Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dames de voyage

Cory Silverberg interviews David Levy about sex and robots. (Link via Steven Levitt at the Freakonomics blog, where there is also a rather funny discussion of the subject going on...)

Familial frivolities

To the best of my knowledge, neither of my brothers has a blog, and nor does either sister-in-law, but I do have two extremely talented cousins on my mother's side of the family who both blog as a pastime!

Forthwith (I am partly contemplating this because I'm steeling myself to set up a Myspace page for the new novel, only I am slightly bewildered by how to handle the whole thing!): Patrick Pringle (here's a good sample post) and George Pringle (check out the songs, very fun stuff!--but it also must be said that enchanting prettiness is a good trait for a musician also in the modern world, she is extraordinarily lovely to look at!).

Sorry, George, now I will have made you self-conscious--but really it is only the honest truth!

Favorite devices

Dinah Birch reviews Brian Aldiss's science fiction omnibus at the TLS. Some interesting thoughts there on writing about the future, but the thing that really made me start paying attention (really I must get this volume, or at least Eliza Blair's story!):
Eliza Blair’s exuberant “Friends in Need” (2006) imagines a world in which a cheerful adolescent, speaking the electronic dialect of her generation, makes common cause with a genetically enhanced ginger tom, who is endowed with English of the most formal and fastidious kind. Together they dream of a revolution. “I’ll need some books on civil law”, ponders the cat.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fatness, idleness and a limited book budget

At the New York Sun, Eric Ormsby has a very nice review of Jim Endersby's altogether wonderful-sounding A Guinea Pig's History of Biology (I have it from the library, but have not yet had a chance to delve into it--but I am going to buy a copy also, it is too appealing a title just to have from the library!):
Mr. Endersby has had the happy idea of tracing the successes of modern biological research through the subjects which have made it possible. Each of his chapters focuses on a particular plant or animal, from the now extinct quagga, a cantankerous relative of the zebra, to microscopic bacteriophage, or "bacteria eaters," and culminating in the genetically engineered OncoMouse®, one of the first rodents with a full-fledged patent all its own. As he points out, "the history of biology has, in part, been the story of finding the right animals or plants to aid the search."

That search was twofold. It drew on practical considerations: to improve breeding lines, beginning with racehorses but extending to livestock; to develop cash crops with higher yields, culminating in our current, and controversial, genetically modified crops (of which Mr. Endersby provides a cautious and very balanced assessment), and, most crucially, to understand and find cures for devastating diseases. But it was also a search for something fundamental and far more elusive. In Mr. Endersby's account, the history of modern biology is a story of challenged assumptions, of refusing to accept easy explanations, of a willingness to ask apparently silly questions and to pursue the answers to them with astonishing doggedness.

As Mr. Endersby rather mischievously suggests, certain questions may unwittingly reflect the preoccupations of those who posed them. Why, Darwin wondered, were two sexes needed for reproduction? Certain animals, such as barnacles — as well as most flowering plants — are hermaphroditic. Isn't self-fertilization safer, less random, and more efficient? Since flowers contain both male and female parts, why is pollination advantageous? Mr. Endersby notes that while he was pondering such tantalizing questions — which led eventually to his theory of natural selection — Darwin was also contemplating marriage. And in 1838, he drew up a list of the pros and cons. He worried about falling prey to "fatness and idleness," and fretted that matrimony would crimp his book budget. In the end, he decided in favor of marriage; having "a constant companion," he decided, was "better than a dog anyhow." One gets the distinct impression that the great man had spent far too much time in the company of barnacles.
Hmm, perhaps this is just the calming book that will be most suitable for me to read right now at this very moment...

(Somehow I do not think this one, which arrived this evening from Amazon along with an inordinate number of Clif bars and books about triathlon, will be nearly as suitable!)

The ghost of pelvis past

At the Times, the glamorous Olivia Judson offers evolutionary theory for alternate historians (sticklebacks also make me think of The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher!) Everything this week is conspiring to make me desperately want to start writing the sequel to The Explosionist, but it must wait for the end of the school year...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Substance P

Wendy sends a great little story about naked mole-rats (the picture is adorable, but really mostly it would make an excellent premise for a science-fiction novel--I love the notion of a distinction between chemical and mechanical pain, I had never thought of it in those terms before!):
Researchers have added to the list of biological curiosities about mole-rats: the animals do not feel all types of pain. The discovery could eventually help humans who are battling chronic discomfort.

African naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unusual creatures — they are cold-blooded mammals, have a long lifespan, and live in co-operative societies of hundreds of individuals in a manner more typical of bees and wasps than moles or rats.

The animals react normally to the mechanical pain caused by pinching and prodding, but are insensitive to a suite of other normally nasty stimuli, according to Thomas Park of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Gary Lewin at the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, Germany, and their colleagues.

Those stimuli include acid and capsaicin, the ingredient in chilli peppers that causes a burning sensation in many animals. These mole-rats are also odd in that their skin, when inflamed, does not become hypersensitive when exposed to unpleasantly hot objects, even though they react to excessive heat in the same way that other mammals do, the researchers report in PloS Biology
It is purely irrational, but I am consumed with the notion of how appealing it would be to have a huge cooperative society of naked mole-rats living somewhere nearby, perhaps not actually in a back garden (I am too lazy to garden!) but within walking distance...

Synergistic chemicals

Stuart Jeffries interviews Joan Brady at the Guardian--it's a fascinating profile in its own right, but it also clarifies certain matters concerning the absurd notion (I blogged about it the other day) that fumes can make a writer "go lowbrow" (link courtesy of Sarah):
The Times ran with the headline "Fumes made me go lowbrow, says writer". It even juxtaposed two extracts - one from Theory of War, the other ostensibly the opening paragraph of Bleedout (it is actually from later in the book) under the headline "Dumbing down" - as if to suggest the fumes had made Brady a literary thickie. "The voice is exactly the same as in Theory of War," she counters crossly. "I haven't dumbed down. I never said it. That's the pure invention of the Times. They have decided that this effete literary woman has become so stupid that she can no longer write boring literary fiction and writes poorly selling thrillers instead. My mental faculties haven't deteriorated. And anyway, what an insult it would be to thriller writers to suggest that you need to be stupid to write them. It seems to me so irritating that you would denigrate a remarkable genre where much of the best writing is done. I'm a great admirer of writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow."
Hmmm, my personal opinion is that Grisham and Turow should not be mentioned in the same breath, Turow is so markedly the superior writer...

