Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The wobble

Jellies were once the pinnacle of sophistication.

(As a child, I made jellies in the shape of rabbits as an edible school project for our medieval feast - but though we had, at home, both a very good though now no longer fully functional large orange plastic jelly mold [it was benevolently tested last Xmas as part of small-child-oriented holiday preparations, but the jelly that emerged was not zoologically recognizable] and also smaller metal rabbit molds that perhaps worked better as cake tins, I believe that I used cookie cutters to solve the problem of how to scale up and make enough rabbits for everybody in the class to have their own.)

And here is the jellymongers website. Victorian breakfast looks to be a thing of considerable deliciousness (do I spy decorative anchovies?). Also, for the discerning, bespoke jelly moulds (pictured above). I wouldn't mind having one of these for a party.

I always have a trickle of advance reading copies coming into my apartment, many of which seem to have been sent to me on no rationally comprehensible grounds, but late last week I got one which I seized upon with delight: Lev Grossman's forthcoming novel The Magicians.

It is perhaps too dark to be the perfect escapist reading, but I thought it was very good indeed. For comic relief, I will also observe that I recently bought another book about magic partly because the Amazon reviewers' back-and-forth made me laugh...

A teemingness of rubrics

I cannot explain this, but it is somehow funny and apt...

Literary minefields

From Rousseau's Confessions:
I have always considered M. de Malesherbes to be a man of inviolable integrity. Nothing that has happened to me has ever made me doubt for a moment his probity; but, as weak as he is honourable, he sometimes harms the people in whom he takes an interest through his very desire to protect them. Not only did he have more than one hundred pages cut from the Paris edition [of Julie]; but he made a cut that could even be described as an act of disloyalty in the copy of the good edition that he sent to Mme de Pompadour. Somewhere in this work there is a remark to the effect that the wife of a coal-merchant is more deserving of respect than the mistress of a prince. This sentence suggested itself to me in the heat of composition without, I swear it, any allusion being intended. On rereading the work, I realized that the connection would nevertheless be made. Faithful, nevertheless, to my own very imprudent maxim of never suppressing anything out of fear that connections might be made, provided my conscience is my witness that I was not aware of them while writing, I was reluctant to remove this sentence, but contented myself with substituting the word prince for the word king, which is what I had originally written. This modification did not go far enough for M. de Malesherbes: he removed the whole sentence, which is missing from the new page he had printed specially and stuck as neatly as possible into Mme de Pompadour's copy. She was not deceived by this vanishing act. There was no shortage of charitable souls eager to inform her of it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Amazing rare things

The illustration to another NYRB piece, taken from here (it is Maria Sybilla Merian's illustration of a common or spectacled caiman with a South American false coral snake!):

"My my I do like to work"

An amazing phrase in Joyce Carol Oates's NYRB piece on Flannery O'Connor:
As her lupus steadily worsened, O'Connor remained an unfailingly devout Catholic waking each morning, "as soon as the first chicken cackles," with a ritual reading of prayers from a breviary before being driven into Milledgeville by Regina to attend 7:00 AM mass at Sacred Heart Church; her writing life was compressed into just a few hours, but these hours were precious to her, under the protection of her mother. On her very deathbed O'Connor was determined to work—"My my I do like to work.... I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon."

Carnivorous boarding

In the NYTBR, Caleb Crain on 19th-century American boardinghouse life:
Boardinghouses in Victorian America served three meals a day, and the low quality of them is Gunn’s chief complaint. At the Fashionable Boardinghouse, the meat is sliced too thin and the plates are whisked away too quickly; at the Dirty Boardinghouse, there are “hairs and crumbs in the ketchup,” and “every body was over-porked.” The landlady of one Mean Boardinghouse serves salt fish and sheep’s liver three times a week, along with pastry “of solid construction, and damp, ­putty-like material,” while the landlady of another prepares salt mackerel and pickled pork by “interring and then baking them in batter.” For one experimental summer at a Vegetarian Boardinghouse, Gunn allows himself to be fed “bananas, melons, peaches, grapes, oranges, cherries, [and] pine-apples,” but he worries that the diet fosters meekness and “a generally-sublimated and windy estimation of our own importance and destiny,” and soon returns to carnivorous boarding, with results not altogether happy. Of an establishment presided over by an untidy Southern woman, he writes that “we have known blood to follow an incision in a shoulder of veal.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pig racing

