Monday, July 31, 2006

And now for something completely different

It was a comments thread at Tingle Alley that made me realize I wanted to read Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert: I had previously assumed it was not for me.

So I got it from Amazon (evil, evil Amazon Prime...) and read it (seriously) in two great gulps on Saturday, the first hundred pages in what seemed like the blink of an eye in a brief early-evening piece of down-time and the rest of it late that night after a hot but pleasant evening with two old friends and one six-year-old boy. (Whose funniest contribution to the evening's conversation--he and his mother have been reading the Greek myths--was telling me that I would be Aphrodite, the goddess of love [needless to say I was quite horrified, this is not at all my style!] and that this meant I had a special belt that made me--wait for it--unbearable! His mother hastily corrected this to "irresistible," but the damage was done, we were all laughing hysterically and making ourselves hotter than ever.)

The book's in three sections, each detailing one component of the author's tripartite strategy for recovering from a difficult and draining divorce: Italy for pleasure, India for meditation, Bali for the balance between the two. Indeed as I was reading the first section--Italy/pleasure--I still felt that I was not the ideal reader for this book. I had three problems, all of them rather unreasonable (and I hasten to add that I think it's a very good book as well as an enjoyable one, I reconciled myself to all three of these things by the time I hit the middle India part, which was definitely my favorite):

1. When I read a book that's self-consciously divided into 108 small chapters (on the model, in this case, of the string of beads called a japa mala), I unreasonably expect it to be formally perfect, like something written by Georges Perec or Primo Levi (whose The Periodic Table is one of my favorite books of all time). This book is not formally perfect or even, really, formally interested; it is book as means rather than book as end in itself, book as a way for the writer to communicate with the reader who will as a result feel rather as if she's spending an evening in the writer's company rather than consuming her work as a separate entity. I found this disconcerting: not unpleasant, but distinctly disconcerting.

2. The Italy section seemed to me the one where the narrator most opens herself up to the charge of self-absorption. Privacy concerns mean that she has to tell us rather than show us how she got herself into such a dire state in the first place, and I found a bit too much concentration in this section on the love-related personal problems. (I was sorry, too, to realize that the resolution at the book's ending also involves a new romantic partner, I thought this felt unconvincing or troubling or at least too pat based on the setup at the beginning of the book.)

3. (This is the most unreasonable.) I am pigheadedly resistant to charm! Seriously, some teachers are just genuinely boring, I am not defending those ones, but I have always preferred the superficially dry but deeply interesting teacher to the obviously charming and funny one--I couldn't take those classes taught by, you know, the famous scientist who shoots into class on the first day in a sort of rocket-car and uses it to tell you about propulsion and momentum, and I get an awful stony-faced hostile expression when a speaker keeps cracking jokes, I just don't want to give in and feed the person's ego. (Of course my own lecturing style relies heavily on deliberate charm, but that is partly why I'm so suspicious of it in others....) And Gilbert's authorial voice is all about charm, and I really held out against it.

However once she gets to India I found the rest of the narrative much more engaging--there's an extremely good description in chapters 62 and 63 of Gilbert (a gregarious soul) deciding maniacally that she is going to become the most silent and contemplative member of the community, and scrub temple floors while smiling beatifically, then being called in to the work assignment office and asked to serve as special allowed-to-talk-a-lot hostess to the hundreds of guests who are about to arrive for a silent retreat. It's really a great read, I highly recommend it.

In my opinion the single best passage in the whole book, strictly on the grounds of the writing, comes pretty early on, and that's what I'll leave you with, but stop reading here if you're already very hungry:

Pizzeria da Michele is a small place with only two rooms and one non-stop oven. It's about a fifteen-minute walk from the train station in the rain, don't even worry about it, just go. You need to get there fairly early in the day because sometimes they run out of dough, which will break your heart. By 1:00pm, the streets outside the pizzeria have become jammed with Neapolitans trying to get into the place, shoving for access like they're trying to get space on a lifeboat. There's not a menu. They have only two varieties of pizza here--regular and extra cheese. None of this new age southern California olives-and-sun-dried-tomato wannabe pizza twaddle. The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I ever tried. It's soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust--thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It's technically impossible to eat this thing, of course. You try to take a bite off your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslide, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but just deal with it.

The only thing distracting me while I was reading Gilbert's book was the question of which out of the many, many people I know who would love the book to send it on to. My friend A. (for some reason a huge proportion of my friends have names beginning with A.--this is neither my main New York A. nor any of my A. students nor either of my Cambridge A.'s), who grew up partly on an ashram and whose spiritual hometown is Napoli? Or perhaps B., who has done a string of great yoga posts recently? But in the end I realized that of course I have to send it on to my lovely sister-in-law who works at an alternative health center and is about to go to Italy for her honeymoon, it seemed the aptest choice.

On Mel Gibson's anti-Semitism

Christopher Hitchens weighs in at Slate/

Dr Jekyll and Mr Fucking Hyde

John Crace "digests" Irvine Welsh's The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. I don't know, I still think it sounds like a pretty funny book! I am fond of those Scottish evil-twin novels, starting with Hogg's brilliant Confessions of a Justified Sinner. (Oh, and from the comments after my post the other day, here's the link for Neel Mukherjee's absolutely scathing review--thanks to G.H.)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Reading with the eye

James Fenton sets the record straight: despite the scene in the Confessions in which Augustine expresses surprise at Bishop Ambrose's habit of reading silently to himself, it is a (very widespread) "myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud." Makes sense to me--there's no doubt it's a very striking scene, but as an extremely avid silent reader myself I always found the claim unlikely, it seemed to me just not cognitively plausible even given, you know, the whole no-spaces-between-the-words thing. There's an interesting though rather technical book on this topic, Paul Saenger's Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading.

The sloth's pilgrimage

From Blumenbach's Contributions to Natural History (1806), in The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, translated by Thomas Bendyshe (1865):

There was a time when the origin of all petrifactions, and the general revolution of the earth itself, was deduced from the Noachian deluge. But, as one of the most sagacious and also certainly one of the most orthodox theologians, R. Walsh, has assured me, we are far from doing the slightest violence to the authority of Holy Scripture, when we deny the universality of the flood of Noah; and in like manner, I cannot for my own part form any satisfactory idea, after what I gather from the history of animals themselves, about the universality of that deluge. Thus, for instance, the pilgrimage which the sloth (an animal which takes a whole hour in crawling six feet) must in that case have performed from Ararat to South America, is always a little incomprehensible. We are obliged, with St Augustine, to call in the assistance of the angels, who jussu Dei sive permissu, as he expresses himself, first of all collected all the animal kingdom in the ark, and then distributed them again ad locum inde, in the distant islands and quarters of the globe.

Friday, July 28, 2006


James Lasdun reviews Irvine Welsh's latest at the Guardian. It's an excellent example of a mixed but genuinely sympathetic review--I really like what he does here, he's firm but not at all condescending.

(Lasdun's two novels were eye-opening and amazing literary discoveries for me this spring, and indeed--in keeping with the creepy and sinister tone of his fiction--everyone I've met who's read either of these books lights up with a slightly insane fervor when the name Lasdun is mentioned, merely to read him is to recognize his great genius!)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Daedalus, or, Science and the Future

From J. B. S. Haldane's Daedalus, or, Science and the Future (1924):

Now if we want poets to interpret physical science as Milton and Shelley did (Shelley and Keats were the last English poets who were at all up-to-date in their chemical knowledge), we must see that our possible poets are instructed, as their masters were, in science and economics. I am absolutely convinced that science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than are the classics, but the products of this stimulus do not normally see the light because scientific men as a class are devoid of any perception of literary form. When they can express themselves we get a Butler or a Norman Douglas. Not until our poets are once more drawn from the educated classes (I speak as a scientist), will they appeal to the average man by showing him the beauty in his own life as Homer and Virgil appealed to the street urchins who scrawled their verses on the walls of Pompeii.

I have just fruitlessly tried to get a link to a fascinating article from the TLS a month or so ago (the title was "Sixty years in socks") about Haldane's decision to move to India for the later part of his life, but can't seem to get into the subscriber archive. If you happen to have the old issues lying around, though, and didn't read it already, it's well worth a look (issue of 16 June 2006).

I've always been interested in Haldane (it was Daniel Kevles's book which sent me off to get this one at the library), but I've also got a particular interest in Haldane's sister Naomi Mitchison; her memoirs were one of my best sources when I was writing Dynamite No. 1, though they applied more to Sophie's great-aunt's generation than to Sophie herself.

