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.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The school year

This is perhaps the moment at which I declare that the semester is officially getting the better of me! I have temporarily wrangled it back into submission - I've done all the reading for tomorrow's classes (Plato's "Phaedrus," Derrida's long essay "Plato's pharmacy," poems about women by Pope and Swift, Johnson's life of Pope), I've done the subsequent week's reading for the MA seminar so that I could write the assignment that's due in class next week and hand it out tomorrow, I've answered three of the five copy-editor's queries on my Shakespeare adaptation piece and am about to head out to the library to get the books I need to answer the other two. I've written comments on eight of the sixteen undergrad assignments I intend to give back in class tomorrow, and will perhaps find a quiet table in a cafe post-library visit where I can finish the other eight: if I do that, then I can stop for the evening and figure there's enough time in and around the cracks tomorrow to do the actual class prep....

(I was out too many evenings this week, especially given the fact that I didn't really have a weekend last week due to travels; I am already thumped by fatigue and it's not even Monday! I didn't make it out for a run this afternoon, either - too much work - which was a pity as it was the most perfect weather and I'm not very happy about how little I've been running this fall.)

The table in my living room has a huge and ominous pile of materials that I need to read and write important letters about (important to people other than myself, I mean!): I think I won't be able to tackle that until Wednesday. Ugh, ugh, ugh...

The beast

Record-breaking chocolate bar! (Via I.H.D.)

"If I'm taking a walk and I see a cat, I'm happy"

Emma Brockes profiles Haruki Murakami for the Guardian:
How, then, did he find the confidence to do what he wanted?

"Confidence; as a teenager? Because I knew what I loved. I loved to read; I loved to listen to music; and I love cats. Those three things. So, even though I was an only kid, I could be happy because I knew what I loved. Those three things haven't changed from my childhood. I know what I love, still, now. That's a confidence. If you don't know what you love, you are lost."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Clouds, water, paper

"Water Stains on the Wall" was not quite what I expected: I had somehow (unrealistically!) imagined this Taiwanese dance piece that promised to mix up calligraphy and tai chi and ballet and all sorts of other things would capture exactly the magic of something else I saw at BAM in the spring, the ombromanie of Philippe Beau. At any rate, it was nothing like that: it was worthwhile, but I found it frustrating to have so little sense of the separate idioms that are being combined. I am really too much an academic, but I found myself with all sorts of questions I could not at all answer: most pressingly, were there specific postures or movements that would be known to the well-informed viewer as allusions to individual calligraphic characters or sequences? The dancers are interesting to watch (they are extraordinarily athletic), but no cumulative meanings emerge from the patterns on the stage; I think my favorite short sequence was one where the music went silent and the projections across the white sheet-of-paper stage suddenly went much more quickly and more really and truly like clouds across the sky - there were a few other moments that really captured my attention, and it was enjoyable to gaze upon throughout, but it withheld significance from the outside viewer. Also: why, oh why do these top-quality companies think it is OK to perform to recorded music? Really all you need is a couple of excellent people and some good equipment and a sense of what to do: Nico has of course spoiled me for this sort of thing, but the canned music is not convincing to me (it is mostly by this guy, it is not an idiom I know well either but it's the lack of a responsive live sound rather than the actual music as such that strikes me as irksome).

The ABCs of the novel

I'm not sure whether this link will work for non-Columbia affiliates (it's an alumni event, but really it's open to the public), so I'll paste in the information just in case. They have a funny constraint: you are allowed to use a sheet of notes or an aide-memoire of some sort, but you're not supposed to lecture, they will prefer speakers to carry on off the tops of their heads! This is good, under the circumstances, as Monday is yet again my long teaching day: I've got a set of undergraduate assignments to comment on, Plato's "Phaedrus" and Derrida's essay "Plato's pharmacy" to read and prepare for the graduate class and a slew of poems about women by Swift and Pope (plus Johnson's "Life of Pope") for the afternoon class...

It would be nice to see a few familiar faces at the event, and if you are a regular reader here but don't know me in person and decide to attend, please make sure to introduce yourself!

Cafe Humanities: The ABCs of the Novel with Jenny Davidson
Date: Oct 17, 2011
Time: 6:00PM - 7:00PM ET
Location: PicNic Cafe
2665 Broadway (between 101st and 102nd), NYC


Cafe Humanities is a series of informal discussions about the questions surrounding the humanities field today, led by Columbia University's foremost professors. The discussions are held at the Picnic Market Cafe at 2665 Broadway (between 101st and 102nd Street).

Professor of English and Comparative Literature Jenny Davidson will discuss The ABCs of the Novel

We often talk about the novel emerging in 17th-century Europe in response to all sorts of social, political and economic factors, in short as a historical phenomenon rooted in a particular time, place and set of intellectual conditions. A historical understanding is so integral to the discipline of English literary studies that we frequently don’t even question the premise that literature is best considered in groupings determined primarily by historical and geographical constraints. Davidson asks what happens when we banish historicism from the explanatory scheme and return to considering novels primarily in terms of their formal properties. Come listen to her share some thoughts about the risks and rewards of this sort of approach, as well as considering how it might let us revisit classics such as Don Quixote, Tom Jones and War and Peace with fresh eyes.

For more information, see

Space is limited; $10 cover (cash only) includes one drink

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Let It Bleed"

Ian Rankin prefers vinyl (FT site registration required).

