Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A very long post about running, the soul and the life of learning

Things are likely to be pretty quiet round here for the next few weeks (intense pressures of work will not ease up until the last week of February), so I thought I’d post something I wrote in December in response to a request that I speak during the dinner for this year’s award recipients about a project I was able to pursue as a result of last year's Lenfest Teaching Award. This is a slightly modified version of what I said on that occasion.

I was on sabbatical last fall when I learned I’d been chosen as one of the first group of Lenfest Fellows, so I already had several major writing projects well underway, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the financial security the award represents gave me a kind of mental boost that helped my productivity. But I wanted to speak more directly to something that’s only obliquely related to my academic work, but that turns out to have enriched my teaching and research life in all sorts of ways.

The Lenfest Award led fairly directly by way of one thing and another to me falling absolutely in love with long-distance running, something that I feel has changed my life in the most unexpectedly positive ways, and so I thought I would reflect a bit on how that came about and what it means for my understanding of what I do when I teach or when I write—or, more generally, when I work with anybody who’s interested in subjecting themselves to the essentially transformative lifelong discipline that we call education.

We talk often these days about maintaining a suitable balance between work and life, but there’s no doubt it’s easier said than done when you’re an assistant professor on the tenure track at a place like Columbia. The particular application of the phrase “work-life balance” often comes in the context of family life—raising children, say—but as someone who doesn’t have a family and does have very strong workaholic tendencies, it has a much broader applicability also. Without a family there is virtually nothing to keep the work part of the equation in check!

We all talk about how we should find time for exercise, but it’s hard to make a commitment, and in short when I found myself last September on sabbatical and with real time to write and think and also free from substantive teaching- and service-related obligations I knew that this was the year to make exercise a priority also, and try to undo some of the damage of five years of sedentary nicotine- and caffeine-consuming five-hours-of-sleep-a-night-type tenure-track obsessiveness.

Now, for the natural athletes in this world, it may be the case that internal resources are enough to get you going and enjoying your exercise to the utmost. But for the rest of us, there’s no doubt that resources help. And that’s where the Lenfest Fellowship came in. When resources are tight, it’s hard to justify things like a non-Columbia gym membership, let alone a personal trainer. But what that money meant to me was that I could really throw resources at the problem of getting into shape. And after the initial horribleness of making the transition, I found myself greatly enjoying the project. And what I didn’t expect was how much the whole enterprise showed me—and continues to show me—about the work I do every day in the classroom.

Almost by definition, if we’re professors we were good students. Reading and writing and speaking articulately came easy to us. We enjoyed those activities, and we had the drive to work hard at them—we knew how to work hard at them—and we were rewarded for our exertions and talents in all sorts of gratifying ways that compounded our original commitment.

But there’s one downside to this when it comes to teaching. Of course at Columbia we’re extraordinarily lucky to have such talented students. But not all students find what they do in our classes coming easily. We have constantly to remind ourselves about the students who don’t feel comfortable in our classrooms.

To me, English literature is the most comfortable and easy thing in the world. Writing essays is my natural language. But what about the student for whom English isn’t a first language? What about the student who’s doing an engineering degree and has never read a novel from start to finish? What about the student who doesn’t really like reading, or who’s just plain old shy or awkward or less immediately talented in some way that makes him or her hang back, stay quiet when a question’s asked, avoid office hours for fear of embarrassment?

What about the student who doesn’t yet know enough to know what it means to work hard in that particular discipline?

I like to think that I think about these things all the time, but there’s no doubt the point hits home much more forcefully when you’re a teacher who yourself becomes a student at something you’re not much good at. I have benefited from a great deal of good teaching this year, from trainers and coaches and yoga teachers and so forth. But I also felt far more keenly than usual—more keenly than I ever could do in a college classroom—the small things that might put you off.

You’re the only person with two X chromosomes in the free-weight area at the gym, and the spray bottles for wiping off the machines are sitting on top of a paper towel dispenser that’s too high up for you to reach.

You’re at your first spinning class and the instructor doesn’t explain any of the terminology or tell you what to expect and it is frankly absolutely horrible!

You want to learn how to go for a long run outside but you’re not sure what the etiquette is for running in the park and the first person who brusquely tells you to get out of the way makes you feel like skulking home and never running again.

The feeling you get at those moments is a feeling that’s known to too many of our students in our classrooms. We have to exercise the kind of sympathetic imagination that lets us see when students are having that very unpleasant situation and make education hospitable to them, if I can use that word. Being a student of various fitness-related things this year, a student of a not particularly talented or experienced kind trying to learn things that were wholly new to me—not just individually new, like learning a new language, but structurally unfamiliar and daunting—trying to learn how to work hard at fitness in a way that didn’t come naturally to me—has been immensely valuable.

Now for the fun part, the part I didn’t expect.

I have always had a minor interest in the idea of long-distance running. I ran semi-regularly in my twenties, though never more than three or four miles at a time, but everyone I knew who actually ran seriously or raced was a simply excellent runner. In contrast, I felt myself to be the slowest runner in the world. Which is not a very enjoyable feeling—it is not particularly admirable, but we all like to do things that we’re good at.

However this time I was determined to become a better runner, and in aid of that goal I researched it on the internet (I am an academic in my soul) and found a place called the Running Center on Central Park West which actually offered a beginning running class that promised to take you up to the ten-mile distance. I took it, and it was absolutely wonderful—the coach was a really inspired teacher, someone who managed to break the whole thing down into manageable targets and told us all with great certainty, even when we didn’t believe it ourselves, that we could do the things she was about to ask us to do.

What is it about running? What I didn’t know before, but what’s made me realize it will be a very important part of the next stage of my life, is that running taps into exactly the same thing that at the base of it is what I love about teaching and learning and writing. What gets me up every day in the morning, what has motivated me through many years of education and what keeps me excited about many more years of teaching and thinking and writing to come, is a kind of inner feeling of yearning, a passionate desire for self-improvement that takes us beyond our comfort zone into new places and new things that challenge us. Without this kind of challenge, of stretching, of yearning, our lives are greatly impoverished.

Plato’s Symposium is very good on this, I’ve always laughed to myself when I’ve taught it in Literature Humanities thinking how apt a description Plato provides of this thing that makes life really interesting and enjoyable. It's the part where Alcibiades starts talking about the wholly unglamorous Socrates (I think that really every teacher secretly must want to be something like this): Alcibiades likens Socrates to the busts of Silenus, unattractive on the outside but with images of gods inside them. Socrates has a siren’s voice because of the feelings he induces in his students: “he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians,” says Alcibiades.

It’s hard to talk about the soul these days without feeling a little silly, but there’s a wonderful passage from the Greek physician Galen’s treatise on the soul that I want to quote here also, because it speaks more eloquently than I can as to what I’m trying to get across. This is Galen:

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 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.

Discipline’s the secret, isn’t it? The authors of Freakonomics had an interesting piece in the Times Magazine this past spring about talent and why it’s overrated. They argued that expert performers are made rather than born and that just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true that practice makes perfect.

They also suggest that it’s important to follow a path that involves doing what you love “because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.” We might stop doing something because we’re not good at it, but what we really lack is the desire to be good and the understanding of what it will mean to work hard enough to get better.

And this is what happened to me with running. I started with baby steps, I found the teachers who would help me learn how to work hard, I worked steadily and without thinking too much about my lack of talent, and I discovered that I am in fact not the slowest runner in the world.

I ran my first half-marathon in November, and it was amazing.

[NB for reasons of tact I did not mention the stress fracture that has been making me absolutely crazy by preventing me from running since that day! Also anyone who saw me that day or any time in the week(s) following might observe that "painful" also seems an apt term. Just saying...]

And in 2007 I am hell-bent on running the full marathon, in New York if possible but somewhere else if not, because I know that training for the marathon and actually running it, with the confidence of some mix of nature and nurture but with the emphasis very much on the discipline of nurture and the help of good training and teachers, will let me understand more about this kind of yearning for self-improvement that seems to me so much a part of the educational enterprise. And for all of this I would have to say that I am extremely grateful.

A strange piece of advocacy

Clive James on Kingsley Amis at the TLS.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Editors hate me"*

Ken Bruen's interviewed at Things I'd Rather Be Doing. (Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.)