Epistolary delights

Clarissa Harlowe to Anna Howe, from Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, ed. Angus Ross, letter no. 12:
That you and I, my dear, should love to write is no wonder. We have always from the time each could hold a pen delighted in epistolary correspondencies. Our employments are domestic and sedentary, and we can scribble upon twenty innocent subjects and take delight in them because they are innocent; though were they to be seen, they might not much profit or please others. But that such a gay, lively young fellow as this, who rides, ,hunts, travels, frequents the public entertainments, and has means to pursue his pleasures, should be able to set himself down to write for hours together, as you and I have heard him say he frequently does, that is the strange thing.


The other guys were more poetic.

"An elite 10% that engage in advice-giving conversation up to five times more frequently than the average American"

Clive Thompson considers the "Influentials" component of six-degrees-of-separation arguments. (Link courtesy of BoingBoing.)

The part I like concerns something that's useful for alternate historians to think about:
In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren't merely hard to predict and engineer--they occur essentially at random.

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable. (And it's worth noting, no one in the social worlds had any more influence than anyone else.) So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown--and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset. "You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets this huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result," he marvels.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Teaser (self-promotional)

I still don't have a digital image of the cover of The Explosionist, but I did have the exciting job this weekend of proofreading the final typeset pages. I've picked a page more or less at random (one that doesn't give anything of the plot away!) so you can see how it looks....

(I will just add, though I am not sure it is discreet--and certainly it's a subjective judgment--that I think I have done something relatively unusual, which is to say written a book whose second half is better than its first! I like the first half too, but it moves at a more leisurely pace--things really pick up adventure-wise once it hits the halfway point--this is perhaps not as practical as the other way round, since [most!] readers will after all read the first half first, and a gripping second half will be wasted if people don't make it there in the first place!)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Uranium, the Dead Sea Scrolls, a kidney?

It seems to me that this would be a supremely useful piece of luggage.

This deathless manuscript lacked charm

A rather delightful piece at the Independent in which ten "famous writers" reveal the details of books of their own that never saw the light of day. I must say that I am rather tempted to pick up a few novels of Amanda Craig's at the library, I think I've only read one of them but if her unwritten books are so appealing the written ones must be even better:
I have a few "sock drawer novels" knocking around – a dreadful romantic thriller set on Capri, a historical tragedy inspired by the life of the poet Catullus and a mock-Gothic mystery involving the Brothers Grimm. All were half-written in my teens and early twenties, when I was under the delusion that fiction was about fame, money and the love of beautiful men.

However, nothing fills me with as much relief as the idea that my space opera, The Abyss of Time, will never see the light of day. Like all budding writers, I was trying to copy what had excited me most when growing up. In those days, Faber still published its best SF short story collections, and there were some genuinely cutting-edge writers such as Robert Heinlein, John Christopher, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K Dick and Cordwainer Smith who excited me enormously, especially when I was feeling cramped by reading Eng Lit at Cambridge and being told that Modernism was the last gasp of civilisation. I wanted monsters, magic, marvels and bombs, not bloody Leopold Bloom trudging round Dublin. When I conceived of a towering space opera based on The Tempest, with Prospero as a genetic scientist living in exile with his "daughter" Miranda on an asteroid, and Ariel and Caliban as warring aliens, I was thrilled.

A mixture of magniloquent philosophy and stilted pornography, its climax involved a lot of intergalactic explosions and a hermaphroditic elopement. Really, I just needed to live longer, calm down and get out more.

"Gold is just lead on holiday"

In the latest Astral Weeks column at the LA Times, Ed Park considers the novels of Terry Pratchett:
Who was it who said P.G. Wodehouse could be relied on to provide two or three brilliant metaphors a page? I want to write "Evelyn Waugh," but I don't think that's correct. I am also pestered by the dim sensation that I've already used this assessment, in some fugitive piece years ago, in a quaint era known as Before Google.

If it wasn't Waugh, maybe the culprit was George Orwell, or Hilaire Belloc, or someone newish like Stephen Fry. It might have been Douglas Adams. I am dangerously close to forgetting why I brought the matter up in the first place, but the distant yowling of a baby, who happens to be my infant son, brings the point home: In my current fragile mental state, I am incapable of reading anything but the lightest of comedies.

I don't mean "lightest" pejoratively -- nor "comedies," for that matter. (Nor "of"!) I like light. And it's my informed opinion that it is many times harder to pull off light than heavy -- for example, this review so far is the product of nearly a week of labor, though much of that was taken up with changing the font from Times to Helvetica and back again. (Hmm, how would this look in . . . Garamond?)


A brief swoop is all I've had time for with the latest issue of Bookforum, now up online, but Eric Banks has an irresistible-looking piece about Patrick Hamilton, whose novels I am ashamed to say I have never read (but I am going to remedy the situation--and surely Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl's Court is one of the great novel titles of all time?!?):
When Patrick Hamilton wrote to his brother, Bruce, of the “magnifying influence of beer—the neurotics’ microscope,” he wasn’t blowing smoke; he was faithfully expressing what for him had assumed the knife-sharp form of dogma. For Hamilton, one of the hardest-drinking authors of the twentieth century, there was more in his topped-off flask than the boozy business, though; he deftly mastered an entire worldview of late-’30s and early-’40s London and the precincts his working-class subjects haunted—not just the grubby alcoholism, the evenings of ale and pink gin and whiskey, and the fevered attempts to find an establishment open after last call but also the more plebeian desire for tea at the ABC shops and leviathan Lyons Corner Houses, one of which could seat five thousand teacup-holding Englishmen, their class anxiety served up amid marble staircases and the anodyne twinklings of a for-hire orchestra.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Tom Perrotta wishes he were less hairy...

