Saturday, May 31, 2008


Henry Hitchings on Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English:
Abley highlights the enthusiasm of Japanese youths for new words based on English. Among these fashionable yuusu, milk is known as "miruku" because the Anglicism seems more hygienic than the old word, "gyuunyuu", literally "cow breast".

Meanwhile a four o'clock rendezvous at McDonald's - "a postmodern tea ceremony" - is simply an "M4".

Lashings of irony are in evidence: a voguish way of saying "nothing important" is "zenbei ga naita" (literally, "the entire United States wept"); to visit Disneyland Tokyo is "to flog the mouse".

A martyr to the weed

At the Sunday Times, Ferdinand Mount on Vaclav Havel's memoirs:
He records that when, in his early days as president, he appointed one of his old dissident friends as a minister (there was nobody else untarnished), “I suddenly began to behave more politely towards him and take him more seriously.” What, the importunate Hvizdala asks him, is the most important thing Havel discovered in his political dealings? Havel replies: “A very ordinary thing: good taste. It is good taste above all that determines how long one should speak, how much one should reveal, how deeply one should probe; when to make a joke and when to speak seriously; when one should speak indirectly and when one should speak fully what one has in mind; how to make sure that the conversation does not languish and that your partner is comfortable.” He adds: “I am an opponent of every obsession because I consider obsessions the most dangerous of social phenomena.”

Friday, May 30, 2008


At the New York Sun, Marco Roth quite gives me the feeling I might want to read Salman Rushdie's new novel:
"The Enchantress of Florence" (Random House, 368 pages, $26) is a "Harry Potter"-ish restoration project of great intelligence and remarkable egoism, both of which are characteristic of its author. Although he sets his novel in the Florence of the Medicis and Machiavelli, in the Mughal court of Akbar the Great, and at the height of the Ottoman Empire, Salman Rushdie hasn't written just any pedantic, research-obsessed "historical novel." Instead of trying to give us the past as it really was, he's tried to produce the very kind of "historical romance" that might have been passed among French, Italian, English, and Mughal courtiers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a book to give them hours of "much languid play ... in the curtained afternoons." There are pirates, shipwrecks, hidden princesses, lost heirs, and magic mirrors.
I had some good light reading last week, by the way: the latest installment in Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, The Harlequin (these books are my guilty pleasure, the first ones were great and the middle ones devolved into vampire-werewolf-type erotica of a very stream-of-consciousness kind, not so interesting to read, but I think they are better again, I am definitely getting the next one sooner rather than later); Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow; and Joe Hill's really excellent Heart-Shaped Box. (On which note I feel the need to add that buying one of these cannot possibly be a good idea.)

In other news, monkeys control a robotic arm with their thoughts and the Mars Lander follows suit.


At the Guardian, Margaret Drabble on the life and work of Enid Bagnold. I must confess that National Velvet was one of my most utterly favorite most-often-reread books of childhood, I must get a copy and read it again as an adult (and I have never read anything else of Bagnold's, that is a pity). I loved that book!

And in fact I think of it very regularly these days, because Velvet's mother pays for the horse's race entrance fee with the sovereigns she received as an award for swimming the Channel as a teenager. (I do not have the book to hand for an exact reference.)

I do not really think I will ever swim the Channel, it would be somewhat beyond what even the most perversely and stubbornly enthusiastic swimmer at my ability level might decide to inflict on herself as a monumental and near-impossible training task, but I like to keep the notion in reserve for a possible future moment when everything else seems insufficiently heroic...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The come-from-behind ambush technique

Stray dogs in Moscow. (Via a recently relocated Ed, who got it from MetaFilter.)

Evolutions of mandarinese

At the FT, Ben Fenton has a fascinating piece about forged letters at the archives of the Public Record Office in Kew:
For me, as for anyone who works within its quiet walls, cloaked in the faint but everpresent smell of dust, it is the fount of authenticity. Regular users are, by definition, somewhat attached to the past, so most still call it the PRO, short for the Public Record Office, the name the institution held for 167 years. And the PRO is the memory bank of England. If you seek the whos, whats, whens and wheres of British history, then look in old newspapers, encyclopedias or in children's textbooks. For the hows and whys, consult the PRO: motivations, fears, embarrassments, ambitions. They are all there, waiting to be found in that endless shelving.
It is a depressing story indeed.... (Thanks to I.H.D. for the link.)

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Flying Saucer Working Party

At the NYT, Sarah Lyall contemplates the recent release of UFO-related files by Britain's Ministry of Defense:
Much of the material consists of one-page forms carrying details like how big the supposed aircraft was and what, if anything, it seemed to be doing.

A citizen who gives her profession as “meals on wheels operator” describes her shock and awe at the sight of a smallish “Vulcan-shaped object” hovering in the sky. Another witness says she was roused from bed by a brilliant light emanating from a U.F.O. “the size of a milk-bottle base.”

“Some time on a Monday evening during the break in watching ‘Quincy’ — I checked my watch — I noticed an unusual happening in the sky,” one correspondent wrote. And from Cornwall, a report arrived from a 28-year-old motorist who observed a bright yellow light “which bobbed and weaved” over the road, an image recalling Tinkerbell’s mode of travel in “Peter Pan.”

“The light changed to a purplish color, prior to its exit into a thick hedgerow,” the report reads.

Squeal sheets

At the NYRB, Robert Darnton ponders the instabilities of information. Some particularly interesting reflections there on Google Books, including a strong case for the continued relevance of the old-fashioned research library. His conclusion?
[S]hore up the library. Stock it with printed matter. Reinforce its reading rooms. But don't think of it as a warehouse or a museum. While dispensing books, most research libraries operate as nerve centers for transmitting electronic impulses. They acquire data sets, maintain digital re-positories, provide access to e-journals, and orchestrate information systems that reach deep into laboratories as well as studies. Many of them are sharing their intellectual wealth with the rest of the world by permitting Google to digitize their printed collections. Therefore, I also say: long live Google, but don't count on it living long enough to replace that venerable building with the Corinthian columns. As a citadel of learning and as a platform for adventure on the Internet, the research library still deserves to stand at the center of the campus, preserving the past and accumulating energy for the future.


At the Guardian, John Campbell on Gore Vidal. An interesting side note here:
In both his volumes of memoirs (the second, Point to Point Navigation, was published in 2006), and repeatedly in conversation, Vidal makes the claim that he was forced into writing for big and small screens, and for the stage, because of a deliberate campaign on the part of the New York Times to obliterate him as a novelist. The policy began when he revealed himself to be what he ironically calls "a degenerate", by writing The City and the Pillar (1948), one of the first American novels to have homosexual longing - Vidal's preferred term is "same-sex" - at its centre.

