Sunday, July 25, 2010

Real things

More on pervasive gaming (link courtesy of Sherry Wasserman).

At the Independent, John Lichfield on the thirteenth-century castle currently being built by hand in Burgundy (but I hope the workers are not wearing medieval footwear):
The rear defensive wall and two towers are almost complete. So are the great hall and seigneur's chamber and the bedroom for visiting royalty. The roof of the living quarters, or "north range", is almost finished with timber beams hewn from the nearby forest. The roof beams are half-covered with tiles handmade on the site using clay mined a few yards away.

The 50 or so labourers work in medieval clothes. A committee of academic experts advises on what is medievally correct. Most of the materials, and many of the tools, are quarried, gathered or made on site: the stones, the mortar, the ropes, the nails, the saws, the timber, the wooden lifting-engines. There are no cranes or bulldozers or breezeblocks or pneumatic drills or load-bearing steel joists. The chapel tower contains the first rib-vaulted roof to be made with purely medieval techniques for 600 years.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Casualties of the heat wave

"In Germany, a French fry crisis is looming: the length of fries may decline by nearly half an inch because heat and drought have cut the harvest of larger potatoes, Reuters reported."

Latex irritation

Everything you ever wanted to know about condoms (via Bookforum), including sixty contemporary euphemisms: "favorites include: bishop, blast shield, DNA lounge, English riding coat, French tickler, hazmat suit, Manhattan eel, and zucchini beanie."


I liked Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces quite a bit, though it seems to me a flawed novel in certain respects (the case studies and lectures do not work for me, and perhaps I am a bit too well acquainted with the sources he used to research the book - it often works better to be in relative ignorance of the source material).

It is an ambitious and interesting topic, though, and I still find Faulks one of the most readable novelists I can think of - cannot say whether it is despite or because of the fact that his idiom is that of another generation. I think my favorite book of his is still Charlotte Gray...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sable paintbrushes

At the FT, Robin Lane Fox on Susan Dickinson's work in Lord Rothschild's private garden (FT site registration required):
There are no weeds to be seen and the crops are grown in elegant, black whalehide pots. Each section smells delicious, even in the middle of a blistering drought, and there is not a whitefly to be seen. “We damp down the houses three times a day,” she told me, “because the reason other people are so troubled with whitefly is that their houses are left to become too hot.” Every plant is watered by hand and, as there are now eight supporting gardeners, there is no artificial watering-system. While we looked at the big potted trees of a cherry called Gloire de Heidelfinken, Susan picked up a wooden hammer and hit the sides of each pot. “If they ring out like a bell they are too dry and need watering,” she explained. None of them did, of course. “But the hammer must be made of boxwood if it is to give the pots a proper test.”

“How are your aubergines this year?” she asked as we walked through a section lined with fruiting aubergines, aphid-free and already 3ft high in each pot. I told a purple-tinted lie about their failure to set proper fruit. “Pollination by hand is essential,” she advised. “But the older books say it should be done by using a rabbit’s tail. They are wrong. We only had good results when we changed to a more delicate instrument. We use sable paintbrushes instead.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"More and more stuff about the same people"

I got a kick out of Dave Itzkoff's NYT interview with Ken Follett:
Q. What compelled you, when you were still a newspaper journalist, to write your first novel?

A. The spur was a financial crisis. My car broke down, and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed. And another journalist at the newspaper had written a thriller and the advance he got from the publisher was £200, which was pretty much exactly the amount of money I needed to get my car fixed. I did not figure that out until life began to show me I was a so-so newspaper reporter, and as a novelist I might have something special.
Last night's light reading (I have been falling back on the traditional Davidsonian consolations in times of trouble, novels and alcohol!): Sam Bourne's The Last Testament. Not so much my kind of thriller, and certainly not up to the standard of Follett at his best, but eminently readable, with the proviso that it is hard for me to imagine the cognitive makeup that leads to such intelligent, well-informed and "pacey" thriller-writing with so little character development or distinction in terms of voice - but I think that each writer has a different set of strengths, advantages that feel deeply natural and that largely determine the sort of book he or she writes. It sounds more like the punchline to a joke, but a psychologist, a neurologist and a literary critic should collaborate on an article about what sorts of novels are produced by people with different cognitive processing styles...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A start

Today I read the two books that seem to me to provide the most immediate prompt for my notional new novel (I'm in somewhat low spirits, and thus cannot really imagine undertaking a huge new project right now, but also know that an interesting new book is the most likely thing to infuse me with vim and vigor if I can only get it rolling): The Bacchae and Andrew Dolkart's Morningside Heights: A History of its Architecture and Development.

