Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015

Nyan nyan

Via Bonnie H., wine for cats:
The chief executive of B&H Lifes said it was created in response to requests from cat owners. "Cat owners were complaining there was no gift they could give their pets, while dogs could get sunglasses, raincoats, and boots," Masahito Tsurumi is cited as saying in media reports.

The undead transponder

Jessamyn West on managing her late father's tech.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading my grandmother's books

I come from a family of teachers. Both of my father's parents were English teachers and great readers; they met at teacher training college in Glasgow in the early 1930s, and though I have in my possession only a very small fraction of the books they collected over the years, they occupy a place of high honor in my office.

I sometimes tell a story to my students - it so perfectly seems to recapitulate crucial elements of the history of women's writing - in which my grandmother, during WWII, used the parchment pages of the sole copy of her undergraduate senior thesis to boil a Christmas pudding....

My grandfather was an omnivorous reader, possessing a serious interest in Scottish history, a wide range of literary tastes and an addiction to detective novels and "teach-yourself-X" language books, of which he owned dozens (he also religiously watched the Gaelic-language-instruction programs on public television, though really he and my grandmother grew up speaking Scots, not Gaelic, and lapsed into the familiar tongue of childhood more and more often in their old age as they retreated from the public world). I was tickled recently, while reading Pierre LeMaitre, to see that one of the literary crime scenes staged in his first book is from William McIlvanny's Laidlaw, a particular favorite of my grandfather's; the book he gave me to read the last time I saw him was this.

My grandmother suffered badly from dementia in her last years, but she remained a passionate reader: she had always been partial to the North American female short-story writers (Eudora Welty in particular), and Alice Munro was a favorite, not least because she wrote about rural Ontario scenes that resonated strongly with my grandmother's memories of an Ontario childhood (her mother was also a schoolteacher, though they moved back to Scotland after my grandmother's elementary-school years). The last book I remember her giving to me, not long before she died, was William Dalrymple's City of Djinns. I've never met Dalrymple, but he had grown up in North Berwick, the small seaside town outside Edinburgh where my grandparents lived for many years (my grandfather was headmaster of the North Berwick High School before he retired), and they had a proprietary interest in his budding success.

After my grandparents were dead, it was impossible to transfer more than a small selection of books from their house ("Old School House, 4 School Lane" - a quaint address I enjoyed writing on envelopes as a child!) to my graduate student quarters on the other side of the Atlantic. The ones I especially cherished - many of them my grandfather had already shipped to me in brown-paper-wrapped boxes from the local post office by the "book rate" - were the books they had as undergraduates, Everyman editions and a host of other small student-oriented hardcovers that dated mostly from their undergraduate years at Jordanhill. I used some of them while I was studying for my grad school orals: I remember that on my last visit to my grandmother, we had a rather wonderful circular conversation about my upcoming exams - a topic of interest and concern to both of us - she couldn't remember we'd already just talked it all through, so she'd pick up again as we left off by asking me to tell her about them - possibly in that sense she was the ideal auditor for an anxious third-year PhD student with an obsessive fondness for British literature and the ins and outs of academic study!

When I cleaned up my office in December, I came across this volume, which I remembered being there somewhere but which seemed especially lovely to lay hands on now given that it is something I'm currently writing about. I'm especially interested in the ways the page format of the scholarly edition is used by Johnson, so this little book isn't of exclusive utility, or indeed of notable monetary value, but what a precious memento....

From the outside.
Bookseller's stamp.
"Elizabeth C. W. H. Sillars. 1930." (She was born in 1911.)
You see from the list of cities on the title page that this is still the high imperial era of colonial education....
Diligent markup to the "Preface": a strong suspicion of an attentive student marking as the lecturer suggests!
The sheets of notes folded and tucked between the pages:

Clarissa repaired

Initially when the book falls into fascicles, it's almost convenient: you can just take a 200-page chunk to class rather than hauling the whole cinderblock of it. But once it falls into so many pieces that you have to keep it in a plastic bag, a repair job is in order....

