Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Joyce-Armstrong Fragment

At the TLS, Jonathan Barnes on the power of Conan Doyle's short stories:
There are few English writers capable of crafting so arresting a first sentence as that which opens “The Lost Special”: “The confession of Herbert de Lernac, now lying under sentence of death at Marseilles, has thrown light upon one of the most inexplicable crimes of the century”. “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius” begins with: “It is an amazing thing that the English, who have the reputation of being a practical nation, never saw the danger to which they were exposed”. “The Horror of the Heights” has “The idea that the extraordinary narrative which has been called the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment is an elaborate practical joke evolved by some unknown person, cursed by a perverted and sinister sense of humour, has now been abandoned by all who have examined the matter”, and the opening of the first of the Holmes short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, is famously inviting: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”. It is in these stories – and in the chronicles of Baker Street in particular – that one encounters the puzzling energy sensed in “The Adventure of The Creeping Man”, which is largely absent in the poetry, drama and longer fiction.

Hot dog!

Banksy's animatronic meat pets.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Tired, sad.

Closing a few tabs:

An amazing story from Oliver Sacks' forthcoming book, about a novelist whose stroke cost him the ability to read but who learned to circumvent the visual cortex and 'read' letters by shaping them with his tongue. (Link courtesy of the tireless Dave Lull; I can't wait to read The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks is more truly my writerly hero than anyone else I can think of.)

Three things I liked at the Independent this weekend: the Anthony Burgess archive opens in Manchester (here was my post a few years ago on Biswell's wonderful biography); the beauty of the periodic table of the elements; an interview with Terry Pratchett.

I have nothing much to say about War and Peace except that it is an outrageously good book; I was mesmerized by it when I read it for the first time at age 17, and was absolutely captivated by it again as soon as I opened the first page last week. Not enjoying Anna Karenina so much: it might be that it is not so much my sort of novel. (Just as one is an Iliad or an Odyssey sort of person, one also has a strong preference for the one or the other of Tolstoy's big novels? I am strongly Iliad, strongly War and Peace...)

Will save more detailed thoughts on Tolstoy's narration for the novel book, whose thunder I will steal if I blog all of it here in advance. But I did like Matthew Engel's dispatch from Waterloo in the FT this weekend (site registration required).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In loving memory of Wendy Buckner, 1959-2010

Wendy died yesterday shortly after completing the Flowers Sea Swim. To the best of our knowledge, she swam fast and strong, but came out of the water with blue lips and breathing very shallowly. She was conscious and responsive as she was taken to the medical tent, but her vital signs were dropping. Brent rode in the front of the ambulance that took her to hospital. She experienced cardiac arrest en route, and attempts to resuscitate her at the hospital were unsuccessful.

An expression that Wendy and I shared: "swimming the Pyrenees," for anything extraordinary and above and beyond what one might imagine possible, things that stretch the human soul. Wendy's life was devoted to swimming the Pyrenees, in ways small and large. (Implausibly, she and I spent Thursday evening participating as 2/375ths - the number is approximate!- of an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for World's Largest Bikini Parade, something only Wendy could have persuaded me to do - it was a fundraiser for the Cayman Islands Amateur Swimming Association!)

Words fail me when I think about how she will be missed. Instead: an old picture from Wendy's lovely blog, which has given me any amount of delight over the years I have been lucky enough to bask in her friendship.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Refuse room restaurants

At the Times, Michael M. Grynbaum on the subway rat problem:
[B]efitting a creature that has evaded annihilation for centuries, officials found no obvious solutions: poison packets and traps have proved no match for an agile mammal known to be diabolically clever.

“They jump two feet from a running start; they can fall 40 feet onto a concrete slab and keep running,” said Solomon Peeples, 86, a former director of the city’s Bureau of Pest Control Services. “We’re no match for them, as far as I’m concerned. Man does not stand no chance.”

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chicken chicken

From Liz Leyden's NYT piece about 'farm camp':
As the campers worked, Ms. Small spotted a hen whose beak dripped with yolk. She explained that once a chicken tastes a yolk it will start cracking every egg it finds.

