Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The world bedbug collection

At the NYT, Donald McNeil, Jr. on bedbugs:
The classic bedbug strain that all newly caught bugs are compared against is a colony originally from Fort Dix, N.J., that a researcher kept alive for 30 years by letting it feed on him.

But Stephen A. Kells, a University of Minnesota entomologist, said he “prefers not to play with that risk.”

He feeds his bugs expired blood-bank blood through parafilm, which he describes as “waxy Saran Wrap.”

Coby Schal of North Carolina State said he formerly used condoms filled with rabbit blood, but switched to parafilm because his condom budget raised eyebrows with university auditors.
Also (unrelated): download a free PDF of Lewis Shiner's excellent novel Glimpses....

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Light reading catch-up

I seem to be more than usually reading too many different books, out of restlessness and mental dissatisfaction...

The feeling of understimulation drove me to begin (but not [yet] to finish, as neither quite struck my fancy, though the Delany is surprisingly page-turnery and the Home is, bizarrely, a book that seems to have been written exactly for someone with my reading history!) the two novels hanging around that seemed most likely to tickle the brain follicles, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren and Stewart Home's 69 Things To Do With a Dead Princess.

Polished off Lynda LaPlante's Clean Cut, which seemed to me better than the last mystery of hers I read, but had to chunk across the room in disgust the Royal Flush - Sleeping Cruelty omnibus due to utter unreadable trashiness.

Read Robert Harris's Pompeii during a couple hours of downtime on Wednesday afternoon, found it really rather good - it is a simple book, simpler I think than the Cicero series, but Harris really has the gift of storytelling and bestsellery pacing, something I admire and envy.

Finished Ambler and a couple other things that were hanging around, plus the Tristram Shandy reread (it is not truly a funny book, but Sterne is an interesting recapitulator and innovator); also dipping into Temple Grandin's book on animals and Scott McCloud's truly excellent Understanding Comics, about which more anon.

Will shortly head over to the Humane Society Book Loft to offload some of these volumes and see if I can pick out some good new ones.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A kind of static

Via Bookforum, a very good piece in the Yale alumni magazine by Andrew Solomon on his college friend Terry Kirk's suicide:
Depression is a disease of loneliness, and the privacy of a depressed person is not a dignity; it is a prison. Therapists can be perilously naïve about this. Marcello and all of us who loved Terry were locked out by the same privacy that kept him locked in. Privacy is a fashionable value in the twenty-first century, an overrated and often destructive one; it was Terry’s gravest misfortune. The unknowable in him, which I thought was just a kind of static, was actually his heart.

2 bits

A delightful little story at the Guardian about an Italian snail that stowed away on imported Victorian stonework (via paperpools):
The snail, Papillifera bidens, was thought to have arrived on a balustrade from the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1896, and with suitably snail-paced progress seems to have taken more than a hundred years to reach stonework 60 yards away.
And courtesy of Julia Hoban, Jilian Mincer at the WSJ on "butter heads"...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Recognition blues

You'll need a New Yorker subscription for access to the digital edition, but there is a fascinating piece this week by Oliver Sacks on his own lifelong inability to recognize faces and places.

A purchase

Have taken the plunge and ordered a Kindle - they're not shipping till mid-September, but I won't be in New York to pick it up till the end of September in any case.

I have held out against it for quite some time, and am more inherently attracted to the iPad as a device, but I am having serious book supply issues during this Cayman-based time, and realize that the Kindle is now cheap enough that even if it's only an auxiliary device, it is worth my while to have one.

But what I really want is to be able to get LIBRARY books electronically! I am really missing proximity to the Columbia library...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mind the gap

From Georges Perec, "Reading: A Socio-physiological Sketch," in Thoughts of Sorts, trans. David Bellos:
Hands are now used only for turning pages. The spread of the fully guillotined book has robbed today's reader of two great pleasures - the pleasure of cutting the pages (if I were Laurence Sterne I would now insert an entire chapter in praise of paper-knives, ranging from the humble cardboard cutter given away by booksellers to every purchaser of a book, to bamboo, polished stone, and steel paper-knives, not forgetting the scimitar designs (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), the matador-sword paper-knife (from Spain), the samurai-style cleaver (Japan) or those ghastly things in imitation-style leather sheaths which together with diverse other objects of the same ilk (scissors, pen-holder, pencil-box, universal calendar, memo pad, leather-clad integral desk-blotter, etc.) constitute what is known as a "desk set"); and the even greater pleasure of beginning to read a book with uncut pages. You will recall (for it wasn't that long ago, really) that books were made of signatures folded in such a way that the cuts needed alternated thus: eight pages needing, first, the upper edges cut and then, in two pairs, the side edges. The first eight pages could be read almost entirely without a paper-knife; of the next eight you could obviously read the first and last, and, by lifting them up, the fourth and fifth. But nothing more. The text came with gaps which held surprises and aroused expectations.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Galt redux

Using GPS to create a large-scale written message...