*(I feel I have that Keats quotation floating about somewhere in my book manuscript, must keep an eye out during revisions...)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Humane and psychological

Radhika Jones has a very nice profile of my colleague Edward Mendelson in the latest issue of Bookforum (a periodical with which I am somewhat in love--how did I do without it until so recently?!?).

Puffin and whale and cormorant

I want to go to Iceland.

And this is the perfect opportunity to mention a demented CD that has arrived recently at my place, part of a belated northern-themed Christmas present from Nico: I haven't listened to it yet properly (as with many of the more interesting things I have round here it doesn't really seem suitable for listening to at the gym), but it's Jon Leifs's Hekla and other orchestral works (the Amazon reviews for that one are particularly delightful--a volcano is prominently involved, it's all very Icelandic). It was accompanied by Simon Boswell's The Seven Symphonies: A Finnish Murder Mystery, an extraordinarily strange book that combines a Smilla-type murder mystery set in Helsinski with a series of lectures about the life and achievements of Sibelius (here's the author's website for the book, which gives some of its unusual flavor).

I am entirely in thrall to the idea of the frozen north.

My longtime obsession is the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, which provides both title and basic story-line for my sequel to Dynamite No. 1. I am annoyed to realize that I have made no further progress towards visiting an Ice Hotel!

(On a related note, I was reflecting recently--one of those weird nineteenth-century anthropological moments, I guess--on the fact that of all the places I've ever visited the one where I felt most genetically at home [i.e. not the place I loved the most or felt the most welcomed--that, I think, would have to be Moscow, thanks to the loveliness of my friend T.'s friends there] was Copenhagen, I felt in an appealing way as though I blended in on the street as coming from the same genetic stock. Is that weird? It's true, though, and it wasn't the case in Stockholm or Amsterdam either, though you might think it would be more or less the same thing.)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Solid pork

Some particularly appealing sentences in Jim Harrison's NYTBR piece on Karl Shapiro and bourgeois poets (I have mixed feelings about this mode, but you can pull it off if the dandyish apercus are good enough):

. . . Shapiro’s notion of what a poet was implies the outsider, the outcast, the outlier, one who purposefully deranges his mind to write poems like Rimbaud, or one who could not walk, so borne down was he by his giant wings, to paraphrase Baudelaire. I must here imagine myself an English department chairman, who has to deal with these troublesome creatures, and say that a poet is hubris through and through in the same manner that an unruly pig is solid pork.

Or this:

Perhaps as a corrective and a cautionary, “The Bourgeois Poet” should be taught to the thousands taking M.F.A.’s in creative writing who wish to become poet-professors. As I said I tried it myself but found the work too hard. There’s a subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time. It’s like living with a slight backache, not fatal but enervating. Besides, academic salaries are falling behind and it’s become questionable if poet-professors have truly achieved bourgeois status. Maybe lumpen bourgeois.

Friday, January 26, 2007

J. M. Coetzee on Norman Mailer's Hitler

at the New York Review of Books (no subscription required). Here are his conclusions:

The lesson that Adolf Eichmann teaches, wrote Hannah Arendt at the conclusion of Eichmann in Jerusalem, is of "the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil" (Arendt's italics). Since 1963, when she penned it, the formula "the banality of evil" has acquired a life of its own; today it has the kind of clichéd currency that "great criminal" had in Dostoevsky's day.

Mailer has repeatedly in the past voiced his suspicion of this formula. As a secular liberal, says Mailer, Arendt is blind to the power of evil in the universe. "To assume...that evil itself is banal strikes me as exhibiting a prodigious poverty of imagination." "If Hannah Arendt is correct and evil is banal, then that is vastly worse than the opposed possibility that evil is satanic"—worse in the sense that there is no struggle between good and evil and therefore no meaning to existence.

It is not too much to say that Mailer's quarrel with Arendt is a running subtext to The Castle in the Forest. But does he do justice to her? In 1946 Arendt had an exchange of letters with Karl Jaspers sparked by his use of the word "criminal" to characterize Nazi policies. Arendt disagreed. In comparison with mere criminal guilt, she wrote to him, the guilt of Hitler and his associates "oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems."

Jaspers defended himself: if one claims that Hitler was more than a criminal, he said, one risks ascribing to him the very "satanic greatness" he aspired to. Arendt took his criticism to heart. When she came to write the Eichmann book, she endeavored to keep alive the paradox that though the actions of Hitler and his associates may defy our understanding, there was no depth of thought behind their conception, no grandeur of intention. Eichmann, a humanly uninteresting man, a bureaucrat through and through, never realized in any philosophically full sense of the word what he was doing; the same might be said, mutatis mutandis, for the rest of the gang.

To take the phrase "the banality of evil" to epitomize Arendt's verdict on the misdeeds of Nazism, as Mailer seems to do, thus misses the complexity of the thinking behind it: what is peculiar to the everyday banality of a bureaucratically administered, industrially organized policy of wholesale extermination is that it is also "word-and-thought-defying," beyond our power to understand or to describe.

Before the magnitude of the death, suffering, and destruction for which the historical Adolf Hitler was responsible, the human understanding recoils in bewilderment. In a different way, our understanding may recoil when Mailer tells us that Hitler was responsible for the Third Reich only in a mediate sense—that ultimate responsibility lay with an invisible being known as the Devil or the Maestro. The problem here is the nature of the explanation we are being offered: "The Devil made him do it" appeals not to the understanding, only to a certain kind of faith. If one takes seriously Mailer's reading of world history as a war between good and evil in which human beings act as proxies for supernatural agents—that is to say, if one takes this reading at face value rather than as an extended and not very original metaphor for unresolved and irresoluble conflict within individual human psyches—then the principle that human beings are responsible for their actions is subverted, and with that the ambition of the novel to search out and speak the truth of our moral life.

Blessedly, The Castle in the Forest does not demand to be read at face value. Beneath the surface, Mailer can be seen to be struggling with the same paradox as Arendt. By invoking the supernatural, he may seem to assert that the forces animating Adolf Hitler were more than merely criminal; yet the young Adolf he brings to life on these pages is not satanic, not even demonic, simply a nasty piece of work. Keeping the paradox infernal–banalalive in all its anguishing inscrutability may be the ultimate achievement of this very considerable contribution to historical fiction.

A news update

This Times-Picayune article about what happened earlier this month to my friends Paul Gailiunas and Helen Hill had me absolutely foaming at the mouth with rage (I think it's going to be a long time before I can read a crime novel, by the way, without holding it to a very high standard in terms of its representation of the sheer awfulness for family members of dealing with police and journalists following a high-profile violent crime).

Today the paper printed a plea from Paul asking readers in New Orleans for two things:

First, please, if you have any knowledge of the person who killed my wife, please come forward and speak. Please be brave and tell the police or Crimestoppers what you know.

Help bring this villain to justice for filling my wife's final moments with terror and for taking her away from her baby and her family and friends.

He must not be allowed to hurt more people and destroy more lives. Please be brave and speak.

Second, please do everything you can to heal your desperately broken city.

Helen herself was an innocent victim. But her murder, like so many others, is a symptom of a sickness, a terrible sickness caused by grinding poverty, hopelessness, bad parenting, a lack of respect for human life, pre- and post-hurricane neglect and persistent racism against African-American people.

I am begging you to reach out to your neighbors, across the borders of race and class, and help them when they need you. Don't stand by while people hurt each other.

There has been an outcry against violence in New Orleans since Helen's death. Please do not stop until things improve. I am begging you to find a way to get people out of those hellish trailer parks, which are cauldrons for the kind of violence that destroyed our happiness. The people living there need decent, well-maintained, affordable housing and it needs to happen now.

No one is going to fix New Orleans for you. You need to do it yourselves. Please do these things now, for yourselves and for my poor, sweet wife. I know this is what she would want.

The pleasures of collaboration

At the Guardian, A. L. Kennedy contemplates the Ballads of the Book project.

I have only read one book of Kennedy's, but I thought it was a work of utter genius, that woman's got one of the best prose styles going.

