Sunday, December 31, 2006

The fruit pie autopsy

Paul Collins at Weekend Stubble on food long past its sell-by date (including chocolate rations from the Boer War).

And there we must draw a veil...

An interesting collection of observations on diary-writing at the Observer Review.

I have not kept a diary regularly at any stage of my life (I had a traumatic incident at the age of six that involved my cherished little red-leather-with-a-gold-lock-and-key diary being RAVAGED by pen-wielding scribble-on-every-page little brothers and ringleader friend, the fact that none of them could read did not stop it from being a painful violation!) though as a teenager I occasionally scrawled a tormented screed and sealed it in an envelope and chucked it in the closet. Perhaps characteristically I now practice a more compartmentalized form of chronicling: I've got all my appointment books since the early nineties, though it would take some mental feat to reproduce the texture of life from those practical entries on classes and meetings and social plans (but I take notes on actual meetings on the relevant appointment page, I find it easier than keeping track of bits of paper, so you might know what I was thinking on a given day about the undergraduate curriculum or how to streamline graduate admissions), and then of course this blog now provides a record of light reading and casual thoughts about this and that.

In 2007 I am going to start keeping a running diary, in part as a way of getting the cross-training under control--I partly overtrained this fall because I was keeping my running schedule on a separate calendar from my other exercise so that the running coach wouldn't know how much I was doing, I knew she wouldn't approve (and it is a mystery why this was clear to me at the time and yet didn't stop me from doing it...)--and also because I hope I will be running for many years to come and it will be interesting to look back and track progress, problems and so forth.

I think I can say definitively that I will never write my memoirs. I have too strong a sense of privacy to have any urge to put the pieces of my life together in a meaningful way for a reader, though I like the sort of book--Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built is an excellent example--that uses an interesting and content-driven theme to follow one strand of a life (or in a different sense Lynne Cox's Swimming to Antarctica would be another example, those are two books I found particularly rich and rewarding to read). It would be funny if in later life I wrote my running memoirs! Yesterday I found a reference to a forthcoming book by Benjamin Cheever called Strides, that is a book I most particularly want to read (here's the link for an interesting article of his in Runners World about American soldiers running in Iraq).

Monday, December 25, 2006

There is no doubt

that having submitted the last of my fall semester grades about forty minutes ago has considerably lightened my spirits. Posting will be sporadic until I'm back on the 30th, but there may be a post now and again since I'm bringing my computer for a change--home comforts! In between spasms of concentrated grading I spent the weekend indulging in an impractically lavish holiday rereading binge.

I always undergo a kind of panic at the thought of the library closing for the holiday, so I found myself around 4 on Friday afternoon raiding the stacks for the things that had been lurking at the back of my mind but whose siren call I had resisted all week. So first I reread the seasonally highly appropriate Hogfather (the first Terry Pratchett novel I ever read, I believe, and one of my favorites--I was reminded of it by a bizarrely mean-spirited profile of Pratchett that Frank Wilson linked to last week), very enjoyable; then I plunged into the mesmerizing world of Susan Howatch's Church of England novels.

There is something about these books I absolutely love: they are totally different from Trollope's (though it is true I also ritually reread those Barchester ones over the holiday season when I was in graduate school--the nice thing is that the Church of England is so much like my familiar world of academia and yet so different, so that I will vividly think to myself now & again in life "oh, that person is exactly Archdeacon Grantly" and so forth...). Anyway, no time to write now about Howatch, my thoughts will have to wait for another day (in short, uniquely interesting approach to idea/problem of Christian fiction in which [a] psychological and spiritual crisis are interestingly foregrounded, also I like it that they are preoccupied with demonic possesson! and [b] ideas about God and knowledge are thoughtfully worked out in terms of narration, knowability etc.--I have been preoccupied this whole semester with forms of narration, these books do amazing things by setting different first-person narrators into a kind of elaborate pattern)--I raced through Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers (the weakest, I think, of the cycle, though still very enjoyable ), Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks and the first half of Mystical Paths, the second half of which (plus the last volume in the series, Absolute Truths, possibly the best of the bunch--the narrator of the first and last volumes in the series is really by far the most sympathetic of all the narrators) will tide me over for another day or two.

(BTW I saw reason and am not bringing Thomas Pynchon's new novel for my light reading at the MLA; I've got something else good, though....)

On which note, I must now run and catch a train. All best wishes for the holidays!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Xmas annual then and now...

Ian Jack at the Guardian on the annual's latest incarnation:

Long before I realised that "annual" was an adjective that could be applied to ceremonies or wages, I knew it as a solid noun. Annuals came wrapped in Christmas paper, and because of their width and flatness often provided the foundations of a small pile of less stable presents such as chocolate oranges. Usually, those flat parcels turned out to reveal the adventures of Rupert Bear and, since we were a Scottish family, Oor Wullie or the Broons. The last two, both drawn by the incomparable Dudley D Watkins and published in alternate years, were funny, whereas Rupert was, I suppose, charming and innocent - the qualities that, in the early 1970s, proved so blasphemously attractive to the countercultural Oz magazine when it gave him a penis. Rupert appeared in the Daily Express, which we didn't buy, so the stories told in rhyming couplets beneath the drawings ("The two chums part, off Rupert goes, / Then all at once, how cold it grows") were always new to me, as were the cartoons in my older brother's Giles annual, also first published in the Express, which kept us laughing in our pyjamas during the liquorice all-sorts hour before breakfast.

Man, that totally takes me back: our Scottish grandfather used to send all sorts of books at Christmas, some very much to my taste and some not so much (he had a particularly evangelical fervor about Scottish literature, so that it seemed like every year I got another copy of the strangely named Lewis Grassic Gibbon trilogy A Scots Quair--none of which I ever read, there was too much the flavor of something that was not so much good in itself as good for you, I have not read it to this day--and at least one novel by R. L. Stevenson), but there was always a good supply of Oor Wullie and the Broons. It was a not-very-covert plan, I think, to keep us in touch with our Scottish heritage, and we pored over those comics as if they were the guide to an actual place and culture rather than a strange semi-mythic fictional past (the But an' Ben!).

Bonus links: a bumper Broons and Oor Wullie website; Wikipedia entries on The Broons and Oor Wullie; and an interesting article by Rhiannon Edward about why Oor Wullie's stopped saying "help ma Boab".

A sad article

in the City section of the NYT about the closing of the Murder Ink and Ivy bookstores. (And La Rosita is closing also.) Part of me strains irritably at the nostalgia of all this, of course times change and these rents are simply unsustainable for small business and there is not much to be done about it, and yet it is a very great pity....

Friday, December 22, 2006

The fissility of self

Simon Callow at the Guardian on Malcolm Andrews' fascinating-sounding new book on Dickens' performing selves:

As a young man and aspiring actor he had been deeply influenced by the actor-writer Charles Matthews, whose wittily designated monopolylogues had the performer playing several different people, as well as the narrator. Like Matthews, Dickens came increasingly to delight in abandoning himself to the characters, and this aspect of his performances drew the astonished admiration of his audiences (many of whom were professional actors themselves). "Assumption," he said, "has charms for me ... being some one in voice etc not at all like myself."

Before the audience's very eyes, and without the aid of props or costume, he would become David Copperfield, Mrs Gamp, Fagin. "The impersonator's very stature," reported Charles Kent, "each time Fagin opened his lips, seemed to be changed instantaneously. Whenever he spoke there started before us - high-shouldered with contracted chest, with birdlike claws, eagerly anticipating by their every movement the passionate words ... his whole aspect, half-vulpine, half-vulture-like, in its hungry wickedness." This description underlines the fact that acting is above all an act of imagination rather than of mimicry: it is an overpowering mental connection which produces a physical result. Andrews finely says: "in order to get the right voice, in a concentrated way, Dickens had to move his full being into that of the character." I can think of no better description of the art of acting, and Dickens's readings, without any external aids, show this in particularly pure form. He explored in the flesh, as he had done in his novels, "the fissility of self", the multiphrenia latent in us all.

