Sunday, August 31, 2008

TWO chocolate ice creams

Adam Mars-Jones has a thoughtful piece at the Observer on the problem with publishing Dirk Bogarde's letters, and I cannot resist pasting in these paragraphs:
Dirk Bogarde's books were painstakingly shaped and rewritten. Writing letters functioned as a sort of five-finger exercise for him, but they were exercises mainly in the key of G: gush and grumble. The English moan is a complex phenomenon. Well-off expatriates moan about little things ('I refuse to pay five francs 50 for a small root of impatiens'; 'We cannot really afford to have [meat] more than once a week') because things are so nearly as they want them, or because they don't want to discuss their real worries, or for superstitious reasons. If you stop grumbling, the gods may suddenly notice how fortunate you are and take steps.

Letter writing was part of Dirk Bogarde's life-support system, but what part, exactly? Perhaps it had a sort of renal function, clearing the blood of toxins. Many of these letters express the negatives of his virtues, such as a reflex of ungraciousness after generous hospitality, written when the washing-up was a stronger memory than the meal (which Forwood cooked anyway). 'A huge, really big, leek-pie, which Dick had two helpings of, TWO chocolate ice creams with nuts and cream walloped on top, half a round of cheese, lots of bread and butter, figs from the garden and TWO bananas from the greengrocer!' If that's what happens when you invite your dear neighbour Dickie Attenborough to dinner, either don't ask him again or don't expect leftovers next time.

Another guest, the British consul's wife, may have thought she was making things easy for her host by drinking only hot water, but no ('A bit tiresome topping up her cup all afternoon ... ').

"Is Brenda coming?"

Rachel Johnson has a very nice profile of Dick Francis and son/collaborator Felix at the Times Online:
Okay, but what about the violence and the injuries that all Dick Francis heroes have to sustain on a page-by-page basis? Both admit that Dick Francis heroes, all of whom are in some way injured, disappointed, lame or wing-down, are based on Francis père. Did the two men have the same approach to character, to violence and to, er, sex?

At the mention of physical pain and injury, Dick perks up. “As I’ve got older I’ve become no less violent,” he says cheerily.

“Yes, the Queen Mother did once complain you were getting too bloodthirsty,” Felix reminds him. “But the truth, Dad, is that the books are about what you’re about. Loyalty and courage. Not sex and violence.”
It is still slightly one of my life goals to write a thriller that has some of the appeal of a Dick Francis novel - I do not know that I quite have it in me, but it would be worth a shot. (The alternate universe where I am a writer of irresistible thrillers is less vivid and plausible to me than the universe where I am an epidemiologist specializing in science-fictional disaster scenarios. However on the whole I think I am pretty much in the right line of work as is. I am gaining self-knowledge with age!)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mal educato

For the FT, Rahul Jacob has tea with Miss Manners (a.k.a. Judith Martin).

An interesting thing I did not know:
Martin worked at The Washington Post for about three decades, starting in 1958 initially doing clerical jobs. Later, her reporting duties included covering embassy parties and social events at the White House. Well before Watergate brought the Post and the Nixon White House to loggerheads, Martin’s coverage of Julie Nixon’s wedding to David Eisenhower in 1968 irritated that excessively controlling administration. The Nixon White House gave journalists credentials to attend the reception but then cordoned them off in a room far from the party, asking them to make do with briefings from a staff member and write the story as if they had been at the party. Instead, Martin slipped by the security with the bridesmaids. A few years later, the Post was asked by the White House not to assign Martin to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding. The Post’s executive editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, refused and the paper declined to cover the event.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Old chimps' home

This is a book I must get....

The blog's been quiet this week due to some combination of the following: (1) actual novel-writing (versus internet procrastination); (2) very slow literary news in August, always irksome to me - much less than usual that's interesting to link to!; and (3) a hurricane-related travel swerve.

Whiled away an unexpected (and considerably delayed) flight with the gift that wretched Miami airport gave to me - a new novel by Dick Francis and his son Felix of which I had heard nary a peep! It is fairly awful, but it was delightfully soothing to me - there is a truly comical sex scene about two thirds of the way through, and the protagonist makes a number of morally suspect choices - in the end, though, there is nothing like a Dick Francis novel for calming one down...

Other light reading around the edges of work: Laurie King's Touchstone (good, but not nearly as much to my taste as Jo Walton's Farthing books or the novels of Peter Dickinson); a very charming and well-written young-adult novel about life and running, Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us (recommendation courtesy of Gautam); Charlie Stross's Accelerando (at its best, really and truly hilarious and thought-provoking, but somewhat uneven when taken as a whole).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hot dog

Food so good it eats itself. (Via BoingBoing.)


