Thursday, April 29, 2010

Two more

by Ake Edwardsson, Never End and Frozen Tracks. I think these books are very good - though I am also, sadly, more than ever certain that I will never be an author of crime fiction. Which is a pity, because I love it very much indeed!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Midnight oil

Have now read books 2 & 3 in ├ůsa Larsson's series, and they are spectacularly good - the first one I liked very much, but found a little rough round the edges - these ones, though, are sublime! I highly recommend the series as a whole, in any case (and properly they should be read in sequence): Sun Storm, The Blood Spilt and The Black Path.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Light reading catch-up

I have been reading a funny hodgepodge of things, really; nothing too demanding. (Brain otherwise occupied in thinking about how to get started on the ABCs of the novel, navigating the inevitable wave of end-of-semester stuff [even on sabbatical!], pondering the complexities of readying my apartment for subletters and packing for 6 months of writing and triathloning and lounging and conferencing and socializing in various climes.)

Two young-adult novels, out of mild curiosity to see what the fuss was about: Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls and Christina Stead's When You Reach Me.

Two paperbacks I bought for lack of anything better at the newsstand in South Station in Boston, Mary Higgins Clark's just-about-adequate Just Take My Heart and Preston & Child's ludicrous Cemetery Dance.

I belatedly realized that all of the books in my pile of mostly Scandinavian crime fiction were about to be due back at the library, so I did triage and read one each by the three major remaining authors as yet untrawled: Kjell Eriksson's The Princess of Burundi (so-so), Ake Edwardson's Sun and Shadow (superb) and Asa Larsson's Sun Storm (perhaps not as accomplished as the preceding book, but extremely compelling in its main character and also in the Kiruna setting, which I loved). Under other circumstances, I am sure I would be perfectly happy to read more Eriksson, but given the constraint of library due dates I think I will go ahead and return those ones and prioritize reading the other two instead...

Sunday miscellany

At Harvard Magazine, Jonathan Shaw has an interesting piece on the university library in the digital age.

The Literary Saloon on the unedifying behavior of Orlando Figes (this includes a good collection of links to pretty much all the coverage of the story as it broke - I do feel his behavior falls into the gray area between character flaws and mental illness, but not in a way that should let him off the hook...).

I saw an absolutely dreadful play last night (that link is to Ben Brantley's review of last year's earlier incarnation of the show) - as G. and I sat there stony-faced amidst a theater full of perplexingly appreciative fans, all I could think was that (a) the performer bore an unnerving resemblance to that very striking photograph of the young Erica Jong and (b) I could hardly imagine a play that more horrifyingly and profoundly offended against all of the canons of taste I hold dear. The high level of competency in performance and production only made it worse, really - I have been rereading Cintra Wilson recently, she is the prime commentator (perhaps with Andrew O'Hagan) on fame and narcissism and I wanted to read the truly scathing review she surely would write of this performance...

(But we had a delicious dinner afterwards at Esca - I had an amazingly succulent brodetto that was mussels, clams and scallops stewed in a white wine broth with fresh peas and sorrel, then a piece of seared yellowtail, and a rhubarb tart for dessert, all accompanied by a very good dry Riesling. It was a decadent and palate-pleasing meal that caused G. to comment that he thought it might be wise if he would switch from reviewing plays to reviewing restaurants!)

On the topic of Cintra Wilson, I will also note that a reread of Colors Insulting to Nature has reminded me that it is truly one of the funniest novels I have ever read. It has a sort of propulsive energy that makes the prose difficult to excerpt without sacrificing something of the appealing roughness, for which reason I offer a four-paragraph sequence from early in the book that shows something of its charms. The second paragraph seems to me perfectly crafted - look at the parenthesis (i.e. think how much less funny and ingenious it would be if the parenthesis started before the words "The worst was") and the pacing; there is no lingering, things move unrelentingly forward without any of that mugging for an audience response that is what is objectionable about much conventionally 'good' comic timing (see aforementioned dreadful play).

Anyway, here is the sequence, with apologies if it represents an infringement of copyright (basically I think everybody should buy this book and read it, alongside The Last Samurai!):
Johnny Budrone had been a promising rodeo bull rider in his youth until a particularly nasty throw crushed one of his vertebrae and tossed the muscles around it into a splintery melange he called "crabmeat." Peppy first saw him performing at the Lucky Seven club with his air gun act; with one in each hand, sporting a pair of yellow-tinted aviator-frame glasses, he would shoot a flurry of pellets into large, formless heaps of white balloons, loudly sculpting them into a kind of pneumatic topiary: rabbit heads, hearts, clubs, spades. The rest of the time he drank alone, a lot, to offset his constant back pain. Being another regular at Bil's Red Turkey, the solitary woman at the other end of the bar, who sometimes had jet-black hair, sometimes auburn, became a compelling enigma. One night Johnny was drunk enough to approach Peppy, who was wearing her Natural Honey Blonde wig, and drawl, "So what's your hair down there like, anyhow"--gesturing at her crotch with his Marlboro--"Neapolitan?"

