Monday, August 31, 2009

The natural history of running

My college friend J.-J. and I must have been at the far unlikely end of the spectrum of those who could be expected to pick up a truly obsessive sport habit later in life - the main things I remember us doing are smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking to excess and having some very good conversations about the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh!

In fact, we have recently reconnected on Facebook, where I spotted his Ironman finisher's photo, and since then we have been having some very good obsessive endurance sport back-and-forth exchanges, literary and otherwise.

(He points out that endurance sport is in many respects a literary or philosophical phenomenon as much as it is a fitness-related activity!)

He recommended that I read Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run: A Natural History, and I found it utterly mesmerizing. The opening stretch of pages is perhaps slightly too lyrical metaphysical for my tastes (I have never been able to read Thoreau seriously, or the more fanciful pages of Emerson!), but it develops into an absolutely wonderful book with all sorts of fascinating reflections on physiology and distance running - the kind of thing a highly original zoologist might indeed come up with as he tried to figure out how to train and race best at distances long enough that there was very little prior data to examine.

"[T]o the fawns of pronghorn antelopes and other ungulates that require speed to survive," Heinrich writes (summarizing the research of John A. Byers), "play is fast running that may be interspersed with twists and leaps. It has long been argued that such exorbitant, apparently useless expenditure of energy is a survival cost. Contrary to this supposition, Byers found that those pronghorn fawns who played more had a greater chance of surviving the first month of life than those who played less."

Playfulness in this context is an advantage, and Heinrich in a sequence of middle chapters moves through a number of different animals, each of which offers insights into different aspects of human running physiology.

Here he is on the camel, whose hump of back fat serves as a heat shield from the sun and allows the less-insulated belly to assist with heat loss:
Part of the camel's secret is just plain toughness and the ability to survive desiccation. We're near death is we lose water equal to about 12 percent of our body weight, but camels can survive body water loss of 40 percent of body weight. After being dehydrated, a camel can ingest 20 to 25 percent of its body weight in one drinking bout. As in humans, the ingested water reaches the blood plasma from the stomach relatively slowly, requiring about an hour to attain a 25 percent equilibrium. But unlike humans, camels tolerate blood dilution to an extent not tolerable in other mammals. Our blood cells swell and rupture in dilution, and we can become very ill and even die from water toxicity if we drink too much liquid, especially when it is dilute (without salt or sugar) and therefore absorbed more quickly.
And when it comes to smoothness of stride, high-speed cameras have revealed that one champion runner is the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana, which
raises three legs at a time and keeps three on the ground. The first and third on one side and the second on the other are used as a unit. The roach moves using such alternate tripods. The difference between walking and slow running is simply the rate at which successive tripod steps are taken, although when really cruising, some cockroaches do something different. They spread their wings, shift their body weight to the rear, and become bipedal by running on their hind legs. American cockroaches can spring this way at some fifty body lengths per second. By that measure, they run about four times faster than a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal in terms of absolute speed.
What follows is a rather enchanting description of the All-American Trot, held annually at Purdue University, featuring cockroach footraces "on a custom-built circular track with racers coming from entomology department research stock." (Here's another report on the event - both descriptions note that the lumbering Madagascan hissing cockroach is harnessed to a miniature green-and-yellow John Deere tractor.)

Humans' elongated feet are much better adapted for running than the grasping digits of apes, and Heinrich speculates that foot size may be a significant explanatory factor in the difference between elite men's and women's running speeds, a gap which has to some extent resisted explanation. His thoughts on migratory birds and how they fuel for their feats of ultra-endurance are very effectively woven back into a discussion of metabolic issues and fueling for ultra-distance runs (the book is in part structured as an account of how he came to win the North American 100K Championship in Chicago in 1981).

At one point, Heinrich says of a run he logs, "It was not all out. I usually tried to keep a little back, so that willpower would accumulate, like a battery on a charge." The book is full of such insights, and the language - especially when it comes to matters zoological - is vivid and clear and particular. A classic of the genre. (J.-J., thanks for the recommendation, I hadn't even heard of it before you mentioned it!)

