Saturday, July 26, 2008


Crime fiction jag this week: I went to the stacks with the thought of perhaps checking out some of Susan Howatch's novels to read again, only really I have read them so many times that the rereading potential is fully leached out of them. Susan Hill's name caught my eye, and I took a few of those instead, and read them with great enjoyment over the rest of the week: the first three of the Simon Serrailler books, The Various Haunts of Men, The Pure in Heart and The Risk in Darkness. Her protagonist is perhaps slightly too reminiscent of P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh, who I have always found intolerably affected, but the books are an interesting mix of the conventional (in a good sense) and the rule-breaking. Well worth reading if you are fond of the British police procedural. Then I read M. J. Rose's The Venus Fix, which had been sitting untouched on the shelf and happened to catch my eye - also quite satisfactory.

Meanwhile, considerable riches in the latest issue of the NYRB. I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Wheatcroft's James Bond piece (available to all - hmmm, I must get those Ben Macintyre books, they sound great!) and Jonathan Spence's piece about China specialist and historian of science Joseph Needham (subscriber-only - I was utterly enraptured by Needham's history of embryology when I first came across it in the early days of reading for breeding book), and there's all sorts of other good stuff too.

Perhaps the most extraordinary piece, though, is Richard Holmes's essay on Theophile Gautier. I've been a huge fan of Holmes's writing ever since I fell in love (c. 1992-93?) with Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. This one is also subscriber-only, but I will take the liberty of pasting in a few paragraphs of Holmes's prose for the hallucinatory intensity of his historical imagination, in this case autobiographical:
In 1974, I had gone to live in Paris, just after completing Shelley: The Pursuit. I was aged twenty-nine, living in a fifth-floor attic room near the Gare du Nord on £100 ($150) a month and supporting myself by freelance journalism, most of it published by The Times in London. At least once a fortnight, well after midnight, I used to walk down to the all-night Bureau de Poste near the Bourse, anxiously carrying my new article in a brown manila envelope.

In the cavernous hall of the Bureau, pleasantly perfumed with Gitanes and cow gum and lino polish, I would stick on the big blue Priorité label and gingerly slide the envelope through the grill, surreptitiously watching till the Existentialist night clerk had actually put it in the Special Delivery canvas bag, hung on a brass hook behind his seat. Then our eyes would meet and occasionally I would get a reassuring greeting along the lines of "Ça va, vous, heh?"

Then came the triumphant stride back up the boulevard Magenta and the sharp left turn into the steep, narrow, cobbled, and deserted Marché Cadet (where Gautier's friend Gérard de Nerval was once arrested for removing his trousers in public), now smelling faintly of crushed peaches. Next a quick lateral diversion past Gautier's own tall, shadowy house at 14, rue de Navarin (with a salute to his mistress in the house opposite, no. 27), and finally several congratulatory ballons de rouge at a quiet little café I knew near the place Anvers off Pigalle, which always remained open until 4 AM.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Pearly kings and queens

As a follow-up to the previous post...

At the FT, Veronica McNiff on buttons:
Another recent exhibition, Button World, at the Manchester City Galleries, displayed a collection of more than 100,000 buttons owned by Alan and Gillian Meredith, whose collectors’ guidebook, Buttons, will be re-issued this autumn. Their collection includes a range of buttons from secret military devices to pieces of art; while Gillian’s focus is decorative buttons, Alan collects buttons that were once attached to livery, sportswear or school uniforms, or to the uniforms worn by employees of railway companies, shipping lines, the police and fire services and banks.

For the more casual collector, the British Button Society offers an identification service for buttons, including a website. The society’s work reveals the value of buttons as small clues to a broader history; during the Victorian era, for instance, any business worth its salt had uniformed men at the door, with signature buttons on display. Families had their own crested buttons, as did important buildings, and buttons commemorated special events both momentous and minor. When farmers met at ploughing matches, the officials wore the presiding agricultural society’s buttons.

All-time bestsellers

At the Sunday Times, Stephen McClarence has a delightful piece on Shire Books:
Sue Ross pushes open an office door and stands back while I take in the wall of words in front of us. Stacked from floor to ceiling is the complete range of Shire books: every edition of every one of the 1,000 or so books that it has published over the past half-century.

In alphabetical order, from The AA to Writing Antiques (about vintage pens and pencils), they pack 80ft of shelf space. Ross, the sales manager for 30 years, pulls out titles at random: Firefighting Equipment; The English Rococo Garden; Cash Carriers in Shops; Duck Decoys; The Victorian Chemist and Druggist; Shell Houses and Grottoes; The Salt Industry. As she says: “Shire publishes books on subjects that no one else would publish books on.”
But these books would be an utter godsend for the research-minded novelist with an interest in Britain's past! Hmmm, the one I am most particularly thinking I would like to read is The Archaeology of Rabbit Warrens! - but just reading through this list is making my mouth water, that is fairly mind-bending...

(In other news, the needle on my internal monitor is very gradually moving from "refractory" towards "moderately tranquil," though it still has some way to go.)

"I have never ended on an unstressed syllable"

Giles Coren writes a letter to the editor. (Link courtesy of Wendy.)