It was not the best pickup line Peppy had ever heard, nor was it the worst. The worst was: "You wanna come in the john with me and put Bactine on my stump?" (Dan "Claw" Haverman, June 1974.) Johnny's line, at least, suggested a sexually viable man with an active, if tasteless, sense of humor.

Apart from the exploded veins, bowlegs, psoriasis, and gangrenous-looking assortment of blurring tattoos, Johnny was a handsome man, and Peppy felt a warm twinkling in herself that had almost nothing to do with the four or seven Fuzzy Navels she had consumed. The subsequent affair with Johnny Budrone was actually the closest she'd ever come to the kind of ovary-squeezing, sublimely unbearable, ice-cream headache-y love she had imagined as a hormonally exhilarated teen.

"That Johnny knew how to treat a lady," Peppy would sigh, later.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ace Luggage

Robert Hudson on luggage and the importance of attention to detail in theatrical productions.

Wish lists

I am very late linking to this - I think the event might be coming to an end tomorrow? - but I wanted to draw your attention to a really wonderful project organized by Colleen Mondor. She has set up a program to buy books for two schools on Native American reservations (one Navajo, one Apache) whose kids really don't have any of the reading material available to them that we take for granted, including often only a very haphazard school collection. Here are more details - you can click through to each school's wish list at Powell's and make a purchase, if you are so inclined. (The lists have been really thoughtfully put together in terms of the fit with the kids' tastes and interests.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An amazing haul

at the library this morning - I am tackling ABCs of the novel initially via Roman Jakobson and Laurence Sterne, but got sidetracked onto Elias Canetti and also the three volumes of Ptolemaic Alexandria, a superb work of scholarship which no home should be without...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I heard a very lovely new piece of Nico's at last Friday's concert in the Philharmonic's new music series - Q2 will webcast the whole program (including brief interviews with the three composers) this Thursday at 7pm and Saturday at 4pm, and it will be in their regular programming thereafter.

Alcathoe's bat

Catch-up miscellany (I have been traveling, it throws me off!):

Thumbprint-sized bat discovered in England.

Ancient Roman ingots to provide lead shielding for neutrino detector (thanks to Wendy for the link!).

An edited transcript of my interview of Jonathan Safran Foer for the Literature and Terror series at Columbia.

At the LRB, Jenny Diski on delusionary parasitosis (something I hope I will never experience).

A recent conversation with a friend of my mother's who didn't much like Wolf Hall (which I liked very much indeed) led me to obtain and consume (I will not say devour, they are not quite so delightful to my tastes as that) four crime novels by C. J. Sansom, who seems to be better known in Britain than in the U.S.: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign and Revelation.

They are not at all bad, they are highly readable, but they caused me to think with considerable grumpiness about how much I dislike the genre of the historical mystery (as opposed to the straight historical novel), especially when it is set in medieval times.

It might just be after-the-fact rationalization of a more visceral dislike, I cannot really say, but the thing that irks me is that though of course crimes must always have been investigated (and Oedipus Rex would be a good example of an early literary work that develops an innovative form to foreground a narrative of investigation and discovery), the narrative protocols of crime fiction are very much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so that it makes a sort of nonsense of the whole business (at the very best a parlor game, at worst a deeply misguided effort in false sensibility) to write about fifteenth-century monks as though they could just be plugged into a P. D. James novel and function.

The first volume in particular gave me a desperate yearning to read some modern stabs at 'real' faux-medieval crime narratives - you would mine Boccaccio and Chaucer and whatever else you wanted for some ideas and then write some really genuinely formally peculiar things that would be (ideally) moving and intellectually gripping but that would look absolutely nothing like the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. Medievalists out there? Any ideas? What would the reading list be for a fiction-writer researching such a project (I am not contemplating it myself, I am just curious), and what might the genre of medieval crime tale look like? Are there ones that are readable (in verse or prose), and what are their narrative as opposed to investigative protocols? What about law cases/trials and other forms of narrative of investigation? Adaptations of the story of Cane and Abel or other Biblical crimes? Hmmm, I realize I do not actually have a very clear idea about this, I must investigate - perhaps there is an abstruse but magically interesting academic book at the library that would satisfy my curiosity on these points...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The sabbath

Mr. Softee reaches China:
Mr. Softee or Mr. Soft Heart, the English translation of “ruan xin xian sheng” — there is no Mandarin word for Softee — has been a hit, with sales doubling every year since the first truck started rolling three years ago.

