Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I am yet again amazed

at how long Thomas Hardy lived into the twentieth century (and also the way that performance history serves as a way of hearing the dead speak, as it were). Steven Morris at the Guardian:

The only surviving member of Thomas Hardy's theatrical group is to tread the boards again at the age of 101. Norrie Woodhall, a member of the original Hardy Players, is to recite poetry by the writer as part of an event called Dorset Voices.

Her performance will come more than 80 years after Hardy cast her as Tess's younger sister Liza Lu in a production of Tess of the d'Urbervilles at the Corn Exchange in Dorchester. She said: "I have been reciting Hardy's works all my life and know a lot of it off by heart. " Dorset Voices is being staged at the United Church in Dorchester on March 11.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Black swans and other surprises

Check out Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution on whether your personal library should consist of mostly read or unread books. I like his conclusions, but would observe that the "New Books" shelf at my local public library is nothing like the "New Books" shelf at Barnes and Noble, in fact I always--though in general I'm averse to scare quotes--find myself thinking of the public library one as the "'New' Books" shelf, it is a real cheat. If I was a massive public benefactor I would give a gazillion dollars to the New York Public Library system & tell them it had to be spent exclusively on [a] extending the hours of the poorer local branches and [b] buying actual new books in large & alluring quantities, the fact is that we all know that new books are for the most part more alluring than oldish ones & I do not see how you are going to get, say, moderately well-off people in their twenties and thirties but without children ever setting foot in a public library if you do not have reasonable numbers of copies of the just-published books they actually want to read--and the loyalty of those people is what will lead to the donations that will make the system sustainable in its next period of life--a topic for another day....

A death in books

Here's the first installment of Marco Roth's serial memoir at Nextbook. The column will be centered on the reading Marco did both with and against his father in the years of his father's illness and death, and here's Marco's description of its goals:

It's going to be, or supposed to be, an investigation into the way novels and stories affect our sense of who we are and where we come from, about the ways fiction can influence and structure our relationships with the people we love. We read alone, but we're never entirely alone when we read. Ghosts haunt the margins: earlier readers, our friends, our parents. Sometimes we even haunt the pages ourselves, bringing our own dramas to the dramas we read about. For most of us, this spectral presence is a teacher, but the teacher is less quiet ghost than active spirit, looming over our shoulder, to be fought against, if possible, until he or she can be aggressively internalized or rejected. "Tradition" is the familiar name we use to make the crowded gallery where we read a less uncanny place. Literally something "handed down" or "passed on," a tradition usually includes laws for mediating and ordering the transfer of knowledge and shared experience among generations. The ghostly reading I'll be describing takes place within a recognizable tradition observed by secular, middle- and upper-class, intellectual Jews who attempted to transplant an old-world German and Austrian Enlightenment idea of culture to America. (For a while, this idea cohabited peacefully with American promises of self-betterment to lead towards an ideal of spiritual upward mobility, the fantasy of a liberal arts education.)

Yet the kind of encounters set down here will also go against the laws of culture and good breeding, against the serenity and reconciliation one might be expected to derive by submitting to such a tradition. The novels and stories I'll deal with in the coming months all belong, in one way or another, to this old European notion of Bildung—acculturation or development—even as they represent an already belated and self-critical stage of this ideal: The Red and The Black, Goncharov's Oblomov, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh, Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, and Kafka's Metamorphosis comprise this selection from my father's library. These were all books he told me to read, or even read with me, when I was still young enough to submit to being read to and not yet old enough to understand. Some of these I read while he was alive, others waited. Taken as a whole, they add up to a disturbing chronicle of failed social integration, development perverted; of alienation, failed families, and failed hopes; of lives damaged or cut short by historical circumstances.

This promises to be an interesting one: I am especially intrigued by the idea of composing a memoir column by column, I like the Oulipo-style constraint (it would be even better if Marco didn't allow himself to use words with the letter P!) and the surprising things that happen in language and in ideas by virtue of one's way of defining the task of writing.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Victorian novels all scrunched up

Susan Lumenello has a nice little piece about Edward Gorey in the current issue of Harvard Magazine. Here's the amazing illustration (the photo is credited to Steve Marsel Studio Inc.--oh, dear, I wish I had a lot more pets, but it is simply not practical--and I apologize to those of you who are still using dial-up modems, it has annoyingly been Picture Week round here...):

[Picture removed at photographer/copyright holder's request.]

Catching up

round the place I see a particularly demented and appealing post at Paul Collins' Weekend Stubble--go and read it for sure if you've got any interest (how can you not?!?) in trepanation and frontal lobotomies....


I so want to read Tom McCarthy's Remainder, appealingly reviewed here by Liesl Schillinger at the NYTBR.

In fact for some reason the Book Review is full of things I want to read today (nice selection of reviewers, too): here's Stacey D'Erasmo on Andre Aciman's novel (which I've got right here, and want to read as soon as I can, it looks quite lovely and he is an extraordinarily good writer--read Out of Egypt too if you haven't already, I am constantly recommending that book to people); Paul Gray on Louise Dean; William Boyd on Ishmael Beah and child soldiers; other good things...

It would be funny if I just went and put all those books in my Amazon cart, funny but stupid as I've got a vast heap of books waiting to be read already (but I am totally going to get the McCarthy, that one sounds like a top-of-the-piler).