Life in literature

Spreading like wildfire, but most immediately pasted in from Maxine's wonderfully noir version, my life according to books I've read this calendar year (2009):
Describe yourself:
The Girl Who Played With Fire.
How do you feel?
It’s Beginning to Hurt.
Describe where you currently live:
Lush Life.
If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
Your favorite form of transport:
The Dragon Waiting.
Your best friend is . . . ?
A Fortunate Age.
You and your friends are . . .?
What’s the weather like?
American Pastoral.
Favourite time of day?
Daylight Noir.
What is life to you?
The Mind-Body Problem.
Your fear?
A Case of Conscience.
What is the best advice you have to give?
Hold Tight.
Thought for the Day?
Getting a Grip.
How I would like to die:
The Best of Times.
My soul's present condition?
Dreaming By the Book.

Manga eyes

Tawada Yoko on the fate of the ideogram amidst competing systems of reading and writing, courtesy of Bookforum. Here's a bit I especially liked:
It’s been ten years now since I’ve had a European ask me why the Japanese still haven’t given up their ideograms. Instead, I’ve noticed a growing interest in ideograms. The children at the German schools where I’ve given readings have shown far more interest in the Chinese characters than my texts. Maybe this has something to do with the texts. Even when I write in German, image-based script in the broadest sense is still present in my texts. I don’t know if the growing interest in ideograms can be explained more by the interest in manga culture or China’s economic growth. No matter whom I come in contact with—employees at a computer store, academics, people at arts organizations or the artists themselves—everyone wants to know more about ideograms. Perhaps this is part of a global process in which visual thinking is taking on a more central role.

When I’m writing, I’ve often found myself inspired by German words like “Stern-kunde” (star-science, or astronomy), “Schrift-steller” (script-placer, or writer) or “Fern-seher” (distance-viewer, television). It always seemed to me as if two ancient Germanic ideograms were being joined together to make a new word. Romanic languages surely sound more melodious and colorful than German. English has a spare, modern elegance that German sometimes lacks, and my love of Slavic languages will never vanish. But for me the building blocks of German words have an ideographic character that seems to be crucial for my writing.
(I note that before clicking through to the piece itself, I took the word "Letter" in the essay's title - "The Letter as Literature's Political and Poetic Body - to mean letter in the sense of epistolarity.)

The pirate brand

At the New Yorker, Caleb Crain reviews Peter Leeson's The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (I have only dipped into the book myself so far, but it looks excellent); Caleb also offers further piratical background at his blog.

Oed to a Nietingael

Margalit Fox's obituary for spelling reformer Edward Rondthaler (via Paul Collins). Lots of charming details:
At 5, Edward received a toy printing press as a gift and began publishing his own newspaper. (It was a very small newspaper, about the size of a postcard, his son said.)

"Wooden hot dogs with plastic buns"

The hot dog found a good home!

(I do not think hot dogs are camp or unappetizing - I probably only eat one once a year, but I think they are delicious, especially with a decorative squiggle of ketchup and/or when cooked on a grill. In Stockholm, you can get a delicious hot dog on the street outside of a club at 4am....)

The wiki reputation system

Accuracy by the winnowing-down effects of consensus?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Culture wars redux

I like Jeff VanderMeer's thoughts on belonging and self-exclusion and the tribe of fantasy-writers.

(On another note, I am back home in New York after an idyll in tropical island paradise! Alas, all good things must come to an end - but I am always in a good mood, too, in September as the school year starts - it is a time of hope and possibility, and even better, I have a semester of sabbatical in the spring, so I only need to take a very deep breath and make it through to December, not all the way through to May!)

(I've got several not-yet-written blog posts, a half-read novel that I am meant to comment on for a roundtable discussion and have also not yet written my Shakespeare adaptation essay - distracted by diving, triathlon training and other such frivolities...)


Monica Edinger responds to several recent pieces on children's reading.

Also, via The Rumpus, Clive Thompson weighs in at Wired on the "new literacy".

Pies of the imagination

The life of pie!

Andrew Stephens on Janet Clarkson's Pie: A Global History:
There were those filled with living, affrighted birds (and, presumably, their droppings) — and those stuffed with vast quantities of dead ones (such as pigeon pie, with the birdies' feet poking dolefully out the top). Indeed, where there is a pastry case and a filling — Clarkson debates the finer points of this structure — there is bound to be a pie.

Take the pie whipped up by a Mrs Kirk at the Old Ship Inn in 1835. It weighed 108 kilos and held within its sturdy pastry walls "one rump of beef, two legs of veal, two legs of pork, three hares, three couple of rabbit, three geese, two brace of pheasants, four brace of partridges, two turkeys, two couple of fowls" and loads of flour.

