Friday, July 31, 2009

"Gosh, I could do with a bathe"

At the Guardian, John Mullan lists ten of the best literary swimming scenes!

(Hmmm, I am thinking he has not read Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, or it would be there too...)

In a happy development, I received a copy of the Folio Society edition of The Go-Between as a birthday present - time for a re-read, I think...

(Aciman alert: Eight White Nights: A Novel will be published in February 2010, certainly on my list of most desired things....)

(Oh, I stopped by the office today to take care of several mundane and long-overdue administrative tasks and discovered several things in my mailbox of UTTER DELIGHTFULNESS - namely, new books by Charlie Williams and Peter Temple - if I have self-control, I will save them for the Caymanian interlude that begins next Thursday, but they may prove IRRESISTIBLE!)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"I, Pencil"

At the TLS, James Campbell considers the longstanding controversy concerning Gordon Lish's editing of Raymond Carver's short fiction.

Rogue woolly monkeys

Books written by people who have raised apes in their homes! (Link courtesy of Brent.)

I also note that Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood has made the Booker longlist - hmmm, I feel an Amazon splurge coming on... - pity so many of them haven't been published in the US yet. Some years ago I was very full of the notion that I'd like to do a frenetic Booker longlist August blog bit, but really I would only do it if someone would send me the books for free! But perhaps I will read the few of them that are actually alluring and convenient to get hold of...

"Les Deplorables, Hugh Millais's Greatest Hits"

Via Luc Sante, a remarkable life:
Coming from a family of artists Hugh was considered a failure as he could not paint. At 96 his father muttered: “I don’t know what poor Hughie does. He cannot even draw . . . a salary.” But his father did teach him how to shoot. Millais was educated at Ampleforth during the war, and made a deal with his housemaster. If let off games and allowed to keep his two ferrets and 24 snares, he would keep the house provided with meat.
Seems to me it would be quite tiring and periodically rather unsatisfying to lead this kind of a life, but certainly a thing of beauty in the summary...

"The Fat Cat pub"

Jack Reacher scholarships at the University of Sheffield...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"I'll eat you up"

At the LRB, Jenny Diski on a new history of cannibalism.

The Method

At the Times, Kim Severson on film food:
For the 2000 movie “American Psycho,” Ms. Weinstein had prepared several vegetarian dishes for the actor Willem Dafoe, who, she was told, didn’t eat meat. But at the last minute, he decided his character was a carnivore. In deference to his Method acting technique, she had to send out for steaks and figure out how to cook them on the set.
Also: 60 deboned ducks; 25 cakes; hard-to-find cheese; off-camera representatives from the American Humane Association monitoring lobster health....

Monday, July 27, 2009

UncLE ARly

"Propter's Nicodemus Pills."

Significant objects

Meerkats and Michael Phelps.


From the NYT's report on the latest round of technical service bulletins from auto manufacturers:
INFINITI Is the G37 possessed? In T.S.B. 09-025 issued on May 12, Infiniti says the windows on 2008-9 models will lower an inch and then rise again when someone closes the glovebox. Apparently, a sensor wire is plugged in at the wrong spot. Putting this wire in the right place should purge “Christine.”
Related: I read Sarah Rees Brennan's absolutely wonderful The Demon's Lexicon. My only complaint is that I wished the book had been called Goblin Market instead - but it is really excellent, redolent of some of my favorites (Margaret Mahy, Diana Wynne Jones) but very fresh and original in its voice and world-building.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"On to Z!"

Celeste Headlee on the pleasures of the Dictionary of American Regional English (via Bookforum):
[W]hen this reporter tested out some words from the DARE at a Starbucks in suburban Detroit, none of the patrons seemed familiar with a "monkey's wedding" (a chaotic, messy situation in Maine); "cockroach killers" (pointy shoes in New Jersey) or "mumble squibbles" (noogies, North Carolina-style).

While it's fun to learn about colloquial language, Hall says, there are serious practical uses for the DARE as well. Forensic linguists once used it when a little girl was kidnapped and police had only a ransom note to go on.

"In this ransom note, the writer said, 'Put $10,000 cash in a trash can on the devil's strip,' " Hall says.

The key phrase in the note was "devil's strip," a term used only in a tiny section of Ohio to refer to the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. As it happened, one of the suspects on the police list was a man from Akron. After being confronted with the evidence, linguistic and otherwise, the man ultimately confessed.

Doctors also use the DARE to understand patients who use colorful language to describe their illnesses. A patient complaining of "the groundage" or "pipjennies" likely has a rash on the feet or pimples.