Literary stardom

At Time Out NY, words of wisdom from local literary notables - including an apt quotation from Ed Park: "I like living in New York—a stimulating city, good for writing. I like being busy and being in the thick of things, even though I never go anywhere and only communicate via e-mail."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fleas, flukes and cuckoos

At the TLS, Christopher Perrin on the long history of the New Naturalists publishing project:
Afew volumes break the mould in other ways. Pedigree Words from Nature is an etymological work – looking at the development of natural history words in the English language from their origins to present usage. A surprising number of everyday words can be traced back to some link with the natural world – less surprisingly when one considers how much closer to the soil our ancestors lived. We are familiar with the fact that many of our places are derived from animals or plants, Brockenhurst or Okeover, for example. But this book looks more at the origins of the names of the animals and plants themselves. Many of these date back many centuries and often have close equivalents in several European languages. This may be true even when the name is based on a complete fallacy. The presence of nightjars hawking for insects at dusk near to animal pens led the Greeks to think that the birds used their large mouths to drink milk from the stock – hence the name “goatsucker” which was used in several European languages and even in the bird’s scientific name Caprimulgus. The most extraordinary volume must be number eighty-three, The New Naturalists, in which Peter Marren traces the history of the books themselves.


At the LRB, Jenny Diski on sleep.

"Because I like to put skies in"

Oliver Sacks on autism - but I link because the video opens with a segment of Sacks swimming and a brief discussion of the relationship between swimming and writing!

(Many thanks to the proprietor of Lowebrow for the link.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Adventures in research

Four years ago I went to Copenhagen to do a couple days' worth of research for the sequel to The Explosionist--the novel I'm only just now writing this summer, due to the intervention of life and other obligations...

My main purpose was to visit Niels Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics, where the very wonderful archivist took me around the place and told me a number of stories that lodged securely in my imagination. Many of the opening scenes of The Snow Queen (the sequel's title) are set in my alternate universe's version of the Institute, and there are all sorts of things it is difficult to glean from books...

(Me: "Would the scientists have eaten lunch in, say, a cafeteria?" Wonderful Archivist [humorously shocked]: "Oh, no! Denmark is a nation of box lunches!")

The story she told me that utterly captivated me, though, involved the escape of a number of cats from the basement. They were the subjects in an experiment concerning radio-isotopes, and the Institute backs onto a rather lovely park: the afternoon was spent frantically rushing around with a Geiger counter to try and distinguish the cats in the experiment from the ordinary feral cats that lived in the park and retrieve them so that all was not lost!

The alchemy of fiction: I wanted the story of the cats, but I did not want them to come to the sorry end that one knows, really, cats setting off Geiger counters undoubtedly must have come to...

I did not at the time register the names of the particular scientists involved, but after doing a bit of reading this summer it became clear that the main instigator would have been the intriguing Hevesy. I was very pleased to find a firsthand account of the incident of the cat (singular), in his assistant and collaborator Hilde Levi's very interesting biography of Hevesy:
I recall our excitement when the P-32 injected cat suddenly escaped; she jumped out through the window and disappeared into the nearby park. Everybody rushed out to retrieve the precious animal. Several wild beasts were caught and wipe tests of their saliva were placed under a Geiger counter - alas in vain! After hours of chasing, the right cat was found and the experiment could proceed in an orderly manner.
Hevesy published a collection of his major scientific papers in two volumes, under the title Adventures in Radioisotope Research: these are the volumes whose arrival at the library I was eagerly awaiting earlier this month...

The papers proved - what? Dry and mesmerizing at the same time, and of course very grim in terms of the hard facts they presented about the animals involved in all of these very important and valuable physiological experiments! I strongly believe in the value and legitimacy of animal experimentation, but I also (weak-mindedly) am very glad that I am not involved in it myself, because I am fond of animals and I think it would prove painful to me.

In a strange way, Hevesy's personality comes through very strongly in these papers, despite the fact that much of the writing is quite impersonal:
UREY'S discovery of heavy water was bound to impress the tracer-minded scientists, although their number was very restricted in those days. The present writer at once approached Professor UREY who most generously mailed a few litres of water containing 0.5 mol. per cent heavy water. In view of the great sensitivity with which the density of water can be determined, this strongly diluted heavy water sufficed to study the interchange between the water molecules of the goldfish and the surrounding water, and also to carry out studies described in paper 48, and presented in more detail by HEVESY and HOFER (1934). . . .

In paper 48 it is stated that the goldfish behaves in the same way in the heavy water employed in the experiments described as in tap water, though it may behave differently in more concentrated heavy water. In experiments with HAGGKVIST carried out in recent years (1958), we found that the life-span of the fish investigated was reduced from years to 10 days when kept in 40 per cent heavy water. When the fish were placed in 50 per cent heavy water, they tried to escape by jumping out from the vessel in which they were kept.
But the most painful page for me to read was this one! (The first sentence of the footnote induced in me a sort of horrified laughter...)