(This Q&A's main potential contribution to my daily operational vocabulary: "what makes me cross"! I have been using an almost certainly tiresome combination of irritable, irksome, grumbleness-inducing, etc. for some months now, I am in need either of a more varied set of terminology or else perhaps just a more tolerant attitude!)

Amended to add: Is "grumbleness" even a word?!? And if so (but surely not!), have I actually ever used it? Hmmm, probably so...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"You are either a liar or are unbalanced and should see a doctor"

Frederic Raphael has a most meticulously and scathingly well-written piece on Graham Greene's letters in the TLS this week. It's interesting in itself (Anthony Burgess makes a brief appearance!), but also perhaps most striking as an instance of what I think of as a characteristically British reviewing style, in this case with Raphael's particular stamp on it. Lovely!

(I admire it without wishing to emulate it, I think it must take a lifetime of practice in any case and a whole formation of the personality which I am too much of an enthusiast to embrace!)

Desalination, falconry, camel reproduction?

At the TLS, Robert Irwin has a rather good piece about an interesting-sounding book on Islamic science by Muzaffar Iqbal:
People who are only aware of Jabir (or Geber as he was known in the medieval West) as the name of an early scientist, may not be aware of what richly bizarre treasures are to be found in his strangely diverse writings: sperm is a crucial ingredient in the elixir of life; bird sperm is needed for producing a man with wings; the effigy of a Chinaman in bed will keep one awake at night; a picture of a man killing snakes done in magical ink will actually kill snakes; there is a fish called “the doctor of the sea” that carries a stone in its head that has the power to cure all ills; putrefied hair generates serpents; demons can be usefully trapped in statues. In the monumental Jabir ibn Hayyan: Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Paul Kraus (1904–44), a genius who committed suicide at an early age, surveyed the Jabirian corpus, which covered sexology, alchemy, the art of warfare, the manufacture of talismans, artisanal techniques, religious polemic, grammar, music, invisible inks, the artificial generation of human beings and much else. Kraus showed that the corpus was not the work of a single hand. Moreover, most of the treatises dated from the late ninth and early tenth centuries and contained radical Shia propaganda. Iqbal is aware of Kraus’s findings but oddly refuses to engage with them and continues to treat Jabir as a real person who lived when he is supposed to have done and who wrote several hundred miscellaneous treatises. In general, Iqbal elides the pervasiveness of occult thinking in Islamic science. Also when writing about cosmology, he refers en passant to a genre of literature known as the “Wonders of Creation” (in Arabic aja’ib al-makhluqat), but the treatises in this genre that I have consulted have more in common with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! than anything seriously scientific.

But Iqbal is successful in arguing that the “Quran itself lays out a well-defined and comprehensive concept of the natural world, and this played a foundational role in the making of the scientific tradition in Islamic civilization”. Faith impelled rather than impeded the Islamic scientist. The Koran commands man to study Allah’s creation. The eleventh-century cosmologist al-Biruni wrote: “Sight was made the medium so that [man] traces among the living things the signs and wisdom, and turns from the created things to the Creator”. At a more practical level, astronomy and mathematics were studied and further developed to assist in such matters as the orientation of mosques, the determination of prayer times and the division of inheritances according to Islamic law.

Repressed legs

In an alternate universe, I am the kind of geneticist who spends her days turning off genes in fruit flies...

Also worth noting: British novelist Nicholas Mosley (son of Oswald) wrote a rather good novel called Hopeful Monsters (hmmm, must get a copy of that paperback reissue, look appealing)...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"This elegant thimble"

It happens that I am a frivolous person who can never see the word "caucus" without thinking of one of my favorite books, which is rather distracting at this point in the election cycle:
`In that case,' said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, `I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies--'

`Speak English!' said the Eaglet. `I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and, what's more, I don't believe you do either!' And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.

`What I was going to say,' said the Dodo in an offended tone, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.'

`What IS a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

`Why,' said the Dodo, `the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.'

`But who is to give the prizes?' quite a chorus of voices asked.

`Why, SHE, of course,' said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, `Prizes! Prizes!'

Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.

`But she must have a prize herself, you know,' said the Mouse.

`Of course,' the Dodo replied very gravely. `What else have you got in your pocket?' he went on, turning to Alice.

`Only a thimble,' said Alice sadly.

`Hand it over here,' said the Dodo.

Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying `We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble'; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.
It also happens that I swam in the sea the other week; it was absolutely lovely in every particular barring a tad of sea itch, but any itchiness was frankly relieved by the charming name of the itch-causing creature=the thimble jellyfish!

Which led me (courtesy of Brent) to a fairly hilarious wikipedia entry for thimble, upon realizing that I have never quite understood the purpose of a thimble--is its use to poke the needle through the cloth off-label or on, as it were? On, it turns out--I do not know why I should have been so strongly persuaded it was to protect one's other finger from being poked...

"I would always have at least three cadavers"

At the Science Times, Emily Voigt on the use of real human cadavers for high-schoolers to dissect.

Also: Natalie Angier on animal politicking.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


A passage from a letter by Thomas Andrew Knight, as given by Alexander Walker in Intermarriage: or, The mode in which, and the causes why, beauty, health, and intellect, result from certain unions, and deformity, disease, and insanity, from others: demonstrated by delineations of the structure and forms, and descriptions of the functions and capacities, which each parent, in every pair, bestows on children,- in conformity with certain natural laws, and by an account of corresponding effects in the breeding of animals (1839):
A celebrated French civil engineer, M. Polonceau, visited me some years ago, bringing with him a young French gentleman, who spoke English eloquently, and perfectly like an Englishman, though he had been in England only two years, and, as he assured me, knew nothing of the language previously, nor had ever heard it spoken. I asked him whether he could pronounce the English name Thistlethwaite, and he instantly pronounced it most distinctly and perfectly. The next day, when talking of other matters, he said that he had some Irish relations; and it appeared that his grandmother, on the female side, whom he had never seen, was an Irishwoman. Hence arose, I do not at all doubt, his power of so readily pronouncing the word I had prescribed. A French gentleman at Paris boasted to me that he could pronounce correctly any English word. I proposed Thistlethwaite to him, when, instead of trying, he exclaimed, “Ah, barbare!”