There are now five Mr. Soft Heart trucks in Suzhou, and one in the nearby city of Taicang.

“There is a franchising boom going on in China that is similar to what was happening in America in the 1950s and 1960s, so we really jumped in at the right time,” said Alex Conway, the president of Mr. Softee China, whose grandfather James Conway helped found the company in 1956.

Customers like Meng Xiangbo, 19, a college student, have proved Mr. Conway right. He is a regular customer of the Mr. Softee truck that peddles its treats in Suzhou’s university district.

One recent balmy afternoon, Mr. Meng ordered a kiwi sundae.

“They have six flavors,” he said of the sundaes. “I eat a different one every day. On Sunday, I rest.”

Drowning in honey

James McGirk interviews Lorin Stein for More Intelligent Life. (Via Paperpools.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The sigh of relief

I started writing the little book on style the last week in February in the grip of a delusion that it might only take me about three weeks; it is based on lectures I wrote (two a week) over the fall semester, and in another sense it's based on a lifetime of reading, so that I felt the hard part was already behind me.

In fact it took longer than three weeks, more like seven, but I have just sent the full manuscript to my agent: it is just under 40,000 words, about a hundred and fifty pages, with a grand total of 31 footnotes.

I really like this little book!

Now it is just a question of waiting to see what happens next, which is not really my forte, but I can get started in the meantime on the ABCs of the novel (formerly known as bread-and-butter of the novel) and also have some seriously grand triathlon training (I'm doing a half-ironman in May and - amazingly - my first full Ironman race in Wisconsin in September).

(It is so crazy, really I am on a mission to stop doing things so much as if under a compulsion, but I feel that by getting this little book done relatively early during my year of sabbatical I have bought myself a bit more breathing space than I usually have - it would be good, though, if I could write most of the other book this year too - I do not know why it should be so much so that I only feel OK when I am madly writing, planning, training, racing, but it is certainly strongly the case...)

Ribs of laughter

Jennifer Michael Hecht on teaching.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Many rivers to cross

My two favorite Wikipedia consultations of the day (a lazy but effective way of making sure what one thinks one knows about a topic is more or less in line with the conventional wisdom!): tilt-shift photography; roman-fleuve.

Also: at io9, Annalee Newitz on five ways the Google Book Settlement will change the future of reading.

The ruddy turnstone

New lightweight tracking devices allow scientists to follow a tiny bird's round-the-world migration:
Tracker devices can be fitted on birds either by fixing them to a leg or by sticking them to the back. All the ruddy turnstone had them attached to legs because tests showed that after spending the Australasian summer fattening up to their maximum weight of about 190g they were "as round as tennis balls" and the backpack style wouldn't stay on.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Liberace and Lord Leighton

Last night I reread Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai (I want to write a few sentences about it for the little book on style, which now exists in draft but with the hard parts not written yet!). What a book!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

They do it with mirrors

From Arnaud Maillet, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art:
This lack of knowledge [of the Claude mirror] is sometimes compounded by prohibitions that prevent these objects from being exhibited. For example, the Musee National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris possesses a mirror of about 28 centimeters in diameter, with a slight outward curvature and a black backing, designed to be suspended from hooks. Its last owner, a Parisian sculptor, had hung it in his dining room. A complicated series of events came about: The artist got rid of this magic mirror by donating it to the museum in the early 1980s. A magnetizer who had come to examine it inserted some bits of paper inscribed with signs (for example, Solomon's seal) between the backing and the glass and recommended that it be kept in charcoal, which is reputed to absorb evil forces. This mirror is therefore not exhibited, since someone who knows how to cast spells would be able to use it, even through a glass case. In accordance with these magical recommendations, it is stored in a large case designed for black magic. The guards are afraid of it, and anyone who looks inside feels a great unease. Despite its ethnographic value, and for the reasons just mentioned, this mirror cannot be lent out, since it has no inventory number: thus it "doesn't exist"!

