Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pantone cookies

These are among the most alluring sweets I have ever seen...

Two bits

I'm supervising two independent studies this semester, and in both cases our first substantive meetings are today. (Usually I think I'm going to try and cram them into Tuesday, when I'm in my office to do office hours anyway, but this week it simply wasn't plausible, and in fact it may be a generally unrealistic notion as I also use Tuesdays for a committee meeting I attend regularly, for department faculty meetings and for meetings with grad students doing oral exams or needing substantive meetings on drafts.)

Today's readings provide a particularly incongruous juxtaposition!

From Alain Robbe-Grillet's Project for a Revolution in New York:
"What do you see from the window of this apartment?"

"Central Park."

(That's what it had looked like to me.)

"Is this part of it lit?"

"Yes, dimly . . . There's a streetlamp."

"And what can be seen near the streetlamp?"

"Three people."

"Of which sex?"

"Two men, a woman. . . She's wearing pants and a cap, but you can see her breasts under her sweater."

"What is this lady's name?"

"Her name--or at least what they call her--is Joan Robeson, or sometimes Robertson too."

"What does she do?"

"She's one of the fake nurses who works for Doctor Morgan, the psychoanalyst whose office is in the Forty-second Street subway station. The other nurses are blond, and . . ."

"But what is she doing here, now, in the bushes bordering the park, with those two men? And who are those two men?"

"That's easy: one is Ben-Said, the other is the narrator. The three of them are loading cartons of marijuana cigarettes disguised as ordinary Philip Morrises into a white Buick."
From Hume's Essays, more particularly the essay "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing":
There is no subject in critical learning more copious, than this of the just mixture of simplicity and refinement in writing; and therefore, not to wander in too large a field, I shall confine myself to a few general observations on that head.

First, I observe, That though excesses of both kinds are to be avoided, and though a proper medium ought to be studied in all productions; yet this medium lies not in a point, but admits of a considerable latitude. Consider the wide distance, in this respect, between Mr. POPE and LUCRETIUS. These seem to lie in the two greatest extremes of refinement and simplicity, in which a poet can indulge himself, without being guilty of any blameable excess. All this interval may be filled with poets, who may differ from each other, but may be equally admirable, each in his peculiar stile and manner. CORNEILLE and CONGREVE, who carry their wit and refinement somewhat farther than Mr. POPE (if poets of so different a kind can be compared together), and SOPHOCLES and TERENCE, who are more simple than LUCRETIUS, seem to have gone out of that medium, in which the most perfect productions are found, and to be guilty of some excess in these opposite characters. Of all the great poets, VIRGIL and RACINE, in my opinion, lie nearest the center, and are the farthest removed from both the extremities.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Closing tabs

Yesterday was a complex and rewarding day (got up at 5:45, rode my bike downtown for 7am boot camp at Chelsea Piers, then back uptown to teach Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden in the morning and Swift's Argument Against Abolishing Christianity and Johnson's Life of Swift in the afternoon, then musings on Helen Hill's film "The Florestine Collection" and a pizza party at my place afterwards for colleagues, friends and family, my own and Helen's, lay my head down on the pillow around 1am).

Today I am knackered!

Had a very productive afternoon appointment with a pulmonary specialist who has a number of thoughts on how I might tackle the exercise-induced asthma (he also recommends a mighty tome that I have ordered through BorrowDirect; it is prohibitively - comically! - expensive, it is for clinicians!), took a long nap and have spent the rest of the evening devouring Lee Child's The Affair.

I have some treats for upcoming days: the book party for Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods (here's a good interview at Bookforum, and I am delighted to say that Helen is also going to catsit for me next week while I am in Ottawa next week for a visit with Brent's parental units); a production of The Bald Soprano...

Miscellaneous linkage:

Benjamin Weiss defends the Cambridge History of the American Novel against Joseph Epstein's depredations. (These controversies make me throw up my hands in perplexity, I see that they are still 'live' in some sense but they bear no relation to my own personal lived experience of reading and writing and teaching in the academy, so it is hard for me to take them seriously as an account of true living intellectual controversies as opposed to some sort of late-stage playing-out of a long battle between ancients and moderns. I really am going to teach a class on the battle of ancients and moderns one of these days, by the way...)

B. R. Myers at the Atlantic on Peter Temple's crime fiction.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sweetness and light

Unexpected treat this afternoon: I was supposed to go for a run with Liz, but she emailed me yesterday to suggest that instead we should go and see the preview of Nico's amazing opera about polygamy, Dark Sisters. It is the most extraordinarily good thing - the premiere is in November in the theater at John Jay College, it is a must-see! Only problem now is that I lost about four hours that were sorely needed for work and other preparations for tomorrow: time to get off the internet and get some of that done...