Vertical seams

At the FT, Shyamantha Asokan learns sabrage, the Napoleonic-era trick of opening a champagne bottle with a sabre.

The alternate Dewey Decimal System

Ed Park on invisible libraries (courtesy of Matthew B.):
In “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936), the unfortunate protagonist stumbles upon shelves of “mildewed, disintegrating books” — “the banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae.” These include “a Latin version of the abhorred ‘Necronomicon,’ the sinister ‘Liber Ivonis,’ the infamous ‘Cultes des Goules’ of Comte d’Erlette, the ‘Unaussprechlichen Kulten’ of von Junzt, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish ‘De Vermis Mysteriis.’ ” The titular details — the sinister-looking double i’s in “Mysteriis,” the rebarbative German tag of von Junzt’s work — are arguably as chilling as the overwrought prose Lovecraft sometimes discharges.

"D. Barber, H.M. Swan Marker"

At the Wall Street Journal, Paul Sonne on the annual tradition of conducting a census of the Queen's cygnets in the Thames (link courtesy of Julia Hoban):
The ritual was first documented in the 12th century, when the bird was a popular dish at medieval feasts. The monarchy laid claim to the birds, which were a valuable food commodity, and doled out ownership charters in exchange for favors. Up to the mid-1800s, swan marking was akin to cow branding: A unique mark, carved into the beak of a newborn cygnet, designated ownership by a specific, chartered family or organization.

Henry VIII reportedly enjoyed swan at his dinner table. Today, swan eating doesn't go down so well with many Britons, who live in a country that Dr. Perrins describes as "bird oriented." In 2005, the Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Maxwell Davies, made headlines when he found a dead swan on his property and made a terrine of it. Mark McGowan, an activist artist, upset Britons when he ate swan in a performance protest against the queen in 2007.

This week, Mr. Barber's crew counted and weighed roughly 120 newborn swans. When they come upon a brood, the rowers yell "All up!" and surround the birds with their skiffs. After deftly bringing the swans aboard, the uppers temporarily tie them up.

"The best way is to sit on the bird," said Robert Dean, a boat builder and three-year veteran of the royal crew, who stood on the Eton dock Monday morning with a bundle of swan ties holstered in his belt. Once the newborn swans are weighed and tagged with identification rings, they are entered into the log and released into the river.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Atlases of Dermatology

At Bookforum, Richard Cork on Francis Bacon's studio and the images Bacon hoarded there:
No such circumspection affected his treatment of the photographs he found in medical textbooks. They are truly painful to study, and many pages torn from one such book were unearthed in Bacon’s studio. Titled An Atlas of Regional Dermatology and published in 1955, it contains as many as 475 color photographs. The authors spare nothing in their determination to provide clinical close-ups of faces invaded by, for example, herpes simplex. These constellations of red spots are usually limited to “five to ten days,” yet the authors warn that “recurrences are common, and the eruption may be bilateral.” Bacon’s imagination could well have been dramatically stirred by the use of the word eruption. Judging by the paint marks scattered round two of these pictures, he looked at them intently. He also took a great deal of trouble to Scotch-tape another page from the book onto a large piece of paper. This time, the photographs zoom in on toes afflicted by plantar-wart lesions and tuberous sclerosis tumors. They look excruciating, and anyone would wince at the most distressing image Bacon tore from this book: The caption declares that the eruption of herpes shown here “is more extensive than usual.” Yet these matter-of-fact words cannot convey the visceral impact of the large, encrusted lesions exploding across most of a little girl’s cheek. The image is difficult even to glance at.


A new literary history of America (courtesy of Steve Burt, whose book Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry is now out).

Highlights: Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors on Hurricane Katrina; Jonathan Lethem on the invention of motion pictures; Gish Jen on The Catcher in the Rye...

"Squalid extravagance"

At the Telegraph, Florence Waters on Hungarian photographer André Kertész's series "On Reading".

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On a brighter note

I have now stayed up rather later than I meant to reading a really excellent novel, Kate Christensen's Trouble - for some reason I have read none of her previous ones, that should be remedied...

Have also very much enjoyed in recent days a couple of Tim Pratt's delightful Marla Mason novels, Dead Reign and Spell Games. I thought the first installment in the series was perhaps not as good as The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, which I was most taken with, but the series has really come into its own. Very enjoyable reading, like a fortunate hybrid of Terry Pratchett and Kim Harrison....

On literary disappointment

I had a great literary disappointment this week - I had Amazoned Nicola Keegan's Swimming under the impression that I must be its absolutely perfect target audience, only to realize as I read that it is not at all the case.