When I was really dug in writing The Explosionist, I had a strong image of myself hacking through something like a field of cane with a blunt machete: it was hard work, but it was straightforward, I was clearing the way. And even before I started writing it, I had a strange illusion that if I concentrated really hard, I could actually visualize - not the incidents of the story, as though they were a film, but the printed pages of the published novel, in chapters and laid out on the page in a particular format and font that I could still describe to you!

This one, on the other hand, is giving me a feeling of needing to nerve myself up to put aside the research (I cling to research, I love facts!) and start making things up. The sensory image in this case is not of fieldwork (the machete image was so vivid to me that I could feel the effects of the work in my triceps!) but of being a blindfolded person in utter darkness. I am still with my hands pressed right up against the wall, because it feels like the safest place, but I have to take the plunge and start feeling my way, blind, around the room and getting a sense of the space by bumping into things...

Postscript: Wittgenstein had a more obviously appealing orientation towards animals. Here is another funny bit of his friend Maurice Drury's reminiscences:
He told me that he had got to know some wonderful characters in Norway. A woman who had said to him how fond she was of rats! "they had such wonderful eyes." This same woman once sat up every night for a month waiting for a sow to farrow, so as to be on hand to help if necessary. This attention to animals seemed to have pleased Wittgenstein especially.

On his journey back from Norway, the boat bringing him down the fiord stopped at a jetty. There was a woman standing on the jetty dressed in a trouser suit.

WITTGENSTEIN: "Usually I dislike seeing women wearing trousers, but this woman looked magnificent."

Fur by the yard

At the Times, William Grimes' obituary of absurdist furrier Jacques Kaplan:
Eager to reach younger shoppers, and to amuse himself, Mr. Kaplan designed lower-priced garments in less-expensive material, like wolf and rabbit, creating a new category known as fun fur. He also introduced bizarre furs like zorino, jaguar, wildebeest and gayal, and came up with new uses for them.

He designed fur furniture, commissioned fur art and hired artists like Stella and Anuszkiewicz to help promote his bolder designs. Babe Paley, wife of the CBS chairman William S. Paley, had Mr. Kaplan carpet her bathroom floor in Indian lamb’s wool. A boutique the salon owned across the street sold fur by the yard, which inventive customers used to upholster car seats or line closets.

Blue flowers

There is often something delightful or fascinating at the Beinecke Library blog, but these images of flowers, drawn from the lantern slides with which Walter McClintock accompanied his 1941 lecture “My Life Among the Indians," struck me as too lovely not to link to. My favorite:


Colleen Mondor was kind enough to send me some very thought-provoking questions last week, and has now posted the full interview at Chasing Ray. I will not excerpt it, but I was especially tickled by the final question, because she is the first person to have asked me about a possible allusion to something that was indeed very important to me while I was writing The Explosionist. I think she meant the question as an off-the-record afterthought, but I begged her to keep it in!

Monday, July 21, 2008

"A 'chunky' human child"

Label-driven blogging: was there Neanderthal-Cro-Magnon sex? (Link via Bookforum.)

Fits and starts

The light reading fit came upon me very strongly yesterday afternoon in the aftermath of the slightly overwhelming race I did yesterday morning. Its main symptom was that although my apartment is bursting with relatively new and reasonably appealing unread books that people have sent me or that I have in many cases purchased myself with considerable enthusiasm, it really seemed as though there was nothing here that was at all what I wanted to read!

So I went to the bookstore and extravagantly purchased Robert Crais's Chasing Darkness, and it was delightfully good. There are certainly other more innovative or ground-breaking crime novelists out there, but Crais is in my opinion at the absolute top of the popular-fiction game; like Lee Child or Terry Pratchett, there is something effortlessly appealing about his writing, he has both the gift and the kind of execution that comes from many years of practice...

Two afterthoughts:

The main reason I linked to that race report is so that I could include "jellyfish" as a label for this post!

I have been thinking a great deal this summer about how I am not, really, when it comes down to it, a novelist. It happens that I love novels more than pretty much anything else in the world; I have always wanted to write them, I wrote my first (unpublished) one when I was about ten years old and I am sure I will continue writing them throughout my life. But I am much more strongly, though the words are pretentious to apply to oneself, a thinker and a historian and an analyzer than I am a storyteller. I tell stories in order to figure out what I think about things...

Saturday, July 19, 2008


At the Sunday Times, Melissa Katsoulis has a good piece on David Chrystal's txtng: the gr8 db8:
When [Italians] want to text the common word per, meaning “for”, they use the “x” symbol - because the phonetic rendering of the multiplication sign is per. And although there is no letter “k” in the Italian alphabet, they have borrowed it from English to save time keying in che. So their word for “why”, perché becomes simply “xk”. This shows a sophisticated command of code-mixing.
And here's Jonathan Sale's take at the FT.

Tight spots

At the FT, Dr. E. Lee Spence tells Ed Hammond about diving for treasure:
One of my favourite projects was the wreck of the Regina. She was a Scottish-built steel-hulled steamer that went down in a storm in 1913 on Lake Huron. Not only was she carrying antiques, she was also laden with hundreds of cases of Scotch and Champagne. I had never liked Scotch before salvaging that wreck. Although time in glass can make Scotch go either way, it had improved with age. We drank a lot of bottles – all in the name of research. One of the technical terms I learnt during that time is “knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk”.

