Thursday, April 28, 2011

The poison-dart frog, the three-toed sloth

Spent the evening finishing reading a dissertation that's being defended tomorrow. Encountered, for what I believe may be the first time, Wordsworth's draft epitaph for Charles Lamb: I am not sure I can find it online, but it includes the wonderfully awful lines "From the most gentle creature nursed in fields / Had been derived the name he bore" (it also was much too long to be inscribed on an actual tombstone, which bespeaks a certain self-involvement inappropriate to the occasion!).

It is a commonplace to say of Wordsworth's style that his strengths are also, often, his very great weaknesses. Here is another sentiment that caught my eye as I read, this one from a much better-known poem, and that makes me laugh and cringe: "I’d rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn." There is considerable evidence to show that Wordsworth himself was aware of this effect of risibility and sometimes mobilized it deliberately; nonetheless, I cannot feel I am an ideal reader for this particular poet...

Saw a very good theater piece last night, Future Anxiety at the Flea. From the description, it sounded as though it might be moralizing or preachy (a play about extinction and climate change!), but it is actually incredibly funny and also dementedly science-fictional in a way I very much enjoy; the dialogue is hilarious and sometimes quite moving also, and the performances, too, were excellent. Strongly recommended. (7pm curtain, eighty minutes running time!)

We were two for two, it turned out (too often dinner is better than the play): dinner at Petrarca was also excellent. We shared the piatto rustico, which basically should make that restaurant a destination for anyone who likes cured products of the pig (go there in the early evening, order that platter and a bottle of wine, you and a companion will basically have your whole dinner off it); then I had a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and fresh berries with zabaglione for dessert.

Have only had time for some small bits and bobs of light reading on the side, and am too lazy to sum it up now; I think I must go now and read a serial-killer thriller to wind down...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Human-armadillo contact continues to lead to leprosy cases!

A long career

Donald Keene retires from Columbia at 88 and moves to Japan: it is an unusual and amazing story.

(I often think, for myself, that really I will need to take the next interesting and suitable job that is offered to me, should there be one, just because I fear that I will stagnate or be psychologically and professionally deformed (!) if I spend my entire teaching career at a single university; I started teaching at Columbia in 2000, that's already eleven years in one institution, it seems like quite a long time. I like it here very much, the students are unbeatable and Manhattan is the place I would choose to live above all others, and yet at some point I may need to tear myself away...)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Evening update

It's difficult to explain how crazy it's been round here; partly I just always feel off-kilter if I don't have quite a bit of quiet time at home, something that's been singularly lacking, and then of course it's the craziest time in the semester...

I finished up two non-school things today that have turned my apartment into a chaos of books and papers (a review and a late-stage supplement to someone else's interview for a literary journal); I got a much-needed haircut in the late morning; in the afternoon it became clear to me that pretty much the only thing I could do was take a nap (they are doing horrifyingly loud facade work outside my apartment, like right outside, but I closed all the windows and doors I could and then put the duvet very firmly over my head and gave myself over to sleep). I slept in a sort of paralysis for a couple of hours; it was probably the deepest sleep I've had for several weeks.

I had a good run this morning, and when I got home from swimming this evening I took an hour to finally tidy up the chaos - recycling all the printed-out drafts of things, stacking library books on shelves, getting rid of old magazines and mail and sorting out the huge detritus of triathlon training. (Triathlon and writing basically have the same effect on my apartment, they introduce significant disarray until things get so bad that a brief lull gives me the impetus to impose my will once more on the random chaos.)

Now I have an absolutely huge mound of student work that must be read tonight; these couple pieces of outside work, plus the usual extra talks and lectures one needs to attend at this time of year, have left me very much behind on marking assignments. But the (relative) tidiness of my surroundings persuades me that it is possible I will actually get everything done in the next week that I need to....

iPhone forensics

Your phone knows more about you than you think: Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


"As long as you train them, they really like to do it": competitive rabbit jumping in Scandinavia! (Via Carrie Frye.)

Fiendishly busy for the next week and a half, so much so that I do not quite know how it is all going to get done. There probably won't be much blogging as I am too busy even to be at the computer!

Good things this weekend: a talk about disfigurement, disability and eighteenth-century poetic form by one of my intellectual and academic role models, the excellent Helen Deutsch, and a very lovely dinner afterwards at a colleague's house; Thomas Bartlett's musical salon at Poisson Rouge (it was a birthday celebration for my friend and former student Evans Richardson, and this is the set list), and a party afterwards in an uptown location for once (123rd and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. - I could walk home)!