To give Keegan her due, she is a very strong writer - I would put the book in the company of Marcy Dermansky's Twins and Gina Frangello's My Sister's Continent, two books I liked very much that have various things in common with this one. It is a testament to Keegan's strength as a writer that I even read the book through to the end, though, because I really didn't like it one bit!

It is written in an impressionistic and stylized voice that seems to me fatally ill-suited to render the thoughts of an Olympic swimmer. There's actually much less about swimming than the cover copy implies - yes, I know I am monomaniacal on the topic of swimming... - and I don't think the book persuasively creates a sense of its narrator as a serious athlete.

Here, for instance, is one of the passages that particularly irked me. I will give a longish extract so that I can explain what I don't like (we are at the protagonist/narrator's first Olympics, Los Angeles, 1984):
I discover the joy of the international relay. We stand in a huddle holding each other's shoulders. Babe says: Let's get the world on this one. Peggy nods. The world is ours. When I feel their eyes light on me, I try to think of something great to say that doesn't include swear words, nun-generated Latin phrases, lyrics from songs I can't put my finer on. I roll my hand into a fist, bend down low on one knee, close my eyes, and pump the air go go go go go go go go go go.

Peggy hops. She's yucking right; let's go.

Babe gets businesslike when she's nervous. Save it for the pool.

We put our palms together, six sweaty, two dry.

The crowd creates a disturbing rhythmic African sound: thick, melodious, and so intense it causes my skin to contract. I don't feel the starting block beneath my feet, don't see the watery sheet of glass as it opens before me, don't feel my own body cutting through air, the pressing buoyancy of lungs, the ropes of water twisting with convecting energy as I let them pull me through. The only tangible sensation is felt at the wall and that's when I touch it.

The Mankovitz catches my eye and nods and I know exactly what the nod means; the nod means now. I take my first Olympic gold.
So, I don't know, I have watched very little swimming in my life, it may be that "international relay" is in common usage - but it sounds slightly odd to my ear. (And why "discover"? Doesn't this have the ring of a sentence written for sound rather than meaning?) Is the emphasis on "international" just to accentuate the striking context of the 1984 Olympics? I would have thought either "medley relay" or "freestyle relay" would have been more apt, not least because - this is my main complaint about the passage - we are not really given enough detail to know exactly what event they are swimming, and which girl is taking which leg! I can guess that it is the 4 x 100 freestyle relay, and that Babe and Peggy swim the first two legs and that Pip swims the last one, and I do see that this sort of detail often does need to be trimmed down in a final polish of a piece of fiction, because information can bog down the narrative - but the question of which swimmer takes which leg is intimately related to character, group dynamics, etc. and it does not make sense for it to be so thoroughly downplayed here.

It is actually difficult for me to imagine any first-person narrator's account of swimming a number of events in the Olympics that does not provide all of the concrete details concerning events, times of day, etc., but let us say for the sake of argument that we can imagine a narrator whose priorities mean that she does withhold that information. In this case, though, I do not think it is working like that, just that the novelist herself has only a fairly vague notion of what's going on (Where does the coach's "nod" fit in the sequence of events? Is the implication that he cues Pip's dive start? Is that at all plausible?) - so that my real description of the problem I have with this passage is that I am thoroughly unpersuaded, at the end of it, that the novelist herself has nearly as precise a knowledge of her character's swimming as would be necessary to make the scene come alive. It is fatally blurry...

Others may enjoy it more than I did - there is an excerpt and interview at the Daily Beast (links courtesy of Sarah Weinman). But I would have to recommend Tessa Duder's In Lane Three, Alex Archer as an infinitely more compelling portrait of the training and racing life of a competitive swimmer.

(Really I want there to be a ton of books about swimming, so I should not be so negative about this one! I want one of these top female American swimmers to ghostwrite a trashy novel about swimming sort of along the lines of Naomi Campbell's ghostwritten novel Swan - and I want some new Dick Francis to write mysteries set in the swimming world as opposed to the horse-racing world - and of course I would not say no to there just generally being a huge horde of very good books about swimming, novels and non-fiction alike. There is room, as Sarah Weinman observes in an e-mail, for a good novel about East German women's swimming in the 1970s...)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bottom's dream

About the play, the less said the better, but we certainly had a very good dinner afterwards at Bottega del Vino. It inadvertently (though not randomly, because clearly I am very fond of cheese) turned into the Delicious Dinner of Cheese - I had beef carpaccio (arugola, parmesan) to start, then another appetizer (a daily special of roasted peppers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies and served on a bed of julienned baby vegetables and greens) and then what is pretty certainly the most delicious tiramisu I ever had in my life (mascarpone)...