I’ve been in the occasional tight spot. Once I was in a modern wreck and my oxygen regulator failed. I was about 80ft deep and spent four long minutes swimming through pitch dark rooms and passages trying to find a way out.


From Neil Gaiman's introduction to Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
Douglas's ability to miss deadlines became legendary. ("I love deadlines," he said once. "I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.")

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


At the Guardian, Jane Brocket's list of the top ten feasts in classic English children's literature...


From M. O'C. Drury's self-consciously Boswellian contribution to Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees:
Today he talked to me about his brother Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist. He said that his brother had the most amazing knowledge of music. On one occasion some friends played a few bars of music from any one of a number of composers, from widely different periods, and his brother was able without a mistake to say who the composer was and from which work it was taken. On the other hand he did not like his brother's interpretation of music. Once when his brother was practising the piano and Wittgenstein was in another room of the house, the music suddenly stopped and his brother burst into the room saying, 'I can't play when you are in the house. I feel your scepticism seeping under the door."

"Nothing sounds like feet but feet"

At the TLS, Paula Marantz Cohen on the Fred Astaire Conference held recently at Oxford:
Refuting the conventional wisdom that Astaire’s musicals are cinematically undistinguished (a myth based perhaps on his famous remark: “either the camera dances or I do”), the film and television historian Patricia Tobias demonstrated Astaire’s technical astuteness, showing how he made sure that camera tracking always complemented bodily movement and kept the dancing figure within the central third of the frame; editing was done with such subtlety as to be practically invisible. The dance historian Beth Genné used video clips to show how Balanchine had incorporated Astaire’s fluidity and posture into his repertory for the New York City Ballet (in one, the former Balanchine prima ballerina Maria Tallchief was seen telling two young dancers to “make it more Astaire”).
I find myself very interested in these questions about techniques of the body that can't really be passed on through a written tradition but have to make their way from one body to another by way of personal contact. I am uniquely ill-suited to writing a book about stand-up comedy, for instance, since I loathe comedy clubs and have only seen a tiny fraction of even a beginner's library of filmed comedy, but after reading Steve Martin's excellent autobiography I was consumed with the desire for a really good book about bodies and comedy and performance, sort of a grand physiological and psychological and philosophical theory of everything to do with how one gets this sort of effect with one's body and how and why such effects are transmitted to onlookers. (You know, sort of Adam Smith meets William James meets Samuel Beckett meets Richard Pryor?!?) Possibly this book exists already, only I am not well-versed in the field of performance studies and it seemed to me I might have to educate myself so as to write it myself!

This is a good opportunity to dig up a lovely passage out of the chaotic e-mail inbox, courtesy of dissertation-writer and fellow triathlete Lauren Klein. It's from Marcel Mauss's "Techniques of the Body" (1935), in Techniques, Technology and Civilization (hmmm, I am torn between a desire to write my next academic book on very pure basic-research bread-and-butter questions about how novels work - a more elegant book than any I have yet managed to write - versus a much more demented project that would be about bodies and culture and the way things like swimming and acting work, but written in a mode like a sort of hybrid of Sebald and magpie collector of interesting things):
First, in 1898, I came into contact with someone whose initials I still know, but whose name I can no longer remember. I have been too lazy to look it up. It was the man who wrote an excellent article on 'Swimming' for the 1902 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, then in preparation. (The articles on 'Swimming' in the two later editions are not so good.) He revealed to me the historical and ethnographical interest of the question. It was a startingpoint, an observational framework. Subsequently - I noticed it myself - we have seen swimming techniques undergo a change, in our generation's lifetime. An example will put us in the picture straight away: us, the psychologists, as well as the biologists and sociologists. Previously we were taught to dive after having learnt to swim. And when we were learning to dive, we were taught to close our eyes and then to open them under water. Today the technique is the other way round. The whole training begins by getting the children used to keeping their eyes open under water. Thus, even before they can swim, particular care is taken to get the children to control their dangerous but instinctive ocular reflexes, before all else they are familiarised with the water, their fears are suppressed, a certain confidence is created, suspensions and movements are selected. . . . [H]ere our generation has witnessed a complete change in technique: we have seen the breaststroke with the head out of the water replaced by the different sorts of crawl. Moreover, the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has gone. In my day swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steamboat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my technique. Here then we have a specific technique of the body, a gymnic art perfected in our own day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Running out of 4s

At the Times, Ken Belson on gas-station owners' makeshift digits:
... Vishal Nair, who runs the Lukoil station at Eighth Avenue and 13th Street in Greenwich Village, took another plastic number last week, turned it over and scribbled “4” on it with a black magic marker. The result was an obviously homemade “$4.47,” but it would have to do until he received the extra 4s he ordered months ago.

“Typically, we have a lot of 9s and 1s, and we had a shortage of 3s before we got a lot of 3s in,” Mr. Nair said.

The missing digits are an unanticipated barometer of how frequently prices are changing. The average price of regular gasoline in New York City has risen by 35 percent this year, forcing station managers to change their price displays almost every time they get a delivery, which can be daily at some stations.