Acting is indeed above all an act of imagination, isn't it? That's why it's like writing (oh, I am totally lapsing into cliche and also just repeating what Callow has said, but it really does strike me so forcefully...). It's very hard work, but uniquely gratifying. For some reason when I was doing a lot of acting I always wanted the slightly villainous parts, but the magical thing that happens is that you so fully identify with the part you're playing that you find yourself taken aback when your friends in the audience sort of reel away in horror from your character's awfulness.

I had this happen again and again: I remember a friend of mine in high school saying bemusedly after seeing me play Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, "You know, afterwards I had to remind myself that you're not like that at all" (indeed I am not); and I was always very puzzled myself when people said things that implied that Inez in No Exit or Lussurioso in The Revenger's Tragedy (two particular favorite parts) were not generally thought of as sympathetic characters, the point of rehearsing and performing these things is that by the time the show goes up you really are so completely in the head of that character that it's very difficult to imagine someone thinking his/her actions are not fully justified by the circumstances.

This, too, is the appeal for me of something like Gitta Sereny's remarkable biography of Albert Speer: she's struggling (it's an ethical fight) to get inside the head of someone most people would write off from the beginning, just as she does when she writes about Mary Bell, who killed a little boy when she was herself only a child. It's the great phenomenon of Shakespeare's villains (Richard III to begin with, but Edmund and Iago with greater technical subtlety) and Milton's Satan. Not as many novels do this as you might expect, but when someone pulls it off it's quite amazing: I'm not talking about the kind of novel where there's a sort of knowing gap, a writer standing behind the narrator and pointing and mouthing "Unreliable! Unreliable!," I'm thinking instead of the really great works of sympathetic imagination in the first person or the close third-person perspective where there's a deliberate refusal to judge, a kind of committed neutrality.

I think Lolita is disqualified from this category by its almost demented aestheticizing, but it might be a candidate. I am going to go now and think about this and figure out what some others might be (John Lanchester, James Lasdun? in a way Great Expectations works very much like this, and so does Lionel Shriver's Double Fault, but in both those cases there's a strong autobiographical element that makes it a somewhat different question--oh, perhaps some of Ishiguro--hmmm....--the kind of neutral stance I'm thinking of, though, is maybe found more often in essays and biography, Rebecca West has a bit of it and so does Orwell, it's a temperamental thing).

"Wolfsbane nailed up against the possibility of reductive interpretation"

Luc Sante at the New York Review of Books on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. I think I am going to bring this for my light reading at the MLA convention; I am hoping it will be possible to get some actual work done (I am planning on holing up in my hotel room for at least a few maniacal sessions of writing/editing), but just in case not, I must have something to read that will give me a minor sense of accomplishment....

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Monkeys are a secondary

but very consistent theme round here, and the most exciting thing that has happened to me all day was that I went back for about the fifteenth time to check this link and there is actually a rather blurry monkey visible in the picture! Just go and see, Caleb and Peter tipped me off to it: it is the webcam at a Japanese hot spring where snow monkeys bathe (there's a good chapter about those monkeys, by the way, in Frans De Waal's enjoyable book The Ape and the Sushi Master) and if I could be magically transported there right now I would totally do it. (Last week in a fit of the maniacal internet-scanning fitness-maintaining-while-injury-circumventing planning that seems to be one of the more striking & unpleasant features of the non-running life--I am basically not allowed to run even a little bit until January 15--I bought two bathing suits online so that in January I can do lap swimming at Columbia and also deep-water running via the New York Road Runners class, but I have to overcome my horror at how little I know how to swim and how horrifyingly daunting the whole culture/etiquette of swimming-pool use is to the non-swimmer, really it's the etiquette that's the barrier to entry rather than the skill set--however if I could hang out with monkeys while swimming in a mountainous hot spring it would all seem much more appealing--fortunately both of the bathing suits fit, though as a hater of shopping it seemed worth writing one off just in order not to have to go to an actual store...).

My favorite indie publisher

Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press is interviewed at Conversations in the Book Trade. I would know that guy's voice anywhere.... (Thanks to Bookdwarf for the link.)

This also seems the time to mention that my other favorite independent publishing house has its website back up with lots of good new features. Go and take a look--it's Serpent's Tail, and they've got free international shipping, and they publish a ton of amazing books including those of Heather Lewis and Charlie Williams and Ken Bruen and also Lionel Shriver's Double Fault which is a book I loved.

Transgenic hybrid children!

At the LRB, Thomas Jones has a funny short piece about eReading the new Michael Crichton novel (I can't help it, I've got a huge soft spot for Crichton, pernicious & muddled and humorless as his books may sometimes be--I am going to buy this one in an airport one of these days and read it); also a nice and seasonally appropriate meditation by Frank Kermode on the jovial contaminations of popular accounts of the Nativity:

For the laity, and especially its juvenile members, the build-up of extra marvels is acceptable because, whatever some say about the venality and bad taste that can make Christmas tedious, nothing these critics complain of can wholly prevent the celebration of an orgiastic midwinter festival far more ancient than these enfeebled allusions to it. The Saturnalia still underlie all the flummery, even if reduced to a long winter pause that we feel we cannot really manage without – a time during which we can try to stop worrying about the impudent demands of commerce, the unpaid bills and the hurt faces of disappointed children. Yet we still find ourselves wishing it didn’t go on quite so long, and regret that it can be claimed that Christmas lasted for twelve days (the Saturnalia lasted only seven). Long before it’s over we are longing to move on.

Final days and ubi sunt

Phil Baker at the TLS on psychogeography and Iain Sinclair's anthology London: City of Disappearances; also, Thomas Dixon in an appealing piece called "The carbon and the Christian" about science and religion.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Underrated writers 2006

at Syntax of Things. My picks (it actually wasn't hard, there are a lot of other writers too that I wish more people would read but these two jumped out at me in particular): Charlie Williams and Heather Lewis.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Saturday, December 16, 2006

More on Decca

Amy Mathieson at the Scotsman on Peter Sussman's edition of Jessica Mitford's letters. I can't wait to read these!

Coincidentally I got a funny end-of-semester present from one of the older students who's been sitting in on my lecture course, three books bound up in a parcel with a newspaper clipping or two (it is slightly frightening to consider the prospect of how much we reveal of ourselves over the course of a semester of lecturing, these books were all exceptionally well-suited to my tastes): a delightful-looking little book by Phyllis Eleanor Sandeman called Treasure on Earth: A Country House Christmas (sample sentences: "The 'Room' smelt of beer and coco-nut matting, the still-room of hot cakes and scones, the school room was a blend of Mike, Lady, ink and Fraulein's cough drops. Her father's study smelt of tobacco, Harris tweed and Russian leather; her mother's boudoir of violets and sealing-wax"); Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige: An enquiry into the identifiable characteristics of the English aristocracy (sample sentence, from an essay by "Strix" on "Posh Lingo": "As in the eighteenth century, U-conversation is larded with vehement and extreme adjectives (ghastly, frightful, disastrous, nauseating), but they are no more intended to be taken au pied de la lettre than the unprintable epithets so freely used by soldiers"); and the 1951 edition of Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms.

The knot, the chine and the slot

At the Guardian, Simon Armitage has a stirring piece on translating Gawain and the Green Knight (I really, really want to write a modern adaptation of something old, The Bacchae is my most pressing idea of this sort but may be less practical than some others that might be attempted):

Naturally, to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation necessary. And even for the non-specialist, certain lines, such as "Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served", present little problem, especially when placed within the context of the narrative. Conversely, lines such as "Forthi, iwysse, bi zowre wylle, wende me bihoues" are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines that fall somewhere between those extremes - the majority of lines, in fact - which fascinate the most. They seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalisingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who not only recognises plenty of the poem's dialect but detects an echo of his own speech rhythms within the original, the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.