(It is a silly question, but I have a habit of asking the waiter what is the most delicious dessert - sometimes they hem and haw, but in this case the fellow was very certain that it was the tiramisu, and I feel sure he was correct!)

Random light reading round the edges (and I am finally as of today back on what I consider a really proper work-productivity schedule, so though I will need to make every day count, I feel slightly calmer about the prospect of making my end-of-month novel-revision deadline): Minette Walters' The Chameleon's Shadow, S. J. Rozan's In This Rain, Laura Lippman's To the Power of Three, Tess Gerritsen's The Keepsake (in case it is not clear, I hit the so-called "new books" shelf at the public library - it is not a well-stocked branch, but so long as I don't go there too often, I am able to pluck hardcover crime fiction happily from the shelf), Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, Monica Seles' Getting a Grip. (The last is very good, by the way, whether or not you have a serious interest in tennis.)

Temples of lust

This article made me laugh!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Invisible libraries

Still fairly grumpy - I am mostly recovered from my cold, but lungs remain slightly congested and I have a slight headache I can't seem to shake. Devoutly hoping I will feel significantly better when I wake up tomorrow morning!

Belatedly, some pictures of the lovely Invisible Library exhibit executed by the INK collective and inspired by Ed and Levi's Invisible Library blog (other pictures can be found here)...

I might see if I could buy a couple of the original paintings to hang on the naked walls of my apartment (only I like blank walls):

Tantalized by the novels of Harriet Vane!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Aquatic dialogues

At the LA Times, some good Oliver Sacks linkage (happy birthday, Dr. Sacks!) from Carolyn Kellogg: the National Review of Medicine interview is especially appealing. (Link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull.)

Irrelevant, but the phrase Sacks linkage reminds me of something that happened to me the other day. I was running off the path in Riverside Park, and crunching lumpily under my feet were a whole host of the little things that as children growing up in Wilmington, Delaware we used to call monkey balls (I think they are these, or something similar): I ruminated on the fact that at age five I do not think I knew the word balls as a synonym for testicles, I just thought of it as being balls that monkeys might throw at one another, but it seems more likely to me now that whoever coined the expression had the other sense in mind...


The week has been spent in a prolonged fit of extreme grumpiness due to illness; I am only just surfacing into a less distressed frame of mind, having been deprived of the luxuriant amounts of triathlon training and novel-revising that I had contemplated undertaking on my return from England. Lungs still groaning, in other words, but hoping that tomorrow may be a better day!

(It has been extremely frustrating - I have an upcoming race and an upcoming deadline, the latter of course being more significant/consequential but the former more emotionally pressing - but time and tide wait for no man, and this week has been virtually useless!)

I did find consolation in two sublimely good books, so different in their kind that it is almost hard to think of them as belonging to the same conceptual category of fiction.

The first is James Lasdun's new story collection, It's Beginning to Hurt. Lasdun is in my opinion a really extraordinary writer, one of the best working in English today (some prior thoughts of mine here); I am not inherently drawn to the short story as a form, and read with real pleasure only a small handful of contemporary practitioners (Nathan Englander, Kelly Link, Yiyun Li, Edward P. Jones, a few others), but these are utterly brilliant pieces. They somehow have the feel of the tales of the uncanny that I grew up reading and loving (the best nineteenth-century prototype perhaps being Stevenson's "The Bottle Imp"), managing the strange trick of being at once divinely literary and yet redolent of the pleasures of Joan Aiken's A Touch of Chill or Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. Uncanny, delightful...

(My particular favorite, though it's in certain respects anomalous within the collection, is "Annals of the Honorary Secretary" - I believe it was published in the TLS, and if you are a subscriber you may be able to get it through the archive - but the collection is well worth acquiring, though it is the sort of slim volume that under other circumstances would strike me as poor value for money - not, at any rate, what I would buy in an airport!)

The other experience of reading sublimity: Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is not perfect as a crime novel, certain aspects of the story needlessly strain credulity, but the richness of the world the book creates reminds me of why this kind of thriller is so irresistible...

(I also read a non-sublime though thoroughly immersing guilty purchase from Heathrow - I wanted at least one backup volume in case of massive delay and a shortage of other material, preferably in the English style i.e. not what I can just get anywhere in America [no Jodi Picoult!] - the best thing of all, of course, would be a huge new Jilly Cooper novel, but alas, there was no such thing; instead I purchased Penny Vincenzi's The Best of Times. The characters are slightly underdeveloped, and I cannot honestly imagine what it would be like to have the kind of brain that would have either the impulse or the capability of producing a book like this, but it lasted me happily through many an unpleasant hour of post-nasal drip and painful lung tightness, so I am not complaining...)