A nice tidbit from the latter:
Thus, by 1900 residential development on Morningside Heights remained slow and erratic. The New York Tribune reported in 1900 that "The development of this beautiful hilltop has been retarded by its somewhat inconvenient accessibility." The major access problem was the "series of long and circuitous flights of steps" leading to and from the 115th Street station of the elevated on Eighth Avenue. In order to alleviate this problem, several large property owners in the area commissioned designs for an elevator that would transport people up and down the cliff of Morningside Park. As designed by civil engineers Percival Robert Moses and Samuel Osgood Miller, the elevator was to be a steel structure with two electric-powered cars. A walkway would extend out from Morningside Drive to the elevators and a cupola was to cap the open steel shaft.
Last night's light reading: Michael Lewis's The Blind Side (pretty interesting, even given near-complete lack of knowledge of football).

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Dogs in space.

Sparkling things

A taste of the eighteenth century?


Back in Cayman, which means among other good things that I am back in the land of wireless internet! I find myself really discombobulated when I don't have regular email access, especially when I'm still trying to make appointments and see people (it's different on a true vacation); I look forward to a return to regular blogging, too, as it's one of the main ways I keep myself on an even keel....

Yesterday morning I had one more bookstore splurge - I had forgotten to pick up my copy of The Bacchae at my office the day before, so I went to McNally Jackson (plausibly the best bookstore in Manhattan, and only a couple blocks away from where I was staying) and bought a Penguin Euripides but also couldn't resist a few other things: True Grit, which I have been meaning to read for ages, and The Blind Side and also a book that I devoured in mesmerized fascination over the course of the later afternoon and early evening and that I heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the topic, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee's Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

My New York subway reading (mass-market paperback is the convenient size!) was John Twelve Hawks' The Dark River, which I found goofy but which I had almost finished by the time it dawned on me how fed up I had become with it, so I read the last of it anyway (but it is not really my cup of tea - wish I did not waste my time with stuff like this!).

Two much better books occupied my attention during today's travels: Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? (several major implausibilities, including the fact that multiple characters have the exact same verse-remembering habits and repertoire and the mother's farfetched superpowers, but very enjoyable regardless) and Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (at times I resisted its allure, but it's undoubtedly a remarkably compelling story).

Catching up on old New Yorkers at G.'s place, I liked Ian Frazier's Talk of the Town piece on marginalia in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library:
Nabokov’s handwriting (in English) was small and fluid and precise; in books that he took exception to, such as a translation of “Madame Bovary” by Eleanor Marx Aveling, his correcting marginalia climbed all over the paragraphs like the tendrils of a strangler fig.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday glums

A useful and slightly frenetic day of minor errands. Ready to stop living out of a bag, though! The play was execrably bad (the best performance was by the pod-type espresso machine), so much so that it could be safely said that even the first course of dinner was better than the play: we went to Blue Ribbon, I had half-a-dozen PEI oysters and a very delicious entree special of seared sea scallops with cauliflower puree (pure butter!) and arugula-and-watercress salad. Delicious...

In the meantime I have also read these two sublimely good novels by Jenifer Levin. I have never in my life read such good writing about swimming, but they are wonderful novels regardless of the swim component; perhaps I liked Water Dancer better of the two, as the world of marathon swimming is endlessly fascinating to me, but here is a paragraph (a description of the 100-meter breaststroke) from The Sea of Light that I would like to have shared with Wendy:
Spectator shouts roar to the high ceiling, an indistinguishable echo. In the bright-lit pool, bodies glide. This is the slowest stroke, the oldest stroke. It may appear to the observer to be a manifestation of perfect ease and grace, but from the inside when you do it all out, as perfectly and as fast as you can, when you do it to win then you look monstrous surging out of the water, a creature from some dark lagoon with foreign bug-goggle eyes. It wrenches every fiber of every muscle and it burns you all up with effort so that when you touch the wall to finish you have forgotten how to breathe, have forgotten everything but the naked agonized rasp in your empty lungs and heart. The 100 demands such complete control, so much raw strength. Yet the entire event will be finished in a little more than a minute. If you think about it, it seems unfair.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The summer of sandwiches

Not yet at all back to normal - that will have to wait till I return to Cayman and get back in a decent work and exercise routine. It has been almost a month now without my having done a stroke of work, and it is not something I enjoy - I need to be thinking and reading and writing in order to feel more myself!