An intellectual drink

I have been toying recently with the idea of giving up caffeine--it's like nicotine, you come to the point where you don't really notice any positive effects, just the nag of its periodic lack--only this afternoon I happily came across a heartening quotation in my current favorite evil genius Cabanis (it's from the eighth memoir in On the Relations Between the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man, edited by George Mora and translated by Margaret Duggan Saidi):

It is not without reason that some writers have called coffee "an intellectual drink." The general use made of it by men of letters, scientists, artists--in a word, by all persons whose work requires a particular activity of the thinking organ--this use has become established only after repeated observations and reliable experiments. Nothing works better, in fact, than coffee for arresting the anguish of a difficult digestion. The stimulating action of this drink, which bears equally on the sensitive and on the motor forces, far from disturbing their natural equilibrium, completes it and makes it more perfect. The sensations become at once more acute and more distinct, the ideas more active and clearer: and not only does coffee have none of the disadvantages of narcotics, of ardent spirits, or even of wine; on the contrary, it is the most effective means of opposing their pernicious effects.

And actually I had a revelation this morning that what I really need isn't to stop drinking coffee but rather to buy a new bed. I was horrified after my first night sleeping back in my real apartment in May to realize the state of the thing, the futon is paper-thin and you can clearly feel the ribs of the frame beneath it (and, worse, the sort of hump in the middle where the hinge is--it's not surprising, I remember I bought the futon in 1994 when I started grad school and the frame was a donation from my then roommate L. who had owned it in college and subsequently upgraded to a real bed).

I like hard uncomfortable beds, it's just the way my taste runs, but I must say that this futon is by now incredibly uncomfortable: I have always been an insomniac non-morning person who finds beds uncomfortable at night and impossibly comfortable in the morning as I repeatedly and shamefully snooze the alarm, but it must be said that this one starts becoming strikingly uncomfortable again (or perhaps it never stops?) around 6:30am which is not a good thing. But the initial shock wore off and I became accustomed to its uncomfortableness: NO MORE, however! As soon as I get my next paycheck, I am going to Sleepy's The Mattress Professionals to remedy the situation. I have a theory that they will even take the old one away when they deliver the new one, but perhaps this is too much to hope for....

It is hard to say

but I think I have just read a life-changing book review, it has tipped me off to a book that is like the demented twin of the one that I am sooner or later going to write: Charles Dantzig's Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française. (I am terribly lazy about reading books in French, but I've definitely got to get this.) The review is by Patrick McGuinness, in the TLS of July 14:

This is not a reference book to be passively consumed. Not everyone will be pleased to hear, for instance, that Simenon "writes like a freight train", or to learn, in the first paragraph of Dantzig's entry on Montaigne, that "Pour tout dire, il m'emmerde" and how, "faced with a choice between two expressions, Montaigne will opt for both". . . . . [Dantzig] is not afraid of reputation or status, and clearly relishes taking them on. For instance, while some of us might agree with Dantzig that Sartre is "the ideal writer for an American-style anthology: The Portable Sartre. It would be his masterpiece", we wouldn't expect to find it put that way in our Larousse. Dantzig's entry about Andre Breton opens with a devastating one-liner: "A policeman's son, he never betrayed his heritage", and he is merciless about what he sees as Surrealism's slyly conformist underbelly . . . . This is a dictionary (if dictionary it is) as much for the practising writer as for the reader. There are entries on beginnings, middles and endings, on literary oblivion, on length ("there are 100-page books that feel long and 800-page books that feel short") and on "Success" and "Failure" . . . . The section on "unusual deaths of authors", by which Dantzig means "authors who have not died of old age, youth, or illness", comes with ahelpful subsection on authors killed by mechanized vehicles.

Somehow I am going to combine this idea with my desire to write a collection of reviews of imaginary books--I should start writing funny entries now and publish them gradually as weird essay-criticism-short-story hybrids, and then assemble the master-work in my old age! But seriously, I can't wait to see what this actually looks like....

Molecular gastronomy

I had a realization the other day while reading that Dick Francis novel : I've been excessively suppressing my desire to read novels, and since I've got to maintain obsessive work levels right through to my mid-September book deadline & quite possibly a bit beyond, I must pace myself--which means allowing myself a novel once or twice a week (or perhaps even a bit more, that doesn't sound like very many!) so that I don't totally implode.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I stayed up late last night reading one of my most-awaited books of the year, the latest installment in Poppy Z. Brite's excellent series about New Orleans chefs Rickey and G-man: Soul Kitchen.

(The first two are Liquor and Prime, you can get all three for a relatively modest sum of money and then indulge yourself in a decadent reading binge, I highly recommend this--and then there's also The Value of X, which tells Rickey and G-man's relationship backstory--it's a bit more expensive but if you get hooked on the series you won't be able to resist. I had it from the library to economize....)

I'm not sure when Brite became someone whose writing serves as a kind of touchstone for me, but I see I've blogged about it very regularly over the past year or so. Partly that's because her blog Dispatches from Tanganyika has been my single best and clearest source on life in New Orleans post-Katrina: seriously, it's a very good lesson in what a well-written blog can do that newspaper reporting can't. But it's also because she's a spectacularly good writer, in the most cunning and unobtrusive and entertaining way.

This book is absolutely excellent. The main characters and their relationship are so intently and vividly imagined and captured on the page that you really feel to an unusual degree that you know and care about them, but the subsidiary characters are also very well-drawn (I have a particular soft spot for Lenny). The New Orleans and restaurant-kitchen settings are perfect, and the food writing is smart and funny and insightful. But what I most admire is the pacing, the way Brite balances the different stories she's telling (serious ones: ongoing tensions in Rickey and G-man's relationship, Rickey's getting hooked on painkillers, the fate of a black chef unjustly sent to Angola for ten years for a murder he didn't commit) with the funniest satire on pretentious foodies and restaurateurs and the most demented collection of Saints kitsch and the most convincing obscene kitchen banter. All this with the perfect & lightest touch.

The best thing of all is the placement of the unbelievably funny molecular gastronomy scene just near the end of the book--we know this has been coming, it's a satirical opportunity not to be missed, and yet its exact positioning is a most delightful surprise in terms of the pacing and shape of the story as a whole. There's definitely something reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole here, particularly that disorienting combination of serious/high-stakes writing with very dark comedy.

In short, I loved it. I read the entire thing with a kind of pain in the pit of my stomach, though: the book's happy ending is haunted by the shadow of Katrina oncoming. A note at the beginning of the novel says that it was completed the night before the hurricane hit; Brite has written on her blog about the fantasy of insulating these characters' world from its effects but also about her growing realization that she would have to bring their New Orleans into alignment with the real-world one. That's going to be an awful book to write, but an important and amazing one to read....

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Of the soul

From Galen, "Of the Soul," in Selected Works (translated by P. N. Singer):

For becoming a perfect man is a goal which requires in each of us a discipline that will continue through practically the whole of his life. One should not put aside the possibility of improving oneself even at the age of fifty, if one is aware of some defect one's soul has sustained, provided that defect is not incurable or irremediable. If one's body were in a bad state at that age, one would not give oneself up to the bad condition; one would by all means attempt to improve it, even if one were not able to achieve a Heraclean sort of good condition. No more, then, should we refrain from efforts to achieve a better state of the soul. Even if that of the wise man is beyond us--though we should have a high hope of attaining even that state, if we have taken care of our soul from early youth--then at least we should exert ourselves that our soul be not utterly disgusting, as was Thersites' body.

If it had lain in our power before being born to meet the one responsible for our birth, we would have asked him to let us have the finest type of body. If he had refused this, we would have requested of him the second, third, or fourth from the first in good condition. It would be a highly desirable outcome, even if we could not get the body of a Heracles, to have at least that of an Achilles, and failing that, that of an Ajax, a Diomedes, an Agamemnon, a Patroclus; and failing those, the body of some other fine hero. It is just the same with the soul. If one were unable to attain the most perfect good condition, one would surely accept the second, third, or fourth from the top. Such a goal is quite achievable for one who is prepared to exert himself over a long period in a process of constant discipline.

The conquest of Peru

Michael Caines has an interesting piece in the TLS about Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "Pizarro" (recently performed in a staged reading by the National Theatre). It's pretty demented, but I teach that play in my eighteenth-century drama course (along with some of Burke's speeches in the impeachment of the governor-general of the East India Company, and Artaud on the theater of conquest, and Sara Suleri's chapter on Burke and Sheridan from The Rhetoric of English India). It's one of the clearest instances I can think of concerning changing fashions in eighteenth-century studies: the 1998 Oxford World's Classics edition of Sheridan, in other respects very good, doesn't include Pizarro. I bet the next one will....