"If you didn't appear in the daily New York Times, you were non-existent. Every other journal, including Time and Newsweek, followed its lead. And that is what drove me into television, Broadway and the movies. It is fascinating how few people believe that the Times would do such a thing." Norman Mailer, he says, suffered a similar neglect. "That's why we were friends at the beginning, though we didn't remain so. I think he affronted them much more than I did, because it is a Jewish newspaper and he was one of the glories of Jewish literature at that point. But they were so prissy. They just savaged him." Vidal got his own back by writing three popular mysteries under the name of Edgar Box, "that were glowingly reviewed in the Times".

Many people have doubted Vidal's claims about the Times - one reason why he continues to make them - but a senior source connected with the literary side of the paper, who wished to remain anonymous, told me: "I think this particular claim of Vidal's - unlike many - is entirely plausible. All through the Rosenthal era [AM Rosenthal was executive editor during the late 70s and 80s], the Times did indeed pursue secret agendas when it came to writers, blacklisting some, unreasonably favouring others."
Also: Robert Chalmers has a rather mesmerizing long interview with Vidal at the Independent.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Stephen Elliott sends a list of his forgotten books:
I'm a compulsive recommender of overlooked books. . . . These are all books that are, to me, the very best of their kind but never got the mainstream recognition they deserved. I mean, some of them were best sellers for a while, but they've all kind of faded and might be hard to find on some store shelves. They're all at least a couple of years old and, except for Peter Orner, written by people I don't know, or at least didn't know when I first read the book.

I'm going to avoid saying Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, because as much as I love that book, it's starting to become cliche as a recommendation. Desperate Characters might actually have graduated to that next level of books, books you don't need to recommend.


The Car Thief, by Theodore Weesner
Stoner, by John Williams
Good Morning Midnight, by Jean Rhys
Valencia, by Michelle Tea, sometimes called a memoir
The Beggars Shore, by Zak Muncha
The Second Coming Of Mavala Shikongo, by Peter Orner


Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, possibly the best memoir I have ever read
Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, possibly the only memoir good enough to be compared with Fierce Attachments
Edie: American Girl, by Jean Stein
Waiting For Nothing, by Thomas Kromer


Seek, by Denis Johnson, in my mind the only book by Denis Johnson that actually rivals Jesus Son

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"I'm really rather lumbered with the library"

Catherine Moye has a rather delightful piece at the FT on the difficulties of caring for an ancestral collection of books, weapons, etc.:
As fixtures and fittings go, half a dozen suits of armour, a couple of cannons and an executioner’s sword are not what most people expect to acquire with a property. But along with the lights and the central heating boilers, Prince Carl-Eugen Oettingen-Wallerstein is offering one of the world’s most important private armouries for sale with Baldern, one of his five castles in the heart of the German province of Bavaria, Germany.

“I can’t keep it: I don’t have anywhere to display it,” the prince says of his 800-piece historic weaponry collection that includes chain mail, helmets, flintlocks and battle and hunting weapons dating from the 15th century to the 18th century. “I just hope that whoever buys the collection will keep it all together.”

Ideally that would be at Baldern, where it has been on public display since 1930, though that is by no means a condition to the sale. The castle was constructed between 1718 and 1737 on the old foundations of an 11th century precursor and the armoury, which fills two rooms on the ground floor, has been especially designed to display the items to their best advantage. It is in the same league as a traditional gentleman’s outfitter in St James’s, London, for standard of presentation.

“See that,” says the prince, pointing at a rather holey piece of webbed head-gear. “It’s a medieval tournament mask. It’s one of only three left in the world and one of the most valuable things in here.” You wouldn’t stop and pick it up off the street but on closer inspection it is somehow awe inspiring.

Organ recitals

At Bookforum, Wendy Lesser considers Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull and Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay:
Both Karinthy and Manguso use the occasions of their illnesses to take a deep look at their own characters. Sontag blamed society (along with its outgrowths such as literature, opera, and film) for making patients with cancer and tuberculosis feel as if their disease were somehow their own fault. But we do not need society to make us feel this. It is natural, when the body has turned against us in this way, to imagine that some inner and largely inaccessible part of the self is sabotaging the rest of the enterprise, and no amount of rational medical talk can entirely do away with that feeling.

Karinthy’s is finally the better book, I think, in part because it looks outward as well as inward—and looks inward with the knowledge and intelligence of a person who has already spent sufficient time looking outward. But Karinthy is from the past, and they do things differently there. For a modern-day American, and for such a young American at that, Manguso has addressed her illness with a surprising degree of sharpness and style. Hers is not an inspirational work, nor is it a medical thriller; its appeal lies elsewhere, in the realm of poetry set to prose’s rhythms and coping with prose’s concerns. That she is immensely talented is never in doubt, and that her illness is itself one source of this talent only adds to the book’s many ironies.
Oliver Sacks' introduction to the reissue of Karinthy's book (published in the New York Review of Books earlier this year as a self-standing essay) is well worth reading. I must get that book and read it....

Friday, May 23, 2008

2,000 words a day

At the Times, Peter Kemp interviews Sebastian Faulks on what it was like writing the new Bond book. A great bit here:
Subject matter apart, I wonder how easy Fleming’s not very individualised style was to emulate. Faulks’s reply reminds you that, like Fleming, he spent years working on newspapers. “I think it’s standard journalistic: no semicolons, few adverbs, few adjectives, short sentences, a lot of verbs, a lot of concrete nouns. These are the tools, and that’s literally the style.” More distinctive, he points out, is the tone, “a sort of slight hauteur that was a little bit harder to catch – a little bit cold and a little bit superior in places”. To capture its cadences of “I’m more worldly than you”, Faulks “sometimes imagined myself sucking on my teeth, with perhaps a cigarette-holder”.

Another stimulant was a magazine piece Fleming published in 1962, How to Write a Thriller. It’s an article, I find, on reading it after the interview, in which Fleming is almost startlingly forthright about his intents as an author: “The target of my books... lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh”; “They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes or beds”. But it offers, Faulks stresses, a pro’s invaluable advice, namely: “You’ve got to do it all quickly. You give yourself six weeks. You write 2,000 words a day and that will give you the required length. Don’t stop. Don’t agonise. Don’t try to correct your prose as you go along. Don’t worry too much about the details. You can always revise them later and get it checked by experts.”