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I am clearly

going to have to have a major Beatrix Potter rereading frenzy in the near future: Nicola Shulman has an interesting review of the new biography at the TLS (Shulman clearly found it quite annoying, and I think that I will be better off reading Potter than biography).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Guilty pleasures

Common sense said that I needed a serious recovery evening of absolute brain-relaxation (I met a massive and significant deadline on Monday, but now I'm faced with all the chaotic muddle of the million other deadlines I put off because of that one, plus obligations to all the absolutely fed-up friends I've been shortchanging for months now!) and so although various other more useful enterprises probably could and should have been profitably pursued (of the swimming-practicing, dissertation-chapter-reading, paper-grading, finish-last-part-of-academic-book-manuscript sort) I instead plunged into & consumed with great enjoyment (and also a sense of relief at life getting back to normal) the most recent issues of Bookforum and the New York Review of Books.

It was a good dose of salts for the brain--I have been having an intense feeling of literary deprivation the last month or so as I lost all shreds of time for reading for pleasure (I am slightly laughing at myself even as I write this, I do realize that my normal life decadently has far more literature in it than anyone has a right to, I've been teaching my particular favorite Restoration comedies & early Jane Austen and really it is not as though I've been desert-island-style deprived of reading matter, I've been to lots of interesting talks etc. etc. and read quite a few books one way or another yet the free play of intellectual stimulation just can't quite happen when I don't get a lot of hours for wayward reading...).

Bookforum is just a delight! It gives me that chocolate-box feeling of good & unexpected things in every corner, just what I most like.

Here's a great piece by Eric Banks on two books about the history of vegetarianism and the future of food, check out this bit (do you not totally want to try that sour-cherry Tang? I wonder if it is possibly obtainable through channels of some kind--and of course any essay that combines discussion of sour-cherry Tang and the Godwin-Malthus-Condorcet axis which is my recent obsession is just priceless):

Belasco argues that the various flavors of food futurism have given rise to three future tenses: classical, modernist, and recombinant. He plumbs in particular world's-fair extravaganzas to find the visual expression of these three—well-trodden ground, to be sure, but fascinating still. The classical version of the future offers a model best found in the agricultural displays of superabundance and horticultural imperialism that marked the world's fairs in Chicago (1893) and Saint Louis (1904). The former boasted awe-inspiring exhibits—an eleven-ton wedge of cheese from Ontario, a map of the US made of pickles, a fifteen-hundred-pound chocolate Venus de Milo from the Great State of New York, and, not to be outdone, a thirty-eight-foot-high temple made of thirty thousand pounds of chocolate and cocoa butter housing a ten-foot-tall statue of solid chocolate from France. Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima pancake mix made their all-American debuts at the Chicago fair, and foreign foodstuffs, from Ceylon tea to Jamaican rum, underscored the pedagogical theme linking a bountiful future and American corporate vision.


It's way too easy to make fun of the hubristic extremes of food modernism and its brave-new-world projections, but Belasco does a good job of tracing the rise and fall of the model without shooting Jetsons in a goldfish bowl. His discussion of the space program's evolving culinary ideologies—from the "edible biomass" in a tube that John Glenn consumed in orbit in 1962 to the "brown revolution" (think Thai noodles, spring rolls, basil pesto, and tortilla wraps) that current NASA research embraces in its plans for future explorers—demonstrates how the modernist future can evolve in fact into a recombinant vision of "futures [that] come à la carte in the choice-maximizing menu of late consumer capitalism." Whether this represents, from a food standpoint, a new version of the future or simply the exhaustion with futurism per se is a question Belasco never quite addresses.

As compelling as Belasco's cultural history is, there are blind spots. Consider Tang, a rare instance where his own prejudices come into play. No single consumer item was more associated with space-age breakthroughs than "the drink of astronauts," and few could match its marketing punch: Not only was Tang a replacement for fresh orange juice, it was promised that it was even better than OJ, with more vitamins A and C than the natural stuff. And no other consumer product seems more quaintly a sign of the demise of that high-futurist moment than the powdered juice in a jar: "By the 1990s," Belasco writes, "it was clear that astronauts did not want Tang either." But while Tang has indeed lost much of its market share in the US and become fodder for period jokes, its success in the global marketplace is nothing short of phenomenal. The convenience and affordability of Tang have made it a leading consumer item throughout Latin America, and Kraft, which owns the label, shills Tang for microniched national tastes, producing a sour-cherry version for the Turkish market, mango for Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, and so forth. In this sense, Tang is no less "recombinant" than the Whole Foods customer voting with a trolley.

If I were an astronaut I would want Tang, drinking what's essentially glorified sugar-water would seem wholly justifiable under the circumstances (when I was little I had a friend who had Tang at her house, it was the height of culinary excitement as far as I can remember, did we not when we were children in the 1970s actually want to eat Tang from the jar with a spoon?).

The other things that especially caught my eye (mostly not online, and in any case it's more the impressionistic sense of cornucopia that I want to convey): Rebecca West making dismissive comments on the New Yorker editors (Interviewer: "They have a tremendous reputation"; West: "I don't know why") and on what is obviously Ian McEwan's novel The Cement Garden ("I do think modern novels are boring on the whole. Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful thing about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the whole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It is not enough"); the fact that Beatrix Potter "edited out of her most famous book a picture of the pie Peter's father ended up in, not because it might upset tots to see their hero's father en croute, but because she couldn't get the cook's face right" (that's Claire Harman reviewing Linda Lear's biography, also very appealingly & intelligently reviewed at greater length by John Lanchester in the NYRB--oh, I did love those Beatrix Potter books when I was little, and I have had occasion several times recently to ponder the line about lettuce being soporific [curiously it's used by Gary Krist in one of his thrillers as a code, I was taken aback in a good way when I found that, how unexpected...]); and a book of photographs that I must get, Martha Camarillo's Fletcher Street, on the horseback-riding North Philadelphians I once blogged about here.