Off shortly to family Easter celebration in New Jersey. Chocolate coconut cream eggs may be involved...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Life on the pornographic fur carpet

Elif Batuman's essay at the Guardian on life after a bestseller: very strongly recommended! I did actually laugh out loud a few times, although really and truly I am so much this essay's target audience that it is perhaps not fair to generalize that everyone will love it as much as I did...

Here is a taste of its charms, though. The before:
I was young when I wrote "Babel in California." "As a 6ft-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew": I would never write something like that now. I would never have written something like that if I hadn't been a graduate student, riding around on a bicycle, falling asleep in libraries, living on lentils and feeling myself to be, rightly or wrongly, and despite the genuine kindness and generosity of most of my professors, perpetually enmeshed in a low-grade opposition with a world that considered me unprepared – by youth, if not nationality or anything more sinister – for dialogue with the great chroniclers of the human condition.

"Babel in California" appeared in the small – at the time, tiny – magazine, n+1 in 2005. It caught the attention of the editor of the New Yorker. In 2006, I published my first New Yorker article: a profile of a Thai champion kick-boxer who had opened a school in San Francisco. I started getting emails from literary agencies. I settled on my current agent, whom I like very much. My agent thought it would be nice if I wrote my first book about America's growing women's mixed martial arts scene; I, meanwhile, wanted to write a novelistic retelling of Dostoevsky's Demons, set in a Stanford-like literature department.
The after:
I particularly remember my first magazine photo shoot, where I had to lie on my back on a piece of fluorescent green imitation fur, clutching to my bosom a Russian-language volume of Dostoevsky. The photographer stood over me on a ladder, snapping pictures. His assistant, peering through thick plastic glasses at the digital screen, opined that the pictures were coming out "too sultry". She said I was showing "too much neck". Overcoming a sense of injustice – if I hadn't been lying on my back on some kind of pornographic fur carpet, maybe my neck wouldn't have looked so sultry – I changed into a higher collar. Because the cover of the Dostoevsky was so brown, we switched to a green leatherette Pushkin. "Look like you're reading," the photographer suggested. Opening the book at random, I found myself staring at the epilogue to "The Gypsies": "There is no defence against fate."


At the TLS, a dispiriting but all-too-persuasive piece by Tim Parks about the paradoxes of 'international literature':
When I started writing in the late 1970s, one still thought of a book as directed towards a national audience. Today, a first draft, a first chapter, by Jonathan Franzen can be emailed to a score of publishers worldwide. And if, nevertheless, Franzen can continue to write in a traditional fashion and to address himself largely to an American readership, describing in meticulous detail every aspect of American life, that is only because America is very much the object of the world’s attention. In a study I have been directing at IULM University in Milan, we have compared the number of articles in the cultural pages of major newspapers dedicated to Italian authors and the authors of other nations. The space given to America is quite disproportionate. American authors, far more than their British, French or German counterparts, need not make any special claims to international attention. No novelty is required. The opposite is true for the writer from Serbia, the Czech Republic or Holland. A writer from these countries must come up with something impressive and unusual in terms of content and style if a global audience is to be reached. Five hundred pages of Franzen-like details about popular mores in Belgrade or Warsaw would not attract a large advance.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Topical buns

This piece has given me an insatiable craving for a hot cross bun... (Link via Marina G.)

Put out to pasture

Rick Moody talks to Moby about the winsome anthropology of the drum machine.

(NB though I love the coinage equestrianizing as an analogy to anthropomorphizing only for horses, I think that really an equestrian is also a person; I am tempted to suggest instead the more opaque and misleading but equally appealing hippomorphizing instead!)

Monday, April 18, 2011


Artist Susan Lenz's post on the actual Florestine dresses as they made their presence felt this weekend. Here is her Flickr set, which includes photos from the 2008 show of the dresses at the McKitterick Gallery; I look very large in this one, alas, but it is nonetheless a nice picture of me (green dress, sunglasses) and college friend Ariane (blue). (Those dresses are a little like the Traveling Pants - they will fit almost anybody, within reason...)

"The two trumpets will be blown"

Trumpets of the Pharaohs! (Courtesy of Lena Strayhorn.)


At Slate, Paul Collins considers the etymology of the term "shit-faced." (Via John Staines.)