I would like to hear that McKellen reading...

The rational inquirer

At the FT, Richard Dawkins lunches with Clive Cookson to great (unintended?) comic effect.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The FA Cup winners for the last 50 years

At the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds Derren Brown's "Tricks of the Mind" distinctly annoying (and it provokes some very funny writing on her part; I've just got Beyond Black from the library again, I think I may quote it in a spiritualism-related review I'm working on right now, what an excellent novel):

If you see anybody with this book, go the other way. Following in the footsteps of the renowned TV illusionist, they may impress you with their super-power memory by reciting the FA Cup winners for the last 20 years: though "for real impact, it is worth stretching this to 50 years". They may spring upon you time-worn puzzles in probability theory. They may hypnotise you, and suggest you forget your name. By the time they're through, you may forget your manners - but don't expect to land a punch. Expert readers of body language, they will know the blow is coming, just by the way you clench your fist.

Derren Brown gives us fair warning: "If the techniques and thoughts in this book are new to you, there will be a tendency to be excited about them and want to show off what you have learned." If they are new to you, you are either aged nine, or a Martian.

And it only gets better....

An England that has ceased to exist

Benjamin Markovits has an interesting piece at Prospect Magazine about which English novels Americans buy and read. (Via William Skidelsky at the Guardian, who has some sensible and enjoyably scathing things to say about boarding-school and country-house tastes--hmmm, my new novel's set partly in a boarding-school too, I think he may be underrating the appeal of the school setting for non-class-based reasons--though of course the popularity of Prep might confirm his point...)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Software as amanuensis

John Freeman has a great interview piece with Richard Powers at the Independent:

As a young novelist, Powers's most powerful influences were James Joyce and Thomas Hardy, but it was coding that gave him an education in how to put a book together. "I think that discipline gave me many ways of thinking about form and structure as a fiction writer," he says. It is useful to remember that William Vollmann, who won the National Book Award last year, also began his career writing computer code. Their back-to-back wins are seen by many in New York circles as a kind of changing of the literary guard. Powers, however, believes that their rise in popularity reflects a shift in readers' acceptance of a new way of telling stories. "This idea that a book can either be about character and feeling, or about politics and idea, is just a false binary. Ideas are an expression of the feelings and the intense emotions we hold about the world. One of the things that Capgras really reveals is how dependent upon feeling idea is in order to be reliable at all."
Powers also believes that technology is a primary conduit for how we tell our stories. He wrote his previous novel The Time of Our Singing on a wireless keyboard, sending his words across space and on to the screen. The Echo Maker was composed using voice recognition software. Powers dictated the words onto the screen like a 21st-century Henry James, software as his amanuensis. "We build our technologies as a way of addressing all our anxieties and desires," Powers says. "They are our passions congealed into these prosthetic extensions of ourselves. And they do it in a way that reflects what we dream ourselves capable of doing."

And an addendum

featuring books I read & loved in the second half of December 2005, too late to make it onto last year's list but unfortunately omitted from this year's also.

Crime fiction: Harry Stephen Keeler, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull; Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman; Arnaldur Indridason, Jar City; Sara Gran, Dope.

Sort of young-adult: Michelle Embree, Manstealing for Fat Girls.

Sort-of-vampirish: Octavia Butler, Fledgling.

Changed the way I look at things and gave me an idea for a book I want to write myself: Victor Nell, Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure.

And last of all a generically uncategorizable novel that gave me a pain in my stomach, I was so full of envy at not having written it myself: Percival Everett's Wounded. Now that's a great book...

The books I loved in 2006

For some reason I read very erratically this year for pleasure, it was quite off-and-on-ish--heavy doses of lightish reading from January to May during the isolated spell in Cambridge, then heavy doses of breeding-related reading over the summer and virtually no non-work-related reading this fall. It seems clear that I need a slightly different format from last year (here was last year's list), the first thing I want to have is a list of my favorite unread books: books I have procured & want to read but have not yet!

(NB I am too lazy to paste in links, but basically everything I mention here has my hearty endorsement, with one or two exceptions as noted.)

Most-anticipated unread books in my apartment as of this particular moment & mood: Jennifer Egan, The Keep; Zoe Heller, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal; Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen; John Green, An Abundance of Katherines; Robert Harris, Imperium; Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising (is it not awfully confusing that these two guys have the same last name?!?); Bob Dylan, Chronicles, vol. 1; Stefan Collini, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain; James Buchan, The Authentic Adam Smith; Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People (I am going to read all of these as soon as I can, but especially the reindeer one, I read a bit of it & it's amazing).

(The two books I have checked out from the library but haven't yet read & imagine will be the most delightful are Richard Wollheim's Germs and Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field.)

All right, now I've got that bit out of the way.

A few absolute top picks for 2006:

First and foremost, of course, Toni Schlesinger's Five Flights Up. A work of total genius. Belongs in everyone's library. Great holiday present, too!

Other extreme and avidly cherished favorites, books about which I feel so passionately & enthusiastically that I will recommend them to everybody regardless of reading tastes: Alison Bechdel, Fun Home; Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children; Richard Powers, The Echo Maker.

Surprise love (all right, this is my stealth holiday gift pick, it's so amazingly well-written that any novel-loving reader will surely be completely enchanted--but especially suitable for college-educated women): Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind.

Most exciting new discovery on the literary fiction front (new to me, I mean): James Lasdun, The Horned Man (crazy brilliant book!) and Seven Lies.

Most it-changed-my-life-to-read-it book: Heather Lewis, House Rules (and The Second Suspect and the posthumously published Notice are pretty mind-bending also, these books really did something to me when I read them).

Top everyone-must-read-it book (seriously, this was maybe the most chilling & memorable book I read all year, it's essential reading): Svetlana Alexievich, Voices From Chernobyl.

Most absolutely perfect light reading (Fantasy Division): The Napoleonic-wars-with-dragons novels of Naomi Novik.

Most absolutely perfect light reading (Crime Division): Lee Child, The Hard Way.

Most otherwise all-round delightful light reading in a category I do not usually love (i.e. no murders, vampires, werewolves, dragons, etc. etc.): Marisa de los Santos, Love Walked In.

Delightful latest entries in ongoing series of trilogies by particularly favorite authors (everyone should read these, both of these sets of books totally have my most gold-star-like stamp of absolute approval and endorsement): Charlie Williams, King of the Road (rounding out the Mangel Trilogy, which began with Deadfolk and proceeded with Fags and Lager); Poppy Z. Brite, Soul Kitchen and D*U*C*K (following Liquor, Prime, Soul Kitchen, etc.). In my opinion each of these writers should be paid something like $100,000 a year by philanthropic foundations to keep on producing what is surely pretty much the most staggeringly appealing series sort-of-crime fiction I have ever read. Williams and Brite: both character-creating geniuses of the first order.

Favorite young-adult fiction: M. T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing; Catherine Murdock, Dairy Queen (get that one and read it, everybody! I defy even the hardest-hearted and least sports-loving person in America not to fall in love with this astonishingly beautifully written novel about a high-school girl who loves playing football); Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Barry Lyga, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl; Tim Pratt, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl (all right, all these books were great but everyone is henceforth banned from titling their books with these nostalgia-induced "astonishing this" and "so-and-so-girl" words, it is true that we are children of the 1970s but enough is enough!); Meg Rosoff, Just In Case; Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca; Rachel Cohn and David LEvithan, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist; Diana Peterfreund, Secret Society Girl; and (a particular favorite, of course) Justine Larbalestier's Magic Lessons, the middle volume of the trilogy that began with Magic or Madness.

More favorite young-adult fantasy by writers whose books I devotedly love: Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg; Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (I read both of these last night in a fit of mental exhaustion, how absolutely delightful).

