a double malt?"
Off she went again.
The waitress was back. "We have Glenlivet, Dewar's, and La . . ." She looked bemused. "Sorry, the last one's hard to pronounce."
"Laphroaig," he said. "Sweetheart, you forgot to find out how long they've been aged."
"How about you just choose one of them," Emma said.
He gave her a curious look.
"Really, it's no trouble," the waitress was saying.
"The lady says I have to choose, then I will." Shutting his eyes, he added, "Eeny, meeny, miney, moe." His eyes sprang open. "Laphroaig," he told her. "You come back and see if you can pronounce it for me."

Anyway, otherwise it's excellent.

Reread the lovely if slight A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, which is like a sort of answer to French existentialism. Just now I've finished Land of Echoes, the second novel in the Cree Black series by Daniel Hecht--I really, really liked it--it's substantial but also rather enthralling. I think he had a big upturn in quality between the second and third novels he published; the first two are far too much the ponderous novel-of-ideas thriller for my taste, then he hit the groove with the Cree Black series (and I am delighted to see that the premise implies it will go on for fifty books, one for each state!), and the prequelhe then published to one of his earlier books was really also infinitely better than the first two.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

A great essay by Alan Hollinghurst

about Sybille Bedford in the NYRB (not online, unfortunately). It's a review of Quicksands: A Memoir, but it covers her whole career in a really admirable and thoughtful way--I do love Hollinghurst, he's on my very short list of most highly regarded writers.

I love Bedford too and can't help but disagree with his judgment about the pair of her novels that I have read most often. I must read them again and see what I think these days, it has been some years since I last read them. Hollinghurst quotes Waugh as saying about A Legacy, "I think it was clumsy to have any of the narrative in the first person. The daughter relates things she cannot possibly ever have known as though she were an eye witness"; Hollinghurst then perceptively adds that Waugh "touches on something which will be an abiding small problem in Bedford's work, that she seems often unable to work out how to tell a story, that is, where to tell it from."

Here's his main commentary on "her next two, much lesser novels, A Favourite of the Gods (1963) and its sequel, A Compass Error (1968)":

A Favourite of the Gods is indeed a dismayingly bad book, in which Bedford seems to reveal herself as being all the things we had specially prized her as not being, snobbish, smug, and humorless. . . . The title itself perhaps gives warning of what Bedford herself calls the "highbrow Mills & Boon" color of this novel.

A Compass Error is a tauter and more focused, if still fairly solemn affair, evidently steeped in the light and emotion of Bedford's own youth in the south of France. It contains a lesbian relationship between Cosntanza's teenage daughter Flavia (now a third-person character) and an older woman clearly based on Renee Kisling, the wife of the Polish painter Moise Kisling, who figures prominently in Jigsaw. One is glad that Bedford should have written openly, and with a proper lack of fuss, about this central but otherwise only glancingly acknowledged aspect of her life; but it is still hard to forgive the book's hopeless organization. The fifty-two-page chapter ("A Night") in which Flavia, in bed with Therese, tells her the story of her mother's life in the tones of an omniscient adult is one of the least plausible feats of narration since Conrad's Marlow wound up his tale of a journey to the Congo. Still, all these forcings and awkwardnesses seem at some level expressions of Bedford's admirable and insatiable struggle to make artistic sense of her life.

I think I have a much higher tolerance than Hollinghurst for this kind of waywardness in point-of-view. (It is almost comical, the irritation with which he notes that Flavia has gone from being narrator to third-person character in the switch between books!) I think the point-of-view question is perhaps the most difficult thing about writing fiction--it's related to voice, but it's harder to find the right perspective than to write good sentences--on the other hand, fiction would be a lot more boring if we didn't sometimes get heedless rule-breaking by novelists who should have known better. The very tight, controlled Jamesian third-person voice of Hollinghurst's fiction is an impressive and extraordinary thing but its control in the end makes it perhaps less appealing to me than the intensely personal fiction of someone like Bedford.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Interesting profile of Peter Singer

by Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian. (Link via the Literary Saloon at the Complete Review.)

Miscellaneous light reading/rereading

I can't seem to settle into anything substantial, mostly because I'm gearing up for a major work effort. Read two books by Peter S. Beagle, one of those writers that really sticks with you: Tamsin, which I have read before and love (it's a ghost story, but it's also a great angry-female-narrator-girl-from-NY story, add it to Suzy McKee Charnas--who by the way has an interesting blog and an excellent website--and Meg Rosoff and other more remote analogs like Harriet the Spy and Madeleine L'Engle's Vicky Austin books); and Folk of the Air, which I liked very much--it's exactly the kind of book I like--though not as much as Matt Ruff's Fool on the Hill, which is I think my favorite university-town urban fantasy. I am grateful, however, not to be living in 1970s Berkeley surrounded by people dressed in medieval garb--it's sort of my worst nightmare.

I was thwarted in my desire to read more novels by Daniel Hecht--I requested a whole bunch from the library and they arrived only for me to find that (a) I'd already read Skull Session, without remembering the name of book or author, and hadn't liked it nearly as much as the prequel Puppets which I read last week; and (b) The Babel Effect is the kind of high-concept, lots-of-stuff-about-religion-and-ethics-and-evolutionary-theory-and-the-brain kind of thriller that in theory I love but in practice I have virtually given up reading since I started getting more exciting book recommendations from the litblogs. So I put both aside.