Perhaps most thought-provoking, though, is a wise and rather sorrowful essay by Gerald Howard about Philip Rieff. It left me with the feeling that I must read Rieff sooner rather than later (and I have also been pondering the fact that I've never read Elias Canetti, that must be remedied). Sontag and Rieff and also Hannah Arendt are looming large over both of these two issues, interestingly: I do not suppose there exactly will be such a clear consensus group of must-read intellectuals in this next generation, eh?

The NYRB isn't as playful of course and yet it also has many good literary things this week (the issue isn't up online yet): Jeremy Waldron's piece on Arendt is kind of a must-read, Mary Beard's got a delightful little essay on Robert Harris's Imperium (hmmm, reminds me I've got that lying around here, when am I going to have time for a real light reading binge?!?); and best of all Joyce Carol Oates reflects on Joan Acocella's criticism in an essay that gives me that excellent yearning feeling to do some thinking and essay-writing of my own.

Good stuff, and now I must try and get some sleep, working too hard is one of the great destroyers of sleep I find...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Caught red-harded

In case you're mildly curious, this is the picture of the arrest of CIA agent Martha Peterson (from the funny little pamphlet I got at the KGB museum in Moscow in the summer of 2000) that mesmerized me and made me want to write a spy novel set in Moscow in the 1970s.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Juliet Hughes has a great profile of Terry Pratchett at The Age. My idea of heaven right now would be to lie around for three days rereading my favorite Discworld novels--my other idea of heaven would be to have two months to write a good chunk of a new novel--my third idea of heaven would be to go for a ten-mile run and to be magically able to swim a reasonably fast mile in the pool without stopping--all equally unobtainable in the near future, I fear. But if I am patient they will all come about in moderate amounts of time (months rather than years, I think--not sure about the mile swim, or at least it depends what you mean by reasonably fast, but the other ones for sure and even the mile seems obtainable if you think of it as a matter of building up from smaller increments, it is amazing how much better I can swim now than I could six weeks ago).

Civilization and other games

Tom Gatti profiles Iain Banks at the Times Online. God, I love that guy's books, not the science fiction ones so much but the others are pretty much exactly to my taste (you know when you read novels by someone and you just feel that their brain is working on the same wavelengths as your own? there are tons of novelists I love but don't feel that about, it's the exception rather than the rule): I would totally pre-order The Steep Approach to Garbadale from Amazon UK if I didn't already have so many heaps of unread books sitting around awaiting my attention...

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Motor Caravanning Club of Great Britain (South East Division)

Kathryn Hughes has a great piece about Orwell in the Guardian Review this week. It's quite indescribable and surprising, very well-written, and opens with this rather entrancing paragraph (I remember Anthony Burgess had a Dormobile also, it was part of his flee-the-British-tax-system episode in the memoirs):

From the late 1960s my family spent every weekend and most of the summer holidays axle-deep in a muddy field surrounded by 50 or so other Dormobiles and Commer Highwaymen. Despite the rather raffish brand names of our vehicles, we members of the Motor Caravanning Club of Great Britain (South East Division) were actually a rather stately crew. There was Commander Rees, who had seen distinguished service during the "last war", as older people still called it, and whose caravan was still painted in camouflage. There was Rick, a postman from Crawley who, to designate his status as our unofficial master of ceremonies, always wore a fez. There was us, a preternaturally quiet and well-behaved little family in shorts who barely said anything except to ask politely the way to the Elson disposal unit. And then there were the Misses Buddicom, a pair of elderly sisters whose main interest, as far as my eight-year-old self was concerned, was that they shared their temporary home with two cats which were able to come and go as they pleased thanks to a special step-ladder with tiny paw-sized rungs propped against the open window of their caravan's cab.

The elder Miss Buddicom was Orwell's girlfriend when they were teenagers, and wrote a memoir about the relationship; but that's only scratching the surface...

It is not

that I have any ambition to write, say, a huge family-saga type novel (of the early Susan Howatch style) or anything like that, I certainly don't, but the researcher-novelist brain tells me that David Landes's new book Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World's Great Family Businesses (nicely reviewed at the FT by John Kay) would be an interesting and useful thing to read.

(On a related note, it's not online but James B. Stewart has an interesting piece on the Hewlett-Packard surveillance scandal at the New Yorker; and on a wholly unrelated note, you can read online in this week's issue of the magazine a quite delightful Susan Orlean piece on origami.)

It is not quite sufficient explanation for the fact that I spent two and a half years fairly doggedly learning Russian, I was always in love with the idea of Russia in any case, but then & now when someone asks me why I did it I have only one answer, which is that I thought it would be helpful for writing spy novels. After I visited Moscow in the summer of 2000 I really did want to write a novel set there, it was a photograph I saw in the KGB museum that put the idea in my head--a quite extraordinary picture from the late 70s of the American spy Martha Peterson getting arrested, I don't think the picture's online but here's a Time Magazine story about her--I went as far as checking a lot of books out of the library but doing the research was going to be very trying without a good command of Russian, and the moment passed in any case...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

I have all sorts of great quotations

in my new academic book, many of my favorite ones are from the eighteenth century of course (sometimes I find these things that seem so perfect I almost think I've made them up--I'll post a sample or two over the next few weeks), but here's perhaps the best more recent one, from a very good essay by Roger Smith, "The Language of Human Nature," in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains (1995): "Quoting references to human nature in the eighteenth century is a bit like quoting references to God in the Bible."

So true....

On an entirely frivolous note

here's a delightfully gruesome story about a glass eye (courtesy of Nico).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


It does not reflect well on my character but of course I am irresistibly drawn always to the "more in sorrow than in anger" type of scathing review (I do not like the really vituperative ones, a calm tone is best although a barely veiled irritability is clearly justified by certain books), and there is a very good specimen of this sort in this week's TLS.