Paul must not have had a copy of Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang to hand. If he had, he would have surely quoted an early entry for the first sense of "stupid, ignorant" (a letter by Hemingway: "Some shitfaced critic writes Mr Hemingway retires to his comfortable library to write about despair"), and also the classic instance of the second sense ("very drunk") as it appears in the movie Heathers: "Okay, just as long as it's not one of those nights when they get shit-faced and take us to a pasture to tip cows."

I will write a longer post at some point (possibly even later this week) about The Florestine Collection. One of the most moving things was learning that the beautiful little cinema in Columbia, South Carolina called the Nickelodeon, whose proprietors have been hugely supportive regarding Helen's films, has raised significant funds towards expansion and is going to name the new media education center after Helen. This is definitely a cause I'll be doing some fund-raising for; I'll perhaps post something here once I have more details.

Have only really been consuming the most undemanding of light reading, given travel etc.: Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man (highly worthwhile, and possibly even my favorite installment in the entire series); Michael Connelly, The Fifth Witness (reliably enjoyable, only a bit dull in parts due to high levels of courtroom content and also the central "clue" unduly jumps off the page, I didn't work out the twist but I was well aware that it must incorporate this detail, which I think is a slight technical failure on Connelly's part).

Before I was traveling (too busy last week to update, or else I have already listed these and subsequently forgotten?): Holly Black, Red Glove (enjoyed very much); Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (unsettling, good in many ways, not perhaps so much my cup of tea - too much Sartrean afterlife as a teenage reader, no strong preference for this sort of Jonathan Carroll-style vision of afterlife!); Sophie Hannah's Little Face (implausible and with a needlessly complex timeline but more or less readable); Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog (loved it - I will read anything she writes, the texture paragraph by paragraph is just so good!).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Crusoe's island

I was both interested in and strangely bored by Jonathan Franzen's essay in this week's New Yorker on his friendship with David Foster Wallace and the strange allure of visiting a desert island with only a copy of Robinson Crusoe.

It is appropriate to the subject of the essay that it should be boring in parts.

(I was tickled by the birding detail about having already seen Crusoe's "two endemic land-bird species" and losing patience with the notion of another week on a small and isolated island where one wouldn't see any new birds!)

(Also tickled by Franzen's evident enthusiasm for Pamela - but he really should read Clarissa!....)

The bit that most caught my attention, both because I found it extremely sharp and perceptive in its phrasing and because I wondered whether it would be endorsed by others who spent intimate time with DFW in the last year of his life (it refers specifically to DFW's decision, after twenty years, to stop taking the antidepressant Nardil):
He made strange and seemingly self-defeating decisions about his care, engaged in a fair amount of bamboozlement of his shrinks (whom one can only pity for having drawn such a brilliantly complicated case), and in the end created an entire secret life devoted to suicide. Throughout that year, the David whom I knew well and loved immoderately was struggling bravely to build a more secure foundation for his work and his life, contending with heartbreaking levels of anxiety and pain, while the David whom I knew less well, but still well enough to have always disliked and distrusted, was methodically plotting his own destruction and his revenge on those who loved him.
It is like something out of a novel by Susan Howatch, somehow; but is it perceptive and true or perceptive and false? Impossible for me to say...

The Chinese 4-suited money pack

Unsolved Problems in Playing Card Research. (Via Bookforum, who found it here.)

The Florestine Collection

A story about Helen Hill and how her husband Paul Gailiunas finished her last film.

I'm heading to South Carolina tomorrow for the premiere; it is a bittersweet prospect, but it will be good to see so many of Helen's family and friends gathered in one place, and of course I am very much looking forward to seeing the film itself. I visited Helen and Paul in New Orleans not long after she had first discovered those dresses in trash bags on the curb, and the brightness of her face as she described the treasure and showed me some of the dresses is still very vivid to me.

(It may have been the same visit where she introduced me to Rosie the pig, a delightful housemate, and warned me that if I had a lipstick in my bag, I had better put the bag up out of reach on a high shelf: pigs will root through handbags and snuffle up as delicious anything that is made of animal or vegetable fat!)

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Books are like people"

Parul Sehgal interviews Steve Burt for PW on the art of reviewing, and it is a good one:
Do you have a set of criteria that you hold all poems to–or do you think each poem demands/invents its own set of criteria?

“You must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good” (William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity).