Or there is the daunting 17th-century "bride pie", several distinct pies constructed upon one bottom, that housed "beautiful little things" such as cocks' combs, lambs' testicles and goose giblets, as well as oysters, marrow, interlarded bacon, live birds (or a snake), plus many minced larks.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


At the FT, a very charming reminiscence by one of Britain's last lighthouse-keepers (site registration required):
Some of the lighthouses didn't have running water, working toilets or heating. Winters at Needles Rock, on the Isle of Wight, weren't great. We were confined to tiny rooms and often spent hours in the dark. Food wasn't exactly a highlight; we would start with joints of meat but they would soon disappear and usually it was all tinned. I'm sure every keeper has bad memories of corned beef!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bonsai relationships

At the Millions, Anne K. Yoder interviews Phillip Lopate about his new book Notes on Sontag (the first volume in Princeton University Press's new Writers on Writers series).

(Hmmm, I think I am not prominent enough to do one of these, and also that I have too many projects in the pipeline already - but I want to write one on Anthony Burgess!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare"

Matthew Cheney interviews Samuel R. Delany at Omnivoracious. The occasion: a new edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.

(Great interview! Sentences I most like, out of many other very good ones: "I wanted a book I—that is to say, we—could read and enjoy. So I wrote it." Delany is in my opinion one of the great geniuses of our time, as a critic as well as a fiction-writer - here were some thoughts of mine from a few years ago on his collection of pieces on writing. This bit, which I have come back to again and again over the last few years in my teaching, my fiction-writing and my critical writing, is almost certainly going to be either an epigraph for or a prominent feature in the introduction to A Bread-and-Butter Theory of the Novel...)

(Interview link courtesy of the king of all things capybara.)

(NB I am not surprised Delany has been teaching The Princesse de Cleves - it is essential reading! I am looking forward to teaching Flaubert in the fall myself...)

Civilization and its discontents

Stanley Fish on core curricula and what should be taught in writing classes.

Things long ago

The true meaning of Hamlet (courtesy of Matt).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Vacant residences or animal remains

There is a slightly occult feel to this description in William T. Broad's Science Times piece about Peter Rona's two-mile-deep diving quest:
Dr. Rona has found that P. nodosum thrives in restricted areas of Atlantic seabed. Its only visible feature consists of tiny holes arranged in six-sided patterns that look curiously like the hearts of Chinese checkers boards. He has photographed thousands of the hexagons and found that large ones have 200 or 300 holes.

"The small, sharp teeth of a kitten"

At Granta, a moving and extraordinarily unsettling essay by Mary Gaitskill on lost cats and lost children:
I spoke to my husband on the phone about taking Gattino home with us. I said I had fallen in love with the cat, and that I was afraid that by exposing him to human love I had awakened in him a love that was unnatural and perhaps too big for him. I was afraid that if I left him he would suffer a loneliness that he never would have known had I not appeared in his yard. My husband said, ‘Oh no, Mary…’ but in a bemused tone.

I would understand if he’d said it in a harsher tone. Many people would consider my feelings neurotic, a projection on to an animal of my own loneliness and fear. Many people would consider it almost offensive for me to lavish such love on an animal when I have by some standards failed to love my fellow beings: for example, orphaned children who suffer every day, not one of whom I have adopted. But I have loved people; I have loved children. And it seems that what happened between me and the children I chose to love was a version of what I was afraid would happen to the kitten. Human love is grossly flawed, and even when it isn’t, people routinely misunderstand it, reject it, use it or manipulate it. It is hard to protect a person you love from pain because people often choose pain; I am a person who often chooses pain. An animal will never choose pain; an animal can receive love far more easily than even a very young human. And so I thought it should be possible to shelter a kitten with love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two by two

Clearly I packed for this trip in considerable haste - the reader who takes a very close look at this picture will see that I accidentally brought two different library copies of Hazleton Spencer's altogether delightful book Shakespeare Improved: The Restoration Versions in Quarto and On the Stage, one being the first edition of 1927 and the other a 1963 reissue!

All sorts of good things in this one, but I hit a long quotation from Steele's Tatler fairly early on that I thought worth quoting again here for the light it casts on an issue in which I've become increasingly interested.

It is not so much what critics tend to talk about, but teaching Restoration and eighteenth-century drama and fiction has left me increasingly convinced that the language developed collaboratively by writers of fictional narrative for notating the interactions of characters (their behavior, their body language, their presumptive inner lives) is drawn first and foremost from a set of conventions prompted much more specifically by the desire (among spectators of a critical bent) to talk about the behavior of actors in plays, with some blurring of bounds between actor and role.