A daily task

At the Guardian, Hilary Mantel has a very interesting piece (the occasion is the 30th anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics series) on what she did when she realized her draft of a novel about the French Revolution had no substantial female characters.

"I don't think he let anybody in the shed"

Quentin Blake on the room Roald Dahl wrote in.

Gone but not forgotten

Patti Abbott has asked me to contribute to her Friday book recommendation series. Here's her description of what she was hoping for when she began it:
recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years. I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. . . . I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next
I am slow off the mark this morning--just got back from Florida, where I did my first triathlon and also ate an ice cream in the shape of Mickey Mouse. It was an utterly delightful trip.

Book recommendations? I am always so full of 'em that I hardly know what to say!

The older novel that I am constantly recommending (it is my favorite novel of all time) is Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. But I am thinking for today that we want the great books of the more recent past. I am not sure I am really doing anything very complimentary by singling out people's books as slightly forgotten! Novels that received some considerable attention, then, but that deserve to remain front-and-center in the readerly imagination: Stephen Elliott's Happy Baby; Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name; Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. Jo Walton's Farthing books also, and Charlie Williams' Deadfolk and sequels...

But I think the novel I will particularly single out for passionate recommendation is Cintra Wilson's Colors Insulting to Nature. I see she has a truly demented-sounding book coming out this fall--hmmm, better get hold of a copy of that one...

I do not actually have this novel in my possession; I have had several copies, but they have been pressed into the hands of other readers. So I can't give a great excerpt or description here. Here, though, are the previous Light Reading mentions; and here is where I really delved into it.

Nico and I continue to have regular e-mail exchanges where we foam at the mouth with excitement at the appearance of the latest Critical Shopper column...

The truth versus the facts

More from Rosanne Cash at the New York Times:
The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels — all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.


My friend Joe Henry says that songwriting is not about self-expression (ewwww), but about discovery. I am of entirely the same mind, which is why I recoil against the attempt to categorize “personal” songs of mine as diary pages and why I resist that niggling insistence on the facts. Self-expression without craft is for toddlers. Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way. (That is not to say that all songwriting is important and good, just as not all fiction is important or good. I don’t think anyone would put “Like a Rolling Stone” or my dad’s “Big River” (a truly great piece of American poetry wedded to a wicked, swampy backbeat) in the same category as The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” (it is what it is).
On a wholly unrelated note, but it's been nagging at me for some time now--what are the origins of that phrase "it is what it is," and when did it become so popular?!? Hmmm, here is a link--it makes sense to me that if it emerged from the world of sport its origins would be effectively shrouded in mystery to me ... and here is the Safire link given in the Slate piece.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Man-of-letterish qualities

At the TLS, John Gross appealingly brings to life an aside in Stefan Collini's new book:
An otherwise admirable account of The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is perhaps a shade too chummy (“I feel no inclination to ‘nag’”), but to compensate for this there is a hilarious excursion of several pages in which Collini recounts his adventures tapping selected phrases into the ODNB’s online search engine – “forceful personality”, for example, or “insufferable bore” – and seeing what comes up. He has virtually invented a new computer game.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Logbook poetry

At the Guardian, Veronica Horwell has a lovely piece on Margarette Lincoln's Naval Wives & Mistresses:
True, the upper strata of society and the service were habitual letter-writers in the period of her book, the mid 18th century to the end of the Napoleonic wars; although what survives tends to be incomplete correspondence, a single voice of a duet and not always private, since the gold-braided classes jostled in social networking. Lady Amelia Calder, wife to a rear admiral, fluttered at the Admiralty: "I do desire that you will not be such Savages tomorrow as you have been hitherto, and let us have proper letters by Tuesday's Post." How Lady Elizabeth Collins badgered for her son's advancement can be deduced from the First Lord of the Admiralty's reply: "Madam, It would be very gratifying to me if I had the power to comply with the innumerable applications that are made to me for promotion, and particularly so with your Ladyships . . ." It wasn't that the spouses of the grandest had little to do but chivvy for glory, since many had to manage estates while their husbands were on the far side of the world and the furthest end of a fouled chain of mail deliveries for years at a time. Admiral Codrington dispatched what sound like Post-it notes to his wife instructing her when to paint the garret floors; Mrs Admiral Boscawen filed business reports to her husband (her barley was the best in the parish) and remembered to send a framed print of him to the Corporation of Truro. This was the Penelope side of being "a hero's wife", interrupted on no notice when she had to set out in a chaise in hope of a short port rendezvous. Often enough, the beloved had already heaved off with the tide and the hamper of tender provisions never reached him.

But aside from Admiral Rodney, whose financial worries were legendary, status and money were not the nagging concern in the highest echelons that they were among the middling sort, for whom going to sea as an officer in this period was one of the few possible fast tracks not just to income but prize money, everything that Sir Walter Elliot sneered at in Persuasion as "the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction and raising men to honours which their father and grandfathers never dreamt of". Fictional Captain Wentworth came back from the wars with £25,000 to rescue Anne Elliot and Jane Austen's plot, but nonfictional rewards were less sure; Austen's brother Charles didn't do that well from prizes and he shipped his family aboard to live economically, which likely caused the death of his wife after childbirth. Finance niggles through the middling stories, the prospect of reduction to half-pay come peace or illness; even in fighting-fit years, a man's shipboard expenses could absorb so much income that a couple might not be able to afford to meet or to pay postage. William Wilkinson, ship's master, told his Sally that everything he owned was hers, and sold his flute for two and a half guineas to settle their bills until the Copenhagen prize money should be paid out.

"The body is female"

At the Telegraph, Matt Ruff is skeptical about Richard Baer's account of a patient with multiple personality disorder.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The classics

The literary tastes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hmmm, lots of overlap there with the Davidsonian shelf...

Sentence I most whole-heartedly endorse (on Raymond Chandler): "I often re-read his novels when I don’t have any new materials that measure up"!

(Courtesy of the proprietor of the Dizzies, whose novel Personal Days can be ordered from Amazon!)


I've been thinking recently, in the wake of an interesting set of conference talks on reading, about the relationship between discontinuous reading (of the kind notionally fostered by the internet) and discontinuous writing (perhaps initially the natural response to writing on a word processor rather than by hand or on a typewriter, but now becoming a dominant mode of composition with its own routines and forms).