It's Pelecanos week

at the New York Times (and a good thing too); today Motoko Rich considers why critical acclaim has come more easily to the Maryland-based novelist than enormous sales.

Book in a bog

Ruadhan Mac Cormaic at the Irish Times:

Fragments of what appear to be an ancient psalter, or Book of Psalms, were uncovered by a bulldozer in a bog in the south midlands last Thursday.

It is estimated that it could be between 1,000 and 1,200-years-old and staff at the museum said yesterday its discovery was an Irish equivalent to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr Pat Wallace, said the find was of 'staggering importance' and that its survival until now was 'a miracle'.

'In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the early Christian civilisation of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland,' he said.

The artefact comprises extensive fragments of what appear to be an Irish early Christian psalter, written on vellum. The pages appear to be those of a slim, large format book with a wraparound vellum or leather cover from which the book block has slipped.

(Link via the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Just a quick detour

from what's going to be a massive work-related reading endeavor over the next few days (actually I fear the odds are good that I'm going to read one more novel later tonight, it arrived this morning & it's something I've been particularly looking forward to--more about this later if I do indeed succumb to weakness of will) to recommend something I've just finished reading for work, a wonderfully good book by Daniel Kevles called In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity.

It's a very thoughtful treatment of a difficult but fascinating topic, and it's an amazingly great read. I think my favorite chapter (partly because it's about things I know less about--inevitably I've been reading books about eugenics and heredity for nearly fifteen years now, so lots of it ends up being familiar) is the one called "Blood, Big Science, and Biochemistry," in which Kevles waves together the story of the American Society of Human Genetics, James Neel's investigation of the genetic impact of the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the discovery of the biochemistry of sickle-cell anemia. It's a thrilling story that integrates really cool technical developments--the discovery of forms of chromatography and electrophoresis that let scientists understand what was going on in blood samples--with stories about individuals and broad trends in the science of genetics (in this case, away from statistics towards biochemistry and the examination and manipulation of chromosomes).

The charm of the book is that Kevles is at once an extremely authoritative scholar--this book seems to me impeccable in its historical work and its clear laying-out of arguments and sources and so forth--and a delightful narrative writer. Obviously it would not be in good taste to make certain kinds of jokes, this is a serious topic, but he manages to get across the flavor of the early twentieth-century eugenics movement with the most amazing and well-chosen semi-comic details (as when he describes a London woman, "pregnant and enterprisingly Lamarckian, [who] betook herself to plays and concerts, conversed with H. G. Wells among other writers, and in 1913 gave birth to 'Eugenette Bolce,' who was widely hailed as England's first eugenic baby"). Here's one of my favorite bits, describing a gift from Mary Harriman in the 1910s that funded scholarships for young men and women to train in the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor--it gives you a good sense of his style:

After the summer training course, the trainees, at a salary of seventy-five dollars a month, began a year's work in the field. Davenport had expected most of the field workers to be women's college graduates with some training in biology, and many did indeed come from Radcliffe, Vassar, and Wellesley, joining graduates of Harvard, Cornell, Oberlin, Johns Hopkins, and other reputable schools. Once trained, they were armed with a "Trait Book" for guidance and sent to study albinos in Massachusetts; the insane at the New Jersey State Hospital in Matawan; the feebleminded at the Skillman School, in Skillman, New Jersey; the Amish in Pennsylvania; the pedigrees of disease in the Academy of Medicine records in New York City; and juvenile delinquents at the Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of Chicago.

I've been interested for a long time in the difference between top-quality academic writing and top-quality serious non-fiction that's not limited to an academic readership. There's nothing bad about the former, in fact the book I'm finishing this summer is squarely in that genre (well, I can't guarantee the top-quality-ness, but you know what I mean): I thought about trying to write it as the other, but I realized that at the point I'm currently at (more in my intellectual life than in my career, that is) I would learn more and write something more true to what I had to say about this stuff by doing an academic book alluringly bristling with strange quotations and interesting footnotes. It will be very clearly written, I hope (the greatest compliment I got this year was on a talk that I'm afraid I delivered rather too quickly due to constraints of time--but one of my fellow panelists, a scholar whose work I greatly respect, told me that it was easy to follow because in contrast to the general run of papers which feature simple ideas masked in complex prose mine was complex ideas in simple language), but that is not the same thing as saying that it's written for a general audience. (Maybe the next one....) But really good serious non-fiction, non-fiction that operates up to the highest standards of academic research and yet also makes that leap towards broader accessibility, is one of my favorite things in the world.

I went to a funny panel once in grad school about academic publishing, it was embarrassingly full of cocky PhD students (in my experience--no offense!--the boys are mostly worse than the girls) secretly convinced that their dissertations on, oh, the economics of the sugar trade in the Caribbean 1850-1860 might somehow be discovered as a surprise bestseller! And Yale UP editor Jonathan Brent, who was one of the presenters, said something that I've always remembered. He was very nice about it, he could see that we were all starry-eyed and unrealistic, and he observed that one reason that historians are more likely to write and publish cross-over or trade books than, say, philosophers or literary critics has to do with the difference between narrative and analytic writing. Many works of academic historical scholarship are also narratives, which is more likely to make them accessible to a much greater pool of readers; an analytic book, however compelling, is unlikely to do so. He then cited an interesting category exception to this rule--books that are assigned for classes in large numbers can sell very well, let's say Raymond Williams or Roland Barthes might be a good example here--and a strikingly memorable one-off exception. The analytic-critical book that turned out to be a surprise bestseller for the press (I think he said it sold near to a hundred thousand copies, although this is at least seven or eight years ago so I may be misremembering)? Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae. (By the way, that's a wonderfully funny Wikipedia entry on her, well worth a look.) She had a kind of following already, she went out and did events in support of the book, and the editors at the press were perhaps themselves rather startled at the extent to which it took off.

The lesson of this is that we must be realistic about what we're writing! (It's roughly analogous to the starting-out novelist who needs to be sensible about whether she's writing a small-press book or a small-press-type-but-happens-to-get-a-contract-with-FSG-or-Grove book or a mass-market thriller or a category romance or a potential huge crossover detective novel. Hard to see this in our own stuff, of course, but if you read widely and think about it you start to get a feel for these things.)

I recommend two books to graduate students in the humanities and social sciences and to assistant professors who are trying to figure out what kind of book-length projects they should be (or in some cases actually are) working on. The first is the one you'd want to read if you were looking longingly at a book like this Kevles one and wondering how you might try and move in that direction yourself: it's an extremely smart guide called Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published (the authors are Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato) and I have loaned my copy of it to at least four or five different people over the last few years, it's that useful. (Interestingly the sample proposal at the end was for a book that's recently been published: Debby Applegate's much-praised biography of Henry Ward Beecher.)

The other is more like a starter book, and should definitely be something you look at if you're finishing your PhD or trying to turn your dissertation into a book. I'm talking about William Germano's Getting It Published (and though I haven't looked at this one, I suspect it's now been somewhat superseded by his more recent From Dissertation to Book). It's exactly tailored to the situation of recent PhDs trying to figure out how to make the work they've already done more substantively appealing to publishers and readers, and it's extremely sensible on details as well as big-picture stuff.

(In case you can't tell, I am awfully looking forward to getting back into the classroom in September, assuming I have somehow finished my book between now and then!)

Slightly destructive

of my work plans for the afternoon, but in every other respect delightful: I got back from the library around 4 and discovered in my mailbox (courtesy of The Dizzies) the greatest object of my reading desire, Dick Francis's new novel Under Orders.

It was not in my Yahoo nature (I have been having Gulliver's Travels NIGHT AND DAY recently, it is slightly insanity-inducing but at least I've finished drafting that section of the chapter) not to read it at once so I devoured it & it was indeed exceptionally enjoyable. (Only too short! Barely two hours' worth of reading material. It is going to take great fortitude for me not to go and read another novel now, the problem with novels is that they are so more-ish--or to keep in my work-related register for now, novel-reading breeds novel-reading! Oh, a funny aside in Jon Lee Anderson's latest Cuba piece, which is not available online: did you know that Castro wanted to clone a super-cow to solve the country's food supply problems?)*

I am glad to see the LA Times blurb on the back says exactly what I think: "Dick Francis is a genius." (I might have had an exclamation point.) After Dick Francis's wife Mary died, he said he would not write another book, and so it is especially moving that you can see (am I incredibly naive to believe the press release?) his family really persuaded him it would be worth doing, it is my theory that his son Felix probably especially helped him with it the way Mary Francis used to. (Various people tried at one point to hype this up into a scandal, but it's very silly, they collaborated and they both chose to have the books published just under his name and that is all there is to it.) And I am happy to report that this one--Francis has sensibly chosen to feature Sid Halley again, Halley is probably his most popular and enduring protagonist (the usual Francis habit is to have a new guy in every book, only the guys are of course all fairly similar)--is exactly like the other Francis novels of the 1990s!

