Saturday, September 25, 2010

Light reading catch-up

After reading a bunch of books none of which were individually poor but which cumulatively made me feel as though my brain were about to crumble into dust, and which do not really deserve individual enumeration, I was very happy to fall upon Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which I liked very much indeed. Beautifully written sentences, but they are also for something....

Friday, September 24, 2010


The beauty of empty rooms: a lovely gallery of photos at the Telegraph of Horace Walpole's newly renovated Strawberry Hill (whose rooms were never so beautifully empty when he was in residence).

(More at the Sunday Times on an associated exhibit at the Victoria and Albert, now concluded:
It is a fraction of his extraordinary collection, not seen together since everything was auctioned off after Walpole's death. Dr Dee's mirror will be there, King Francis I's golden armour, Walpole's huge collection of portrait miniatures, as well as his oddities, such as a lock of Mary Tudor's hair and Cardinal Wolsey's crimson hat, all in settings that recreate Strawberry Hill's fabulous interior. “You simply cannot separate Walpole's collection from the building he created to contain it,” says Michael Snodin, the exhibition's curator and chair of the Strawberry Hill Trust.
As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time at the extraordinary Lewis Walpole Library in Connecticut - worthwhile to arrange a stop if you are passing through that part of the state...

Unedifying results

There is a glibness to all of these essays (written in response to a college-application-style prompt with a constraint of one hour), but they would be perhaps worth contemplating by those in a position where such such constraints are familiar (college applicants, academic job-seekers, etc.).

Also at the Guardian: Ed Pilkington interviews Jonathan Franzen. Hard to see how one would read this interview and not feel that almost any life would be better than the novelist's ("I don't owe anybody anything and I don't have to feel bad today because I just wrote 1,200 words")!

Pretty in pink?

Cat dyed pink in 'sick prank'. (And more lurid coverage at the Daily Mail.)

Friday, September 17, 2010


From Sam Leith's review of Donald Sturrock's Roald Dahl biography: "though he donated his early royalties to charity, Dahl used the syndication money for the short story ‘Shot Down Over Libya’ for a treat: a $380 set of false teeth (‘new set of clackers’) hand-made from gold and platinum by Lord Halifax’s dentist."

"See my name on the wall"

Peter Terzian blogs at Earworms about Kristen Hersh and the music of 50 Foot Wave.

I've been meaning to get her book Rat Girl, which sounds very much up my alley, but I was also struck by Peter's thoughts on Hersh's advice to audience members at a panel discussion ("Don’t try to get famous, just try to get good at what you do, because to become famous, you probably have to suck at least a little").

There are certainly exceptions to the assertion offered in the second part of the sentence, but the first part of the advice seems to me extremely sound; Peter then adds:
The truth is that ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to be famous. After all, is this not America? I used to watch television and fantasize that I would be cast in a sitcom as a wisecracking adopted orphan, the kind who used to show up in the fourth or fifth season, when the ratings were going south. (Why such a marginal part? Why not a starring role? Why not my own show? To be saved for a future therapy session.) The particulars changed, but the fantasy never went away: At the bottom of my mental list of things to do over the course of my life, right underneath “Travel a lot” and “Be good to other people” and “Read all of Dickens” and “Dress better,” is written, in invisible ink, “Get famous.” To be known and loved by everyone! It always seemed like a great idea. But as I’ve grown older and watched some friends gain fame, I see that it can also become loaded with problems. It’s not like fame has been banging on my door, begging to be let i[n], but lately I’ve taken up the slow process of crossing that particular bullet point out. Family, good friends, a partner, a dog who does a crazy dance every time you walk in the door—that’s famous enough.
When I was little, I too wanted to be famous, partly because I knew I wanted to be a writer and it seemed to me that good writers should be famous (!?!) but also because of an unwarranted assumption that life would only be interesting if I were famous.

In adulthood I realize that it is much more important to me that life should be interesting than anything else (i.e. interestingness and intellectual and artistic stimulation rank considerably higher than fame or fortune); fame or fortune are only incidentally valuable insofar as they increase the opportunity to do interesting things, but in fact fame may undercut that possibility, because many or most people find it hard to converse normally with famous people.

I do know some famous people, both of my own peer group and of others, and I definitely can see that the famous are often subsequently restricted, for their real emotional or intellectual sustenance, to the friends they formed before they became famous - it seems to me now not at all an inherently desirable thing that one should become well-known outside extremely specialized circles, though of course one wants to have a certain amount of authority in daily life (i.e. to have people one likes and respects care about and listen to what one thinks).

Bonus link: the Throwing Muses song that I used to listen to all the time when I was a Young Person....