Check it out (these paragraphs introduce my favorite sequence in the entire novel):

You are now approaching forty and have already spent far too long washing underwear in a theatre, stacking shelves, cleaning rental power tools--which are, I would mention, often returned in revolting states. You have slotted together grids of doubtful purpose, you have folded free knitting and/or sewing patterns into women's magazines, you have sorted potatoes (for three grotesque hours), you have telephoned telephone owners to tell them about their telephones and you have spent one extremely long weekend in a hotel conference suite, asking people what they found most pleasing about bags of crisps. Every prior experience proves it--there is no point to you.

At least at the end of the crisps job, I got to take some home. But selling cardboard was a godsend: flexible and satisfying in a way that involved no pressure at any stage, because--after all--what sane person could possibly care about who might be buying how many of which kind of box. The job actually managed to be more trivial than me, which seemed to produce this Zen glow across my better days and enabled me to lie my head off in a consistent, promotional manner with hardly a trace of nauseous side effects.

At the moment, though, there's nothing doing: not in cardboard. Nobody wants me any more and yet, for the usual reasons, I continue to want cash. So, on a sodden Tuesday lunchtime, I'm forced to admit I've been driven to make the drinker's most conventional mistake. I've started working in a bar.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

On August Wilson

An appealing-sounding event at Columbia at 6:30 on Monday, January 29, 2007: "Staged Rhythms: The Musicality of August Wilson." Got to see if I can make room for that one...

(Related: John Heilpern's passionate praise of Wilson's art at the New York Observer. Classic sentence: "I prefer Wilson’s people to Mr. Stoppard’s yammering, privileged intellectuals." I haven't seen the Coast of Utopia trilogy, so I can't speak to that directly, also I don't see why we can't have both; but Wilson's plays really are quite extraordinary, and oh! someone who wants to buy me a very expensive present has a good obvious choice now--unless it's possible that someone will send me a review copy...).

Journalism as mission

Victoria Brittain on Ryszard Kapusczinski at the Guardian. I've only read a few of his books, but he really was one of those heroic journalists whose work makes you ashamed of yourself for sitting comfortably at home...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Barmecide feasts

At the TLS, Robert Irwin has a great piece about a cluster of books relating to food and Islam:

“On days when my lord growth listless, what does he need? Rahadlakum.” When, in the 1955 film version of Kismet, Dolores Gray, as Lalume, the wife of the wicked vizier, sings about her power to soothe her frustrated and restless husband by offering him rahadlakum (“His handmaiden hath what he lacketh”), many in the audience must have understood her to be singing in scarcely veiled terms about sex. So it is a bit of a comedown when one realizes that rahahdlakum (or, more correctly, rahat lokum) is merely the Turkish for Turkish delight, for this is the kind of exotic confection that drives her husband “out of his Mesopotamian mind”.

The novelist C. S. Lewis (who went on to pillory Islam in The Horse and His Boy) had already conferred notoriety on Turkish delight, in the first of the Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950): “The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now”. For the promise of a room full of this alien fare, Edmund betrays the Faun, his sisters and his brother to the White Witch who calls herself the Queen of Narnia. Since sweet rationing in Britain was only to be abolished in February 1953, the novel’s first readers must have found the seductions of Turkish delight all the stronger and Edmund’s fall into temptation the more comprehensible. Subsequently the confection gained yet more réclame thanks to a series of television advertisements for Fry’s Turkish Delight in the 1980s. The slow and sensuous awakening of a beautiful, diaphanously clad young woman was followed by the entry of a handsome Bedouin into the tent. A scimitar flashed down, but the lady’s head stayed on her shoulders, as it was the chocolate-coated bar of Turkish delight that was the scimitar’s target. “Full of Eastern Promise” was the slogan of this orientalist cameo.

I try and resist the urge

to post about all sorts of animal-related curiosities, it is not really interesting for most people to read, but there is a rather entrancing Associated Press story at the NYT this morning about the virgin birth of five Komodo dragons at an English zoo:

In an evolutionary twist, the newborns' eight-year-old mother Flora shocked staff at Chester Zoo in northern England when she became pregnant without ever having a male partner or even being exposed to the opposite sex.

''Flora is oblivious to the excitement she has caused but we are delighted to say she is now a mum and dad,'' said a delighted Kevin Buley, the zoo's curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates.

The shells began cracking last week, after an eight-month gestation period, which culminated with the arrival on Tuesday of the fifth black and yellow colored dragon.

The dragons are between 15.5 and 17.5 inches and weigh between 3.5 and 5.3 ounces, said Buley, who leads the zoo's expert care team.

And here is a very adorable picture...

A five-pound presentation haggis

Burns Night is hard upon us....

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

It's not available online

but Michael Specter has a brilliantly good article in this week's New Yorker, "Kremlin, Inc." Just get hold of an issue and read it (the cover date is Jan. 29, 2007), it will make you want to weep at the fate of journalism in Moscow and yet it is also a mysteriously uplifting read because of the sheer clarity and force of the narrative:

"The majority of the population, they are absolutely happy," Alexei Volin, who served for three years as deputy chief of staff in Putin's government and now runs a hgihly successful publishing house, said when we met in Moscow. "They get more money. Consumption has increased two and a half times int he last six years. People are buying cars, country houses, they are going to big shopping malls--as big as those in the United States." Volin, a trim, clean-cut, forty-three-year-old man dressed in a white button-down shirt and khaki Dockers, smiled. "They are just as happy as they can be," he said. "They don't have a headache because of some political problem or the concentration of power. They don't watch TV news. They don't care.

"There is another group," he went on. "They are unhappy, because political life has been frozen. They don't like the situation with Russian television or the press. Several months ago, I talked to one important Kremlin person and I asked him why is our TV news so awful and dull. And his answer was 'Why are you watching TV? People like you should go read the Internet if you want information. TV is not for you. It's for the people.'"

In this context, freedom of the press doesn't matter much and, increasingly in Russia, doesn't exist.

On rereading

One of the great comforts in life is rereading novels. In a comments thread on a blog I often read (I haven't been able to find the discussion again just now, but it was very interesting) it seemed to emerge recently that there's a relatively small canon of novels with a particularly high rereadability quotient--for me these would include young-adult fantasies (Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman), a certain kind of crime fiction (Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dick Francis, Lee Child), that rather sedate mid-20th-century British romantic suspense (Mary Stewart, Joan Aiken), Georgette Heyer of course, more recent discoveries like Eva Ibbotson--you name it. (Also Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those are three of my three great ritual rereads; also... but there's no point giving a huge long list.)

Books that are rereadable in this kind of way are not of course infinitely rereadable; each rereading leaches them of some of their meaning, and in the end there's a sickening familiarity that makes them altogether unreadable for some time. (If you're lucky, they then become rereadable again--I hit that point with Pride and Prejudice, a book I must have read between thirty and forty times between the age of eight or so and now; one year I was teaching it in two different classes during the same week, and also giving a lecture on it for the course instructors, and I really grew disgusted! However when I read it again the next year, as always I found things I could not remember ever having noticed before & was struck anew by its technical brilliance.)

What's striking, though, is that new books can strike you immediately with their rereadability before you've even finished reading them for the first time: it's a mark of a certain kind of favorite book. (Other kinds of favorite book do not prompt such avid rereading, especially if there is nothing comforting about them.)

Anyway this is the long way round of mentioning that the last few weeks have been an insane and distracted hodgepodge of light reading. First I reread Susan Howatch's The Wonder Worker (UK title: A Question of Integrity) and The High Flyer--I love these books, but I've already read them too many times, I want her to write a new one! (Brief quotation from the Amazon review of The Wonder Worker: "Though [Howatch] has often been compared to Anthony Trollope, one astute reviewer has termed her 'the love child of Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch.' Other writers might approach her talent, but few would dare follow up a scene in which Nicholas hypnotizes his wife into sex with an even more exciting one in which he is called to order by his spiritual adviser, a nun!" Irresistible, eh?!?)

(Somewhere in there I also read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, enjoyable YA vampire fiction.)

Then I read two books that were new to me but had the immediately appealing patina of rereadability about them: Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword. Quite delightful--there's something Georgette Heyerish about them (as there is about Sherwood Smith's novels also) and yet they are strikingly original too, especially in the narrative voice of the first one--Kushner does something jumping-about-ish with point-of-view that makes me slightly crazy and yet the books are absolutely great.