"Old biographers have got something extra"

I desperately want to read Claire Tomalin's new Dickens biography!

This piece is a profile of Tomalin by Rachel Cooke, and it's got one of those amazing and awful glimpses of the life of women in London in the 1950s:
In a review of Janet Malcolm's book, The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath, Tomalin wrote: "... one of my most vivid memories of the 1950s is of crying into a washbasin full of soapy grey baby clothes – there were no washing machines – while my handsome and adored husband was off playing football in the park on Sunday morning with all the delightful young men who had been friends to both of us at Cambridge three years earlier. I had wanted to do something with my life – I thought I had some capacities and here they were going down the plughole with the soapsuds."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tabloid treasures

A very good piece at the FT by Marek Kohn (site registration required, but if you do not register you will miss the picture of the "merman chimera"...) on the Wellcome Trust's collection of curiosities. It is accompanied by a fantastic slideshow.

I survived my 10K swim this morning; the water was full of chop and the buoys kept shooting all over the place in misleading directions, but it was very enjoyable taken in sum. I can now hardly lift my arms above my shoulders!

Finished the Neal Stephenson book this afternoon. It is enjoyable, but not so much my cup of tea: I think so highly of some of his books that this one has to count as something of a disappointment. I think the fact is that for thrillers, I really prefer either first-person or third-person limited narration, and see no reason for an absolutely enormous cast of characters: there is some serious redundancy here, at least if you consider the book from the point of view of the Lee Child-Dick Francis school of thriller-writing, a school I obviously admire (perhaps partly because my own cast of thought is more clearly Stephensonian than Childish or Franciscan). There are three separate pairs of young man-young woman who basically end up all blending together: it really is true of the men as well as the woman (older-generation protagonist Richard is by far the most fully realized character), but it is particularly problematic for me as a reader in the case of the women. I wanted to press a copy of Taylor Stevens's The Informationist into Stephenson's hands to show him what can be done in this vein. This may, though, really be primarily a function of genre preference: I don't think the Stieg Larsson books are perfect, but they are so very much what I like in terms of light reading that I can forgive them their implausibilities, wish-fulfilling aspects and other excesses. There is some very good writing here, lots of funny and sharp observations very effectively phrased (his prose style is as Gary Lutz might say "tractional, load-bearing" but with interesting word choice and an excellent ear for a phrase), and I feel certain that the book will appeal profoundly to those who have ever played role-playing games, table-top or computer-based!

Swimming and Stephenson were both good for mental health, but though I did a couple hours of work-related stuff today as well, I still have a huge amount to get done tomorrow for Monday - the semester is well and truly underway...

"Rockville Girl Speaks"

Ingrid Schorr on being a footnote in rock history.

Friday, September 23, 2011


At the Guardian, Michael Hofmann on David Bellos's cleverly titled new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. I must confess that I am very eager to read this book, and that a copy of it appeared magically in my mailbox a few days ago: not sure quite when I will get to it, but soon I hope.

Robert Harris's new novel sounds appealing also, but it is not published in the US for many months more...

Advice to novelists

I got an email yesterday from a student of a former colleague of mine who is trying to get her first novel published and finding it difficult; she asked me if I'd look at it and give her some advice. This is just an email I wrote off the top of my head, I haven't done any footwork on small presses that will take unagented submissions or the current state of play on electronic self-publishing, but I thought I might post it here in case it is useful to others. If anyone has further advice or details re: any of these options, please feel free to contribute in the comments.


I really don't have time to look at it, but can give some advice regardless!

There is no doubt it is a very, very hard thing to get a first novel published - I think it is the hardest thing I have ever done, much harder (for me at least) than getting a PhD and really distinctly harder even than getting a tenure-track job in academia, which is also pretty darn hard...

You really have 3 routes available to you, with the first being the most appealing, the second with its own advantages, the third with the least connection to traditional forms of publishing but also a legitimate route in many respects.

(1) Get an agent. Really almost all publishers, barring academic presses and a handful of good indies, want to see agented submissions and are using agents as gatekeepers. This is very difficult, though, when one has not already published! My recommendation: contact assistants of established agents, or young starting-out agents - I think that working with a well-known agent on a first novel is mostly a pipe dream, one would often be better off with their assistant anyway (more time to attend to one's business). In short, target agents under 30 who are building client lists. You should be able to focus your submissions rather than sending at large - acknowledgments pages or author blogs will usually let you make a list of agents who have represented books that you see as being in some important respect like yours (and if you write a cover letter that says "I loved book X, which I see you represented," and book X is a relatively underheralded book by a first-time novelist, it is my guess that this will also catch the young agent's attention and make them more likely to give your material a proper look).

