Friday, December 30, 2011

Shelves, plucking

Supriya Nair interviews Teju Cole:
I privately think to myself of Open City as a response to 8 1/2, which is weird. But it is episodic, it is concerned with structures of consciousness and I think it is immaculately curated. That is what I was going for: the curation of incident that to a careless observer seems like randomness.
On a more personal note, I am alarmed by the revelation that Butler Library won't be open again till Wednesday.  That's just wrong!

Closing tabs

The year is ending for me on an unexpectedly somber note.  I got a call late yesterday afternoon to let me know that a college friend had killed himself the day before.  It was more sad than surprising news, as he had spent many years fighting the legacy of a childhood and adolescence marred by deeply neglectful parents and a terrible stint in foster care and then coping with a diagnosis in adulthood of bipolar disorder, but it is such a loss.  In adulthood it is often too late to remedy this sort of damage, and I think the only takeaway is that if you know a child or teenager in need of help, reach out and give whatever help you can!  Spent the evening at a sort of unofficial wake at a mutual friend's apartment in Brooklyn; combination of emotional distress and alcohol consumption have now exacerbated my cold, which has moved from lungs to sinuses and which clearly mandates another day of no exercise...

Some links, in no particular order:

Language Log on the twitter hashtag.

Wage slavery in its natural habitat.

George Pringle's new blog.

Greg Zinman on Bravo's Work of Art.

It seems likely that I will post again between now and the official end of 2011, but just in case not, I hope that you all have a very happy and healthy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


RIP Cheeta.

Lung grumbling

Feeling quite glum as this minor cold has now settled into the lungs: they are so raw and itchy that I would stick a pencil down there to scratch them were it compatible with the human gag reflex!  Clearly another day with no exercise in the cards, though I am hoping I'll be well enough for yoga tomorrow morning with out-of-town friend B. (and am seeing out-of-town friend A. and her husband K. for tea late this afternoon).  I don't otherwise feel sick at all - strong arms, strong legs, clear head - just this annoying lung vulnerability.

Novel revisions are underway as of yesterday, thank goodness, so I can't really complain otherwise.  I need to get as much of this work under my belt as I can: three weeks from today I'm in the classroom again, and I can't afford to let any of this uninterrupted time escape me!

Light reading around the edges: Sara Henry's Learning to Swim (clear why I bought that one! not bad, but not really the kind of crime fiction I like most); Val McDermid, Trick of the Dark (highly readable despite huge huge impossible implausibilities at center of the story); Erin Kelly, The Poison Tree (hmmm, very Barbara Vine in mood, not so much what I like either as I didn't care about the characters and the twists can be seen coming a mile away); Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase (I loved this one, it was great: it has all the qualities lacking in the others, despite the fact that they all fall under a crime fiction rubric); and Nicholas Royle's strange and haunting Regicide.  I am not so crazy about dream landscapes, I prefer my fiction to have more rational narrative logic, but I do think this was an unusually interesting novel of its kind (and I am interested to see fiction still being written under the sign of Robbe-Grillet!).

Friday, December 23, 2011

Looking back

Really this is the "books I read that stuck with me this year" post (I make it by quickly skimming back through blog posts, so I'm sure I've missed things), but I do feel the need to note one painful failure for 2011 - I didn't get to the start of my projected Ironman race, due to bronchial illness stemming from ongoing lack of mastery of exercise-induced asthma, training loads and life stress. 

I am on a higher dose of asthma controller medication now, and I think I have a better handle on how to manage that particular aspect of bronchial vulnerability, but I am still overextended in a more general sense and I am not going to attempt an iron-distance triathlon in 2012, as I think I need to do more work on various building-blocks first.  If plans go as I hope, though, I'll volunteer for the inaugural NYC Ironman next August and get some kind of preferential status re: registering for a slot for the 2013 race.

On a brighter note, it is also the case that in 2011 I finished drafting the novel formerly known as The Bacchae on Morningside Heights, revised it and found a publisher; I am just now undertaking an extensive further revision/reimagining (this will make no sense to those who have not read it, but I can see now that a whole game is missing!).  I also revised the style book, and it is as of a month or so ago out with publishers again, but I have no news yet as to its fate and fortunes: books can take a long time from start to finish, a fact that horrified and appalled me when it first dawned on me many years ago but that I've had to reconcile myself to in the meantime.

I feel that I had a very good year of teaching: I was eager to be back in the classroom after an overly quiet sabbatical year in 2010, and the charms of teaching have been particularly alive to me.  The surprise for me this fall was how much I loved teaching the required MA seminar to entering graduate students in our department; I had undertaken it as a 'service' class, but it was truly as much of a pleasure as any class I have ever taught.

I have just finished reading what I think is my favorite novel of the year, Murakami's 1Q84.  Haunting, immersive, lovely! 

My other single favorite novel in the loose category of 'literary fiction,' a term I hate but that does serve to differentiate it from thrillers and young-adult dystopias and so forth, was probably Teju Cole's amazing Open City.  Others I particularly enjoyed in this sort of broad category (all newish though not all from 2011): Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child; Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; Vanessa Veselka's Zazen; Cody James's The Dead Beat; Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding; Emma Donogue's Room; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad; Tayari Jones's The Silver Sparrow; Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky.  Neal Stephenson's Anathem was as immersive as 1Q84 and probably belongs in this group rather than with science fiction and fantasy below (Reamde, on the other hand, was enjoyable but forgettable).

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods deserves a category all its own!  Another uncategorizable but excellent book: Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti's collaboration The Chairs Are Where the People Go.

Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is definitely in my top ten favorites for the year.  I also loved Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, that's another strong recommendation.