“You can never cure a chicken of being an egg eater,” she said, separating the chicken from the group. “Sorry, my dear.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An aside

The outrageous luxury of a sabbatical at this stage of my academic career: I am putting everything else aside in order to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations, out of a sudden conviction that the ABCs of the novel cannot proceed until I have done so!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Four sous/spit

From Marcel Mauss's essay "Techniques of the Body," in Techniques, Technology and Civilisation, a catalog item:
Care of the mouth. Coughing and spitting technique. Here is a personal observation. A little girl did not know how to spit and this made every cold she had much worse. I made inquiries. In her father's village and in her father's family in particular, in Berry, people do not know how to spit. I taught her to spit. I gave her four sous per spit. As she was saving up for a bicycle she learnt to spit. She is the first person in her family who knows how to spit.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Indignation against summaries

Tolstoy's response, when a publisher asked for the plan of his unfinished novel Resurrection (the passage is given in Victor Shklovsky's The Energy of Delusion, and Skhlovsky comments that Tolstoy reacted to the request from his friend and intermediary to send "a short summary. . . . as if he had been burglarized"):
Your demand to send the first chapters to the publisher for me was unpleasant and, I must confess, offensive. I would have never agreed to this and I'm surprised that you did. And summaries for me are preposterous. . . .

Regarding the summary of the novel, the concept is purely theoretical, because the first part is finished, but the second isn't typed yet, it cannot be considered finished and I may change it, and I would like to have the opportunity to make changes.

Therefore, my indignation against summaries and manuscript readings is not prompted by arrogance, but by a certain awareness of my calling as a writer, which cannot subordinate its spiritual activity of writing to any practical consideration. There is something revolting in this, which offends my very soul.

"I cannot use that microphone"

When I was in college, there was a sort of craze for the novels of Milan Kundera. I could never see the point of them myself - it is partly, I am sure, my natural contrarianism, but the philosophizing always seemed to me not distinctive enough to make up for the self-involved sensibility and the to-me-antipathetic argument about life and art: there is a sort of smug preciousness to Kundera's tone that rubs me the wrong way on a level more physiological than intellectual.

I am reminded of the mild antipathy those novels used to generate in me by this week's reading of Kundera's The Art of the Novel. It is a worthwhile book, but Kundera's authorial persona remains odious! Anyway, a few bits I especially liked:
Joyce set a microphone within Bloom's head. Thanks to the fantastic espionage of interior monologue, we have learned an enormous amount about what we are. But, myself, I cannot use that microphone.
And, preciously but pricelessly: "I once left a publisher for the sole reason that he tried to change my semicolons to periods." So dandyish, so self-absorbed: and yet I cannot help but sympathize...

"It's an abominaccino!"

For some reason I haven't seen much to blog these last few days (it is never clear to me, except on August weekends when the news is genuinely slow, whether this is due to internal or external factors), but here are a few tabs to clear:

Ancient beehives; gladiator graveyards.

David Markson has died; thoughts and a links round-up from Sarah Weinman.

Thirteen writers and scientists name their favorite science books.

And I have saved the best for last - Geoff Dyer on discovering the perfect doughnut-and-cappuccino combination! It was National Doughnut Day on Friday, and I consider it a minor miracle that I resisted the temptation to obtain and consume one. NB the kind that Dyer mentions are indeed pretty much the best I have ever tasted - they have them at my local branch of Oren's Daily Roast - but I am surprised that he does not mention the fact that they can be obtained from the actual Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Snakes, pies

More on the snake dress (FT site registration required, plus no squeamishness about public self-revelation).

More appealingly, Melton Mowbray's Pie Olympics!

Friday miscellany

"The famous doctrine of ‘only one fact on one piece of paper’": a lovely and slightly heart-breaking piece by Keith Thomas at the LRB on the trials and tribulations of the note-taking life.

Henning Mankell on the Gaza flotilla attack (via the Literary Saloon).

Peter Terzian's spell of not being able to ride the subway.

Other than that, I got nothin': I've been having a quiet week settling in down here in Cayman, immersing myself in a pile of light reading from the Humane Society Book Loft and clearing a couple bits of work I didn't sort out before I left New York and beginning to think about the ABCs of the novel, the next project I'm going to be working on.

Reading: Nina Kiriki Hoffman's The Silent Strength of Bones, which I enjoyed very much indeed; Mercedes Lackey's Storm Rising, which I suppose I should not have bought as it is the middle book of a trilogy, only I find the Valdemar books incredibly soothingly bland and really most of her books are fairly similar to each other, as though they could have been written by a Mercedes Lackey computer; Val McDermid's Fever of the Bone; Henning Mankell's Before the Frost, which really I read when it came out but I wasn't quite sure enough of having read already not to buy it anyway (and also there are times when it makes more sense to read a very good book for a second time rather than reading something else one will enjoy less).

Another one I got and read was Diana Wynne Jones's lovely novel Charmed Life, which really I have read so many times already that it can hardly bear rereading but which I love anyway. I was very sorry the other day to see her cancer has progressed to the point where she may only have a few months to live; an email address is given there for those who want to send good wishes and messages, and I will certainly write a message myself later today. She is one of a handful of authors who have given me absolutely countless hours of pleasure and delight.