I did read two first novels this week as well, which I should really refrain from criticizing since I thought they were both very promising if flawed: Double Cross Blind by Joel N. Ross (OK, I can't resist the marginal comments, but really this book was quite decent though marred by a few literary glitches--Raskolnikov didn't kill his landlady, the title of Joyce's novel is not "The Odyssey"--and it's also hard not to read this stuff as overshadowed by Robert Harris and Alan Furst); and Clare Sambrook's Hide and Seek (I absolutely LOVED the first few chapters, but found myself more and more regretful that she hadn't written this as a more conventional thriller rather than a first-person-child-narrator literary novel--it is quite good, and really excellent in spots, but doesn't match up to Ben Rice's extraordinary novella Pobby and Dingan or a host of other great similar things, and I thought it would have worked better as something more like this). But both Ross and Sambrook are likely to write really good books in future, I'd say. Keep an eye out, and check out these ones too.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

One of the great pleasures

of the kind of academic work I do is that you occasionally come across some stunningly good book that is so weird and memorable and little-known that you feel it is your personal property. I get this pretty often. (I think my favorite one last year was August Weismann's essays on heredity, which are so lucid and smart and funny and self-aware that you feel like you're right there in the same room with him, though they were published in the 1880s. Weismann was immensely well-known and respected in his day, but hardly anyone reads him now--more's the pity.) It's like a kind of real-world ghost, the way that some books bring their authors to life so vividly and forge such a connection with the person reading: of course that why a lot of canonical novels are still read (Austen and Dickens), but it's even more fun when it's some relatively obscure nonfiction book whose author's jumping off the page at you. All this is a long way of saying that I cannot resist pasting in another quotation from Timothy Nourse, who published a volume called Campania Foelix in 1700. It's an amazing book, I think everyone should read it who's interested in this period at all (Garland reprinted it in their garden book series, and it's also available through EEBO or ECCO or one of those on-line databases). I could give you pages and pages, but I won't. Here's the kind of thing, though, that just makes me fall out of my seat laughing in horror and sympathy--Nourse has such a distinctive way of thinking about things, you feel you could pick him out of a police line-up on the basis of the irritable and put-upon expression on his face:

I have been told Abroad by some German Gentlemen, that it was a usual thing amongst them, in the Warmth of their Debauches, (which in those Countries are excessive) to drink their Healths out of the Barrel of a cock’d and loaded Pistol, with Finger on the Triquer, whilst they discharge the Wine into their Throats; so that upon the least Miscarriage of an unsteady Hand, the Bullet would not fail to do its Duty. This Point of Bravery being over, they all give a Volly on fire together, and then charge afresh, and so on. If this kind of Gallantry were in vogue amongst us, I believe we should have fewer Drunkards than now there are, and by going out of this World by a Draught of Flame, they would be better prepar’d to drink of it for ever in the next.

Social Darwinism avant la lettre!

"It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles"

Saw a spectacularly good play tonight, Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Irish Rep. First half rather better than the second, but then that is a very common problem even with great plays. I've read some of Friel's plays, but have never seen one onstage, and was really blown away by it. Incredibly good acting by James Kennedy (Private Gareth) and Helena Carroll (Aunt Lizzy), but really all the actors are excellent. The play makes good use of snatches of song and radio pastiche and other stuff including a particular favorite line of mine from Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I think it is a character flaw

that I find Ian McEwan (or at least his recent fiction and public persona, he himself is probably a perfectly nice guy) so annoying, everyone else I know who cares about such things seems to be a great enthusiast, but I've just read a typically maddening interview with McEwan by Robert Birnbaum (actually, it's a great read, very revealing, as are all Birnbaum's interviews, but there were at least three places where I was ready to be sick!):

IMcE: I often think, 'What was this golden age to which you hark back to? The '50s?' Literary culture was always a minority culture. Every small town you go to you will find some person who is just obsessed by books. They are everywhere, those people, and they pop up in the most unexpected places. Peoples whose lives are in books. They often have a very unhealthy look.

RB: [laughs]

IMcE: I meet these guys and they are usually guys. They have read far more than I have or ever will, these particular kinds of poets and dreamers who really have a mad hunger for reading.

RB: That would be a hopeful sign.

IMcE: I think so. But generally, those guys apart, the novel is sustained by women. And like most of the differences between men and women we find what we get a big chunk in the middle of the bell curve, of women who read constantly and steadily. And among men a far lower number reading but at the far end of the spectrum just a few utterly crazed enthusiasts.

Seriously, there are so many reasons this is an absurd thing to say... I thought the other most awful passage was this:

I think this generation of kids is far nicer than we were, to their parents, on the whole. My kids were happy to sit around the table and talk and they’d bring their friends. One of the great bridges, which we never had with our parents, is the music. They don’t have a radically—fortunately, my kids don’t like drum and bass—if that was their music than there would be nothing to talk about. Their music is all built on the same rock and roll base of ‘50s and ‘60s, that our music was built on. So we have a bridge.

It's the aside that kills me--"fortunately, my kids don't like drum and bass"...

Lightest of light

reading and rereading (mostly the second): Victoria Clayton's Past Mischief (Clayton's the closest any living author I know comes to the pleasures of Georgette Heyer, but with a sort of 1970s upper-class English setting instead of Regency, and rather more complex and realistic); Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, which I have read a ridiculously large number of times already but can always read one more time; Diana Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy (I love all of her books, this one's very good but not quite up to the standard of the one it's a sequel to, Deep Secret, one of the absolute best). Also one I hadn't read before, really excellent and startlingly similar to--not in a derivative way, just in a same-wavelength thing--Phil Rickman: City of Masks: A Cree Black Novel, an excellent ghost-busting mystery novel. What is in the air with this? I have never in my life met a paranormal investigator, but these novels (bristling with common sense and realism, BTW, and Susan Howatch has this too) foreground them. On the other hand, I have never met a homicide detective either. It may be a question of social circles.

Monday, July 18, 2005

My dear friend Jane Yeh

is on the shortlist for the Forward poetry prize for best first collection (here's the Guardian piece): "An almost unprecedented enthusiasm marks the announcement today of shortlists for the Forward prizes, the biggest on the poetry scene and one of the few chances for poets to earn some money. The awards pay a total of �16,000 to the winners of three categories. The judges single out two of these for special praise. The announcement says the judges were struck by the 'extraordinary maturity' of entries by newer poets for the �3,000 prize for best first collection."