Look at what Steele's doing - it is quoted extensively by Spencer, but I have taken the text from this edition (Tatler No. 167, 2 May 1710) - in this passage on the death of the great actor Betterton:
I have hardly a notion, that any performer of antiquity could surpass the action of Mr. Betterton in any of the occasions in which he has appeared on our stage. The wonderful agony which he appeared in, when he examined the circumstance of the handkerchief in Othello; the mixture of love that intruded upon his mind, upon the innocent answers Desdemona makes, betrayed in his gesture such a variety and vicissitude of passions, as would admonish a man to be afraid of his own heart; and perfectly convince him, that it is to stab it, to admit that worst of daggers, jealousy. Whoever reads in his closet this admirable scene, will find that he cannot, except he has as warm an imagination as Shakespeare himself, find any but dry, incoherent, and broken sentences: but a reader that has seen Betterton act it, observes, there could not be a word added; that longer speeches had been unnatural, nay, impossible, in Othello's circumstances. The charming passage in the same tragedy, where he tells the manner of winning the affection of his mistress, was urged with so moving and graceful an energy, that, while I walked in the cloisters, I thought of him with the same concern as if I waited for the remains of a person who had in real life done all that I had seen him represent.
The system of notation that Steele is helping to create here (and that Aphra Behn was also one to pioneer, as one of the most frequent crossers-over between stage drama and prose fiction) is then borrowed by writers of prose fiction who wish to test the limits of what can be done in a third-person voice by way of chronicling the actions and experiences of human beings.

I find myself in a place of familiar frustration at this point in the summer. I'm now really ready to get down to work writing - but it's about to be time to start teaching again!

I have a semester of sabbatical coming up in the spring, and I am planning on making good use of it.

I have a couple longstanding projects that still need finishing up in the immediate future: I am just now writing a piece on Shakespeare adaptation for a forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century that must be finished over the next couple weeks, and I will be working very hard in September on one more pass through the sequel to The Explosionist, now titled Invisible Things. (It will go to the copy-editor at the end of September, after which point my own intervention will be reduced to tinkering and obsessive checking/proof-reading, so this is my last chance to get stuff right.)

I have made commitments to contribute a couple article-length pieces to two books; one is the eighteenth-century volume of the Oxford History of the English novel (a chapter on Restoration drama's influence on eighteenth-century fiction, which is very closely related to these things I've been thinking about); the other, a Cambridge Companion to the Epistolary Novel (my essay on a topic as yet to be specified). These probably won't be due for another year or so.

In the meantime the dust has settled and I can now see my way clearly through to my next pair of book projects. I have regretfully shelved for now the hugely ambitious techniques-of-the-body book - I think it is a multi-year project that will take considerable further reading before I would be ready to start writing it.

But I have two easy books that are on my mind as what I'd most like to write next.

The first one, for which I have already (illicitly, last week, when I should have been working on Shakespeare!) laid down some words, is a memoir about my love affair with triathlon.

The second, which relates quite closely to things I've been teaching for many years and now rather have the urge to put into a little book, is going to be an modest volume called A Bread-and-Butter Theory of the Novel. Somewhere near the beginning will be a paragraph on usage, and this may not be the title the book ends up with - but I do like the contrast between the mouthwatering pragmatism of "bread and butter" (one of my favorite foods) and "theory of the novel"!

(A notional previous incarnation of this book was going to be called Austen for Beginners, but it is really an introduction to narratology and the eighteenth-century novel - it has expanded outwards...)

Both of these book projects have enough of an exploratory component to keep me interested and yet are in some sense also appealing as a way of recording and consolidating some of what I've been thinking and talking about in recent years - I am hoping it might be this time next year and I will have full drafts of both of them, but that may be overoptimistic. Books always take twice as long to write as you expect...

(Bonus link: Charlie Jane Anders on the five Shakespeare heroes that science fiction epics could learn from.)

Ginger beer and picnics

At the Telegraph, Melanie McDonagh considers a forthcoming BBC drama-documentary on Enid Blyton, who will be played by Helena Bonham Carter.

(Link courtesy of my father, who also notes of his Kirkcaldy childhood: "I still remember parents' friend Jim Brindle, the County Librarian, passionately refusing to give her shelf-room. Fortunately Miss Luke, the Burgh Librarian, ran her own independent show!")

"I'm a detective, a treasure hunter"

I think I linked to this when it was first published, but I have just read Stephen Elliott's "Why I Write" for the second time and commend it to your attention. The Adderall Diaries will be released on September 1.