At the FT, Michael Moorcock on his recent visit to a science fiction convention in Biloxi and points south (site registration required). He offers up this reminiscence of a visit to a local country fair on an earlier visit to Mississippi:
One of its chief attractions was all-day pig racing. Linda has never been able to resist the prospect of a really good pig race. Like most old-fashioned fairs of its kind, this one was a mixture of carnival, freak show, travelling zoo and church fête.

We were enjoying an evangelical Punch and Judy show, when Beau attached himself to us. Beau was about the size and shape of Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Midnight Cowboy. He wore a filthy white cowboy hat, cracked, worn-out western boots and a greasy red, white and blue shirt. He was grotesquely ugly, stank and was clearly simple. Fixing us with a friendly eye, he elected to be our tour guide. “That’s the carousel, this here’s the bearded lady. Over there’s your two-headed man. And here’s the zoo!”

He brightened. The zoo was horrible: a stinking tent filled with rows of various sizes of pet cages containing mostly common forms of local wildlife. “He’s a alligator. He’d bite y’all’s arm off soon as look at y’all. Thet there’s a raccoon. Make good eating if y’all kin ketch yerself one. See the bobcat? Hey!” The dying animal looked up through tired, uncaring eyes. Beau produced a stick and began inserting it through the wire. “He’ll liven up if ya poke him!” The cat uttered a halfhearted snarl; the nearby alligator tried to sink into its too-shallow water.

We fled from Beau into a tent where, to our astonishment, a cheerleading contest was being held. In the deepest heart of the Baptist Bible Belt, these cheerleaders were aged between four and nine, and heavy with make-up (mascara, blusher, lipstick) and perms. They looked like downmarket Tokyo whores. The creators of these creatures, good Baptist pimp-moms to a woman, urged their offspring on to greater deeds of hip-jutting, chest-thrusting, bottom-pushing cheerleading prowess.

We slipped out and were just able to catch the start of the pig race – black ones running against white. The prize? An Oreo cookie.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The counterfactual mode

I am going to an interesting conference this summer in London...


Exposure to the open air has left A.L. Kennedy's ear feeling shy and wayward.

1950s B-movie soundtracks

I must confess to a sudden aspiration to take up the theremin. (Link courtesy of The Rumpus.)

Ostrich Eggshell Beads

Chris Wingfield on anthropology and the making of the material world:
I increasingly realised that just as I had set out to learn how to make Ostrich Eggshell Beads as the best way of understanding the techniques and technology involved, so Henry Balfour and his colleagues such as Francis Knowles had set about learning to knap flints in order to under[s]tand the objects they collected classified and displayed. A course in technology was central to the Oxford Diploma in Anthropology until 1940 and was taught primarily in the Pitt Rivers Museum. While today Anthropologists are formed by being made to write texts as part of their education - usually a doctoral thesis - in the first half of the twentieth century, the making of anthropologists in Oxford frequently involved the making of material objects at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Technology, however is not just about objects and tools - things we use to do things - but is crucially about the way in which we do them - techniques. Central to the 'French tradition' of studies of technology is an essay published by Marcel Mauss Techniques of the Body in 1934. Mauss focussed on the ways in which we learn to use our bodies as members of society and the differences to be found in techniques of walking, swimming, sleeping, standing and sitting as well as other basic biological functions. Mauss wrote about his experience in the First World War of having to change 8000 spades in the trenches because English troops could not use French spades. To capture the way in which we are formed by these learned techniques of being and doing, Mauss coined the term habitus - 'the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason.' The body, Mauss suggested, was 'man's first and most natural instrument.'


The objects that fill the museum are not themselves the techniques that are the components of the habitus - our learned ways of being and doing things. They are instead the material forms that are the result of the action of human bodily techniques on various sorts of matter. The objects in the museum come alive as evidence for the history of human techniques and technology when imagined in relation to the human bodies that had to act in particular learned ways to create them.