A naturally bra-less flying centaur

Ed Park played the Xanth card this morning and chaos ensued (scroll down to items IV, V and VI--but only if the name Piers Anthony has any meaning for you, otherwise it is all moot!).

Too small to be of use

At the Telegraph, a nice piece by Nicola Shulman (and an older one by Jim Endersby, who has written a most wonderfully titled book that's currently awaiting my attention, A Guinea Pig's History of Biology) on Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1.

Packet death

At the Times, Norimitsu Onishi on the Japanese vogue for cellphone novels.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Paranormalists from Toronto

At the LRB, Hilary Mantel has an engaging piece on the Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained:
There is a long list of natural phenomena and human inventions that lurked on the fringes of science before they became officially credible. At the end of the 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences said with impeccable Gallic logic that, as there were no rocks in the sky, no rocks could fall from the sky. In 1803, more than two thousand meteorites fell on a village in Normandy – after that, and an investigation by the scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot, the Academy was less sniffy. The eminent scientist Lord Kelvin said that Roentgen’s X-rays were a hoax. Edison’s electric lamp was declared an impossibility, and because it was an impossibility his fellow researchers wouldn’t go to see it even when Edison used it to light up the streets around his laboratory. From 1904, the Wright brothers made flights over fields bordered by a main highway and a railway line in Ohio: but though hundreds of people saw them in the air, the local press failed to publish reports because they didn’t believe the witnesses, and didn’t send their own witnesses because it couldn’t be true. Two years after their first flight, Scientific American dismissed the feats of the flying brothers; if there had been anything in it, the journal said, wouldn’t the local press have picked it up?

But maybe it’s easier now to evade taboos and get a hearing for nonsense. The internet has so vastly increased the potency of urban legends, so quickened the circulation of rumours, that we may soon be the most deluded generation ever born. It seems strange that some scientists are so angry with the sacred books of old-time religions, when so many challenges to rationality are generated by half-understood, miscommunicated information, much of it masquerading as science, available online and in the press. The internet is the great source of light and of darkness; it trashes the status of knowledge, undermines its ownership, and scants the principle of editing and review. The laconic conventions that govern online communication favour the proliferation of irony, of a two-way split of meaning in every line, so that the knowing prevail effortlessly over the naive. Fleeting and flitting, self-generating, double-faced, the internet is the natural home for anomalous phenomena, which have a primitive quality, yet track social paradigms; like science fiction, they dance like sprites around the scientific consensus, sometimes seeming to follow, sometimes to lead, sometimes to head off by themselves into an ancient inner landscape.

Until the idea of space flight became credible, there were no aliens; instead there were green men who hid in the woods. In the same way, psychotic delusions keep up with scientific change: the people once pursued by phantasms of the dead are now pestered by living celebrities who watch them from inside their TV sets, and those who used to confess themselves possessed now say there is a bomb inside them. The dictionary attests to the power and antiquity of the need to believe we are sharing the planet with beings not animal and not human, with ‘little greys’ from spacecraft, with goblins and domestic deities: beings who suspend the laws of nature wherever they pop up, and suspend moral laws too, for household sprites and pucks often have a fierce, childlike sense of justice, and retaliate without fear if they are slighted; aliens who want sex never ask nicely. On the lonely road by moonlight, the parts of ourselves oppressed by our intelligence come out to play. We meet ancestral selves, neither gods nor demons but short semi-humans with hairy ears and senses differently attuned – the eyesight of an eagle, the nose of a hound. The phenomena are internal, generated by the psychological mechanisms that connect us to each other and to our evolutionary past.

Three cute prawns suntanning on the rice

Really it is in dubious taste, but Ben Mcintyre's piece on Charlie Croker's new collection of mistranslationist misadventures has some good ones...

Added value

Luc Sante on the drink-ticket economy.

A future mythology of melt and end

At the Independent, Jean McNeil has an excellent piece on two quite wonderful-sounding volumes edited by Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, The Ends of the Earth: The Arctic and the Antarctic.

(Hmmm, imagine being a writer-in-residence in Antarctica?!?)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Special Agent, Department of Metahuman Affairs

Min Jin Lee considers Jodi Picoult's new Wonder Woman installment (this sounds great, I must get it):
Wonder Woman's creator, Dr William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated psychologist, might have appreciated this new self-awareness of an ambivalent superhero. Marston invented the first functional polygraph machine (forerunner of the Lasso of Truth) and maintained a polyamorous household with his wife Elizabeth and lover Olive, who each bore him two children.

An eccentric intellectual who believed in the moral superiority of women, Marston wagered that comics could serve as “psychological propaganda”. In 1943, he wrote in The American Scholar that “the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self”.
I am sorry to confess I was never a comic-book reader, but at the age of five I was very much in thrall to the television series. At Montessori school, where we were invited to choose a new name for ourselves if we did not like our actual ones, I wrote "Wonder Girl" optimistically on the name line on my exercise book (I cannot say it stuck!); and though I cannot remember for sure, I have a strong suspicion that the actress in question was responsible for my first guinea pig (a very handsome brown-and-white one) being called Linda...

My inner fish!

Alan Cane reviews Neil Shubin's new book at the FT:
Shubin’s basic proposition is encapsulated in what he calls the biological “law of everything”: that every living thing on the planet has parents. This innocuous, quite banal statement conceals a great profundity: that no structure in the living world arises de novo. And not only every creature but also every limb, every organ and every tissue is derived from an earlier form – and in the process, may go through a transformation which renders the relationship between one and the other hard to understand.