Franchises often order numbers from their parent companies, though like independent station owners, they can buy directly from sign companies. Sets of 40 include equal numbers of each digit, which are magnetic or slip into plastic holders. Digits, which are often in a Helvetica font, are sold individually for as little as a $1.50. In New York, numbers must be 4.5 or 9 inches tall.


John Crace is in good form with the latest 'digested read'. It is easier to be heartless, perhaps, about nonfiction...

Monday, July 14, 2008


Sean Wilsey's encounter with American velocity. A taste:
I drove 17 hours without a rest, crossing the Mason-Dixon line at 1 a.m., at the same time as an Amish buggy with reflective bands Velcroed around its horses’ ankles; a quick sleep in Harrisburg, PA, where, beside the banks of the Susquehanna River, hoping to remove the spring that had been boring into my pelvis, I disembowelled the bench seat with a pocket knife; past the Hershey chocolate factory, over towards the Jersey border; across the deep-carved bed of the Delaware River on a gleaming steel bridge, barely wide enough for the truck; another highway gash, and finally we saw the New York skyline. My dog said: ‘Wroarowlwolf!’

A historiography of empathy?

At the Guardian, Guy Damman interviews Orlando Figes about the role of empathy in his research for The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia:
With a team of researchers from Memorial, the Russian historical and civil rights organisation, he assembled nearly 500 interviews - many lasting as long as three days - with survivors of Stalin's rule. Far from being files tucked away neatly in dusty archives, these sources were living and breathing witnesses to the whispers and dreams that bore the burden of subjectivity's fragile survival under Stalin.

"There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn," one of the witnesses, the daughter of a Bolshevik official in the Volga port of Saratov, told Figes. "What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat ... No one explained to us that what was spoken might be dangerous politically, but somehow we understood."

"This is great, Ed"

Also at the Science Times, Nicholas Wade interviews E. O. Wilson:
Over lunch he describes his novel in progress, currently titled “Anthill.” Its contents have occasioned certain differences of emphasis between himself and his publisher, even though it was his editor at Norton, Robert Weil, who suggested he write it. Dr. Wilson would like ants to play a large role in the novel, given all the useful lessons that can be drawn from their behavior. The publisher sees a larger role for people and a smaller, at most ant-sized, role for ants. The novel is rotating through draft after draft as this tension is worked out.

Dr. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for literature, but that is no shield against a publisher’s quest for perfection. “They said, ‘You can do better than that, Ed,’ ” he recalled. “I wrote another draft. They said, ‘This is great, Ed, but we need more emotion, ambivalence.’ ” In the next draft, he plans to have the human characters stand alone, without the ants if necessary.
I must confess that I am curious to read the ant-heavy version! I always think of those great scenes in The Once and Future King...

Dupe wasps

At the Times, a tale of sexual deceit.

Light reading round-up

I feel that I have hardly read anything recently, but whenever I say that, someone objects that this is not really the case!

I had a good Caymanian interlude in June which featured a certain amount of work but also a number of frivolous pleasures, including more movies and TV episodes than I usually seem to consume in regular life: The Incredible Hulk (enjoyable at the time, but largely unmemorable--Liv Tyler is very beautiful, though, and I wish that I too could get an accurate heart-rate monitor that operated without a chest strap!); Wall-E (very charming); Season 3 of The Wire (exactly to my taste); miscellaneous Disney Channel shows (hmmm, not sure what to say about these; mildly culturally illuminating?!?).

It is an essential part of holidaying that one should be able to pluck books from the shelf that are not quite what one would read in regular life, either, but next-universe-over sort-of-exactly-what-I-like-to-read-but-not: Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist (perfect for reading during meals--at home I have the New Yorker for this, but when I'm on the road I need a highly engaging non-fiction book, novels are not good because it is not appealing to put them down when I'm done eating, I am more likely to greedily finish them all at once!); Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar (very good opening scene involving Knights Templar on horseback invading a gala affair at the Met and chopping someone's head off, but there is a reason I do not read books of this ilk more often); Carl Hiaasen's Strip Tease.

This last was very good indeed, I thought; Hiaasen has a gift I associate especially with Terry Pratchett, of writing extremely funny satire in which the characters are also quite engaging. I do not know why I had the impression that I did not like Hiaasen's books, I think that in point of fact I had not read any of them--I am not a great Elmore Leonard fan, perhaps I had mixed the two up?

And since I've been home, amidst the continued stream of work-related books touching upon cycling, reindeer and nuclear physics, some rather delightful volumes I have been looking forward to for some time: the altogether brilliant Naomi Novik's latest installment in the Temeraire series, Victory of Eagles (possibly my favorite of all since the first volume, but you cannot do better than to order the box set of the first three volumes and start at the beginning if you have not read these books already: Naomi really is a genius of light reading!); and Kathrine Switzer's Marathon Woman: Running the Race to Revolutionize Women's Sports (very gripping in every respect, and indispensable in its account of the rise of women's amateur and professional sports in the United States and worldwide).