When approached in this way the museum objects become the sites of a sort of micro-archaeology. They can be investigated for evidence of human bodies acting in particular ways. The techniques are inscribed into their material form as the effects of human action. There are also many tools in the collections which were themselves used to have an effect on other things and became in the process extensions of the human body - a paddle, a knife or a stone blade - and these too make most sense when imagined in relation to the action of that human body.


I am not alone!

From Marcel O'Gorman's "Swimming to Obsolescence":
When I was about halfway through the essays collected by Harold W. Baillie and Timothy K. Casey in Is Human Nature Obsolete? Genetics, Bioengineering, and the Future of the Human Condition (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005, $24.95), I took a few days off to compete in my first triathlon, the off-road type. This might seem inconsequential to a review of the book, but as this excellent anthology reminds us, there is no such thing as "inconsequential." No act is without consequence, and nothing, in the end, is safe from sequencing.

Swimming is a primitive, even atavistic, sport. This is especially true if one adheres to the theory that we evolved from aquatic ancestors. Like running, swimming requires no conspicuous technological implements—no sticks, no projectiles, no protective equipment. And yet I could easily argue that running is more "natural" than swimming, at least for a human being. Running is primary, a universal response to danger. Swimming, on the other hand, is a provocation, an embracing of danger in defiance of human limitations.


Hmmmm, really I am an extreme recluse and have been allowing my stay-at-home tendencies to override any notion that I should get out and do things, but I was thinking that next week's Happy Endings reading at Joe's Pub (featuring Colson Whitehead, Kevin Wilson, Amy Cohen and musical guest Sam Amidon - possibly Thomas Bartlett as well?) would be worth getting myself downtown for - only by now it is sold out! Anyone got an extra they want to sell me?!?

Double life

Richard Miller on the new humanities.

"A word not elegant, nor in use"

I am thinking Samuel Johnson would not have endorsed the term defrag...

A great piece by Thomas Keymer in the TLS this week (a version of the introduction to a forthcoming Oxford World's Classics edition) on Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. I was just mentioning that the other day as something I have never taught but would like to. This I did not know:
Even against this political backdrop, however, there remained readers for whom Rasselas could continue to express the hopeful pursuit of autonomy and happiness. This may have been especially true for African readers in the century following publication, when the name of Johnson’s hero was occasionally adopted by emancipated slaves. Traceable individuals such as Rasselas Belfield (c1790–1822) and Rasselas Morjan (c1820–1839), both former slaves who lived as free men in England, took the name not only because Rasselas was one of the very few eligible Africans in English literature (one would hardly pick Oroonoko, or Othello), and not only because Johnson was revered among abolitionists for his public declarations against slavery. Rasselas is among much else an ingenious variation on the standard eighteenth-century captivity narrative, documenting the hero’s liberation or escape from imprisonment, and in this sense the name also connoted deliverance into a world of potential fulfilment, confronted in freedom.

“Rescued from a state of slavery in this life and enabled by God’s grace to become a member of his church he rests here in the hope of a greater deliverance hereafter”, reads the headstone of Rasselas Morjan’s grave in Wanlip, Leicestershire. At Bowness on Windermere, Rasselas Belfield is memorialized in more secular style, and in first-person verse: “A Slave by birth I left my native Land / And found my Freedom on Britannia’s Strand: / Blest Isle! Thou Glory of the Wise and Free, / Thy Touch alone unbinds the Chains of Slavery”. We cannot know the relationship between these rather conventional inscriptions and the lives and aspirations of their subjects, and it is clear that despite their manumission both men continued to work as domestic servants. That said, the expensiveness and quality of the surviving monuments to Rasselas Morjan and Rasselas Belfield make clear that both were valued upper servants in enlightened households. Whatever questions there might be about the completeness of their emancipation, we can safely assume that they had better chances of pursuing happiness than their still enslaved contemporaries across the Atlantic. Life itself still had to be lived, but like Johnson’s hero they could at least choose how to endure and even enjoy it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nests, ninnies

What Ed Park's students are reading!