In a totally different context, Mary Beard has a very good piece in this week's TLS on what it means to read in lumps:
A century or so ago, the English word “gobbet” was given a new lease of life. This obscure term for a small lump of something unsavoury (mud, raw meat, snot) was reborn. It now referred to a short extract of text, one that was often set as an examination exercise for students to identify and analyse. Who wrote these lines? What is their context? What is their historical significance?

The OED finds its first use in the new sense in March 1912, in a poem in Punch satirizing those who promised quick routes to classical learning: “He’ll gorge you with gobbets of Homer” (meaning, you won’t have to read the whole thing). But the examination exercise went back well into the nineteenth century, and the word must have had currency in university jargon long before the Punch satirist picked it up. You certainly find it several years earlier in donnish letters and diaries. R. W. Livingstone, for example, the best-selling author of The Glory That Was Greece, was full of complaints in a letter to an Oxford colleague written around 1910 that, while the students could do their gobbets in the examinations well enough, they did not seem to have much clue about classical literature and culture as a whole: “The shocking thing is that real understanding of the classics counts for so very little side by side with the gobbets”.

Like most nineteenth-century innovations in pedagogy and testing, the gobbet originated in Classics, and took a particularly strong hold in the study of Greek and Roman history. But it soon spread to the study of history more generally and to theology, where the Bible proved a prime candidate for “gobbeting”. It has a remote descendant in the I. A. Richards school of practical criticism in English, which (whatever Richards’s original and loftier aims for the exercise) now boils down to throwing an unidentified piece of poetry at students, and expecting them to identify it and say something sensible about it.
The rest of it is very interesting too--this meta-conversation about close reading seems to be happening across a number of humanities disciplines, the name of I. A. Richards has been invoked many a time in my hearing this last year or two!

Eco-friendly, carbon-neutral

The four-guinea-pig-power lawnmower. (Courtesy of Maxine.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Ya wanna see the Rauschenberg?"

Phil Nugent falls eye-first into a Rauschenberg...

A lyric speaker

A piece of amazing good fortune yesterday morning: I found on my doorstep, unsolicited, a book that I did not yet know was exactly the book in the world I most wanted to read!

In the usual chaotic way of dealing with stream-of-books-entering-apartment-as-I-am-trying-to-exit, I tore open the envelope from FSG and made a mental note of its contents and then dumped both envelope and book on the floor for later dealing-with....

But as I tidied up yesterday evening (I do not understand why it is so much psychologically easier to dump things on the floor rather than leaving them on a table, rack or shelf, except that tables, racks and shelves are of course already overloaded with books, papers and the detritus of triathlon training!), I found myself opening the book (which I had fully intended to stow somewhere in a to-be-read stack) and reading the first paragraph, and the next thing I knew it was an hour and a half later and the only thing I had stopped to do was send an outraged e-mail to Ed Park which I will quote for full effect though the information it contains reduplicates what I have already said here:
Date: Mon, 12 May 2008 21:15:01
From: Jenny Davidson
To: Ed Park
Subject: but...

...this book of sarah manguso's is quite extraordinary!!!! it arrived on my doorstep this morning, i picked it up just to put it away really, and have found myself mesmerized--it is exactly the book i did not know i needed to read this evening?!? hmmmm, this was fairly miraculous, i am just going to go and read the rest of it now, but it is so well-written and actually wise, it is good for my soul!
The Two Kinds of Decay is Sarah Manguso's memoir of the years of the mysterious illness that hit her in her early 20s. It should be read by anyone interested in contemplating the ways a life may be wrenched off course by calamity--more than that, though, it's a poet's book, and the prose has a distinctive quality (quality in both senses of the word) that makes me think of my short list of utter indispensables (Primo Levi, Georges Perec, W. G. Sebald). Plain and ornate at the same time, like the poems of George Herbert....

I will eat my hat if this book does not win a lot of prizes and sell a lot of copies, it should be on writing class syllabi and on medical school syllabi and generally just pressed into the hands of everyone I know!

Instead of giving a sensible description of it, I am going to take the liberty of transcribing my favorite chapter. (Links to some of Manguso's other writing can be found here.) Do yourself a favor, buy yourself a copy of this book as soon as possible...

A spinal cord injury can paralyze you in a moment, but the paralysis of my disease is a long story. Worse, then better, then worse, then better. For years.

A woman rides her motorized chair up a ramp and onto a stage. Ten feet away from the podium, she parks her chair, gets up, and walks a few steps, very slowly, to accept her award.

What a sickening prop.

But people forget a woman in a chair is strong enough to walk a few steps each day and has saved this day's steps for the acceptance of her award.

Chair or no chair: a binary relation. But the vicissitudes of moving the body around are infinite. You never know what a person in a chair can do.

I saw two young women at a lecture once, one of them in a wheelchair that looked like a piece of expensive Italian furniture. Her girlfriend sat down and said You want to do a transfer? and the girl in the chair said Yeah and maneuvered her chair next to the bank of auditorium seats, placed her hands on the arms of the first seat, and swung herself into it with her ropy upper body. Then she reached over and folded up her hot little wheelchair.

Other than the ones I used in the hospital, I never got my own chair. When I couldn't walk I stayed in bed, because it was always assumed I'd get better soon, and the chair was for people who were done forever with walking.

I was afraid of the chair. It would indicate I wasn't going to get better. And my doctors didn't want to believe that any more than I did.

Chair or no chair: a binary relation. Bad or good, sick or well, hopeless or hopeful.

This is how I described paralysis to my friends: Sit down right next to me on a bench or a sofa, me on the left, our four thighs in a row. Lift your right thigh and put it back down. Then the next thigh over, lift it and put it down. Then the next thigh after that.

That feeling of trying to lift some else's thigh with your own mind is how it feels to be paralyzed.

Though my worst relapse paralyzed me from the thighs down and weakened me everywhere else, most of my paralysis was always in the process of getting either better or worse. The state of my health changed daily.

During a week of plasma exchanges, I'd be able to move a little more each day. that's how quickly the myelin regrew. If I were waiting at home to get sick enough to be readmitted to the hospital, I'd be able to move a little less each day. That's how quickly the myelin was destroyed by my anxious blood.

My feet were often completely paralyzed, because they'd go first and weaken the most. To this day, scratching my arches, even lightly, is excruciating, but the toes and the rest of the sole can take pins. There was some permanent damage, either to the axons or to the myelin or both. Now my feet are both hypersensitive and hyposensitive.

I was always being moved around, given physical therapy and having my bedsheets changed under me, so most of the big parts of my body got at least a little movement each day.