Jane's book Marabou is published by Carcanetand can be preordered from Amazon UK (oh, and I see it will also have distribution in the US, preorder from US Amazon here); it is an extraordinarily good collection, I am a stringent and critical reader of contemporary poetry (that is, when I read it at all) but this book just bowled me over.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Remedy With the Acrostic Name

A great essay about nineteenth-century guidebooks, by Jonathan Keates in the TLS (only part of the story's posted online). I love this stuff, I always turn to old guidebooks when I'm doing research. And in fact Keates provides a charming detail that I think I am going to poach for my novel. The ads at the back are almost the most appealing things in these books (that's how I realized, for instance, what a staggering number of "temperance hotels" there were in Edinburgh at the turn of the century). Keates cites an ad for Yanatas, "The Remedy With the Acrostic Name": You are Now Able to Avoid Seasickness. Four shillings and ninepence a bottle.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Just read

a rather fantastically good serial-killer thriller, Daniel Hecht's Puppets. I really loved it. The writing is elegant but unobtrusive, there's lots of interesting stuff to think about as well as a good story (brainwashing and Pavlovian conditioning, neurosurgery, US government conspiracies in the Vietnam era and beyond), settings (Westchester is particularly well-realized) and characters. The main character--state investigator Mo Ford--is particularly convincing. I get really sick of crime fiction where the author keeps on telling you that the investigator is a genius but does it in the clunkiest ways; you feel sometimes that the limits of the author's own intelligence make it impossible for him or her to make a really smart detective. This book is exactly the opposite. Mo Ford is super-smart but entirely unpretentious, and so is Daniel Hecht's novel. Great stuff. (Oh, and for clarification, it's not that I only like books that are super-intellectual or that all crime fiction must be written by and about geniuses! Good crime fiction can feature plodding or obstinate or daydreaming or self-destructive investigators and it's all fine with me. But it just doesn't do for a not-particularly-intellectual writer to characterize a main character as an intellectual without really feeling and understanding what that would be like. I actually get the same feeling of irritation with P. D. James's Adam Dalgleish, she just keeps telling you again and again that he's a poet, whereas you never see anything about him that makes it convincing and also who cares, given that in the chronology of the earlier books he published his one and only volume of poetry c. 1960 and would therefore by now be (a) well into his 70s if not 80s (b) completely unknown as a poet, particularly to his colleagues. I suppose there are some writers who are miraculously able to endow characters with emotional or intellectual properties that are quite foreign to them [i.e. the authors], but they are few and far between. This is why writers like Lee Child and Ken Bruen are so special--Lee Child's imaginative/inventive/TV producer of genius-type properties all go into making Jack Reacher the scenario inventor that he is, and Ken Bruen's insane genius reading/intellect/philosophy stuff/sensibility comes through amazingly directly in the persons of his self-destructive noir protagonists.)

Whatever you think about Harry Potter

it is surely an amazing thing the way those books transform even lukewarm readers into book-obsessed fiends! Imagine how great it would be if every week a new release caused such excitement that the bookstores stayed open till midnight to satisfy the urgent needs of waiting customers... I had my eye on the clock all evening--I was at a friend's birthday party, and had scoped out the Barnes and Noble on 8th St. as a possible purchase venue. (I preordered last time from Amazon and the book got enmired in one of those it-wasn't-delivered, it's-supposed-to-be-at-the-post-office-on-104th-St.-but-isn't dramas that is more hassle than it's worth.) On my way back to the Christopher St. 1 station around 1:30am, I popped in and bought a copy. The trip home passed by in a flash; I was thinking about staying up till I finished it, but around 4:30 the voice of reason said that it would be wiser to go to bed and finish reading it in the morning. And so I did. Very enjoyable, really. Not the best installment in the sequence--Rowling relies heavily in this one on the device of the pensieve (which stores memories that can then be unwound again) to develop a parallel narrative from Lord Voldemort's past, and there's something sterile about seeing scenes in that format, as if you told the backstory in a movie by having the characters sitting there and watching it on television--but there is a good reason that these books sell a gazillion copies and elicit compulsive rereading, they are the perfect comfort reading. There's an excellent potion that gives you good luck, although it sounds rather addictive (and these books would be more interesting if you got Harry addicted and wrestling with his worse self, he's a bit too pure of heart for his own good). There's the occasional self-conscious gesture about the formulaic nature of the books ("The run-up to this crucial match had all the usual features: members of rival Houses attempting to intimidate opposing teams in the corridors; unpleasant chants about individual players being rehearsed loudly as they passed; the team members themselves either swaggering around enjoying all the attention or else dashing into bathrooms between classes to throw up"). The energy level isn't as high as in some of the earlier books, but I am still ridiculously impatient for the next and final installment. I want it right now!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

In 2050

some American Studies PhD student is going to write a dissertation that will finally explain for once and for all why late 20th- and early 21st-century American fiction is so full of insanely implausible and highly stylized serial-killer thrillers. In the meantime I have a high tolerance for them; last night I started reading Jonathan Santlofer's latest, was very mildly put off in the opening pages of The Killing Art (to be published in November) by a bit too much lecturing about the New York School painters and then ended up completely caught up in his story-telling--the next thing I knew it was very, very late and I was turning the last page. Santlofer doesn't have a truly macabre imagination, you never really feel scared here (partly because the violence is so baroque and over-the-top), but his main character is appealing and the whole thing is just done to a high standard--he's a more than competent prose writer, the New York and art scene stuff is for once wholly convincing and he's got an excellent sense of pacing.