But the real highlight, light-reading-wise, of these past weeks was a brief but to me rather meaningful encounter with one of my great literary heroes! I am not a great one for book-signings, but when I saw the announcement in the very good bookstore in Grand Cayman for a signing that would take place the following Saturday evening, I knew I had to go! Because it was Dick Francis signing his latest novel Dead Heat (co-authored with son Felix)...

Here's a link to the absurdly copious collection of Dick-Francis-related posts I've written here over the years; if you click through to this one and scroll down onto item #6 on the list, you will have a hint of the special nature of the place this writer holds in my affections, but it is really beyond rational explanation why I love his books so much! My beloved English grandmother was very fond of 'em too, she and my mother and I have all read them about fifty million times! (And in fact I had already read this one, though I was very happy to read it again; and when I finished with the advance review copy which a friend kindly gave me, I passed it onto my mother, because aside from the fact that I knew she would be able to while away a few hours with it quite happily, I was laughing to myself at the fact that she and the book's chief love interest are both English viola players named Caroline! Though I am thinking my mother would not be likely to utter any of the sentiments about music expressed by the love interest!)

Athleta Britannicus

A pleasing letter from Celina Fox in the latest NYRB:
In her review of Boxing: A Cultural History [NYR, May 29], Joyce Carol Oates is mistaken in stating that "by the time of the English Golden Age of boxing [circa 1780–1837]...boxing's Greek origins had long been forgotten." In 1808 a group of Royal Academicians and connoisseurs paid five shillings each to see the Lancashire prizefighter Bob Gregson strike poses among the recently imported Elgin marbles, housed in a temporary store off Piccadilly. Three boxing matches were staged in the same location, so that the muscle action of the boxers and the marble figures could be compared. Twenty years later, the 3rd Earl of Egremont commissioned from John Rossi a statue of athleta Britannicus, with fists raised for combat, and placed it in the north gallery at Petworth, alongside the antique sculptures collected by his father. The juxtaposition suggests a desire, at least among the English elite, to measure both its sporting heroes and its artists against the standards set by the ancients.
Lots of other good stuff in that issue, too: particularly rewarding is Darryl Pinckney on Obama and the black church.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The fury of Achilles

Philosopher and amateur cyclist Peter Sloterdijk on the Tour de France (I would laugh at myself if I talked like this, but it is an interesting and thought-provoking interview despite verbal extravagance and periodic silliness!):
By the way, it isn't difficult to understand why Barthes considered doping a sacrilege. For him, it was as if someone were stealing God's exclusive right to shine. In last year's Tour de France, we experienced the gruesome truth that ultimately proved Barthes right. The veil was lifted, and instead of fighters, all you saw were cycling proletarians working at a shady job. Now the poetry is gone, the sublime has been steamrolled. The riders are just regular employees. They no longer live in an aura of brilliance. Instead, they've become nothing but specialists in sprinting, cruising or climbing. Even worse is the vulgarity with which a former Tour de France winner like Bjarne Riis commented on revelations that he was a doper: "The yellow jersey is in a cardboard box in my garage. You can pick it up."
(Link courtesy of Bookforum.)

Bone fone

Paul Collins on osteophones.


Iain Banks has an interesting piece at the Guardian about how he came to write The Wasp Factory:
The Wasp Factory represented me admitting partial defeat, heaving a slightly theatrical sigh, stepping reluctantly away from the gaudy, wall-size canvasses of science/space fiction to lay down my oversize set of Rolf Harris paint rollers, pick up a set of brushes thinner than pencils and - jaw set, brows furrowed - lower myself to using a more restricted palette and to producing what felt like a miniature in comparison.

Friday, July 11, 2008


From George Hevesy, Adventures in Radioisotope Research: "Schoenheimer was already at that date a very nervous man. He moved his limbs incessantly, smoked cigarettes, and consumed coffee on a much too liberal scale."

Thursday, July 10, 2008


From George Gamow, My World Line: An Informal Autobiography (1970):
During my stay in Göttingen I made friends with a jolly Austrian-born physicist, Fritz Houtermans. He had recently completed his Ph.D. in experimental physics but was always quite enthusiastic about theoretical problems. When I told him about my work on the theory of alpha decay, he insisted that it must be done with higher precision and in more detail. Being a native Viennese, he could work only in a café, and I will always remember him sitting with a slide rule at a table covered with papers and a dozen or so empty coffee cups. (During that period, when one asked for more coffee in Germany, the waiter always brought a new cup, leaving the empty ones on th table to be counted in making up the bill.) We also tried to use the old electric (not electronic, of course) computer in the university’s Mathematical Institute, but it always went haywire after midnight. We ascribed this interference to the ghost of Karl Friedrich Gauss arriving to inspect his old place.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Perpetual Motion Food