Narratives of decline

At the Independent, Colm Henry contemplates the worrisome decline of certain British surnames:
Daft, Cock, Balls, Smeille, death and Shufflebottom, some of the most popular names 100 years ago are facing extinction due the their rude undertones. The study shows that people are changing there inherited family name in favour of a name that has less of a humourous inclination.

By comparing the population of 2008 with the first Census in Britain in 1881, these studies have shown a huge decline in names with suggestible meanings. The use of the name Cock has shrunk by almost 75 per cent and names such as Balls have fallen by almost 50 per cent.
NB bonus point re: linguistic change: misuse of "suggestible" for "suggestive"! This passage is still in need of a sub-edit - I see at least three other errors as well...

Just in case

you are wondering what I am doing as I remain rather quiet here - busy week!

Satire assignment #3
Due in class on Wednesday 4/1

We have spoken in class this week about the flexibility and adaptability of the “rehearsal” play, and you’ve seen how different Fielding’s Author’s Farce is from Buckingham’s Rehearsal and yet how clearly Fielding’s play is indebted to the earlier one. I want you to write me a few pages that muse on the issues that emerge from reading this particular kind of satire, and I offer you the following questions less as actual choices than to give you some sense of the range of possibilities for what you might write.

Possible questions (or make your own, or work out some hybrid between two of these ones that lets you explore a topic of interest to you):

1. Choose one scene in Buckingham’s The Rehearsal and imagine (either by trying to write it, or by speculating about what it might look like) a modern updating or adaptation of the particular technique or trope or joke on some form of cultural absurdity that caused you to select that scene or passage. How transferable are the tropes? Which parts of Buckingham’s technique are still “live,” and which would require intellectual contortions to update into anything meaningful?

2. What did Fielding learn between writing The Author’s Farce near the beginning of his theatrical career and Pasquin near the end of it?

3. Write a modern updating of the underworld sequence/puppet show from The Author’s Farce, then add a paragraph of critical reflection on what that exercise showed you about Fielding’s cultural world and our own (or about the techniques available to Fielding and those available to a dramatist in contemporary America).

4. Choose a contemporary work that falls into the broad category of a “rehearsal” piece (you might go as far afield as things like Tropic Thunder and 30 Rock, which are more “making of” than “rehearsal” but seem to me to fit under the essential rubric in a meaningful way) and isolate one essential similarity and one essential difference between your chosen work and The Rehearsal.

5. I spoke in class this week about the dilemma experienced alike by Buckingham and Swift and Fielding, that the cultural forms they deplore and wish to satirize also in some fundamental sense provide the basic idiom which is available to the satirists themselves, like it or not – that the genres in which all three writers compose are constitutively modern, even when they are most blatantly excoriating the intellectual excesses and artistic indulgences of the moderns. Choosing one specific example from this semester’s reading as your starting point, offer a few pages of musings on how this double bind worked in the eighteenth century and what it might mean for us now.

Clover's lithotomy crutch

Very good long sequence of photographs with the Independent's review of an exhibition of objects illuminating the history of medicine (on loan from the Wellcome Trust to the Science Museum).

It is not funny, but...

... honey noir!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


More atomic toys! Hmmmm, there must be wonderful Russian counterparts somewhere, I wonder if they can be found online...

Dagwood Splits the Atom

I am not at all a collector, really I would prefer to own nothing at all and live in a monastic cell, but it is a long time since I have seen anything that gave me such a pang of collector's desire as this...

Sunday, March 22, 2009


From Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther:
To have the most charming creature in my arms and fly around with her like lightning, so that everything around us vanished, and--Wilhelm, to be honest, I swore an oath to myself that a girl that I loved, and on whom I had a claim, should never waltz with anyone but me, even if it cost me my life! You understand what I mean!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The finger

And the funny thing is that really in every other respect it is an extremely favorable review!