There is no better comfort reading for me than these books; I am held back from rereading the early ones only by the fact that my very favorites I have read at a guess as many as twenty times each, and even my least favorite ones probably six or seven. So a new one is an exceptional treat.

Peter Temple is my pick for the new Dick Francis, only much more intellectual and beautifully written (like if you got Samuel Beckett really excited about writing Francis-type novels; or I'd say Graham Greene, I don't think the name Beckett conjures up the kind of readerly appeal I'm trying to get at, only it happens that I am not a great Greene fan, but that's the level of moral seriousness & beauty in the writing you get in Temple's books). Lee Child's Jack Reacher books are the other closest things I've found to the satisfactions of Dick Francis in his prime. I have it in mind that Maggie Estep might be another possibility, I am going to seek out her Ruby Murphy ones and see what I think--I really liked the story she had in Brooklyn Noir, hers and Ken Bruen's were definitely my favorites, but I've never read one of her novels. Hmmm....

*This is Julian Comanthe writing in 2002 in the Telegraph about the bovine cloning candidate:

The daily milk yield of a cow called Ubre Blanca (White Udder), a cross between the Cuban zebu breed and a Canadian Holstein bull, astonished and delighted Communist Party officials in the early 1980s.

In 1982 it produced 110 litres (24 gallons) of milk in a single day - four times the average - and instantly became a legend throughout Cuba. It went on to set a world record by producing 24,268.9 litres of milk (5,338.5 gallons) in one 305-day lactation period.

Dispatches from Beirut

at the London Review of Books online.

Also Amit Chaudhuri on Suketu Mehta; Jeremy Harding on spook fiction and little pots of jam; and Adam Phillips on John Haffenden's edition of William Empson's letters:

Writing to the TLS about Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and the lines ‘sheer plod makes plough down sillion/Shine’, Empson makes clear that a poem about a mystery does not need to mystify. ‘Surely the newly ploughed furrows are what “shine”,’ he writes, ‘not the plough; at least they do in the heavy wheatland I come from – they look greasy.’ It is possible to have these apparently straightforward understandings of a poem because poems are written by people who are similar to us in that they have discernible intentions and share our language; we can make plausible conjectures ‘for the human reason that it was how his’ – the author’s – ‘mind was likely to work’. And for Empson you don’t need to be a psychologist or a philosopher to know how the mind works, you just need to have been a child who was taught to speak in a family. And you don’t claim to know how someone’s mind works, but only how it is likely to work. As ever, ‘plausible’ means for Empson not consensual but available to argue about. For Empson bad writing is writing in which the author seeks to conceal, deny or minimise his conflicts. Hopkins’s ‘recurring doubt . . . that his training’ – as a Jesuit – ‘does not seem to have had good effects’ is what makes ‘The Windhover’ matter for Empson.

Stacy Schiff on Wikipedia

in this week's New Yorker (full text available online). It's sort of a perfect article, stylish and intelligent and strangely informative.

I've got a very good impression of Schiff as a writer; the only book of hers I've read is Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (which was excellent), I've been meaning to get her book about Benjamin Franklin but such things fall for me awkwardly between work and pleasure reading. But oh, I see Madame Helvetius mentioned in one of the Amazon reviews, I think I really must get it now....

Monday, July 24, 2006

On domestication

Siberian rats at the NYT. Very suggestive story--I think this sort of thing is too obvious to write a novel about, but there's no doubt it's very appealing stuff....

Of ARCs and bribes

Cheryl Morgan has an extremely good piece at Emerald City in which she offers sensible advice about how to think of the relationship between editors, authors and online reviewers. (Thanks to The Mumpsimus for the link.)

Like a Henry James story

I read this in the print version a few days ago, and am delighted it's now online so that I can commend it to your attention.

Michael Kimmelman at the New York Review of Books on the relationship between Stravinsky and his factotum Robert Craft (no subscription required):

Their association brings to mind the stories of Henry James. A bright but inconsequential young man insinuates himself into the life of a great artist. The artist is no longer young and his creative life, in a new country, despite the glamour and celebrity he enjoys, has come to seem to him a bit stale. His career as a revolutionary is presumed to be over. But he is restless and he is a person of exceptional energy and cunning. He now lives with his second wife, a vivacious, doting woman, a fellow exile, who was for years and quite openly his mistress. As for the young man, who was drawn to the older man's music as a boy, he is also steeped in the music that has displaced the older man's work. He is native in the older man's new country, a tireless cicerone, an unusually gifted writer, and eager to stir things up in the older man's life. Not incidentally, the young man works for nothing, or next to it, which is ideal because the old man is in love with money.

He widens the great man's knowledge as he also benefits from being in the great man's circle. Inherently unequal, their relationship, however, gradually becomes not one of a sycophant or a servant and his master but something far more complex. The younger man is ambitious, egocentric, prickly, and he knows how to push. He draws out of the great man a vast, rich, if often embellished and altered account of the past, and he helps set the composer on course for an unexpected renaissance, which entails a kind of artistic volte-face, and which revives the great man's fortunes. An acquaintance tells the young man, "Your labours for, with, about the immortal figure whom you now know better than anyone, assure you a place not merely in heaven (on which I am a poor authority) but on earth, too."

Not incidentally, the great man's wife is enamored of this intense, nervous, boyish-looking young man, who has spiced up her life and reinvigorated her husband's work. They are "all in love with each other," observes a friend about the household, whose dynamic shifts as the older man grows even older and the younger man's role expands—writing for the older man, taking over for him in the recording studio, on the podium. The wife certainly has enjoyed her husband's success, his genius, impishness, and wit, but she also endures his drunkenness and temper and grows increasingly terrified that the young man might leave one day. The young man sometimes treats the older man impatiently, even impertinently, as if the older man were a balky child or had wronged him—and this raises many eyebrows among people who admire the older man and who also wish to have access to him, or once had access but no longer do except through the young man.

Concert managers and producers have been told they had to accept the young man as a conductor when they wanted the great man for their concerts and recordings. Sometimes they don't accept, because the fees asked are too high or because orchestras have their own conductors, whom they prefer to the young man. The young man resents all this, and wishes to be recognized for his own talents, which are not inconsiderable but which would never have landed him where he is without the older man. He lives under constant and growing censure, most obviously from the great man's children, whose position he has increasingly usurped, if only by circumstance; from people who believe that in their joint writings, he is putting words into the mouth of the great man, which he is, more and more so; and from those who dislike the serialism toward which the young man has pushed the great man's music. "That's what happens when you invite the Devil...into your home," a fellow composer says. For the young man, the sacrifices are considerable. But the line between sacrifice and self-interest can sometimes be difficult to draw. It is hard to say whether the older man, who adores the young man but who knows a thing or two about the ways of theater, thinks he benefits from the curiosity and jealousy that the young man provokes, a curiosity that creates for the older man a degree of sympathy, and perhaps even gives him, by providing a distraction, some free room to operate. In any case, the relationship is fraught, not unlike that between father and son.

Except that there are also real sons and a daughter, from the great man's first marriage, and when he dies, the sordid battle over his fortune—particularly over how much the widow and young man get versus the children—drags on in the courts for years.

Go and read the whole thing, it's great!

Just tired

Janet Maslin on George Pelecanos's latest at the NYT. Oh, I must get a copy of The Night Gardener, Pelecanos is on my very short list of particular favorite US crime writers--I remember first reading him about five years ago, my friend M. loaned me a stack of paperbacks and I basically read them in a greedy frenzy of book-addiction. They are extraordinarily striking in their detail: I always remember this one scene (can't tell you which book it is) where we hear about how in the Greek diners of the 1970s the Heinz bottles on the tables are filled with own-brand ketchup as an economy measure. Also every time I listen to P. J. Harvey I think of one of the relationships that Pelecanos details by way of music--the music in these books is particularly well chosen, in fact if rights were simpler (the technology is already there) these books would come with CDs or passwords that would let you have the soundtrack on your iPod....