He describes, for example, the discovery of the origin of the bones of the mammalian middle ear. Comprising three separate bones, the malleus, the incus and the stapes, this structure is unlike that of any other class of animal: reptiles and amphibians have one bone while fish have none. So where, Shubin asks, did our middle-ear bones come from? The answer was provided in 1837 by the German anatomist Karl Reichert. He had been following the development of gill arches, swellings around the base of the embryonic head, in mammals and reptiles. He was astonished to find that two of the ear bones in mammals corresponded to pieces of the jaw in reptiles. Shubin writes: “The conclusion was inescapable: the same gill arch that formed part of the jaw of a reptile formed ear bones in mammals. Reichert proposed a notion that even he could barely believe – that parts of the ears of mammals are the same thing as the jaws of reptiles”.

As a fossil hunter, Shubin distinguished himself by leading an expedition to the Arctic in 2004 which uncovered the remains of a fish with a wrist, a creature with part fin, part limb. Named Tiktaalik (Inuktitut for “large freshwater fish”), it was the first fossil to show characteristics which placed it midway between land and sea; in its time, Tiktaalik probably propelled itself along the bottom of streams and ponds or navigated mudflats along the riverbank, supporting its body on its strange, limb-like fins.
Here's the Amazon link for Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

(Someone at the FT is an undercover fish-lover, eh?!? That paper has been a cornucopia of fish- and water-related stories in the last six months!)

Spending Christmas with some very old friends

Filmmaker Jane Campion has a rather lovely piece in the Guardian Review about Janet Frame's fiction and the film adaptation of An Angel at My Table. It is an extraordinarily moving and beautiful film--for some reason I saw it under festival- or gala-type circumstances in New York before it was released, and all sorts of things about it have stayed with me, I must watch it again sometime...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Does your Lordship never think of prose?"

Caroline Franklin has a fascinating piece at the TLS on the newly published letters of Byron's publisher John Murray to the poet:
Murray habitually used Byron as an anonymous reader, for example sending him novels of Maria Edgeworth and Frances Burney, and various poetry manuscripts. He also requested his opinion on the literary quality of all the latest publications: “Is there any thing but tinsel in Keates – Cornwall & Croly pray tell me”. Byron was sent parcels of books with tooth powder and corn plasters which he couldn’t obtain in Italy, and he forwarded relics from Waterloo, presents and poetry in return. Byron often recommended writers to the publisher, for example, James Hogg, when he had withdrawn The Queen’s Wake from Constable and Miller in 1814, and Coleridge’s “Christabel”, “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep” in 1816. When Byron was a member of the Drury Lane subcommittee, he had recommended their melodrama The Magpie, which Murray published using a printer named Mr Dove.

The history of sweets and snacks

In the paper of record, Jennifer 8. Lee makes the case for the Japanese origins of the humble fortune cookie of Chinese-restaurant fame.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


At the NYTBR, Sophie Gee on adapting the classics into mass-market hits.


For the FT, Edward Luce lunches with Christopher Hitchens (correct link).

Also: Julian Flanagan interviews Tom Paulin.

The eloquence of the diplodocus specimen

At the Guardian, Richard Fortey on the Natural History Museum in London:
On one of my forays through the basement, I came across a door that I had not noticed before. This was in a corridor with a half-forgotten air, on one side of which were tucked away the osteology collections - bones, dry bones, where oxen strode naked of their skin and muscles, and great bony cradles hung from the ceiling, the jawbones of whales. Here, ape and kangaroo met on equal terms in the demotic of their skeletons, with no place for the airs and graces of the flesh.

Strange though these collections may seem, they were as nothing compared with what lay behind the mysterious door opposite. For this was Dry Store Room No 1. Neglected and apparently forgotten, this huge square room entombed the most motley collection of desiccated specimens. Fish in cases were lined up, species by species, in their stuffed skins; they presented in faded ranks like a parade that had forgotten the bunting. At one end, there was a huge fish that seemed to have been cut-off mid-length, so that the posterior part of its body was apparently missing, and it had a silly little mouth out of proportion to its fat body. It was a sunfish, and its cut-off appearance was entirely natural - a faded notice attached to it proclaimed it was the "type".

Elsewhere, there were odd boxes, one of which contained human remains, laid out in a kind of slatted coffin. The shells of a few giant tortoises hunkered down like geological features on the floor. There were sea urchin shells, and some skins or pelts of things I couldn't identify.

Most peculiar of all, on top of a glass-fronted cupboard, was a series of models of human heads. They were arranged left to right, portraying a graded array of racial stereotypes. One did not have to look at them for very long to realise that there was a kind of chain running from a Negroid caricature on one side to a rather idealised Aryan type on the other.

Dry Store Room No 1 was a kind of miscellaneous repository, a place of institutional amnesia. It was rumoured that it also was the site of trysts, although love in the shadow of the sunfish must have been needy rather than romantic. Certainly, it was a place unlikely to be disturbed until it was dismantled. I could not suppress the thought that the store room was like the inside of my head, presenting a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber-room of memory. Not everything there was entirely respectable; but, even if tucked out of sight like suppressed memories, these collections could never be thrown away. We are all our own curators.
Mmmmm, Dry Storeroom No. 1 is certainly near the top of my list of must-read books... like a young-adult fantasy novel, only all true!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Godwin on phrenology

I have an unhealthy obsession with the writings of William Godwin...

Here are a few of my favorite words of his, from the late Thoughts on Man (full electronic text can be found here). He's describing the new science of physiognomy as "all a system of fatality" (his sarcastic summary of the phrenologists' position is that "Independently of ourselves, and far beyond our control, we are reserved for good or for evil by the predestinating spirit that reigns over all things"):
Unhappy is the individual who enters himself in this school. He has no consolation, except the gratified wish to know distressing truths, unless we add to this the pride of science, that he has by his own skill and application purchased for himself the discernment which places him in so painful a preeminence. The great triumph of man is in the power of education, to improve his intellect, to sharpen his perceptions, and to regulate and modify his moral qualities. But craniology reduces this to almost nothing, and exhibits us for the most part as the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The check is in the mail

Literary news seems rather slow this week, so instead: a minor morality tale showing the importance of paying one's bills in a timely manner.