But New York visiting is very soothing. My apartment is sublet, so I'm staying downtown in fairly idyllic circumstances with adopted grandfather G., who is feeding and entertaining me and leaving me to my own devices in characteristically lovely fashion. You wake up and find that he has already been up and out to obtain muffins or scones from Balthazar or Once Upon a Tart and that the coffee is ready to brew, and the day proceeds from there: this morning I went back to bed after breakfast, for instance, and woke up again in the later morning for an excursion to the Housing Works bookstore to replenish the light reading supply followed by a delicious ham and cheese omelet for lunch in the absolutely lovely trellis-vined garden at Le Jardin Bistro.

I am not such a food-oriented person most of the time, but the last month has involved odd and irregular eating; I have mostly been living on coffee, chocolate, alcohol and non-delicious sandwiches. In other words, I am more than ready for the regime of nutritional stringency and hard exercise which will begin when I get back to Cayman, but in traveling limbo it is very good to have some truly delicious food in the New York vein!

On Tuesday after I got in we had a late lunch at Peep (grilled calamari, chicken with basil); in the evening we had dinner at Mezzogiorno (tonello vitello, beef carpaccio with arugula and parmesan - yes, I know the first two are really basically the same thing, but it is the sort of thing I most like! - and blood orange sorbet to finish).

Last night we went to a very decent (it was too long, but texturally highly satisfactory) theatrical adaptation of Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer, then to Le Rivage in honor of Bastille Day for a tasty and reasonably priced prix fixe dinner (romaine with tomato and anchovies, chicken cordon bleu, peach melba).

Tonight: Sweet, Sweet Motherhood (doesn't sound great, but it's my sort of topic - I liked Lee Silver's Remaking Eden quite a bit).

I finished The Passage - I really, really liked it. It is haunting, it is bleak, it is well worth your while if you like that sort of book at all - a friend tells me that it has not met the publishers' "big book of the summer" expectations, but if this is so, I would guess that it is because it is too much of a 'real' book and not enough of a simple beach read. And I also polished off a little book by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Fall of Light, which I enjoyed quite a bit but found puzzling on account of my complete inability to tell whether it was an installment in a series or just a hastily written one-off with a large number of loose ends.

(And I forgot to mention the other book I read just before leaving Ottawa, Wendy's copy of Bimbos of the Death Sun - I had mentioned to her a few years ago that I was reading Zombies of the Gene Pool because it had been pressed upon me as a loan by the fellow who sells books in front of Milano Market on Broadway, and she observed that in her circles, the other book was rather better thought of!)

The Housing Works haul really is excellent. Being in a good used bookstore like that also makes me want to write novels - it is a more interesting and less bland selection than what you see in a non-excellent big-box bookstore where it's almost all new stuff. For US$40.78, I obtained the following, which will certainly tide me over to next week: Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?, John Twelve Hawks' The Dark River, Sam Bourne's The Last Testament, Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (a novel the NYT remains unwilling to name in its pages), Stewart Home's 69 Things To Do With a Dead Princess, Jenifer Levin's The Sea of Light and Water Dancer (swim lit!), Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces and a funny curiosity that I'd never heard of before but am very much looking forward to reading, Mary McMinnies' The Visitors.

Monday, July 12, 2010

An update from the road

In the Detroit airport at lunchtime yesterday I was overcome with a desire for sushi so powerful it must have been synonymous with homesickness; I settled for a chicken quesadilla, which was a more realistic cuisine expectation, but today I had a very delicious lunch with my father at Pod in West Philadelphia, so that is a step in the right culinary direction.

I'll go to New York tomorrow and then fly back to Cayman from JFK on Sunday. Minor inconvenience: my keys and appointment book are of course still in Cayman, as when I flew from Cayman to Ottawa on June 25 I assumed I wouldn't be away for more than 10 days or so! It will be a huge relief to settle back into some sort of a routine...

In Ottawa, we were staying in the guest suite at Meridian Place; no internet in the room, thus the lack of posting, but a nice little library downstairs from whence I plucked a volume or two of Dick Francis, true comfort reading. I reread Straight and The Edge, though honestly I have read them both a disgustingly high number of times already; I started but put aside a Joy Fielding novel whose characters I found unlikeable, then trudged through Robert Crais's Hostage, which I enjoyed rather less than I remember doing when I first read it some years ago.

We had a good and essential if extravagant visit to a Chapters bookstore on Thursday or Friday for me to pick up some things to get me from Ottawa to Philadelphia yesterday; I started very early in the morning at the airport with Tim Wynne-Jones's The Uninvited, which I thought was very good but which reminded me that there really is in some cases a difference between fiction written for young adults and (as it were) non-age-specific fiction, then read Stephen Booth's Lost River, which I found over-full of geological and geographical padding (and talk about stringing out a modest personal storyline over a huge long sequence of novels/years!) but nonetheless enjoyable.