But the toes, when one is lying down, do not get a lot of attention. After a week or more with paralyzed feet, my toes needed to be moved right away. I couldn't bear the stillness anymore. It was like a full bladder. When my parents visited that afternoon, I asked my father to move my toes. He grasped one set of toes in each hand and bent them up and down and all around in a bunch for a few minutes. And either he or my mother did this every day they visited until I was strong enough to sit up and reach my toes myself.
There are many reasons I like this chapter, but one reason is the way it stabbed me with a memory of my grandfather in the nursing home where he spent the last couple years of his life. He lived too long, that is the long and the short of it--he was trapped in his own body by Parkinson's, and his sheer stubborn physical sturdiness kept him alive past the time when it would have been better to have died. One of the things that most afflicted him, aside from his helplessness and despair, was this sensation of numbness and tingling pain in the feet. It was not a symptom the doctors seemed to know how to deal with. In general I felt quite helpless to do anything to improve his situation, I lived far away in another city and even when I was in London a visit only seemed to serve as a strong reminder to him of the misery of his condition. The one thing I ever thought of that helped was when I brought him some peppermint foot lotion from the Body Shop and rubbed his feet with it. It was a small thing; it made a small but important difference...


There is no clear and rational sense in which my life would be improved by the addition of a guinea pig, but I must confess that I had several moments over the weekend where I felt a sharp pang of longing for one of these little creatures, they are so lovely and placid and sleek and plump--the short-haired ones are particularly dear to my heart, I think they are aesthetically preferable to the fluffy ones....

(Good Wikipedia entry!)

(A number of other guinea pigs passed through my life during the years of childhood, but the two that were particularly important to me were a delightfully sleek and solid brown-and-white short-haired guinea pig called Linda, when I was five or so, and then a few years later a fluffy black one called--inevitably--Fluffy. I regret to say that to the best of my knowledge, both names were chosen by me--and properly speaking, the spelling should have been "Lynda," because I am thinking that this was my inspiration. More pictures here--although they now look very dated, I suspect that I am not alone in retaining from my 1970s childhood an implicit notion of Wonder Woman as the pinnacle of female beauty! Sort of hybridized, a few years later on, with Erin Gray in Buck Rogers!)

All of this thinking was prompted by the absolutely enchanting chapter on guinea pigs in Jim Endersby's A Guinea Pig's History of Biology: The plants and animals who taught us the facts of life.

On which note, courtesy of Endersby's book, a list of delightful guinea-pig-related facts:

In 1664, the natural philosopher Henry Power described the cheese mites he spotted under his microscope as looking "like so many Ginny-Piggs, munching and chewing the cud"

The fashionable ladies at the court of Elizabeth I were often followed by servants who carried a pet guinea pig on a silk pillow

George Eliot describes a character in Daniel Deronda as having "a pair of glistening eyes that suggested a miraculous guinea-pig"

The US Department of Agriculture, established by Lincoln in 1862, soon had a "substantial colony" of guinea pigs that were used to test vaccines, a colony that in the early twentieth century became the means of conducting extensive experiments on inbreeding in which brother and sister guinea pigs were crossed for more than two dozen generations

J.B.S. Haldane and his sister Naomi Mitchison bred guinea pigs as children so that they could (in Mitchison's later account) "try out what was then called Mendelism on them":
One of JBS's friends remembered that in 1908 the lawn of the Haldanes' house was entirely free from the usual upper-class clutter of croquet hoops and tennis nets; instead, 'behind the wire fencing, were 300 guinea-pigs. . . . 'The guinea pigs were a mine of information,' Naomi recalled, 'we had to arrange marriages, which sometimes went against the apparent inclinations of the partners, though I rather enjoyed exercising power over them.'
(This era came to an end when one of J.B.S.'s school friends let his fox terrier crawl over the front gate...)

Geneticist Sewall Wright was absolutely devoted to guinea pigs, though he also worked with Drosophila, and it was this quotation that most vividly brought back to me the satisfying heft of a guinea pig in one's hands:
Despite the necessity of using Drosophila in experiments, Wright would bring guinea pigs into the classroom whenever he could justify doing so; on one occasion he brought one in to show his class some interesting variations in its coat colour. 'This particular guinea pig was somewhat more fractious than usual and was scurrying around on the desk and was not about to be quiet,' a student recalled, so Wright picked up the restless cavy and tucked it under his armpit, where he usually kept his blackboard eraser. A few minutes later, running out of space for the next equation, he reached for his eraser 'and started to erase the blackboard with a squeaking guinea pig'.

Egg season

The motto for the week is that when Life is Troublesome, Literature provides Consolation!

Wendy Townsend's Lizard Love is an exceptional novel, I fell utterly in love with it as I read it this weekend. Colleen Mondor reviewed it a month or two ago for Bookslut, and I knew at once that I had to get it. It more than lived up to my expectations--it's a modest and understated but beautifully well-written and moving coming-of-age story about a girl who loves lizards.

(It is not in a literal sense my story, I am fond of lizards and snakes also but I think that as a child I was especially captivated by furry creatures; I strongly identified with the main character, though, and remembered myself in second and third grade as an intensely devoted member of the early-morning Animal Care Club in the lower-school science room...)

Not a lot happens in this book, in terms of plot, but the beauty and aptness of the descriptive language and the emotional force of the connections the novel makes are both remarkable. I hope it makes the nomination lists for the big children's book prizes, it deserves the most widespread attention and praise...

Here is a passage I particularly liked (Spot is the narrator Grace's much-loved iguana, and both of them are suffering from the onset of sexual maturity):
After school I went home to see Spot. I climbed the ladder and sat down in front of his cage. From his branch he watched me with wide-open eyes, as if I was the enemy. His dewlap was pushed out as far as it would go. A bruise ringed his nose from when he'd tried to force it through the chicken wire. I felt terrible--he was hurting and he wanted out so bad.

I held blueberries in my hand. His gold lizard eye followed my other hand as I opened the cage door. The round black pupil dilated. I reached in cautiously--his teeth were sharp. He bobbed his head some more, ignoring the berries. I put them in his dish, then slowly reached up and put my hand on him. His jowls swelled under my touch. He turned his head, tongue-flicking my skin again and again, and then he opened his jaws and leaned toward my hand. I pulled away and shut the cage door. He had slept beside me every night for so long. My throat closed up. I looked at him with tears running down my face, and he bobbed his head at me furiously.