At the TLS, Anthony Kenny on Leslie Mitchell's biography of Maurice Bowra:
One would like to know more about the history of this book. Some of its content is sourced to interviews with Bowra himself before his death. Since then there has been exhaustive archival investigation and personal interviewing, some of it conducted by research assistants about whom it would be interesting to learn more. Though the book has been in preparation for several decades, it still appears under-cooked. Superfluous material should have been evaporated, repetitions should have been eliminated, some anecdotes should have been omitted and others polished. The copy-editing has left proper names misspelt, irregular punctuation and occasional mistranslations. Footnotes, instead of being printed as such, are relegated to the end of the volume. If this regrettable practice is to be followed, it should at least be possible for a reader to be clear where a note is to be attached: each page of notes should be headed “Notes to pp. 100–102” or at least “Notes to Chapter Four”. Here, all we have are pages after pages of footnote numbers headed “Endnotes”. Throughout, the reader has to keep a finger firmly inserted into the book’s latter pages.

Windex meringue

Well, the travel posts have gone up at my other blog, so do not bother to click through if you have already read them there, but here is the manic Light Reading recap: La Recoleta cats, the adventure begins, Ushuaia harbor, beer/whales, pre-race gear fussing, race day of utter (tortoise-speed) gloriousness, feathers, thrillingly frigid Antarctic swimming, ice, and finally the happy return to a world of swimming and blogging...

Playing catch-up

I had a funny hodgepodge of light reading during my travels - in fact in the weeks before I left I was working so impossibly hard that I had scarcely any time to read at all, a most irregular and highly undesirable state of affairs! But insofar as this blog contains a fairly thorough log of the novels I read, it may be worth summing up the literature of my peregrinations...

In the days before I left, I did read Mike Carey's The Devil You Know (very enjoyable and exactly what I like, though I felt it could have perhaps been edited a bit for pacing and plot - I will certainly read the follow-up volumes, though...) and two incredibly trashy omnibus collections of Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley, the light reading I had promised myself I would seek out: The Saga of the Renunciates and A World Divided. I was glad to have 'em, but the packaging on these new editions is incredibly sloppy, and it is also awkward reading these books written over a long time span and with different levels of skill - the three novels in the "World Divided" collection are so simple and reductive that they read like relatively poor-quality SF "juveniles" rather than full-on adult novels on the scale of (what is in my opinion still by far the best of all the Darkover novels) Thendara House.

On the ship: Emma Bull, Territory (liked it very much, but was puzzled by the extent to which it felt only a sketch or episode in some much larger narrative); Greg Bear, Quantico (first half very good indeed, plotting in second half a slight falling-off as scenarios become increasingly apocalyptic - but I liked this one a great deal, and found it both stimulating and a good read); Iain Pears' forthcoming Stone's Fall, which I found a wonderfully good read - I literally could not put it down - but suspected (there was no internet access to check!) was full of historical inaccuracies that a fact-checker should have caught (furniture from Heals would be a more plausible aspiration for a young man in the interwar period - it is too early in 1909 for a young person of the sort Pears describes to covet furnishings from that particular design mecca - another of Pears' narrators says on p. 521, "So I chose a new name for myself: Virginie, as I had read my Rousseau and still dreamed of finding my Paul," but clearly Pears (it is not plausibly a mistake to attribute to his narrator - she is not unreliable in this particular sense) is muddling up Rousseau's Sophie and her Emile with the lovers Paul and Virginie of Saint-Pierre - there were at least a dozen other similarly inconsequential details that flagged my attention as being almost certainly anachronistic or tin-eared; Philip Roth, American Pastoral (gloves! and indeed the protagonist's father is amazingly well brought to life, though I was not as much moved and impressed by the novel as a whole as I was by some of Roth's other major novels of the 1990s); and then a most excellent novel that I discovered in the ship's small library of discarded paperbacks, one of those books that I suspect must irk Australians as having been shoved down their throats as a classic and yet it is a really wonderful book, with similar goals and strengths to V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas (which still seems to me Naipaul's supreme achievement) but a distinctively Australian cast, George Johnston's My Brother Jack. Exceptional descriptive writing in a vein that has become, I think, almost obsolete in the contemporary novel, for better and for worse.


From Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book:
Do the children who prefer books set in the real, ordinary, workaday world ever read as obsessively as those who would much rather be transported into other worlds entirely? Once I began to confer with other people who had loved the Chronicles as children, I kept hearing stories, like my own, of countless, intoxicated rereadings. “I would read other books, of course,” wrote the novelist Neil Gaiman, “but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books.”
NB for particular detail piece see discussion on p. 265 of C.S. Lewis on the modest detail in medieval literature (Friar John, in Chaucer’s Sumoner’s Tale, pausing to ‘droof awey the cat’ before sitting down on bench).

Thursday miscellany

Writers' passports in the Beinecke Library.

jane dark's sugarhigh! on Franco Moretti and 'distant reading.'

Sarah Weinman gives linkage on Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind - we are doing a panel discussion along these lines at Columbia on Wednesday, March 25 at 6pm. It is an event geared towards Columbia alums, but I think it will be OK if I post details here - drop a line to the RSVP address below if you would like to attend, perhaps mentioning my name...

Please join alumni and friends of the Department of English and Comparative Literature for a special event co-sponsored by the GSAS Annual Fund

Pulp Fiction: Hard Case Crime, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality, and the New Wave of Crime Writers

A panel discussion and reception with authors Charles Ardai, B.A. ’91, Leonard Cassuto, B.A. ’81, and Professors Jenny Davidson and George Stade

Wednesday, March 25, 2009, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Havana Central at the West End, 2911 Broadway, New York, NY

RSVP by March 18 to Toni Hooper at 212-851-7832 or tj2122@columbia.edu

Dress: Fedoras and period dress will be appreciated!

Hmmm, I am certainly not contemplating period dress myself - I do not have anything suitable, I am thinking (wardrobe skews heavily towards running gear these days)...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Back from the internet black hole

and an utterly lovely trip it was, too - a whole SLEW of posts will follow on my other blog (will link here once they're all sorted out), including a LAVISH race report on what was a truly magical day out there on King George Island - penguin included! - but in the meantime (I write from Buenos Aires, where I am off for a quick swim before lunch in what is promised to be a 25-METRE SWIMMING POOL), I must just share this dream review of Breeding by Peter Gay in Bookforum.

More TK!

Friday, March 06, 2009


The adventure begins! An interval of no non-emergency internet connectivity is about to ensue - I will be incommunicado for the next ten days - fuller report to follow, of course...

Monday, March 02, 2009

"It would be mad, unnecessary"

At the Guardian, Alison Flood reports on M. J. Hyland's interview of Colm Toíbín:
"I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it."

Toíbín said he hadn't enjoyed writing any of his books, from his debut The South to his two Booker-shortlisted novels The Blackwater Lightship and The Master. "After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it's never fun or anything. With a few of the books, especially The Heather Blazing and The Master and the new novel Brooklyn, there has been a real problem in not having a sort of breakdown as I worked on a particular passage," he said. "I don't want to go on about this too much, but there is a passage in each of those books which I found almost impossible to write and then harder and harder to re-write. I hope never to have to look at those passages again.["]

Sunday, March 01, 2009


It will have to rank in the lists of life's missed opportunities, but I have had a most wonderful shelf full of library books on Antarctica and have had no time to read 'em and/or blog about 'em!

I do not think I will have any spare time to speak of between now and my departure on Tuesday evening, but I thought that I would at least single out one of the most utterly lovely for your enjoyment.

It is The Antarctic Manual for the Use of the Expedition of 1901, and it actually has maps folded into a pocket at the back...

Heading: "Antarctic Ocean. Sheet No. 2. Between Latitudes 45ºS. & 85ºS. and Longitudes 25ºW. & 160ºE. Shewing Tracks of Explorers."

The relevant detail is scanned below (the explorer whose tracks are marked - + - + is Bellingshausen - we are running our marathon early next week on King George Island):

And now, a more strictly verbal treat - ice nomenclature!


Nico has a post full of riches. I am laughing with pleasure at the difference between 2004 and present-day Nico's respective knowledges of how to write for strings...