And through it all I was rereading in small chunks a favorite book by a favorite writer that I must also have read many many times before, Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine. I love this book, and I also love the way she weaves in these bits and pieces from Plato and Thucydides and stuff that made those guys seem totally familiar to me when I first read them as a Young Person (I don't think I've reread this since teaching the Literature Humanities course here, and it was very enjoyable to see more clearly where she'd borrowed the bits from).

This is a ludicrous but true admission. Poppy Z. Brite recently had an aside in her blog where she said the following: "I don't believe in reincarnation per se [. . .] but if I did, the East End of Victorian London is one of the three places I'd expect to have lived. As long as I can remember I've had a compelling image in my mind of a single cobblestoned streetcorner somewhere near Tower Bridge (though I didn't know where it was for a long time and don't think Tower Bridge would have been built yet), lit by a single gaslamp late at night, dreadful yet somehow alluring. The other lives I'd expect to find I'd had are in a temple in South India and in one of those villages with the round thatch-roofed huts in sub-Saharan Africa, landscapes that have always felt intensely familiar to me despite my never having laid eyes on them."

I don't believe in reincarnation either, and obviously it's totally sketchy to fantasize about having been, you know, an Egyptian princess or whatever (it has been often observed how infrequently people remember past lives as wretched peasants), but if I had a past life that I could choose for myself as suitable I would be a teenage boy from a good Athenian family in the time just before the Peloponnesian War, a student of Socrates and a contemporary of Plato....

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The claims of the person

From D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (2003):

Of that godlike authority which we think of as the default mode of narration in the traditional novel, Jane Austen may well be the only English example. Whether our standard is Fielding in the eighteenth century, or Thackeray in the nineteenth, the omniscient narrator's divinity proves constantly betrayed by his human verisimilitude, the all-too-familiar "character" with which he can't help tending to coincide. Pronounced with the thick accent of the sociolect that immediately sits him down on one or another chair of distinctly institutional, unmistakably male authority, his omniscience seems hardly more than a poetically licensed exaggeration of the kinds of empowered knowledge that are already possessed, already displayed and exercised, by various men in the nonfictional world: a learned magistrate, say, or a gossipy clubman. Far from enacting a fantasy of divine authority, the noisy personalities of Fielding and Thackeray relentlessly humanize that authority, never let us forget its earthly origins as a glamorization of some garden-variety male know-it-all. Even George Eliot, when not occupied with simulating such a figure, ventriloquizes the well-remembered voice of that all-knowing, all-understanding, and all-forgiving woman to whom--uniquely--everyone has been accustomed to submit: the mother. These canonical examples of omniscient narration are only canonical in that they represent the Feuerbachian tendency everywhere present in it to bring the gods down to earth. By contrast, Austen's divinity is free of all accents that might identify it with a socially accredited broker of power/knowledge in the world under narration. It does not carry on either from the authority of the commanding, intelligent, but hardly style-conscious hero, or from that of the elegant, witty heroine, with a mind "darkened, yet fancying itself light." However doubtful it must be that Jane Austen is a writer for all time--who could ever prove this?--she always writes like a real god, without anthropomorphism. Nowhere else in nineteenth-century English narration have the claims of the "person," its ideology, been more completely denied.

Memory played me false!

It is a well-known fact, of course, that memory is highly unreliable, and yet I am still struck with horror when it happens!

As I wrote about Helen Hill the other week, I considered all sorts of details for their accuracy--was the little dress the cat wore really blue and white with yellow flowers, or am I conflating it with something else? was that visit during the fall of 2003 or the spring of 2004?--but ended up with a WILD MISREPRESENTATION OF ART HISTORY in my parenthetical aside about Dollar-A-Pound!

The true originator of the project described there, evil genius/eminence grise Elijah Aron, has kindly provided me (in response to my desperate request) with the text for a lovely correction; I've appended it to the original entry and given it here also for your enjoyment and edification.

(Also I am making a resolution to do more art of a non-writing kind, I forgot how things used to be when I was a Young Person!)

Here's Elijah, in any case:

Very well, Jenny, my old friend,

As I recall, Helen, Paul, some other friends and I were at Dollar-a-Pound when we found about 12 white jumpsuits. We washed them and then I (Elijah!) came up with the idea to spraypaint numbers on the back of the suits and have 12 people wear the suits for an entire week. It was an experimental art piece.

The only important rule was that you couldn't take off the numbered suits except in private (people were allowed to go to the restroom and shower, contrary to some rumors).

David Gammons (I still called him Avatar at the time) was enthusiastic about the project. He never claimed credit but a lot of people thought he was responsible since he was always doing crazy art pieces and was far more popular than me.

The only other people I definitely remember donning the suits were Thomas Lauderdale, Arik Grier and Victor Ortiz de Montellano. Our best friend at the time, Jane Yeh, refused to wear a white suit as she was dedicated to a personal fashion philosophy that involved only wearing bright colors.

I chose to spray paint the number one on my suit, thinking it would clearly delegate me as the leader. But I let the other participants choose whichever number they wanted. Three choices I recall were 0, 13, and the infiinity symbol.

Some of the white suit wearers gave up after a day or two. I can't remember who, but I consider those people to be small-minded conformist cowards. But most people managed to wear the suit the entire week.

People who didn't know each other previously felt an intense bond with their fellow white-suit wearers. At least one Harvard sociology class discussed the project while it was happening. In Adams House, a lot of people felt jealous and excluded from the white suit brigade. Most of the rest of the campus just thought we were weird nerds.

So there you go--thank you, Elijah, and if anyone has any further recollections regarding suit-wearers, numbers, etc. please leave details in the comments.

NB on an only obliquely related note, I have this perverse fondness for the production design of dystopian movies, though I believe we are generally supposed to find such visions off-putting--really it seems to me that a navy blue jumpsuit and combat boots is basically the ideal outfit--I would like it if life involved this kind of a uniform--in fact I am also herewith making a resolution that I will try and find a really good jumpsuit that is utilitarian-looking enough to suit my esthetic but fashionable enough to be worn in a wide range of settings without making me look like I should be sweeping up leaves on the sidewalk--the only risk would be that if I found a really good one I would become psychologically incapable of wearing anything else!

An ice-cream war

William Boyd at the Sunday Times on Edward Paice's history of the Great War in Africa:

In the winter and spring of 1980-81 I was living in Oxford, busy writing and researching my second novel, An Ice-Cream War, which had as its setting the first world war in East Africa, or, more precisely, the long inter-colonial conflict between British East Africa (today’s Kenya) and German East Africa (Tanzania). How I would have welcomed Edward Paice’s superb history of that strange and calamitous war. Sidelined by the greater carnage and momentous events of the European theatre, the war in Africa had produced few definitive books. There were a couple of popular histories, the odd novel, long out of print, but I remember searching the catalogues of the Bodleian library and Rhodes House for anything that would throw real light on the campaign. Even the multi-volumed official history of the great war Great Warwas deficient. Of the two volumes meant to be devoted to the African campaign only one had been published, its author dying before volume two could be completed.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Really I have no bohemian tendencies

and I like a nice quiet life in an apartment building where the super will come and fix anything that goes wrong with the plumbing on a moment's notice--I am against drugs and free love!--but Allen Salkin has an awfully appealing profile of R. Crumb and his wife Ms. Crumb in the Times and it is hard not to fantasize momentarily about Crumb-style life in a medieval castle in the south of France...

Friday, January 19, 2007

The alive form of physical intelligence

At the FT, Toby Moore attractively reviews two appealing-sounding books on physical culture, Marcus Trower's The Last Wrestlers and Wayne McLennan's Tent Boxing. Go and take a look, here's how it starts out and there's some bizarre stuff about wrestling and semen later on too:

My grandmother developed a passion for wrestling late in life, an odd counterpoint to a world where even the library books came by post from Harrods. Every Saturday she settled delicately in front of the television with her small, spoilt lap dog, to watch portly men with names such as Giant Haystacks preen in leotards and grapple in violent intimacy. She winced and oohed as bodies slammed on to the floor. But mainly she laughed, because the fights were a rare combination of absurdity and ferocity, even to a fan in her eighties.

A bending-forward position like a monkey

Wild girl found in Cambodian jungle.

(Thanks to A. for the link. Also, here's that feral children website again for those who missed it the first time round...)