They are most enjoyable to read when they are leveled against inferior productions by major writers (I am thinking Banville-McEwan), in this case it's Stephen Abell on Norman Mailer's latest:

Regrettably, some of the flicker of intellectual excitement caused by such a novel concept is extinguished by the novel itself. The problems begin with the narrator, who, from his Melvillean opening (“you may call me D.T.”), unnecessarily intrudes into the narrative at regular intervals: “to bring, therefore, a first explanation of the sinuosities, salients, dead ends, and recesses of our war, I am obliged to offer an outline of the forces we look to exert now on human society”. In contrast, say, with the “diabolical ventriloquism” of C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (1942) – that sustained performance of ironic malice – Mailer only offers the devilish equivalent of a middle manager, full of humdrum humanity, as if determined to make paranormal creation as unexceptional as possible. So, D. T. is constantly concerned with fussing over his words (“be it said”; “be it understood”; “so to speak”) and musing over his metafictional status: “if it be asked once again how I can be aware of such a reaction when Alois is, after all, not my client, I will reiterate that on occasions we can enter the thoughts of humans who are closely related to one of our charges”.

This intended wordiness can have damaging consequences for the quality of the prose. Mailer once said that his style resided in the “tensile strength of the sentence”; The Castle in the Forest, alas, feels artificially bulked-out with writing that has been merely lengthened not strengthened over the course of its composition. Take these examples of inelegant variation, which appear in adjoining paragraphs: “the sound of wailing was still in their ears, a cacophony of whimpering, howling, bawling, blubbering, sorrowing and lamentation”; and “so many were sick in heart, sick in soul, sick in stomach, slime clinging to their spirit, lost in the vortex of a dream”. At such moments, the finished novel feels like an accidental palimpsest of all of its previous drafts, in which rejected phrases have reasserted themselves in the text like stubborn stains.

Mailer is also fond of euphemism, a technique that itself represents the substitution of length for strength. Sex is “traffic with the vulva”, “carnal ore”, “a nice wet surprise”, “a priapic gift”; Alois’s restless penis is variously “the Hound”, “a proud bulge ready to speak for itself”, “an upsurge in the happy region below his navel” and a “happy, blood-filled organ”. This is perhaps inevitable given the novel’s lingering preoccupation with penetration, or that “ham-handed naturalness of the most agreeable work of all – that hard-breathing, feverish meat-heavy run up the hills of physical joy”. Such regularly ham-fisted attempts to capture carnality are testament to the author’s desire to grab hold of the material reality within the “lodes of perversity to be found in the human flesh”. They form a series of indigestible, “meat-heavy” sketches on the subject: from “the meats, body slaps and fats of the occasion” to the “wonderful array of meats and juices – such a panoply of flesh in miniature – this offering of archways and caverns and lips”.

Such heaped loads of perversity not only allow Mailer to show us how unembarrassed (and therefore embarrassing) he can be, but also represent a too straightforward means of fleshing out his fictional world. The author is guilty of a facile Freudianism, in which sex is used as a shorthand for real life itself: “breasts, penis, anus; powerful stuff; integral”, as the boxing promoter Don King says in The Fight (1975). This is also true of the constant references to the “excretory dramas” of young Hitler, which again focus on the tangible aspects of his existence: the “monumental turd . . . dark, doughty, and as forbidding as a primeval club”, etc. Mailer would probably argue that there is some benefit in the fact that the narrator “engages caca itself” in this manner: it reduces the “monster” of history to the common denominator of a physical process; it gives us the anality of evil, as it were. And it may, rather subversively, make us conscious of the “guts and smear” of the man who went on to create what the author has termed the “worldwide sewer of the concentration camps”.

Mailer’s failure comes, then, not necessarily in being potty-mouthed, but being so relentlessly po-faced about it; we cannot take this writing as seriously as it takes itself.

Herman Melville's Bartleby adopted by Up With People?

Phil Nugent has a fairly stunning piece called "An American City: New Orleans, Helen Hill and Me" in the Valentine's Day issue of webzine The High Hat. It's long enough that it may be worth your while to print it rather than reading it on screen, but I think you can't afford not to read it if you care about New Orleans: it's a smart, fierce, sad, deeply unsettling essay. And the picture of Helen at the top is an absolute heartbreaker.

Do-it-yourself spiral kits

Toni Schlesinger has a charming piece at the New York Observer on the fortunes of spiral staircases. Go and take a look, it's full of interesting observations but it's also got that lovely Schlesinger diction:

There are still some spirals leading to basements in illegal landlord-carpeted purgatories in Queens; some in Brooklyn brownstones; also the two famous French-library ones in the penthouses of the 367-369 Bleecker Street Condominium, formerly the two townhouses of Pierre Deux Antique owners Pierre LeVec and Pierre Moulin, who had two of everything until they died. (They met working on the Marshall Plan in Paris.) Gunther Moses, Soho’s foremost electrician since the early days, thinks there is still one in his ex-wife’s loft.

But then there are all these mothers now, and they are wagging their fingers, and architects for mothers are advocating regular stairs. “Buyers with children find spiral stairs to be hazardous,” Corcoran agent Suena Williams said.

(Also of interest: Matthew Schuerman's piece on Columbia president Lee Bollinger and the projected Manhattanville expansion.)

On a related note, I must say that I am fond of the Observer's books coverage--they only publish two or three reviews each week (though there's some additional coverage in other sections of the paper), and not all of the books interest me, but the quality of the writing's very high and it also passes my test of sensibility: you get the feeling that there's a distinct taste at work behind the selection and assignment of books for review, a quirky but nonetheless subtly coherent set of interests. Another paper that has this quality (I'm afraid it's rare these days) is the Financial Times; I always read that book review section with great enjoyment.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A quick light reading update

At the Times, an unsettling but distinctly fascinating (that poor naked poodle!) slideshow of pictures from the Westminster Kennel Club dog show...