(2) Make a direct approach to the small number of university presses that publish fiction and a select list of indies (again, think about what their lists really are like, don't bother unless there is a good fit between your style of book and what they have been publishing in the last few years).

(3) Explore some of the new forms of self-publishing or what I would call 'assisted self-publishing' that have sprung up in recent years. It really is a different world now: you can self-publish online for instance and build a readership and some online reviews and then use that to make another stab at getting representation and a traditional publishing deal. My friend Richard Nash's Cursor project would be one place to look, but there are a lot of ways to make a decent book (I'm not expert on this, I'm just vaguely recalling names, but Lulu, a couple options at Amazon, a new program called PressBooks, all sorts of other options). I do think that at this point a traditional deal is still more desirable than online self-publication unless you are an exceptionally gifted self-publicist with considerable time to spare - division of labor is a good thing! - and I caution you that if you are teaching full-time and perhaps writing another book, it will be difficult to find the energy to spare to get this one out into the world yourself. Often first books are in fact published second, after the author has written another, more obviously commercial book and gotten it published - which is to say, getting an agent to represent you is not only based on their sense of the quality of your work, it is strongly affected by their sense of what will sell, and that question might have a very different answer if you have already published something else that found a good readership.

Anyway, I hope this is useful, and I wish you all the best.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Light reading catch-up

I had such good intentions about making this a semester in which I would spread my work out evenly across the week, but in fact I worked so hard Sunday through Tuesday that I basically collapsed and could do nothing yesterday except exercise and read a novel (the first two thirds or so of Neal Stephenson's Reamde, on which my verdict so far is very similar to that of the Amazon reviewers - fun fast read, but there's not so much to it - it rather reminds me of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net - I prefer my female protagonists to have a more fully rendered interiority!). I must write comments on some assignments today, or Sunday will not be a pretty sight chez Davidson (I am doing a long swim on Saturday morning, one for which I am signally undertrained, and am not counting on any great level of mental acuity and application in the afternoon!).

Other light reading around the edges (really I feel I have had no time to read anything, but this is clearly a misapprehension of sorts, I seem to have read several novels): Marcus Sakey's excellent Chicago noir The Blade Itself; Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus (quite reasonably good, but falling under the same rubric as what William Empson diagnoses as "the badness of much nineteenth-century poetry," explained by him as being "written by critically sensitive people [who] admired the poetry of previous generations, very rightly, for the taste it left in the head, and, failing to realise that the process of putting such a taste into a reader's head involves a great deal of work which does not feel like a taste in the head while it is being done, attempting, therefore, to conceive a taste in the head and put it straight on to their paper, they produced tastes in the head which were in fact blurred, complacent, and unpleasing"). Unfair as a description of, say, Tennyson's best poems, and in a similar respect perhaps slightly unfair to apply to Morgenstern, but there is something to the diagnosis (and in fact this is, curiously, what Morgenstern's novel is about/thematizes, as her circus is even more clearly than her novel trying to 'put the taste into a reader's head' without grounding it effectively in technique).

Closing tabs:

Guinea pig rentals! (Via Tyler Cowen.)

Things Apple is worth more than.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Light reading catch-up

Really I have been too busy to have much time for novel-reading, it is the way of the beginning of the semester, and in fact the next 4 weeks now look slightly dauntingly overscheduled. Have squeezed in a few things round the edges: Laurie King's latest installment about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, The Pirate King; George Pelecanos's The Cut. I had a really wonderful collection of pieces by Mark Kingwell sent to me as PDFs: I'm not sure if this link is subscriber-only, but the Fukuyama takedown in the August issue of Harper's was especially delightful to me (it is rare that the stars come into alignment for this sort of piece to be so good - Mark is supremely intelligent but also essentially kind-hearted rather than vicious, and Fukuyama is so eminent and to some extent so distinctly above the fray that there is none of the usual worry I experience reading this sort of piece about its subject might feel!), and I was also very tickled by his piece "As It Were," on the metaphysics and ethics of fiction (I think it's in this collection?).