Favorite novel about demons (but it was one of my favorites, period): Sara Gran, Come Closer. I have made about ten people read this, without exception they have all fallen for the sly Gran genius. Read it and see for yourself.

Favorite other sort-of-thrillerish-but-still-literary novel: Elliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Favorite novel about competition (I have thought of this book again and again since I read it, it has my highest recommendation): Lionel Shriver, Double Fault.

Favorite fantasyish (oh, lots of good stuff this year, and this of course really is my most beloved category, with some bleeding over into the young-adult section): Martin Millar, The Good Fairies of New York; Graham Joyce, The Tooth Fairy; Pamela Dean, Tam Lin and Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary; Kit Whitfield, Benighted; Sean Stewart, Mockingbird and Perfect Circle (this guy's great! why had I not read him before?).

Favorite literary fiction by writers whose work I already knew: Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children; Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (well, it's an unpleasant novel, can't say it's a favorite exactly, but it's a work of total genius in my opinion, which is more important); Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn and Girl in Landscape; Joyce Carol Oates, High Lonesome (selected stories) and Missing Mom.

Favorite crime novels by writers new and old: lots by James Sallis (this guy's a great genius!); George Pelecanos, The Night Gardener; Cathi Unsworth, The Not Knowing; Denise Mina, The Field of Blood; Megan Abbott, Die a Little; Charlie Huston, Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things; Dick Francis (this one's a nostalgia pick, possibly not actually recommended to the non-Franciscan), Under Orders.

Favorite book that deserves a category of its own: Charles Burns, Black Hole.

Best poetry (I was two for two on this, I only read poetry I know I will like & often it's because it's written by people I like!): Wayne Koestenbaum, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films; Stephen Burt, Parallel Play.

Favorite non-fiction: D. T. Max, The Family That Couldn't Sleep; Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love; and (published a while ago, but new to me & highly, highly recommended) Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics.

Other favorite non-fiction that's sort of more essayistic but basically uncategorizable: Peter Davidson, The Idea of North; Penguin By Design; and (a particular favorite) Jenny Diski's collection of essays On Trying to Keep Still.

Favorite books about books/writing: Samuel R. Delany, About Writing (sensible title, eh?!?); Joyce Carol Oates, Uncensored: Views & (Re)views; Alice Flaherty, The Midnight Disease; Jonathan Coe, Like a Fiery Elephant; Andrew Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess; and finally (another stealth favorite, check this one out if you missed it at the time) Thomas Warton's strange little Borgesian novel The Logogryph.

Two bonus categories:

Best surprisingly enjoyable work-related re-read: Plato's Republic (with Godwin's political and philosophical writings coming a close second).

Favorite plays: Martin McDonagh, The Lieutenant of Inishmore; August Wilson, Seven Guitars.

One more bonus category: my two least favorite novels out of the year's reading! In both cases perceived by me as being actively pernicious as well as not just to my taste! Nope, David Mitchell's Black Swan Green isn't even one of them, I think I overreacted on that front. Most disliked novel #1: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. Most disliked novel #2: Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. In both cases they are rather remarkable achievements, or they would not produce in so many readers such a passionate cult-followerish feeling and in me such a strong feeling of detestation!

More Hannibaling

David Montgomery considers Thomas Harris's latest at Crime Fiction Dossier. Very sensible, too....

I want my iReader

Interesting article at the Chronicle of Higher Education in which academic librarians evaluate the Sony Reader (not sure that link will work for non-subscribers). Hmmm, I don't want a Sony Reader, but I do want a magical electronic book device--preferably something iPod-like, only with the electronic ink technology--and less designed for regular book-reading more designed to save me from printing things off my computer--PDFs that are facsimiles of eighteenth-century books, instruction manuals, etc. etc. And of course also the New-York Ghost, the periodical you print at work and read in your cubicle....

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The genetic contingency of natural disposition

This piece isn't at all new, it appeared in the LRB in 2003, but I came across a reference to it in a book I've just finished reading for a review & thought it worth following up. Here's Slavoj Zizek arguing in favor of biogenetic interventions:

Imagine the following scenario: I am to take part in a quiz, but instead of working away at getting up the facts, I use drugs to enhance my memory. The self-esteem I acquire by winning the competition is still based on a real achievement: I performed better than my opponent who had spent night after night trying to memorise the relevant data. The intuitive counter-argument is that only my opponent has the right to be proud of his performance, because his knowledge, unlike mine, was the result of hard work. There's something inherently patronising in that.

Again, we see it as perfectly justified when someone with a good natural singing voice takes pride in his performance, although we're aware that his singing has more to do with talent than with effort and training. If, however, I were to improve my singing by the use of a drug, I would be denied the same recognition (unless I had put a lot of effort into inventing the drug in question before testing it on myself). The point is that both hard work and natural talent are considered 'part of me', while using a drug is 'artificial' enhancement because it is a form of external manipulation. Which brings us back to the same problem: once we know that my 'natural talent' depends on the levels of certain chemicals in my brain, does it matter, morally, whether I acquired it from outside or have possessed it from birth? To further complicate matters, it's possible that my willingness to accept discipline and work hard itself depends on certain chemicals. What if, in order to win a quiz, I don't take a drug which enhances my memory but one which 'merely' strengthens my resolve? Is this still 'cheating'?

One reason Fukuyama moved from his 'end-of-history' theory to a consideration of the new threat posed by the brain sciences is that the biogenetic threat is a much more radical version of the 'end of history', one that has the potential to render the free autonomous subject of liberal democracy obsolete. There is a deeper reason, however, for Fukuyama's turn: the prospect of biogenetic manipulation has forced him, consciously or not, to take note of the dark obverse of his idealised image of liberal democracy. All of a sudden, he has been compelled to confront the prospect of corporations misusing the free market to manipulate people and engage in terrifying medical experiments, of rich people breeding their offspring as an exclusive race with superior mental and physical capacities, thus instigating a new class warfare. It is clear to Fukuyama that the only way to limit this danger is to reassert strong state control of the market and to develop new forms of a democratic political will.

While agreeing with all this, I am tempted to add that we need these measures independently of the biogenetic threat, simply in order to control the potential of the global market economy. Maybe the problem is not biogenetics itself, but rather the context of power relations within which it functions. Fukuyama's arguments are at once too abstract and too concrete. He fails to raise the full philosophical implications of the new mind sciences and technologies, and to locate them in their antagonistic socioeconomic context. What he doesn't grasp (and what a true Hegelian should have grasped) is the necessary link between the two ends of history, the passage from the one to the other: the liberal-democratic end of history immediately turns into its opposite, since, in the hour of its triumph, it starts to lose its foundation - the liberal-democratic subject.

Hell's a sort of high-class nightclub

At the TLS, Alastair Sooke on biographies of the Devil; also, a rather characteristic and really quite wonderful piece by George Steiner on a new edition of Büchner. He begins thus:

I must declare an interest. We owe the precarious survival of Georg Büchner’s works to the inspired perspicacity of my great-great-uncle, the Galician-Jewish novelist and publicist Karl Emil Franzos. It was he who began publishing Büchner’s writings in 1878, in the periodical Mehr Licht! – a characteristic homage to Goethe’s mythical last words. Franzos’s editorial labours began in 1875. Virtually no minutiae of textual, biographical, historical information, no particles in the history of Büchner’s reception to this day (there will be one glaring omission) seem to elude Henri and Rosemarie Poschmann, editors of these two volumes. Their edition of Büchner’s Dichtungen, Schriften, Briefe und Dokumente runs to some 2,300 pages on thin paper. Yet, so far as I can make out, they do not tell us how or why Büchner’s fragmentary, often scarcely legible “foul papers” came into Franzos’s caring hands. Nor do they elucidate the awesome clairvoyance which it must have taken at that date to recognize something of Büchner’s stature. My mother, a Viennese grande dame if ever there was, affirmed that it was an apothecary in Lemberg who drew Franzos’s attention to the material, when it ran the risk of becoming waste paper. This may be a family legend. But it would not be out of tune. Büchner’s resurrection is as miraculous as are his creations.