On the other hand, “books are like people, and make the same demands on us to understand and like them” (Auden, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents). I want poems that instruct or delight, that do something new, that either compel, or invite, me to pay attention; when a poem seems to go on forever, to whisper inaudibly for a very long time or to shout without respite or to imitate somebody else in every particular or to tout banalities, I turn away for the same set of reasons that I would turn away when a person did so—though, as with a person, there might be good reason to overcome initial distaste.
I am slightly laughing at Steve's observation that he is at work on four books, but only slightly; a quick look at my sidebar will reveal that I have three on the go, and really I have a stealth fourth one too that is in competition with the ABCs of the novel for my chief intellectual attention (a little book on the battle of ancients and moderns - but first I think I should teach a class with that theme and see how it falls out).


Macbeth at BAM was just about adequate; some good touches in the staging, and not bad acting all round, but they were doing something with the line delivery that makes me crazy, it is the regardless-of-syntax pause before an important word ("ravelled--SLEEVE"), and there was also something very ill-advised going on with the accents: at some point someone must have had a theory, but there was no sign in evidence of a coherent rationale for why one character spoke officer-class English-accented English and another working-class, one Scottish of one stamp and one Scottish of another....

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Culture industries

Tim Adams interviews Karen Green about David Foster Wallace for the Observer; it is a good piece, distressing but good.

Should be finishing up rereading various stuff for my classes tomorrow (Marcel Mauss on techniques of the body and Peter Holland on "hearing" the dead Garrick speak for my drama lecture, a funny trio of theoretical readings for the novel class that includes a chunk of Ian Watt on realism, the opening chapter of Auerbach's Mimesis and some bits of Todorov). Instead got sucked in to rereading big swathes of Stefan Collini's Absent Minds. (The outsiders chapter is brilliant!) Collini is speaking tomorrow (Monday) at the Heyman Center on "The Idea of the University" (I will be introducing him there), and then again on Tuesday in the same place but at 5pm to the British Studies Group on the intriguing topic of "History in English Literary Criticism."


It did not look like a very comfortable spot to me, but then I am not a cat...

Friday, April 08, 2011

Friday night lights

The play was utterly dreadful; the best thing that can be said for it that it was a 7:30 curtain and only an hour and ten minutes running time. (Obstreperous gentleman behind us, to his wife, as others clapped at the end: "Seventy minutes of bullshit!") And we struck out at Esca and the restaurant across the street, it was too early and too crowded, we did not have the patience for a twenty-minute wait; but ended up having a very good dinner anyway at Rachel's. I had the chef's salad, as I had already had small dinner #1 at home after installments one and two of massive ironman weekend training; but I tasted my dinner companion's meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and they were fairly divinely good!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


I was intrigued to learn earlier today that the inventor of the Pringles can was so proud that he asked for his ashes to be interred in one; further illumination arrives via Alexis Madrigal (and a surprising sequel featuring a can of Pringles and a very young Brad Pitt).

(I well remember the first Pringles I ever encountered as a child. I was probably five years old? They were not in the can; they had been laid out, decoratively, on some sort of a platter at the house of a family we knew from Montessori school, and they struck me as so much the most sublimely delicious food that I basically couldn't believe they existed. The only other early food encounter that holds a candle to it is my first time eating meringues, at my Aunt Pauline's house. Really Pringles and meringues have a certain amount in common [lack of substantiality, simple saltiness or sweetness], and they are both still foods that I can get pretty excited about, though it happens more frequently that I encounter a Pringle than a meringue...)

"Up to Lexington, 125"

The rock map of Manhattan? (Via Bookforum.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


A detail that tickled me in Sarah Bakewell's Montaigne book: her comment on the style of Montaigne's early English translator John Florio.
Where Montaigne writes, ‘Our Germans, drowned in wine’ (nos Allemans, noyez dan le vin), Florio has ‘our carowsing tospot German souldiers, when they are most plunged in their cups, and as drunke as Rats’. A phrase which the modern translator Donald Frame renders calmly as ‘werewolves, goblins, and chimeras’ emerges from Floriation as ‘Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-beares and Chimeraes’ – a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Natalie Angier has a really nice piece in the Science Times about Thomas Eisner, who died last month:
Ian Baldwin, a professor of molecular ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany, who studied with Dr. Eisner in the 1980s, said of his mentor: “He articulated the value of natural history discovery in a time of natural history myopia. We train biologists today who can’t identify more than four species, who only know how to do digital biology, but the world of analog biology is the world we live in. Tom was a visionary for nonmodel systems. He created narratives around everything he did.”
The book of Eisner's that I think should be in every person's library is the dazzling volume For Love of Insects....

Also: Alexis Madrigal's new book sounds great.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Dateline: Philadelphia, for my nephew's fourth birthday.  My brother made a stencil and used cake spray paint for the icing...