Haven't gone to any more plays (got an Ionesco on the slate for next week, though), but though lavish restaurant-eating without prefatory theatergoing seems somewhat immoral, I was treated to a very lovely lunch yesterday at Petrossian by my friend and former student Julia Hoban.

I promised thoughts on the style of Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy, which I enjoyed a good deal. (It also made me wonder why I hadn't thought to put Chester Himes into my style book - I was incredibly taken with Himes about ten years ago, I should look back and see if there's anything that I could grab there to add and round things out.) I really love noir in all of its literary incarnations, the stripped-down kind as well as the baroque (Megan Abbott is another good example I have come across recently), and Woodrell's sentences are arresting, over-the-top in a way that spins from one end of the spectrum to the other:
They took a table in the back, far removed from the other customers. The Catfish drew a decent lunch business but it was still too early for the legitimately hungry to appear, so the few tables of customers were made up of unemployed, but entrepreneurial, young men, as well as the diurnal conventions of phlegmatic tipplers.

The benefits of racquetball and modest weight training gave her arms a fetching versatility of attitude.

Tip Shade was a jumbo package of pock-faced bruiser, with long brown hair greased behind his ears, hanging to his shoulders. His eyes were of a common but unnamed brown hue. He tended to scowl by reflex and grunt in response. His neck was a holdover from some normal-necked person's nightmare, and when he crossed his arms it looked like two large snakes procreating a third.
And here is Woodrell in retrospection: "My love for pulp and for other forms of fiction seems obvious on every page. I was and am much taken with the sort of language that can hold high and low expression in the same sentence. Rough and refined."

And I read one other very good book too, now that I think of it: the near-final draft of a friend's memoir, forthcoming next year. I opened the file on my Kindle intending just to read a little bit of it last night, but I ended up staying up till it was done!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


At the next meeting of the Columbia University Cultural Memory Colloquium, on Monday, Sept. 26 at 6pm in 754 Schermerhorn Extension, Professor Jenny Davidson will present on the work of filmmaker Helen Hill. Helen Hill, experimental animator and handmade film advocate, was shot and killed in her home in New Orleans in January 2007. Her last film, completed posthumously by her husband Paul Gailiunas, is 'The Florestine Collection.' One Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans some years earlier, Hill found more than a hundred handmade dresses in trash bags on the curb; she set out to restore them and recover the story of the woman who had made them, a recently deceased African-American seamstress named Florestine Kinchen. Both the dresses and the footage were seriously damaged by Katrina; the completed film includes Helen's original silhouette, cut-out, and puppet animation, as well as flood-damaged and restored home movies. Three of Hill's films will be screened - 'Madame Winger Makes a Film' (9:29), 'Mouseholes' (7:40) and 'The Florestine Collection' (31:00) - followed by a discussion by Professor Davidson that will touch on questions about memorialization and the materiality of film, the persistence and contingency of archives and the imperatives of preservation in the wake of catastrophe.
On a totally different note, I'm speaking about my ABCs of the novel project at Columbia's Cafe Humanities on Monday, Oct. 17 at 6pm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


At the Independent, David Bellos on how Google Translate works:
... GT is as much the prisoner of global flows in translation as we all are. Its admirably smart probabilistic computational system can only offer 3,306 translation directions by using the same device as has always assisted intercultural communication: pivots, or intermediary languages.

It's not because Google is based in California that English is the main pivot. If you use statistical methods to compute the most likely match between languages that have never been matched directly before, you must use the pivot that can provide matches with both target and source.

A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi. They thus provide ample material for finding matches between sentences in the two foreign languages; whereas Persian classics translated into Icelandic are surely far fewer, even including those works that have themselves made the journey by way of a pivot such as French or German. This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT's Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese.

Swift and Pope

I've taught Swift and Burke as a seminar, and I've taught satire very regularly with Swift and Pope prominently featured, but I've never taught an undergraduate seminar under this particular rubric. There is something almost perverse about teaching a course so traditionally defined in this day and age, but I think it should be very interesting: again, this is just the course description and week-by-week readings, assignments excluded.
Intensive reading of two major writers in the satirical mode. Some topics of interest: satire as a secondary or parasitic genre; satire and political argument; satire and gender; deformed or disabled bodies; miniaturization and problems of scale; the anthropological pre-history of satire as violence (words that kill); epic versus mock-epic; tensions between orality, manuscript and print culture; the cultural and intellectual implications of the choice between tetrameter and pentameter couplets. No background in authors or period required; we will do a large amount of ‘close reading’ of primary texts, with critical readings to supplement in most weeks.