More on crows (Michelle Nijuis writing for the Science Times):
Though Dr. Marzluff’s is the first formal study of human face recognition in wild birds, his preliminary findings confirm the suspicions of many other researchers who have observed similar abilities in crows, ravens, gulls and other species. The pioneering animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz was so convinced of the perceptive capacities of crows and their relatives that he wore a devil costume when handling jackdaws. Stacia Backensto, a master’s student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies ravens in the oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope, has assembled an elaborate costume — including a fake beard and a potbelly made of pillows — because she believes her face and body are familiar to previously captured birds.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The next screen

A very good interview with Helen DeWitt at A Softer World. NB she is not exaggerating about the time and energy it takes to see books into print - it is the bane of my life, the one thing that there is no hope of changing and that I must just suffer through! I do not begrudge the time as such, it is necessary to do something with time, only it so clearly ends up being time spent not having enough energy to think about new things and write new books!

Here's a great bit, anyway:
Our social practices aren't as well developed as our games. A community of game players improves the standard at which a game is played over time. Bridge has only been around for a bit over a century, for instance, but well-developed bidding systems enable even very weak players to communicate the strength and shape of their hand and determine whether they have a good fit with their partner; the systems work well because they have been developed by first-class players who have a good sense of which hands play well. (You can't know the potential strength of a pair of hands, obviously, unless you know what can be done with them.) So if I'm playing bridge and have a six-card heart suit and 3 Aces a King and a Jack I have a very good chance of finding out whether my partner has a) a four-card heart suit and a fistful of honours, b) a four-card heart suit but a weakish hand, c) no hearts, a long spade suit and a fistful of honours, d) a few honours and no strong suit, or e) zilch. (to name just a few possibilities) By way of contrast, we have no comparable sophistication in the communication of sexual preferences or strength of interest. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever gone to jail for optimistically raising a 1 heart opening to slam on a hand with a singleton heart and the Jack of diamonds; we might think that the sophistication of the game could usefully be transferred to areas of life where the penalties for misunderstanding are higher.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chatternag, chatterpie, haggister

At the Observer, Olivia Laing reviews Esther Woolfson's magical-sounding Corvus: A Life With Birds.

The Telegraph had a good excerpt the other week. Here's a bit I especially liked:
Magpies' nests are large, layered, well designed, executed with care against weather and predation. They can take longer to construct than many modern houses: weeks spent transporting twigs, mud, grass, forming them into deep, domed superstructures, lining the curved sides with feathers, sticks, hair, objets trouvés. Some are dome-roofed, accessible by side entrances, magpie cathedrals, magpie palaces; all, I like to imagine, fan vaulting, Romanesque arch and piano nobile.

In the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow there is a magpie's nest constructed, along with the usual assemblage of twigs and leaves, from metallic objects, old coat hangers, builders' waste, barbed wire, a glittering object of strange charm and beauty.

From my bedroom window I watch magpies, flying, criss-crossing, I believe, from one old tree to the other, over the steep Parisian-style mansard-roof of the house opposite, as members of two magpie families (clans, perhaps, Macdonalds and Campbells, Montagues and Capulets) or one extended family exchange visits, for what purpose, peaceable or otherwise, I do not know.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


At the Sunday Times, Christopher Hart reviews Being a Scot, by Sean Connery and Murray Grigor. A postscript to the story:
Connery's unfeigned delight in discovering more about his country - and himself - gives his book its idiosyncratic charm. While delving in the archives of the National Library of Scotland for the heart-breaking last letter written by Mary Queen of Scots six hours before her execution, he learns the archivist has found a still more extraordinary document: one of Connery's first pay slips as a 13-year-old delivery boy for St Cuthbert's dairy, Edinburgh. The slip records his title ‘the Costorphine Dairy barrow worker' and his 1944 salary (a guinea a week). Within weeks, he had a horse of his own to drive. ‘ME! I couldn't grasp it, I was so elated.'

"You're so uncouth"

Nice story at the Times about an unusual animal rescue operation.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


America's foremost demonologist. (Via Bookforum.)

A teaser:
In the autumn of 1961 Bradshaw reported for the first time to the book-strewn office of Matthew Black, his Ph.D. thesis advisor at St Andrews.

To this day, his memory of that initial encounter is crystal clear. "Mr. Bradshaw," Bradshaw remembers Black telling him, "I want you to study demonology."

"At first I thought he was joking," Bradshaw adds. "But Dr. Black was not a humorous man."


Implausible headline - a little too self-conscious to be really funny, perhaps. Interesting style-sheet choices, though; it would make a good sentence on a copy-editing test. Also, animals should be given more dignified names....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The letter C

I have been wrestling with a virus (stomach, not computer) and an index - between the two of them, they have thoroughly eroded the quality of my life over the last few days...

But my health seems to be on the mend, and the index and book proofs are winging their way back to the copy-editor in New Jersey as we speak, so this is very good.

Official publication date is January 2009, but my editor had a vision of us having it for the MLA conference at the end of December that seems (barring unforeseen calamity) as though it will be realized - in retrospect, I am extremely grateful, as it was only the power and plausibility of her vision that made it possible for me to complete the final book revisions in January and February of this year. I was in a seriously exhausted and zombie-like state and had no spare will-power for self-motivated and seemingly non-essential book-finishing!