The fall of Troy

My friend Emily Wilson is not only one of my favorite people in general but also my particular favorite classicist, and she's got a great piece up at Slate about the issues surrounding the possible historical basis for the Iliad and the Odyssey.

I've written here before about my desperate passion for the Iliad. I've actually been kind of obsessed with all this stuff ever since I first learned about the ancient Greeks in fourth grade (hmmm, but even before that I was obsessed with the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths). I read a lot of books about Schliemann and the discovery of "Troy" that year, and also the novels of Mary Renault, and ever since then ancient Greece been one of my favorite things to think about--in fact if I was banned from all current professional passions and leisure entertainments (i.e. the eighteenth century, book-reviewing, novel-reading, running, yoga, etc.) I would throw myself into the study of ancient Greek and learn to read Homer and also (I realize this is a totally different thing) Plato and Thucydides in the original and then go and travel around to see the places Odysseus went on his travels. I think I am too lazy to learn ancient Greek at this point, but I do really really want to see those places, and the Parthenon and stuff. Imagine standing where Pericles delivered his funeral oration!

Books I liked when I was a Young Person: Robert Graves's tendentious historical novel Homer's Daughter; David Macauley's insufficiently well-known Motel of the Mysteries. Slightly impractical bonus link: Peter Green had an extremely good review essay on this stuff in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books (if you've got a university library affiliation you can possibly get it through your library homepage, but otherwise it is subscriber only, I'm afraid).

Seal meat and cocoa

Deborah Zabarenko on the preserved interior of the Terra Nova hut. (Thanks to Nico for the link.)

Betraying Spinoza

Hilary Putnam has a lovely short piece at the New York Observer on Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza. I got this and also The Mind-Body Problem in September but they immediately joined the huge stacks of books I have acquired without having time to read in the last four months or so; however the second has already migrated into the "read next" location (i.e. sort of buried in the part of my bed I do not sleep in... too much information!), and now this one will also. I have irrationally avoided reading Rebecca Goldstein because of a strong feeling that she is exactly the kind of writer I aspire to become myself, and that there might be something inhibiting about seeing such a thing in practice, but now I'm ready to do it (ready, that is, once I've done temporarily with work).

I wish

I had been less lazy/better organized about getting tickets for this (it's the concert performance of Lou Reed's album Berlin at St. Ann's Warehouse). I am a longtime Lou Reed obsessee, and Berlin is a particular particular favorite: my friends from the relevant period of my life would testify to the fact that I basically listened to it every day for about, oh, two years.... (well, perhaps I'm slightly exaggerating, but not really). I think I only have it on some battered cassette tape in a box in the closet, I must obtain it in some digital form that can be iPodded (though less suitable music for listening to while working out can hardly be imagined).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Not at all related

to books, but Natalie Angier has a rather delightful article about turtles in this week's Science Times.

Turtles loom large on eighteenth-century menus, I can think of a whole host of turtle reference but they are almost universally and depressingly culinary (no wonder so many species are endangered). Here, for instance, is a scene from Susan Ferrier's excellent (underrated--read it!) novel Marriage, which I was teaching a couple weeks ago. The satirical-minded Lady Emily is teasing the greedy and parasitical gourmand Dr. Redgill, who wishes that the novel's heroine would accept the proposal of Lord Glenallan ("The finest deer park in Scotland! Every sort of game upon the estate! A salmon fishing at the very door!"). Lady Emily explains that the young lady in question--her cousin--may not be in love:

"In what?" demanded the Doctor.

"In love," repeated Lady Emily.

"Love! Bah--nonsense--no mortal in their senses ever thinks of such stuff now."

"Then you think love and madness are one and the same thing it seems?"

"I think the man or woman who could let their love stand in the way of five and twenty thousand a year, is the next thing to being mad," said the Doctor warmly; "and in this case I can see no difference."

"But you'll allow there are some sorts of love that may be indulged, without casting any shade upon the understanding?"

"I really can't tell what your Ladyship means," said the Doctor impatiently.

"I mean, for example, the love one may feel towards a turtle, such as we had lately."

"That's quite a different thing," interrupted the Doctor.

"Pardon me, but whatever the consequence may be, the effects in both cases were very similar, as exemplified in yourself. Pray, what difference did it make to your friends, who were deprived of your society, whether you spent your time in walking with 'even step, and musing gait,' before your dulcinea's window, or the turtle's cistern?--whether you were engrossed in composing a sonnet to your mistress' eye-brow, or in contriving a new method of heightening the enjoyments of calipash?--whether you expatiated with greater rapture on the charms of a white skin, or green fat?--whether you were most devoted to a languishing or a lively beauty?--whether--"

"'Pon my honour, Lady Emily, I really--I---I--can't conceive what it is you mean. There's a time for every thing; and I'm sure nobody but yourself would ever have thought of bringing in a turtle to a conversation upon marriage."

"On the contrary, Doctor, I thought it had been upon love; and I was endeavouring to convince you, that even the wisest of men may be susceptible of certain tender emotions towards a beloved object."

In my opinion the best turtle in literature comes in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, which is my particularly favorite play of his.

It is unofficial Hannibal week

here at Light Reading!

The book stars in John Crace's "digested read" feature today at the Guardian. I often use these as a gauge of whether I want to read some much-hyped bestseller or not, and in this case I would have to say that though it's mocking, it wouldn't put me off. Sometimes you can just tell Crace was sent into an impossibly irritable mood by the absurdities or pretensions at the text at hand, but in this case he sounds fairly good-humored (he may have been charmed against his will, though, by his own clever summing-up line at the end of the piece).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hannibal redux

Earlier this evening a friend's bounty brought me a copy of Hannibal Rising, really nothing is going to stop me from reading it but it is true that a damper was placed on my enthusiasm when I saw what Anthony Lane had to say just now at the New Yorker (and the thing is I can see that Lane really loves those earlier books too, this is not just someone doing a scathing takedown with no sense of what made the early Lecter books total genius):

Hitherto, the champions of Lecter have ascribed to him a core of monstrosity, no more malleable than a diamond, and native to him alone; if so, it is brushed aside and squandered by the uncovering of his past. With “Hannibal Rising,” we watch the legend sink.

Why did Harris pursue this line of inquiry? He has written one great Lecter book, “The Silence of the Lambs,” and two lesser ones, so why produce a fourth that is not merely the weakest but that makes you wonder if the others were so gripping after all? There is a puff of grand delusion here, of the sort to which all thriller-writers are susceptible. Compare “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” an early novel by George V. Higgins, with the bulky solemnities of his later work; or, for that matter, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with more recent le Carré like “The Night Manager” or “The Constant Gardener.” At some point, each man started to hear that he was so much more than the master of a genre (as if that were an ignoble thing to be), and responded to such flattery by expanding his fiction beyond its confines, not realizing that what he felt as a restriction was in fact its natural shape.

I could not agree more about Le Carre, in fact it was "The Night Manager" in particular that really first strongly drew my ire (you can see it certainly in "The Constant Gardener" also, but I think "The Night Manager" was the most comically and disgustingly over-the-top embarrassingly affected and pretentious). And I truly now can no longer see the merits of even the best early Le Carre, I tried to reread "Tinker Tailor" a few years ago and found it pretty tedious. Hmmm....