Posting will remain light round here for the next week or so due to more than usually all-pervasive work obligations. Almost the only redeeming feature of the mild stomach ailment that has laid me low this past week is that it gave me time and occasion for a tiny bit of light reading, otherwise recently in scarce supply. (And friends reading this must forgive me my marked recent social delinquency, I will make every effort to reemerge into the world next week!)

It is ridiculous, my apartment is full of new & appealing unread books, but as soon as I heard this one was out I rushed to the bookstore to buy it in hardcover (something I almost never do with crime fiction), this writer's books are not exactly what I would recommend to everyone but I find them absolutely irresistible: Carol O'Connell's Find Me. As always, it's a bit strange and surreal in ways that make you wonder whether they arise primarily from the wondrous strangeness of O'Connell's imagination or just from a kind of technical inattentiveness (it is not really praise to say of a crime novel that you're not quite sure what's just happened). O'Connell is also perhaps too tender with her main character Mallory, essentially this is romanticized gunslinger stuff. And yet I absolutely love her novels....

Ken Foster's The Dogs Who Found Me is utterly compelling, especially in the sequence leading up to the end of the narrative (he's made the thoughtful and disturbing choice to conclude with a description of evacuating New Orleans during Katrina with his small family of dogs). An interesting and thought-provoking book. Will make you want to rescue a pit bull...

Finally, Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Faster, Better and Easier. Self-helpish, padded, and yet rather a good read (my brain just makes me skip over the drills, though; and he gives them the most ridiculous names...). I am now wholly consumed with the learn-to-be-a-good-swimmer project, it's a good thing: the free-weights type of working out is fine, I always enjoy it (really anyone will enjoy it if they do it properly, it's very democratic, no skills required in particular and you feel great afterwards) but it has in no sense captured my imagination. (Muscles are good, I like them, but I cannot say I really care about them!)

The swimming- and running-type stuff is far more mentally compelling to me. Of course nothing is like running (I am just about now cleared to start a little bit of running again post-stress fracture, but the point is to build back very slowly for safety purposes, I can see it is going to be very frustrating--I am waiting to have my first little pitiful one-mile run on a day when I can afford to be traumatized and irritated), and swimming has all the horrors of excessive chlorine (to which it turns out I am absurdly allergic--but Claritin works wonders), crowded lanes, sordid locker-rooms etc., but I am guessing it will all work out fine.

I've been having some lessons and practicing doggedly and semi-maniacally whenever I can, and I'm going to do Doug Stern's six-week swimming clinic in March, and I'm going to find some opportunity to practice open-water swimming over the summer, and in short my heart's desire is to run the marathon in the fall and to do a bunch of triathlons in 2008. (Which is mildly absurd, I still don't even have a bike, but I am going to get one as soon as I get a check for the novel.)

And all last week I kept on queasily arising from my sickbed and consulting the academic calendar for 2007-2008 and the schedule for Doug's training vacations (he's the deep-water-running guru guy, I like these strong-willed and obsessive instructors with a good sense of humor, I've been taking the class offered through the New York Road Runners) and it does indeed seem to me that if I teach my spring-semester seminars next year both on Monday and am willing to embark on hitherto-unprecedented extravagance and sport-related obsessiveness then I could go to the 2008 incarnation of Doug's January training vacation in Curacao.

(A curiosity: in 1997 Oliver Sacks published a piece in Triathlete Magazine about this trip! I have not been able to get hold of the actual piece--in the very unlikely event that someone reading this has a copy, I'd love to see it--but I remember a number of places where Sacks writes amazingly well about swimming, it's one of his passions and a prompt to his eloquence.)

One more thing about swimming: I haven't by any means found the perfect place to swim, both of my main options are flawed in one way or another (actually in multiple ways), but there really is nonetheless a hidden gem at Columbia Teachers College. The Aquatic Center pool is like something from the eighteenth century--well, not really, more like early twentieth century, but delightfully there are no locker rooms, you just walk round the outside edge of the pool area and find yourself a little changing room--they're numbered, and with locks on the doors--you walk in and lock it from the inside & just leave all your clothes and things on the hooks and shelves and then use the inside door to walk directly to the pool area.

I fear I have not done justice to its charms, but it's somehow like something from a young-adult fantasy novel, you get there through a dim confusing basement corridor in a part of campus I never otherwise go to and it's like a magical little preserve. I say eighteenth century, of course, because I am thinking of those bathing machines they invented at British watering-places of the period, and of course really it makes me happy because it reminds me of my favorite Humphry Clinker (on this note I will conclude):