I had a funny bit of correspondence after the glimpse I gave last week of my indexing process. Old friend Steve Burt, whose Randall Jarrell biography contains some words of Jarrell's that speak to me more strongly than almost anything else I've ever read, commented mildly, with a link on his blog, "That’s not the way I did it…" A brief correspondence ensued:
JMD: I want to hear how you did yours! I fear that the way we tackle this sort of project is deeply revealing of thinking preferences/habits... And in fact I was looking at your Jarrell one, because my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style was at the office; I wanted to look at a Columbia UP example!

SB: I never look at Manuals of Style any more, just at models (same journal or same press).

I went through the proofs with three colors of highlighters, one for names of people, one for other proper nouns, and one for common nouns ("personhood," "totalitarianism," "squirrels") that I thought I wanted to index. Then I read through the highlighted MS and created a word file. This works for everything except the entry for the idea or person the whole book is about ("Randall Jarrell," "adolescence"), which editors insist you have, and which you have to create by flipping through the book rapidly after the rest of the index has been prepared.

I'm not sure what that reveals.
My mother, a longtime elementary-school teacher, always used to quote one particular sixth-grader's words when she asked him how that day at school had been. He said (of a strict and demanding but much-loved teacher), "Mrs. Hineline busted my brain!" It is in the nature of indexing that it busts the brain, that is its charm and its purpose.

(Well, perhaps that is hyperbolic, its purpose is not brain-busting - but you do want the index to sort of crack open the book in a disconcerting and unexpected way, it's one last shot at making your case!)

I got some truly wonderful corrections and comments from my overseas assistant; I have not asked his permission, I'm afraid, but I'm pasting in a sample page that includes the absolutely delightful query (on my use of hereditary as a subheading under inheritance) "a bit pleonastic?" (This also gives me the opportunity for an irresistible new post label below which I will endeavor not to make excessive use of in future.)

And here is the promised sample letter:

Saturday, August 16, 2008


At the Times, extracts from a Philip Howard's alluring-sounding The British Library: A Treasure House of Knowledge. On the map reproduced above:
This 1977 map looks unusual but strangely familiar. It shows parts of Essex and Kent linked across the River Thames by the Dartford Tunnel, but it is in Russian. It was not realised outside the Eastern Bloc that the Soviet military were secretly mapping the world at several scales. Their maps are backed with detailed information, down to the types of trees and the number of telephones in a village.


At the Telegraph, Louisa MacKay considers Mills & Boon fiction and the changing styles of cover art

Friday, August 15, 2008

On parade

Widely reported elsewhere, but just in case you missed it: penguin receives regimental knighthood at Edinburgh Zoo.

"Food is good, but the herd is better"

Barbara Sjoholm, author of The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, is currently translating Danish artist Emilie Dehatt's account of her own travels in Lapland in the early twentieth century - excerpts at Orion Magazine:
It’s no easy thing to keep several thousand semi-wild animals together in a relatively small area. The girls directed the dogs with the musical command words that the Lapps use in reindeer herding. The dogs streaked out in every direction, but if one did something wrong or sowed confusion in the herd, it was called back with a yell that could wake the dead. When you’ve heard the Lapps work with the herd, you can well understand why they often have such weak hoarse voices in ordinary speech. It’s because they use them to their full capacity in reindeer herding, when the dogs are commanded and called back. The voice has to cut through a long distance and an unbelievable roaring. (Perhaps they also save their voices half unconsciously for the times when they truly need them). In addition, those who work with reindeer must be lightning quick in thought and action. Even if the herd is in flight, they must seize the moment and let the lasso fly if they’ve glimpsed an animal to be captured. The rope is cast and then coiled up, ready for the next throw. They also need to keep a sharp eye on the dogs, and scout out particular reindeer in the swarming confusion. A bad or untrained dog can cause a great disturbance in his mistaken zeal, charging into the middle of the herd, which then spreads out like chaff in the wind. Angry words rain down upon the dog; he slinks off in shame, followed by the fiercest curses and furious looks. When there’s time, he also gets a beating if he’s done something truly wrong. However the Lapps have a rule that you shouldn’t strike and scold at the same time, only one thing at a time. That’s because you need to be careful not to insult the dog. If an otherwise competent dog feels affronted by someone who, in his opinion, has treated him too roughly, it can happen that the dog suddenly sits down and looks at things without budging, however much his owner commands. Only kind words and friendliness can soften him up then, so he’ll take up his work again, though a sit-down strike can last as long as a whole day. Some dogs are lazy and can only be bothered to jump in a pinch; others are all excitement, with shining eyes, and each muscle tensely following the movements of the reindeer. Sometimes one animal breaks away from the herd. That reindeer has a panting dog at its heels, a dog that keeps up until he sees his chance, and cuts in front of the reindeer and forces it back.