A rising ridge of the Cranium under the Eye-brows

I need to find a picture to put on the cover of my new academic book, only I am the least visual person in the world! Hmmmm--this image from Edward Tyson's Orang-outang (1699) is rather a favorite of mine...

Aesopes Damosell

I love all Francis Bacon's essays, but this is certainly one of my favorites:
NAture is Often Hidden; Sometimes Ouercome; Seldome Extinguished. Force maketh Nature more violent in the Returne: Doctrine and Discourse maketh Nature lesse Importune: But Custome onely doth alter and subdue Nature. Hee that seeketh Victory ouer his Nature, let him not set Himselfe too great, nor too small Tasks: For the first, will make him deiected by often Faylings; And the Second will make him a small Proceeder, though by often Preuailings. And at the first, let him practise with Helps, as Swimmers doe with Bladders, or Rushes: But after a Time, let him practise with disaduantages, as Dancers doe with thick Shooes. For it breeds great Perfection, if the Practise be harder then the vse. Where Nature is Mighty, and therefore the Victory hard, the Degrees had need be; first to Stay and Arrest Nature in Time; Like to Him, that would say ouer the Foure and Twenty Letters, when he was Angry: Then to Goe lesse in Quantity; As if one should, in forbearing Wine, come from Drinking Healths, to a Draught at a Meale: And lastly, to Discontinue altogether. But if a Man haue the Fortitude, and Resolution, to enfranchise Himselfe at once, that is the best; Optimus ille Animi Vindex, led\-etia pectus Vincula qui rupit, dedoluitque semel, Neither is the Ancient Rule amisse, to bend Nature as a Wand, to a Contrary Extreme, whereby to set it right: Vnderstanding it, where the Contrary Extreme is no Vice. Let not a man force a Habit vpon himselfe, with a Perpetuall Continuance, but with some Intermission. For both the Pause, reinforceth the new Onset; And if a Man, that is not perfect, be euer in Practise, he shall as well practise his Errours, as his Abilities; And induce one Habite of both: And there is no Meanes to helpe this, but by Seasonable Intermissions. But let not a Man trust his Victorie ouer his Nature too farre; For Nature will lay buried a great Time, and yet reuiue, vpon the Occasion or Temptation. Like as it was with AEsopes Damosell, turned from a Catt to a Woman; who sate very demurely, at the Boards End, till a Mouse ranne before her. Therefore let a Man, either auoid the Occasion altogether; Or put Himselfe often to it, that hee may be little moued with it. A Mans Nature is best perceiued in Priuatenesse, for there is no Affectation; In Passion, for that putteth a Man out of his Precepts; And in a new Case or Experiment, for there Custome leaueth him. They are happie Men, whose Natures sort with their Vocations; Otherwise they may say, Multùm Incola fuit Anima mea: when they conuerse in those Things, they doe not Affect. In Studies, whatsoeuer a Man commandeth vpon himselfe, let him set Houres for it: But whatsoeuer is agreeable to his Nature, let him take no Care, for any set Times: For his Thoughts, will flie to it of Themselues; So as the Spaces of other Businesse, or Studies, will suffice. A Mans Nature runnes either to Herbes, or Weeds; Therefore let him seasonably Water the One, and Destroy the Other.

Survival in the jungle!

I so want to read this book...

The definitive Potter reference book

At Slate, Tim Wu explains why J. K. Rowling should not be allowed to block publication of a fan-composed guide to the world of the Harry Potter novels.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Atomic clocks

At the TLS, Richard Fortey has a particularly lovely piece on Pascal Richet's A Natural History of Time:
Charles Darwin and T. H. Huxley and their many supporters needed plentiful time to achieve the gradual transformation of life – and their reckoning ran to hundreds of millions of years. However, Lord Kelvin, a physicist with the authority of a minor god, had other ideas. Using a more sophisticated version of Buffon’s terrestrial cooling model, by the late nineteenth century Kelvin had settled on no more than a few tens of millions of years for the age of the earth, and he didn’t budge from his conclusion. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”, demanded a dozen times the span. Even estimates based on the time taken to accumulate the thickness of sedimentary rocks then known – the whole pile added together – yielded figures of an order of magnitude higher than Kelvin’s. An impasse had been reached.

The deadlock was broken by the discovery of radioactivity. The story of the age of the earth now became part of the tale of understanding the constitution of matter itself. Michael Faraday had remarked in 1866 that “to discover a new element is a very fine thing, but if you could decompose an element and tell us what it is made of – that would be a discovery indeed worth making”. The time for dissection of matter had arrived. N-rays and radiations allegedly emitted by psychics were perhaps the last of the distractions from that denouement. The production of energy from radioactive decay rewrote all the equations that Lord Kelvin had used for his estimates. The earth was a boiler, not a cooling potato. The instincts of the geologists and the palaeontologists had been correct after all; and the apparent certainties of physics had been revealed as inadequate. The earth could, after all, be very old. When it was realized that many chemical elements could exist as different isotopes, it became clear that radioactive decay converted one form of uranium into another of lead at a predictable rate. Here, at last, was the objective “clock” that had been sought since the time of Buffon. Decay of elements ticked off geological time in millions of years. Different decay routes provided a double check on any results. Margins of error tumbled as one piece of “kit” was replaced by yet another, still more sophisticated, and eventually capable of counting the very atoms themselves. Through shared technical advances, the story of the age of the earth then became entangled with the tragedy of Hiroshima.

Biography and the social sciences

At the New York Sun, Tyler Cowen reviews Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader For a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. It's an interesting and thoughtful review--but that book cover just cracks me up...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

"In a civilized society a person cannot send a severed cow's head to anybody"

The most depressing thing about this story is the last line.

On a brighter note, Guy Gugliotta contemplates insect husbandry in the Science Times (courtesy of The Dizzies). The annual Insect Rearing Workshop! The "Davis inoculator"! "A Texas A&M moth diet"!

Trashy novels

are in my opinion the balm of the soul...