9/12 Introduction: the battle of the books

9/19 Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704)

9/26 Swift, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708, 1711)

*Samuel Johnson, life of Swift, in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on their Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), vol. 3, 189-214

10/3 Pope, “An Essay on Criticism” (written 1709, pub. 1711), Windsor-Forest (written 1704-13, pub. 1713)

*James McLaverty, Pope, Print, and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1-13; *John Sitter, “Pope’s versification and voice,” in The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope, ed. Pat Rogers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37-48; *Dustin Griffin, Swift and Pope: Satirists in Dialogue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1-12

10/10 Pope, “The Rape of the Lock” (two-canto version 1712, five-canto version 1714)

*Claude Rawson, “Pope’s Waste Land: Reflections on Mock-Heroic,” in Order From Confusion Sprung: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature from Swift to Cowper (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), 201-221

10/17 Pope, “Epistle to Miss Blount, on her leaving the Town, after the Coronation” (written 1714, pub. 1717), “Eloisa to Abelard” (written 1716, pub. 1717), “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717); Swift, Stella poems (details TBA)

*Samuel Johnson, life of Pope, in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; With Critical Observations on their Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), vol. 4, 1-93

10/24 Swift, “Cadenus and Vanessa” (written 1713, pub. 1726), “The Progress of Beauty” (1719, 1728), “The Lady’s Dressing-Room” (1730, 1732), “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (1731, 1734)

*Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 1-21

10/31 Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

*Terry Castle, “Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire and the Fear of the Text,” in Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift, ed. Frank Palmeri (New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993), 57-71

11/7 Election holiday – no class

11/14 Pope, The Dunciad Variorum (written 1719-28, pub. 1728, Variorum 1729)

*James McLaverty, “The Mode of Existence of Literary Works of Art: The Case of the Dunciad Variorum,” in Pope, ed. Brean Hammond (London and New York: Longman, 1996), 220-32; *McLaverty, “The Dunciad Variorum: The Limits of Dialogue,” in Pope, Print, and Meaning, 82-106; *Pat Rogers, “The name and nature of Dulness: proper nouns in The Dunciad,” in Essays on Pope (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 98-128

11/21 Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729), A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars (1737)

*James McLaverty, “Swift and the art of political publication: hints and title pages, 1711-1714,” in Politics and Literature in the Age of Swift: English and Irish Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 116-39

11/28 Pope, “An Essay on Man” (written 1730-32, pub. 1733-34); Swift, “On Poetry: A Rapsody” (1733), “Strephon and Chloe” (1731, 1734)

12/5 Pope, “Moral Essays” (written 1730-33, pub. 1734)

*Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 1-15; *Helen Deutsch, Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1-39; *Blakey Vermeule, The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press,2000), 57-93

12/12 Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” (written 1731-32, pub. 1739); Pope, “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (written 1731-4, pub. 1735)

*Victoria Glendinning, Jonathan Swift: A Portrait (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 1-15; *David Womersley, “‘now deaf 1740’: Entrapment, foreboding, and exorcism in late Swift,” in Politics and Literature in the Age of Swift, 162-84

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Critical Style"

I haven't ever taught the seminar we require of our MA students before (there are 3 sections each year, with about ten students each, and it is left to the instructor's discretion to set the terms of engagement), and making up this syllabus sent me into a minor intellectual crisis when I tackled it in June! What is the discipline? What am I comfortable endorsing in its excellence but also in its representativeness?!? I put out an appeal to Facebook friends and in a couple of other online venues, and the final result owes something to those suggestions; thanks to everyone who weighed in. I felt a lot better once I gave up any thought of the representative or of telling a full intellectual-historical story: it is a class on reading tactics, not a class that provides an exhaustive account of things...

(This is just the course description and reading list, not the full syllabus with assignments etc.)
The reading list for this course includes some of the most interesting and influential texts in twentieth-century Anglo-American literary criticism, interlarded with some bits of the French literary theory that influenced many American literary scholars in the closing decades of the last millennium. We will read the assigned texts closely and critically, both in order to understand what each one says and to isolate and identify interpretive and argumentative tactics that might be useful in our own critical work. Although we will touch regularly on intellectual history and the history of criticism, we will be especially attentive to questions of voice and argument; a significant portion of each class will be devoted to considering the choices each writer has made as they manifest themselves in style at the level of sentence, paragraph, chapter and book.