It was a long day of travel, so I subsequently made a dent in the precautionary value-for-money purchase, Justin Cronin's The Passage. It seems to me highly worthwhile, and I quite see why it is the big book of the summer; I liked the opening sequence better than the more science-fictional future middle bit I'm in now (Cronin does Greg Bear better than he does Octavia Butler, and the mythic/scriptural/eschatological flavor is a bit much!), but I would definitely recommend it pretty strongly on the basis of what I've read so far.

(Had a stop at the Penn Bookstore earlier today and picked up a few more things just to make sure that I do not run out over the next few days. Nothing worse than living on the ragged edge of having nothing left to read!)

I'm scaling back my plans for the rest of the year in a number of different ways, as I think things will continue to be significantly disrupted. I made a painful sacrifice, but I'll get over it. (2011 is another year!) I'm putting ABCs of the novel temporarily on hold and figuring that the style book will almost certainly need significant further work/revision before it reaches its semi-final state; I have to write two talks for October and an essay for February, all three of which things are related to the ABCs of the novel, so that will allow me to make at least a modest dent in what is no doubt a massive and long-term project.

My most immediate desire, though, is to bury myself in a new novel. I was already thinking in early June that it felt strange and undesirable not to have one on the boil; I am now very certain that I'd like to get started on a new one sooner rather than later. (Not least because it is much easier for me to work on a novel than a critical/intellectual book while traveling, for both mental and logistical reasons.)

I am not sure yet if it will really be young-adult or 'regular' adult fiction (with further uncertainties about 'genre' etc.), but it is going to be a retelling of The Bacchae set in a fantastical alternate version of Morningside Heights. This gives me all sorts of interesting and enjoyable things to ponder, such as what the relationship might be between the Greek/pagan aspects of the mythology and the plot and the Christian churches and cathedrals that border the neighborhood...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

An update

I am all at sixes and sevens!

On Monday, we went to the Technosport annual team banquet. Wendy was posthumously given the team's award for coaching excellence, and we heard many testimonials to the extent of her contribution to the team; we also saw the presentation of the inaugural Wendy Buckner Award, for most improved athlete, to a friend and teammate Wendy cared about a great deal.

On Wednesday, the memorial celebration of Wendy's life was held at Pinecrest: it was a large and moving gathering of family and friends.

Meanwhile, Wendy's cat Onyx a.k.a. The Boarder is settling in at Iain and Deb's place.

I've been reading bits and pieces around the edges. I was still finishing Anna Karenina last week; I cannot say that I like it as much as I do War and Peace, I find the central trio of characters much less attractive and interesting than their counterparts in the earlier novel. My favorite parts were the horse race (shades of Dick Francis!) and the hunting scenes: but say what you like, these novels are extraordinarily immersive and transporting ... even suitable for reading on a plane!

Desperate situations call for desperate remedies: I went and spent a lot of dollars at Books & Books before we left Cayman. It is not good value for money or, really, suitable for travel, as I read this sort of book much too quickly, but I could not resist Robert Crais's The First Rule. Our route was Cayman-Tampa, Tampa-Philadelphia, Philadelphia-Ottawa, and basically I have to thank Crais for making the second leg of the trip pass in the blink of an eye; it was certainly the most relaxing couple hours I have had in the last week and a half.

(Oh, and I read Joshilyn Jackson's Backseat Saints the week before also - very good, very gripping.)

Then I took up another new purchase, Elizabeth George's This Body of Death; she is no longer a favorite of mine, but her books are lengthy and readable and thus suitable for travel. Fortunately I have no need to say anything else since Maxine has made all of the observations I would have wanted to note!

And then an appealing but to me ultimately unsatisfactory novel called A Madness of Angels: too much under the sign of Neverwhere/Harry Dresden, too much lovingness of description of a fashion that feels a bit self-satisfied rather than really furthering the purposes of the story. But it whiled away an hour or two.

I've had hardly any time to read since arriving in Ottawa, and no time or opportunity to exercise; without these two refuges, I do not do very well, so I am hoping to get back into some sort of exercise routine and reclaim a bit of evening reading time over the next few days. We will stay in Ottawa through the end of next weekend; I was scheduled to fly from Cayman to New York on Wednesday the 14th, but it may be that I'll instead fly from Ottawa to New York or Philadelphia, stay the week visiting family and friends and get myself back to Cayman on the 18th or 19th instead. I will wait to see how things unfold before booking anything.

(Picture courtesy of Afsaneh.)