Spot's teeth had cut into my leg like knives the night before. I tried to pry him off, but his claws dug in and his scales scraped my skin raw. When he finally let go I threw back the sheet. In gray morning light I saw that the scales had turned orange around his head and shoulders. His eyes were wild and wide open, and he stood with his tail arched. He licked blood from his lips, making the soft clicking sound he always made when he cleaned his teeth.

Pressing a sock against the bite, I hurried to the bathroom to splash peroxide on the V-shaped wounds. Pink bubbly streaks ran down my leg. In the mirror I saw my body with its swellings and blemishes and dark hair beginning to grow in places. That was when I saw the other blood.
I must also single out the cover design as one of my all-time favorites! And now that I have read it, I am going to send it to Wendy, who lost a dear companion last year.

(There has been very upsetting iguana news recently--do not click on that link unless you want to make yourself sick with despair about human nature and the fragility of some of the most beautiful members of the animal kingdom!)

In the Light Reading alternate universe, about 65% of all novels are narrated by hard-boiled and intelligent female protagonists with loose crime or SF genre affiliations, so I was very much pleased with James Alan Gardner's Expendable. (Recommendation courtesy of Brent.) It's science fiction, but it works as a young-adult novel too. And as a bonus, it has an egg collection--for no good reason, it has been egg season round here recently!

Sunday, May 11, 2008


At the NYRB, Francine Prose on the novels of Patrick Hamilton:
Hamilton's novels are unlike anyone else's, though at moments you catch glints of other writers: Charles Dickens, William Trevor, Henry Green, Patricia Highsmith. In their simultaneously purposeful and almost giddy malevolence, some of his characters recall the principals in Jacobean tragedy, which seems fitting since, in addition to his novels, Hamilton was also the author of two popular melodramas, Rope and Gaslight.

The latter may be one of the few literary titles to have become a verb. "To gaslight" is now commonly used to mean the willful undermining of someone's sense of reality in order to drive that person mad, a malign scenario often enacted in Hamilton's fiction. Along with alcohol, loneliness, and romantic obsession, the abuse of power—the small but all-important degrees of dominance conferred by class, gender, status, and beauty—is Hamilton's great subject. For Hamilton's heroes, falling in love entails surrendering their autonomy to undeserving women who mistreat their abject suitors, partly because it is the only power these women will ever have, and partly because they enjoy it.

At the start of The Siege of Pleasure, the second novel in the Twenty Thousand Streets trilogy, Jenny Maples has just finished breaking Bob's heart and blowing the last of his savings. Now she looks back on the social and moral descent that began when—poor, alone, dependent on her so-called betters—she worked in the suburbs as a live-in servant, entombed with two ancient sisters and their gaga brother. How little she would have sold her soul for, or, for that matter, her body. A car ride seemed exciting. Tea in a tea shop! A movie! A drink! Especially a drink. Jenny blames her downfall on a single glass of port, which led to another glass of port. Here is how Patrick Hamilton describes alcohol's seductive and ultimately successful assault on her virtue:
A permeating coma, a warm haze of noises and conversation, wrapped her comfortably around—together with something more. What that something more was she did not quite know. She sat there and let it flow through her. It was a glow, and a kind of premonition. It was certainly a spiritual, but much more emphatically a physical, premonition of good about to befall. It was like the effect on the body of good news, without the good news.
Much of Patrick Hamilton's fiction was loosely based on personal experience, a biography that involved considerably more alcohol than good news.
What I want: the fullest possible list of other literary titles that became verbs!

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Shades of Peter Pan's crocodile-swallowed alarm clock:
Any artificial hip can occasionally make a variety of noises. But until Stryker, a medical products company, began marketing highly durable ceramic hips in the United States in 2003, squeaking was extremely rare.

Now, tens of thousands of ceramic hips later — from Stryker and other makers that entered the field — many patients say their squeaking hips are interfering with daily life. One study in the Journal of Arthroplasty found that 10 patients of 143 who received ceramic hips from 2003 to 2005, or 7 percent, developed squeaking. Meanwhile, no squeaks occurred among a control group of 48 patients who received hips made of metal and plastic. “It can interrupt sex when my wife starts laughing,” said one man, who discussed the matter on the condition that he not be named.

Showers of blood

At the Telegraph, a nice extract from Jim Steinmeyer's new biography of Charles Fort:
In May 1911, the New York Public Library had been reopened in its new Beaux-Arts marble temple at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Now diligently working on his next project, Charles Fort walked to the library every morning, five days a week. He trudged up the flank of white polished steps, took a seat at one of the wide oak desks in the reading room beneath the gilt and coffered ceiling, removed his coat and slid it carefully over the back of his chair.

He read meteorology, natural history, shipping reports and science journals, squinting through his glasses as he turned page after page. With some regularity, he turned to the sheet of paper on the table and scratched a pencil note of some neglected phenomenon. All his notes were written on various grades of pulpy paper that were then ripped against a ruler into small rectangles. Some slips were torn from old correspondence; some were thin onion skin. Each piece was about 1½ by 2½ inches. Fort's handwriting was on a severe diagonal, lower left to upper right, tightly capturing the essence of each report with abbreviations. When he needed extra room for his pencil scrawl, a slip was torn long, then folded to match the dimensions of the other notes. An extremely elaborate note might require an entire sheet of paper, pleated and fixed with a paper clip so it ended up the same size. He managed to assemble 40,000 notes, by his own estimate, deliberately seeking information of the widest possible diversity: 'astronomy, sociology, psychology, deep-sea diving, navigation, surveying, volcanoes, religion, sexes, earthworms'.

Syllabub in a martini glass

At the FT, Rosie Blau lunches with Sebastian Faulks. She seems to have found him rather unforthcoming, partly because of a press embargo on the forthcoming James Bond book Faulks has penned. I must read that--I am a great admirer of Faulks, and I grew up reading Ian Fleming, although I am ashamed to contemplate in adulthood the books' naked prejudices (this text is from the article's sidebar):
Initially a distraction (“They fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.”), Bond gradually warms to the prospect of female company.

In Quantum of Solace (1960), he says: “If I don’t marry an air hostess, there’ll be nothing for it but marry a Japanese. They seem to have the right idea, too.” And in Goldfinger (1958), he encounters Pussy Galore: “Bond liked the look of her. He felt the sexual challenge all beautiful Lesbians have for men.”