Stopping warlocks

At the LA Times, Ed Park asks Lev Grossman how he came to write his new novel The Magicians.

Also: the genesis of Charlie Williams' Stairway to Hell! (Worth going and reading if you have a fondness for secret histories, even if you do not plan to read the novel - though you should!)

"Bigamy Novels, Bildungsroman, the Sensation Novel"

Wilkie Collins' "uncontrollable screams of agony made it difficult for him to retain amanuenses”.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The piper's maggot

Oliver Sacks at the Stevens Institute Center for Science Writing (courtesy of Dave Lull); podcast and video versions of Sacks's talk earlier this summer at Columbia's Narrative Medicine Rounds; and a nice interview with Sacks at Harper's (courtesy of Bookforum):
Some people experience temporary aphasia (say, following a stroke or brain injury), but others are left with it for months or years. Yet many people with expressive aphasia, unable to utter a sentence, may be able to sing. I often greet such patients by singing “Happy Birthday” to them, whether it is their birthday or not. Everyone knows the words and melody of this song, and often aphasic people can join in. In 1973, Martin Albert and his colleagues in Boston described a form of music therapy they called “melodic intonation therapy.” Patients were taught to sing or intone short phrases—for example, “How are you today?” Then the musical elements of this were removed slowly until (in some cases) the patient regained the power to speak a little without the aid of intonation. One sixty-seven-year-old man, aphasic for eighteen months—he could only produce meaningless grunts and had received three months of speech therapy without effect—started to produce words two days after beginning melodic intonation therapy; in two weeks, he had an effective vocabulary of a hundred words, and at six weeks, he could carry on “short, meaningful conversations.”

"I hear that a lot of small dogs are gay"

Puppy matchmaking.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jawboning, mental orifices

Novelist and editor Colin Harrison's Sunday routine.

"187 Men to Avoid"

At the Sunday Times, Andrew Collins on the appeal of Dan Brown. This paragraph on The Da Vinci Code made me laugh:
I read it, in late 2004, for a far more prosaic reason: because everybody was reading it. The New Yorker published a piece in 2005 by the magazine’s editor David Remnick, who, on a visit to London to report on Tony Blair’s re-election campaign, said: “I was reading the novel that everyone in London seemed to be poring over in the cafés and on the benches in St James’s Park, Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” A convenient idea, but, in fact, everyone was still reading The Da Vinci Code. I’m not one for confessional journalism, but I admit I loved it. Any deficiencies in style or research went unnoticed as I raced for the finish. I promise you I am not an idiot, but I was so taken with it that I bought the special illustrated edition and the Rough Guide.

Friday, August 14, 2009


At the Scotsman, Ian Rankin considers Martin Stannard's biography of Muriel Spark. Best detail: Spark "accepted a cat from Patricia Highsmith"! Other "nice vignettes" singled out by Rankin (who famously set out to write a thesis on Spark's fiction before turning to a Life of Crime):
At a signing at Fortnum's, she is mistaken for an assistant and happily wraps the customer's purchase. During a research trip to Mount Carmel her driver crashes into a market-stall and she returns to her hotel in a police van. If someone touched a pen she was using, she threw it away rather than write with it again.

Feline wilfullness

Taking cats for a walk (FT site registration required)!


The shock of the past jabs Hilary Mantel in the ribs.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bling in dessert form

The cupcake phenomenon (via Bookforum).

"Bottles Boxes Baskets bags nets &c &c &c"

Jim Endersby, author of the excellent A Guinea Pig's History of Biology, has a nice piece in the TLS on the new edition of the correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks:
In his letter, Roxburgh [an East India Company surgeon and botanist] described some new plants he was sending, and emphasized “the astringent qualities of the Terminalia Myrobalana (Myrobal. Citrin.)”. The genus Terminalia had received its name from Linnaeus himself in 1767 (in the thirteenth edition of the Systema Naturae), but assigning the plant to the correct species was more difficult, as Roxburgh’s parenthesis shows. In 1774 the tree had received the name Myrobalanifera citrina from Petrus Houttuyn, professor of botany at Leiden, and it is now called Terminalia catappa. Yet it still goes by many different common names, including Indian almond, Bengal almond, Malabar almond, Sea bean tree and Umbrella tree; it has several Hindi names, including Baadaam, Deshi badam and Jangli badam; in Malay it’s Ketapang; and in Nepalese Kaathe badaam. And the University of Melbourne’s multilingual, multi-script plant names database ( lists dozens of others.