(It is always a bit of a dilemma, I do not want to offend the innocent novelist who Googles his or her title and finds it lumped in here under this perhaps not entirely flattering rubric, but I love trashy novels more than almost everything else in the world, really it is 'trashy novels' in scare quotes, and 'light reading' is the more appropriate moniker! In my opinion it is a compliment to describe a book as a trashy novel, and it has always been one of my most cherished ambitions--one day it might really come to pass!--that I will write a novel that will appear in a mass-market paperback edition with a foil cutout cover...)

I had another Terry Pratchett one over the weekend, Moving Pictures. Enjoyable, but not one of his best; the local jokes are excellent, but the conceit as a whole feels a bit forced.

And I've just finished a very good one by an author I'd never heard of--Dragon's Teeth, by James A. Hetley. It is a misnomer to call this urban fantasy, since it's set in small-town Maine, but that's the feel. Definitely recommended, especially if you like Charles de Lint, although now I am going to make a series of critical observations!

First of all, I wish this kind of book were more often written with a deep sense of humor--I never can quite take all the mythic past stuff! (But I must say this fellow does a very good job with the integration of magic with really well realized weaponry and computer stuff...) Second, what is the attraction of this notion of families of great wealth and connection to the land whose history in a place goes hundreds and hundreds of years back?!? I was perversely reminded of a quite different series, I cannot now at all remember the name of either the author or the detective but it involves a completely implausible scenario, an immensely wealthy townhouse-owning Manhattan homicide detective of ancestral old New York-Dutch descent with a sort of family cabal that possesses immense resources and sort of a secret key to the city, there is a vaguely Da Vinci Codeish feeling about this kind of conceit of which I do not really approve...

And finally, though this is certainly not the author's fault, there is something deeply at odds between writing and publishing practices in the SF-fantasy field and the situation whereby we buy books at bookstores! Usually I buy online and get books from the library, if you buy online there is no reason not to get the first installment either alone or in a bunch with subsequent ones. But I've been traveling quite a bit these last weeks, which for various reasons is more likely to land me in a bookstore and buying stuff to read (one reason is that traveling makes me tired & minor-nervous-breakdownish in a way that makes all unread books already in my apartment seem offputting, so that I seek lightweight new ones with the glow on 'em at the bookstore!). But the shelf life on new non-crime genre fiction is so short that you end up buying book #2 in a series, because #1 is not available in the store, and reading it in mild perplexity as to what exactly happened in book 1! They recap so much that you would probably not then want to read the first one--only you are still left with various things unresolved, and wish you could have had them the other way round...

(The thing I had this very strongly with recently--in fact more strongly, Hetley has done a good job filling in what happened in the first installment, only as I say he has almost certainly rendered that volume now redundant for me in the process--was Justina Robson's Selling Out. It seemed so strongly exactly what I most wanted to read that I bought it anyway, despite my sense that it was going to be annoying not to have read the first one--I had to put it aside halfway through and wait for the first one to arrive at the library...)

(This week and next I am going to revise my academic book manuscript, catch up on sleep, have a surfeit of light reading and swim as much as possible. That's it!)

Monday, January 07, 2008

"I have to see my e-mail as soon as possible"

Blogging might be bad for you...

This story is a good example of overinflated titling!

(Hmmm, I find non-paid blogging highly restorative and not at all stressful, in fact extremely soothing, but perhaps that's just me...)

The First Annual Helen Hill Memorial Tea Party (New York Edition)

Helen Hill died on January 4, 2007, and this year on January 4 a bunch of friends and family got together to remember her and to look forward in a Helenesque spirit to better times to come. The party was hosted by my adopted grandfather--walking into his apartment is like entering a timeless and magical alternate universe (but one that strongly hints of the bohemian lifestyle of 1970s Soho, it is quite lovely and slightly induces Austin Powers jokes among the more feckless visitors!), you could see one person after another reeling at the threshold and then becoming completely immersed in the collages and other art on the walls once they had readjusted to the room's proportions and loveliness (it is a former gallery space, very live-workish).

We had a song or two from Pistol Pete, there were little children running around (and a nerf football!) and a real abundance of lovely cakes and cookies brought by Adrienne from Babycakes and Eleni's. A picture format issue is preventing me from uploading the images, but trust me when I say that the comestibles were quite extraordinary!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"Evil husband Fred West"

A truly demented story about the death of a guinea pig. (Via Nico.)

(It is somewhat off topic, but if I were in prison, I would find it a great consolation to have a pet--a cat would probably be too much to expect, but a guinea pig would do just fine...)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Low talk

To continue the theme from earlier in the evening (I have one more letter of recommendation to write, and then I can go to bed), Melissa Katsoulis (writing for the FT) contemplates Bloomsbury staidness and adherence to old-fashioned notions of politeness in conversation:
It was in 1907 that one word from one man saw these shackles unceremoniously shrugged off. The man was writer Lytton Strachey and the word, according to Woolf, was “semen”.

Or to be exact, “Semen?” Strachey had just entered a room where Virginia and her sister sat and, pointing to a mark on Vanessa’s dress, casually and explicitly enquired as to its origin. Woolf’s first thought was, “Can one really say it?”; but then, a moment later, “everyone burst out laughing” and a new age was born. The age of anything goes. As she puts it in her autobiographical Moments of Being: “All barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation…”

"The newt is among our forefathers"

Hmmm, seems I've got an eye for the scathing ones this evening; at the Sunday Times, Christopher Hart offers a funny redaction of George Steiner's My Unwritten Books:
The one real surprise is a rapturous chapter entitled The Tongues of Eros, which is presumably intended as a serious, inquiring, lyrical and tender outline of a sexual autobiography, but induced uncontrollable fits of laughter in this reader. Steiner’s central argument is that making love “in German” is very different to making love “in Italian”, and that as a polyglot himself (a tetraglot, to be precise), he has had ample scope to confirm this personally.

Ch. “when nearing climax . . . would cry out, though in a muted register, the name ‘Sankt Nepomuk the Lesser.’ ” Another used the euphemism “taking the streetcar to Grinzing” to signify “a gentle, somewhat respectful anal access”.