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Closing tabs

The new semester has hit me on the head like a gigantic hammer! It's all good, I am thoroughly enjoying it (and particularly excited about teaching Clarissa again), but three of the last four days have featured me collapsing into bed mid-afternoon for a three-hour nap as I try and make the transition back from independently and naturally nocturnal to sociably diurnal - let us hope I can soon compound the transition....

Too lazy to log the light reading and associated links, but here are some tabs to close:

Owl cafes.

Viktor Shklovsky, hilo hero.

Debbie Chachra on why she is not a "maker."

Charles Simic remembers Mark Strand. I didn't know Mark well at all, though we taught in the same department and I used to see him regularly midmorning at Bodystrength Fitness on 106th St., where we both worked out for a stretch of several years. I did have one memorable night out with Mark and his then partner (my colleague and friend) Tricia Dailey: they had an extra ticket to what this (Mary Louise Parker, a great fan of Mark's poetry, was starring in the revival of Craig Lucas's play and had comped him tickets). We said hello to her afterwards and then transferred ourselves for a glorious meal and copious alcohol at the Russian Samovar, also mostly on the house due to Mark's longstanding close friendship with the late lamented Joseph Brodsky. A glimpse into another world!

Finally, the best clip I have seen this week on the internet: how hamsters fit so much in their cheeks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Closing tabs

I often find January challenging, and this year is no exception! A close family member is facing a difficult medical situation and we are all, I think, bracing ourselves for what's to come. Taking things day to day and trying not to worry too much about the failure to accomplish pretty much any of the work I'd hoped for (there were more other bits and bobs of work than I had admitted to myself, including Skyping in for a day and a half of MLA interviews for our eighteenth-century search). School starts next week, and will be crazy from the get-go....

However there have been many good things this month too.

Two Days, One Night is utterly mesmerizing in a terribly depressive way (glimpse of hope at the end); also, who knows whether everyone in Belgium eats their ice-cream cones like that or whether it just happens that the two actors in that scene were asked to lick in distinctive and identical fashion?

My friend Tanya's show Sorry Robot is absolutely delightful: like Hedwig, only with robots, and the exact right balance of existential and hilarious! It is really about the human condition, and I am only sorry that the song "Tears on the Treadmill" is not yet available as a Youtube link.... (A nice review at the Times.)

This is the sporting activity I have just taken up. It is making me extremely happy.

Lots of tabs to close:

Peter Hirsch on how a trip to the spa could end your marriage.

Greene Street soundscape c. 1972!

Memorable reference questions at the NYPL.

Identifiable images of bystanders extracted from corneal reflections.

R. Crumb on the Charlie Hebdo deaths.

Checking in with Thomas Lauderdale at the Pink Martini world headquarters in Portland, OR.

And quite a bit of light reading, all things considered (very soon I'm going to have little time for it, between teaching Clarissa and the TRAC committee shifting into heavy mode, although really the quantity speaks to the fact that I've been slightly struggling to get from day to day!):

Two very enjoyable albeit largely fantastical crime novels (I can tolerate preposterousness in the grand scheme of things so long as the sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph developments are plausible, which is so in this case) by Pierre Lemaitre, Irene and Alex. Which I read the wrong way round: ignore Amazon's use of the term "prequel" to describe the first one I list, it was written and published first in France, takes place chronologically prior to the subsequent volume and only happens to have been published belatedly in the US! More on Lemaitre here.

Comfort reread that reminded me of my deep conviction that I should write a long essay or a short book about Diana Wynne Jones, The Islands of Chaldea, posthumously completed by her sister Ursula Jones.

The first three books of Adrian McKinty's excellent Sean Duffy series, set in Belfast during the Troubles: The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I'll Be Gone. Another installment coming soon, but I felt bereft when I'd finished these three: the comfort of finding a really transporting fictional world and knowing that there is more of it where that came from is inversely proportional to the pain of being cut off at the end. I am always convinced, when I finish a series of books I enjoy, that I am never going to find anything I like to read ever again....