From James McGurn, On Your Bicycle: An illustrated history of cycling (highly recommended):
Alfred Jarry, best known for his chaotic Ubu Roi plays, was the most committed cyclist of them all. He described the bicycle as an ‘external skeleton’ which allowed mankind to outstrip the processes of biological evolution. Jarry was an outrageous eccentric and a wild cyclist. He was no Bois de Boulogne buff, and counterpointed the public obsession with Bois fashions by wearing at all times the tight and gaudy costume of a professional racing cyclist. Jarry caused a stir by wearing it at the funeral of the revered poet Mallarmé, after having followed the cortège on his bicycle. He did make one concession at the funeral of his close friend Marcel Schwob: he pulled his trouser bottoms out of his stockings. He habitually rode round Paris with two revolvers tucked in his belt and a carbine across his shoulder. Some sources say he fired off shots to warn of his approach. It is known for certain, however, that in his maturer days he fixed a large bell from a tram car onto his handlebars. At night he kept his bicycle at the foot of his bed and cycled round the room on it during the day. He died in poverty at the age of thirty-four as a result of malnutrition and absinthe abuse. His literary works include a scandalous magazine article, ‘The Passion considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race’, and also ‘The Ten Thousand Mile Race’, in which the five-man crew of a multicycle, bound by rods to their machine, hurtle across Europe and Asia in a grotesque race against an express train. Paced by jet cars and flying machines they reach speeds of 300 kilometres an hour thanks to their diet of Perpetual Motion Food, a volatile mixture of alcohol and strychnine. One of the riders dies of an overdose whilst in the saddle, an event hardly noticed in the farcical pandemonium of technology.

The Dynamite

At the blog I've started for The Explosionist, the real-life dynamite factory that provided the setting for the novel's final showdown.

Heavy water

Four stories about George de Hevesy, author of the two-volume Adventures in Radioisotope Research whose delivery I am anxiously awaiting at the library, having no doubt erroneously and procrastinatorily and entirely self-deludingly persuaded myself it is essential to read before I can finish writing the opening scene of the new novel:
During his trying experiences at Manchester, Hevesy grew distinctly unhappy with the boardinghouse he stayed at (it couldn’t have helped that the place had been recommended by Rutherford). Perhaps his bouts of indigestion made him more picky than usual (Badash 1969). In any event, he became convinced that his landlady had a nasty habit of recycling food. His suggestion that she serve freshly prepared meat more than once a week was met with indignation - how could he, she insisted, accuse her of serving anything but the freshest of ingredients. But Hevesy wasn’t persuaded. At the next opportunity, the following Sunday, Hevesy secretly spiked the leftovers on his plate with radioactive material. A few days later, the electroscope he smuggled into the dining room revealed the presence of the tracer - radioactive hash! Confronted with the irrefutable evidence, all the landlady could do was exclaim "this is magic!" The first radiotracer investigation had successfully followed leftover meat from the Sunday meal to the kitchen meat grinder, into the hash pot, and back onto the dining room table. (Brecher and Brecher 1969, Myers 1979). To this day, it is doubtful if a successful radiotracer study has provided greater personal satisfaction!

Sniper school

Katie Thomas has an interesting article in the Times about the Army's sharpshooting team and its Olympic goals:
In addition to the physical conditioning required of all soldiers, the shooters focus on mental training, which is crucial in a sport in which a millimeter can decide the difference between a gold and a silver medal. The unit, with an annual budget of more than $4 million, provides access to a licensed hypnotist, and the shotgun team’s office is outfitted with a brainwave monitor to teach the shooters how to clear their minds.

"This tiny thing"

At the Paper Cuts blog, Oliver Sacks on listening to Bach and taking piano lessons again after a 60+-year gap. (Link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull.)

"The truth was that he wasted time!"

Because I basically am now a monomaniac concerning everything to do with swimming, the great revelation for me of Zadie Smith's NYRB piece on Louis Begley's Kafka book was that I might find some good swimming bits in Kafka's diaries and correspondence...

I am not sure I agree with all of Smith's conclusions, but I liked this bit:
Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka's writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then "depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o'clock, once even till six in the morning." Then "every imaginable effort to go to sleep," as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet
when Felice wrote to him...arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled.... "The present way is the only possible one; if I can't bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow."
It was Brod's opinion that Kafka's parents should gift him a lump sum "so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz's brain, wishes the world to have." Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod's wish
probably misguided. Kafka's failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.
The truth was that he wasted time! The writer's equivalent of the dater's revelation: He's just not that into you. "Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents' apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn't write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem."

People reading

Caleb Crain on the urge to memorialize a possible decline in book culture.

Monday, July 07, 2008

600 letters an hour

Elizabeth Gudrais has a fascinating little piece on Kristie Macrakis' Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi's Spy-Tech World:
Consider the “smell chair,” whose seat covering was an interchangeable cloth fastened down to look like a regular cushion. After the “target” got up from the chair, Stasi agents would collect the cloth and store it in an airtight jar. The captured scent served as a kind of pheromonal fingerprint, a form of positive ID in an age of ever-multiplying code names and aliases. The Stasi used this method to check up on known dissidents and employees suspected of acting as double agents. If they could gain access to the hotel room or office where an allegedly duplicitous meeting took place, they could use dogs to determine whether their target had been there.
Macrakis' next book is on the history of invisible ink...

I went to the the KGB museum in Moscow--one of the more chilling places I have ever been. They had a volume full of ceremonial photographs of the agency's heads--in the late thirties, each man's tenure was only a matter of months, at which point his life would end also...