Fairy-tale stuff, USA

Just read a most magically good novel, Albert Murray's The Magic Keys, the fourth installment in his amazing autobiographical series of fictions. It may make more sense to start with one of the earlier ones--Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree, my particular favorite The Seven League Boots (the first one I read, and the one that made me just fall right in love with Murray's writing). There are a lot of references here back to the earlier books. But it's amazing in its own right; lots of great stuff about characters closely based on Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, etc. I have a pretty low tolerance for fancy language, but every word Murray chooses is just right, and the sound of the words makes so much sense that you get caught up even in his most Joycean flights (BTW there's a very funny riff here on Anna Livia Plurabelle). My favorite thing about these books is that I can't think of any other novels that so perfectly sum up the really magical thing about education. They'd be good ones to read if you're doing a PhD, for instance, and want reminding why you got into the racket in the first place. Here's Deke Whatley in the barbershop in the college town where Murray's protagonist Scooter has gone back to teach:

But let me just say this. The main thing about education. No matter what kind of course you take, and how many degrees you get, the main thing is knowing what to want! You understand what I'm saying? Don't care what courses and how many degrees, the main thing is know what you really want for yourself. I'm not talking about self-indulgence. I'm talking about self-satisfaction. Knowing what to choose. Knowing how to pick and choose.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I read an unexpectedly 9/11 novel

last night, Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia Block (and do click on that link and check out her author photo, it is really beautiful in a demented and anorexic kind of way). I like these Weetzie Bat books (and the bumper omnibus is definitely a good deal if you like this kind of thing, which I do--I always read the first few pages thinking "god, this is kind of great but slightly whimsical and narcissistic, why am I reading it?" and then a few pages later I'm completely caught up in it). Block is a very good writer in a completely non-writerly way; you feel like she could be producing weird artworks (polaroids of Chanel suits and punk-rock album covers glued onto clear plastic raincoats, say, or something equally punk-couture-surreal) but it happens that they come out in the form of novels instead.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Light (re)reading

around the edges of a very decent amount of work: one more Georgette Heyer novel, A Civil Contract; two novels by Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker (the English title was A Question of Integrity, which seems to me much preferable, but I love these books so much that I'm not complaining, I just don't know why Howatch isn't better known in the US) and The High Flyer; two Margery Allingham novellas--and Allingham is another writer who's unjustly little-known nowadays, I'd say, though it's the Albert Campion novels that are really amazing, there is something uncanny and striking about her writing that you don't find in Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh or the other classic period detective novels of that type--published under the hopeless title Deadly Duo (seriously, how pitiful can you get?); and a random Ian Rankin novel that happened to come my way. Why am I reading things I've already read before, in some cases a LOT of times before? Well, I've got some more interesting and challenging stuff waiting around, but I don't want to distract myself from the eighteenth-century stuff that's living in my head right now (Defoe, Rousseau, Smollett and Jefferson primarily, with a hint of Virgil's Georgics and also some crazy interruptions from Timothy Nourse, a minor obsession of mine, plus the odd interlude in which I try to develop a grand theory of culture and think about Jethro Tull and the new agriculture and Raymond Williams--here's the syllabus for the course where I tried some of this stuff out last fall). Better to read things I know I like and that have the charm of familiarity. Rereading is one of the great pleasures in life; reading a fantastic new book a second time is almost better than reading it the first time, the first time round I always feel like someone is going to wrench it away from me before I can finish & deprive me from ever experiencing the rest of it, whereas I can relax a little more when I read it again. Very strange.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Academic blogging

I have no particularly strong thoughts on this, but the Chronicle published a controversial piece last week titled "Bloggers Need Not Apply"; its author describes a job search in which various candidates were ruled out because of what they'd revealed online in their blogs (or perhaps for the mere fact of their blogging? It's not entirely clear). Some good discussions of this on various academic blogs have ensued; excellent posts here and here, and the first link came from Steve, who also has sensible discussion.

I think it should be possible to blog under your own name as a graduate student or untenured faculty member (well, obviously I haven't chosen to remain anonymous here). Anonymity is difficult to maintain, and I think may sometimes offer a mistaken impression of safety or privacy that later may explode if the blogger's identity is revealed. I dislike the Chronicle's habit of having many of its columnists write under pseudonyms, and I find the pieces by writers like Dennis Baron and Stanley Fish that are published under their own names (with details changed if there are issues of confidentiality etc.) the most valuable. My rule here is that I don't write anything that I wouldn't be willing to say at, oh, a party where 5-6 people were listening to me and others present could potentially also overhear what I was saying. But then I am also not writing an academic blog, though I am an academic; concerns about the privacy of students and colleagues mean that I rarely even allude to anything going on in my work life. The privacy obligation is also asymmetrical, by which I mean to say that while I might not like to see a long post by a grad student complaining about a meeting they'd just had with me, it would certainly be within the student's rights to post about it, whereas it would be wholly inappropriate (I'd say even unethical, whether or not I named the student) for me to write a similar post about a student. On a slightly different note, search committee members shouldn't blog about candidates, but while candidates may technically be within their rights to post about job interviews, they should also remember that if they blog under their own names, it is entirely possible that a search committee member will see that discussion afterwards and that it will strike that committee member as unprofessional or off-putting. Just a few thoughts, anyway. I'd be interested in hearing from others in the comments.

Charlie memed me

with a set of questions which I will not be able to answer as comically as he did. But here goes:

(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

This is a bigger and better version of my alternate-universe Amazon thoughts below. Basically I would take a shopping cart with me so that I didn't actually break my back carrying home everything I checked out. Of course I would first off check to see that I had published an acceptable number of books in the intervening years (I would hope to see that my BREEDING book came out in 2007 and another academic book, REASON'S NIGHTMARES: FEARS OF ENLIGHTENMENT, in 2011, and a crossover book for academic and trade audiences called AUSTEN FOR BEGINNERS in 2014; and I would hope that DYNAMITE NO. 1 was published in late 2006 and its sequel THE SNOW QUEEN in 2008, plus at least 2 more novels TBA, possibly a futuristic noir series set in a post-genetic-engineering-gone-madly-wrong New York). No, I am not an insane egomaniac, but wouldn't most people check first to see what they'd done themselves? Then I would arm myself with a pen and paper (one thing I can guarantee is that in 2015 I will still be jotting down call numbers on the back of an old envelope or a supermarket receipt) and write down a huge long list of call numbers and hit the stacks and then go home for a huge orgy of reading. I would get David Bromwich's Burke biography (well, this one actually already exists, it just hasn't come out yet) and all the post-2005 novels of Ken Bruen, Charlie Williams, Kevin Wignall, Peter Temple, Robin McKinley, Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke, Kazuo Ishiguro, Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson. I would get the 10 Jack Reacher novels Lee Child would have written in the interim and read them in a single day. I would look to see if Helen DeWitt had published any more novels, and I would be very disappointed if there wasn't at least one more. I would also make sure to get any new novels by Edward P. Jones. I would check out the new popular science books by Matt Ridley and a few others; I would be absolutely delighted if the electronic catalog showed a book by Steven Pinker called APOSTATE: HOW I ESCAPED FROM THE CULT OF THE EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGISTS AND EMBRACED A MORE BALANCED ACCOUNT OF HUMAN NATURE, and in general I would hope that there were a few other recantations in the vein of "ten years ago we were still excessively obsessed with selection and neo-Darwinism and now we have come to a much more complex understanding of the life sciences that foregrounds other factors than genetics." Of course I would also check in on developments in eighteenth-century studies--I'd get whatever had been written in the meantime by Deidre Lynch, Helen Deutsch, Claudia Johnson and a number of others--and I would look for novels and nonfiction books and academic books written by various students of mine (particularly former undergraduates who are creative writers: I would expect there to be at least, oh, 15 or so, maybe more, and some of the first names I would check for are Sarah Courteau, Paul Kiel, Will Welch, Andrew Colom, Gabriel Kuris, Fayre Davis. If you are a former student of mine and are not on this list, do not be offended, it's just the tip of the iceberg!).

(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to 'Professor X' or 'Ms. Y' if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

I am going to reframe this in the form of advice. If you deliver a paper with quotations in a language other than English, in a forum that does not itself assume that everyone present speaks that language, it is courteous to translate them for the audience. If you ask at the beginning of the paper whether the audience would like French quotations translated, and a few audience members eagerly say yes, DO NOT then read your paper and not only offer no quotations but also deliver the French passages in a beautiful accent that says to the non-French-speakers in the audience "You are an ignorant American boor and I am an arrogant and supremely thoughtless but also glamorous and European career academic."

The strangest things I've really ever seen at conferences have all been during job interviews, both as a candidate and as an interviewer, but confidentiality prohibits further revelations.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

Those who know me will also know that I am rarely reduced to silence, awestruck or otherwise, and have cheerfully and idiotically babbled on to various literary luminaries without a second thought. The one person who would really reduce me to silence is Lou Reed. That, or else I would confess to my longstanding obsession with him (it has dimmed, fortunately, since my teenage years, but I still have a cult-like interest in his doings) and he would back away from me in horror and dismay.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar?

Hmm. I think that anything I'm reading others are probably following as well. I always read Gwenda Bond; there are two excellent new blogs by Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld; other regular stops that are perhaps not wholly on the beaten track include Charlie's and Jai's. A friend of mine has recently started an (anonymous) blog that promises to be very interesting.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

I've just worked out a vaguely Harry Potteresque

device for my novel, as a way of further exploring the main character's emotions (about which she is wholly in denial)--it has just this minute come to me in a flash. Did you ever have a mood ring when you were a kid?

I have scandalously frittered away the entire day

reading 6 novels by Georgette Heyer. Antonia Fraser has a good remark somewhere in one of her Jemima Shore books about all intellectual women in their 30s and 40s having once had a passion for Heyer (Jemima's teenage favorite, as I remember, is the protagonist of the second one in the following list, which I've ordered from best downwards--they are all very delightful, but of course it's idiotic to read them in a row like this, as the pattern wears thin and some of the characters are more appealing than others): Sylvester, Devil's Cub, False Colours, The Convenient Marriage, Regency Buck (which I'm afraid is a very silly title) and Lady of Quality. They are written in a language all their own (it's well-researched, of course, but wholly Heyer's rather than anything you could find in the letters or novels of the Regency, though you can often see where she gets things from), in a world that she built like science-fiction writers build worlds. In the weakest books, you see the machinery and experience the whole thing as pastiche, but the best of them are really something extraordinary.

The highlight of my afternoon otherwise was reading the publicity letter from Anne Rice that accompanied a review copy of her new novel about Jesus, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I am actually sort of dying to read the book, not sure when I'll get to it though, but the last paragraph of the letter is priceless:

I'm not a priest. I can't be one. I'll never be able to go to the altar of the Lord and say the words of consecration at Mass, 'This is my body. This is my blood.' No, I can't work that magnificent Eucharistic miracle. But in humility, I have attempted something transformative which we writers dare to call a miracle in the imperfect human idiom we possess. It's to bring Him here in the form of a story, and that story is Christ The Lord.

On that note, I will sign off.

Friday, July 08, 2005


Horrible news from London. All my friends and family are safe, thank goodness, but it's awful to think of the ones who aren't and the ones who care about them, let alone everybody else who now has to face a morning commute full of dread. Of course I've been thinking today of September 2001. I taught my classes as usual on 9/12/2001, it seemed too defeatist not to, and the strangest and saddest thing was going in to teach my first-year students who had JUST arrived at Columbia (it was literally the second meeting of the course) & were completely bewildered and upset and scared and also particularly incomprehending at the photographs of children celebrating in the streets in the Middle East. And what we were reading in those weeks was The Iliad. Which is one thing I'll never get tired of teaching, and particularly moving and apposite in times of war. The passage I couldn't get out of my head afterwards was the one where Priam in Book 24 goes to plead with Achilles to return the body of Hector:

As when some cruel spite has befallen a man that he should have killed some one in his own country, and must fly to a great man's protection in a land of strangers, and all marvel who see him, even so did Achilles marvel as he beheld Priam. The others looked one to another and marvelled also, but Priam besought Achilles saying, 'Think of your father, O Achilles like unto the gods, who is such even as I am, on the sad threshold of old age. It may be that those who dwell near him harass him, and there is none to keep war and ruin from him. Yet when he hears of you being still alive, he is glad, and his days are full of hope that he shall see his dear son come home to him from Troy; but I, wretched man that I am, had the bravest in all Troy for my sons, and there is not one of them left. I had fifty sons when the Achaeans came here; nineteen of them were from a single womb, and the others were borne to me by the women of my household. The greater part of them has fierce Mars laid low, and Hector, him who was alone left, him who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, him have you lately slain; therefore I am now come to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his body from you with a great ransom. Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.'