(NB the book's title is like a mashup between two John LeCarre titles, that is not good!)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A great Syd Barrett post

at Weekend Stubble.

The way she writes now

At the Sunday Times, Amanda Craig admires Meg Rosoff's new novel. I liked How We Live Now very much indeed, though in retrospect I should add the caveat that while the voice is very well-done, it is not perhaps quite as radically original as many readers felt: I was acutely reminded of two other grumpy-New-Yorker-teenage-girl narrators, the first (the similarities between these two are particularly striking, although they're very different books) being Jenny Gluckstein in Peter Beagle's Tamsin and the second being Suzy McKee Charnas's Tina in The Bronze King and sequels (I recommend all these books very highly).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cat-sitting noir

A new sub-genre!

So last night I saw Martin McDonagh's play The Lieutenant of Inishmore as my official Birthday Treat (plus dinner at the Algonquin afterwards, which was better in theory than in practice as the kitchen closed at 10:30, the popovers were unbelievably shriveled up and the bread rather multiply warmed over, also the lugubrious waiter kept on coming and mournfully telling us things like--cf. before arrival of entrees--that if we wanted dessert we would have to order it right then before the kitchen was locked--the last word accompanied by an eloquent and sinister gesture--for the evening), and it is the best thing I have seen for an awfully long time--what a very, very good play--I was laughing out loud almost every minute, it was painfully funny, and unbelievably violent too. There's this insane Grand Guignol-style twist at the end that's incredibly effective--you've got the most gormless characters surrounded by (oh, sorry, spoiler) dead bodies they're hacking up with saws and they start saying things like "All this killing--when will it stop?" and it at once shows up the cant of the peace process and its associated rhetoric (you're laughing so hard you can hardly see at the absurdity of these people saying such things in such a context) and makes the anti-violence point in an extraordinarily effective because bizarre and oblique way--this would be a good one to add to my satire syllabus....

(The other cat-sitting noir I've experienced recently is Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing--here are some thoughts on that book and its sequel. But I was more reminded of the mood of one of my favorite trilogies, the Mangel books by Charlie Williams: go ahead, just get them, they are the funniest and most violent things you will ever read, Charlie is a total genius and the books' narrator is basically the best-realized character since Shakespeare wrote Falstaff, the first one in the trilogy is Deadfolk and the second is Fags and Lager. Here's why I loved Fags and Lager--oh dear, that does sound elegiac, doesn't it?)

(Oh, and here is me mournfully complaining while living in Boston that I wouldn't be able to see the play before it closed--but they moved the production to Broadway for a longer run, I would hate to have missed this one. It is a strange thing how much harder it is to write a good play than a good novel--many many hundreds or even thousands of great novels are written every year, but only a handful of really top-quality plays and scarcely more medium-good ones--often they collapse in the third act, but frequently they're no good even in the beginning. I do not know why this should be, but I guess it has something to do with how fully you need to be able to imagine the scenarios and to motivate the actors and so forth to reproduce that vision. The structural work involved in playwriting is also particularly challenging, because it happens in real time there is a lot less give than in the novel, which each reader experiences in any case at his or her own pace.)

Oh, and one other thing I loved about The Lieutenant of Inishmore: it is the work of a genius of hyphenation! I love hyphens, I'm fond of semi-colons as well but I think the hyphen is probably my single favorite punctuation mark; I have no idea whether the script actually contains hyphens or some alternative, but the language is seriously and wonderfully hyphen-heavy (cat-braining; the Irish Be-Nice-To-Cats National Army, etc. etc.). I must get the printed copy of the play and see how it's all done....


At the Scotsman, Aidan Smith interviews A. L. Kennedy about her comedy career.

(I posted in April 2005 about Kennedy's amazing novel Paradise, which I read in a shabby Las Vegas hotel room.)

The cultivation of a moral intelligence

The August 10 issue of the New York Review of Books (not yet online) includes an interesting collection of reminiscences about Barbara Epstein; one sentence by Pankaj Mishra (whose new book sounds very interesting) especially caught my attention, he's talking about what he learned working with her on an essay about reading Edmund Wilson in Benares (I remember reading that essay when it first appeared, it was strikingly good):

I began to see more clearly how literary and political journalism requires much more than the creation of harmonious and intellectually robust sentences; how it is linked inseparably to the cultivation of a moral and emotional intelligence; how it demands a reasonable and civil tone, a suspicion of abstractions untested by experience, a personal indifference to power, and, most importantly, a quiet but firm solidarity with the powerless.


Susan Cooper has a new novel out?!? It's called Victory and it sounds excellent. (And here's the link for the Dark Is Rising box set, which I feel should be in every thinking person's private library. These books are just plain perfect.)

A word of warning

Mark Lawson on Louise Welsh's latest:

In my reading experience, cross-gender narration most often fails in the business of bodily functions. In books by men, women in middle age often seem to be just getting the hang of menstruation. In this book, William pays such elaborate attention to his penis while peeing that he gives the impression of being fairly new to urination. Writers imagining the unfamiliar can forget how standard such actions become to those for whom they are a requirement of life.

Also (this is the one I want to read!) Ian Sansom on the crime-fighting sheep of Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full.

Wordsworth among the peasantry

James Fenton at the Guardian on Canon Rawsley's collection of local reminiscences about the poet:

He was not popular. That is, he was shy and retired, and did not mix freely with the people. He didn't frequent public houses, unlike Hartley Coleridge. Canon Rawnsley's interviewees invariably think of Hartley as a preferable character, a friendly man, a great drinker and a philosopher - a being superior to a poet. Wordsworth's hobby, says one witness, was poetry. 'It was a queer thing, but it would like eneuf cause him to be desolate; and I'se often thowt that his brain was that fu' of sic stuff, that he was forced to be always at it whether or no, wet or fair, mumbling to hissel' along t'roads.'

This mumbling, this 'continually murmuring his undersong,' as Canon Rawnsley puts it in his politer register, features in the peasants' vocabulary as 'bumming'. Here is Wordsworth on the grass walk at Rydal Mount: '. . . he would set his he'd a bit forrad, and put his hands behint his back. And then he would start bumming, and it was bum, bum, bum, bum, stop; then bum, bum, bum reet down till t'other end, and then he'd set down and git a bit o'paper out and write a bit; and then he git up, and bum, bum, bum, and goa on bumming for long enough right down and back agean. I suppose, ya kna, the bumming helped him out a bit.'

Friday, July 21, 2006

The problem was the pink sweater

Carla Blumenkranz has a great piece at n+1, go and take a look (especially if you ever had an internship or worked in publishing).

(Full disclosure: I don't know Carla, but she is--was?--the intern to my favorite literary interlocutor. But that is not the internship she writes about here.)

Hay fever

At the FT: Brian Dillon on Mark Jackson's new book Allergy: The History of a Modern Malady and Pitta Clark on the new happiness research.

It is after midnight

& so now officially my birthday (35--a good number, very respectable--the thirties seem to me far more satisfactory than the twenties, assuming reasonable progress in a work life that suits), there's nothing in particular I want or need except that I have a burning desire for a copy of Under Orders, the new Dick Francis novel due out in September--anyone who has one and will send it to me will earn my most undying gratitude! (Dick Francis is a staple round here, in fact I am moderately appalled to see how many times his name appears on my blog!)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bones bones bones

Peter Stanford interviews Kathy Reichs at the Independent. I have a minor Patricia Cornwell obsession, so it is hard not to be excessively partisan on the can't-avoid-it rivalry between the two authors. (Oh, I just had a pang of missing a Brazilian friend of mine who was making small talk once by asking whether I liked to watch CSI-type shows--I said I preferred to read crime fiction--he very seriously asked me if I liked reading books about Jack the Stripper, it was quite adorable....)


The latest Tarzan Jane was based partly on . . . Jane Goodall! (Thanks to A. for the link.)

How fun....

If I was still living in New Haven, I would definitely go to Neil Gaiman's reading this coming Tuesday at 7:30 in Sudler Hall, part of the Yale Summer Writing Program reading series. Excellent choice of author.... oh, and scrolling down I see they've got some other very good things coming up too--we have missed Elizabeth Hand and John Crowley, but Paul Park is reading on the 26th--reminds me I must get the second volume of his trilogy, The Tourmaline--I loved A Princess of Roumania.