Willard Spiegelman has an appealing essay on swimming in the American Scholar (link courtesy of Dave Lull). Here's a pair of sentences I especially liked, following Spiegelman's description of taking up swimming as a graduate student at Harvard:
One day I noticed that I was swimming between Erik Erikson and John Kenneth Galbraith. The former performed an elegant breaststroke, never putting his leonine head of silver locks into the water; the latter, what seemed like all eight feet of him, simply pushed off from one end and arrived at the other almost immediately, effortlessly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Number Four, Skin Lane

Toby Barnard has a great long piece at the TLS about the new edition of the Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland:
Inclusions inevitably prompt reflections on the distinguished salon des refusés. Aintree racecourse hardly needs more punters, so neither Dick Francis nor Nancy Spain’s crash to earth there (with her lover) is mentioned. Spain’s detective stories are set in a girls’ school, Radcliffe Hall, modelled on Roedean. She was sued by Evelyn Waugh for alleging in the Daily Express that the books of his brother Alec sold better than his. What more does she need to be admitted to this particular Pantheon? The Guide’s aim (wonderfully achieved) is to amuse and inform. It is not conceived as an aid for the earnest, battling in high winds with a linen-backed Ordnance Survey map on the bonnet of the tourer.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Crack indexing

Progress round here, of an archeological sort (I have not used thousands of index cards, I have just gone crazy with the post-it notes - the colors in this case have no significance, it was just that I needed a large number of 'em!): it's all loosely alphabetized, and now I'll start going through letter by letter and typing everything up into a coherent index...

Close-up view:

Bonus: Enid Stubin describes her time working for the best indexing service in New York City. (Link courtesy of Dave Lull.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Nice work if you can get it?!?

"An athlete in bed"

Paul Devlin sends a great quotation from Gilles Deleuze's Essays Critical and Clinical:
All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is excercised in flight and in the break-down of the organic body - an athlete in bed, as Michaux put it.

The other world

In an exciting development that makes me feel like a real author, I am interviewed on the Bat Segundo Show! It is a lengthy podcast bursting with literary opinions...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Zeppelins over Glasgow

I am too lazy right now to read back through the 2008 archives round here and see if this statement is hyperbolic or simply the truth, but I think I have read my favorite book of 2008 so far: or at any rate it's in the top 5 with Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1 and Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and we will leave the other couple for now unspecified.


It is Martin Millar's Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me. It is a work of utter genius and considerable grim hilarity, so that I was laughing out loud as often as every couple of pages. It is a short book, composed in short chapters, about the weeks leading up to the night of the 4th of December, 1972, when Led Zeppelin came to play in Glasgow. Martin Millar is just as funny as Charlie Williams and Cintra Wilson, my two other particularly favorite not-as-widely-read-as-they-should-be funny novelists...

It is slightly unexcerptably hilarious - the funniness has something to do with the unrelenting deadpan voice continuing on from page to page. But here's a bit I liked from very near the end, narrator Martin discussing his progress on the book with depressed best friend Manx (who has just shoplifted a Buffy and a Xander doll from the display they are looking at in a comic shop in Oxford Street):
"I'd like to buy all these Buffy dolls and play with them. I'll have time on my hands soon, I've almost finished the Led Zeppelin book. I'm at the 'nice and big' stage."

"What's the 'nice and big' stage?"

"I go through the text making sure I haven't used any long words. If I find any fancy adjectives have crept in I replace them with small words like 'nice' and 'big,' I've liked these words ever since I was told not to use them in English class at school. After that I check that the sentences are short so as people won't get confused and I shorten all the chapters so they won't get bored. I can't read anything complicated these days, my attention span is too short. Everyone else probably feels the same."
NB I had many years of making this sort of effort with my writing, only I have given in to the undoubted fact that my natural English is a highly elaborate one that only thrives in the medium of unusual words and unexpected and slightly baroque sentence structures. Realistic self-assessment! I would be the other kind of writer if I could choose, but I am not...

Other light reading around the edges: Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent (as delightful as when I read it the first time); Robert Crais, The Forgotten Man; Elizabeth Bear, Blood and Iron; and Susan Hill, The Vows of Silence.

Poultry contentment

I cannot at all tell you where I heard about this book--some online venue shrouded now in the dim mists of my inattentive recent past--but wherever it was, the title and premise prompted me to request it from my beloved BorrowDirect. It is a slender little volume titled Counting My Chickens: And Other Home Thoughts by Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (known to her friends as "Debo"); I think it was the combination of the chickens of the title and the fact of its having an introduction by Tom Stoppard that caught my attention...

In any case, though it is itself a kind of anthology or miscellany of odd bits and pieces, it is very much the sort of book that deserves the mini-anthology treatment; it is full of gems.


Evelyn Waugh, in Paris shortly after the liberation, bought Debo a white felt hat with a blue straw brim and two white stuffed birds perched on top. Other prized possessions of hers include copious amounts of chicken-themed art, including "an enormous canvas of double-combed Derbyshire Redcaps by T. Benson" and a pair of life-sized speckled hens, made of Belgian faience, "with heads turned back and beaks buried in their feathers, in that expression of poultry contentment hens wear after a dust bath on a spring day. One has a brood of chicks poking out from her breast, the other an egg. They are dishes - the top halves lids, heads and necks the handles." When she first met Patrick Leigh Fermor, it was at a fancy dress party sometime in the 1950s and the writer was dressed as a Roman gladiator armed with a net and trident.