Scarborough, though a paltry town, is romantic from its situation along a cliff that over-hangs the sea. The harbour is formed by a small elbow of land that runs out as a natural mole, directly opposite to the town; and on that side is the castle, which stands very high, of considerable extent, and, before the invention of gun-powder, was counted impregnable. At the other end of Scarborough are two public rooms for the use of the company, who resort to this place in the summer to drink the waters and bathe in the sea; and the diversions are pretty much on the same footing here as at Bath. The Spa is a little way beyond the town, on this side, under a cliff, within a few paces of the sea, and thither the drinkers go every morning in dishabille; but the descent is by a great number of steps, which invalids find very inconvenient. Betwixt the well and the harbour, the bathing machines are ranged along the beach, with all their proper utensils and attendants. You have never seen one of these machines — Image to yourself a small, snug, wooden chamber, fixed upon a wheel-carriage, having a door at each end, and on each side a little window above, a bench below — The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress, while the attendant yokes a horse to the end next the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is on a level with the floor of the dressing-room, then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end — The person within being stripped, opens the door to the sea-ward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong into the water — After having bathed, he re-ascends into the apartment, by the steps which had been shifted for that purpose, and puts on his clothes at his leisure, while the carriage is drawn back again upon the dry land; so that he has nothing further to do, but to open the door, and come down as he went up — Should he be so weak or ill as to require a servant to put off and on his clothes, there is room enough in the apartment for half a dozen people. The guides who attend the ladies in the water, are of their own sex, and they and the female bathers have a dress of flannel for the sea; nay, they are provided with other conveniences for the support of decorum. A certain number of the machines are fitted with tilts, that project from the sea-ward ends of them, so as to screen the bathers from the view of all persons whatsoever — The beach is admirably adapted for this practice, the descent being gently gradual, and the sand soft as velvet; but then the machines can be used only at a certain time of the tide, which varies every day; so that sometimes the bathers are obliged to rise very early in the morning — For my part, I love swimming as an exercise, and can enjoy it at all times of the tide, without the formality of an apparatus — You and I have often plunged together into the Isis; but the sea is a much more noble bath, for health as well as pleasure. You cannot conceive what a flow of spirits it gives, and how it braces every sinew of the human frame.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The secret desires of the British

Tim Adams has a funny and rather touching piece at the Observer about Brett Kahr's new (Kinseyesque) survey of British sex fantasies in the early twenty-first century:

In his book, and in person, Kahr is acute about the oddness of a job which involves him starting work at 6.45 in the morning (many clients like to see him before they start work) and grappling all day with the details of interior lives that may promote 'thundering orgasm' or lead to suicidal despair. In his youth, he wanted to be a concert pianist. Instead, he spends his time working through the traumas of, say, 'Mrs Elphinstone' who, when she masturbates, thinks 'about her elder brother and her 17-year-old nephew, Claude, both of whom have really hirsute chests which she adores' - in contrast to the torso of 'Mr Elphinstone', which appears to her like that of 'a skinned chicken'. His book is full of such crippling dilemmas, so many that you get quickly inured to the peculiar sadness and comedy of human desire.

The PEAR tree

It would be fun to write a novel set in a place like this. (Connie Willis's novels have a little bit of that feel sometimes. She's very good on the dynamics of the small under-funded research institute....)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Short notice

for interested and/or Columbia-affiliated blog-readers but there's a very interesting conference happening at the Heyman Center this weekend: On the Concept of Character (literary-oriented speakers include Ruth Bernard Yeazell and Maria DiBattista; I'm on sort-of-unofficial question-asking/respondent duty for that bit, nothing at all formal though).

Martin Amis and Stalin's Russia

John Banville has a very interesting piece at the NYRB on Amis's latest novel "House of Meetings" in the context of his career as a whole.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bombers streaming overhead like a well-regulated flush of pheasants

At the TLS, Richard Davenport-Hines on the war diaries of courtier Sir Alan Lascelles:

Rationing spoilt every aspect of life: Lascelles has to dine on bully beef and fruit tart at the Travellers Club, roast mutton with cider at the Duchess of Devonshire’s, hotpot of rabbit followed by blancmange at Goldsmiths’ Hall. He found it impossible to buy a new suit with enough pockets, had to wear underpants inherited from an uncle in 1920 and winced at spending thirty-five shillings to acquire a bath sponge – of a quality, he complained, “which a few years ago one would have bought for 3/6 to wash the dog with”. Lascelles’s diaries are a rich source of Churchilliana. Sometimes he encounters the Prime Minister in “a devilish bad temper”, and deplores his “dictatorial habits”. He was crucial in preventing Churchill and King George VI from rashly accompanying British forces at the D-Day landings, and noted then that the Prime Minister’s “naughtiness is sheer selfishness, plus vanity”. But there are many affectionate, even adulatory glimpses of the great war leader: Churchill, after receiving the news that British forces had launched their great Egyptian offensive, astonishing the Palace footmen by striding down a corridor singing “Roll out the barrel” with gusto; Churchill inveighing against the affected accents of “pansies in the BBC”; and Churchill ending a stormy interview with de Gaulle with a threat: “Et, marquez mes mots, mon ami – si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai”.

A few other thoughts: I must get those Hugh Trevor-Roper letters that Davenport-Hines edited (absurdity of double-barreled names... I wonder when double-barreled came into use in that sense?); also, I highly recommend Peter Dickinson's novel King and Joker as a glimpse into an alternate-universe Buckingham Palace...

An addendum from the OED (I am sorry to say I'm down with a low-level stomach virus that means I must shortly go back to bed & that has shown me that my mood right now is far too dependent on the progress of my learn-to-be-a-good-swimmer project, which is temporarily and distressingly thwarted by illness): DOUBLE-BARRELLED.

1. a. Of a fire-arm: Having two barrels.

1709 STEELE Tatler No. 34 5 His double-barrelled Pistols. 1835 W. IRVING Tour Prairies 95, I discharged the double-barrelled gun to the right and left.

b. Of a telescope.

1955 Sci. News Let. 21 May 324/2 A double-barreled telescope that can record a golf ball's flight eight miles away will go to work for the Air Force to track guided missiles.

2. fig. Serving a double purpose; having a double reference; double, twofold.