Megan Abbott's novels Bury Me Deep and The End of Everything were among the most interesting crime fiction I read all year, but there was a lot of other exceptional stuff too.  Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Taylor Stevens's The Informationist; Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours and Trackers; Lawrence Block's A Drop of the Hard Stuff (which also prompted a reread of the amazing When the Sacred Ginmill Closes)

Nonfiction: John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead; Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned; Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons; Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child; Sarah Bakewell's Montaigne biography; Peter Terzian's interesting little anthology Bound to Last; and (I am late to the party) Michael Lewis's Moneyball.  It was a reread, but Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built remains one of the few books I can think of that it pains me not to have written myself.

Most prized addition to book collection, courtesy of my mother: Green's Dictionary of Slang.

Didn't read a ton of YA this year, but can definitely recommend Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books and Catherine Fisher's Incarceron series.  Tow Ubukata's Mardock Scramble was a surprise and a delight; also very delightful was Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Much enjoyed new installments in ongoing stories by Lev Grossman, Charlie Williams, Kate Atkinson.  Also: LEE CHILD!

Most perfect light reading: Doris Egan/Jane Emerson's Ivory omnibus and City of Diamond.  But I was lucky in my light reading this year, I'd have to say: I loved Mira Grant's zombie trilogy, and found the first two installments of Patrick Rothfuss's fantasy series utterly addictive.  Best zombie book was Max Brooks's World War Z, though: I couldn't get it out of my head after I read it, and kept on telling people about it at parties even when it was not suitable.

A small selection of books I reread that still speak to me very loudly (really I'm always rereading a lot for teaching- and research-related purposes): Roland Barthes's The Neutral; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew; Markson's Reader's Block; Conrad's The Secret Agent; Dostoevsky's Demons.

A few performances that especially astonished me: Stravinsky's Nightingale and other fables at BAM (and the ombromanie of Philippe Beau!); Philip Glass's Satyagraha, at the Met; and Krapp's Last Tape, with John Hurt and also at BAM.  Music from Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett has been an ongoing delight.  

The film that most preoccupied me: Helen Hill's The Florestine Collection, completed after her death by Paul Gailiunas. 

The TV series that I want to live in, thus recent preoccupation with fictions of alternate realities: Fringe.

I don't listen to enough new music to make good recommendations in a broad sense, but new albums from P. J. Harvey and Gillian Welch are both remarkable.

Books to look out for in 2012: Sarah Manguso's The Guardians: An Elegy; Marco Roth's Transmission; and Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers.

I probably read a better range of books in 2010, but that is because I was on sabbatical.  In 2011 my thoughts were much engaged with books I was writing and books I was teaching, most of which are not really prominently represented here.  I continue to have a deep-seated obsession, though, with Swift's Tale of a Tub...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Perfectly good at it"

How much does it cost to make a hit song?

(NB not sure how much marketing had to do with it, but this Rihanna song has been played at something near to 100% of all spin classes I've attended in the last year!)

A plan

I made my chart...

 I bought my supplies...
(I don't know why Blogger will only import these pictures in sideways rotation!  That is irksome.)

Let the wild revision begin!

I will now take advantage of the fact that it's 58F and sunny to go and scout a few of the three or four neighborhood locations that I intend to make more use of in the next draft.  My plan for the next three weeks is pretty clear.  I will go to Philadelphia this weekend for a couple of days, arriving home Monday evening.  I then have three full weeks of writing time before school starts: week of Dec. 26, week of Jan. 2, week of Jan. 9 (I'll be in Cayman for a spell, Jan. 7-15).  I should be able to eke out a couple more weeks of decent writing time once school starts, but a practice of morning writing during the semester can only be sustained for so long, and I know it will collapse a couple weeks in.  So the next 2 weeks are designed to generate as much new material as possible, then the week in Cayman I'll take the whole thing apart and put it back together again with new pieces, doing blow-by-blow start-to-finish revisions over the rest of January.  Get a good new version to my editor by Monday, Jan. 30, and let it sit for 1.5 months so that I can do my final tough pass through over spring break in March.

I do think the book needs a new title: The Magic Circle is fine, but a little too bland.  (The Bacchae on Morningside Heights was abstruse and unpronounceable, but is still of course how I think of the book in my head.)  I will see if some obvious name emerges as I work on the next round.


Sarah Weinman's favorite crime novels of 2011.  I have just downloaded all the ones I haven't read already, it's a great selection; I think the one I am most impatiently awaiting of her list of forthcoming ones is the Carol O'Connell.

Also: Adam Thirlwell's bootleg Havel.


Is Jonathan Ames a stunted Grey Gardens bachelor drowning in kipple?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Two moons

I think it is now really and truly the end of the semester: I was still finishing up little leftover bits of business this morning, but the way now seems to be clear towards novel revisions...

Read a lovely book the other night, Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons: A Memoir.  It is fantastic, and this copy is now destined for my mother, who will love it at least as much as I did.  It makes me think now that sometime I should teach a seminar on pedagogy that would be constructed around this and other books that shed light on great teaching?  At any rate I will start trying to collect readings around that theme, and suggestions are welcome in comments or by email.

Main fact of last few days is that I have fallen hard into the amazing stream of words that is Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.  It is the perfect novel that I most want to read of all things in the world!  I bought a real copy of the book when it came out, as I figured it was the sort of thing I like to keep on the shelf after I've read it, but the physical book seemed so cumbersome (it is beautifully designed but hard to hold) that it went unread.  So I bought a second copy for Kindle (and IMO this is what publishers should be trying to do, i.e. sell bundled copies in multiple formats) and am completely and passionately smitten by it.  Alternate-universe fiction at its very best: I think it probably gets my vote for favorite novel of the year.

(Oh, yes, I think I read one other novel as well, a good recommendation from Maxine: Jussi Adler-Olson's Mercy a.k.a. - same book - The Keeper of Lost Causes.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"xxxx and xxxxx---"

Have spent the rest of the evening since my previous post reading Joan Didion's two books of grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.  Sideways research, as it were, for the review I'm writing for Monday (I had speculated that the relationship between the book I'm reviewing there and its author's previous work of nonfiction might be akin to the asymmetrical pairing of these two books of Didion's, and I think it is probably the case). 