A perfect evening

My brother Michael and my adopted grandfather Gene joined me for the really lovely evening of music that was Nico's "conspiring" with Gotham Chamber Opera at (Le) Poisson Rouge. I really like going to stuff at that place: it is intelligently and comfortably cabaret-style, with lots of bathrooms and food and drink served at the table (the wait staff couldn't circulate so well in this configuration as in some others, so there were delays in table-clearing and follow-up, but nothing to mar the very substantial pleasures of the ear that were on offer). I had in the end bought tickets for all three of us, but the press agent had invited Gene to attend, and had reserved for us what were probably the best seats in the house: we were about ten feet away from the piano, with a very direct view of Nico or whoever else was sitting at the keyboard and performers standing close enough that you could see the amazing vibrations of the glottis (?) that characterize operatic singing.

A couple arias from the Dark Sisters opera (it is the most amazing music, I can hardly wait to hear the whole thing again in November), set into selections of all sorts that highlighted various aspects either of Nico's choral writing or of the singers' strengths: the first bit was Purcell's "Evening Hymn," the last was the evening song from Philip Glass's Satyagraha, a revelation to me (I had never heard it before!). One of the other highlights was a really extraordinary performance of Ravel's sonata for violin and cello by Yuki Lee Numata and Clarice Jensen. I am not a lover of the violin, really, but I was blown away by Numata's performance - she is incredible, definitely a performer to watch for...

(The opera company director Neal Goren accompanied many of the singers, which I think is rightly his prerogative but which caused me to reflect that he played the piano like someone to whom the modern instrument is wholly foreign, he must have trained as an organist rather than a pianist - definitely a thumper rather than a stroker of the ivories - the shortcomings were particularly clear in the aria from Mozart's Il Sogno di Scipione, with terrible approximate bashings-out of notes and wild thumping just behind tempo!... Really in NYC you can almost certainly find on every street corner a superb accompanist who could do a good job with this sort of thing on short notice, but I guess it would give a different character to the evening, so it seems a fair trade-off.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Chine that Salmon"

Elizabethan terminology for carving (via Sarang).

Home again

Really I do not have much of an urge to eat at Per Se: multi-hour multi-course meals are not my cup of tea, it is too much money in any case. But - "the stray ends of exquisite donuts"!

I survived Ottawa, I survived yesterday's long teaching day, I survived today's also long day of miscellaneous meetings: really I am about to collapse with exhaustion, but barring a couple of small but important tasks that are pressing, I can now afford to take it easy for a day or so. I have a curiously huge accumulation of work-related stuff that I've been slightly in denial about (internal reviews of colleagues, external tenure letter sorts of thing), but it can probably be done in a day and a half of extended effort if I can get myself back up to normal levels of fatigue first. Tomorrow morning I will go to boot camp and gentle yoga and read a novel, I think - it will be beneficial.

I had a funny and incongruous pair of texts to teach yesterday: Roland Barthes's The Neutral (I am enchanted by this book) and Pope's "The Rape of the Lock". The master's seminar is a good deal of fun: I am enjoying it perhaps even more than I expected to.

Saw Helen DeWitt and Dale Peck's very good joint reading last night at (Le) Poisson Rouge, and will be back there on Thursday for Nico's gig (I had already planned to go with adopted grandfather G., but my brother M. is going to come also, he is working in Brooklyn again!); and my dad is coming up from Philadelphia on Saturday for dinner and a BAM show I found intriguing enough to buy tickets for without knowing anything in particular about it.

Light reading around the edges: Marisa de los Santos's Falling Together.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Light reading catch-up

A very tiring but also very productive week in Ottawa: several pieces of important business seem to have been well and truly accomplished. Collapsed into bed when I got home this afternoon, slept for some hours, then did my reading for tomorrow (Roland Barthes's The Neutral, Pope's The Rape of the Lock and a very good essay by Claude Rawson on mock-heroic and 'Pope's Waste Land') but will have to write my comments on last week's graduate student writing assignments in the morning: digging deeper to get them done now seems impossible. However I think I've done enough tonight that I can carve out the time for the Beast boot camp tomorrow morning: it knocks out everything from 5:45 rising all the way through to 9 or so, with a quick interlude for breakfast post-class before I get back on my bike to ride uptown, so I wasn't sure it really was going to be feasible, but it is a priority as I missed two classes last week.

I had hardly any time to read while I was away (mostly only in airports): an advance copy of Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel, Snuff, got me to Canada, and James Lee Burke's Rain Gods whiled away a few nighttime hours during the week and got me most of the way home. My copy of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel, ordered from England via The Book Depository, finally arrived in Cayman in September, and B. brought it to give to me in Ottawa, but I haven't even had a chance to crack it open. Fairly busy this week till Tuesday late afternoon, and with one substantial chunk of reading (Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments!) to do for Wednesday afternoon also, but the week opens up as of Tuesday evening and I am very much hoping I will be able to lounge, recumbent, and devour it - I am feeling much in need of restoration and recovery!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Light reading catch-up

What have I been reading, aside from work stuff? Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding (genuinely charming - and no, you don't have to care about baseball); Jon-Jon Goulian's The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt (highly engaging); Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone (loved it, can't wait for the next installment!).

At the LRB, Colin Burrow offers a fascinating account of Kristine Haugen's Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment, a book I need to get hold of as soon as I can!

Also: Things Magazine takes up the BLDG BLOG invitation to consider the spatial history of trapdoors.

Blogging is likely to be light this week, as I'll be in Ottawa from Tuesday to Sunday.