Artist may have chosen wrong ant species to test anti-fast-food hypothesis (the story is by Sheila Prakash for the New York Times):
Dr. Michael S. Engel, a paleontologist and entomologist at the University of Kansas and a co-author, with David Grimaldi, of the sweeping book “Evolution of the Insects,” said the exhibit sounded fascinating but added, “If I had to toss in a particular group of ants into an enclosure to see how well they were going to thrive off of junk food, I’d throw in generalist carnivores and omnivores like army ants.”

Pogonomyrmex, or “Pogos,” as they are affectionately known in the trade, are more selective eaters. Though mostly granivores, Pogonomyrmex badius workers will sometimes patrol for dead insects and termites to bring to the colony after a desert rain.

At the gallery last week, many of the ants were dead. A few looked disoriented. This exhibit lacks a queen and brood, so the workers are leading a life devoid of its fundamental purpose.

"If I had a hammer"

Divinely beautiful pencil art (courtesy of Tor's Irene Gallo).

If I were an artist, this is the sort of thing I would make...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The crocodile room

The primal feeling of hunting with a hawk (FT site registration required).

Also at the FT, a fabulous piece by William Leith on the 200 million animals that pass through Heathrow every year:
Bradfield hands me a face mask. “To filter out fecal dust,” he says. We walk into a rank-smelling room containing several black-throated monitors – lizards the size of terriers. Their feet are like the wizened hands of Egyptian mummies. They have crinkly necks with dry, shedding skin, like Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective. Tongues shoot out of their mouths like party tricks. When Bradfield gets too close to one of these lizards, the tail, which is getting on for a yard long, whips against a crate.

Friday, August 20, 2010

People and books

At the NYRB, Timothy Garton Ash remembers Tony Judt:
Tony had a couple of characteristic gestures. There was a motion of the hand, as if cooling it down after touching a hot saucepan or shaking off water. This denoted that something was silly, toe-curling, inauthentic. And there was a sideways inclination of the head, accompanied by a quick, wry lifting of one end of the mouth and a twinkle in the eye. This had multiple applications, ranging from satire and self-deprecation to an attitude that might inadequately be verbalized as c’est la vie. As motor neuron disease (ALS) relentlessly immobilized him, he could no longer make these characteristic gestures; but somehow he still managed to convey them with his eyes.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Light reading catch-up

I have a love-hate relationship with mass-market paperbacks.

On the plus side, they're relatively affordable (good value for money, esp. if LONG!), convenient to carry and available in all sorts of places; and if you pick one up without knowing anything about it and it turns out to be a really good book rather than just cheap brain fodder, you are delighted and amazed! (I found Poppy Z. Brite, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker all this way back in the 90s before the web told me about things I would like.)

On the down side, taken en masse, they tend towards mediocrity in the literal sense.

I got a really good haul of them at that store closing the other week, and read the first and most desirable two with considerable pleasure (though probably none at all of the entire twelve books would I have bought unless either marked down or at an airport while desperate for reading material): Stephen White's Dry Ice (I gave up on his books some years ago, after reading many of them very rapidly in sequence - they are like the thinking man's Jonathan Kellerman, but still only the dimly thinking man - I grew very weary, though, of the extent to which White seems to believe that drama can be exacted from the legalities of the psychologist's client confidentiality obligations! - but this one seemed better than the last few I read, perhaps just because of my time off from the series); and F. Paul Wilson's Harbingers, which I liked very much indeed (in fact it is strange I have never read any of the Repairman Jack novels before, though I've heard good things about them for some time - I will seek out others).