I have not over the course of my life been a great admirer of Didion's writing, but here is a sequence I found entirely arresting (these should be regular indented sentence/paragraphs, with no space in between):
"What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx---

"xx," he said.

"xxx," she said.

"How she:

"How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx---

"How he, and also she---"

The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted.  I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it.  In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.  Many of the marks I set down on that page were no more than "xxx," or "xxxx," symbols that meant "copy tk," or "copy to come," but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings.  A single "x" different from a double "xx," "xxx" from "xxxx."  The number of such symbols had a meaning.  The arrangement was the meaning.

Retributional geology

So tired I can't do anything!  And have made no progress today on the couple of work things that stand between me and book revision.  But I just finished reading an amazingly good novel, Vanessa Veselka's Zazen: Richard Nash sent it to me some months ago, but somehow I never opened up the file on my Kindle.  Can't find the link now, but I must have seen it mentioned this past week on some indie-best-of-end-of-year list that described it as being set in a parallel universe; since I am still in a painful condition of wanting nothing more than to submerge myself in infinite as yet unaired and in some cases unmade episodes of Fringe, this seemed like a godsend.  I loved it.


Frank Felstenstein's talk the other day on "Smollett Then and Now" was exceptionally interesting: he summarized some insights that emerged from his editing Smollett's Travels Through France and Italy for Clarendon (published in 1979, and composed of course primarily on a manual and then on an electric typewriter), and then reediting it over the past few years for a new Broadview edition.  All sorts of fascinating reflections on how things have changed in terms of research tools, but I was captivated by the detail that when Frank edited the volume for the Oxford World's Classics edition, Oxford was just transitioning from type to digital, but had only an italic digital font for Greek: which posed a problem because Smollett at one point describes a building he sees as being much like the Greek character π - and an italic font produced an entirely unfounded Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa effect!  They tried using II instead, and in the end had to substitute a handdrawn figure prior to photoprinting, which is a bit of an eyesore on the page....

(Frank has also recently been involved with an amazing project that originated with  his discovery of a remarkably complete set of records concerning library borrowers and the items they read in Muncie, Indiana from 1891 to 1902.)

"LACK occasional tables"

Via Carolyn, what Lisbeth Salander bought at Ikea!

Friday, December 16, 2011


Perfect play, perfect performance.  (Only I wish people would not cough so much in the quiet parts!)  Afterwards we took the subway from BAM to Chambers St. and had a beautiful dinner at Odeon.  (I had a pan-roasted cod special, with nicoise olives and tomatoes and soft-baked baby onions, then macerated berries with mascarpone for dessert - delicious.  The dessert list there is amazing: there are two lists, and I was mighty tempted to get a root-beer float in honor of a recent episode of Fringe although really that is the sort of sweet that is better on an empty stomach as a full-on snack.  I was hemming and hawing over whether to get the berries or the warm doughnuts with jam dipping sauce - I asked the waiter for his advice, he looked stymied and said he would eat both - dining companion G., with a wicked twinkle in his eye, said "Get both!"  Of course really it would be both unseemly and nutritionally unsound, but it is a beautiful idea that one could actually do that in a restaurant!)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Just taking a short breather for a quick blog post!  My student's dissertation defense went very well yesterday, I think, and I am hugely happy to see her clear the final obstacle before receiving the degree (minor revisions will be made to the manuscript before it is deposited about a month from now, but this was the last institutional hurdle). 

Chipping away at huge pile of end-of-semester tasks, but the end is in sight. Will see Krapp's Last Tape on Friday evening at BAM, family lunch on Sunday, but otherwise pretty much just meeting end-of-semester obligations and looking forward to next week and my schedule being very much more clear and full of time for novel revision.

Finished Stephen King (I think Connie Willis's vision of time travel in the Blackout-All Clear volumes is more emotionally resonant for me, but I did enjoy King's book quite a bit, and he remains an exceptional storyteller).  Read Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, which I enjoyed a good deal but didn't quite see the larger point of: it is not dissimilar to The Art of Fielding, but I guess I would say that I thought Harbach's was the more appealing book of the two.  (For a different take, see Sharon Marcus's excellent review of The Marriage Plot.)  For my last student independent study meeting tomorrow, I need to try and finish Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, although I'm not sure I'll have time as I have to go to a seminar this evening...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

"A 'lobster trick' rewriteman"

This article has just introduced me to the phrase "the lobster shift."  Green's Dictionary of Slang gives a first usage from 1927 (of the variant "lobster trick") and suggests it derives from "the slow pace of the crustacean; i.e. such a shift, usu. between 2:00a.m. and 9:00a.m. is rarely busy."  It would make a great title for a novel...

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Had a very good session yesterday with the eighteenth-century reading group on Fielding's Tom Thumb.  During a lull late in the conversation, I was able to pick everyone's brains about a class I have proposed to teach next year, a graduate seminar with the rubric "eighteenth-century modernities."  I had imagined it built around Swift's Tale of a Tub, Pope's Dunciads and Tristram Shandy, and I wanted to hear other obvious suggestions from consciousnesses not my own, including critical and theoretical readings.  It may be that Bacon and Descartes and Locke and Shaftesbury and Addison and Adam Smith have to be in there, along of course with Johnson's Dictionary; but I am also persuaded that I should teach a sequel semester on Post-Shandyism!  Boswell's Life of Johnson, Burney's Cecilia, Godwin (perhaps the Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication), Peacock's satirical meta-fictions, Don Juan...

(This is the first time I've used my new printer to scan anything, but I am hoping it is possible to click and enlarge for a better view of my utterly illegible notes to self!)