It's been a bit of a light-reading hodgepodge round here, about which more shortly (the perversity of human nature also means that this first week of the new semester, just when I need to bend my thoughts to course packs and library reserve lists and dissertations and such, is also the first week I've really found my head in the breeding book--I must just maintain double or perhaps triple consciousness and keep on doing everything at once--the third strand is for more light reading of course), but last night I saw a decent puppet performance that made a change of pace at least: Famous Puppet Death Scenes at the Public Theatre.

I had unrealistically high hopes for it, parts were very good but the whole thing was marred by whimsy, a sort of knowing archness that would have spoiled considerably funnier jokes than these ones actually were. (I wish people would realize that genuinely demented and delightful art is not likely to be coy and/or self-conscious. Lots of audience members were laughing preemptively with that sort of smug self-satisfaction that's involved in being in on the joke, this always makes me feel very stony-faced and annoyed....)

The aesthetic was somewhat reminiscent of Shockheaded Peter, which I liked very much but which for me really worked because of the excellence of the Tiger Lillies' music (and also of the source material--those stories are genuinely uncanny--the production itself might otherwise have toppled over the edge into archness); the best parts in this case were the meta-puppetry ones, very good use of a huge box disguised as a book in which you move closer in (sort of powers-of-ten style) to an American Gothic-y house in which some kind of violence is happening, and also a great vignette near the end in which we are disconcerted to realize that we're seeing the puppet from above.

I spent most of the duration, though, sitting & thinking obsessively about the massive expertise and craft and above all time that goes into making something like this, and wondering whether it is at all possible that I could make a Helen Hill-inspired short animated film. (One of my students the other day was just encouraging me--as per conversation about stress fractures and obsessive athletic activity--to take up a lower-impact hobby that involved neither reading nor writing nor injury-producing physical activities--she recommended knitting--she quite rightly did not think triathlon training or blogging fit the bill--making a camera-less animated film by hand might be suitable, though...) I think it is too much of a leap from my existing skill set; when your talent and expertise prods you to make things out of sentences and paragraphs it would be awfully frustrating to go back to square one and have to learn how to draw a stick figure, and yet I see that you might get considerable freshness from tackling a new medium.

More to the point, I started mulling over some puppet-related possibilities for the live theater thing that I've been contemplating for some time, which is to say a beautiful & mysterious adaptation of The Bacchae that would really be about the same things my new novel's about, namely the struggle between reason and the emotions.

At any rate it was a stimulating hour of thinking with occasional delightful moments of puppet-watching and afterwards we had a rather sublime meal at Indochine, all the food is delicious but they have an absolutely sublime fresh raspberry tart, I remembered it from the last time I ate there a few years ago and it was just as good this time round.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Old books

Anthony Grafton at the New Republic on an exhibition of bibles from before the year 1000 (via the Powell's blog).

Here is the gallery link (it's the Sackler, in Washington), but I am sorry to see it's already over. (Isn't there something magical about the word scriptorium?) Might be worth getting the catalog/book, though...

I am making a resolution (related to a conjectural new project) to learn much, much more about the history of reading, especially from the quite early days of reading and writing. But I'd also like to see more artists' books and such, they're something that appeals to me greatly but they're often hived away in rare book collections where you have to known in advance what you're looking for. The Yale Center for British Art has some extraordinary ones: doesn't this list make you drool?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The postwar establishment

Self-confessed "le Carré bore" Christopher Tayler offers a perceptive critique of the le Carre style at the London Review of Books:

Prep and public schools are always suspect places in le Carré, but his early thrillers wouldn’t be so good if their intelligence agencies didn’t also have a romantic, vaguely upper-crust ideal to fall short of. The Circus, as Smiley’s service is known, might be shabbily unscrupulous, vulnerable to moles, short of funds, and riddled with time-servers and self-promoters. But it still has living memories of such glamorous figures as Steed-Asprey and ‘Fielding, the French medievalist from Cambridge’ – representatives of an incorruptible officer class whose prewar exploits are only ever hinted at. Tinker Tailor says a sentimental farewell to that class while frostily exposing its last-ditch pretensions in the person of a disappointed romantic imperialist who’s revealed to be the hollowest man of all. The fading of the early 1960s establishment, with its obsessive class gradations and competitively worn college ties, probably had a more deleterious effect on le Carré’s writing than the end of the Cold War. The novels after Tinker Tailor often seem more interested in the social comedy of the emerging post-gentlemanly dispensation than the construction of neatly engineered plots. We start hearing more – more than we need to – about dislikeable characters’ ‘violence with auxiliary verbs’. And le Carré shows that he can write brilliant dialogue for the likes of Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian-born surveillance man with an ingratiating manner and a shaky grasp of English idiom, which is fun for a while, but only for a while.

A lot of his writing since the mid-1970s is overripe. Phrases he’s especially pleased with – ‘the permanent night-time of his elected trade’, for example – have a way of getting repeated and recast (‘the remaining disparate articles of her uncertain faith’). There are too many adverbs, too many jaunty nicknames, too many characters given to aphoristic witticisms. And when he wants to conceal what someone’s up to or inject ambiguity he adopts a style that soon grates:

There remains the mystery of the telephone transcripts. Did Jerry ring Lizzie from the Constellation, or not? And if he did ring her, did he mean to talk to her, or only to listen to her voice? And if he intended to talk to her, then what did he propose to say? Or was the very act of making the phone call – like the act of booking airline passages in Saigon – in itself sufficient catharsis to hold him back from the reality?

What is certain is that nobody – neither Smiley nor Connie nor anyone else who read the crucial transcripts – can be seriously accused of failing in their duty, for the entry was at best ambivalent.

This passage from The Honourable Schoolboy isn’t much more comprehensible in context, though the effect being aimed at is indicated when Jerry is shown reading Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The Little Drummer Girl (1983) features an Israeli operative called Kurtz whose actions are similarly shrouded in uncertainty: ‘At what stage in the chase he had hit upon his plan,’ we’re told, ‘probably not even Kurtz himself could have said.’ In these cases, the grace notes being struck or plot points being fudged don’t mitigate the ostentatious skirting of unspeakable mysteries. And even when there are sound plot-mechanical reasons for limiting the narrator’s knowledge, le Carré often overdoes the inventing of different points of view. Leamas’s stage-managed ejection from the Circus in The Spy who Came in from the Cold is dealt with in ten deft paragraphs – most of them told from his colleagues’ generalised viewpoint, with a few comments from Elsie in Accounts. The Honourable Schoolboy, on the other hand, summons a cast of office cranks just to decide where the story should begin: ‘One crowd, led by a blimpish fellow in charge of microphone transcription, went so far as to claim that . . . To less flowery minds, the true genesis was . . .’ And so on.

Demolition file

Gavin Stamp has a quite delightful piece in this week's TLS about Ian Gow's Scotland's Lost Houses, which sounds to me like a total must-read (here's the Amazon link--expensive but surely it's worth it, I have just ordered a copy for a person I know who is its perfect target audience):

I have only once witnessed the sudden destruction of a building. This was in 1993 when Glasgow decided to remove some of the catastrophically flawed public-housing blocks in the rebuilt Gorbals, by means of high explosives. Tower blocks in the East End of London had already been blown up, to the delight of local residents and television companies; now it was Glasgow’s turn. Typically, the Council had chosen to destroy with fanfare the only such structures in the city which were of any conceivable architectural merit: the powerfully monumental Brutalist slabs forming Queen Elizabeth Square in Hutchesontown designed by the firm of Sir Basil Spence (a Scot) in 1960. A public spectacle was organized, rather like a public hanging, and down they came in a series of controlled explosions. Unfortunately, the blasts were less controlled than intended and a woman spectator was killed by flying masonry. Glasgow then decided to conduct future demolitions more discreetly.

