Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In bed with Raymond Williams

I was on the verge of writing B. an email earlier - "Getting into bed with Raymond Williams" - only I realized that what I really needed was a straight-up nap, not nap-pretending-to-be-reading-a-book! I have been remiss in not mentioning this here sooner - Facebook and Twitter leach energy away from this sort of announcement - but I've got a fun gig tomorrow night, joining Geoff Dyer (one of my literary heroes) and Nikil Saval (Columbia grad and author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, which I haven't read yet but which I sent a copy of last year to my father, longtime "cube" occupant) for a panel discussion of a new reissue of Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review.

At the Strand Bookstore, Thursday, March 26, 7pm (828 Broadway @ 12th St.).

Monday, March 23, 2015

New York living

One of the services the professional catsitters provide is a very funny note to greet you on your arrival home (NYC often outdoes even your most extravagant imaginings!)....

Friday, March 20, 2015

The last...

At the end of January my father and I were both keen to read Antonia Fraser's memoir of childhood, My History; it's not properly published in the US, i.e. unavailable for Kindle, so he kindly ordered us each a copy from the Book Depository in the UK. Thus leading to my painful awareness, as I read the book this week with considerable pleasure, that this is the last book my father will ever send me....

A passage that I know would have caught his eye, as Enid Blyton was also famously banned by the librarian in the Kirkcaldy of my father's childhood:
One author was never allowed to pollute our imaginations and that was Enid Blyton. In an excess of Thirties moralistic disapproval - the only example of such that I can remember - my mother banned her works. Unusually for me, I took no steps to get hold of the books in question later from the library. Indeed, I followed my mother when dealing with my own family, more for reasons of intellectual snobbery, I suspect, rather than anything else. My daughters, however, showed more spirit: it was not long before a stockpile of the dread works came tumbling out of their wardrobe. 'Jane' - a lively schoolfriend - 'gave them to us' was the explanation. 'She felt sorry for us not being able to read them. It was so exciting reading them in secret.' (A lesson, surely, in the dangers of censorship.)
To a curious degree, I share some of Fraser's influences in the matter of childhood reading: I suppose these were my English grandmother's books rather than even my mother's (Our Island Story and the unforgettably good Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies). When it came to Our Island Story, I was particularly fascinated by the story of the coming of Hengist and Horsa, which Fraser doesn't single out here but which I cannot resist quoting:
Then Hengist said, "You have indeed given us lands and houses, but as we have helped you so much I think you should give me a castle and make me a prince."

"I cannot do that," replied Vortigern. "Only Britons are allowed to be princes in this land. You are strangers and you are heathen. My people would be very angry if I made any one but a Christian a prince."

At that Hengist made a low bow, pretending to be very humble. "Give your servant then just so much land as can be surrounded by a leather thong," he said.

Vortigern thought there could be no harm in doing that, so he said, "Yes, you may have so much." But he did not know what a cunning fellow Hengist was.

As soon as Vortigern had given his consent, Hengist and Horsa killed the largest bullock they could find. Then they took its skin and cut it round and round into one long narrow strip of leather. This they stretched out and laid upon the ground in a large circle, enclosing a piece of land big enough upon which to build a fortress.

If you do not quite understand how Hengist and Horsa managed to cut the skin of a bullock into one long strip, get a piece of paper and a pair of scissors. Begin at the edge and cut the paper round and round in circles till you come to the middle. You will then find that you have a string of paper quite long enough to surround a brick castle. If you are not allowed to use scissors, ask some kind person to do it for you.