School year blues

I have nothing interesting to say when I see colleagues and students except for the ever-present observation that it is a bad time of the school year!  This coming week will again be very busy.  I have managed to finish all my reading for Monday today (for the final undergraduate seminar, Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," Pope's "Epistle to Arbuthnot" and several pieces of criticism including a very lovely essay by David Womersley with the suggestive title "'now deaf 1740'" from this volume, and for my graduate class David Markson's haunting novel Reader's Block).  A long list of tasks to get done tomorrow before the whirlwind final end-of-semester week, which includes a department meeting, two committee meetings, a dissertation defense, one final independent study meeting (better remember to read that book this week!) and a host of other student meetings.  If I do my grading promptly, though, I could submit grades on Monday the 19th (I also have a review due that day) and transition shortly thereafter to novel revision...

Not much time for light reading this past week, but I have read a few books here and there around the edges of the vast mounds of paper that have demanded my more immediate attention (dissertations, writing samples, job letters, etc.)  Finished Moneyball, which I enjoyed a great deal despite knowing virtually nothing about baseball.  Read Michael Connelly's latest, The Drop - Connelly's novels are a very consistent pleasure, and he never just seems to be going through the motions even in these installments of long-running series.  Read a very unusual mystery novel by Alice LaPlante, called Turn of Mind, after reading about it here: it has some flaws as a crime novel, but as a portrait of a narrator/protagonist with Alzheimer's it is mesmerizing.  About halfway through Stephen King's 11/22/63, as I knew I would need something long and narrative and relatively undemanding to get me through the week.

Monday, December 05, 2011

"Language is a poison"

Jacob Gross interviews Ben Marcus at Harper's (via Blue) on his new book:
... I was exhausted by, or just done with, certain techniques. I kept using the same shovel, digging up the exact same shit. I wanted to change my shovel. Maybe use my hands. Maybe dig up into the air instead of down into the soil. I wondered if my endless return to the same ideas and concepts could maybe be blamed on my regular reliance on the same techniques — the syntax, the tones, the rhetoric. I felt that if I changed those I might be able to uncover a different part of my imagination, maybe some little untouched place the other tools weren’t reaching. A different kind of surgery on whatever place I look to for fiction.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Took the plunge

and ordered tickets for Cycle 3 of the Ring Cycle at the Met - found a good friend who would do it with me, that was the clincher.  Who knows when I will have the chance again?  In a best-case scenario, it is a truly magical and transporting experience; in the worst-case scenario, parts of it are somewhat boring and it adds an onerous number of hours to a busy week, but I think there is no huge downside, it will be worthwhile whether or not I absolutely love it.

(Have uncharacteristically watched some hours of television this weekend - usually I only watch seasons of television on DVD with B. in Cayman, but we were very near the end of the third season of Fringe when we parted ways at the end of the Thanksgiving odyssey, it is a program which is very perfectly suited to my tastes, and my new laptop makes it very easy to watch videos from Amazon anywhere in my apartment - I watched the last three episodes of season 3 and then, regrettably, the first seven of season 4, which is as far as it now goes - am in horrible desiring limbo now of wanting all the rest of the season in one fell swoop, when really it will only be doled out WEEK BY UNREASONABLE WEEK over the rest of this year.  Anybody who has secret early access, tell me and get me in on it too!  Though I do observe, as always with this series, that they play overly fast and loose with the alternate universes: I feel that though high-quality television does a good job creating investment in characters over a season and its successors, the provision of too many alternates in this sort of a plot erodes general belief in and concern with the characters, to a sometimes problematic degree.)

"That rain-forest experience"

I enjoyed this profile of a choirmaster who lives in the Cathedral Close at St. John the Divine.  I need to go and prowl around the cathedral sometime in the next couple weeks; I have a list of local spots of interest (Grant's Tomb, Sakura Park, Morningside Park) that I need to do some more footwork on so that I can make more of them in the revision of BOMH that I'll be working on over the winter break.  I am most anxious for the semester to be really and truly over so that I can clear the mental space for experiencing places and thinking those revisions through!  Two more very busy weeks, but if I am diligent and not overly dilatory about paper-marking I am mentally and logistically free from the 19th...

Determination and a towel

At the Observer Review, Kate Kellaway recommends Susie Parr's new book about wild swimming.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Swan songs

It is tempting to introduce this piece by John Banville about Harold Bloom's latest book under a rubric something like "Banville reads Bloom so you don't have to," but really it is a sympathetic and effective summary of some high points, and reminds me of what a great impression Bloom made on me when I took his Shakespeare seminar many years ago at Yale:
At a fundamental level, all of Bloom's work constitutes a sustained superlative for the Bard. "As a secularist with Gnostic proclivities," he writes, "and above all as a literary aesthete, I preach Bardolatry as the most benign of all religions." For him, simply, "Shakespeare is God".
Also: Diana Nyad, marathon swimmer.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Closing tabs

Very glad to be home again, but so tired that I really do not know what to do with myself!  (But probably it would be a good idea to get off the computer!)  Assignments to mark and letters of recommendation to write, but cannot face them quite yet...

Closing tabs:

Caroline Dworin's lovely and poignant piece about growing up inside of a stage set.

An interesting piece by Colleen Mondor about her book The Map of My Dead Pilots.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Requiem for the dragon lady

The other set of tabs I've had open on my computer for many days now: obituaries for Anne McCaffrey.  Oh, how I loved her books at age eleven and twelve - especially the Harper Hall trilogy, but really the Pern books more generally, and I think I must have read everything she published, at least if I could get my hands on a copy.  I still think I should have a clutch of fire lizards as pets!  It is the end of an era for me now, with Anne McCaffrey and Dick Francis representing the two pillars of my early adolescent light reading...


