Saturday, February 22, 2014


We really are living in a great age of prosthetics (it is one of my favorite things about doing the New York City Triathlon, too, which is otherwise a rather overpriced and crowded and hot race, that you see so many young fast athletes racing on prosthetic legs). (FT site registration required.)

(Photo credit: Takao Ochi for the FT)

This picture makes me think of my mild prejudice against most performance art - given the possibilities of avant-garde musical performance, why wouldn't you be a musician instead? You get all the potentially good parts of performance art plus music....

Writing from Cayman. I made it here safely, only as so often the case at the cost of a minor lung ailment! No exercise this weekend, accordingly & unfortunately, but it is still very nice to be here, even with massive pile of work and lungs like creaky bellows. Light reading along the route: Mark Billingham, From the Dead (not actually a new book and rather inferior to the usual Thorne standard, which may explain why it wasn't published in the US at the time); Victor Gischler, The Deputy (enjoyable gonzo noir, slightly under-proofread); James S. A. Corey, The Butcher of Anderson Station. Just now dug in on the first installment of one of my favorite books from childhood, one of the best value-for-money (re)reading opportunities on the internet!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I have a secret passion for the group blog Anole Annals - anoles are one of the critters I most enjoy watching in Cayman - but the pictures at this post are particularly appealing!

Tonight at Barnard

Emily Wilson is lecturing tonight at Barnard - I'm really looking forward to this one:
Emily Wilson, author of various books including The Death of Socrates and translator of Six Tragedies of Seneca, discusses the challenges she has encountered in her current project: re-translating Homer. In particular, she focuses on the problem of translating violence and ponders how a modern translator can render into modern English one of the most violent authors of all time.

Ruined by a passion for the Russians

From P.J. Kavanagh, The Perfect Stranger:
Whatever my self-dissatisfaction I knew I had one gift for sure, an ability to recognise the best when my nose was rubbed into it. Indeed it was sometimes more like a curse, accounting for my restless disappointment with almost everything. But the best I was willing to give my life to, and it needs that kind of service. It is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it needs recognition to be fully itself; appreciation gives it a patina, helps it to bloom.
Another aside that snagged my attention: "(It was about this time that I realised my greatest single literary influence had been Constance Garnett. Any chance of a decent style I'd ever had, ruined by my passion for the Russians.)"

I liked David Remnick's piece some years ago on translation:
As a literary achievement, Garnett’s may have been of the second order, but it was vast. With her pale, watery eyes, her gray hair in a chignon, she was the genteel face of tireless industry. She translated seventy volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels; hundreds of Chekhov’s stories and two volumes of his plays; all of Turgenev’s principal works and nearly all of Tolstoy’s; and selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov, and Ostrovsky. A friend of Garnett’s, D. H. Lawrence, was in awe of her matter-of-fact endurance, recalling her “sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high—really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.”
But I want to read someone's more ruminative essay on Garnett, Moncrieff and the other incredibly productive and influential translators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (James Strachey's Freud should be in there too?). Andre Aciman prefers the Moncrieff translation to Lydia Davis et al.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The rhythm of the semester

Slightly grumpy about the fact that train delays meant that I didn't get to 10am hot yoga - I waited on the platform for a few minutes to see if predicted train time (15min - usually it takes me 15min door to door!) would be reduced, but it didn't seem the odds were good that I'd get there in time for class, so I went and got cooked breakfast instead at the Deluxe Diner. Morning task is checking the PDF of my style index - if I can get a chunk of work done on that, maybe I can go to 12:30 yoga instead....

I am finding this semester's work genuinely stimulating and fresh, but it is also kicking my ass! Again slept for 4 hours yesterday afternoon due to cumulative fatigue of the week. Busy week ahead, including evening work things on Wednesday and Thursday - but then I am flying to see B. very early Friday morning. I have to take quite a lot of work with me, but there will be spinning and a 3hr outdoor ride and yoga for sure as well.

Very small amounts of light reading around the edges of slightly insane piles of work reading: Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible; Ben Aaronovitch, Broken Homes (latest installment in the Rivers of London series). I still want someone to make a massive chart of how the fantasy police-procedural mode snowballed into a dominant subgenre - I suspect that there are strong television antecedents that are largely outside my ken (Doctor Who?).

Closing tabs:

At the Guardian, Andy Beckett on the lasting impact of Raymond Williams' Keywords.

Leslie Jamison on the syndrome called Morgellons (her forthcoming collection is The Empathy Exams).

Last but not least, an astonishing demonstration of the behaviour-warping allure of fried potatoes!