Friday, May 09, 2008

Clubs of Quidnuncs

At the Guardian, John Mullan on the joys of Alexander Pope's Dunciad:
In the 1740s, near the end of his life, Pope went back to The Dunciad, changing the "hero" from Tibbald to a new foe, the poet laureate Colly Cibber, and adding a long and brilliant fourth book. The early versions of The Dunciad were ebullient poems, in which the denizens of Grub Street disported themselves. The new Book IV presented "the Goddess coming in her Majesty to destroy Order and Science" and was an all-embracing anatomy of a culture fallen into banality and ignorance. From opera-going to the art collecting of virtuosi to new fashions in philosophy, all the rages of the day are shown as mad. Pope manages to imply that fashionably atheistical philosophy is somehow related to the vogue for French cookery among the wealthy. The Dunciad is, among other things, the first English satire on celebrity chefs and the greedy foodies who adore them. The chef is a modern "priest", performing strange transformations of animal flesh.
The board with specious miracles he loads,
Turns Hares to Larks, and Pigeons into Toads.
The wealthy have spawned the poem's "young Aeneas", an aristocratic youth whom we follow on his pleasure-seeking Grand Tour. "Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too." Heroic only in his hedonism, he samples not the cultural glories of the Renaissance, but the fleshly pleasures of the warm south.
The Stews and palace equally explor'd,
Intrigu'd with glory, and with spirit whor'd;
Try'd all hors-d'oeuvres, all liqueurs defin'd,
Judicious drank, and greatly - daring din'd[.]


At the Guardian, Larry Elliott on the computer model that once served the Bank of England:
It is 2 metres (7ft) tall, 1.5 metres wide and a metre deep. It runs on water and most of the time it is screened off at the back of a lecture room in Cambridge. But when the nine members of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee announce their latest decision on interest rates today they will owe a debt of gratitude to the computer built in a garage in south Croydon by Bill Phillips - an engineer turned economist from New Zealand - almost 60 years ago.

A sensation when it was unveiled at the London School of Economics in 1949, the Phillips machine used hydraulics to model the workings of the British economy but now looks, at first glance, like the brainchild of a nutty professor. Where the Bank's team of in-house economists are equipped with state-of- the-art digital computers, the profession's first stab at modelling was very much a do-it-yourself affair with a whiff of the Heath Robinson about it.

The prototype was an odd assortment of tanks, pipes, sluices and valves, with water pumped around the machine by a motor cannibalised from the windscreen wiper of a Lancaster bomber. Bits of filed-down Perspex and fishing line were used to channel the coloured dyes that mimicked the flow of income round the economy into consumer spending, taxes, investment and exports. Phillips and Walter Newlyn, who helped piece the machine together at the end of the 1940s, experimented with treacle and methylated spirits before deciding that coloured water was the best way of displaying the way money circulates around the economy.
The altogether alluringly titled Computer Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society (hmmm, I am delving back into that once I have more free time, how utterly delightful!) has an article by Doron Swade that includes detailed descriptions and diagrams:
Water is pumped to the top of the machine and cascades down a central column. Taxes, imports and savings are siphoned off into separate loops. Proportions of these rejoin the main flow as government expenditure, exports and investment. The net flow at the bottom of the central column accumulates in a tank. This level represents the working balance required for a given level of economic activity and is duly pumped back to the top of the machine to cascade back down through the system.

The strength of model is in the interactivity of economic factors. Rates of taxation, investment and levels of foreign trade can be altered by setting valves and sluices. More subtly, stocks (represented by the level of water in a tank) control flows elsewhere in the system by automatically altering settings of the valves.
Here is the Science Museum page; here is another good picture. Another interesting essay by Doron Swade can be found here.

Here is a video of the Phillips machine in operation, which unfortunately I do not have time to watch now!

(Link and post title courtesy of Brent, who got it via Marginal Revolution.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008


At the TLS, Eric Griffiths on intertextuality:
The simultaneously drab and lurid metaphor of “mosaic” usually recurs in intertextual studies uninvigorated by such attention to how and why mosaics are various, how distinct a mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the apse of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello is from a mosaic of a smiley dolphin on the floor of my rich friend’s swimming pool. The metaphor is inherently flawed, because we can in principle count the number of bits in a mosaic, whereas the question “how many quotations (in a Kristevan sense) are there in Purgatorio 26?” is as inane as the question “how many sounds are there in this article?”. For the mosaic-metaphor to have a point, it needs to be taken both less seriously than is usual among literary academics (it tells us little about the organization even of centos and dictionaries of quotations) and more seriously. Taking it more seriously requires admitting that mosaics are normally representations of something other than their tesserae.

An egg sculpted in lard, with goggles on

Philip Larkin did not like to look at pictures of himself...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

100 feet wide

Henk Hofstra's "Art Eggcident," via BoingBoing and the Wooster Collective.

The aquatic ape?

Frans de Waal answers the questions of Freakonomics readers:
[T]ogether with Sarah Brosnan, we did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.

If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.

However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.

This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”

I actually don’t think the response is irrational at all, but related to the fact that in a cooperative system, one needs to watch what kind of investment one makes and what one gets in return. If your partners always ends up getting a greater share, this means that you’re being taken advantage of. So, the rational thing to do is withhold cooperation until the reward division improves.
(Hmmm, I cannot resist observing that it would be quite interesting to see what would happen in my department if I started withholding cooperation until the reward division improves?!? It seems woefully impractical as well as temperamentally implausible, but it is a fine notion!)

A mass of dreary, derailleur-obsessed tour guides

Guy Dammam's question: where are all the bicycle novels?!? I am almost tempted to answer his call...

Single vision

An irresistible temptation when writing about Newton: quoting Pope and Blake?

Monday, May 05, 2008


At the Guardian, David McKie has a cautionary tale:
Bibliophilia: the love, and collecting, of books. No problems there: the odd fit of extravagance, possibly, but everything more or less under control. But watch out. The next step up may be bibliolatry: an extreme fondness for books. And beyond that lies bibliomania: a mania for the collection and possession of books. That can be very dangerous territory.

If you slog up a hill to the south of tourist-thronged Broadway, Worcestershire, you will come to Broadway Tower, a folly built in 1799 by the sixth Earl of Coventry and said to be the highest vantage point anywhere in the Cotswolds. From the roof on the clearest days you can see, it is said, a dozen counties. Whichever direction you choose, the views are sublime. Just down from the tower, hidden by trees, is Middle Hill House. For much of the 19th century this was the home of Sir Thomas Phillipps, 1st baronet, whom the world called a bibliomaniac, though his term for himself went still further. Vello-mania, he called his condition, because it ran as much to the purchase and hoarding of documents as it did to books. In the tower he installed a succession of printers, employed to translate his manuscripts into more permanent versions; most left before long, complaining they hadn't been paid. In the house he stored the fruits of his acquisitional forays at home and abroad: a process already out of hand when he was at Oxford, and rampant forever after. Mostly bought with money he had not got: bills were left unpaid for years - at least one unfortunate bookseller went bankrupt because of it.
Hmmm, my apartment will be an altogether nicer place when I get rid of about half the books and documents it's currently housing!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Viagravation, sacrilicious

Ben Macintyre on portmanteau words.