The question must arise as to whether the Scots take a peculiar delight in blowing up buildings, in addition to simply demolishing them. That, at least, was the conclusion reached by Marcus Binney, John Harris and Emma Winnington when they compiled the report on the Lost Houses of Scotland produced by SAVE Britain’s Heritage in 1980. “Scotland seems to have specialised in dynamiting its houses. Scottish sappers and lairds delighted in making a thunderous bang.” This publication was a sequel to the momentous Destruction of the Country House exhibition mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1974 by Roy Strong, Binney and Harris, for it had revealed how very many houses had been destroyed in Scotland – a much higher proportion in relation to their number than in England. Over 400 substantial country houses had disappeared since 1900; a few had perished through accidental fire, but most had been deliberately destroyed.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An appealing phrase

(sometimes a strange sequence of words just catches your eye) in this week's NYT Dining section article about the thus-far inadequate food at Starbucks: "[A]ccording to Tom Miner, 'The food has to be fast, it has to be handheld, and No. 1 across the board is egg and cheese on a bread carrier.'"

Egg and cheese on a bread carrier!

(What I like: the way that the emphasis on the first syllable of carrier is just a little bit different than if you had the word carrier by itself or the more conventional "bread carrier" as in a person or vehicle who carries bread--"bread CARRier" rather than "BREAD carrier.")

What I'm looking forward to

This Friday at 7pm at the Whitney Museum (scroll down), the Composers' Showcase features a full program of Nico Muhly's music (here are details, and here's the link for Nico's album Speaks Volumes).

On pug dogs and Harlequin Danes

From Maupertuis's Venus Physique (1745):

Nature holds the source of all these varieties, but chance or art sets them going. So that people whose work is to satisfy the tastes of curiosity seekers become practically creators of new species. We find new breeds of dogs, pigeons, canaries appearing on the market, though they did not exist in nature. At first they were individual freaks, but art and repeated generations turned them into new species. The famed Lyonnés creates each year a new variety and destroys the ones no longer in style. He corrects the shapes and varies the colors to the point of inventing species, such as the Harlequin Dane and the Mopse [Pug dog].

Why is this art restricted to animals? Why don’t the bored Sultans in their seraglios, filled with women of all known races, have them bear new species? Were I reduced, as they are, to the only pleasure that form and features can give, I would soon have recourse to greater varieties. But, however beautiful the women born for them might be, they would know only the smallest share of love’s pleasures as long as they remained ignorant of the pleasures of the mind and the heart.

Although we do not find among ourselves the creation of such new types of beauty, only too often so we see human beings who are of the same category for men of science, namely, the cross-eyed, the lame, the gouty, and the tubercular. Unfortunately, in order to fix their strain there is no need of a long series of generations. But wise Nature, because of the disgust she has inspired for these defects, has not desired that they be continued. Consequently beauty is more apt to be hereditary. The slim waist and the leg that we admire are the achievements of many generations which have applied themselves to form them.

A Northern king was able to elevate and beautify his nation. His taste for men of height and fine faces was excessive and he induced them to come to his kingdom by various means. Fortune came to men whom Nature had made tall. Today we now see a singular example of the power of kings. This nation is distinguished for its tall men and regular features. So it is with a forest whose trees dominate all the neighboring woods, if the attentive eye of the master forester takes care to cultivate only trees that are straight and well chosen.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Two-legged telephones

From Roger Luckhurst's excellent book The invention of telepathy, 1870-1901 (2002):

The connections between scientific and occult inter-phenomena sometimes make demarcations difficult. Heinrich Hertz's experiments with 'spark-gaps' in 1889, his detection of 'sympathetic' sparks produced at a distance in secondary circuits, produced a succession of new inter-phenomena in the 1890s. Wireless telegraphy and X-rays astonished and bewildered many. When the leading British experimenter in wireless telegraphy came to the Royal Institution to honour and remember Hertz, he traced the route from Hertz's spark-gap to Guglielmo Marconi's ongoing trials with 'wireless' technology from ship to shore in the English Channel. This lecture began with the sympathetic vibrations of tuning forks, and demonstrated how a discharge of electricity in one circuit could produce a spark at a distance in a secondary circuit, provided they were in sympathy or 'syntony'. The lecturer was Oliver Lodge, a physicicist present at early thought-reading experiments in Liverpool in 1884, and who had proposed in the pages of the PSPR that 'just as the energy of an electric charge, though apparently on the conductor, is not on the conductor, but in all the space around it . . . so it may be that the sensory consciousness of a person, though apparently located in the brain, may also be conceived of as also existing like a faint echo in space, or in other brains'. Telepathy had been coined by Frederic Myers and syntony by Arthur Myers, Frederic's brother.

Roentgen's demonstration of X-rays in 1898 could also be traced back to foundational experiments on anomalous inter-phenomena investigated in vacuum tubes by William Crookes. In 1879, Crookes rehabilitated himself with his lecture 'On Radiant Matter' to the British Association. It was termed 'exquisite' and 'unique' by Nature, and was reprinted in full. Crookes's lecture was replete with evidence of some form of contact made between distant electrical poles in high vacua, whether demonstrated by producing a vividly phosphorescing diamond, by a paddle-wheel being pushed along a track, or by forming shadows by interrupting the path of phosphorescing radiant matter. These ingenious apparatuses rendered visible what Crookes called 'matter in a fourth state of condition'. 'In studying this fourth state of matter,' he suggested, 'we seem at length to have within our grasp and obedient to our control the little invisible particles which with good warrant are supposed to constitute the physical basis of our universe.' His speech steered close to his previous enquiries into psychic force and his vacuum tubes mischievously abutted onto the same terrain: 'We have actually touched the bornerland where matter and force seem to merge into one another, the shadowy realm between the Known and the Unknown which for me has always had peculiar temptations.' Crookes was wrong about the nature of the particles at work; J. J. Thomson's work at the Cavendish laboratory later reconceived these inter-phenomena as streams of electron particles. Yet Thomson, too, became involved with his Cambridge colleagues in psychical research, insisting in his memoirs in the 1930s that 'the investigation of short-range thought transference is of the highest importance' and that such experiments would support the view of his colleague Lord Rayleigh that 'telepathy with the dead would present apparently little difficulty when it is admitted as regards the living'.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Truth in advertising

See William T. Vollman's devastating NYT review of Anthony Swofford's new novel for some interesting material (this isn't his main point at all, but it's related) on authenticity in fiction versus memoir. It is my opinion that some writers just do better with one than the other--I heard an interesting observation once, for instance, by someone who'd been in a writing group with Mary Karr when she was first working on the book that became The Liars' Club, that the book only started to work--that the language only came alive--when she stopped thinking of it as a novel and began to consider it a memoir instead. In other words, there's no reason "authenticity" (authenticity the aesthetic effect of language, not authenticity in the sense of "actual" truthfulness) should be available to every writer in every genre--for some writers, it comes much more easily in one than another (you might even think, say, of the poet who writes essays whose language rings false or in some other respect lack that quality of truthfulness found in his/her best poems).

(Thanks to Ed for the link.)

F****** middlebrow

At the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle rants appealingly against much contemporary literary fiction.

The life of a professional novelist

Neil Norman profiles William Boyd at the Independent. (I am not sure this is the piece to win over the Boyd hold-out, it is rather adulatory in a fairly funny way, but Boyd's fiction really is absolutely excellent.)

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Simon Garfield has an interesting piece at the Observer Magazine on dyslexia and its treatment (here's a longish chunk from the middle):

The classic symptoms - difficulty in reading, writing or spelling among those who otherwise possess an average or high level of intelligence - naturally led educators to believe it was solely a linguistic problem, and there was no reason to search for automatic correlation with impairments in the brain. The phonological theory, which states that reading problems are due to children not detecting the correct sound of written letters and words, is still pre-eminent, but the refinement of brain-scanning techniques and genetics has established beyond doubt that there are often significant differences in the brain between those who are dyslexic and those who are not. The core of John Stein's research has been devoted to showing what causes these differences, and in so doing suggest potential advances in early diagnosis and treatment.

Some of this research is at a primitive level due to limited funds, and cohort studies are small. Stein's clinic has had good results with the use of coloured lenses in reading glasses (about a third of the 500 children assessed by the DRT each year show improvements with blue or yellow lenses), and an increased intake of fish oils rich in omega-3 benefits another third (possibly because omega-3s can improve the function of the magnocellular systems in the brain that help to stabilise visual perception).