Sunday, February 09, 2014


My mother was commiserating with me on the telephone about my self-proclaimed lack of time this semester for light reading, but I had to allow as how I'd read a few books over the weekend (this was last week), which made her laugh and observe that really if the day comes that I do not have time for light reading, it is only because I am dead! Have spent spare moments and late nights over the past week devouring volumes one through four of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicle. Have just bought the final volume for Kindle (the first four I had to gather through BorrowDirect and library - it is a pity they are not available as an electronic bundle).

Tessa Hadley's LRB piece seems to me right, but perhaps understates the pure enjoyable readability of the novels taken as a sequence: I would compare them slightly unfavorably on the one hand to Sybille Bedford and Rebecca West, and on the other to series-novel geniuses like Susan Howatch (the Church of England books, not the earlier ones which are much less interesting to me) or Dorothy Dunnett, and yet this is really not fair insofar as they are really providing one of the most immersive and enjoyable reading experiences I have had for years.

Good cultural bits: heard a very lovely recital by pianist Simon Mulligan the other day at the Morgan Library (it is not my canon, but I forgot how beautiful the shimmery bits of Ravel are when played really well, and the Schumann fantasies are perfect - capped, enjoyably, by Speckled Hen at the Shakespeare); and my friend Toni Schlesinger's captivating Mystery of Pearl Street at Dixon Place (dinner after with G. - steak frites, deliciously - at Jacques).

Very busy week of work upcoming, but I am thoroughly enjoying this semester: the reading and thinking for my big committee are stimulating (the other demanding committee I'm on, attempting to reconceive the basic science requirement in Columbia's Core, also very interesting), and my solitary seminar is super-fun (Robinson Crusoe last week, Gulliver's Travels this Thursday).

Having a hard time fitting in quite enough exercise, but hoping to do better as the days get warmer and longer (saw asthma doc last week and he is pretty clear, which really I know intuitively, that if you have exercise-induced asthma it is a bad idea to exercise outdoors in temperatures below freezing - I am hoping to have a bit of a run on the indoor track at Chelsea Piers tomorrow afternoon).

Saturday, February 08, 2014

My family and other animals

At the FT, Ben Martynoga visits Jane Goodall in her family home at Bournemouth. Really enchanting picture at the bottom of Goodall's "favorite thing":
As a 12-year-old, she joined eight matchboxes together to make a stack of small drawers and filled them with dozens of handwritten scrolls; each slip of paper contains a quote from the Bible. Goodall made this Bible box as a gift for her grandmother and, for more than 50 years, the family have used it as an inspirational lottery.

(Photo credit: Victoria Birkenshaw.)

It is difficult to overstate the extent of my youthful obsession with Goodall: I really thought for many years that it would be my vocation in life to go and study chimpanzees (or perhaps gorillas) in their natural habitats. I can't pin the date down exclusively, but the book that was my utter obsession the year I turned eight was In the Shadow of Man. I read it again and again - and in fact in childhood times of stress and trouble I would retire to my room and contemplate the chimpanzee family trees on the endpapers and think about how much better life would be if I were living with a tribe of chimpanzees instead of a human family!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"Sorry, H.T.L."

A lovely set of reminiscences of the late John Hollander by a set of distinguished Spenserians. (Courtesy of Jenn Lewin, whose piece is especially good.) Taken together, they really convey what it was like to spend time with John; here is Stephen Orgel for instance on a summer spent working with John on an index for his father-in-law's book:
Anne’s father, Arthur Loesser, a musicologist and a superb pianist, had written a history of the piano, and we spent two months preparing a copious index. We would work all day in an attic study, reading proofs and making index cards, which included entries for an increasing number of fictitious composers and parodic keyboard instruments invented by John—Arthur eventually complained that we were using too many index cards, but on the whole he was a singularly indulgent employer and host, and much of our work was conducted in a condition of high hilarity. We would descend at the end of the day, and Arthur would ask for the most arcane or absurd items we had indexed, and would then play them for us, astoundingly, from memory. I still recall his spirited rendition of Kotswara’s Battle of Prague, for which he provided a moving commentary (“Cries of the wounded and dying”; “Field Marshall Maximilian orders a retreat”). The prodigy Leopoldine Blahetka, who was pronounced an excellent pianist when she played for Beethoven at the age of 5 (by which time, John immediately pointed out, Beethoven was totally deaf) remained a figure in our personal mythology for years afterward.
And this is Kenneth Gross, capturing better than anything else I have seen the texture of John's teaching:
Innumerable moments from his intense and rambling seminars still stick in my mind. I remember how he improvised a self-descriptive pastiche of a song-setting by Handel, sung in gravelly tenor, in order to demonstrate how music and text might mutually sustain and gloss each other in this composer’s work (a performed version of the kinds of poetic examples which compose his Rhyme’s Reason). I remember how, when we were reading Book V of The Faerie Queene, he said of the Egalitarian Giant: that giant is John Rawls, and one of the troubling things about American intellectual life these days is that John Rawls hasn’t read Spenser, and that most Spenser scholars have not read John Rawls. I remember how he traced the journey made by the phrase “wat’ry flower” as it passed from lines describing the dying Narcissus in the Gardens of Adonis to Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools”—the account reminded you not just of Frost’s powers of echo and revision but of just how strange the original phrase itself is.