Thus spoke Priam, and the heart of Achilles yearned as he bethought him of his father. He took the old man's hand and moved him gently away. The two wept bitterly--Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclous, till the house was filled with their lamentation.

And the other thing that stays with me from that month is a smell, not that heartbreaking and disgusting smell way downtown of burning plastic and flesh, but the smell of Chanel Aquamousse Foaming Face Wash. Yes, it's bathetic (and the one I've linked to is the new version, peach-colored; the one I had then was a sort of pale robin's-egg blue), but smells are evocative that way. If you've ever been very depressed and used a particular shampoo during that time, you are likely to find yourself unable to smell it again afterwards without olfactory flashbacks to your mental state before. And the thing with this very expensive Chanel facewash--which is not at all the kind of thing I'd usually have--was that it was especially associated for me with Ground Zero. When I left my job as managing editor at The Yale Journal of Criticism, the members of the editorial collective--spearheaded, no doubt, by a number of very fashionable women in the group--gave me a ridiculously generous going-away present, a $200 gift certificate to Century 21. I think they thought I would get a nice new suit for my professional life to come. Unfortunately I loathe and despise shopping and it was a year later and the certificate was about to expire and I bit the bullet and asked my mom to sort of ritually escort me (like the way federal marshals escort prisoners on flights) and MAKE me spend the money before it was all wasted. Under her cheerful but determined guidance I found a few items of clothing--it was mid-August 2001, and ridiculously hot--that I have since worn a million times but I gave up around $170 or so and trailed downtairs halfheartedly to the makeup area where I resisted the urge to PUNCH the evil perfume-spritzing saleswomen and desperately fell on the Chanel counter and begged them to sell me something that would use up the rest of this wretched certificate. A few weeks later the store was buried in rubble and I was using this facewash (and it was very nice, by the way, and I not too long ago bought a new tube of it, also off an otherwise unwanted department-store certificate) and its smell just got inextricably linked for me with the other stuff. So that's my story.

And the title of this post? I can't justify it as terrorism-induced escapist reading, since I started reading the first one late last night, but Georgette Heyer is the remedy for many things. The one I had around the house was Bath Tangle, a very battered paperback edition borrowed from my grandmother's hoard for some plane flight home years ago--the giveaway is that shiny brown-yellow altogether non-sticky English Sellotape that is wholly failing to stick together pages falling out because the book's been read so many times. And mid-evening today I hit the library and got a whole stack more (not all of them, just some of the ones I especially like) and have just finished The Grand Sophy, my particular favorite Heyer novel. Aside from everything else, it has a monkey in it. And now I will read some more Heyer and go to bed.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

I dropped more dollars than I meant to

at the Bank Street Bookstore this afternoon (I'm vaguely justifying it as research--horror of horrors, I've got to do one more round of revisions on my wretched novel, and though it's for adults, the main character is a fifteen-year-old who resolutely conceals her emotions, even from herself, and must become slightly less opaque and repressed in the next version or nobody is going to want to publish it--since I also conceal my emotions and find opacity and repression wholly admirable qualities, this is a difficult task), bought three books and came home and read them all in a fit of greed. The first one I was startled to see, had been looking out for it but spaced out on the release date: Across the Wall, a collection of short stories by Garth Nix. I enjoyed it, but it is with no disrespect to Nix (who is one of the great fantasy writers at work in the world today--I truly love his Abhorsen trilogy more than almost any other books in the world, have read each volume about 6 times each since they came out, and if you click on that link you can preorder the BOXED SET--those two words are music to my ears) that I say that a collection of short stories will never satisfy me as much as a novel. There's lots of good stuff here, a sort of sequel to the last of the Old Kingdom books and also--my favorite--a great little story called "Hope Chest" about a magical girl cowboy. But the other two were even better. First, a book I've been wanting to read for a long time, Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. Spectacular! I love near-future apocalyptic survivalist novels, and I love first-person teenage girl novels, and this manages to be a supremely intelligent and well-written amalgam (think The Cement Garden plus Z Is For Zachariah plus . . . oh, I don't know what, lots of great stuff though). It's really, really good. Putting aside everything else I liked about it, the thing I really value it for is its spectacular and memorable first-person voice. And then a most truly delightful novel, Terry Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky. It's the sequel to The Wee Free Men; both are written most immediately for young adults, but they are as good and interesting as the very best of the other Discworld novels. This one was lovely. Of all these three, it's the one I'm going to read again in the near future out of sheer pleasure.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Alternate-universe Amazon

It was basically random associative thinking, but the effect of reading on the one hand a an argument Rousseau makes about whether people naturally walk on two legs or four and a reference to Robin McKinley in Justine's recent post about how to find an agent sent me back to a particular favorite book of mine, McKinley's Deerskin, which aside from its other merits is a great novel about puppies. I love McKinley's books (all except for the Robin Hood one, which for some reason I've never been able to get into) and have read them all again and again. She gets my vote for the first writer I'd look up on the alternate-universe Amazon--you know, where one day (like in a fairytale) you log onto Amazon and look up a familiar author and discover that in the alternate universe they have written the same number of books but COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ONES from the ones you've already read a million times. And the shipping charges aren't any higher than from regular-universe Amazon. I would basically have a fit of joy. The other thing I'd order would be the missing fourth volume of the sequence that begins with this, which is my single favorite novel of all time; while the sequels were unpublished in Rebecca West's lifetime, volumes two and three were published posthumously, and there's a tantalizing sketch of how the plot was meant to round out. In literary terms, the sequels are far inferior to the first one, but I am so obsessed with this fictional world that I really don't care, and would give anything to be able to read the last installment....

