Thursday, April 30, 2015

The libertine aesthetic

Possibly the most obscene poem you will read today or any other day. (Called up in preparation for my final Clarissa seminar later this morning.)


At the intersection of two of my favorite things. (I slightly aspire to write a guest post for this blog one day!)


At the Guardian, Billy Mills on Finnegans Wake as the book the web was invented for.

Icing delivery

A Facebook friend posted this birthday cake recipe; I can take or leave the cake and filling, but I am very tempted to mix up a batch of the icing....

(Ingredients: 25g/1oz cocoa powder, 300g/10½oz icing sugar, 50g/1¾oz butter, 50ml/2fl oz double cream!)

Big Max

"He thought it wouldn't be a good burger."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Guilty pleasures?

At the FT, Jenny Linford on the "new milk chocolate" movement (FT site registration required - NB I am very happy with the old milk chocolate too):
Danish chocolate maker Mikkel Friis-Holm of Friis-Holm produces two “dark milk” bars, one at 55 per cent cocoa solids, the other at 65 per cent. Having experimented with different beans and fermentation periods, Friis-Holm settled on a “full-bodied and tasty” cocoa from Nicaragua. What he wants from his dark milk bars, he says, is to move through creamy and caramel notes but “importantly to end up with cacao flavours”. This way, milk chocolate is no longer the “stepchild” of plain. “At first people bought it as if they had bought a naughty magazine,” laughs Friis-Holm. “They would hide it under the dark bars!”

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Minute particulars

Someone was recently asking me to write a post about time management and writing, it is something I should weigh in on: but I am not always a good role model, to say the least. I like the part where I read and think and get a first draft down on paper as a speaking script, but it is not as enjoyable to turn it into something publishable: I am pleased with this essay, but also full of self-reproach that I did not turn it into an article shortly after I first wrote up the basic material in 2006!....

(This essay may also be the first publication in which I have cited Facebook crowdsourcing as a scholarly source.)

Available through JSTOR now, anyway: "The Minute Particular in Life-Writing and the Novel."

Saturday, April 04, 2015


It was February and I was finishing Heidi Julavits's The Folded Clock on the train home from Philadelphia after a visit to sit with my mother by the side of her dear companion Jim Kilik during his final days in the ICU at Hahnemann. I was all at sixes and sevens: I came across a passage that shocked me with its aptness to my mother's situation, I am not sure if tears were actually rolling down my face or not but I think they probably were, and then somehow I left the ARC on the train and was thwarted in my compulsion to post the passage on my blog!

Heidi is my friend and neighbor and kindly gave me another copy so that I could post this unforgettable passage (it is about why we gossip about other people's relationships - and by now the book is actually out and I could have bought a replacement copy, I have not been on top of things):
The day's tagline was a simple one. One of three things would happen to us: we would stay married, or we would leave, or we would be left. We are in our forties, and this is what our futures have winnowed down to, these three possibilities. The purpose of the stimulating task in which we were involved was to help us figure out how to deal with this clarified future. How, as one man put it, to "best maneuver through the situation."

I don't maneuver. I distill. I distill from the many possible anxieties a primary one. I can imagine that point in time, if my husband and I stay together, and I believe we will, where our future will function like this: every night we'll go to bed wondering who won't be alive in the morning. When we kiss good night, it won't be as we kiss now in our forties. I won't be worrying whether or not I should be more passionate more regularly because if I'm not he might leave me for another woman. I'll be kissing him wondering if we'll never kiss again. I'll be wondering if this is not good night but good-bye. I can imagine, too, that this anxiety is somewhat purifying, because it is so simple, so unavoidable. You believe you can prevent your husband or wife from leaving you for another person--this is one reason we gossip in our forties. But someday we will leave or be left, and it won't be anyone's fault or anyone's choice. There is no available gossip to teach us how to avoid this fate.
The New Yorker also published an excerpt that gives a good feeling for this book's delicate and appealingly irritable treatment of marriage and mortality, and Becca wrote about Julavits and Manguso for the Globe.

Light reading catch-up

I missed my chance to write a review of Sarah Manguso's riveting new book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, but I highly recommend it (and have been keeping a few links open to post, namely a Rumpus interview and good account by Michelle Dean at the Guardian).

I obsessively devoured Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, which gets my vote for book of the year (only it will make you cry): won't say more now, as I am indeed reviewing this one, but it's really something remarkable.

Seanan McGuire's Pocket Apocalypse was delightful (I liked it even more than the earlier installments in this series, as it switches characters and modes to something more like the Mira Grant books - good additional use of Australia research done for How Green This Land).