Contrary to the impression that may be created here, I usually enjoy an extremely quiet and solitary life!  Am slightly cracking under the pressure of so much human contact over the last week: each individual piece of Thanksgiving was nice, but cumulatively overwhelming, and having only got home Sunday night from Virginia via Amtrak, I was horrified and appalled to have to leave for the airport again less than 24 hours later!

Yesterday's BU lecture was very enjoyable (special thanks to the Light Reading fan, a BU Core alum, who came up afterwards to say hello!), and I've had the chance to catch up with various friends, but I am now completely behind on my normal end-of-semester school responsibilities and will collapse into my desk chair at home with a sigh of relief late this evening...

(Thursday and Friday this week are very busy, as are the next two weeks more generally, but I should be able to hole up this weekend and read the first of the two dissertations I need to get through this month.  I am desperate for (a) some down time and (b) clear mental space to revise my novel!)

Have had virtually no time to read, but I did enjoy Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia sequel Saints Astray and Marcus Sakey's At the City's Edge.  Halfway through Michael Lewis's Moneyball and enjoying it a good deal (it's free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime): I saw the movie with B. last week, and it struck me then as ideal Hollywood fare, but the book is inevitably considerably better due to its having much greater quantities of information and analysis!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Secrets of style

D. A. Miller, on the perverse relation of style to the marriage plot in Austen's fiction (today I am teaching Jane Austen, or The Secrets of Style): "Though the heroine’s adoption of style may  induce the courtship plot, what brings this plot to fruition—what gets her desire to quicken, too—is a moment of mortification when, the better to acquire the selfhood she had never before wanted, the heroine forsakesstyle; or rather, what is much more demeaning, she flattens it into a merely decorative reminiscence of itself, like a flower pressed into a wedding album."


A trove of unpublished works by Anthony Burgess.

Phil Hogan interviews Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for the Observer.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Closing tabs

It has been an unproductive day thus far in the sense that I have neither exercised nor done any 'real' work, but it was hugely beneficial in terms of mental health and tidying and organizing just to have a day at home sorting things out.  B. is arriving in an hour or so from the airport, and the apartment is ready for a visitor; the kitchen table (a.k.a. desk: it is actually an old drawing table bestowed on me by a neighbor in Cambridge c. 1993) is covered with neat piles of work and manuscripts; I have my Boston hotel reservation for the week immediately after Thanksgiving and have called in prescription refills and done a host of other minor errands of that sort.

I'm about halfway through John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead, and finding it completely mesmerizing.  His essay on Michael Jackson sent me last night to this uncanny clip.  

Life vicissitudes of A Very Young Dancer.

The uncanny red landscapes of Kodak Aerochrome.

Bret McKenzie of Conchords fame has written three songs for the new Muppets movie (the piece is by Adam Sternbergh).  Writing for Disney has its constraints:
For example: At one point, McKenzie wrote a lyrical joke for Kermit, in which he would sing, “I remember when I was just a little piece of felt.” That didn’t fly. “I was told: ‘You’re not allowed to do that. The Muppets have always existed. You can’t break down their world.’ ” Another rule: Frogs and bears and pigs can talk, but penguins and chickens can’t. They can cluck or squawk musically, but they can’t say words. “So I was like, ‘Can we get the penguins to sing?’ And they’d say: ‘No. Penguins don’t sing.’ ”
Last night I saw the slight but charming She Kills Monsters at the Flea; afterwards, the place we usually eat at after a show at the Flea was closed for a private party, so we checked out White & Church.  The menu is quite limited and the space and set-up give the feel more of a bar than a restaurant as such, but the food is superb.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Paper moon

Satyagraha was utterly magical.  That's the Times review, click through and watch the video if you have some spare minutes - I don't know that it conveys how lovely the music is, but it does give some approximate sense of the beauty of the mise-en-scene, especially the puppetry and the use of paper and other inexpensive props (I do not know that I have ever seen a better use of paper in a stage production).  It is later in Gandhi's life than his South African career that he would become strongly associated with the handloom, but there is a particularly beautiful scene that involves something like tape being wound back and forth across the stage like the warp on a simple mechanical loom - it is beautiful!

(I often think during a good masters swim workout that the pool exudes an industrious vibe much like a loom - this opera, too, gave me the feeling of structure and variation that is part of what I particularly enjoy about a very good swim workout.  Expansive, opening, industrious!)

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Tickling, Vociferating, Diving"

Post title from The Dunciad, selected early this morning - only I got too busy to actually write a post!  It is a good sequence of words, though....

Light reading from the end of last week: Richard Kadrey's latest Sandman Slim novel, Aloha From Hell (great voice, but feels a bit undermotivated in terms of plot and purpose); and Amy Waldman's The Submission.  I could criticize many things about this one, but that would be to ignore the fact that I started reading it as the plane taxied to takeoff (it was my non-Kindle book, and I expected to put it aside once the pilot gave the OK on electronic devices - the trick with these things is to choose something not so gripping that one can't have it for the landing also, i.e. that can be read in 15-minute stints over a couple of flights!) and couldn't put it down.  I finished reading pretty much exactly as the plane touched down at JFK (it's about a 3.5hr flight).  Highly immersive, despite some shallowness in the portraiture and occasional awkwardness in the writing.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Beautiful FT piece by Leah Price with interviews of writers and photographs of their libraries (FT site registration required).  It is a small sampler of what sounds like a book I must acquire as soon as possible: Unpacking My Library: Writers and their Books, published by Yale University Press later this month.

Also, Alan Garner, Alan Turing.  (Via Sarang.)  It would have to be said that few books I've ever read have stayed with me as strongly as Andrew Hodges's Alan Turing: The Enigma (read when I was 21 or so) and Alan Garner's The Owl Service (read when I was 8 or 9).  In short, a slightly uncanny nexus for me.

(NYRB Classics has just reissued Garner's novel Red Shift.)