Vortigern was very angry when he learned how he had been cheated by Hengist and Horsa. But he was beginning to be rather afraid of them, so he said nothing, but allowed them to build their fortress. It was called Thong Castle, and stood not far from Lincoln, at a place now called Caistor.
It's a very interesting memoir, but shallow rather than deep: you only get glimpses into more complicated ideas and states of feeling (I liked the aside where Fraser notes of her father that his trait of marking a book with a strong pencil as he read was so characteristic and ingrained that "after his death, I was able to identify a copy of the New Testament left behind in the House of Lords library, without an owner's name, but full of those ritual stabbings"). And here are a few of the passages that most resonated with me:
It is a fact that, being a quick reader, apart from enabling a person to study good books such as Macaulay and Gibbon, enables a person to read a lot of bad books as well. It would however be ungrateful to pick out the titles that gave me such pleasure and stigmatize them as bad books; besides, I would maintain that such books can teach you narrative skill, which certainly never comes amiss in writing History.
And again:
It was now for the first time that the pleasure of what for tax purposes I came to term (perfectly accurately) Optical Research was revealed to me. It also could be called Going to Places and Looking at Them. But what an essential process it is in the making of a historical biography! With the respectful handling of the original documents, it ranks as one of the major ways of reaching what G. M. Trevelyan in his Autobiography called 'the poetry of history': 'the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another . . .'
(Note to self: you must write that little book about Gibbon's Rome!)

Other appealing details concern the "Fish Furniture" at Admiralty House and Cecil Beaton's pedantic habit of preferring the plural "gins-and-tonic": a life of privilege needless to say, which has irked some readers I think, but I couldn't put it down.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


A lovely interview with Dorothea Lasky at P&W (via Robert Polito):
I use that word “performance” a lot when discussing teaching, and I really believe that what the teacher is doing is a performance. You are saying that this set of behaviors has some meaning. That’s what you’re doing is a spell as well, and that’s definitely what you’re doing in a poem. A poem asserts: I’ve made this line, and this is going to have some effect on you. Just the act of believing does make it have an effect. For example, in a class, if I am going to get ten oranges and ask students to write a poem, just the fact that a teacher has decreed that as important—it does become important. You have a classroom of students who have not only thought deeply about oranges, you also have a classroom’s worth of poems about oranges. Or if we say that we’re going to read John Donne, then that becomes really important. A whole group of people will see his work in a new way—it wouldn’t have happened otherwise, if the people had simply read him on their own. It may seem arbitrary and specific to the particular teacher, and it is, in a holy way. Every teacher brings their style into the classroom in ways that both crucial and critical and this why we still need real-life teachers, not machines, to teach our students.

Sympathy for the devil

Gore Vidal's morning-after revisionism.

Logging catch-up

Have had a good miscellany of light reading, but it's been too long since I logged it: better do some catch-up, with recommendations.

Lavie Tidhar, The Violent Century: I had been awaiting this one avidly, and it more than lived up to expectations. I loved this book! It's even better than Ian Tregillis's Milkweed books. And also rather better than another not-bad Zeitgeist twin I read the same week, Justin Richards's The Suicide Exhibition.

A book that could have been written for me and me alone: Jo Walton, The Just City. Read this if you grew up on The Last of the Wine and/or ever wished you could live in Plato's Republic!

A wonderful novel that rightly bears comparison to The Fountain Overflows and I Capture the Castle: Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm.

A new installment in a brilliant series (everyone who likes crime fiction should be reading these): Adrian McKinty, Gun Street Girl.

A book that is pretty much exactly what I most enjoy in fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor. Hungry for next installment NOW!

A perfect light-reading novella: Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo (and I'm also halfway through her excellent story collection Spirits Abroad). Someone must get me an ARC of her forthcoming novel Sorceror to the Crown!

A novel of Cayman, Elke Feuer's Deadly Bloodlines (well-written once you swallow the demographic implausibility of a Caymanian police detective whose mother is a notorious serial killer!).

An also implausible but reasonably well-written thriller/police procedural (it couldn't decide which element was more dominant): Rachel Abbott, Only the Innocent.

Ian Tregillis's latest, The Mechanical (too much of the imaginative energy has gone into the concept and not enough into characters and voice).

Comfort read: Patricia Briggs, Dead Heat.

Comfort reread: Robin McKinley, Shadows.

Also, appealingly, my friend "Lilia Ford"'s Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bionic wearables

The bionic bra (via GeekPress):
'The easiest way to explain it is if you're sitting down, the bra is relaxed and comfortable, and it's not constraining you,’ she says. 'If you were suddenly to get up and run for a bus and your breasts are bouncing, the bra will sense that and tighten up to give you the support that you need.

‘Then when you're on the bus it realises you don't need that support anymore and just relaxes. So it's responding to women's physical needs.’