9/12 Introduction

9/19 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity

9/26 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden

10/3 Raymond Williams, Keywords

10/10 Roland Barthes, The Neutral

10/17 *Plato, Phaedrus; Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination

10/24 *Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling

10/31 Jonathan Arac, Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies

11/7 Election holiday – no class

11/14 *Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia, “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text”; *Frances Ferguson, “On the Numbers of Romanticisms”

11/21 *Gayatri Chakravorky Spivak, “Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching”

11/28 D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style; *Jane Austen, “Sanditon” (fragment)

12/5 Jonathan Coe, Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson

12/12 David Markson, Reader’s Block

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Will shortly leave town for the Survival of the Shawangunks! The run-swim portion of the race has been seriously curtailed due to trail damage post-Irene, and now the rain this week has flooded some of the bike course - we will learn later today whether they have had to arrange detours or whether that leg at least will continue as planned. I am rather nervous about this race, mostly for logistical reasons, but am very much hoping I can make course cutoffs and finish; that said, I am seriously undertrained, so if I don't make a time cutoff and get pulled, I am determined not to let it ruin my day. The race finish is in a very beautiful spot, the Mohonk Mountain House, with a lavishly catered post-race party, so at the very least I should be able to cheer other athletes to the finish and celebrate with them - however we will hope that philosophical stoicism is not called for and that I will huff and puff my way to the finish on my own two feet.

I may well not be home until 8pm or so tomorrow, and undoubtedly in a state of exhaustion and griminess and with a huge backpack of things that will need to go directly into the washing machine (probably including said backpack itself!). Unintended happy consequence of this race being scheduled the day before my first day of teaching: my syllabi, handouts and first-day plans were 95% complete more than 48 hours in advance of actual teaching! This is unprecedented, and gives me a very beneficial and possibly misleading sense of being on top of things. I am also, it must be said, glad that I will be doing something unusual and life-affirming on the actual day of September 11.

Friday, September 09, 2011


Itamar Moses's play Completeness at Playwrights Horizons is excellent - first half is truly superb, it passed by in a flash, second half perhaps slightly less mesmerizing and more chaotic but still representing quite an accomplishment. I suspect it could be honed down to 1:45 with no intermission (it was 2:15 with an intermission, and with some goofy distracting stuff in the second half, including a bit when the two minor actors break out of character and come forward - not as effective as when this happened in the Albee "Counting the Ways" some years ago). The acting is excellent too, particularly in the case of the male lead - this play depicts grad student life impeccably, down to the haggard looks of the graduate students! It is not as complex as a Tom Stoppard play in its structure, but there is some of the same (quite unusual) sense of intelligence both in the writing of the characters and in the actors' performance of them; it is a very funny play, that is one of its chief pleasures, but I also appreciated the way that it weaves together the scientific analogies with the argument about 'life' without ever having characters state things in their banal exactitude: it is surprisingly rare for a playwright to hold back and go up to the brink of the thought and let the other character register it, as the first character moves towards it, without feeling the need to have either of them actually say the words out loud and effectively ruin the moment.

Quick dinner afterwards at the West Bank Cafe: I had a very delicious hanger steak salad (tomatoes, blue cheese, fingerling potatoes), and would have ordered the frozen lemon mousse for dessert only the wait staff was under the sway of a horseshoe-tabled birthday party of hilarity and mirth, and the moment passed: made more sense just to come on home. In sum, though, dinner and the play were both very good...

Source statements

Brent sent a good link earlier, subject line "Suitable background bit for a thriller." Really it could probably be milked for an entire series...

The anti-fetishistic-twaddle position

Luc Sante's book collection devoured his life! (Via Yeti Mike.)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

"I don't care too much for money"

Harlan Coben on the muse's voice as annoying whine; how to write a book in two months. Really each of these writers is mostly talking about the particular kind of book he has written...

I picked up several months' worth of mail at the office yesterday; undoubtedly the nicest thing was a copy of Cody James's really staggeringly good little novel The Dead Beat with a warm note from Dan Holloway, its publisher at eight cut galleries press. I read it electronically this summer and loved it; it never hurts to have a 'real' copy as well, this way I can press it into someone else's hands too! A free PDF of the novel is available just now at the press's website (scroll down four or five paragraphs), and here's a link to Mari Juniper's interesting interview with Dan about the press and its mission.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


I am 'homesick' for the worlds of these books by Doris Egan/Jane Emerson (planetary and interstellar science fiction built on a Pride and Prejudice chassis): I want to go back there...

(That said, I was in a ridiculously good mood today: first day back on campus! Clearly I am in the right line of work.)

The Roomba/Scooba squadron

A fleet of Roombas.