Back to the future

At the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza considers the fate of Bill Clinton in the age of YouTube:
While Obama downplays wonkiness and Hillary presents her plans as tedious laundry lists, Bill makes connections and translates abstractions into folksy humor. To underscore the relationship between America’s budget deficit, paid for by loans from countries like China, and lax enforcement of the trade violations of those countries, he asked voters to imagine barging into the local bank president’s office and smacking him. “Say, ‘I can’t take it anymore!’ Bam!” he told the Lock Haven audience as he pantomimed a punch and then paused for comic effect. “Do you think you could get a loan tomorrow afternoon?” People laughed and shook their heads.

Clinton is angry that this side of him has been nearly absent from the coverage. “You don’t ever read about this stuff! This is never part of the political debate!” he said at one event. “But this is what matters.” Adjusting to the modern, gaffe-centric media environment has been wrenching. At most of his Pennsylvania stops, the national press was represented mainly by a pair of young TV-network “embeds,” whom Clinton regards not as reporters but as media jackals who record his every utterance yet broadcast only his outbursts, a phenomenon that has helped transform him into a YouTube curiosity and diminished him—perhaps permanently. “It’s like he’s been plucked out of time and thrown into the middle of this entirely new kind of campaign,” the adviser told me. Jay Carson, a senior Clinton campaign official and Bill’s former spokesman, said, “Because of the way he is covered, the only thing anyone ever sees is fifteen seconds that is deemed by the pundits to be off message.”
It was the notion of a man "plucked out of time" that snagged my attention. Famously, Nixon 'lost' an on-camera debate with Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy because of his sweating. Certain stars of the silent screen couldn't make the transition to the talkies because of their voices (squeaky, accented, etc.). Conversely, certain people take advantage of the "plucked out of time" effect by seeming to have been born before their time. This can be sinister, with middle-aged or elderly gurus manipulating the young, or admirable, with older figures receiving the vindication of history for minority or otherwise unpopular views. Timothy Leary vs. Arthur C. Clarke? In terms of psychology or morality rather than 'speaking to the future' as such, this phenomenon clearly cuts both ways...

Elsewhere in the same issue of the magazine, Cynthia Zarin quotes current Globe theatre director Dominic Dromgoole on former Globe leader Mark Rylance (who buried 'gifts' of tobacco, spirits and flowers under the pillars in the early stages of construction of the replica of Shakespeare's theatre):
Initially, I'd been part of the prejudice against the Globe. I thought, It's going to be Disneyland; it's going to be Heritage. But then I came to see 'Measure for Measure,' in 2004, and it blew me away. It was so intelligent. It was funny and alive and concrete. It had a physical life. It was full of grace and charity. What I thought was a theatre of the past became a theatre of the future.
(Good quotes in that article from my Columbia colleague Jim Shapiro, BTW!)

Bicycle day

Much coverage of the death of Albert Hofmann, discoverer and promoter of LSD. A gloomy piece by Benedict Carey in the New York Times. John Walsh's considerably more playful take in the Independent:
It was known as acid, blotter acid, window pane, dots, tickets and mellow yellow. It was sold on the street in capsules and tablets but most often in liquid form, usually absorbed on to a piece of blotting paper divided into several squares: one drop, or "dot", per square. Lysergic acid diethylamide, or C20H25N30 to give it its snappy chemical formula, derived from lysergic acid, and it introduced you to a world of cosmic harmony and all-embracing love, or a black schizoid hell of paranoia and screaming demons.

The letters LSD once denoted English money in pre-decimalisation days: librae, solidi, denarii, the Latin forms of pounds, shillings and pence. From the mid-1960s, however, the letters had only one meaning: they stood for the most powerful mood-altering drug in the world.
(NB: in my current world, LSD stands for Long Slow Distance! Posting here will likely continue fairly light over the next couple weeks--between end-of-semester obligations and the last bits of training for my first triathlon, it seems as though I have little attention right now for matters literary unless they are at least marginally bicycle-related...)

At the Guardian, Claire Armitstead on Graham Robb's prizewinning history of France, which owes both its research methods and its entire structure to Robb's fondness for cycling:
In 1869, a cycling magazine was launched in France. The masthead of Le Vélocipède Illustré featured a voluptuous Lady Progress astride a bicycle. In his manifesto, the editor intoned: "The velocipede is not a fad born yesterday, in vogue today, to be forgotten tomorrow. Along with its seductive qualities, it has an undeniably practical character. It supplants the raw and unintelligent speed of the masses with the speed of the individual. This horse of wood and iron fills a void in modern life; it responds not only to our needs but also to our aspirations."

Graham Robb echoes these sentiments in his introduction to The Discovery of France, which this week won the Ondaatje prize for the book published in the past year that best evokes the spirit of a place. "Ten years ago," he writes, "I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority. For some time it had been obvious that the France whose literature and history I taught and studied was just a fraction of the vast land I had seen on holidays ... There was the familiar France of monarchy and republic, pieced together from medieval provinces, reorganised by the revolution ... and modernised by railways, industry and war.

"But there was also a France in which just over 100 years ago, French was a foreign language to the majority of the population. I owe my first real inklings of this other France to a rediscovery of the miraculous machine that opened up the country to millions of people at the end of the 19th century."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sibylline leaves

Alice's musings on last week's blogging event.

Geomantic concerns

At the TLS, John Keay considers a cluster of books about the Forbidden City:
Nothing better conveys the Forbidden City’s reputation as both palace and prison than Barmé’s revelation that the fictional Gormenghast of the Titus Groan trilogy owed its hide-bound rituals, if not its architecture, to Mervyn Peake’s upbringing in nearby Tianjin in the early years of the twentieth century. Peake’s creation was another world within a world, another warren of chambers and courtyards in which the fair and the foul cohabited promiscuously. It too was built in alignment with the four points of the compass and the passage of a reluctant sun. And like the infant Groan, seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast, the young Puyi – China’s “Last Emperor” as per the Bertolucci film – must have been “suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes a labyrinth of stone”.