End-of-week update

By dint of a fairly ferocious week-long effort I have now crossed off every single item but one on the list of work I brought with me (the exception is a small piece I said I'd write for Frequencies, and I can definitely write that later this evening or tomorrow before I have to go to the airport mid-afternoon).  Phew - contemplating the next three weeks is no longer inducing a minor nervous breakdown...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cult pork

McRib as arbitrage strategy?

(Via Tyler Cowen.)

Blissful news

I've been sitting on this since the end of last week.  Now it is official, I can announce it publicly! 

In general it always makes me happy to have positive arrangements sorted out for moving forward, but I'm particularly thrilled to be working with  Ed Park, longtime friend and literary co-conspirator: the conversation I had with him a couple weeks ago about what I might do to make the novel even better (book-writing is never done, and I am afraid I am an inveterate draft-writer!) was one of the most inspiring I've ever had.  Let the revisions begin - once this semester is through!

Guggenheim recipient and Columbia professor Jenny Davidson's THE MAGIC CIRCLE, revolving around three women friends in their thirties who all share a passion for gaming, with shocking results, to Ed Park at Amazon Publishing, for publication in Winter 2013, by Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management (World English).

"Germany becomes Greek!"

At the LRB blog, Tom McCarthy on Kittler's gramophones.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Timetable woes

Had a minor but total freakout late this afternoon when I realized that I had mentally inserted an imaginary week into my schedule between now and Thanksgiving.  When am I going to get all that work done?!?

(The realization came to me as I corresponded with the curators at the Berg Collection at the NYPL, who are generously doing a session for my undergraduate class at a time they persistently referred to as 'next week' - I almost wrote back to correct them and tell them it is scheduled for the 17th, then had my horrifying revelation!)


(The problem is that on top of normal school stuff, I have overscheduled a bunch of optional but non-opt-outable things of value for next week: Monday heavy teaching load and a set of assignments coming in, then I have opera tickets for Tuesday, seeing a play with G. on Wednesday, NYPL session Thursday evening and also B. is arriving from the airport, another opera on Saturday, then Monday seminars, then the evils of Thanksgiving which is the worst-timed holiday in the academic year; the real problem is that I won't be home till Sunday night on the 27th, then teach both classes Monday and fly to Boston Monday evening to give an as-yet-unwritten lecture on Gulliver's Travels on Tuesday to the students in the core curriculum at BU!  I thought I was going to get all of the post-Thanksgiving week's work done before B. got to NYC, only now I realize that I am only home for 4 days before he comes, so that it is not at all a realistic plan!  I do have a five-hour train ride on Sunday the 27th from Manassas to NYC, so I will hope to get substantive work done then also, but Amtrak is always very crowded that weekend and it's not always an environment conducive to work.)

(In retrospect there is one other major piece of work - 6-7 novels I need to read for a prize committee - that I should have brought with me to Cayman, only now it is too late to do anything about it...)

The long and the short: the next six weeks are going to be extremely demanding, I'd better pace myself?

Monday, November 07, 2011

Holiday edition

The sad truth about Columbia's election holiday is that I mostly use it to catch up on work!  Just finishing a tenure letter for a scholar at another university (these are time-consuming) and will spend Tuesday and Wednesday working on a similar letter for an untenured but prolific colleague at my home institution as well as writing several other letters of recommendation and an overdue reader's report on a journal article. 

On the bright side, though, I'm in an environment full of lizards and chickens; I got to do an Olympic-distance triathlon yesterday; I intend to go to yoga every day this week unless the minor sinus infection that has been teasing me since Friday escalates; and I read two very enjoyable books, quite different from each other, during Friday travels: Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia, which was so thoroughly immersive that I gnashed my teeth when I finished it and realized I couldn't get the next installment for my Kindle until November 22; and Siddartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, which is so fascinating and so well-written that I gnashed my teeth at the thought that I am not capable of writing such a book myself.  It was a satisfactory day of reading that took away the pains of a long layover in the Miami airport!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I am not much of a one for Halloween, but I got home on Monday just as large numbers of highly excited children were congregating in the building lobby for the annual Halloween party and maniacal subsequent hallway-and-stairwell trick-or-treating, and was swept up in the hospitality of some neighbors I like very much but don't see too often!  Walked away from their place an hour or so later feeling the soothing effects of cheese, beer and candy but also with a real treat tucked under my arm: an advance copy of Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers, a novel I have been coveting ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. 

I am very happy to report that it is divinely satisfactory, her best book yet (which is saying quite a lot).  It is also curiously and perfectly suited to my own reading tastes: imagine faint shades of Ishiguro's The Unconsoled and Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, a way with steeply pitched verbs that's slightly reminiscent of Gary Lutz or Sam Lipsyte ("magneted," "throttled up," "pay-per-viewing"), a quasi-Parkian reflection on disambiguation and an amazing new definition of override, an eclectic and idiosyncratic mix of occult and spiritualist references, the notions that the "oblique glimpses into the lives of cinema strangers" one gets from seeing foreign films might be the only thing that would partly compensate one for the cessation of "psychic forays" and that parapsychologists would never use social networks due to the fact that they're "'a boon for psychic attackers.'" In short, an unusual and memorable first-person narrator, a fantastic and compelling story - strongly recommended...

Two other things I also liked very much this week: N. K. Jemisin's novel The Kingdom of Gods, the final volume of her excellent Inheritance trilogy; and a gripping Kindle Single by Mishka Shubaly, The Long Run.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The weekend edition

Have finished all reading for tomorrow (a good chunk of Jonathan Arac's Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies, Gulliver's Travels and Terry Castle's essay "Why the Houyhnhnms Don't Write"); must write comments on at least a few assignments before I stop work for the evening, but really I am weary and will have to do the rest of them and prepare actual classes in the early morning tomorrow.