I was thinking very much of Yale this week because I did indeed get and read Diana Peterfreund's rather delightful Eli-centric Secret Society Girl. It's extremely well-written, the voice of the main character is so well-done that it makes the whole thing totally work. Also I must note in this regard a potentially evil milestone: I have been selected (probably along with millions of others, but it makes you feel special & want to spend more money) for a three-month free trial of Amazon Prime, and it is INSIDIOUS, I totally didn't think I wanted it because I always get super-saver shipping but I ordered this book on Sunday and it was delivered on Monday. For free. Seriously. And I forgot how often I send books from Amazon to other people as presents, and two-day shipping to other addresses than your own is also included in the price; I can see that I am not going to go back from this one, how alluring/addictive....

And you know, I have been feeling so virtuous about not reading novels but of course I have read a just few novels, sort of in bits and pieces around the edges of work. (When I was little I used to read a lot of earlier twentieth-century British fiction, for children and otherwise, where people gave things up for Lent like sugar in their tea--I am not a Lent-observer but novels would really be the painful but spiritually improving thing to give up--but it would be very painful!) First off, another extremely good young-adult novel, this time Australian (I pretty much love these girl-power books, this one's sort of along similar lines to the Sisterhood of the Pants books and I highly recommend it as well as Peterfreund's): Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta. (Oh, and if you are thinking about getting one or both of these books for your daughters or other Official Young People, SSG has actual sex and SF doesn't, though both seem to me appealingly innocent and also very smart in a way that makes them suitable for younger teens as well as older. SSG more candy-like and SF more like what a librarian recommends, but in both cases the best-case version of such a thing--really, reading these two makes me feel great about the whole young-adult publishing scene....)

And then I also read an extremely good novel called BloodAngel by Justine Musk (that's her appealingly smart blog), somehow I totally missed hearing about this when it came out (I don't know why--it's completely my kind of thing) but I plucked it from the shelf at the bookstore--I very rarely buy a mass-market paperback by an author I don't know already, it is usually too much of a crap-shoot, but this one looked excellent and it completely lived up to my expectations. She's a great storyteller in the mode of early Stephen King or Peter Straub, but it's also got more of a contemporary urban fantasy feel which I like, and she even manages to pull off a grand sort of theological/Blakean mythic scheme with angels and demons which I liked a lot, those things often touch & go but I can't wait to read more books by her when she writes them, I think she's going to be one of the really good ones.

Back to the eighteenth-century horses!

(Event link via Neil's blog.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I am SO totally

going to get this when I am writing my next novel. (The software is called Dragon Naturally Speaking and it sounds amazing.) I always write in longhand and then type it up in brutal heavy installments (I am a fast typist, fast and inaccurate, but still...); this would let me have the longhand draft/type-edit progression, only it would be in theory delightfully less tiring to read aloud as I deciphered the evil scrawl rather than hammering away at the keyboard....

Good things at the TLS

Not particularly literary (except insofar as adolescence is one of literature's great topics), but Terri Apter's piece on teenagers and resilience is well worth a look (she's reviewing a number of different books, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens is the one discussed below--oh, and if you click through on that Amazon link, just scroll down and read a very funny parodic review by the pseudonymous viktor_57--in fact, click through from that onto the "See all my reviews" button and proceed from there if you want to see a truly obsessive & very funny project of the kind that the internet has made peculiarly accessible--in the nineteenth century you would have had a much smaller audience for this kind of joke....):

As sceptical developmental psychologists, Hauser and Allen would not ordinarily have set much store by a talking cure; but they came to recognize personal narrative as a resource and a tool, a way of grasping how people create and maintain meaning over time. They analysed the interviews of their sixteen subjects - the nine resilient ones and the seven in the contrast group - and noted how they talked about change, about relationships, and about their developing ideas of themselves. They found that those who were able to process difficult material had richer and smoother narratives. They came to realize that the significant questions to ask were: does a speaker stick to generalizations, or can she see nuance within a situation? Is a story flexible and inclusive, or closed and static? Does the speaker welcome opportunities for change, or resist them? Are relationships tolerated, recruited, or rejected as threats? Can a speaker focus on emotionally taxing experiences or does she respond with vagueness, avoidance, confusion or by changing the subject? Does the speaker see herself as a force in the plot line, or as a bystander?

While the stories of the contrast group were structurally simple, flat and disorganized, those of the resilient teenagers were complex, vivid and clear. The teens whose stories lacked complexity faded out when asked why they did something or when asked to describe what they generally do when things don't go well; their lack of emotional awareness was frustrating, and these teens had a tendency to foment trouble as a distraction from their failure to understand their difficulties. The resilient teens did not always begin with complex, broad or coherent narratives, but they could shift ground.

Also (I must take a look at the Dirda book) Sophie Ratcliffe is horrified by Jane Smiley's writing advice and enchanted by Michael Dirda's and Michael Holroyd bemoans the contemporary preference for Shakespeare over Shaw.

(One reason Holroyd's Shaw biography is so much more interesting than his Lytton Strachey one--which I must confess I have never quite managed to get through--is because Shaw must be one of the most interesting people who ever lived. I really love Shaw, in fact if the schedule ever permits me to teach anything outside the requisite-although-of-course-also-beloved eighteenth-century stuff I am going to press for an undergraduate seminar on Shaw and Stoppard. I've really got a thing for Stoppard--John Lahr's New Yorker piece on Stoppard's latest gave me a terrible pang, although he does not think it's a very good production I really wish I could go to London to see it--Stoppard is my absolute favorite, one of my top five theater experiences of all time was seeing my particularly most favorite Jumpers in London a long time ago with Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal--I haven't found the New York productions of Stoppard very reliable, I fell completely in love with Arcadia in London and then dragged a friend to see it again in New York and it was awful, all embarrassing fake English accents and leaden pacing and sanctimonious "we are seeing a play that is good for us"-ness; and I didn't like the Housman one much either when I saw it on Broadway a few years ago. Postscript: strange to say, Vaclav Havel is going to be in residence at Columbia this fall. I wonder if there is any chance to meet him and actually have a conversation, or whether he will be hived off with ceremoniousness? Hmmm--must investigate....)

Close your eyes and think of feminism

Stacy Schiff has an interesting piece about Linda Hirshman's working-mother book at the New York Observer.

The vale of tears ethos

Stuart Jeffries speaks Adam Phillips at the Guardian (this is Phillips talking in the quotation below--and if you haven't read any of his books, you should, they have an appealingly restless and inquisitive quality that pleases me greatly):

The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It's not a mystery. There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or a weakness on the part of scientific research and one of these two groups has got to pull its socks up. Scientists have got to get better and find us a drug and the depressed have got to stop malingering. The ethos is: 'Actually life is wonderful, great - get out there!' That's totally unrealistic and it's bound to fail.

(Thanks to Bookslut for the link.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The trouble with book reviewing

Ruth Franklin has an interesting piece on book reviewing at the New Republic. It's smart, well-written, thoughtful: and the funny thing is that I completely disagree with her in almost every particular! The second half is an encomium for David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, which I disliked more than almost any other novel I've read in the last year or so. The first half of the piece explores the premise that "[b]ad reviews are motivated by anger, but good reviews are motivated by love; and it is easier to become angry than to fall in love." Though undoubtedly I now & then read a book that makes me angry, I find it much, much easier to fall in love than to become angry!

The art of criticism

Alex Ross has a wonderfully good essay on Mozart in this week's New Yorker:

In 1991, the Philips label issued a deluxe, complete Mozart edition--a hundred and eighty CDs--employing such distinguished interpreters as Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, and Colin Davis. The set has now been reissued in a handsome and surprisingly manageable array of seventeen boxes. During a slow week last winter, I transferred it to an iPod and discovered that Mozart requires 9.77 gigabytes.

On a computer, you can use search functions to create cross-sections of Mozart--a dreamworld of Adagios; a neo-Baroque swirl of fantasias and fugues; a nonet of Quintets (all major works). To listen to his twenty-seven settings of the 'Kyrie' is to appreciate his inexhaustible invention: they range from the entrancingly sweet to the forbiddingly severe, each a convincing simulacrum of the power of the Lord. But the obvious challenge was to go through the whole megillah--to begin with the Andante in C Major (K. 1a), which Mozart wrote when he was five, and proceed to the bitter end, the Requiem (K. 626), which he left unfinished at his death, at thirty-five. It took me three months. I can't claim to have given every bar close attention; a patch of recitative in the early opera 'La Finta Semplice,' for example, was disrupted by a protracted public-address announcement at Detroit Metro Airport, and most of the Contredanse No. 4 in F (K. 101) was drowned out by the crack drum corps Drumedies performing in the Times Square subway station. All recordings are fake events, and MP3 files heard on headphones are faker than most. But I got a rough aerial view of Mozart's achievement, and was more in awe than ever.