A trove of menu cards dating from 1893 to 1939 surfaces in an old cupboard as the kitchen at Chatsworth is being repainted and retiled; the Duchess comments that "the selection of teatime food" offered at an afternoon reception given for Commanding General Sir Kaiser Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana KBE of Nepal (in 1937) "is a child's dream, or a grown-up's, for that matter":
The guests were offered ices, cakes, éclairs, five kinds of sandwiches including fois gras, lobster and caviar, petits pains fourrés, wine cup, and every non-alcoholic drink imaginable, including thé.
The contents of a random drawer opened at Chatsworth in Debo's early days there: "a miniature of Duchess Georgiana, a Women's Institute programme of 1932, a bracelet given by Pauline Borghese to the Bachelor Duke to hide a crack in the marble arm of a statue of Venus, and a crystal wireless set"

On gardening catalogues:
Someone has had a jolly time thinking up names. Even the professors who have so kindly written to me to tell me what a quantum leap is may be stumped by Howard's Lancer, Black Velvet, Captivator, Leveller, and Whinham's Industry, gooseberries all.

The National Rhubarb Collection, believe it or not, contains more than one hundred varieties. I won't weary you with all their names, but you might fancy Grooveless Crimson. I don't think Early White Stone is an advertising man's dream description of a turnip, but whoever christened the parsnip Tender and True was a poet of the kitchen garden.

The oddest of all is the radish called French Breakfast. I have never seen a Frenchman tucking in to radishes for his petit déjeuner, but that is what they would have you believe.
The list of things the Duchess wants to bring back: "scyths, sharpes, and middlings, Invalid Bovril, brogues, mourning, silence, housewives, telegrams, spring cleaning, snow in January instead of at lambing time, nurses in uniform, muffins, the 1662 prayer book, pinafores for little boys, fish shops, Bud Flanagan, Ethel Merman, and Elvis Presley"

On the milking demonstration in the Farmyard at Chatsworth:
The audience remains riveted to the spot, fascinated, shocked, and delighted by this twice-daily ritual. One little boy from the middle of Sheffield said to me, "It's the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in me life. I'll never drink milk again."
A priceless description, too long to transcribe, of being at her parents' small island off the coast of Mull in Scotland when war was declared in September 1939, and a marathon journey she undertook from the Hebrides to London with a whippet, a Labrador and her beloved pet goat (at Stirling, "I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room, which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket")

And this, I think, is my single favorite paragraph:
The feel, smell, and taste of the oak pews at Swinbrook (I suppose that all children lick pews under cover of praying for their guinea pigs) are not the same as those at Edensor. They were put in by my father, who paid for them with the money he won by backing a long-priced Grand National winner owned by a cousin. He wanted a horse's head carved on the end of each one, but the bishop would not allow such frivolity, which was hypocritical of him, as I am sure he knew the source of my father's bounty perfectly well.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


My brothers both work mostly on movie crews, in the construction grip/metal shop/special effects team sort of capacity. This can lead to exceptionally brutal working hours at the peak of a big movie job, like sixteen-hour shifts that sort of cycle evilly round the clock (a 2pm call one day, working through the next morning, then an 8pm call, etc. etc.). After one job like this, J. described himself as living like a wild animal. Eat, drink, strip off filthy clothes and heap in pile on floor, fall into bed, roll out of bed the next morning and off to work again.

I have had times, too, where work has led me to live like a wild animal. (A more bookish wild animal, admittedly!) Work stress in general erodes humanity and then leads to the necessity for frustrating downtime - but I am happy to report that the status round here returned to fully human on or about August 1, and that I have had a useful week of work.

Today I have guiltily taken the day off from novel-writing in order to try and make some serious headway with the index for Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century. I need to get the proofread pages and a complete index back to the publisher by the end of the day on Wednesday the 20th, but the schedule's a little tighter than that makes it sound, for the very happy reason that I have a Secret Weapon poised for action in a Croatian seaside grotto! The mission: to check my draft index and eradicate error - but it is poor etiquette for me to demand super-fast turnaround, which means I need to get the draft done as soon as possible and fired off into the ether...

(Prime directive: Write a little bit of novel every day, come hell or high water. Contradictory sub-directive: Index! And since in fact indexing is a fiddly little enjoyable crossword-puzzlish type of job, of a kind my brain is very well suited to and which does not take any willpower to apply myself to, it did not take very much self-persuading for me to decide to switch over for the day, though it would be good if I could eke out a paragraph or two of novel before I go to bed tonight.)