The horror, the horror

Simon Gray has a wonderful little essay up at the Guardian about the impossibility of writing a play about Dickens, this is required reading for anyone who's been wrestling with a piece of creative work that will not roll over and submit to one's will. Here's a taste:

[N]o doubt blaming him for my inability to write a play about him, I came close to hating Dickens - especially when he was the subject of a seminar, and I had to read out paragraphs of such astonishing vitality, with such vivid contrasts of tone, such gymnastic jumping from melodrama to tomfoolery and back again, that what I was mostly aware of was my own voice, obviously and audibly too feeble an instrument to do him justice. I would either falter out of the reading into the routine Cambridge-Leavis critical terminology - "great creative genius", "completely and fully and richly on the side of life", etc - or I would close the book with theatrical abruptness, and express in dumbshow, raising my hands to the surrender position, working my bushy eyebrows, pursing and unpursing my lips like a blowfish, the intensity and complexity of my reverence. I wonder what effect these displays had on my students all those years ago. Did I succeed in putting them off Dickens for life, as might have been my unconscious aim?

(I had a Dickens thing like this once, although it never made me hate Dickens: but before my first novel was its proper self it was a different novel about Jonathan Wild called No Questions Asked, with a rather old-fashioned and slightly pompous old-school-historical-novel-type narrative about the real historical Wild and his career alternating chapters with a pseudo-Dickensian-in-the-manner-of-Charles-Palliser's-Quincunx-type nineteenth-century story, it was fairly awful but of course I revised it again and again and polished it compulsively before realizing it would have to be abandoned. It is impossible to ape Dickens without descending into pomposity, just as it is difficult to pay homage to Austen without becoming arch. These are certainly my two favorite novelists, but I have given up any idea of writing a novel that bears any resemblance or even significant indebtedness to either of their respective styles.)

(I've been rereading Persuasion for class, and it really is a quite astonishing novel, particularly on technical grounds. I can't believe what Austen does with point-of-view and narration!)

Posting will continue light round here for the next couple weeks, I think, for reasons more or less beyond my control:

1. Annoying lack of online literary news at this time of year

2. No time for novel-reading (though I did read two things this weekend as necessary solace, an appealing but undistinguished novel by Joanna Trollope called The Choir that I realized half-way through I had actually read when it came out many years ago--I did not have the time for this year for my semi-ritual rereading of certain of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barset--and also the absolutely delightful novella D*U*C*K by Poppy Z. Brite, one of her Liquor books which are absolute must-reads in my opinion) till I have finished the semester's work and also written a book review and revised an article

3. Distracting development on injury diagnosis front

In short, I had an MRI on Tuesday--"Are you claustrophobic?" is the receptionist's question as you make the appointment, I got very nervous thinking about it but of course really all my problems are more on the agoraphobia/fear of heights side and in the end I thought it was a nice little pod, I would sleep in a pod like that if I could get one for my bedroom--and the doctor told me on Wednesday that I have a kind of stress fracture seen almost exclusively in female long-distance runners and military recruits.

Of course the worst of this--I have already been going crazy because of not running, turns out that running withdrawal pangs are about a million times more severe than any symptoms you undergo while quitting smoking--is that I must stop doing virtually all forms of exercise until the middle of January. This is very unpleasant and agitating and distracting and the only thing I can do other than work is read a million articles online about stress fractures and generally make myself insane! It is quite simply an overuse injury, I pushed the running thing too far too quickly and of course was doing far too much other exercise as well. I asked the doctor what I could do to make it get better, and he said, "Rest, rest, and rest." Unfortunately I am not very good at resting, it is not in my nature! However in this case I'm afraid there is nothing else to be done.

I am going to take up swimming in January and I am going to be extremely patient and not rush back into all the other stuff because basically I am absolutely hell-bent on running that marathon next fall and I must make it happen without injury. Meanwhile I can do some very muscly upper-body workouts, the only thing that redeemed my mood on Thursday was that at the end of a very strenuous hour of working out I actually did twenty-five pushups in a row, even though I had already done several sets of fifteen and a ton of other upper-body stuff. Real pushups, which I could never do when I was a kid even (why don't elementary-school gym classes teach you how to do things rather than just asking you either to "play" some awful game like dodgeball that is mistakenly supposed to be enjoyable or to humiliate yourself by doing pitifully small numbers of things that are just counted and marked down on a mortifying chart when they could be showing you baby-step-type ways of getting better at doing those near-impossible things like climbing up a rope or whatever?!?)! The small consolations in life--actually, my mood is perfectly all right, considering, and it will be even better once I throw myself into the project of completing my academic book over the winter break. I know that once I've immersed myself in that work for a few days I will be as delighted to be obsessed with that as I have been with those long runs this fall, it will be remarkably enjoyable....

All right, expect a "favorite books of 2006" post sometime in the next couple days, I might even be able to do it later tonight once I have taught my last couple classes for the semester. Meanwhile I must get back to work--you know, it is curious how strongly we have these temperaments infused in us, this is the first semester for a very long time when I have not worked myself absolutely into the ground and a state of wretched mental and physical exhaustion by December, I am feeling quite energetic, but clearly the same impulse found another outlet in the running thing. It is my goal for my next decade of life to become a more moderate person, but I am not sure this can be done....

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fruity vituperation

At the LRB, John Lanchester reflects on a new biography of Conrad Black and his wife (Lanchester's memoir is definitely one of my most-wanted books of 2007, he is an outrageously good stylist):

Conrad Black is not the only tycoon to have dreamed of global domination while buying and selling newspapers, and he is not the only tycoon to have had people fawning over him on the way up and shunning him on the way down; he is not the only tycoon to have lived large, issued writs and faced criminal charges; but he is the only tycoon with a wholly distinctive prose style. It is on show in a furious email Black wrote to Tom Bower, protesting that Bower’s forthcoming book about Lord and Lady Black was going to be ‘a heartwarming story of two sleazy, spivvy, contemptible people, who enjoyed a fraudulent and unjust elevation; were exposed, and ground to powder in a just system, have been ostracised; and largely impoverished, and that I am on my way to the prison cell where I belong.’ One can quibble with the punctuation, but as a summary of Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, that paraphrase is accurate to the point of clairvoyance.

Black’s deep love of fruity vituperation gets a thorough airing in Bower’s book. The headmaster who expelled him for stealing and selling exam papers was ‘an insufferable poltroon’ and his wife a ‘desiccated old sorceress’; the school was ‘an awful system whose odiousness was compounded by banality and pretension’. One reviewer of his first book was ‘a slanted, supercilious little twit’; another was a ‘quasi-fascist Jesuit myth-maker’ and another an ‘illiterate bootlicker’. The behaviour of one close associate – without whose help he would never have bought the Telegraph – gave ‘new depth, warmth and colour to the meaning of the word “shit”’. The Canadian attorney general was ‘malicious as well as pusillanimous and incompetent’: in fact Canadians in general are ‘whining, politically conformist welfare addicts’, almost as bad as lefties in general, who are ‘phoney, envious and mediocre bleeding hearts whining and snivelling about meritocratic Darwinism’. As for the concerned parties who first raised the allegations which have led to Black’s facing a court case in America, ‘those truly evil people are a menace to capitalism as any sane and civilised person would define it’ – the lead investigator being a former head of that notoriously anti-capitalist body, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It is as if Black were never knowingly unbombastic. At Barbara Amiel’s 60th birthday party, he stood up and gave a speech in praise of his spouse. ‘The little woman’s body is agile and youthful. I’ve seen her naked, and it’s all natural.’ It would be nice to know exactly how many people in the audience were thinking: ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’ In any case: ‘She looks better with her clothes off than on . . . The little woman is perfect, vertically and horizontally.’ The party cost $62,870; two-thirds of the cost was billed to Hollinger, the publicly quoted company which owned the Telegraph. ‘The only charge that anyone can level against us is one of insufficient generosity to ourselves,’ said the man whose trial, due to start in Chicago on 5 March, sees him facing 12 separate counts of fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It was slender

rather than grotesque, but I was obsessed with my Swiss Army knife when I was a kid, and Andrew Martin's charming essay "Call that a knife?" in the Guardian reminds me why. (Thanks to Neil's journal for the link.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"10 of these delicious treats a day"

So it was like magic, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford came miraculously to my hand and though I have not a minute to read anything non-work-related the book sort of just inadvertently fell open for me to read the perfect letter, it was like the fruit falling into your hands in Milton's Eden before the Fall. (The collection's edited by Peter Y. Sussman, who has some nice bits of the letters up at his website.)