Putting an end to this botanical Babel had been a key motive for Linnaeus’s reforms, and while much clearly remained to be done in Banks’s time, the situation was greatly improved compared to that of a generation earlier, when each country’s botanists tended to use their own language and system of names. Roxburgh’s letter also makes it clear why accurate, unambiguous names mattered so much: “I think \[Terminalia Myrobalana\] will prove the strongest vegetable Astringent known”, he wrote, telling Banks that he used it to make ink and that it was also used by the Chinese in dyes and paints: “without it their colours would run like Ink on Blotting Paper”. He was therefore convinced that “it would prove a great acquisition to a Commercial Nation”. But only if the right plant, and the best variety of that plant, could be obtained and grown.

The light fantastic

A bit of a stir in my corner of the internet about a New Yorker Book Bench list of seven essential fantasy reads. I will definitely say that I have read all but one of these books and they are almost all, in my opinion, pretty terrible and definitely not what I'd recommend to win over the slightly wary non-fantasy reader!

The list is quite self-deprecating, and I don't want to knock its author - it's difficult to make a list of personal recommendations without opening oneself up to the risk of seeming to define a canon which can then be charged with all sorts of omissions. So, in the spirit of the original list, I offer an off-the-top-of-my-head list of female-authored fantasies that have meant a lot to me over the years.

For the most part, I've omitted books that are clearly directed towards young adults (though Susan Cooper is certainly a crucial one for me as a reader, and a recent reread of The Dark is Rising persuaded me that that first volume of the series at least really is comparable with what someone like Ian McEwan tries to do in his novels); the important exception is Robin McKinley, who I really cannot leave off this list!

I've also left out some books I only came to recently and that thus haven't shaped my internal fantasy landscape to the same degree, but writers who would seem to me to belong on a list like mine and surely would crop up on a different reader's version of it include Ellen Kushner, Kathleen Duey, Jo Walton, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull and Naomi Novik. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting - this really is just off the top of my head. (Susannah Clarke! Caitlin Kiernan! OK, gotta stop...)

So, a list of seven female-authored essential fantasy recommendations for the fantasy novice, in no particular order:

1. Patricia McKillip's Riddle-master trilogy. Utterly magical - I had a one-volume edition from a garage sale that I read to pieces...

2. Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, but especially the Harper Hall trilogy.

3. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books, especially Thendara House. These are uneven, but at her best Bradley was exceptional.

4. Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword - yes, vaguely and squeamishness-inducingly orientalist at points, but still one of my favorite books of all time and a frequent reread in adulthood also.

5. Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy.

6. Perhaps too hyper-canonical to be even worth mentioning, but Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books were very frequently reread by me in childhood and teenage years. (The affiliation between fantasy and young-adult is more than just a matter of marketing categories - more thoughts on this TK.)

7. And, finally, a novelist who is not usually categorized as a fantasy author but who seems to me to be so firmly entrenched in the lineage of contemporary female-authored fantasy that she has to be recognized here: Georgette Heyer. An early twentieth-century example of rich worldbuilding, down to the invention of a "Regency" idiom that bears recognizable similarities to the language used in the period but is very much Heyer's own creation; the story told in These Old Shades and Devil's Cub is a good place to start.

Closing tabs

David Loftus interviews Paul Collins about his new book (on how Shakespeare's First Folio conquered the world) and various other matters of interest concerning publishing, the book business and so forth.

Yale University Press chooses to omit images of Muhammad from new book on the Danish cartoon controversy.

In praise of literary hackery. (As a Young Person, I aspired to a career of literary hackery in the vein of an Anthony Burgess or a Gore Vidal, but in the event I steered myself towards academia instead, and still think it suits me better - but I love the notion of simultaneously paid and playful literary dilettantism, and am strongly drawn to those figures who pull it off...)

More from Levi Stahl on invisible libraries and his ongoing love affair with the internet, including this wonderful quotation from Max Beerbohm: "'And yet--for, even as Must implants distaste, so does Can't stir sweet longings--how eagerly would I devour these books within books!'"

"[E]ven as Must implants distaste, so does Can't stir sweet longings" is the best description I have ever read of the psychological underpinnings of why a TBR ("to be read") pile of books does not have the same shine on it as an Amazon page for a book that hasn't yet been published! (See under: "The Other Amazon.")