In bed, in Angers, a French conquest used the rare subjunctive pluperfect, as perfected by Proust, “which arrested me, in, as it were, mid-flow” – something worth remembering if trapped in a lift with the professor. Another rebuked him for taking an unspeakable liberty: “ ‘How dare you address me as tu?’ panted V even as I parted her comely legs.”

"One smells the thing unprinted"

At the LRB, Colm Toibin considers the first two volumes of a new edition of the complete letters of Henry James (projected to come in at more than 140 volumes!). It's a fascinating piece throughout, but here's an interesting bit from the middle:
He was plagued with constipation. Soon, however, as things began to improve, he told William that he ‘had a movement every day for a month – & at Oxford two daily’. But as soon as he reached the Continent, things grew worse. From Florence he wrote in October: ‘I may actually say that I can’t get a passage. My “little squirt” has ceased to have more than a nominal use. The water either remains altogether or comes out as innocent as it entered.’ Pills he took did not help, he wrote again, they brought ‘a species of abortive diarrhoea. That is I felt the most reiterated & most violent inclination to stool, without being able to effect anything save the passage of a little blood.’ He saw a doctor who ‘examined them [his bowels] (as far as he could) by the insertion of his finger (horrid tale!) & says there is no palpable obstruction. He seemed surprised however that I haven’t piles; you see we have always something to be grateful for.’ At the end of the letter, he wrote: ‘Having opened up the subject at such a rate, I shall of course keep you informed – To shew you haven’t taken this too ill, for heaven’s sake make me a letter about your own health – poor modest flower!’

At this stage Henry James was 26 and his brother 28. They would both live to be old, remaining vigorous, active and healthy all of their lives, dying eventually from the same type of heart disease. In April that same year, in a letter from Malvern, Henry James wrote to William: ‘Of course I have been sorry to think that you have been unable to write before by reason of your back & have greatly missed hearing from you.’ Illness within the James family was like money in some families, or worldly success or religious devotion in others. It was discussed in hushed and reverent tones, and those who did not benefit from it won no brownie points. William and Henry were lucky; they knew how far to go with it, how to refer to it enough but not too much; they understood how much to invent and how much to make of what was real. Unfortunately, Alice, their sister, who all her life made illness into a mysterious fine art, knew simply that she would need to be ill to survive her father’s erratic, chattering presence and her mother’s suffocating and controlling care, but she did not know how to stop it when it was not necessary as her two elder brothers did.

Thus Henry James’s constipation could be described by himself in detail as well as his position as someone who, because of his back, ‘shall certainly never get beyond having to be minutely cautious’. When William wanted to be nasty, as he often did, it was Henry’s back he went for. In June 1869, for example, he wrote: ‘The condition of your back is totally incomprehensible to me.’ But Henry managed always to dramatise his plight, mentioning on his return to Malvern symptoms that were ‘powerful testimony to the obstinacy of my case’ and later his ‘invalidism’, his ‘slowly crawling from weakness & inaction & suffering into strength & health & hope’. When, at one point in his European sojourn, Henry’s general condition seemed to get worse, he wrote to his father about himself as though he were translating from the heightened language of a Greek text: ‘Don’t revile me & above all don’t pity me . . . Dear father, if once I can get rid of this ancient sorrow I shall be many parts of a well man.’ He ended the letter by suggesting that there was a family pool of illness, or a seesaw on which they all sat waiting their turn on top. ‘I have invented for my comfort a theory that this degenerescence of mine is the [the word ‘the’ is then crossed out] a result of Alice & Willy getting better & locating some of their diseases on me – so as to propitiate the fates by not turning the poor homeless infirmities out of the family. Isn’t it so? I forgive them & bless them.’

The borderline middle-brow designation

Lionel Shriver's criticism is always worth reading: she doesn't mince words.... In the Telegraph this week, she skewers Tom Perrotta--whose fiction I have not read, it is entirely possible that this characterization is quite unfair, but I still rather love what she has to say on a topic that is close to my heart, the middle-brow:
Notwithstanding the rather snappy passage above, Perrotta's writing is predominantly quiet, clean, and low-profile. His pacing is nicely measured.

Schematically illustrative of a real division in contemporary American culture, this is solid, mainstream fiction. Few sentences are likely to send readers lunging for their pencils, eager to underscore profundities or poetic observations. Professional but innocuous, the prose is just shy of middle-brow.

This borderline middle-brow designation is not merely a matter of style. There is a mildness to this novel that belies the gravity of the stakes here, and the scale of mutual enmity between America's Christian Right and those who oppose them.

Concentrating on the budding romance between Tim and Ruth, and Tim's battle with the temptations of his indulgent past, the plot fails to endow the instalment of an abstinence-only curriculum with any consequences.

No teenagers get pregnant because they don't know how to get access to contraception; no one contracts HIV in the absence of instruction about condoms; none of the girls are well on their way to infertility because they've never heard of chlamydia.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

An orgy of staining slides

At the New York Sun, Deborah Cohen reviews Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War.

Also in this issue: Eric Ormsby on Craig Childs' The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. This book sounds quite lovely:
[H]e breaks the ice not only with pumas and porcupines but with mosquitoes, wasps, and praying mantises. Of Mr. Childs, it might be said, inverting the old adage, that "nothing inhuman is alien to him." His efforts, occasionally as comical as they are foolhardy, tend to misfire. He may say, "I recognize myself in ravens," but those shrewd "theatrical birds," as he aptly calls them, don't return the favor.
And here's a bit more, of Ormsby quoting Childs:
Mr. Childs also mounts a refreshing and spirited defense of anthropomorphism, a much-discredited viewpoint nowadays. As he says:
We are asked to temper our language when speaking of animal traits, lest we call them by a name that is not theirs, forming words in our mouths that do not sound like a snake's whisper, a grasshopper's clicking. It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm. Bees form a mind of a hive, don't they? Doesn't the bear dream when it sleeps, and don't grasses stretch with all their might toward the sun?