The typesetters have done a beautiful job with the layout, and I caught only a handful of errors as I proofread (though I was delighted to find an actual missing word in one of the quotations!). The goal, of course, is to have already combed through the text so many times that one does not find any errors at all, but it is good for the morale to find a few (each one gives a nice gotcha! boost) but not so many as to call into question the validity of the error-locating protocol as it has been previously applied....

The title page (and chapter headers have a similar layout):

Indexing is a slightly insane task. The initial mark-up really needs to be done by the author, and because my handwriting is not fully human, I need to do the initial transcription and organization of information myself as well. It is an interesting mixture of labelling, intellectual categorization and storytelling; once I send the thing off next week, I'll post a sample letter of the alphabet to give you a sense of how it all comes together. Last time I did an index (the only other one I've done, though it seems to me that one day I might write a novel with an index - hmmm, earlier today I was thinking that I would never write another novel, but the conviction has dissipated, that is strange!), I seem to remember cramming terms and page numbers onto a single sheet of paper (is that possible?!?), but this time I have made singularly lavish use of post-it notes.

I am thinking that once I finish the mark-up, tonight or tomorrow, I will go back through and detach the post-its one by one and stick 'em onto a big piece of paper in more-or-less alphabetical ordering, and then type it all up into a real draft...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Extreme gardening

At the Telegraph, Marcus Berkmann reviews Michael Leapman's appealingly titled new book The Biggest Beetroot in the World: Giant Vegetables and the People Who Grow Them. (I thought Leapman's previous book The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild was very good - there is a negative Amazon review at that link, but it seems a clear case of poor fit between book and reader!) Giant vegetable slideshow, from which the picture at the top is drawn.

Graham Harvey has a fuller report at the Times:
Gerald Treweek, a retired coal miner, raises his world-beating onions by hydroponics - nutrient solution. They don't grow in soil but on an artificial medium in tanks. Every so often they're flooded with nutrient-enriched water, then allowed to dry out before the next dousing.

Peter Glazebrook, a former buildings surveyor, grows his onions perched on top of compost-filled barrels, their stems supported by a home-made structure built from bamboo and rubber rings. Joe Atherton, who works in a plant nursery, grows elongated carrots in lengths of guttering fixed at an angle of 45 degrees.

Clive Bevan raises his long cucumbers inside women's tights. Apparently this allows them to expand in all directions. When raised in the more traditional sock they're liable to touch the end, lose heart and stop growing.

Ian Neale - a nursery owner who once grew the world's biggest beetroot at 51lb 9oz (there is no metric system in the world of giant veg) - gets his monsters off to a good start by feeding them rock dust, essence of pig slurry and a material called “dinosaur fertiliser”, from a “big pile on the top of a moor in Yorkshire”.

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Long periods of procrastination followed by bursts of superhuman activity"

At the Guardian, Christopher Taylor on Peter Martin's new biography of Samuel Johnson. Nice opening - this I did not know:
One of the more expensive items in Samuel Beckett's working library was an 18th-century edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. He probably bought it in Dublin in the 1930s, when he made extensive notes on Johnson for a play that he was planning to write about the great man. The Johnson that Beckett was interested in wasn't "Boswell's wit and wisdom machine", as he put it, but a sufferer from melancholia, idleness, guilt and fears of madness and annihilation. Beckett pictured his hero as an exhausted old man, "terrified of dying, terrified of deadness", and copied out quotations from the medical diary in which Johnson charted his own decline. The play, Human Wishes, which included a role for Johnson's cat Hodge ("sleeping - if possible"), was eventually abandoned, but the image of the dying writer stayed with Beckett. Years later, pressed for comment on his debts to Swift and Sterne, he told his first biographer that "it's Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me".

Mellow fruitfulness

It is utterly heartless of me, and I do love the poems in all their over-the-top glory (and the letters are indispensable - I think my favorite critical book about Keats is Christopher Ricks' excellent Keats and Embarrassment), but one sentence near the end of Charles McGrath's slightly reverential review of Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats (funny pair of Amazon reviews!) rather made me laugh (run-on sentence alert, this is the hazard of stopping to paste in links!):
At the end, barely able to lift himself from bed, he was subsisting, on doctor’s orders, on a single anchovy.
I think the anchovy must have had more dignity in the Romantic period than it has now. I am fond of anchovies myself, in all of their common incarnations, but they are not to everyone's taste...

A new type of doughnut

Another nice piece on Penelope Fitzgerald's letters: Peter Terzian in the National of Abu Dhabi. (Link courtesy of Caleb.) A sample:
The few words she offers her correspondents on her novels and novel writing will likely have prospective fiction writers gnashing their teeth. She wrote The Bookshop in “rather a few weeks”. Anyone can write a single-consciousness novel, she writes to an editor, “if they can find a pen and a bit of paper”. Her tendency toward self-effacement – “My whole life is spent in apologising to someone or other, I’m afraid” – may have been a mask for her ambition and persistence. She must have been aware of, and fiercely protective of, the mysterious source of her creativity.