I've always had a thing for Jessica Mitford, but reading this letter was comically like reading something written by myself--my alternate self--not that you would want often or always to be reading something written by your alternate self, but in this case it was absolutely delightful, and I am irresponsibly going to type in the whole letter instead of grading papers (those who know me will find it peculiarly apt--don't worry, I'm not going to take up smoking again):

April 20, 1985

Dear Arlan,

I believe you said that I should ring you on Friday? Instead, I'm writing on Saturday. Somehow I rather hate to telephone doctors for fear they are in the midst of curing somebody from a DIRE DISEASE, or setting broken legs etc., hence might find it a dull distraction to hear from a self-indulgent old soul who hasn't the brains or the will-power to give up smoking....

In a way, just writing to you the other day with FULL CONFESSION may have been Step #1, i.e. a splash of determination.

On Wednesday, 17 April, I went & fetched the disgusting chewing gum & pills from Chimes.

On Thurs, 18th April I started doing all that, ditto Fri. 19th & today, Sat. 20.

Now here's the amazing thing: I was fully expecting to be a quivering mass of misery (like last time, only perhaps worse), unable to work, concentrate etc. So it came as a delightful surprise that it wasn't a BIT like that; in fact it's now Day 3, and actually I'm feeling perfectly OK, qutie ordinary & not in any agony.

A couple of observations: The fall from grace was rather gradual, not precipitate. Started with the odd puff from somebody's cig. at a party. Then--oh dear--Bob had brought home from Mexico a little package of cigars, which I smoked up. Wishing to replace them (as I hadn't asked him for them) I bought a few more--and, alas, smoked those. Next I found these really heavenly things called Sherman's Cigarettellos which I hid (I am sorry to say) behind a shelf of Bibles & prayer-books, thinking that's the LAST place anyone would look. I was having approx. 10 of these delicious treats a day--vs. about 30 a day in the dear, dead old days of Chesterfields.

Needless to say, the incredible kindness of Bob and Dinky over the original horrors of quitting--not to mention other friends, & even the nice lady at the liquor store who was my source for CHESTERFIELDS & who said "Good for you!" when I told her I'd quit--were a bit of a knife in the heart, when I became a CLOSET SMOKER.

I do think that the lifesaver for the hopeless, abject addict may be that absolutely horrible chewing gum.

I've had about six a day--the literature says "Do not take more than 30 a day"--not bloody likely!

I've also had about 2 a day of those pills you ordered; but those seem to have no effect whatsoever.


Thanks VERY much for bothering about all this, Decca

We do not have two lives

At the Guardian, James Fenton on Annie Leibovitz's photographs of Susan Sontag.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"I want my ham!"

Literature and current events: Jenny Diski blogs at Biology of the Worst Kind about polonium 210 and the lessons of fairy tales.

On a different literature/news note, I was sort of disconcerted the other night to find this New York Times story about burial insurance immediately after getting home from seeing August Wilson's Two Trains Running, with its running insurance theme (that word insurance is accented on the first syllable, by the way). These Signature Theatre Wilson revivals are awfully good, the production in this case is absolutely impeccable: funny (my favorite character is Hambone) and interesting and highly watchable, too, although I feel that for various reasons it is a considerably less appealing play than Seven Guitars, which I saw in August and found absolutely magically transporting.

And I even had a tiny bit of light reading, but I feel I have built up a considerable light reading debt that will have to be redeemed in the nearish future or else I will implode: Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize, an appealing young-adult vampire novel with a culinary theme. I'm also halfway through the also very appealing Fangland, by John Marks, but it got buried beneath a pile of work-related books: I will report on it more fully once I have a chance to finish it, but for the meantime I would say it's strongly recommended. I am not sure why it is that when I only have time to read a very few (non-eighteenth-century) novels they are so likely to be about vampires, I am not particularly vampirish in my normal tastes, reading or otherwise....

Friday, December 01, 2006

One thing I did this year

that I hadn't done for a long time (in fact possibly not since 1990 or so, is that even minimally credible?) is write a short story, and here it is. Fun!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Staking the memoir on uplift

At Slate, Gideon Lewis-Kraus has an interesting essay about Azar Nafisi and the debate over Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Two favorite poems

I forgot to mention the other day, poems I loved at age twelve or thirteen and probably knew by heart at one point and don't anymore but still would call favorites.

First, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess". This one's quite excellent--in retrospect I see I liked it not just because of the language, though you can certainly taste every word here in the way that you always can with a good poem (I can't read poetry without wanting to feel the shape of the words in my mouth), but because of (a) the appeal of the whole sort of Machiavellian Italian Renaissance thing, it went along with my love of Jacobean tragedy and revenge plays in particular (really this is a dramatic monologue rather than a lyric) and (b) what would turn out to be a lifelong interest in unreliable narrators esp. of the sinister but compelling kind.

Here it is, anyway (I still never figured out how to do the "after the cut" link on Blogger, but there is something in any case satisfying though impractical about pasting in a long and indispensable poem):

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myselfthey turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
Her husband's presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess' cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace -- all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, -- good! but thanked
Somehow -- I know not how -- as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech -- (which I have not) -- to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" -- and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
--E'en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master's known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

(". . . and I choose / never to stoop"!)

Second (this thought was prompted by some Pope-reading this morning), there is no doubt that my particular favorite poem by Alexander Pope (though of course
"The Rape of the Lock" is a work of total genius) is "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" about which there is something delightfully novelistic and gothic on the small scale. I was first tipped off to this poem by Edmund Crispin's Frequent Hearses (not Crispin's best, but the best ones are absolutely sublime--I think my demented favorite is The Moving Toyshop--that title also is drawn from Pope--but I have a deep passion for the late over-the-top Fen novel Glimpses of the Moon).

In fact much time during my teenage years was spent using classic British detective fiction as a kind of reading guide: Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day-Lewis)'s Thou Shell of Death directed me to Webster and his Head of a Traveler to Housman's "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" (which age thirteen or fourteen I found more or less incomprehensible--how would you know where to follow down the references?!?--but still irresistibly appealing and funny); and Gaudy Night to Elizabethan songs and The Anatomy of Melancholy and Thomas Lovell Beddoes' "Death's Jest Book".

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Casseroles and floor wax

At the New York Observer, Diane Johnson on Jessica Mitford's letters. I do rather want to read these--hmm...--oh, and I am happy to see that Mitford's autobiography Hons and Rebels is available in the always-excellent New York Review of Books reprint series (with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens!), that's another book I loved as a child.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On poetry

It's been fairly slim pickings round the blog recently, too busy to write much, but I am decadently going to steal a middle-of-the-day hour to do Cam's poetry meme (thanks to Dorothy for putting the idea in my head).

1. The first poem I remember reading was...

"Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti, which I had in a very attractively illustrated adaptation by Ellen Raskin (also the author, I might add, of the ever-enthralling children's books The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)). I found this book absolutely enchanting and read it again and again: the story of the two sisters reminded me of my favorite tale The Snow Queen, or perhaps it is better to say I liked the two for similar reasons, but it was the poem's catalogs of delectable fruits that had me greedily in thrall (this is the goblin cry):

"Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries--
All ripe together
In summer weather--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and...