Some of the research being done at Oxford is backed up by large international studies in Europe and the United States, particularly the genetic work. It is now accepted that over half of the differences in children's reading is due to genetic factors inherited from their parents. Inevitably, the hunt is on for the specific gene that may identify this predisposition, and Stein's colleagues have identified a gene on chromosome 6, known as KIAA0319, a key factor in the way the brain develops. When this gene is removed in mice, cell growth in the brain is reduced; a similar, though milder, deficit is visible in dyslexic brains post-mortem.

More news

The latest news story on what happened to Paul and Helen last week. I am just so sad not just for Paul and Francis Pop and all Helen's family but for everyone who's lost someone to violence in New Orleans in the past few weeks and beyond; meanwhile, here's where you can go to donate money for Dinerral Shavers' family and funeral expenses care of the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Meat in dough

Colson Whitehead's featured in the latest "New York Diet" column at New York Magazine. And I see that he and Kevin Young are reading at the Strand from 7 to 8:30pm on Thursday, January 18--hmmm, maybe I should try and get to that one...

(What I really went to the NY Mag site for was to read this article about getting a dog in New York, I think I am really on the verge of doing it only not until the summer. It would be sensible to get a small dog that I could carry in a bag, but I think I would do better with a medium-sized mutt that might like to go for longish runs. I can see that really all this is going to end in me finally being forced to get a driver's license, which will be for the greater good of my maturity and usefulness in the world--when you find yourself bemoaning the anti-dog policies of Amtrak and New Jersey Transit and wondering how much a livery-car driver would charge to drive you and a dog round-trip to Philadelphia for the holidays, you know that things have tipped over the edge into compete insanity/eccentricity...)

(UPDATED: And I am also going to get a bicycle. So that I can train for triathlons...)

On reading

An appealing piece about novel-writing by Zadie Smith at the Guardian. Here's the part I liked the most:

It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" - at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere - for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.

It would be comforting as well as efficient if time spent improving the self could conceivably have some payoff down the road in the fiction, eh? I find in particular as a reader that my doubts about a particular writer's style (his/her sentences, say) can rarely be expressed in strictly aesthetic terms, it always shades into questions of character--it is good to see Zadie Smith saying that so clearly here.

Cintra Wilson

has an excitingly demented blog. (Thanks to Phil for the link.)

Here's me raving in October 2005 about why Cintra Wilson's a genius, and here's the Amazon link for Colors Insulting to Nature, which must be one of the couple funniest books I've ever read. Good stuff....

Squalid Danish

I've just read the best thing about language/writing that I've seen for ages. Go and take a look, even if you're not interested in cooking: the FT reprints Elizabeth David's critique c. 1964 of the early supper menu's at London club Annabel's. If I were teaching a writing class, I would totally assign this as inspiration for workshop critiques:

The first course dishes should be set out with the utmost precision and clarity. This must be the most orderly and organised section of the menu. Oysters, caviar, smoked salmon, smoked eel, smoked trout and sardines should come first. (Couldn’t they be called French sardines? Vintage sardines sounds awfully affected.) Then charcuterie such as foie gras, rillettes, pâté if any, Parma, Bayonne or San Daniele ham, smoked turkey, Salame. Why don’t you have a dish of three or four kinds of Italian salame? No single restaurant in the whole of England offers a choice of authentic salame. Never anything but that dreary mass-produced Milanese or squalid Danish. But there are good salame imported. They must be freshly sliced, brought to table on a dish and left on it, not on the customer’s plate. Then cooked or raw vegetable hors-d’oeuvre, ie asparagus, celéri-rave rémoulade, broccoli, artichoke vinaigrette. Then eggs in jelly, egg mayonnaise, langoustines mayonnaise, potted shrimps. Then avocado and melon. No need to go on about the melon or what kind it is. It should be understood that Annabel’s provides the best of what’s going.

On climate

At the TLS, interesting pieces on climate science by Richard Hamblyn and John North. (I must read that Homo Britannicus book of Chris Stringer's; it doesn't seem to be out yet in the US, but I bet I can get it from the library.)

Also a great essay by Stephen Romer on perfume, both the novel/movie adaptation and the thing itself (mmm, I did not know that French word "sillage" before, how excellent).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pewter versus platinum

Geoffrey H. Goodwin interviews Nick Mamatas at Bookslut and it's a good one (I must get a copy of his new novel Under My Roof). Here's what he had to say about editing Clarkesworld, a new online science-fiction magazine (well, he had a story of mine in there so I may be biased):

The main issue is that with Clarkesworld I want language and voice to be important, and 90% of the writers who submit their work to me have absolutely no interest in language and voice. Imagine running a factory and soliciting bids to create some necessary widget that must be made out of platinum, and getting twenty proposals a day for pewter widgets. No matter how slowly or carefully I say "plat-i-num," most of what I get involves someone holding up their story and saying, as
slowly, but surely not as carefully "Peeeeew-tuuuur." Then some small fraction gets huffy. Everyone wants pewter widgets, dammit. In fact, pewter is so popular that cultural alchemy takes place and it becomes platinum.

Timor mortis

William Boyd praised lavishly at the Guardian.

Coincidentally I just finished Restless this afternoon, and I have to say that I absolutely loved it: it's an extremely satisfying and fast-paced read, yet morally thought-provoking also. One of those good ones that gives me that itchy yearning feeling of wanting to write a new novel myself, in fact I found myself thinking almost constantly at the back of my head (even though I was also quite mesmerized) I must write a novel like this one.

A few observations:

1. Boyd has an excellent style, but it's unobtrusive enough that certain of his books can pass for transparent/simplemindedly thrillerish. (Personally I think this is a good thing, I just don't want the actual goodness of the writing to go uncredited. It doesn't just magically come out this way, you have to know how to do it.)

2. I can't remember now exactly how I came to fall in love with Boyd's writing, but I think the first book of his I read must have been Armadillo. I was completely smitten with it (in fact I must reread it to see if I still think it's pretty much the perfect novel...), went and read most of his others; and Brazzaville Beach in my opinion really is the perfect novel, I don't need to reread it to say so either. (Come to think of it, I just feel like I'm on the same psychic wavelength as this guy. Chimpanzees! Insomnia! Hmmm....)

3. It's for good reason that spies are such a perennial topic for literature. Comes back to old questions about personality and character and deceitfulness; they're, like, the limit case for the ways that we keep parts of ourselves secret even from those we know best. I think John Banville has not written a better novel than The Untouchable, for instance.

4. What I most appreciate about Boyd, perhaps, is that he's one of a quite short list of male writers who seem to me to write female characters that think the way that I do. Of course this makes me say "he writes female characters so well!" but perhaps all I'm really making is a more modest assertion that the female narrators/point-of-view characters remind me of aspects of myself--important aspects--that I do not seem to see particularly often in novels about women by men or women. The interior life of the female protagonists in chick-lit-type novels seems to me unbearably impoverished. Crime novels are better because the "what happened, and what shall I do about it?" motive (which tends to drive the actions of a main character in this kind of fiction regardless of sex) seems to me more pressing as an analogy for the kind of thinking we do about things in our ordinary lives; and of course I've got a huge soft spot for fantasy novels, it may be a bit silly that it's always a high-stakes battle of good versus evil & the fate of the world but the idea, for instance, that the hero(ine)'s training should take up many chapters of the book makes for more appealing stuff than the conventional marriage plot is likely to do in this day and age.

5. I associate Boyd in this respect (of writing female characters in whom I see myself) with only a handful of other writers: Peter Dickinson (especially The Lively Dead, which is an astonishingly good novel & should be much better known than it is);* the Iain Banks of Whit or The Business, perhaps the protagonist of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. (I often like the lead female characters in cyberpunk, but it would have to be said that in some cases their sex is virtually irrelevant as part of a larger syndrome of undercharacterization, it is agreeably egalitarian to make some of your interesting under-characterized intellectual mouthpieces female though...)

6. Boyd has something in common with those writers of an older generation who I grew up reading & who I still love though often with more complicated feelings: V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux (well, he's not so much older), Anthony Burgess. There's something backward-looking about Boyd's cast of thought, particularly vis-a-vis the choices he makes about how to depict non-English places: his imagination is postcolonial but with emphasis on the -colonial part rather than primarily the post-. And yet there's also something so fresh and clear about the way he thinks about things, it's more tempting to ally him with the Banks-Gibson kind of stuff than with, let's say, the authors of avowedly historical fiction. He writes novels about the past as though they're science fiction, that's what I like. Strange, interesting.