The camera-in-a-bra, which could take pictures through sheer fabric (the photo is courtesy of Macrakis via the Harvard Magazine website)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The ticket onto the rollercoaster

In the Times Magazine, Fernanda Eberstadt profiles CocoRosie.

Communing with fish

At the Sunday Times, John Carey reviews Andrew Brown's Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared:
Fishing in Utopia is a lament for a lost Eden. But it is more than that. Essentially it is a story of modern rootlessness and the search for something to believe in. The fact that that something turns out, absurdly, to be fishing only makes it more tragic. I can see it becoming a cult book, and not just among anglers. You do not (I can personally guarantee) need to have the slightest interest in fishing to be caught up in his rapt descriptions of reels and lines and casting and flies and the enormous quiet of Sweden's uninhabited places. In the last section he drives up into the Swedish arctic to be alone and write. It is a journey into the past. At a lonely farm he comes upon an old couple, and finds that the wife not only believes in trolls but has seen one, a little grey man about 2ft high. Trolls are, he learns, benevolent spirits, quite likely to take milk from a cow at night, but happy to do humans favours in return.

Sordid propensities

At the Telegraph, Jeremy Lewis has a delightful piece on Humphrey Carpenter's history of the publishing firm John Murray:
The revival of the firm in the last century was thanks to the bow-tied, bustling "Jock" Murray, who persuaded his cautious seniors to take on the best-selling Story of San Michele, put up his own money (100 shares in Bovril) to secure the rights to publish Betjeman's Continual Dew, nudged Freya Stark into print, spotted the potential in Parkinson's Law, and modestly declared that his "main claim to fame is that I am the only publisher who has typeset in the nude".

Friday, July 04, 2008

Supermarket delicacies

At the FT, Stefan Wagstyl has coffee with Vaclav Havel. On Havel's new book:
It is not so much a memoir as a series of commentaries, interspersed with contemporaneous office notes and entries from a diary he kept in 2005 while working on the book. President Havel worries about everything from the future of the planet to the half-cooked potatoes served to the visiting Emperor of Japan and the bat that has taken up residence in his summer house. “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it? The light bulb has been unscrewed so as not to wake it up and upset it.”


The only really blissful and muscle-fatiguing hour of my day was spent getting a huge haul of books from all sorts of different parts of the library...

Fuller update to follow on recent light reading and other entertainment, including a brief holiday encounter with one of my longtime literary idols!

The attentive viewer will note what I have only just realized myself, after clicking on the photo to enlarge it--somehow I ended up with two copies of the same book!?!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Gap years

For the first time ever, I am going to give this post a label: one I suspect I will be using quite a bit this summer....

Main characters like their authors?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Kipple, gubbish, Substance D

At the LRB, Stephen Burt on Philip K. Dick:
Both political and psychoanalytic paranoia, for Dick, induce ontological vertigo. If you accept the Official Version, you will never know what’s really going on; once you step outside it, you will never know either, since nothing can falsify the hypothesis that everything is fake. Jason Taverner in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), a famous actor stuck in an alternative universe where he is unemployed and unknown, asks a young woman whether he is ‘a hallucination of yours’; she responds: ‘Maybe . . . you’re a product of my delusional mind.’ The worst thing that can happen to Dick’s characters – and it happens to them over and over again – is to discover that they inhabit the mind of someone else, someone who ‘can kick over the scenery, manifest himself, push things in any direction he chooses. Even be any of us.’ They may also live in a fragile afterlife, having died without realising it, or in the Potemkin world of a demiurge, its pasteboard walls easy to see as crumbling fakes.

Dick’s novels, reread, invite us to pick one page and draw a thick line across it, separating the novel into before and after the protagonist learns (or believes he has learned) what’s really going on: often we realise, far into the after portion, that we may never know. ‘You have bumped the door of life open with your big, dense head,’ Taverner says to himself, ‘and now it can’t be closed.’ Dick wrote in 1980 that his early realist novels failed because ‘they required the reader to accept my premise that each of us lives in a unique world.’ This notion of incommensurable public and private experience (one of them is a delusion, but which one?) has parallels not only in the drug culture whose ‘freaked-out paranoid space’ he anticipated, not only in the highbrow sources he used (Jung, the pre-Socratics, the Gnostics), but also in the diaries of his mother, who decided, when her sister died, that ‘each person has another world in him and that no one really belongs to the world as it is.’

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

It's official

The Explosionist is really and truly out there, for real, in bookstores all over the place!*

You can follow that link to order it from various online booksellers, and I'll be posting some other links over the next few days. I had a grand plan for a lavish Explosionist blog, but it hasn't quite come together yet--more TK...

* I was going to say "all over the world," only of course that is not accurate! Then I was going to say "all over the country," only I am writing from the last day of a tropical interlude that has taken me out of the country in question, so that did not seem strictly accurate either! So I settled for the vaguer and more colloquial expression given above.

Primary colors

A nice post by Sudhir Venkatesh at the Freakonomics blog about Columbia colleague Andrew Gelman's forthcoming Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do. Here's the book's website.


Thomas Bartlett aka Doveman reimagines the album...