Whenever I read Ross's criticism I'm just staggered by how perfect it is, perfectly to my tastes at any rate: intellectual, imaginative, perceptive, immensely knowledgeable, funny and of course extremely well-written too. I feel it shows up a lot of other arts criticism as undistinguished (I'm not knocking the other New Yorker stuff, it's usually very good--Hilton Als is probably my other favorite there); I can only think of a handful of for-a-general-audience literary critics in their 30s and 40s who have this kind of authority for me, Daniel Mendelsohn probably first among them. Interesting to think, in any case, about what makes really good criticism work....

(Oh, and a personal New Yorker literary bonus: in the very good story by William Trevor--also in this week's issue, nice when things are available on-line...--the protagonist in the opening scene is reading one of my favorite minor Hardy novels--yep, you guessed it, The Hand of Ethelberta! I love all of Hardy; because I'm always rooting for the underdog I am particularly partial--though I can't say that they're really of the caliber of the famous ones--to the crazier and lesser-known ones like A Pair of Blue Eyes and A Laodicean. . . .)

Monday, July 17, 2006

An amazing and slightly bizarre website

about feral children. I must wait to investigate this at a more leisurely moment, but it looks quite extraordinary (it's serious, not frivolous)--thanks to Nico for the link.

This whole EggFusion thing

is absolutely enchanting! Here's David Joachim on egg advertising at the NYT:

EggFusion, which was founded in 2001, started production last year with one egg company, Radlo Foods, which has since produced 30 million Born Free brand farm-raised eggs with etching. In May, EggFusion landed its first large grocery chain, A.& P., which will use the imprints on 400,000 America's Choice conventional eggs sold each day in A.& P., Waldbaum's, Food Emporium and Super Fresh stores from Connecticut to Maryland. Mr. Parker, whose family runs a chicken farm in North Carolina, knew that the way to get egg producers to cooperate was to make it worth their while. His answer was advertising on eggs.

I hope that publishers start advertising on eggs as well, imagine how charming it would be to get a dozen eggs emblazoned with the name of, oh, the new Jack Reacher novel....

If you have ever tried to read

one of Kathy Reichs' Tempe Brennan series, go and take a look at John Crace's digested version of Break No Bones. The books which respond best to this approach are those which already read like self-parody....

Sunday, July 16, 2006

In the thick

of assembling passages and references for my insane but exciting chapter on human perfectibility (formerly titled "Horses, Hybrids, Humans"--now that's just one section--it's about everything that's interesting in the eighteenth century!), I have just come again to a passage I feel the need to evangelize about.

I've read a lot of really wonderfully interesting books (some from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some from the last fifty years--all over the place, really) in the last three or four years as I've worked on this project, but I'd say there are two twentieth-century writers who've most deeply affected my thinking on these topics having to do with breeding. One is Leslie Farber, who I've blogged about before. The other is John Passmore. (Actually I have also recently realized that Anthony Burgess is the third writer who seriously formed my opinions on free will, Pelagianism, etc. but that's a story for another day.)

So anyway, I read Passmore's The Perfectibility of Man in a state of rage! How come nobody had told me about this book before?!? It must have been known to some of my advisors in graduate school; surely they could have seen that it was the perfect book for me to read....

However I soon got over my fury at the years wasted not having read this amazing book, I read it again this spring and though in the chapter I will be writing more eloquently (I hope) about Passmore and perfectibility I do feel the need to share this amazing passage (I think I am going to use it as an epigraph at the beginning of my book) from his conclusion:

In spite of [reflections which] might lead us to reject perfectibilism in any of its forms, it is very hard to shake off the feeling that man is capable of becoming something much superior to what he now is. This feeling, if it is interpreted in the manner of the more commonsensical Enlighteners, is not in itself irrational. There is certainly no guarantee that men will ever be any better than they now are; their future is not, as it were, underwritten by Nature. Nor is there any device, whether skilful government, or education, which is certain to ensure the improvement of man’s condition. To that extent the hopes of the developmentalists or the governmentalists or the educators must certainly be abandoned. There is not the slightest ground for believing, either, with the anarchist, that if only the State could be destroyed and men could start afresh, all would be well. But we know from our own experience, as teachers or parents, that individual human beings can come to be better than they once were, given care, and that wholly to despair of a child or a pupil is to abdicate what is one’s proper responsibility.

My other epigraph, if I can get it to work properly with everything else, is from Leslie Farber:

The realm of causation is treacherous ground for a man interested in the truth about himself. Although it is certainly probable that most phenomena of this world, human and otherwise, do have causes of one sort or another, an absorption with the role of causation in human affairs may lead to an habitual reduction of any human event to its postulated cause. It is apparent how such reduction promises refuge to a man beset by the necessity to "confess": once he turns his attention to cause, his personal responsibility (whether he acknowledges it or not) is diminished, along with any undue stress or discomfort he may have felt in facing what he believes to be his absolute worst. No matter what scandalous detail about himself he may reveal, he follows such revelation with "I am this way because . . .," and everyone relaxes.

And one other scholarly recommendation, for those of you interested in these questions: Victor Hilts has a quite excellent essay called "Enlightenment views on the genetic perfectibility of man" in a collection called Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in honor of I. Bernard Cohen, edited by Everett Mendelson.

(I don't know why I am always bursting with intellectual energy starting around midnight, it is very impractical!)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A leopard on the other side of a bit of canvas

Deborah Solomon interviews Jane Goodall in the NYT Magazine:

Are you ever afraid of anything?

I was alone in a tent for years. Sometimes of course you get afraid. You don't hear a leopard on the other side of a bit of canvas and not have your heart stop. Especially if I was out in the hills. I used to sleep quite often out on the mountain, with a blanket.

It was my childhood aspiration to grow up and be like Jane Goodall: in fact when I was seven or eight and upset about something I would go into my room and angrily read In the Shadow of Man until I became calm! I see from the interview that Dale Peterson has a biography of Goodall coming out this fall, how exciting; I heartily recommend Goodall's autobiography in letters as well (here is volume one and here is volume two).

Colson Whitehead

hates ice cream.

(I too remember the aversions that resulted from various summer jobs: a candy-store job that left me disgusted with chocolate and also with raspberry sorbet; a country-club grill job that left me permanently horrified at the whiff of a Philly cheese-steak; a night-shift bakery job that I only did for one night--I hadn't quite graduated from high school, I was still on a more-or-less daytime schedule and I stuck it out from 11pm or so till about 6:30am at which point the smell and the exhaustion suddenly sent me running for the toilet, where I vomited dramatically before skulking back to the supervisor and asking if I could go home--but that meant I couldn't eat muffins for years because the smell reminded me so strongly of--already extremely nauseous--scooping my arm into a plastic bin of batter to mix in the baking powder; and most off-puttingly the smell of the dishwashing areas in the Harvard dining halls, both the smell of the old food and that awful sort-of-sterilized-with-boiling-water aroma that you get when you put those super-durable plastic teacups and plates and such-like through the old-school dishwashing machines.... What a relief to get to the point where I could temp in offices instead!)

Why Poppy Z. Brite

(a favorite writer of mine, and a particularly good blogger to boot) hates John Updike (I can't figure out how to link just to that entry, so I've pasted the whole thing in below):

This is just one of many reasons, actually, but it's a dilly.

I've been reading a bunch of 'literary' magazines, trying to figure out where I might send the stories I've been writing that don't contain elements of horror or mystery or any other damn thing I can identify -- they're just stories about people. And, to be honest, I'm really not enjoying these magazines very much or feeling very excited at the prospect of publishing anything in them, assuming they would even have my popular-fiction-writing self. And I'm innocently flipping through one, and suddenly I come upon the first stanza of 'An Ode to My Hurting Left Hand':

Why has arthritis, a disease of wear
attacked you, when the right, your counterpart,
has done the work? Oh yes -- I guess in golf
you gripped the club the tighter, and at night.
to love myself to sleep, I bade you grip
my stiffened nether member while I dreamed
of copulation with an unsteadily
imagined lady, whose obliging charms
opened the path, perhaps, to drowsy calm.

Mr. Updike, I'm sorry you have arthritis. I truly am. Both my grandmothers suffered from it, I suspect I have a touch myself, and I know it is no picnic. Sometimes it's torture. In spite of everything, I wouldn't have wished it on you.