After that, though, I started three different ones and then put them aside - not that there was anything exactly wrong with them, just that there was nothing much to them on one count or another. They were boring, boring, boring! It is the curse of being a fast reader - I often feel, about 40 pages into a book, that the rest of it either is only worth about an hour or so of reading, and that I might as well just leaf through to get the meat of it - but this is a slippery slope, because once you're leafing that quickly, you sort of might as well speed read and just turn over the pages and be done with it in about eight minutes! Which is really all many of these sorts of book deserve anyway, you can get the whole page in the very quick scroll of an eye downwards!

So instead I have been dipping into some of the non-mass-market finds I got that day: Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human, which is full of interesting things but not really stimulating from a literary point of view; and Eric Ambler's Journey Into Fear (actually that one may have come from the Humane Society Book Loft), which is very slight and really what I would read in little more than an hour (in short, also boring) - but it is refreshingly lively in the writing compared to the ones I had to put aside.

An early paragraph of Ambler's that I particularly enjoyed:
On the rare occasions--when matters concerned with insurance policies had been under consideration--on which Graham had thought about his own death, it had been to reaffirm the conviction that he would die of natural causes and in bed. Accidents did happen, of course; but he was a careful driver, an imaginative pedestrian and a strong swimmer; he neither rode horses nor climbed mountains; he was not subject to attacks of dizziness; he did not hunt big game and he had never had even the smallest desire to jump in front of an approaching train. He had felt, on the whole, that the conviction was not unreasonable. The idea that anyone else in the world might so much as hope for his death had never occurred to him. If it had done so he would probably have hastened to consult a nerve specialist. Confronted by the proposition that someone was, in fact, not merely hoping for his death but deliberately trying to murder him, he was as profoundly shocked as if he had been presented with incontrovertible proofs that a2 no longer equalled b2 + c2 or that his wife had a lover.
I partly liked this because it reminded me obliquely of something I'd read earlier in the week at the Independent, about a 1966 interview in which John Le Carré told Malcolm Muggeridge
"I dislike Bond... I think that it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all... He's more some kind of international gangster." Le Carré's stance has softened in the intervening decades, he assures the Radio Times, but, "at the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist". Re-watching the 1966 interview is embarrassing, the author adds – not least because he smoked throughout, hoping to appear intellectual: "I shouldn't think I've smoked 20 cigarettes in my life since then."
In short I need to dig into the books I brought with me at the start of the summer and pick one that is a bit more challenging - perhaps the doorstop 2666, which I am somehow never quite in the mood for? That said, I need to reread Tristram Shandy for work, so perhaps I will simply set to on that instead...

"I placed a jar in Tennessee"

From Cynthia Wall, The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century: "In reading, one enters the spare visual space immediately, through the door of a thing, a small vivid detail."

The author's lament

At the Times, Jennifer B. McDonald ponders the wonders of Jennifer Egan's website.

Hmmm, I really want to read her new book, in fact between that and the Franzen (though I think that is not yet in stores) I discern a minor Books & Books spending spree in my near future - but a story like this also makes me really grumpy.

It is the tyranny of modern authorship!

How much does it cost to have a website like that made? I really have no idea - $5000? Couldn't really be less than that, I'd guess - might be more - this is aside from the time the author has to put in making content (in this case, Egan was obviously interested and excited about it - I had an idea of that vague general sort for my last novel that I would have liked to execute, involving putting bits and pieces of alternate history excised from earlier drafts and maps and so forth on a website, but was stymied by logistics and cost issues - and really my talents just don't lie in that direction). That money comes out of whatever the author receives as an advance, it is not paid by the publishers - it is the rare author whose finances truly can permit that sort of investment of cash up front, though I quite see that it is worthwhile, when truly building a career as author, to make that sort of investment (just as I quite see that it is worthwhile to hire an independent publicist, though it is not what I have done thus far).