Fitzgerald’s letters are never malicious or gossipy. Still, it’s a pleasure to read her privately expressed opinions. Born into a clerical family, she was as intolerant of bad behaviour or impoliteness – “the dread Malcolm Bradbury seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands” – as she was impatient with bad books: “Trying to conceal an absolute conviction that Salman Rushdie’s new novel is a load of codswallop.” She is generous with praise, of people (“Sybille Bedford a tower of strength”) and writing (“Ishiguro yes!”).

Thursday, August 07, 2008

"If you print that rot, I will sue you"

I was fascinated by the demented dog cloning story (adorable pictures!) that emerged earlier this week, but it seemed slightly too lurid to blog; however, this follow-up story at the Times Online has persuaded me it must be posted... (Via WOOF3R.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"It's just the presidents"

The Ta-Nehisi Coates playlist. Shades of Luc Sante:
In hip-hop, words — optimally — work on two levels. They function percussively, so that certain syllables arranged correctly on the beat basically accent the drums. Then they work as just words in the sense of meaning and connotation. From hip-hop, I came to believe that words really should be beautiful on both levels. They should sound good, and when unpacked, they should also mean something beautiful too.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"You can do your job better after recreation"

At Slate, Paul Collins on ten of the oddest travel guides ever published. Number one on the list:
The Truth About Hunting in Today's Africa, and How To Go on Safari for $690.00, by George Leonard Herter (1963)

Equal parts Hemingway and Cliff Clavin, mail-order hunting goods retailer George Herter was one of America's great oddball writers. His self-published guide—bound in tiger-print cloth—is a malarial fever of anecdotes, family safari photos, and horrifying advice: "Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait. ... A live dog is one of the best leopard baits." Hunting with a phonograph of distressed goat calls is encouraged; so is the importation of animals: "Leopard farming would be far more profitable than mink farming," he proposes. As the corpses of rhinos, lions, elephants—and one of their guides—pile up for more than 300 pages, Herter never misses a chance to sell his sporting goods with such photo captions as: "A Masai warrior admires a pair of Hudson Bay two point shoes."

Monday, August 04, 2008

The green abyss

For once, some good news about gorilla populations. I cannot seem to upload my favorite picture to Blogger, but the slideshow is very attractive...*
*[ED. Phew! I was afraid the Times had suddenly begun formatting its pictures so that they were not reproducible on blogs - which would lead to an almost complete absence of visual content in this neck of the woods...]


Suzanne Menghraj interviews Luc Sante at Guernica:
Music crept up on me in childhood from a variety of ambient sources. In any case, soul music came to seem like something I’d always known, and—beginning when I was nineteen—reggae even more so, as if I’d somehow heard it in infancy.

Rhythm in writing is somehow analogous, but it’s a completely intuitive matter. I don’t really understand the process. It’s related to the substance of Flaubert’s famous letter to George Sand: “When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I’m sure I’m floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principal? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?” This is crucial stuff for me. I write intuitively, not knowing where I’m going, not knowing what the next sentence will be until this one has guided me there, and knowing how the sentence goes begins with my hearing its rhythm in my head, and then filling in the specific words. If the sentence is cloddish and clunky, it’s simply wrong—and not just wrong-sounding but wrong in its meaning. I realize at this point that I seem to be conflating two separate senses of the word “rhythm”—beat and flow—but they are inextricably linked in my mind and the matter lies largely outside my ability to articulate it. Rhythm also guides my reading, that part of which has nothing to do with acquiring information.
And another bit I wholeheartedly endorse:
[O]ne thing experience has taught me is that enthusiasm will not make a piece. Only the existence of a problem will. I discovered this years ago when I was movie critic for a monthly, so that I might see thirty or forty movies in a month and have to pick one or two to write about. The ones that made good subjects were the ones I couldn’t resolve emotionally or intellectually after leaving the theater. If there was a problem I would have to work it out on paper, and that made for the sinew of the piece. The same logic applies pretty much to all writing, it seems to me.
I am mildly horrified to learn that he has three books currently under contract - I think my nerves would not stand that kind of a situation...

(Link courtesy of Bookforum.)


The State Department embraces the wiki.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

"Daddy's dirtied up his room already"

I have been enjoying the review coverage of Penelope Fitzgerald's recently released collection of letters. Hilary Spurling's piece at the Observer is particularly good:
Fitzgerald's regular bulletins, like Mr Pooter's, involve a good deal of shopping ('I've bought a new vest in M&S'), housework ('It's always a great thing to have the spring cleaning started by Palm Sunday') and brushing her best coat with a damp brush to get rid of hairs that invariably return ('They appear to be growing out of the coat while my back is turned').

She drinks tea in the morning, dyes her hair with teabags and unpicks a pair of red woollen gloves so as to knit them together again. Some of these rites are so arcane it's hard to tell if they are genuinely eccentric or simply the domestic routines of a bygone age.