1777 Maryland Jrnl. 9 Sept. (Th.), The event of this double-barreled scheme has been, that the colonel and his party are defeated. 1837 DICKENS Pickw. xxvii, This was a double-barrelled compliment. 1841 THACKERAY Second Funeral Napoleon ii, The above account..has a double-barrelled morality. 1889 Univ. Rev. Nov. 345 Every one they know has a double-barrelled name and a great-grandfather of renown. 1912 W. OWEN Let. 24 July (1967) 151 Your sleek Thomas, Hopkins, Dixon,..and the rest of these double-barrelled guns, whose double-barrelled names I refuse to write. 1938 Spectator 21 Jan. 75/2 The two minor groups are generally nominate one candidate in the double-barrelled constituencies. 1959 J. P. HUGHES How you got your Name vi. 103 In surnames the double-barrelled form does not appear before the eighteenth century. 1965 T. REESE Bridge Conventions 44 Double-barrelled Stayman, an extension of the Stayman Convention whereby both two clubs and two diamonds in response to 1 NT are conventional.

So double-barrel a. = DOUBLE-BANKED a.; n., (a) a double-barrelled gun; (b) a hyphenated surname (cf. DOUBLE-BARRELLED a. 2 above); double-barrel v. nonce-wd., to make ‘double-barrelled’.

1807 Z. M. PIKE Acct. Exped. Mississippi (1810) 8 Apr. 240 Visited the treasurer, who showed me the double-barrel gun given by governor Clairborne. 1811 BYRON Hints fr. Hor. 556 Double-barrels..miss their mark. 1829 FONBLANQUE Eng. under 7 Administ. (1837) I. 313 A double-barrel gun. 1848 THACKERAY Bk. Snobs xii, He double-barrelled his name, and, instead of T. Sniffle..came Rev. T. D'Arcy Sniffle. 1952 A. POWELL Buyer's Market iii. 178 The double-barrel..has really no basis whatever, beyond the surname of a remote ancestor.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Shakespeare brogue

At the end of last week I saw the by-me-much-anticipated Theatre for a New Audience productions of The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice.

The first was a great disappointment, one of those silly and incoherent productions that camps it up in a way that's unsustainable for the length of a full play; it's not perhaps the easiest play in the world to make sense of, on the whole it's farcical and totally over the top (I always think of Harold Bloom intoning the line "Sometimes I go about and poison wells" with great glee as part of his argument about Shakespeare getting his charismatic villains from Marlowe) and yet it needs to be fast-paced and more or less coherent--and political, too, if you ignore the public-life aspects of it you're not getting one of the substantive points of interest--in order for it to be worth watching. Instead just a lot of fooling around and worst of all the actors talking in that awful "Shakespeare brogue," a sing-song manner that involves emphasizing almost every word & persuades the audience of nothing so much as that the actor does not understand the sense of what s/he is saying. Very bad, a clear case of the play not being as good as the dinner afterwards (Esca again, a plate of scallops and watercress and winter citrus salad that was pretty much the perfect food)...

But the Merchant production was really very good: here's Charles Isherwood's review of both productions at the Times, I would perhaps not go quite so far in praise but it really is a mesmerizingly interesting play, an appealing production and some very good acting also.

And on a related note, James Fenton had an interesting piece on the Royal Shakespeare Company this weekend in the Guardian.

(Going to see Shakespeare always makes me feel like I'm paying a debt to my younger Shakespeare-obsessed self, I really think that the single most magical thing that happened to me during all of my teenage years was getting to see an amazing pair of RSC productions in New York as an Xmas present the year I turned thirteen and Derek Jacobi was my absolute favorite actor due to Masterpiece Theatre "I, Claudius"--I had been Robert-Graves-obsessed for years already at that point--and the plays were Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac, the latter of which sometimes comes across on the page as slight or sentimental but in this incarnation was absolutely heartbreaking...)

One blog

I've been reading recently with great pleasure is Phil Nugent's--exceptional quality of writing and thinking over there, with a mix of film and politics and other stuff--here's an extremely funny and sharp 'double-jointed' review* of "The Situation" and "Screamers," go and take a look...

*The coinage is courtesy of the Dizzies--where, by the way, there's currently a great Philip K. Dick quotation & link. The quotation's from PKD's ex-wife's memoirs, and I just love this passage, it is so much how I think about fiction-writing also (only I am not such an accurate typist, but I agree about the words coming out of the hands rather than the brain):

He said that the idea for a novel came to him in one intuitive flash, but he couldn’t tell me what the idea was “in under 60,000 words. The words come out of my hands, not my brain. I write with my hands. I type 160 words a minute, the rate of a really good legal secretary, and I’m very accurate.” One day he told me he typed sixty original manuscript pages without an error. He continued to tell me about this feat many times.

What's going to be good

(I'm not sure I can get to it, the next day is a truly massive work deadline, plus I always teach two classes on Mondays and Sunday's a difficult evening to go out--but if I have a truly maniacal work day then possibly I will be able to go--several people have sent me the link now and it sounds infinitely desirable): a tribute to the fiction of Thomas Bernhard on Sunday, Feb. 18 at KGB. Readers include Wayne Koestenbaum, Ben Marcus and Dale Peck (who I most particularly approve of as a passionate advocate for the fiction of Heather Lewis).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

We'll never have feral pugs

Jon Mooallem has a quite wonderful article in this week's Times Magazine about designer dogs. Great, great quotations--I like it when I read an article that comes across as really well reported but also highly attuned to the peculiarities of the things people say...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

An expenses claim for virtual sexual enlightenment

Jenny Diski has a great piece on the Second Life phenomenon at the LRB. Here are the first two paragraphs, just to show you why you'd better go and read the whole thing:

Most religions suggest that we get at least one other go at being. Christianity offers an afterlife, Judaism suggests an altogether better existence once the Messiah arrives, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions try to deal with samsara, the terrible burden of having to do life over and over again until you get it right. But I don’t think any of them offer much help with the alarming notion of multiple worlds, which quantum theorists have arithmeticked to prove entirely possible. As far as I can understand it, Many Worlds Theory proposes that there are n zillion worlds like this one but marginally different, operating in parallel to the only world in which we think we exist. There you’re wearing pink kitten heels not Hush Puppies, there you had sausage for breakfast not muesli, there it so happened that you took a left turn not a right one and became a fashionistic, carnivoracious arch-criminal instead of the peace-negotiating, vegan, style wasteland you are in this world. We might each be living out all our possible lives, through all the variations of what we could possibly say or do, in an infinite number of worlds where everyone else is living out their variations, each at some weird angle to this one that my sorry, innumerate and spatially challenged brain is unable to comprehend. If this sounds like hell on earths to you then you probably haven’t signed up for Second Life.