Monday, July 04, 2005

They see dead people

I didn't post this when I first read it b/c I know how annoying it is to link to things requiring subscriptions, and I'd already linked to another Chronicle article. But this one really stuck with me, a great little piece by Martha Ann Overland about a haunted university, and after going back to it several times I thought I really had better post after all:

It never surprises the Rev. Rene B. Javellana when terrified staff members say they have seen a ghost.

For as long as he has been teaching at Ateneo de Manila University, people have complained about hearing voices in empty hallways and seeing doors inexplicably open and close. They hear fists banging on the walls when there is not a soul in sight, and typewriters clattering when no one is at the keyboard. And yes -- sometimes they see dead people.

'Some people are too scared to work,' says Father Javellana, a Jesuit priest and director of the fine-arts program at the elite Catholic university. 'They are terrified. I bless them and give them a cross; then they are fine and can go back to work.'

Whether Father Javellana believes in ghosts or paranormal events is beside the point. His is nothing more than a practical solution to a peculiar problem. 'For some people this is real,' he says. 'When secretaries enter the office they say 'Good morning' even if no one is there. It is a way of being friendly and hedging your bets.'

Dormitory rooms everywhere, especially on stormy nights, are perfect breeding grounds for ghost stories and urban legends. But in the Philippines, sightings are not typically the result of sleep deprivation or intoxication. In fact, it is usually not the students who report paranormal events. It is the professors, staff members, and campus guards who see things.

Just as universities and college campuses attract the living, they are a natural gathering place for the dead, say those who follow paranormal happenings. Night watchmen say they hear instruments playing after the last people have left the music buildings.

Professors report being shaken out of their chairs when no one is there. Dead priests are said to come back to visit. Staff members and students alike say they have seen ladies in white floating down hallways. Sometimes they have heads. Sometimes they don't.

"It's common knowledge they are there," says Florinda G. Menguito, secretary to the dean of the College of Education at the University of the Philippines' Diliman campus, widely known as one of the most haunted sites in Manila. "We have just learned to ignore them."

It makes me think of a novel I want to write, about a haunted university. I like the universities in fantasy novels by Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett and so on, they are basically EXACTLY like real-world universities only their dementedness is revealed. Hmmm....

One more

I sternly swore I was not going to seek out any more of those Jack Reacher novels, but I was in the office this afternoon and my friend M. (the other person guaranteed to be hanging out in Philosophy 602 over the holiday weekend--sorry for any violation of privacy here, but it's an ill-kept secret, I think) miraculously came up with Die Trying, #2 in Lee Child's amazing series, out of his massive and excellent crime fiction collection. So I spent the afternoon reading it instead of doing what I should have been (real work, plus tracking down the mysteriously misplaced copy of this that I need to write my next chapter. BTW Amazon's "significantly improbable phrases" function is largely uninteresting, but "palmated elk" really is a good one...) Basically I am so enthralled right now by these books that I don't think I can read any other crime fiction for days to come. I want to be Jack Reacher!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

It was slightly excessive, even for me,

but I've just reread five of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. (That's novels 4-8 in the series, though they are cunningly constructed so it doesn't really matter what order you read them in. I read #9 on the plane back from England & it made me avid to reread the others--I couldn't get 1-3 from the library, so I made do with the ones I could.) They are really, really great. I reread The Enemy first, it's #8 in sequence but it's a prequel (and my favorite, I think, because it's got the most interesting backstory stuff). Then I read Running Blind (overly gimmicky, as complex serial-killer plots often are, but still highly readable) and Echo Burning (for some reason this one's my least favorite--most of Child's female characters are extremely tough and good at hand-to-hand combat etc., but this book features a damsel in distress who's not at all able to take care of herself, and it somehow makes things less interesting). Striking upturn in quality--though don't get me wrong, they're all extremely good, FAR better than almost anything else out there--with #6, Without Fail. This one feels like Child hit his stride. It's not that it's tongue-in-cheek, that's not the right word, but there are lots of sly allusions and also here you get the full-blown version of Jack Reacher's trademark strategic planning. Very highly recommended. And the next one, Persuader, is even better. It's the darkest and most violent of all the books, and it's amazing. The lure of Reacher is strong. He's a natural fighter, but he never works out; he doesn't know everything, in the way that some action heroes implausibly do (Reacher isn't a big car guy, for instance, though he knows guns backwards and forwards; in fact, he only knows what he learned in the military); he drinks a ton of coffee; he's got a monastic lack of interest in possessions. Very appealing: makes me want to get rid of everything I own and go on the road.

On a more productive note, at exactly midnight last night I e-mailed a big pack of stuff to the editor I am very much hoping to work with on my new academic book: proposal and CV and 2 chapters. The bulk of the work I've done in the past month was simply wrestling this awful first chapter into submission. It's interesting to think about--I was cursing myself every day for not having written it more slowly and thoughtfully the first time, but I know that I will make exactly the same mistake next time I'm working on a new book. I always would rather write a long and sprawling and excessive first draft and then revise it drastically than work more slowly in the first place and end up with something that needs less drastic revisions--you feel calmer once you've got a whole draft down on paper, even if it's a bit of a mess, and it's more fun and altogether less stressful working really fast, even if it's more work in the end. In this case, I was in thrall to an amazing (and huge) body of primary-source material and just couldn't resist putting in things that were interesting but really on the whole unrelated. (Actually as I worked back through it I was occasionally mystified as to what I could have been thinking, everything was so breakneck and mixed-up.) So I ended up with a seriously unmanageable though quite polished "chapter" of over 40,000 words (closer to 50,000 with footnotes, I'm afraid to say, because they were stuffed full of every interesting book I'd read over the months I was writing). I got comments from a few colleagues, I did my own thinking about what needed to be done with it, etc., but every time this year I had a few spare days and thought "I'll finally deal with typing up all the revisions I've marked up on that awful chapter," I'd spend an hour or two getting back into it and then throw up my hands in despair. It was clearly a three-week job, not a three-day job. And that estimate turned out to be about right. It's FAR better now--really surprisingly good, I thought after the last round of revisions suddenly made things click--I cut one massive chunk and a lot of other small things, leaving it at 28,000 words, which is still really too long but what can you do.... Anyway, I'm going to paste in a few of my most irresistible paragraphs of primary-source material. The chapter is called "Resemblance and the Science of Inheritance," and it basically makes an argument about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and several mid-eighteenth-century adaptations of that play, using them to tell a story about changes in ideas of breeding, inheritance and identity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. I will not indulge myself by posting any of my own prose, but these are a few of my very favorite quotations (and don't ask how they're related to The Winter's Tale, as it takes me about a hundred manuscript pages to explain... But basically I draw on a lot of books about gardens and about midwifery to explain and amplify a couple strands of Shakespeare's play, the argument about grafting in Act IV--which has implications for social class and a lot of other things--and also the way the play as a whole treats the relationship between parents and children):