Sometimes it seems hardly worth the trouble of writing the books in the first place when there is all this dreadful need for follow-through (at a time when one would really prefer to be writing a new book instead!)...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reality hunger

Sam Anderson on Jonathan Franzen's new novel:
I hadn’t expected to be nearly so engaged by all of this. I picked Freedom up out of a sense of duty, then read it semi-addictively and finished it in just a few days. The difference between reading Franzen firsthand and thinking about him from a distance is the difference between having a dream and trying to tell someone about it three years later. I had forgotten the special pleasures of living inside a Franzen text: the precision with which he charts the excruciating compromises of adulthood; the order he imposes on his characters’ muddled self-consciousness; the strange catharsis of self-sabotage and psychic pileups; the escalating comedy. (There’s a classic scene in which Joey, after accidentally swallowing his wedding ring, is forced to deal with the digestive consequences several days later while sharing a luxury hotel room with another woman.) Some of Freedom’s sentences are so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them: “Like a cold spring at the bottom of a warmer lake, old Swedish-gened depression was seeping up inside him.” And the stakes here feel a little higher than they did in The Corrections. Franzen seems more deeply invested in his characters’ happiness. He’s tilted the compassion:contempt ratio slightly toward the former. I found myself identifying with the book—thinking in new ways about recent events in my friends’ lives, in my own life. It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely.

"Grip the Clever, Grip the Wicked, Grip the Knowing"

At A Journey Round My Skull, Gilbert Alter-Gilbert on literary pets.

(Burroughs and friend, (c) Kate Simon)

Intelligent smattering

Frank Kermode has died: "We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Go ahead and Google me"

Caleb Crain on canine internet metaphors:
one day a couple of years ago, when I was walking our late lab-shepherd mix, we met a hound who ignored us in order to focus on the scents left on a tree. The hound's owner apologized by saying, "He's checking his email."

"You are going to find something"

The cook, his wife and her freezer...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The unreliable ISBN

Good bookish links at the Bookforum blog, including a short bit at Wired on how Google counted 129 million books and an interview at Triple Canopy with Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book.

"Artichokes: The Choice for a Long Weekend Getaway"

Matthew Zuras on the Farmville ruse; Phil Michaelson on how Farmville retains users.

In other news, Ed Yong on the underlying similarities between human and brainless slime mould decision-making, including slime mould's ability to approximate the design of the Tokyo rail system.

(All links in this post courtesy of Brent.)

Age of industry

The sad decline of architectural stationery (the collection is quite incredible); via Marginal Revolution).

"The sale of books publish'd or unpublish'd"

"My Chest of Books divide among my friends": John Keats's will at the Morgan Library (via my former student Rebecca Dean Filner, who had the wonderful and enviable task of cataloguing this piece for the Morgan Library collection!).

Rootless cosmopolitans

Via Adam Shatz, Tony Judt's 2004 essay on Edward Said.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A culinary digression

I was captivated by the name when I saw the tin at the supermarket the other day, and I just had it for lunch - cullen skink! I am not sure I have ever had it before, but my Scottish grandfather used to make Finnan haddie for breakfast, and it was delicious (I think it was just the fish poached in milk, perhaps with a small knob of butter and some pepper, maybe potatoes as well?) - this perhaps not quite as good, but only in the way that something out of the tin is not as good as homemade...


Jilly Cooper has a new book coming out next month! It is hard to explain why her books are so delightful, but this blog entry does give a little bit of the flavor - hmmm, I wish I had that book right now...

Monday, August 09, 2010

Monday round-up

Ghosts of the Leningrad siege (via my father).

Bits and pieces of light reading: Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim, a recommendation from Brent that I enjoyed quite a bit (I've read other books rather like it - it is along Dresden Files lines - also we are in the thick of an angel-demon zeitgeist, and I was struck by similarities to the TV series Supernatural - but it is really appealingly well-written, with a fresh and lively and distinctive first-person voice); and Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, which seems to me flawed in various respects but so energetic and interesting and engaging that I was willing to forgive various implausibilities and awkward handlings of narrative point of view.

I got a good haul of books on Saturday at the Hobbies & Books store in Grand Harbour, which is unfortunately closing - but all books were discounted 30%, with an additional free fourth book for every three purchased. A few of the ones I walked away with are true local curiosities, which I will perhaps post about anon...

I'm looking at a funny situation vis-a-vis work. I'm very tempted to plunge straight into drafting the new novel, but have decided it is impractical and that it will be better for me to leave it on the boil for a little while and come back to it later in the fall. I'll be in Ottawa for ten days or so in September, and then I'll be in New York for about four weeks in October, with side trips to Maine (for a friend's wedding) and Buffalo (for a conference).

The talk for NEASECS will be a preview of the ABCs of the novel project in the form of an argument about Laurence Sterne and novelistic conventions for the transcription of human movement and expression, and I'm also giving a talk earlier that month at the Fordham 18th-century seminar on Richardson's Clarissa; so that's two high-quality talks to write.