Second Life is a virtual online world that exists on a vast computer somewhere in California. It has a detailed landscape, a mainland, many islands and more than one million simulated inhabitants whose actual bodies are distributed around every part of the physical world. It’s called a game though there is no goal and no end point at which a clear winner emerges and takes the prize. In this it is no different from real life (RL, as it’s referred to in SL). And it’s free up to a point, which is the entrance price of real life, though just like the here and now, if you want to own any part of the world in Second Life, you need money to buy it. There are of course differences between RL and SL. You have to opt in to SL, which is a degree of volition you don’t get in reality. This does give it a certain negative charm: at least there is one possible life to which you can just say no. It also has the edge on the real thing (for me, at least, as an über-indolent person), because being a virtual world, you don’t have to go out to get to it. I used to weep envious buckets watching whatshisname in Close Encounters of the Third Kind being taken off-world to the absolutely not here anymore by those delightful doe-eyed creatures, and Second Life seemed to offer a way of doing this without the hassle of the striving, making mountains out of mashed potato, quest thing. So I signed up.

Further thoughts:

1. I want to write essays like this! (I always have an especially strong impulse to make new things when my writing time's locked in for months to come on finishing long-term ongoing projects, no surprises there...)

2. The kitten heels and sausage bit is surely an exaggeration for rhetorical effect. I very often invoke the "alternate-universe self" concept to explain things about my life and my choices, so that you might think of yourself "oh, in the next universe over to this one [I was just reflecting on this yesterday] my time would be much more evenly split between books, movies, plays and music, but in this one I am pathologically obsessed with books at the expense of the other art forms for which I feel a strong affinity" or "oh, several universes over that guy would be my nice boyfriend, but not in this one" (and you use the "immediately proximate" versus "several universes over" distinction to explain how strongly or weakly you feel an affinity for the path not taken). In no alternate universe (well, this is just me in particular, I cannot speak for Jenny Diski of course!) would I be wearing kitten heels or eating sausage for breakfast. But in the next universe over, I might be wearing black cowboy boots almost every day; and in another next universe (or perhaps even the same one) I might have oatmeal for breakfast instead of yogurt, or (well, this is farfetched, some flavors are just so clearly superior to others, and not all are sold everywhere) eating a Banana Nut Clif Bar instead of a Crunchy Peanut Butter one...

3. This is related to the "lost twin" notion. It is my longstanding belief that if I was reunited with a lost twin, the strange and sort of horrifying part of it wouldn't be the broad similarities but rather the minute ones: the uncanny feeling of looking at someone who, say, puts on their eyeliner in the exact same way. This is just to say that it is possible that my alternate-universe selves are almost all excessive-book-reading Dansko-clog-wearing later-in-life-exercise-obsessed maniacs. It would be exciting if my alternate-universe self did not have a stress fracture and was training for an Ironman race, I must say that while I find it unlikely that I would ever do an Ironman I will be very disappointed with myself if I have not done a half-Ironman by, say, age 40, I think that gives me plenty of time to train and learn how to do it....

4. Which is in turn related to the "clone" notion. I often feel that I am doing two or sometimes even three different person's work, but it is an interesting test of priorities to think about what you'd do if you could hive off a clone or two and start delegating. One reason I know I must be a professor for the rest of my life is that when I am most busy at work and just desperately wishing for time to write, I would send the clone to write and keep doing the teaching and admin stuff myself!

Friday, February 02, 2007

I like it

that the Financial Times quite often reviews scholarly books about the eighteenth century. This one about Edmund Curll sounds well worth checking out (the review is by Robin Black):

In this new and detailed study of Curll’s career, he is admitted to be a muckraker, pornographer, plagiarist, literary pirate and quarrelmonger. His feud with Alexander Pope occupied both men over three decades, originating in the publisher’s pirated editions of Pope’s early poems. In revenge the poet dropped an emetic into Curll’s drink at Fleet Street’s Swan Tavern, then wrote a pamphlet on the prank.

Undeterred, Curll published more unauthorised Popeiana. When Pope played what he thought was his ace by bringing out The Dunciad, Curll imperturbably cashed in with a series of profitable spin-offs: A Compleat Key to The Dunciad, The Popiad and The Curliad. Curll was a roly-poly clown: however often he was pushed over he came upright, still smiling.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Also on an inspirational note

(though I am not at all planning on taking up singing in a serious way) Nico has sent along a funny and delightful and doubtless true list from William Byrd.

Reasons set down by th' auctor to persuade everie one to learn to sing:

1. It is a knowledge easlie taught and quicklie learned, when there is a good master and an apt scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to nature, and good to preserve the health of man.

3. It do strengthen all parts of the heart, and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singular good comedic for a stuttering and stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to preserve a perfect pronunciation, and to make a good orator.

6. It is the onlie way when nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyse ; which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that hath it; and in mannie that excellent gift is lost, because they want the art to express nature.

7. There is not any musicke of instruments whatsoever comparable to that which is made by the voyces of men, when the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voyce is, the sweeter it is to honor and serve God therewith ; and the voyce of man is chiefly to be employed to that end - owns spiritus laudet Dominum.