There is no more constant, certain, and pernicious Enemy to the Husbandmans Thrift, than Man himself; Homo homini Dæmon: they rob and steal from, oppress, maligne, injure, persecute, and devour one another, to the decay of Arts and Sciences, and even to the ruine of whole Families of Ingenious and Industrious men; every one striving to build up his house, and raise his Family by the ruines and decay of his Neighbours. But our only Complaint is against the common and ordinary sort of vile persons, that live after a most sordid manner, and seek not Wealth nor Greatness, but only to maintain themselves in a most despicable lazy kinde of life, by filching and stealing from their honest and laborious Neighbours; and against such, that though they steal not, yet oppress, oppugne, and injure those that are more Industrious than themselves.
As suppose the Penalty of all manner of Theft were, to be Transported to the West-Indies, or to be confined to some certain Mines, or suchlike, at the pleasure of the Judge; and to have an apparent Brand or Mark in the Face; and that it should be free and lawful for any man to kill any such person returning or straying from such imployment; and that every one that lost their Goods, and did prosecute the Thief, should have their Damages and Costs restored: I suppose none would make any scruple of Prosecution, nor would any endeavour to preserve these Vipers from so moderate, yet sufficient punishment.

This way, if severely prosecuted, without favour or respect, would in a little time rid the Country of the Old Thieves, and their very Breed also, that there would scarce be any of their Blood remaining: But if any should by chance appear, he would hardly have any time to learn his Trade perfectly.

John Worlidge, Systema Agriculturae, 2nd ed. (1675)

For a Clown, certainly, and a draggle-tail’d Kitchen-Wench, when trick’d up like my Master and Lady, cannot choose but have a mighty Opinion of their own Merit and Improvements. The Cat, when she was dres’d out of the Wardrobe of Venus, sate at Table with the State and Demureness of a Virgin-Bride; but as soon as a Mouse cross’d the Room, Puss forgets her Majesty, and running eagerly upon the Prey, shew’d her self to be a pure ravenous Animal, and fit only to live on Vermine. A paltry Chambermaid, which came but just now all perfum’d from emptying and cleansing the Vessels of the Chamber, shall appear at Table in her Flower’d Manteau, and her tottering Commode, forsooth; but notwithstanding all, upon every trivial Accident and Turn, will not fail to shew her self to be a meer errant Cat, destin’d by Nature to feed on meaner Fare.

Timothy Nourse, Campania Foelix (1700)

[I]n case of the similitude [between parents and children], nothing is more powerful than the imagination of the Mother; for if she conceive in her mind, or do by chance fasten her eyes upon any Object, and imprint it in her Memory, the Child in its outward parts frequently has some representation thereof; so whilst a Man and Woman are in the Act of Copulation, if the Woman earnestly behold his Countenance and fix her mind thereon, without all peradventure, the Child will resemble the Father; nay so powerful is its Operation, that though a Woman be in unlawful Copulation, yet if fear or any thing else causes her to fix her mind upon her husband, the Child will resemble him, tho’ he never got it.

Aristoteles Master-Piece (1684)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Interesting and true article

by Gabriela Montell at the Chronicle, about why having a famous and well-connected dissertation advisor is valuable:

Graduate students want to believe that success in academe is achieved purely on merit. But you don't have to be a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows to realize that while what you know matters most, it's often whom you know that gets your foot in the door.

Doctoral students assume that 'if they just do their work, the cream will rise to the top,' says Gene C. Fant, Jr., chairman of the English department at Union University, in Tennessee. 'And, yes, that does happen, but it's also helpful to have the dairymen come in and scoop the cream off the top and make sure it goes where it needs to go. Almost no one is completely self-made.'

That's where influential advisers or dissertation chairs can help. They not only direct your dissertation, they grant you access to their network of colleagues, Mr. Fant says. And, often, the bigger the name, the bigger, and better, the network.

Your place within the academic hierarchy, says a former graduate student who asked to remain anonymous, 'is conditioned by who is above you, who you're working with, and what institution you're at.'

Other interesting stuff there too; I think a subscription may be required, though.

This will sound either pious or just plain weird, but the main reason I would like to become a really well-known academic (other than that it means more people listening to what you say, of course; always nice) is so that I could help grad students get jobs and book contracts and other stuff like that. It really makes me crazy how such good people have such a hard time finding jobs. For a couple years I was officially rather than just unofficially on the job placement thing in my department, and I remember there being 3-4 people in particular who it killed me weren't getting hired. Now I really will sound like a maniac (I'm vaguely thinking of a Roald Dahl story about people cutting off their fingers, and also a great story by Stephen King about quitting smoking--is it called "Smoking, Inc." or something like that?--and also the great Antony and the Johnsons line about cutting off a finger)--it's the insane mindset you get into when you're overworked during the school year--but I remember sort of fantasizing that I wished someone would make me an offer that for every finger I cut off I would get a good tenure-track job for a student of my choice. Obviously you would hope to get a sort of three-for-two deal, because the little fingers are more disposable than the others, and it's not an infinitely renewable resource, but that's how much it pained me not to be able to get jobs for these people.