(I was going to write in my last post, of Caroline Carver, Why have I not heard of her?, in mild outrage, but figured I must just have been too triathlon-obsessed over last few years to have picked up all thriller/crime recommendations. Now, though, at her website I see she has been rebranded as C. J. Carver. I have seen these books around - will definitely get them - but I am not truly a fan of the author renaming thing, though I understand it is sometimes practical.)

Light reading catch-up (travel edition)

Back in Cayman, after a very long day of travels yesterday. Hit the Book Market in Ottawa and got a decent stack of used paperbacks there, so had an adequate and highly affordable supply of reading for the trip.

Jane Adams' Final Frame was decent but broke the cardinal rule: it didn't work as a standalone installment in a series, it really seemed to assume knowledge of the previous installment. Lauren Henderson's The Strawberry Tattoo was poorly plotted but reasonably amusing otherwise. Caro Fraser's Beyond Forgiveness was a fairly mediocre example of a genre I do not really like, but I found it more or less readable.

Then I read two spectacularly good thrillers that had me on the edge of my seat in delight and pleasure: Caroline Carver's Blood Junction and Dead Heat. The second is even better than the first - richer, more complex - and I am certainly going to read all her others as soon as I can get hold of them, they are so much what I like (imagine somewhere on the spectrum between Peter Temple and Lee Child - not with the sheer intellectual force and stylistic beauty of the former, nor with the economy and genius elegance of the latter - but really, really good, and with eminently plausible female protagonists).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

White kid uppers

At the TLS, D. J. Taylor on Wodehouse's early novel Psmith in the City:
What allows Wodehouse to get away with these evasions, it might be argued, is that his comedy is essentially a matter of technique, practically an exercise in pure form, like a clerihew or an Edward Lear limerick. The jokes may rely on questions of status or self-aggrandizement, but at their core generally lies only an extravagant delight in repartee, in language used for no other purpose than to demonstrate the kind of effects of which language is capable.


Via Maud Newton, a hilarious and persuasive piece by Elif Batuman at the LRB on Mark McGurl's book about creative writing programs and American literature:
Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Toffee composition

Just finished Freedom. Not War and Peace, certainly, but highly absorbing in a way that I value. Here's a relatively late paragraph I liked quite a bit, about the Berglund tins of candy that "had gradually morphed, over the years, from a treat into a reminder of treats past":
The candy job was too large and important to be left to Dorothy and Walter alone. Production began on the first Sunday of Advent and continued through most of December. Necromantic metalware--iron cauldrons and racks, heavy aluminum nut-processing devices--came out of deep closets. Great seasonal dunes of sugar and towers of tins appeared. Several cubic feet of unsweetened butter was melted down with milk and sugar (for chocolateless fudge) or with sugar alone (for Dorothy's famous Christmas toffee) or was smeared by Walter onto the reserve squadron of pans and shallow casseroles that his mother, over the years, had bought at rummage sales. There was lengthy discussion of "hard balls" and "soft balls" and "cracking." Gene, wearing an apron, stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman, doing his best to keep cigarette ash out of them. He had three ancient candy thermometers whose metal casings were shaped like fraternity paddles and whose nature it was to show no increase in temperature for several hours and then, all at once and all together, to register temperatures at which fudge burned and toffee hardened like epoxy. He and Dorothy were never more a team than when working against the clock to get the nuts mixed in and the candy poured. And later the brutal job of cutting too-hard toffee: the knife blade bowing out under the tremendous pressure Gene applied, the nasty sound (less heard than felt in the bone marrow, in the nerves of the teeth) of a sharp edge dulling itself on the bottom of a metal pan, the explosions of sticky brown amber, the paternal cries of God fucking damn it, and the querulous maternal entreaties not to swear like that.

"If we were in Andromeda"

Via the Tor blog, an absolutely lovely slideshow of the winners of the 2010 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

Rag-and-bone shops of the heart

At the Guardian Review, William Boyd on Elizabeth Bishop's life in Brazil.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

In transit

Three flights, three novels by F. Paul Wilson: The Tomb, Gateways, The Select.

By the final leg (Philadelphia-Ottawa), I had moved on to a very good first novel (all of these are from the Cayman Humane Society, the stock having replenished itself through my long-enough absence): Yaba Badoe's True Murder. Some uneven patches in the writing, but I found it mesmerizing as well as enjoyable; I liked it more, I think, than the one I read next, Patricia Duncker's The Deadly Space Between.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Light reading catch-up

It was a better haul again at the Humane Society Book Loft - I think the crucial thing (it is like visiting a small public library branch) is leaving enough time between visits for the stock to replenish itself...