The highlights are studiously modest. One February, Fitzgerald got an unsigned Valentine card accompanied by '2 bottles of sno-pack for eliminating typing errors'. Invited by the Guardian to name her wishes for the world in 1998, she 'couldn't think of anything except to abolish off-road motoring and have those little packets of salt in crisps again'. Even on the night she won the Booker Prize as an outsider with Offshore, the best moment came, by her own account, when the editor of the Financial Times inspected the cheque and said to Booker's company chairman: '"Hmph, I see you've changed your chief cashier." Both their faces were alight with interest.'

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Pug Central

Kate Weinberg has a delightful story about pugs at the Telegraph:
"Owners who think their pugs are humans are completely delusional," says Polly Devlin, author, broadcaster and Columbia University professor. She pauses, before adding: "But then so are the ones who think their pugs are dogs."

Oh? So if they are neither little people or dogs… "They have fallen out of Superman's capsule on the way to Planet Krypton where bad radio beams have scrambled the message of what dogs are supposed to be like," says Polly. "Their eyes hang out of their heads and have to be frequently stitched back in and they can barely breathe. And have you observed a pug walk? They do it in segments. As for loyalty or affection, it can only be roused if they think food is coming their way. Pugs have no inner goodness at all."

So she doesn't adore Archie? "Of course I adore him, but very warily, as you would do with something that is not of this planet. It is all part of a plan from Krypton. Archie is a ticking time bomb. Any moment now he will explode and we will all turn into pugs." Pugs have never been more popular and Britain's Pug Dog Club has more than 1,600 members. London-based owners hold monthly get-togethers in Green Park and, once a year, aristocratic pug-lovers take turns to stage a garden party. It is a Henley regatta for the breed, an afternoon of picnics and games that climaxes in a fancy-dress parade. "Owners will spend all year creating an outfit in complete secret," says club secretary Adele Nicholson. Just before the parade, the owners disappear into the bushes to put on their dog's costume. "Ballerinas are always popular," Nicholson notes.

= 1 Grisham/day

In the NYTBR, Nicholson Baker reviews Ammon Shea's Reading the OED. It is a delightful little piece:
Shea arrives at another bad patch partway through Chapter U, with the “un-” section — more than 400 pages of words of self-evident meaning. “I am near catatonic,” he writes, “bored out of my mind.” But he doesn’t skip; he is lashed to the tiller, unthimbled and unthrashed.

Théophile Gautier read the dictionary to enrich and exoticize his poetry. Walter Pater read the dictionary to keep his prose pure and marmoreal — to learn what words to avoid. Shea has no interest in purity or poetry. His style is simple. He just wants to identify and savor, for their own sweet sakes, malocclusive Greek and Latin hybrids that are difficult to figure out how to pronounce. He is fond of polysyllabic near-homonyms — words like incompetible (outside the range of competency) and repertitious (found accidentally), which are quickly swallowed up in the sonic gravitation of familiar words. And a number of Shea’s finds deserve prompt resurrection: vicambulist, for instance — a person who wanders city streets.

The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The O.E.D., Shea notes, is “a catalog of the foibles of the human condition.” Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own.

"The wind, a hairbrush, a turkey carcass"

At the Times, Zoe Wolff's night out with Nico Muhly. Hmmm, non-substantive, I do not know that it really gives a good impression of what it would be like to spend an evening with those guys!

Majorca, Zagreb, Larnaca, Tel Aviv

William Boyd's "The Things I Stole", a short story in a vein I particularly like (the plausibly rendered first-person narrator, so that it seems almost as though it's a personal essay rather than a story):
I stole food at my boarding school. We were allowed a modest food parcel once a week (like POWs) from a local grocer: a few bananas, a box of dates, mini-packs of cornflakes - no buns or cakes, no chocolates, nothing that could be purchased from the school tuck shop where fizzy drinks, colas, biscuits and every tooth-rotting sweet the confectionery industry could serve up were on offer.

In my house there was a very rich Greek boy whose food parcel might have come from Fortnum & Mason, such was its size and magnificence. I and my coevals pillaged this boy's food with no compunction (he was plump and cried easily). It was thanks to Stavros's food parcel that I developed my enduring taste for Patum Peperium, Gentleman's Relish, a dark, pesto-like spread made from anchovies. It is my Proustian madeleine - it summons up all my early pilfering. I can taste its earthy, farinaceous salinity now.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Nico's Dirty Latin Playlist.

The Pamela Widmerpool of Central Europe

I think there is no chance I am actually going to read this multi-volume Mahler biography, reviewed by Hugh Wood at the TLS, but I am tickled by Wood's description of the relationship between subject and digression:
[T]his is not just a biography: it is more of a Mahler-Lexicon, almost a history of the age. De La Grange has found himself irresistibly drawn down every avenue that offers itself, and his interests are wide. By the time one has read through all thirty-three of the Appendices, and has discovered in the last one the recipe for Mahler’s favourite dessert (Marillonknödel – and it sounds delicious), one feels not only triumphant but replete.

Border country

At the LRB, Stefan Collini reconsiders the career of Raymond Williams in light of Dai Smith's new biography.