7. Finally, a passage that caught my attention, in part for the obvious reasons but in part just because I think it's so well-written (the setting's Oxford, mid-1970s):

Some students, wearing gowns and carrying champagne bottles, burst out of University College, singing a song with a nonsensical refrain. They capered off down the street, whooping and laughing. Exams over, I thought, term nearly finished and a hot summer of freedom ahead. Suddenly I felt ridiculously old, remembering my own post-exam euphoria and celebrations--an aeon ago, it seemed--and the thought depressed me for the usual reasons. When I took my final exams and celebrated their conclusion my father had been alive; he died three days before I had my results--and so he never learned that his daughter had got a first. As I made for my car, I found myself thinking about him in that last month of his life, that summer--six years ago, already. He had looked well, my unchanging Dad, he wasn't unwell, he wasn't old, but in those final weeks of his life he had started behaving oddly. One afternoon he dug up a whole row of new potatoes, five yards' worth, tens and tens of pounds. Why did you do that, Sean? I remember my mother asking. I just wanted to see if they were ready, he said. Then he cut down and burned on a bonfire a ten-foot lime sapling he'd planted the year before. Why, Dad? I just couldn't bear the thought of it growing, was his simple, baffling reply. Most strange, though, was a compulsion he developed in what was to be his last week on earth, for switching out electric lights in the house. He would patrol the rooms, upstairs and down, looking for a burning light bulb and extinguish it. I'd leave the library to make a cup of tea and come back to find it in darkness. I caught him waiting to slip into rooms we were about to vacate, poised to make sure the lights went off within seconds of their being no longer required. It began to drive me and my mother mad. I remember shouting at him once: what the hell's going on? And he replied with unusual meekness--it just seems a terrible waste, Ruth, an awful waste of precious electricity.

I now think he knew that he was soon going to die but the message had somehow become scrambled or unintelligible to him. We are animals, after all, and I believe our old animal instincts lurk deep inside us. Animals seem to be able to read the signals--perhaps our big, super-intelligent brains can't bear to decipher them. I'm sure now my father's body was somehow subtly alerting him to the impending shutdown, the final systems malfunction, but he was confused. Two days after I had shouted at him about the lights he collapsed and died in the garden after lunch. He was deadheading roses--nothing strenuous--and died immediately, we were informed, a fact that consoled me, but I still hated to dwell on his few, bewildered, frightened weeks of
timor mortis.

*Re: The Lively Dead, I can't resist the temptation to quote the sole review of this book on Amazon, it is pricelessly good & distinctly apt & will I hope prompt one or two of you to get hold of the novel itself: "I love Peter Dickinson novels. He writes extremely well, sort of extremely good in a very subtle way, & you keep wanting to read more of him. This is a really nice one about a semi-Marxist landlord/housewife/carpenter with a pre-school age child, and a Baltic government-in-exile renting out the top floor of her house. One of her other tenants keels over and dies, a hot dude comes to work for the government, everybody follows each other, & the main character and her husband (who is recovering from depression/a nervous breakdown) have lovely cozy moments. I wish I had a nice relationship like that with someone."

If you have ever

attended the MLA, and in particular if you have ever interviewed for a job at the MLA, I strongly recommend that you go and read what Geoffrey Chaucer & co. have to say on the matter.


in the New York Times: a terribly moving piece by Billy Sothern in remembrance of Helen Hill and in mourning for New Orleans.

Helen's funeral yesterday in South Carolina was uplifting but so sad I was really almost undone by it. I remember this feeling (I know it's apples and oranges, I am not saying anything else is the same...) from the days and weeks following September 11, 2001, a kind of distraction and sorrow and sickness at heart that makes it difficult to do much else.

I barely made it to the airport on time on Tuesday morning--I expect I come across here as rather scatter-brained, but in fact I am usually very well-organized and in particular compulsively punctual, I always get to the airport two hours before the flight's due to leave, I'm not even exaggerating (I know it's mildly neurotic). I vacillated on bus versus taxi (I always take a taxi to LaGuardia, but a bus seemed more in the spirit of the occasion), left it a bit late for the bus and resolved on the taxi but then the bus was right there at 116th St. as I crossed over Broadway for an uptown taxi. So I hopped on, then started digging around in my wallet for my Metrocard. A block later I suddenly realized with a sinking feeling that I had left both the Metrocard and my only credit card in the pocket of the jacket I'd worn to the deep-water running class the night before (not sensible to leave your whole wallet in a strange locker-room, you know?).

The bus driver could presumably see I was in a complete state, asked me where I was going and when I said it was the airport and helplessly waved around a handful of useless dollars he amazingly, benevolently, told me to sit down and relax and not worry about the fare.

As the bus turned east onto 125th St., though, I realized that not only did I have no credit card & barely enough time to get to the airport for check-in, I had also left my cellphone plugged into the charger in the wall....

One of the best things (there were a lot of best things, including the time to talk with dear friends about serious things) in South Carolina was the screening of some of Helen's films earlier in the day before the funeral. I've seen a number of them before, but only on video transfer; it was quite extraordinary to see these magical and haunting shorts in that magical actual space of a real movie theater where the lights go down as the projector starts running and the clattery slightly shaky image comes up on the screen. I see movies so infrequently that I forget the strange alchemy of film, but Helen's work was very much about the actual chemicals and materials of old-school film-making and the work had a remarkably forceful effect under these technical circumstances.

There is almost certainly going to be another screening in New York, perhaps sometime in February; I'll post details here when they are available, but everyone should come and see these, not just Helen's friends and fans, they are quite extraordinary ("Mouseholes" in particular--but they are all amazing).

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The anthropology of human skin

Claudia Dreyfus interviews Nina Jablonski at the New York Times. It seems a silly thing to say, but she sounds very nice as well as interesting, the personality's coming across very appealingly here...

Monday, January 08, 2007

New Orleans and related matters

At the memorial website for Helen Hill there's now a link to the Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres website, where you can make donations in Helen's memory. (Just fill in her name, and the family will be notified--I think the address in this case is not needed.)

Sara Gran has very kindly provided a short list of arts-related New Orleans organizations that I feel sure Helen would also have liked the thought of people giving to:

The Neighborhood Story Project (which is pretty much what it sounds, it's a great thing--I know a bit about them already because they also work with Soft Skull)

The Tipitina's Foundation (rebuilding the music culture of New Orleans post-Katrina, including the purchase of new instruments for musicians who lost their possessions)

The Backstreet Cultural Museum (preserving New Orleans culture and especially African-American culture in New Orleans – Mardi Gras Indians, Jazz Funerals and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs - and oh, how strongly that makes me think of Helen - I so vividly remember a particular prize possession of hers on that last visit I paid in 2003, it was one of the much-sought-after Zulu coconuts which had come almost miraculously to Helen during Mardi Gras, placed directly into her hands by someone on the parade float who must have been taken with her bright eager face)

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center (committed to arts and community development in Central City New Orleans)

Last but not least, Ken Foster and others are spearheading a massive anti-violence rally that will take place this Thursday in New Orleans. Check back at this site for details the night before, but here are the essentials:

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

11:00am - Meet at the World Trade Center
11:30am - March begins
12:00 Noon - Rally at City Hall

A separate group will meet up at 10:30 near Paul and Helen's old house on Cleveland Avenue and then walk to join the others at City Hall.

Anyone is welcome to leave further suggestions in the comments about practical ways to remember Helen and help the city she loved.

Swan terrine

Some news stories are simply too bizarre and funny to be believed. This one at the Scotsman comes by way ofNico:

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen's Music, was cautioned over the discovery of the remains of a protected species at his house in Orkney.

He said the bird died after hitting a power line. When police called at his home he offered them swan terrine.

Police would not comment but confirmed that a protected bird has been removed from a property in Sanday.

Northern Constabulary said their enquiries were continuing.

Sir Peter said he did not believe he had done anything wrong but, given his position with the Queen, he was prepared to spend time in the Tower of London.

Swans are protected under UK legislation.

However, in the islands a Norse right called Udal Law is still assumed to hold sway, possibly making swans the property of the people.

And there's more (it is like something out of a novel by Margery Allingham or Peter Dickinson)...