The Philadelphia trip today was tiring but worthwhile (fortunately my trains weren't seriously delayed - all sorts of other Amtrak and New Jersey transit trains were canceled or delayed by hours due to yesterday's storm).  Bonus: the birthday party featured two different kinds of cake, both very delicious! One was daffodil cake, courtesy of E. and the Spring Mill Cafe (it is a very good light angel's food cake with whipped cream and lemon curd); the other (I think I have its provenance right) was the amazingly good red velvet cake from Golosa.  My preferred cake of that ilk is carrot or pumpkin bread, not red velvet, as I am suspicious of the notion of ingesting large amounts of red food coloring (or on the other hand why not just have chocolate cake if you are moving in that direction?); but it is very good, the icing was perfect....

I have a lot to do this week, but on Friday morning I am leaving the country for a week at B.'s place!  Will have to take a heap of work with me, it is true, but it will be good nonetheless: I am taking advantage of Columbia's oddly timed election holiday and a week with no actual teaching or office-hour obligations.  It is fortuitous that I will be able to participate in the Cayman Islands Triathlon a week from today; also, there is an 800m swim race next Saturday, rescheduled from October due to weather, so there's no reason I shouldn't do that also.  Due to a combination of insufficient training on my part and the fact that exclusively quite fast people do triathlons in Cayman, I will certainly be one of the last couple finishers, but it should be enjoyable nonetheless, though I will be cursing my lack of heat acclimation on the run...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I must say

that I am mighty tempted to secure a seat for one of these Ring Cycle series in the spring.  I don't know Wagner's music well at all, so it is more a program of self-education than of true self-lavishing pleasure, but it seems as though it might be worthwhile, and I do not know when I'll have such an easy chance again.  I have a ticket (up in the very highest, farthest-away seats, through bargain CU ticket-purchasing!) to the Philip Glass Satyagraha for later this month, I might scope out which of the not-quite-cheapest-but-not-so-expensive seats would seem an improvement on the basics if I were to go to Wagner - there are operas I will see from the furthest distance and steepest and most vertiginous seating (namely, anything Mozart), whereas Verdi et al. I will only see from lavishly expensive seats paid for by someone other than myself.  Wagner might fall somewhere between the two.... On the other hand, there are the HD simulcast performances also, where (as it has been observed) one can slip out to use the bathroom and get a drink of water...*

(It was this NYT review of Siegfried that made me think of it.  It is a minor point, but Eric Owens was my Philadelphia contemporary and the star student of my oboe teacher Susan Simon: I didn't know him in those days other than in passing, i.e. at Settlement music recitals, but he was one of those incredibly talented multifaceted musicians who you are not at all surprised to hear years later praised in print in the most glowing terms...)

* (Actually I have looked up the text of the FT interview with Thomas Larcher that I had in mind, and it is more vivid than my paraphrase: “If a four-hour Morton Feldman quartet is performed in a concert hall, you start thinking after 90 minutes ‘Well, I really have to go to the loo’. And after two and a half hours it’s martyrdom. But if you’re listening to the recording at home, while lying in bed and smoking some dope, it can be great.")

Black velvet icing

At the FT, Rebecca Rose on the Experimental Food Society (FT site registration required).  Great pictures there: I want a sugarcraft eagle and an Eiffel Tower made of Curly Wurly bars!  The Experimental Food Society website has more pictures...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A ticket to Buffalo

I fear I am about to explode from stress at the amount of work I need to get done in the next four days in and around other commitments!

Finished Colson Whitehead's Zone One.  The writing is incredibly sharp, and I loved the first third or so, but I found my enthusiasm slightly cooling due to relative lack of plot.  I definitely still recommend it, but not as passionately as I might have on the basis of early passages like this one:
There were your standard-issue skels, and then there were the stragglers.  Most skels, they moved.  They came to eat you--not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague.  Cut off their feet, chop off their legs, and they'd gnash the air as they heaved themselves forward by their splintered fingernails, looking for some ankle action.  The marines had eliminated most of this variety before the sweepers arrived.
The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that's what made them a suitable objective for civilian units.  They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond.  An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand.  The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur.  The patient failed to arrive, was quite tardy, was dead, was running through a swamp with a hatchet, pursued by monsters.  The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument, frozen, sans customers, the left shoes of his bountiful stock on display along the walls of the shop on miniature plastic ledges.  The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty, the tiny bottles containing gel-capped ancient remedies and placebos.  The owner of the plant store dipped her fingers into the soil of a pot earmarked for a city plant, one hearty in the way the shop's customers were hearty, for wasn't every citizen on the grand island a sort of sturdy indoor variety that didn't need much sunlight. . . .
Anyway, it is very lovely writing, in a hybrid satirical-elegiac vein.

Also, and this really was the perfect light reading, the first installment of Denise Mina's new series, Still Midnight, which really is pretty much exactly what I most enjoy in this vein.  Unfortunately I purchased that and its sequel in haste without realizing that I had already read The End of the Wasp Season - I had it in the form of a 'real' book, and even the Amazon website is not capable of telling me that I bought a paper version of the book at a Chapters in Ottawa in June!  (If memory serves...)

Monday, October 24, 2011

A digression in the modern kind

An odd, almost eerily matched pair of readings for my two different independent studies meetings this week (fortunately I have read both very recently and will not need to do any particular preparation): Swift's Tale of a Tub and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow....

Weighty tomes

How much do your e-books weigh?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"My panache"

I saw this performance what was probably later the same year when it moved to New York (it was my Christmas present, my mother and I went up on Amtrak to NYC for the day - a sort of extravagance we never did in those days! - to see the pair of RSC productions, Derek Jacobi in Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac). I've seen only a handful of things since that could claim to match it, I'd say...