Light reading catch-up

I was saving up some especially good light reading for my plane trip a week ago and initial days of tropical idyll (which is really partly a work trip, but includes a vacation module), so I have a more than usually excellent pile of books to report on, including a pair of books (one a re-read, one that I haven't yet finished) which deserve their own post and a wonderful book on running that I think I will also write about separately.

It took considerable self-restraint not to pounce on The Girl Who Played With Fire the moment it arrived from Amazon, but fortunately I was so busy with novel-revising that I literally had no time to read it - it was a delightful way to pass the flight, and I think that if anything it is even more compulsively readable than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I think it is more wish-fulfillment than actual similarity, but I strongly identify with the semi-feral female heroine in the model of Lisbeth Salander - the crime-fiction prototype for this sort of character is Carol O'Connell's Mallory, but one also finds a version of the type in Smilla's Sense of Snow, and gentler incarnations in my favorite Peter Dickinson novel (The Lively Dead) and in some of Iain non-M. Banks's female protagonists (Whit, The Business). Bonus link: the Literary Saloon reflects on the quite different titles chosen for the translations of Stieg Larsson into various languages.

As soon as I read Jo Walton's recommendation at the Tor website for The Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History, I knew I had to get it! I absolutely loved it, and only regret that I cannot offer it to my twelve-year-old self, who as a passionate devotee of historical fiction (Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Anya Seton) and a lover of Richard III (Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, Shakespeare) and an obsessive reader of books set in Roman Britain and/or Arthurian spinoffs (Rosemary Sutcliffe, Gillian Bradshaw, Mary Stewart) would have found this an utterly magical read when it was originally published in 1983. The opening sentences still sent a thrill through my heart:
The road the Romans made traversed North Wales a little way inland, between the weather off the Irish Sea and the mountains of Gwynedd and Powys; past the copper and the lead that the travel-hungry Empire craved. The road crossed the Conwy at Caerhun, the Clwyd at Asaph sacred to Esus, and the Roman engineers passed it through the hills, above the shore and below the peaks, never penetrating the spine of the country. Which is not to say that there were no ways in; only that the Romans did not find them.
It is a strange and elliptical and wonderful book; the two are not at all alike, but I would compare it to Pamela Dean's Tam Lin in terms of its power simultaneously to call up my childhood self and still enchant my adult one.

And then another treat: Charlie Williams' Stairway to Hell. There is a special place in my heart that will be forever reserved for the exploits of Royston Blake, but this is a very unusual and appealing novel (and could be well paired with Lewis Shiner's Glimpses and George R. R. Martin's The Armageddon Rag on a rock-and-roll fantasy syllabus - if they ever make a sequel to This Is Spinal Tap, let Charlie be the screenwriter, please!).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Changes rung upon dots

A wonderful 2008 LRB piece by Leah Price on the nineteenth-century rise and fall of shorthand writing (via Jennifer Schuessler):
Like Esperanto a generation later, shorthand spread through a counter-culture of early adopters – spirit-rappers, teetotallers, vegetarians, pacifists, anti-vivisectionists, anti-tobacconists. Pitman himself associated shorthand with ‘the dawn of religious freedom’ and ‘the dawn of political freedom’ (verbatim transcription, he claimed, prevented parliamentary reporters from privileging favourites). His empire grew with the British postal system. In 1840, he condensed his method into a ‘Penny Plate’ the right size for sending through the new penny post. A network of ‘gratuitous correctors’ (Pitman’s language veered between pedantry and hucksterism) encouraged autodidacts in the provinces to send one another their shorthand exercises to be marked; later, chain letters called ‘ever-circulators’, composed in shorthand, were sent through the imperial mail. When correspondence was conducted in shorthand, Pitman claimed, ‘friendships grow six times as fast as under the withering blighting influence of the moon of longhand.’ Those exchanges tended to link men to other men, with the notable exception of a girl called Martha Watts, who practised her shorthand by sending Pitman love letters. When the suspicious Mrs Pitman finally broke into her husband’s desk, she had to persuade a student to transcribe them for her: Pitman had been too busy spreading shorthand across the world to teach it to his wife.

"Nuclear is the answer"

Euan Ferguson has a good Observer piece about James Lovelock, who at age 90 is booked on the inaugural flight of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic...

Almond Ladybits

Katy Guest interviews A. L. Kennedy for the Independent. I have to get that book, even though I do not usually read short stories...

(NB Sherman Alexie had a really extraordinary piece in the New Yorker last week - well worth reading...)