I've switched to the new Blogger interface; one thing I really like is how it handles labels in a sidebar. Here are the a's, which I think vividly conjure up the Light Reading lifestyle:
"it", -iads, a sense of proportion, A. L. Kennedy, abbreviations, ABCs of the novel, abecedarianism, ablutions, abundant recompense, abuse, academia, accommodations, accomplishment, acronyms, acting, activity levels, Adam Phillips, adaptation, addiction, addled things, adolescence, adulteration, advance notice, advances, adverbs, advertising, aeronautics, Agatha Christie, air safety, airports, Alan Bennett, Alan Hollinghurst, Alan Warner, alarms, Alasdair Gray, alcohol, alcohol abuse, Alexander Pope, Alexander technique, Alfred Jarry, Alfred Nobel, aliases, Alice, Alice Boone, Alison Bechdel, alliteration, allusion, alphabets, altered states, alternate histories, alternate universes, Alzheimer's, Amazon, American punctuation, amphibians, anachronism, anagrams and acrostics, analogies, anatomy, anchovies, Andre Aciman, Andrew Gelman, Andrew O'Hagan, Andrew Solomon, Andy Warhol, anecdotes, animal welfare, animals, animatronics, Anne McCaffrey, annotation, announcements, Antarctica, antediluvianism, Anthony Burgess, Anthony Grafton, Anthony Powell, anthropomorphic cannibalism, anthropomorphism, ants, apartment life, aphorisms, apocalypso, appearances can be misleading, appendages, apps, archaeology, archeology, archery, architecture, archives, Arctic unicorns, armadillos, arms and armor, art, art of the transaction, artificial insemination, artificial kangaroo pouches, astringency, asylums, Athanasius Kircher, Athol Fugard, atomic toys, attention spans, auctions, austerity, authenticity, autism, autobiography, autographs, automata, autopsy, Ayn Rand

Things neatly arrayed

The alphabet soup arrangement is especially compelling.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Light reading catch-up

Plane fare: Eric Nylund's Mortal Coils (good of its kind, and a kind I have traditionally liked quite a bit, but I am swearing off eschatological fantasy for a while, the vein has been too deeply mined!); first volume of Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy, about which more anon when I have finished it all (the prose is excellent, setting too, but sometimes hard to tell one character from another, that's my only complaint).

Found an amazing stash of stuff waiting for me at home. Seized upon Elisabeth Townsend's Lobster: A Global History, which has a most beautiful cover and also an alluring name but which did not quite live up to my expectations (it is good for what it is, but it is a serious little book about the history of lobster-eating, not a strange and postmodern Sebaldian exercise as I had fantasized - that said, the bits on lobster nomenclature I found highly worthwhile [scrubs, shorts, etc.!], and also the pictures of the 'hotels for lobsters' where the live creatures are stored before they are brought to market). Then devoured 'Jane Emerson''s City of Diamond, perhaps not quite as immediately delightful as the same author's Ivory trilogy but only because the material is rather darker - still the same great gifts of storytelling and characterization. It is silly to say anyone is a natural anything if one does not know their history and background, for all I know this craft was carefully honed over many years, but I do not know that I can think off the top of my head of any novelist I've encountered with greater natural storytelling gifts than Doris Egan: it makes sense to me, alas, that she has found it better worth her while to work in television!

A host of other treasures await, but school starts tomorrow and I will definitely start to be busy again - I don't actually teach until next Monday, due to an oddity of schedule, but I need to write the letters of recommendation I was already saying I had to write last week, and finalize my syllabi and check on course book orders, and have some meetings with grad students, etc. etc. I'm doing a big race on Sunday (course was significantly affected by Irene, and has been altered and to some extent curtailed, but as I am very undertrained I am not complaining). It is good, I like it best when I face a long and varied to-do list!

Two bits

I read Sara Gran's seven pieces of advice to a young writer with considerable interest; I love her books (check out Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead if you haven't already), but I am also very impressed with her professional acumen. This advice is much more directed to those who will have a realistic chance of making a living as fiction writers than to those who will combine writing with some other means of support (I would note that I myself am in flagrant disregard of points #2 and #6, but I also would have to dissent respectfully from point #7 - it would make me absolutely crazy and bored out of my mind to be a full-time fiction-writer, I am truly a professor at heart, I need the stimulation that comes from having a full-time academic appointment!).

Also (a very good recommendation from Cristina Linclau): Elisabeth Weed interviews agent and publicist Lucinda Blumenfeld.