Of book readers and book writers

My friend Rebecca Steinitz has written an interesting and moving column on what it feels like to go from being a lifelong reader to becoming the author of a published book, and how an academic career left behind may be more continuous with subsequent choices and experiences than it seems at the time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Peek Freans redux

It was clear from the general drift of reviews by James Wood at the New Yorker and Daniel Mendelsohn at the New York Review of Books that readers were not finding Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child an achievement on the order of The Line of Beauty, which is high on my own personal shortlist of novels at the perfect intersection of critical interestingness and passionate reader-love; now that I've read the new novel, I wouldn't say that I agree with all of the specifics of either critic's anatomizing of the book's flaws and failures (Wood is much too harsh on the Jamesian echoes, Mendelson emphasizes The Swimming Pool Library too much at the expense of The Folding Star which I am convinced is Hollinghurst's other masterpiece and the book I must soonest reread, I also don't at all see that it would have been a good idea for Hollinghurst to produce more of 'Cecil Valance''s poetry a-la-Possession), but there's no doubt that it doesn't add up to something especially substantial, as lovely as the bits may be. I enjoyed it a good deal, though, and I may give it a reread in six months or so to see if it shakes out differently for me at that point.

(I was fascinated by the way that in the section titled 'Steady, boys, steady!' the protagonist of Line of Beauty has here been split into two different characters, Peter and Paul; it's something like what Austen does, sequentially, as she rewrites pairs of heroines from Sense and Sensibility to Pride and Prejudice to Mansfield Park.)

Phrases that struck and pleased me:

- of a teacher, doing something at 9.35, "with the recurrent momentary dread and resolve that come with living by a timetable";

- of the same character's playing four-hand piano music with an older female character who is a much better pianist than he is (I love four-hands piano music as it was something my mother played now and again in my childhood, very well, an appealing mini-canon of early twentieth-century stuff):
There was an undeniable intimacy in the four-hand sessions with Corinna. Sharing her piano stool, he had a sense of the complete firmness of her person, her corseted side and hard bust, their hips rolling together as they reached and occasionally crossed on the keyboard. As the secondo player he did all the pedalling, but her legs sometimes jerked against his as if fighting the impulse to pedal herself. The contact was technical, of course, like that in sport, and not to be confused with other kinds of touching. None the less he felt she enjoyed it, she liked the businesslike rigour of its not being sexual as well as the unmentionable fraction by which it was.
- the pastiche bit of Dudley Valance's autobiography that describes his mother's "book tests," spiritualist exercises in the library

- of the callow young aspiring biographer, visiting an editor at the offices of the TLS as the "trolley stacked high with tightly bound bales of newsprint" arrives: "In a moment the plastic tape was snipped, and the top copy plucked up and turned and presented to Paul with a casual flourish: 'For you!' - the new TLS - Friday's TLS, ready two days early, 'hot off the press' someone said, enjoying his reactions, though in fact the paper was cool to the touch, even slightly damp" (and then the last sentences of the chapter, a few paragraphs later: "He kept his copy of the day-after-tomorrow's TLS under his arm, which he wanted very much to be seen with. He didn't think the people in the street here were getting the point of it - but back in the North Reading-Room of the British Library he felt it might stir a good deal of envy and conjecture" - the repetition of the letters TLS is almost like the barouche-landau in Emma)

And finally, because I have had a longstanding obsession with the Peek Freans 'fruit creme' biscuit, a childhood favorite that recently somewhat unfortunately reentered my current realm of preoccupation by way of the ruminations and biscuit-eating practices of Walter on Fringe (I almost bought exactly this box of biscuits in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, only it was not the moment - but I was certainly looking at them longingly! - the name itself is so mouth-alluring and peculiar to the eye, it's definitely part of the charm, though I am not underrating the appeal of the 'creme' and also the tug of the surprisingly chewy fruit jelly in the cookie that is the one I particularly like):
Next morning Paul sat in his hotel room, going over his notes, with a coffee tray beside him: the pitted metal pot with the untouchable handle, the lipsticked cup, the bowl of white sugar in soft paper tubes which he emptied serially into the three strong cupfuls he took, getting quickly excited and overheated. On a plate with a doily were five biscuits, and though he'd only just had breakfast he ate them all, the types so familiar - the Bourbon, the sugared Nice, the rebarbative ginger-nut, popped in whole - that he was touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life, as crystallized in the Peek Frean assortment box.
Light reading around the edges: Nina Kiriki Hoffman's A Red Heart of Memories (a Jo Walton recommendation); Elizabeth Haynes's Into the Darkest Corner (very good, very scary) and Thomas Enger's Burned (also very good, I thought - showing slightly the signs of inexperience in the writing, but I will eagerly read subsequent installments in the series); and another crime novel I found somewhat silly, Colin Cotterill's Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

The flea's progress

Fantastic piece by Will Self at the Guardian about the trouble with his blood. Warning: don't click through if you have trouble reading about needles and blood-related grotesquerie!...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Montessori school I went to for kindergarten used composition books for children to keep track of their assignments.  Young Jenny Davidson's handwriting improved a good deal over the course of that year...

(This book lets me say with certainty that I first read Charlotte's Web in April 1977 - I remember being very struck by the revelation that county was a different word from country!)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Delay, deferral

From Johnson's "Life of Pope," on Pope's Iliad translation:
When we find him translating fifty lines a day, it is natural to suppose that he would have brought his work to a more speedy conclusion. The Iliad, containing less than sixteen thousand verses, might have been despatched in less than three hundred and twenty days by fifty verses in a day. The notes, compiled with the assistance of his mercenaries, could not be supposed to require more time than the text. According to this calculation, the progress of Pope may seem to have been slow; but the distance is commonly very great between actual performances and speculative possibility. It is natural to suppose, that as much as has been done to-day may be done to-morrow; but on the morrow some difficulty emerges, or some external impediment obstructs. Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted. Perhaps no extensive and multifarious performance was ever effected within the term originally fixed in the undertaker's mind. He that runs against Time, has an antagonist not subject to casualties.