Ben Aaronovitch's Foxglove Summer: these novels are pretty much perfect in my book, though it took me some chapters to become fully immersed in this one - that may have been circumstantial, though, as I have had a lot of minor subway travel and waiting around for things.

Meghan Daum's new essay collection, The Unspeakable, which I enjoyed very much. (Here's an interview with Daum in Bookforum.)

Finally, Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends. Several friends have recommended Macintyre's books to me, and I certainly enjoyed this one (I wanted to follow up the factual story of Kim Philby, so far as it is known, after reading Tim Powers and other alternate-history versions).

I am really beginning to be grumpy about not having written anything recently. I need to think about this semester and whether I can build in a couple sessions a week of writing time. I think it is conceivable, but it will only happen if I make a concrete and realistic plan....

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Uptown mice

The effects of city living on the white-footed mouse.

Jay Furman, 1942-2015

My old friend Jason's beloved father Jay died this weekend. I went to the funeral yesterday; there was not an empty seat in the house as people gathered to honor the memory of a great friend and benefactor.

It is difficult to describe how important the Furman family were to me during the crucial years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. From my first year of college, the Furman house at 170 Sullivan Street was my home away from home: at times I was actually living there, but even in my late 20s it was still the place to retreat to as a refuge when I needed a New York bolthole (I particularly remember holing up there for some days during a summer heatwave c. 1999 - I had no air-conditioning in my New Haven apartment during grad school years!), and when I walk by that corner it feels like home.

The Furmans among other things gave me my first glimpse into a world of hospitality that was only partly enabled by wealth. Money was an underlying condition that made possible the spare bedrooms, the amazing supply of theater tickets and restaurant meals, the weekends in the Hamptons - I grew up in a culturally rich milieu, but not one where the whole family regularly going out for dinner and a movie would have been casually affordable, and it was an eye-opener to me that such a thing was even possible. Money alone doesn't do this, though, and the Furman hospitality was really facilitated by the depth and quality of the generosity that both Jay and Gail brought to life in such exceptional measure. It has stayed with me as a vision of what one might aspire to in the matter of helping people of all ages find their way in the world.

Jay was an unforgettable character. Manic, intellectual, a disconcerting trickster figure, he was full of boundless energy, with interests in all sorts of unexpected topics and activities (I obviously didn't know him at this stage of life, but I believe that when Gail first met him, Jay kept a pet monkey in the bathroom of his New York apartment!). Jay was one of the greatest readers I've ever met, partly because he was curious about everything, and he never met a movie he didn't like (he probably saw one almost every day during some periods of his life). At the funeral, he was quoted as having said that his favorite movie was Snakes on a Plane; given that he must have seen every movie ever screened at the Angelika, the New York Film Festival etc., and was immensely knowledgeable about all contemporary art cinema (Korean, Iranian, etc.), this gives a nice flavor of his ecumenical tastes and his ability to surprise (also of the way you never quite knew how serious he was about anything he said). Jay was possibly the least snobbish person I ever met: everything was interesting and deserved his attention in equal measure.

Jay gave me a clerical job at RD Management during a year I needed work (that was where I learned to type from dictation and do a good job at least pretending to be a corporate secretary, though I remember getting called up on the carpet by Jay's brother-in-law once for wearing tights with holes in them!). Jay was an unusual businessman. He was a fast and associative thinker who often left other people behind, but this was of course what made him such fun to be around. His impatience was tempered by a deep temperamental kindness that stopped him from becoming the slightly nerve-racking boss he might have been otherwise!

At one point that year there was an embezzlement scandal at the office, and I remember the conversion of Jay's office and associated boardroom into a massive investigative archive, with boxes of papers spread over the tables. Amy Davidson was called in to work at that point too, it was perhaps our first extended acquaintanceship with the forensic pleasures of delving into archives (I still remember the day when Amy realized that many of the suspect checks bore vertical creases because they had been folded into three and slipped into a breast pocket), and the workplace had the sort of frenetic fun energy that you associate with a newspaper or magazine on production day: Jay's curiosity lent charisma even to an unglamorous kind of investigation.