Light reading of inconsequence: Laura Lippman's The Last Place, which I read a number of years ago but was very happy to read again; Stephen Booth's Dancing with the Virgins, an early one I think I must have missed in a series I have otherwise enjoyed; Louise Bagshawe's The Devil You Know, formulaic and in a genre of light reading that is not my favorite but really highly enjoyable, and paying appealing homage to Judith Krantz and Jilly Cooper.

Got a long day of travels tomorrow, and a stack of five more paperbacks from the Humane Society to tide me over - but I am still thinking I might spy a copy of the new Jonathan Franzen novel in a bookstore en route and snap it up!


At the WSJ, James Piereson argues for the superiority of Columbia's Core Curriculum over Harvard's (via the Spectrum).

I would tend to agree (though there may be a natural bias here in favoring the curriculum I have taught - i.e. Columbia's - over the one foisted upon me - i.e. Harvard's). In my ideal university, there's no set of core requirements, but if you're going to have a core, Columbia's is superior to Harvard's - it's intellectually consistent, there is a true rationale that can be articulated and defended, where Harvard's is an inconsistent hodgepodge....

The thing that irked me most as an undergraduate was that one so often seemed to be getting a watered-down version of the real thing - it was not possible to take a 'real' history department course to fill either one of the "Historical Studies A and B" requirements, for instance, one instead had to take classes specially designated for the core. This is why I prefer a distribution requirement system to a separate "core" - you ended up with huge lecture courses rather than being able to take, say, an upper-level seminar instead (I would like to think I could be trusted to get the basics on my own!).

That said, I suppose it is appropriate that some celebrity profs should teach absolutely huge lectures that anyone can take (I took Stephen Jay Gould's class for instance, I don't enjoy that sort of lecture because I would so much rather take in the information much faster and more efficiently by eye rather than ear, but I had a good discussion section leader for that class and it wasn't altogether a waste of time).

Some of the most boring classes I ever took were core classes (I will not name the professors, but they included classes on linguistics, Bach and World War I - in each case the discussion section leader was also quite poor - indeed, in the case of the WWI TA, she seemed to know virtually nothing about the subject, I felt I would have been better qualified to teach it myself as a college sophomore - I am sure I was a very annoying person for her to have in that class!).

On the other hand, there were some gems in Harvard's core too: I would have been quite unlikely to take the course on Political Obligation taught by Judith Shklar if it hadn't been for the "moral reasoning" requirement, and it was a fantastically good one; also very good was the course on the history of the development of the European state taught by Stanley Hoffman, Peter Hall and Tom Ertman (but in that case I also had Hall for my discussion section leader, and he was spectacularly good - the course must have been an earlier version of this).

I suppose when it comes down to it, I strongly prefer the seminar to the lecture as a format in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, and that was one of the shortcomings for me as a student in Harvard's core - if I want information to be imparted to me, or to get some sense of the basic methodology in a discipline, I would much rather read a book...

In the end, after three years teaching Literature Humanities at Columbia, I felt that I probably wouldn't do it again (and I did those three years due to the carrot-stick incentives that Columbia offers junior faculty); I love the format (the same group of first-year students for two hours twice a week over an entire year - you really get to see high-school students transform into fully-fledged independent college students, intellectually speaking!), but I felt that it was incredibly weird to be spending all my time teaching literature without access to the two things I most often rely upon in my departmental teaching, namely close reading (most texts are read in translation) and historical and cultural contexts (not the point of Lit Hum, and pretty much impossible to conjure up given multi-thousand-year curriculum).

The fall semester curriculum is built pretty tightly around the ancient Greeks, and works fairly well; the spring semester is a somewhat more ideologically loaded survey of "great books" across 2000 years, and seems to me significantly less satisfying to teach.

In short, my own version of a class like that would operate on the principle that I could do much more with a much narrower field of inquiry - give me a whole semester on Shakespeare, say, and I will be able to cultivate the same kinds of thinking that Lit Hum is supposed to encourage, only with a much more satisfying specificity.

"My rays"

At NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman has an extraordinary interview with Oliver Sacks (link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull). I can't wait to read the new book (I've read and heard bits of it already), which includes an account of Sacks' own vision loss as a result of an ocular melanoma - the whole interview is too interesting to excerpt, but here's a teaser from the preamble:
The geeky moment occurs when Sacks is in the hospital, forbidden to leave his room because his opthamologist has embedded a chip of radioactive iodine in his eye in hopes of banishing the tumor. The tiny plaque of I-125 triggers a storm of hallucinations — including starfish, daisies, and purple protoplasm — as well as ravaging pain. In the middle of all this, Sacks muses about asking his long-time editor and friend, Kate Edgar, to fetch his beloved collection of fluorescent minerals so he can conduct an experiment. “Perhaps I could light them up by fixing my radioactive eye, my rays on them,” he writes. “It would be quite a party trick!”