The bionic bar [sic] would improve on current sports bras, which offer a lot of support but tend to be tight and uncomfortable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Two bits

Charlie Stross and Lavie Tidhar on the late great Terry Pratchett.

(My favorite books of his are the Death books in the Discworld sequence and the Tiffany Aching books, but really you can't go wrong.)

Birds bearing gifts

Shiny things! (Via B.)


Rock-climbing cats (via Jane); unwarranted pouncing (ditto).

Two teas in London

This, this.

Madonna Songs

Nico on Madonna:
I am similarly frustrated and yet moved by Madonna’s resistance to giving us any real personal details. Many of the songs here are generically, rather than specifically, intimate. I am actually quite interested to know the ugly practicalities of Madonna’s life: where is her actual dwelling-place? What happens in the morning, before the many punishing hours of Ashtanga yoga? She has four kids: what’s that like? When she says, “Each time they take the photograph/I lose a part I can’t get back,” doesn’t it feel like it’s missing one crucial or personal detail? When Kanye says, manically, “I’ll move my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay,” we can picture the move; we see the family packing clothes — Spanx and faux-fur shrugs folded into convenient shapes — and thinking about nannies and schools. When Michael and Janet made “Scream,” didn’t you find yourself envisaging the horrors of Michael, alone in that huge house, amidst all those allegations, the giraffes quietly and deferentially nibbling on acacia outside their master’s window? And perhaps more relevantly, the heart-shattering detail Joni Mitchell gives us when she says, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide” — we picture that precise old frying pan, its greasy patina informed by various fried Canadian delicacies, and shimmering with remembered arguments and intimacies with her lover?

Little house

At the NYRB blog, April Bernard on Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"No stripes please"

At the LRB blog, Inigo Thomas considers the sartorial flair or lack thereof of Guy Burgess:
From Moscow, he carried on paying his annual membership fee to the Reform. He banked at Lloyds on St James’s. His clothes came from tailors on Jermyn and Bond Streets. The actress Coral Browne, who met him in Moscow, bought clothes on his behalf and sent them on. Their correspondence was the inspiration for Alan Bennett’s play An Englishman Abroad.

‘Thanks for your kindness in shopping for me and visiting my mum,’ Burgess wrote in an undated letter. ‘I really begin to think that English women, like Russian ones, are better characters than men.’ He tells Browne he is impressed not only with her shopping but with her thoroughness: she knows how to ‘dot the ‘i’s in “miaow”’. Having had suits made for him and ordered Homburg hats with their rims turned up from Locke’s, Burgess has a last favour to ask: pyjamas.
What I really need, the only thing more, is pyjamas. Russians ones can’t be slept in – are not in fact made for that purpose. What I would like if you can find them is 4 pairs (2 of each) of white (or off white, not grey) and Navy Blue Silk or Nylon or Terrylene [sic] – but heavy, not crêpe de chine or whatever is light pyjama. Quite plain and only those two colours… Don’t worry about price… Gieves of Bond Street used always to keep plain Navy blue silk. Navy and white are my only colours, and no stripes please.
(Reminds me rather of this....)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Swimming with Byron

I remember when I first started blogging that I found it slightly painful, the way that a really good post would immediately be superseded by the next one above it - it is definitely an ordering principle that takes a bit of getting used to. In this case, though, I am happy to bump my dreadful last post down the page....

Kickstarter invitations galore come through my feeds, but this is truly one after my own heart: a documentary film called Swimming with Byron!

(On which note, I think my review of the excellent Swimming with Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale should be out soon in the academic journal Biography.)

A quick note from Philadelphia

The timing is so unlikely as to be actively confusing: my brother M. and I were already talking, in the car down here this morning, about how hard it will be to explain.

Our mother's husband Jim died two weeks ago.

On Friday, I got very worried when my father didn't answer our usual end-of-week phone call. I emailed him in case his phone had accidentally turned itself off, but I didn't hear back from him in either medium. Wrote another email saying I'd try the next afternoon instead.

I was so tired I went to bed at 7, slept till midnight, was up for a few hours and then slept again - made it to Chelsea Piers for my beloved 10am spin, then came home and went back to bed.

(Have been operating in huge fatigue hole. Common for this time of the school year.)