I don't remember being forced to memorize poetry at school. I memorized poems now and then just because I liked them. When I was a very serious and intellectual (what age would this have been?) maybe eleven-year-old I rather solemnly memorized the whole of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which I was certain must be the best poem ever. I was also partial to various things in The Faber Book of Comic Verse and the companion volume of nonsense verse: I remember learning by heart for instance also at around that age or maybe a bit older a quite delightful poem (I thought it the height of wit) called The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven by Guy Wetmore Carryl. I'm pasting it in because it still seems to me very pleasing (I remember I was especially taken with the words "umbrageous" and persiflage"--oh, I must go and see if I can get more of this guy's Aesop adaptations):

A raven sat upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie.
Or, maybe it was Roquefort.
We'll make it any kind you please --
At all events it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree's umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling:
"J'admire," said he, "ton beau plumage!"
(The which was simply persiflage.)

Two things there are, no doubt you know,
To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
A crow that's bound to roost;
And whichsoever he espies
He tells the most unblushing lies.

"Sweet fowl," he said, "I understand
You're more than merely natty;
I hear you sing to beat the band
And Adelina Patti.
Pray render with your liquid tongue
A bit from Gotterdammerung."

This subtle speech was aimed to please
The crow, and it succeeded;
He thought no bird in all the trees
Could sing as well as he did.
In flattery completely doused,
He gave the "Jewel Song" from Faust.

But gravitation's law, of course,
As Isaac Newton showed it,
Exerted on the cheese its force,
And elsewhere soon bestowed it.
In fact, there is no need to tell
What happened when to earth it fell.

I blush to add that when the bird
Took in the situation
He said one brief, emphatic word,
Unfit for publication.
The fox was greatly startled, but
He only sighed and answered, "Tut."

The Moral is: A fox is bound
To be a shameless sinner.
And also: When the cheese comes round
You know it's after dinner.
But (what is only known to few)
The fox is after dinner, too.

3. I don't read poetry very often because...

I like reading fast and if I want to read something that rewards slow reading it is more likely to be the Wittgenstein-Adorno-Plato kind of axis rather than a poem. But I do quite often read poetry from the past, only if it is pre-1800 I somehow don't think of it as poetry per se but rather as just something good.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is...

All right, it's totally a cliche, but I would pretty much have to say Elizabeth Bishop's
"One Art." I vividly remember reading this poem for the first time--well, the whole Geography III collection, which just blew me away (and "In the Waiting Room" is of course my other favorite Bishop poem, though "Crusoe in England" comes a close second)--in a quite wonderful English elective class when I was in ninth grade, it was taught by the remarkable Deborah Dempsey and the other poets we read closely were Theodore Roetke and Adrienne Rich. We spent a long time looking at that amazing last stanza and trying to figure out if it's tragic or sort-of-redemptive (I was on the sort-of-redemptive side--it's the "Write it!" that brings things back round, I argued the case then and I would do it again now although I think it means reading against the grain of the poem):

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (
Write it!) like disaster.

Other favorite poems, off the top of my head: Andrew Marvell's "The Mower Against Gardens"; Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room"; and (regrettably, because it makes me laugh so much) Wordsworth's "The Thorn".

5. I ...

used to write poetry when I was a Young Person (in fact I won $100 in a poetry contest in high school, first money I ever made by writing) but I took a poetry-writing workshop my first semester of college that was simultaneously quite a good workshop and also the direct cause of me deciding I would never write another poem again. And I never have. And I almost certainly never will--might write some strange prosey things though that would be vaguely poem-like. Also I have rather a yen to write an opera libretto sometime, but that probably doesn't count.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...

because it happens more slowly, and that makes me irritable! I find myself impatient with much contemporary poetry because it does not seem to meet even the minimum acceptable standard of copy-editing that you would expect from good prose. I like reading bad novels and good novels, but I will only read the very best poetry or else I become excessively annoyed. Which is not good for the soul.

7. I find poetry...

Interesting, appealing, sometimes magical but on the whole inessential. Novels are essential, intellectual prose essential, plays I miss if I don't get them often enough, essays absolutely soothing and often very delightful, but poetry is for some reason the one I can do without. Not permanently without, but I do not require it with a very high degree of frequency. The other thing I find is that new poems are too often either humorless or if they are funny then they are too whimsical (whimsy is my absolute least favorite thing in the world). There are exceptions, but not many (one very happy recent exception was my friend Steve Burt's absolutely lovely sestina "Six Kinds of Noodles" which you must all go and read now, it really is something special).

8. The last time I heard poetry....

Hmmm...I try and avoid hearing poetry, I don't like being read aloud to and I particularly become savagely antisocial and misanthropic when it's middling-to-bad poetry! I remember recording a lot of Donne's poems on a cassette tape the summer I was studying for orals, though, and listening to them again and again on the Walkman while I ran round the reservoir in Central Park.

9. I think poetry is like....

Nothing else. It's not like life, but it's like a feeling you get sometimes that lasts very briefly--oh, I had it yesterday afternoon when I walked outside of my apartment & was struck with the bareness of the trees and winteriness of the sky in the bit of the park I can see over the edge of the stone wall along the west side of Riverside Drive. The reason I am not a poetry-writer (also you can only write good poetry if you are absolutely steeped in poetry, it is an art of allusion in a way that fiction is not--in this respect it's more like philosophy) is that it does not suit my temperament to sit around waiting for that sort of feeling to strike, in fact sitting around waiting is not my strong suit and I am too great a believer in the rational brain to embrace voluntarily a kind of writing that seems to involve giving oneself over to external control!

Yes, sir, yes, sir

From Jeffrey Toobin's article in this week's New Yorker on the death throes of habeas corpus in the United States, this quotation from Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee:

“When Lyndon Johnson became Vice-President, he wasn’t welcome at Senate Democratic caucus meetings anymore, because it was for senators only. But every Tuesday since Bush has been President it’s been like a Mafia funeral around here. There are, like, fifteen cars with lights and sirens, and Cheney and Karl Rove come to the Republican caucus meetings and tell those guys what to do. It’s all ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir.’ I bet there is not a lot of dissent that goes on in that room. In thirty-two years in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress roll over and play dead like this one.”

Monday, November 27, 2006


the Tesla Roadster. Seriously, this is straight out of my novel....

Can it really be true

that the Bond theme music began life as a sitar-backed song for a never-realized musical based on V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas?!? At the Times, Michiko Kakutani enjoys Simon Winder's book (it really does sound quite delightful, surely it's one of those good double-purpose buy-it-for-an-Xmas-present-but-quickly-read-it-first-myself-type presents) The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond. Who could resist a book with that title?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"I love scrims"

(I do, too.) In this week's Times magazine, Daphne Merkin takes on Tom Stoppard. I think I am going to have to go and see the marathon Coast of Utopia in the new year, I was seesawing on this (bad experiences with New York productions of other Stoppard) but really it seems unskippable--and think if I get to teach a Shaw-Stoppard seminar sometime what an idiot I'll feel if I missed it while it was here, seems quite irresponsible....

Good things

at the NYTBR this week.

Liesl Schillinger has a great piece about the new Pynchon novel (which I've got, and am supposed to read soon, but this is perhaps the first review I've read that really gives me the fortitude to tackle it--aside from everything else I am perplexed and amused by the way it sounds so much like MY novel--dynamite, science and technology, secret history of an alternate twentieth century--only I have resolutely held out against airships, I like airships of course [who doesn't?] but there is a veritable airship craze right now, possibly sparked by Philip Pullman but maybe just one of those zeitgeisty things--certainly reading Gravity's Rainbow was one of the great events of my adolescence, another thing for which I can thank the demented Anthony Burgess 99 Novels book which was like my secret guru when I was fifteen and sixteen).

Also: Hitchens on Vidal; and Deborah Blum on Dale Peterson's Jane Goodall biography (which I am SO going to read over Xmas break, I think I've got an advance copy floating around here somewhere, must go and check and put it in some conspicuous spot along with the couple other things I most want to read but can't get to till school's over).