Strangers in the night

Lots of genuinely thought-provoking stuff in Edward Said's On Late Style (I must listen to more music!), but I am instead unfairly singling out this funny curiosity of a passage, which I could not resist and in which Said recalls an evening spent with Jean Genet in Beirut (the essay on Genet opens with Said's account of watching Genet speak - and be wildly mistranslated - at a 1970 rally in support of the Black Panthers on the Columbia University steps):
He smoked constantly, and he also drank, but he never seemed to change much either with drink, emotion, or thought. I recall that during the evening he once said something very positive and surprisingly warm about Jacques Derrida -- un copain, remarked Genet -- whom I had thought of as a quietist Heideggerian type at the time; Glas had not yet appeared, and it was only six months later, when Mariam, our little son, and I spent a few weeks in Paris, that I learned from Derrida himself that his friendship with Genet had originally been sealed as the two of them watched soccer matches together, which I thought was a nice touch. There is a brief allusion in Glas to our little encounter at Reid Hall in April 1973, although I've always been slightly miffed that Derrida should refer to me anonymously only as "un ami" who brought him news of Genet.
(I am also reminded that one of the things I did the last time I was on sabbatical was read Glas!)

Light reading miscellany

I have got behind on my day-to-day book posting! Not much to say, I guess...

Saw three plays.

The one I liked most was Bellona, Destroyer of Cities, an adaptation of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren (still definitely a work in progress, and distinctly unsettling as a result of its subject matter, but some lovely moments - it is a strange and unsettling vision of the past and the future).

I didn't enjoy Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as much as Ben Brantley did, though the acting was very good (Colleen Werthmann is hilarious!) and there are at least four or five extremely clever songs.

A Behanding in Spokane was a great disappointment. Some very funny bits of dialogue here and there; I wasn't sorry to see Christopher Walken live, and I certainly didn't hate it as much as Hilton Als did. But it is only scraps that are really funny, there is absolutely nothing to the play as a whole, and I was also extremely irked by the obsequious laughter that seems to greet even the most modestly amusing lines, whether uttered by Walken or anybody else - I felt more and more stony-hearted and irritable as the play proceeded! I loved The Lieutenant of Inishmore, that's the thing, and I was surprised by how inconsequential this play seemed in comparison (I do not think McDonaugh can yet write American dialogue as well as he writes Irish).

I read four more Jacqueline Carey novels (books 4-6 of the Kushiel series, and then Naamah's Kiss - have rejected three other books of hers as not so much to my taste, but alas, this means I am now caught up to where she actual is in the series, I cannot get Naamah's Curse until it is actually published in June!

Then I read three novels by Arnaldur Indridason that I am too lazy to link to separately. These are very good, really thoughtful and beautifully composed - I like the use of flashbacks - though I think his character development is relatively thin. Especially compared to Deon Meyer, whose characters burst off the page in their complex vitality (not the female villains so much, but the male detectives): I really liked Dead Before Dying very much indeed, but I think Devil's Peak is even better.

There is no doubt, however, that crime fiction does not repay binge reading the same way that epic fantasy or historical fiction does - you do no violence to Dorothy Dunnett by reading 13 books of hers all in a row, but if I read three Erlendur mysteries in a row the author's tricks start to seem a little bit threadbare, even if they are good tricks!


Just on the off chance there's anyone reading here who'd like to come and hasn't heard about it elsewhere, the memorial service for my colleague Karl Kroeber will be held tomorrow, Thursday, April 8 from 3:30 to 5:30 in St. Paul's Chapel on campus.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sex in space

Susan Raizer reviews Laura Woodmansee's Sex in Space:
As many astronauts have found, acclimating oneself to weightlessness very often brings on a sickness akin to motion sickness that might last for several days. Once conditioned, the tourists will then be able to pursue more sophisticated activities, including sex. The conditioning will take a lot of practice as was found by a participant on a hyperbolic flight who tried to embrace a fellow traveler only to rebound! Through the use of small crash dummies, the author demonstrated different positions that might be experimented with. The major difficulty in a weightless environment is the need to anchor the partners or they will float in opposite directions. Once the mechanics are learned, experimentation will provide a unique experience. While the use of the crash dummies was successful in the visualization of these activities, they are not appropriate for viewing by minors.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Eggs, eggs, eggs

The egg countdown begins...

(I am not so full of links this year as I was last year!)

At the Telegraph, lemur with Easter egg.

Spring treats from Bouchon Bakery (via Wendy, who was also kind enough to get me a Laura Secord egg - this year's was chocolate fudge covered with pecans and caramel...)

Unemployment gave Dominique Browning an obsession with eggs!

Chocolate eggs from Napoleon's kitchen.

The Independent's ten best Easter treats.