I remember his response to a comment of mine in a Milton seminar, when I said that perhaps, after all, Samson Agonistes couldn’t be staged, for how could you imagine someone coming on stage in a shaggy wig, and suddenly discovering that his hair is troped—John looked at me somewhat disapprovingly, and said: “That’s why there are actors.” I remember a wonderful excursion on the history of aspirin (the first truly synthetic drug, whose name spoke of hope), which glossed the figure of the “Canon Aspirin” in Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” I remember how, dwelling on a line from Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”—“And the rotten rose is ript from the wall”—he conveyed a kind breathless delight in the look and substance of an actual rotted rose.

The world outside college

Colin Winnette interviews Lydia Millet for the Believer. Here she describes time spent in her twenties as a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications:
My favorite was the reader mail. There, technically, I guess we’re talking full-out psychosis more than anything—inmates were our biggest correspondents. Once, Richard Ramirez called my editor up on the phone. Our readers sent us rude ephemera, potatoes shaped like penises—that kind of deal. The neurotics were mostly coworkers, people who did bondage sessions right in their offices, friendly cross-dressers, aging queens in bad wigs. I liked many of them very much.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

On the tiles

Pornographic tiles discovered at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (via James Caudle):
The scenes depicted are so explicit that we are unable to reproduce them here in their entirety. One of the milder images features a woman who is kneeling behind a man holding a bunch of twigs, and beating him on his naked buttocks. She is dressed in a low-necked 18th-century-style dress with overskirt and frills on the sleeves, while the man's trousers are around his knees.

Achieving maximal performance

Frog-jumping contests!

Sleeping in

I was so phenomenally tired last night that I accidentally fell asleep from 6pm to 9pm with the lights on and 2 cats sprawled beside me on the bed. Then I couldn't sleep till late, maybe 2am: but it was clear when the alarm went off at 8:45 that I was not really ready to get up, despite the pull of my beloved 10am spin class. Messaged the teacher to let her know I wouldn't be there, then went back to bed. It was the right choice - I feel much more functional now, and will go out for an easy 90-minute run in another hour or so (it is 40 degrees and sunny!).

Saw a very poor play by Brecht on Wednesday (not recommended, though there are some funny bits and the production's not bad); good grilled ham and cheese sandwich afterwards with G. at Linen Hall.

Saw an amazing film called The Unseen Sequence yesterday at Lincoln Center with friends. Particularly mesmerizing are the teaching sequences, but really the whole thing was incredibly worthwhile (and with some lovely music also). A treat afterwards - their friend who works at the Met gave us an amazing behind-the-scenes tour, including the "dome" (little box up at the very top above the chandelier) and the hydraulic lift - gigantic pistons! - used to bring up enormous scenery from the bowels of the complex to the stage. Then another grilled cheese sandwich, this time with tomato soup (I had rushed straight from a long morning meeting to the movie, it was 3:30 and I was dropping from fatigue and hunger!), at the Alice Tully cafe.

I am much enjoying this semester so far, but it has a very different work rhythm than my usual - the committee load is extremely heavy (it is fascinating work, though, and very well-suited to my inclinations and abilities - basically reading and synthesizing huge amounts of material across a wide range of fields), with deadlines on Wednesday morning for report-writing and Friday morning for the meeting itself, and my class is Thursday afternoon. Won't have much time for leisure reading, but it is a worthwhile tradeoff (confidentiality prevents me from linking to either of the 2 books I read this week, or to any of the four candidates for tenure we discussed at our meeting yesterday). The weekend feels more relaxed because of not teaching on Mondays, but I have to make it through to the end of the week intact, rather than collapsing happily on Wednesday evening when I am mostly done.

Light reading around the edges: a comfort reread of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals (can't remember now what reminded me of this - it is a book I read many many times as a child, I loved it, I practically know it by heart - but I bought this copy for B., who doesn't know it, and then couldn't resist rereading it myself first); and I am well dug in on Rebecca Mead's absolutely lovely My Life in Middlemarch, which is gloriously good. I have been thinking a lot about what books I want to write next, and I think I am on a Rebecca Mead-Geoff Dyer-Francis Spufford axis of writing about reading, though with more similarities I think to Spufford than to either of the other two....