When I was admitted to the PhD program at Yale with only partial funding for the first two years (they were in transition to a model of full funding for all students, but it hadn't yet been implemented, and I did not have the spotless undergraduate record that would have pushed me up to the top of their list), Jay made up the difference between my fellowship and the standard stipend: I suggested that it should be a loan, but he was adamant that it was a gift, and that the only thing I needed to do in return was to help others at some place down the road. I remember meeting him once to get that year's check from him at his fitness club in midtown before work. He was the most vibrant, physically energetic person you could imagine (his physical qualities to an unusual degree matched his intellectual ones): he had a towel around his neck and announced, with glee, "I just did a twelve-hundred-calorie workout!"

The stories I most loved hearing at the funeral yesterday all involved Jay reading a book in slightly unexpected circumstances. This is exactly how I remember him: reading a book as he walked down the street to the movie theater, reading a book as he waited in the elevator for the lobby back up to the office. Jay liked to go out and play a round of golf on his own, toting his clubs and reading a book all the while; in eminent company (John Sexton, Rudy Giuliani, etc.), in the owner's box at Fenway Park for a playoff game, Jay, who did not care for baseball, took out a book at the end of the first inning and calmly read for the rest of the game!

Jay loved many things, but one of my favorite things about him was how proud he was of his sons Jason and Jesse. He lit up when he talked about them; he loved it that they both were able to excel in so many different ways in the world, and he rejoiced in their remarkable accomplishments (Jesse is a federal judge and Jason is the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors) but he would have loved it if they were elementary-school teachers or jugglers or indeed anything else worthwhile and interesting, which in his book would have meant just about anything, so long as it was done with love and conviction.

I can't pin down this anecdote with enough specificity to tell it really well, but one thing Jay particularly enjoyed in the mid-90s was taking the shuttle from LaGuardia to Boston or Washington for the day to visit with one or the other of his sons, and I particularly remember one occasion (I cannot say which way round it was) when he was so used to the Boston option that he absent-mindedly strolled onto the Boston shuttle instead of the Washington one, even though Jason was at that point living in Washington! He roared with laughter when he told this story - he only realized he'd made the mistake when he landed in the wrong city (it is the hazard of reading a book everywhere you go, and it was in any case an easy mistake to make), and the comic nature of the confusion made it a source of pleasure rather than irritation.

On Monday, Jason sent me this picture of one of Jay's bookshelves. It means a lot to me that my book is there. It couldn't have been written without the support of the Furmans (the same thing goes for my first academic book), and I will continue to hold up Jay in my mind as an extraordinary example of what it really means to be a friend and benefactor. I have made a modest donation to Lungevity in his memory, and encourage others who knew him to do the same; most of all, though, we should all aspire to follow his example in our own small ways. He was a remarkable person. He will be much missed.


Amy Davidson on the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Sunday, January 04, 2015


No sooner had I posted my favorite reading of 2014 list than I realized that I had left out my latest favorite discovery, the books of Elizabeth Wein. Both the WWII ones and the Arthurian-Ethiopia ones are superb. I am sure there are a few other important things I omitted, but this is the key one.

(In case you are curious for a glimpse into my working method, it is no wonder that I missed it - I just skim through the blog and jot down notes in this format, with things loosely grouped together in categories, then type it up in a new post, ticking things off as I proceed. Although I am characteristically very accurate in terms of proofreading and copy-editing, my tendency is to be extremely messy - I guess I like the environment to be the right balance of austere and chaotic - and it has been suggested that I might have a mild undiagnosed case of ADD, symptoms of which include the inability to wake up easily in the morning and the desire to stab myself in the eye with a fork when I have to listen to a boring talk or lecture.)

Bone music

Copying Western records onto discarded X-rays in Soviet Russia. (Via and here.)

"Fringed with Ducks"

At the FT, Edward Posnett's prizewinning essay on the eiderdown in Iceland (site registration required).