When I woke up in the late afternoon, I was suddenly consumed with alarm that there was still no email response. This is very unusual. And yet one must respect the autonomous habits and preferences of another human being?

I emailed B. with some rather frenetic thoughts and worries along these lines, and decided that it would not in fact be going overboard to call the Philadelphia police and ask if they could do a "welfare check." (The front desk person in his apartment building doesn't have keys or access to apartments and the maintenance workers, who do, don't work weekends.)

That was 6:30. I was glued to the phone for the next three hours waiting for a call back, didn't want to pester. Finally I called around 9:30 and it emerged, after some transferring hither and thither, that really nobody had ever gone to the apartment. The woman on the phone promised to send an officer immediately and suggested that I call back in half an hour.

The officer called me back less than half an hour later. He was outside my father's apartment door, with no response. (It's not an option to break down doors in this sort of situation.) He was leaning towards going away again as there was no obvious next step.

I said a few words about my father as a person of regular habits, with life spent between home and work. The officer heard me and said he would go and try to find the off-site security people to let him in.

He called back a few minutes later with bad news.

My father's body was lying on the floor. He had been dead for some time.

That was about twenty-four hours ago. (Could there have been a worse night of the year to "spring forward"?)

There is no doubt that we will get through this. But I am still rather reeling, Job-like, at the latest turn of events....

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ogres in passing

Lorien Kite interviews Kazuo Ishiguro at the FT (site registration required):
“About 50 or 60 pages in, maybe slightly more, I thought, well, maybe I’ll show Lorna this,” says Ishiguro. “And she looked at it and said: ‘This is appalling — this won’t do.’ I said: ‘So what’s wrong with it? What should I change?’ She said: ‘You can’t change anything. You’ll just have to start again from scratch; completely from scratch.’”

Ishiguro couldn’t face the job of reconstruction immediately, turning instead to the short-story collection that would be published as Nocturnes in 2009. But when he did return to the Dark Ages, the approach was different. “The first time I had a go at this thing it was a bit like Sir Walter Scott, over-egged with a kind of period vernacular. The second time around I just tried to keep the language as simple as possible. I worked more at taking words from what you or I would say rather than adding things like ‘prithee’ — just by removing prepositions or the odd word here and there, I ended up with something that sounded slightly odd or slightly foreign.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Incidental pleasures

I am having a very lovely visit to Henrix College. Incidental pleasures: lunch yesterday at the Oxford American in Little Rock (I not very adventurously had a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, rather than sampling new Southern cuisine of various kinds - it is a simple pleasure I can rarely resist when I see it - but the meal ended with one of the most delicious desserts I've ever eaten, Do-si-do Girl Scout cookies crumbled up in a jar with white chocolate ganache and a salted caramel peanut ice-cream). Pizza, salad and a margarita for dinner at Zaza with my host Dorian and old friend Giffen. And a cat colony on campus!

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Literary classrooms

My brief description:
As students and teachers, we spend a lot of time in the classroom. It witnesses moments of exhilaration, boredom, discovery and hilarity, and the dynamics of conversation in the classroom occupy a good deal of our attention. But most of the great canonical novels we read are more interested in domestic scenes - husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends - than in school ones. An exploration of literary classrooms - the humiliations and torment, for students and teachers, depicted by Dickens in Nicholas Nickeby and David Copperfield and by Charlotte Bronte in Villette; the small-group dynamics of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; the classrooms of contemporary children's literature from Harriet the Spy to J. K. Rowling. What are the risks and rewards of setting fictional scenes in classrooms? And what is the relationship between the dreams of reading and writing and dreams of teaching and learning?
More information here.

My host Dorian Stuber has lined up a couple other really wonderful things for me to do while I'm on campus (and I am promised swimming-pool access too): namely, visiting a class that's reading Clarissa and running a student discussion on the topic of light reading by way of Ben Aaronovitch's Midnight Riot, which I now have a good excuse to reread on my flights tomorrow morning!

(6:20am departure from JFK: just trying to figure out how early I really should leave for that....)

(Just the thought of it makes me think that I might have to lie down right now for a short nap - napped so long yesterday afternoon that I slept very badly last night and am now feeling on the verge of collapse!)