Men of feeling

At the LRB, Ferdinand Mount on Harold Macmillan's diaries and a new biography. Here is Mount on the long aftermath of Macmillan's wife's affair with Bob Boothby in the late 1920s (she claimed that Boothby was the father of her youngest daughter Sarah):
In 1975, he went to see Boothby at his flat and asked, for the sake of his peace of mind, to know the truth one way or another about Sarah. In the unbearably painful conversation that followed, Boothby assured him that Sarah was not his daughter because he was always scrupulously careful in his affairs. What Macmillan did not know was that Boothby had just been presented with a tape recorder by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of which he’d been chairman for many years. Before Macmillan’s arrival, he had been taping a Tchaikovsky symphony from the radio. He had turned off the radio but unwittingly left the tape recorder running on the floor behind a sofa. And so all the agony that Macmillan had poured out to him was on tape, and Boothby played it back to his new wife, Wanda, when she came in, with tears running down his face.

This is how D.R. Thorpe tells the story, eloquently and elegantly, as he does everything in this exemplary biography, which complements if it does not entirely supplant Alistair Horne’s two-volume official Life; Horne is better on the military, Thorpe on the political and personal. At every juncture Thorpe presents the evidence in a scrupulous and equable style. He is charitable, just as he was in his earlier biographies of Selwyn Lloyd and Eden, both of whom had reasons to be resentful of Macmillan’s behaviour. By not taking sides, Thorpe leaves readers room to come to their own judgment.

And if you want my guess here, I don’t think that Boothby, that insatiable seducer of both sexes, left the tape recorder on by accident. I don’t mean that he had it in for Macmillan exactly, although it is always hard to forgive those you have wronged, especially when you have been wronging them for years. It is more that Boothby, himself the ripest of old hams, would have been unable to resist the dramatic potential of the scene: the aged ex-prime minister with tears running down his face, and then a few hours later Boothby, the man of feeling, recalling the recalling with tears running down his face.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The joys of truffle-hunting

Phone calling zones as alternate states (via Bookforum).

"The e-book is yesterday's mass-market."

Great piece on Fiona McCarthy at the Guardian (link courtesy of my father) - I have Amazoned a copy of Last Curtsey...

I do not usually have cause to say this, but there is an absolutely delightful essay in the current issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies! (Also a very good review by Suzanne Keen of two particularly interesting recent books in eighteenth-century studies, Blakey Vermeule's Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? and Alan Richardson's The Neural Sublime.) This link will only work for Columbia affiliates, but hie thee to thine own local library website to read Patrick Spedding's really indispensable essay "'The New Machine': Discovering the Limits of ECCO." The abstract doesn't really do justice to the essay's delightfulness:
This essay explores some of the difficulties faced by eighteenth-century scholars when conducting research using scanned text-bases, particularly Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). It begins with an explanation of some of the general problems that face the users of all scanned text-bases. These problems are illustrated in an account of research undertaken into the history of the condom and its representation in eighteenth-century texts. The failure of ECCO searches to produce meaningful results brings these problems into sharp focus, but also suggests novel ways in which they may be overcome.
I am fascinated by these questions about ECCO, and anyone who regularly relies on searching OCR-produced databases has to read the whole essay; but it also has an excellent appendix of eighteenth-century references to condoms, of which I single out this one for your delectation:
White Kennett's Condom, a Poem (London, 1723) and "Armour: A Poem" (London, 1723) do not survive. The poem was reprinted in Cupid's Metamorphoses or, Love in All Shapes. Being the Second and Last Volume of the Poetical Works of Mr. William Pattison (London, 1728), 306–7: "Hear, and attend: In Armour's mighty Praise / I sing, for sure 'tis worthy of a Song. / … / Happy the Man, who in his Pocket keeps, / Whether with Green or Scarlet Ribband bound, / A well made C—— He, nor dreads the Ills / Of Shankers or Cordee, or Buboes Dire!"
Light reading catch-up to follow later in the day once I have done more unpacking - I got home late Wednesday night, but things were in relative disarray here and I had to wait till subletters finished getting stuff out Thursday evening before I could really think about putting anything away or getting things set up for my own purposes again. Had a great trip to the library on Thursday, though - got all sorts of good things (highlights include this and this and a whole host of other things to read to get ready to talk about Helen Hill's last film at the end of the month). Have also been luxuriating in the amazing lavishness of the Chelsea Piers Sports Center - it is not really the salient thing to single out, but the showers there are completely unbelievable (it seems unlikely that I will ever live in an apartment with this sort of style, but it is my fantasy one day to have a commodious shower room with a slate floor!)...