A rather good pair of urban fantasy novels, Michelle Sagara's first two Queen of the Dead Installments (link here), and then, addictively, the first six in Diana Rowland's Kara Gillian series (demon summoning, serial killers, slightly too much demon sex for my taste and also less good when it moves to the demon world as opposed to the very fully rendered Louisiana life - reminiscent of Charlaine Harris, very well-written). Fortunately for me the next installment is due to drop in a few more days....

Basically I'm just about keeping my head above water; this week, that's been managed by doing the bare minimum required for work and life, but I am coming up on a very busy couple weeks that are going to require me to keep my wits about me. Going to Philadelphia this evening to hear what promises to be a glorious performance of one of my favorite pieces of music EVER. Trying not to think about the long list of tasks that I am neglecting but that will no doubt get done in the end. School is "over" in four more weeks (plus about three additional weeks of still fairly demanding obligations): after that I am going to go into an orgy of exercise and writing.

Greaves and pauldrons

Mark Kingwell on Paul Fussell. It was at age thirteen or fourteen I think that I first read Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. (I also had a treasured copy of Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, loaned to me I suspect by my singularly inspiring teacher Deborah Dempsey!) I had the electrifying sense of reading a book that was something like what I wanted to write myself someday - I had already had that feeling very strongly based on novels by Robert Graves, Anthony Burgess and a few others (Gore Vidal?), but this was a new vision of what might be possible....

The best thing about Mark's Hilobrow shout-out to P. Fussell was that it reminded me of the existence of a book I heard about on its first publication but never read, and which was perhaps more perfectly suited to my current state of mind than anything else imaginable: Sam Fussell's Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. Happily for me, this book has just been reissued, and I devoured this week (again, curiously, thinking - this is inspirational in terms of a book I might write myself one of these days!).

Here are a few snippets. First, on coming across a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder in the autobiography section of the Strand in September 1984:
As for his body, why, here was protection, and loads of it. What were these great chunks of tanned, taut muscle but modern-day armor? Here were breastplates, greaves, and pauldrons aplenty, and all made from human flesh. He had taken stock of his own situation and used he weight room as his smithy. A human fortress--a perfect defense to keep the enemy host at bay. What fool would dare storm those foundations?
Pre-iron, I'd spent my days convicting myself of avarice and envy and sloth. To become something else seemed the only alternative. As long as I covered myself with the equivalent of scaffolding and labeled myself a "work in progress" I could escape the doubt and uncertainty that plagued my past and spend every second of my present concentrating on a pristine future. I hated the flawed, weak, vulnerable nature of being human as much as I hated the Adam's apple which bobbed beneath my chin. The attempt at physical perfection grew from seeds of self-disgust.
It had begun to dawn on me that the whole building thing might be merely a parody of labor, and I myself a well-muscled dilettante. What would Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, think of bodybuilding? He had to be turning over in his grave. After all, the iron we lifted didn't help build a bridge or a battleship or a skyscraper. It enlarged our biceps and spread the sweep of our thighs. The labor of farmers and factory workers and longshoremen had a kind of dignity and purpose that ours didn't.
Here's an excellent interview with Fussell about the bodybuilding, the book and the paths his life has taken since.

Bonus link: Lionel Shriver on the body as a trench coat.

"Copiousness is the desired effect"

The vortex of the spring semester has engulfed me. (That, and Facebook leaching off minor life commentary.) A lot of tabs to close and light reading to log, only perhaps not just now. Instead, a delightful piece by John Mullan about George R. R. Martin and fantasy fiction more generally. Here's his description of the pilgrimage he paid to Tolkien as a teenager:
I vividly remember one day, aged 14, climbing like a pilgrim the worn wooden steps to Tolkien’s room in Merton college, Oxford in the company of his grandson, who was a school friend. I was clutching my battered paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, much reread. And there was the great man in his beautiful room, crowded bookshelves up to the ceiling, a vision of lawns beyond. He sucked his pipe and chatted benignly. I was encountering the most important writer in the world, as it then seemed, though I was struck by the mismatch of this tweedy English grandfather and his lofty Wagnerian creation. He was telling me of the physical pleasure of writing. “Did I enjoy the sensation of using a really good ink pen?” I could see why he might be asking this when he signed my copy of his magnum opus: runic is the only word for the style of the inscription. Seeing Professor Tolkien in situ suddenly made it obvious how bookish an endeavour it was, this business of creating of an alternative world.