I also have two tenure letters to write this month, the first ones I have done (I turned down a few before I had tenure and I also turned down one or two in the first year I had tenure, but at this point I really have no good reason to say no, it is an important part of service to the profession); so I think that really my goal for the rest of the month is to write those two letters and get to work on Sterne and Richardson so that when I leave for Ottawa I at least have something down on paper in the way of draft. I may only have a week or so in Cayman between the return from Ottawa and the departure for New York, and it will be foolish to count on getting a lot of work done then; and my notion for the work I'll do during the New York weeks, aside from school catch-up stuff and the seasonal flood of letters of recommendation, is that it will be a good time to give the style book a wholesale going-over...

Martial artists

Cat armor at BoingBoing (the underlying link is also worthwhile).

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Pushpins, nanobots, unwanted fringes

Files of a fictional architecture.

Today in culture

More good gaming links from Ed Park: the germ of a novel; Adventure Generator!

I had three books of high research priority Amazoned to the hotel in Miami last week, as shipping to Cayman is either very expensive or very slow; Access All Areas is interesting and relevant to TBOMS and deeply charming, but Pervasive Games: Theory and Design is UTTERLY BRILLIANT! In fact (I am laughing, it is implausible, but somehow my research interests always converge across genres/modes and centuries) I am wondering whether I could somehow assign a chapter or two of it in my spring lecture class on Restoration and eighteenth-century drama, which is going to have a "presentation of self" theme and include tons of Erving Goffman and theories of moral sentiments and so forth - isn't it possible that Garrick's Stratford Jubilee was one of the world's first LARPs?!?

In other news, I enjoyed the first part of J. D. Daniels' "week in culture" (I am a Daniels fan - I want a book! - but here are a couple shorter bits you can read for free online), even though the name of the feature slightly makes me laugh...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

"Box 58 is Death"

The game of Nim and other ruses (via literary Eds).

Helen DeWitt: "A-free, C-free and G-visited".

It has been another odd week - I was only in Cayman for a few days before we went ahead and scheduled a trip to Miami for a nuclear stress test. There was no true worst-case scenario, I was pretty sure everything would be fine or (if not) eminently fixable (a term my more precise traveling companion corrected to "treatable!"), but I was nonetheless rather discombobulated and on tenterhooks until late Thursday afternoon, when the cardiologist declared him in the pink of health (not his exact words, but that was the gist of it). This is good!

So it was a week of airports and hotels and junk food and highway travel; we saw Inception and The Karate Kid at the mall opposite our hotel, and had a very good (but hot!) trip to the Miami Zoo on Saturday (the Amazon exhibits are particularly recommended - delightful venomous frogs and slinky snakes and lizards! - but I also particularly enjoyed the cotton-topped tamarins, always a favorite of mine, and a comical series of interactions between a bunch of lemurs that clearly demonstrated the dominance of the ringtailed over the red-ruffed when they share a single enclosure).

Had a bunch of light reading to while away the hours: first of all some fairly trivial stuff from the Humane Society Book Loft (it is not an infinitely renewable resources, alas, despite its excellence), Amanda Craig's Love in Idleness (very glad I am not the sort of English person she describes!) and Eileen Dreyer's Head Games (not as good as early Patricia Cornwell) and Lynda LaPlante's Red Dahlia (highly formulaic) and a pair of novels by Tonya Huff (the first of which it turned out I had read before, and the second of which mildly displeased me by failing to satisfy the obligations of a crime novel as opposed to "romantic suspense").

It was with delight that I then buried myself in another Humane Society find, Donna Tartt's wonderful novel The Little Friend. I loved it - the use of language is so much more vivid and interesting and appealing than everything else I've been reading recently - not to knock the other stuff - but really, it is something very special! Very funny in parts - and now I cannot stop using the word chunking - I chunked my duffel bag into the back of the SUV in the airport parking lot when we got back to Cayman a few hours ago...

And I had a bookstore splurge at the mall in Florida too (it was the slightly dubious-sounding Books-A-Million), and got a few things I've been coveting that made today's travels pass fairly quickly: Tana French's Faithful Place (not perhaps quite as good as the first two, and I was still expecting one more twist when the book quite abruptly came to an end, but still very good) and Joe Hill's Horns, which I am enjoying very much indeed and will finish as soon as I put a period to this excessively lengthy post.