Hot dog!

Here's my "significant object"; you can bid on the object here, and I must confess that I am going to be very offended on behalf of the hot dog if the bidding does not go from cents to dollars before it is over...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


In Alex Ross's New Yorker piece on the Marlboro summer music festival (link for subscribers only), Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax reminisce about the teaching styles of their 1970s Marlboro mentors:
Each senior figure had a distinctive approach. Moyse, the master of the French school of flute playing, had his students read through opera arias so that they learned to imitate the human voice. The Polish-born pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski said little, sometimes merely pointing and smiling at a passage in a score. Felix Galimir, a supremely cultivated Viennese violinist who had been Toscanini's concertmaster in the NBC Symphony, coached players in the psychology of chamber music, where, as Ax says, "no one leads and no one follows." Alexander Schneider, of the Budapest Quartet, was a Russian-accented volcano, exhorting and berating his charges. And Isidore Cohen, the longtime violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio, encouraged independence. Ma said, "He'd look at you, smoking a cigarette, and say, 'What do you think? Should there be a decrescendo?' He'd force you to make choices."

Pale Galileans

At the TLS, Jonathan Bate on Swinburne's posthumous reputation. The article persuasively makes the case that Swinburne is well worth reading, after this pungent statement of the arguments against:
F. R. Leavis’s charge sheet, in one of his Cambridge seminars (recorded by Charles Winder), requires a robust defence. “Swinburne: Tennysonian, subordination of sense to sound, lapsing away from the sense. Use of words: what could happen after Swinburne? Gilbert Murray’s Euripides happened.” A wash of words with no meaning, the logorrhoea that gives poetry a bad name, the decadent clutter that had to be swept away by the austere lucidity of the Imagists: that was the judgement of my schoolmasters on Swinburne’s verse. He may have been English poetry’s greatest technical innovator of anapaest and iamb in bounding alternation: “When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces, / The mother of months in meadow or plain” (Atalanta in Calydon). But he was all too easily parodied as a purveyor of high-sounding nonsense: “When the foam of the bride-cake is white, and / The fierce orange-blossoms are yellow” (Lewis Carroll, “Atalanta in Camden Town”).

Sunday, July 05, 2009


"Right now, I’m going for 'most apples split in a minute in midair with a samurai sword.' So I’ll practice that in the yard.

Travel miscellany

Airport/plane/train reading: Rachel Vincent's Pride (have not read first installments in series, but backstory is well handled, and I can never resist a good were-animal story); Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know; Charles de Lint's Memory and Dream; Mark Billingham's Buried; Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (very good); Linwood Barclay's Too Close to Home.

The last was the only one that irked me - I thought it was not up to the standard of his previous one. The plot is very transparent (I am not a plot-driven reader, but it was extremely obvious as soon as the real murderer appeared on the scene who he must be and what his motive was - this is very clunkily handled), and more importantly I felt that the couple main characters are fundamentally wildly implausible. At times they seem like thinnish, almost satirical Elmore Leonard-style creations, so that one cannot really take them seriously at the other points when the author seems to expect the reader to consider them as fully motivated and thoughtful human beings...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

"My button period"

For the FT, Vanessa Friedman lunches with Manolo Blahnik (site registration required):
His favourites have been a pair that he made in 1973 for Ossie Clark, which featured cherry blossoms and green suede leaves that twined up the leg; ones with gigantic buttons (“from my button period in the 1980s”); shoes made from coral and pony skin that appeared in an exhibit at the Design Museum in London in 2003; and shoes from this season’s collection called “Toubid”, high-heeled ankle-strap sandals featuring tiers of cut work around the arch of the foot. The ones his customers like best tend to be the court shoes, which he thinks are “very conventional”, especially when they come in “stupid colours like dusty pink. It’s the safe shoe!”

He makes all sorts of heels but says that his favourite height is 3cm, which is a mid-height. (He also does 5cm.) He is currently also very interested in flats because “they are the most difficult shoes to walk in and be divine and gracious – they make you walk like a reindeer. The last time women really knew how to walk well in flats was the 1950s. You can see it in the movies.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Scattered revelations

from the counterfactuals conference:

1. The Laboratory for Counterfactual Research (German-language site), creators of the Empathy Project - if you are in Berlin in August, you will be able to get Compassionate Plants or an Empathy Sundae if you stop in at the right place...

2. With video games, mechanics usually trumps semiotics; also, Tamagotchi graveyards!

3. Dinner at The Court Restaurant in the renovated central courtyard at the British Museum - I have not been back since that space was transformed from the old Reading Room, it is quite magical...