BUT WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY do we have to hear about your STIFFENED NETHER MEMBER?

I mean, I once had the misfortune to read a never-produced screenplay that contained the phrase 'tidal wave of daddy-acid,' and I thought, nay, hoped that was the worst sequence of words I would come across in my lifetime. But I really think 'stiffened nether member' might trump it.

And, while I'm at it, I'm really not all that interested in how you held your damn golf club either.

If you haven't read Liquor and Prime, Brite's absolutely delightful pair of New Orleans crime novels featuring chef John Rickey and his boyfriend G-Man, you should remedy the situation as soon as possible; and the latest installment (titled Soul Kitchen) is due out later this month.

Friday, July 14, 2006

At the Guardian Review

Edward Hammond on four books about graffiti (he writes from ten years' experience doing graffiti, but he loses credibility with me by using the awful word "youngsters" in the opening paragraph--or perhaps this is a US/UK usage thing?!?); Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine; and John Mullan on the New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes ('Such stories are richly available only from the early 18th century, when memoirs began to be published and conversations recorded. An anecdote tells how Horace Walpole would "suddenly purse up his mouth in a pointed but ludicrous manner whenever Boswell came into the room, and sit mute as a fish till that angler for anecdote and repartee had left it"').

Nature-nurture polemics

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, letter of 13 July 1813 (in The Adams-Jefferson Letters):

Inequalities of Mind and Body are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of Human Nature that no Art or policy can ever plain them down to a Level. I have never read Reasoning more absurd, Sophistry more gross, in proof of the Athanasian Creed, or Transubstantiation, than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural Equality of Mankind.

Oh no, not the ironing board

David Edgar has a fascinating essay at the LRB about the theatrical legacy of John Osborne. It's funny, I clicked on the link thinking "Oh, it's months ago that I first was reading reviews of this new Osborne biography, surely this is completely belated?" and yet it is a completely different piece than any of the others I've read, a good example of what the London Review of Books really does wonderfully well: Edgar uses the biography as the jumping-off point for an extremely perceptive and persuasive account of Osborne's role in twentieth-century British theater.

And a sidebar bonus: Jeremy Harding on a Syd Barrett biography published in 2003. (But I must disagree with him on The Wall; I haven't seen the film since the 80s, I will admit, but I remember watching it again and again with my brothers when we were in high school--it was one of only four or five movies that we had in the house, not a carefully selected pack but a slightly random set of oddments, the others as I recall being two excellent ones that should be in every collection--This Is Spinal Tap and The Shining--and two completely random ones--Romancing the Stone and Magnum Force. Readers are invited to contribute their own "surreal small movie collection" lists in the comments....)

More on Shelley

(And this was H. R. Woudhuysen's more detailed Shelley piece in the TLS, no subscription required--I read it with interest the other day but felt I had already posted enough about the TLS for one week! It's too intriguing to skip, though....)

Not an angel

Paul O'Brien on this newly discovered Shelley poem, at the Guardian. I must say this whole discovery thing is cool (not quite as cool as if it were Byron's memoirs, but still...).

I have mixed feelings about Shelley but I do sort of love him, he's more my type of thinker than Keats although I love Keats too (but Byron is my favorite). Richard Holmes's Shelley biography (oh, and look, it's been republished in paperback by the excellent New York Review Books--now that is an organization I would like to be involved with, what fun it would be to propose new titles for them & figure out who should introduce) is a wonderfully good book, it has my highest recommendation.

I think my absolute favorite Shelley poem is Peter Bell the Third (and "Hell is a city much like London" is one of my favorite lines ever, I hear it often in my head for no particular reason!), but I'll just leave you for this morning with one stanza from Adonais, my other favorite (it's the poem Shelley wrote in response to hearing of Keats's death, and it's quite spectacular, it has the most amazing momentum imaginable). That link has the full text in fairly readable format, though it's close to 500 lines and probably really too long to read online; but here's my particularly cherished stanza:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken'd from the dream of life;
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings.
We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

It's like reading a really good fantasy novel, isn't it? Zombies and alternate worlds and such. . . . But strictly on the level of language, something about the italics in that line--"We decay / Like corpses in a charnel"--just gets to me. So there's your cheery thought for the day....

Thursday, July 13, 2006


John Mullan at the Guardian on the value of a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays:

If there are rich and hungry collectors out there, the Dr Williams copy should tempt them. It is in unusually good condition and has a near-contemporary binding. Thanks to the eccentricities of the Jacobean printing house and the depredations of time (readers removing pages), many surviving copies are incomplete (the Oriel-Getty copy lacks two leaves from Romeo and Juliet). Here, only the very first printed leaf, Ben Jonson's 10-line verse To the Reader, is not original (it was replaced in the 19th century). Defacing some of the pages, but probably raising the value, are the marginal scribbles of one of its first readers. In brown ink this early Shakespeare devotee marked interesting passages with circles or wavy lines, often scrawling, like some early A-level candidate, 'joy', or 'wit', or 'time', or, most commonly of all, 'simile'.

Oh dear, that does suggest to me that someone had to read it for school.

One thing that makes me absolutely crazy, by the way (somewhat unrelated to main topic), is how often a book I check out from the library seems to be absolutely covered with underlinings and marginal annotations. I don't really care what you do with your own books, tear out the pages if you like, but it is never all right to write in a library book! Not even in pencil. (Though it is true that I use post-its on library books, and a strict preservationist would say this also is very bad: but at least there is no evidence left perceptible to the naked eye or finger of subsequent readers.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ethics and education

Also in this week's free TLS sampler, Martha Nussbaum discusses the shortcomings of Harry Lewis's critique of education at Harvard:

So lacking in curiosity is Lewis about what his colleagues in the Humanities have been doing that he fails (at least in this book) to grasp a very fundamental distinction that goes across the Humanistic disciplines: between the intellectual aspect of character-building and the many other ways (personal advice, personal influence) in which young people can find their characters shaped by what they encounter in a university. He repeatedly suggests that the main way in which universities build character is through the latter set of techniques – mentoring, advice-giving, personal example. In consequence he makes the alarming proposal that candidates for academic posts should be evaluated for their moral character: not just that part of character that is relevant to the performance of one’s job, where severe substance abuse or a penchant for sexual harassment might possibly be legitimate issues to raise in the hiring process, but their private lives as well, their treatment of their children, and so forth. I think that Lewis simply doesn’t believe that the intellectual endeavour of the Humanities makes any contribution to building character. Because he has not spent any time with the Humanities, he cannot picture what that contribution might be. But one may learn to take apart and deeply appreciate a line of Latin verse from someone whose behaviour to his or her children is simply not known or, even, is known to be bad. One may learn how to think about the arguments of Plato and Aristotle from someone whom one might not like to have as a friend. Learning these modes of analysis, however, does make its own contribution to citizenship, for the reason identified by Socrates: most people, having never learned to examine their beliefs, are actually somewhat half-hearted and crude in their commitment to them. If you simply don’t know how to distinguish a utilitarian from a Kantian argument, there are issues that you may easily miss – as a doctor, as a juror. You might think, for example, that respecting a patient’s choice and promoting the patient’s interest are the same thing, and you might just assume that your own judgement about the patient’s interests is the only thing that needs considering – as many doctors are all too inclined, paternalistically, to do.

That's good, isn't it? I find these questions fascinating. I don't think you could have a whole faculty composed of people you wouldn't want to be friends with, but the distinction's an important one.

Oh, and she offers a paragraph of commentary later on in the piece about reasons to tenure from within, a topic of great interest in university circles:

And yet Harvard does have one large problem, peculiar to itself, which Lewis fails to mention, rather like the elephant in the room. This is that Harvard, with its requirement that all candidates for tenure survive an international search and an ad hoc committee including outside experts, tenures far fewer people from within than its peer institutions, with the possible exception of Yale. The University of Chicago tenures about 50 to 60 per cent in the arts and sciences; at Harvard, the figure would at one time have been closer to 5 per cent, although there has recently been improvement in some departments. Instead, Harvard typically lets its young faculty go, and brings people in at a much later career stage. So far as I can see, this additional selectivity doesn’t fully pay off in quality. Institutions with higher tenure rates, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, do extremely well in departmental quality. Even more clearly, however, Harvard’s policy deprives Harvard of young scholars just at the time when they may be most creative as teachers and programme-builders. Therefore many young people will find that they get a better liberal education at the many fine liberal arts colleges, which are a little more generous than Harvard, and even than other elite universities, in granting tenure to younger faculty.