"Unwanted residues in our food"

Whole rat found inside tin of baked beans (the picture accompanying the story is wonderfully gruesome):
“The rat had come to an untimely end, but was not possible to say if it had died before or after it got into the beans. But enzymatic tests established that it had been through the canning process. A post mortem examination showed that it hadn't eaten recently - it had not enjoyed a last meal of baked beans"

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"If I had a hammer" redux

Aida Edemariam interviews Terry Pratchett for the Guardian. Here, on the encroachments of Alzheimer's:
He doesn't say it in so many words, but that must also be combined with grief for the loss of his ability to write longhand, or type with anything other than one finger at a time (although, weirdly, he is still perfectly able to sign his name — "the bit that knows how to sign my name is an entirely different bit of the brain"); the grief of knowing that while he may have years yet, most of his other mental faculties will go the same way. But probably not suddenly.

"Every day must be a tiny, incrementally . . . incremental . . . incremental . . . – he stumbled over a word; you must write that one down," Pratchett says with a dark, almost-laugh. (Having been a journalist himself, before becoming a PR in the nuclear industry and thence a novelist, he rarely passes up a chance to remind you that he knows how journalists work) ". . . incremental . . . change on the day before. So what is normal? Normal was yesterday. If you lose a leg, one day you're hopping around on one leg, so you know the difference.

"The last test I did was the first where I wasn't as good as the previous time. I actually forgot David Cameron. I just blanked on him" – this time the laugh contains, what – a kind of ironic approval? "What happens is, I call it the ball bearing. It's there, it just hasn't gone into the slot." He cannot begin to do tests that require him to scribble shapes, but asked to list names of animals, "I industriously say more than you can possibly imagine" – you can just see the pleasure of the earnest nerd in school – "and we go on for a little while until she smiles and says, 'Yes, we know, we know.'

"And then there was the time with dear Claudia with the Germanic accent – which is always good if someone's interrogating you – and she said, 'What would you do with a hammer? And I said, 'If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning. I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land.' And by the end I was dancing around the room, with her laughing. The laugh will be on the other foot, eventually, and I'm aware of that. But it shows how different things can be: I can still handle the language well, I can play tricks with it and all the other stuff – but I have to think twice when I put my pants on in the morning."

"Sixteen of the politer love poems"

I loved everything about Paul A. J. Davis's TLS piece on a new scholarly edition of Rochester's poems, but particularly its repeated references to a readership of specialists - it gives me this wonderful vision of an abstruse and tiny yet committed nation of scholars toiling in archives across the land. Anyway, here's a taste, where Davis contemplates the "full-blown eccentricity" of the editors' choice to use as copy-text for "Upon Nothing" "the 'separate' of the poem which Germaine Greer discovered in 1993 in a box of Chancery documents in the Public Records Office and identified as featuring corrections in the hand of Rochester’s mother (the documents relate to disputes about the Dowager Countess’s estates)":
[W]hat most conclusively tells against Fisher’s conjecture [that the Countess might have amended the poem to Rochester's dictation] is comparison of the readings in Lady Rochester’s copy against the lists of variants given by Love (who for some reason did not collate it) and Walker. This reveals that the Countess left uncorrected a number of obvious scribal errors, including a hypermetric line (with Rochester dictating?) whose probable “authorial” forms can be found in other copies. Meanwhile, all but one of her corrected forms are shared with an identifiable subgroup of manuscripts – and not the one which, in Love’s judgement, offers the best guide to what Rochester may originally have written.

The sole exception comes in the highly unstable line “Thou from the virtuous, Nothing, take away”, where (according to Fisher) she corrected the ending to “durst delay”. That is an otherwise unattested and potentially attractive reading – but it is not what Lady Rochester wrote. Other personal writings which have found their way into the same Chancery box (her recipe for face-water” and some scraps of penitential reflection) provide ample evidence of the Countess’s distinctively spiky and discontinuous hand, and particularly of its most salient characteristic: difficulty in joining up the circles of “e”s and “o”s. What she corrected “take away” to was not “durst delay” but “doest delay” – one of the commonest readings in the other witnesses. In all likelihood, then, Rochester’s mother amended her copy of “Upon Nothing” not at the dictation of the poet himself, but from another manuscript. Then again, the fact that she did this is interesting enough in itself.