Saturday, May 30, 2015


British writers' preferred dialect terms. Mine would have to be SHOOGLY, but I have also been reading B.'s materials for the PR exam and he will attest to the fact that I can't stop expressing my desire for a pair of wompers....

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Feeling randomly and irrationally cheery this morning. Had a short run early, then self-imposed exile from B.'s condo (the cleaners come Wednesday morning, and I think it is better to give them free rein): first "five for five dolla" breakfast at Cimboco, and now I am ensconced for a morning of Clarissa work at Cafe del Sol.

Lots of light reading to log. I was in a state of despair about ever finding anything I wanted to read, I started and put aside almost a dozen different novels (several of which really are things I like very much, and when I am having this feeling very strongly the problem is more with me I think than with the books!). But school finished and I got a little more wherewithal to find stuff and enjoy it and now I have had an extremely good run of stuff:

A short memoir-essay by Ellis Avery, The Sapphire and the Tooth.

An amazingly appealing novel by Daniel Price, who really is a genius of light reading (I am impatient for the next installment in his newer series): Slick.

Laurie R. King's new Mary Russell installment (not bad, a bit silly in parts), Dreaming Spies.

Robin Black, Life Drawing (very well-written, but a little too domestic and depressing for my taste).

Charlaine Harris, Midnight Crossroad and Day Shift (slight but fun).

Marisa de los Santos, The Precious One (her novels are invariably delightful).

Suzanne Munshower, Younger (not bad, though not more than adequate).

Peter Higgins's final installment in the Wolfhound Century Series, Radiant State. I think this trilogy is superb, though I have to admit that the final installment is less to my taste than the earlier two (we miss the two main characters too much, and in general it's not character-driven - the modernist affiliations in the writing are particularly clear as he wraps up the grand-historical themes - shades of Gravity's Rainbow!). I especially love how he uses "real" poetic epigraphs for this alternate history (I still remember how delighted I was by one particular Heaney allusion, not even an epigraph, in an earlier installment - that's against the rules in a particularly appealing way!) - can't wait to see what he writes next.

Naomi Novik's wonderfully appealing new novel (she is another with the true light reading gift - this one's slightly reminiscent of Robin McKinley, but only in the sense that it's a kind/category of book I especially like, not that there's anything derivative) Uprooted.

Bridgett M. Davis, Into the Go-Slow (I liked it a good deal - coming-of-age story featuring return of young Black American woman to Nigeria in the 1980s).

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, which is alternately enthralling and dispiriting (it certainly does not make one wish to be working in the present-day NHS). But - BRAINS!

And last, a novel that I am only sorry to have read because it means I will never read it again for the first time, certainly one for my top ten of the year: Neal Stephenson's absolutely amazing Seveneves. SO GOOD. I think I loved it almost as much as I loved Anathem, which is saying a great deal; his last novel was enjoyable but minor, and I was very glad to see this return to absolute top form.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Third acts

Sylvia Nasar remembers John Nash.

The task at hand

Via Preeti, Amitava Kumar's ten rules for writing. I agree with much of this, but roundly dissent from #9 and #10 - I like working on more than one book at once (though admittedly they are always books of different genres - I wouldn't think that working on two novels at once would be particularly productive for most people, so in that sense it may be good advice - but on the other hand, don't we all draft something, leave it for a while and write something else, then come back to revise?).

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Closing tabs

The twenty-four-hour loaf.

Food in cubes!

The thing about pencils.

Powers of three

The tri-colonic title.

Sandwiches at an impeachment

This is absolutely amazing! So much so that I have reproduced the image here....

(Was thinking of this material recently as I am partway through William Dalrymple's fascinating White Mughals, which rather makes me wish I were a historian rather than a literary scholar....)

Knowing selves

Jessica Gross interviews Vivian Gornick. On writer versus persona in memoir:
Well, look at all the great fiction writers who have such brilliance about the characters they create, but know very little about themselves. Here’s a perfect example. Doris Lessing is a great writer in my view, but also very limited in some ways. There are novels and stories she’s written that are extraordinarily perceptive about men and women, but when she writes her own memoirs, she is stupid. She doesn’t know how to create out of her own unsurrogated self a narrator who knows how to be honest. So her memoirs are dishonest in the sense that where self-knowledge is required, it doesn’t work.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Life, novels

Tom Perrotta has a good piece about Kate Atkinson's novel in the NYTBR this weekend - my thoughts exactly, as regards the opening paragraphs. The book arrived on my Kindle just in time this week to save me from the dreadful fate of having nothing good to read; it is silly, there always is something to read, but the feeling of panic at running short never goes away, especially when I am very tired and a little too busy to drum up good new possibilities. Atkinson is such a good writer - you care more about her characters than those of almost any other novelist I can think of....