In other news, I have thus far entirely failed to obtain a hot cross bun - they seem nowhere to be found! I glimpsed an array of them through the window of a Pain Quotidien, but it was not the moment for pastry, and I have not laid eyes on another one since, not even the slightly disgusting ones that usually come in boxes of six at the supermarket. I have only a short window in which to get one, or it is all over until next year!

Miniature, giant

Two old pieces I'm still pleased with: my review of Toni Schlesinger's Five Flights Up (assigned to me by Ed Park, who also suggested the format as an homage to Toni's long-running Shelter column); and the longer spin-off essay in the Believer.

Thinking about this because I'm doing another interview soon, the first for a long time, of a writer I particularly admire: details to follow at a more appropriate juncture...

(Toni was another one of Tino's "interpreters" at the Guggenheim show, though I mostly only caught a glimpse of her as we crossed paths in the stairwell. And a nice bit in the Times this week on another person I know through Tino's gigs: Hugh Raffles, whose book Insectopedia sounds very much the kind of thing I delight in!)

The mouse helpline

The recent House of Lords debate on pest control:
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I thank the noble Lord for his reply. How many calls have there been to the mouse helpline? Has the accuracy of that information been checked, given that the staff report seeing mice on a daily basis at the moment in the eating areas? Has consideration been given to having hypoallergenic cats on the estate, given the history? Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning. Finally, does the noble Lord recognise the fire hazard that mice pose, because they eat through insulating cables? It would be a tragedy for this beautiful Palace to burn down for lack of a cat.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, there are a number of questions there. I cannot give an answer to the number of calls made to the mouse helpline-if that is its title. I suspect that it would not be a good use of resources to count them up. But I am well aware of the problem of mice, as I said in my Answer. It is something that we take seriously.

As for getting a cat, I answered a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, last week on this matter. I was not aware that such a thing as a hypoallergenic cat existed-I do not know whether our cat at home is one of those. There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to have cats. First, they would ingest mouse poison when eating poisoned mice, which would not be very nice for them, and there would be nothing to keep them where they are needed or stop them walking around the House on desks in offices or on tables in restaurants and bars-and maybe even in the Chamber itself. Therefore, we have ruled out at this stage the possibility of acquiring a cat, or cats.
Via this blog and Robert Hudson's tip-off.

NB Robbie is the author of a truly lovely novel that I somehow omitted to blog about when I read it this fall: it is called The Kilburn Social Club, and I found it one of the funniest and most delightful things I've read for a long time. Not least because by some curious and inexplicable alchemy Robbie likes almost all the same things I like, and I can rest in peace now that I have found the one other person in the world (a good example of the Hudson style can be found in this old Light Reading post) who has Jorge Luis Borges and Jilly Cooper enshrined on two plinths of equal prestige and prominence in the temple of his heart!

Theodolite-wielding geodesists

At the Independent, Jonathan Brown on the history of the Ordnance Survey as its maps go online:
According to Dr Richard Oliver's A Short History of the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain, the first modern maps took shape between 1747 and 1755. Their instigator was an ambitious military officer named Colonel David Watson, who served with the Army and also the Engineers of the Board of Ordnance. The painstaking work was carried out by the Lanarkshire-born surveyor William Roy, who went on to become the father of modern cartography, and the pioneering water colourist Paul Sandby, who helped turn the first maps into beautifully realised artworks. It was a primitive process by modern satellite-driven standards. The contour line was yet to be invented, and all distances were measured by 66ft lengths of chain.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Beef bouillion and langoustines

Jonathan Taylor on food trademarks in early twentieth-century Trieste. A much fuller photo-set here, including this triumph of eggishness:

Character analysis

On my list of undisputably great novels of the last decade (the last century!): Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Really it must be read to be believed, but here is an early passage I like quite a bit:
Leo was certainly quite an egotist — Catherine’s graphological analysis had been spot on. But he didn’t expound his inner feelings. He did something Nick couldn’t imagine doing himself, which was to make statements about the sort of person he was. “I’m the sort of guy who needs a lot of sex,” he said, and, “I’m like that, I always say what I think.” Nick wondered for a moment if he’d inadvertently contradicted him. “I don’t bear grudges,” Leo said sternly: “I’m not that kind of person.” “I’m sure you’re not,” Nick said, with a quick discountenancing shudder. And perhaps this was a useful skill, or tactic, in the blind-date world, even if Nick’s modesty and natural fastidiousness kept him from replying in the same style (“I’m the sort of guy who likes Pope more than Wordsworth,” “I’m crazy about sex but I haven’t had it yet”).