Friday, August 07, 2009

The road of excess

Diana Athill's father simply could not face brown envelopes.

Also: a slightly facile but still thought-provoking piece by Adam Phillips on excess and balance (one day I will write an essay on William Blake, who is surely the prime expert on this question).


At the FT, Ángel Gurría-Quintana on a dragonfly safari (FT site registration required):
Our dragonfly safari is coming to an unsatisfactory end when a flying critter buzzes out of the reeds and into sight, before flying away and back again. It’s the biggest dragonfly I’ve ever seen – perhaps the length of my hand-span. It hovers tantalisingly close, suspended in mid-air, then shoots vertically up into the trees, flies around them and returns. It darts at me, stops a few inches from my face, and then reverses. It seems to be examining me, taunting me. If this were a larger animal, I’d feel very threatened.

“A Southern Hawker,” Curry says, a note of excitement in his voice, “and it’s showing classic behaviour.” The British Dragonfly Society’s webpage describes the Southern Hawker as an “inquisitive” species, most often seen individually, which “may fly quite close to investigate observers”. This extraordinary display goes on for a few minutes, until – contrary to our expectations – it lands on some nearby reeds. “It’s posing for us,” says Curry.

We are now able to appreciate its characteristic paired yellow spots. It is a male, as is apparent from its slightly constricted abdomen and the claspers on the tip of its tail, which it uses to attach itself to females. We approach cautiously. Its wings shudder, shimmering in the weak sunlight. “That’s called wing-whirring,” says Curry. “It’s warming up its wing muscles in case it needs to take off suddenly.”

I am fascinated by the dragonflies’ flight control mechanisms. They have eight abdominal muscles, Curry explains, which they use to move each of their four wings independently. They can fly in ways that are inconceivable for any other animal. Southern Hawkers can fly for as long as an hour without resting. Ours gives a final whirr, and shoots off.
Also worth noting: Ludovic Hunter-Tilney on the vinyl countdown; lunch with Jared Diamond.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Trick memory

Luc Sante on the Thirteen Most Wanted.

"Love and bacon"

A fascinating piece at the Washington Post about the sign-offs people choose for their e-mails. (Via Marginal Revolution.)

(I was tempted at an earlier point in life to write a scholarly article about subscription styles and veiled hostility in eighteenth-century letters - James Boswell's political correspondence and the give-me-a-loan letters of William Godwin as prime evidence of the co-dependency of menace and flattery!)

Also: Twitter(o)graphy (Ben Schott provides 19th-century telegraph abbreviations - thanks to Tarvo for the link).

When worlds collide

This video combines two of my favorite things - libraries and the Vibram Five Fingers "toe shoes"! (Link courtesy of my father.)

The Friends of the Collingswood Library are sponsoring a 5K race on Saturday, September 26 as a fundraiser for the library - if I were not already registered for the Little Red Lighthouse swim the same day, I would be very tempted to sign up!

"Wet documents, moldy paper, insect and vermin residue, and other unpleasant things"

Radioactive lab notebooks! (Courtesy of Brent, who got it here.)

At schools like Princeton and Columbia, one is really on the spot for this Manhattan Project history, it's pretty amazing. I would love to go sometime and see the sites in New Mexico. My friend N. (I may have this story slightly wrong!) was subletting an apartment down the street from the widow of this physicist, for instance, and one day archivists turned up to plumb the apartment's contents for the papers of Kitty Oppenheimer...

Yesterday I sent out the manuscript of my own novel of adventures in radioisotope research, set in an alternate-universe version of Niels Bohr's Institute for Theoretical Physics (a.k.a. the sequel to The Explosionist). I'll do one more pass through the manuscript in September, and of course then there will be copy-editing and proofing - but still, it's huge to be done. New provisional title, already announced on Facebook: Invisible Things!

Saturday, August 01, 2009


I have to get Martin Stannard's Muriel Spark biography:
Her own bodily transfiguration was less spiritual than Christ’s, but as striking in its way. It was brought about, Stannard tells us, with the aid of manicures, waxes, perms, designer dresses, perfume and jewellery, and the result was a “mythological” being, the personification of glamour. One acquaintance recalls a vision of white fox furs and diamonds shimmering up to him at a party, and realising only later that it was Spark. She had an entourage of young men with whom she liked to be seen. They were never sexual partners, Stannard testifies, but “delightful accessories”, like her Cartier diamond wristwatch, or the Manhattan apartment that she bought but never used, or her racehorse, Lifeboat.