Friday, May 08, 2015

Sacks and his fives

Oliver Sacks is my hero; I have read every one of his books eagerly (and wrote about his last book for Bookforum); I devoured On the Move and urge you to do the same. He has written about sex and his own sexuality here, remedying a striking omission from the rest of his work, but there are all sorts of other delights (one library bit I already linked to some time ago).

As a SWIMMING and powerlifting obsessive, I am of course especially enchanted by those bits (and pained by the lost suitcase of Muscle Beach photographs and other material! - so many lost books here...); but I am also just very struck by the vision of a working life. I found myself thinking several times as I read that I am too much of an insider, that I need really to rediscover my independence: the way to write amazing books is not to be an easy creature of the institution....

Anyway, THIS! (NB squat still weakest of the three lifts for me, but I am getting my technique down and there are some BIG NUMBERS in my near future I hope....)
Training intensively, even obsessively, at a small gym in San Rafael, I worked up to doing five sets of five reps with 555 pounds every fifth day. The symmetry of this pleased me but caused amusement at the gym--"Sacks and his fives." I didn't realize how exceptional this was until another lifter encouraged me to have a go at the California squat record. I did so, diffidently, and to my delight was able to set a new record, a squat with a 600-pound bar on my shoulders. This was to serve as my introduction to the power-lifting world; a weight-lifting record is equivalent in these circles, to publishing a scientific paper or a book in academia.
And an account that has the overly shapely ring of storytelling but that surely has a good deal of truth in it (bonus link: squid giant axon!):
I committed a veritable genocide of earthworms in the college garden: thousands of earthworms would be needed to extract a respectable sample of myelin; I felt like Marie Curie processing her tons of pitchblende to obtain a decigram of pure radium. I became adept at dissecting out the nerve cord and cerebral ganglia in a single, swift excision, and I would mash these up to make a thick, myelin-rich soup ready for fractionation and centrifugation.

I kept careful notes in my lab notebook, a large green volume which I sometimes took home with me to ponder over at night. This was to prove my undoing, for, rushing to get to work one morning after oversleeping, I failed to secure the elastic bands on the bike rack and my precious notebook, containing nine months of detailed experimental data, escaped from the loose strands and flew off the bike while I was on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Pulling over to the side, I saw the notebook dismembered page by page by the thunderous traffic. I tried darting into the road two or three times to retrieve it, but this was madness, for the traffic was too dense and too fast. I could only watch helplessly until the whole book was torn apart.

I consoled myself, when I got to the lab, by saying at least I have the myelin itself; I can analyze it, look at it under the electron microscope, and regenerate some of the lost data. Over the ensuing weeks, I managed to do some good work and had started to feel some optimism again, despite some other mishaps, as when, in the neuropathology lab, I screwed the oil-immersion objective of my microscope through several irreplaceable slides.

Even worse, from my bosses' point of view, I managed to get crumbs of hamburger not only on my bench but in one of the centrifuges, an instrument I was using to refine the myelin samples.

Then a final and irreversible blow hit me: I lost the myelin. It disappeared somehow--perhaps I swept it into the garbage by mistake--but this tiny sample which had taken ten months to extract was irretrievably gone.

A meeting was convened: no one denied my talents, but no one could gainsay my defects. In a kindly but firm way, my bosses said to me, "Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don't you go and see patents--you'll do less harm." Such was the ignoble beginning of a clinical career."
And the note: "Perhaps I had never really expected to succeed in research. In a 1960 letter to my parents, wondering about doing research in physiology at UCLA, I wrote, 'I am probably too temperamental, too indolent, too clumsy ad even too dishonest to make a good research worker. The only things I really enjoy are talking . . . reading and writing.' And I quoted a letter I had just received from Jonathan Miller, who, writing about himself, Eric, and me, said, 'I am, like Wells, enchanted by the prospect and paralyzed by the reality of scientific research. The only place where any of us move nimbly or with grace is with ideas and words. Our love of science is utterly literary.'"

Thursday, May 07, 2015

"Every dose an overdose"

Courtesy of Dave Lull, a gorgeous piece by Lawrence Weschler about his long friendship with Oliver Sacks. My favorite bit, which has almost the feel of Christopher Smart:
By 79th Street we decide to cut east, over to the American Museum of Natural History. Once we are inside, Oliver’s disposition brightens. We head over to the hall of mollusks and stop before a case of squid, nautili, and octopi. Oliver is by now positively chipper.

I ask him what he has always liked about them. For a moment he stares at the case thoughtfully—the polymorphous, slightly goofy octopus; the sleek propulsive squid; the squat cephalopod. He finally erupts, “You can see what I like about them.”

He pauses. “With octopi,” he says, “I suppose it was partly the face—that here, for the first time in evolution, appears a face, a distinct physiognomy, indeed a personality—it’s true, when you spend time with them, you begin to differentiate between them, and they seem to differentiate between you and other visitors.

“So, there was that, this mutual sense of affection for the alien.

“And their eyes, which are huge.

“And then there was their way of moving, which is jet propulsion.

“Their birdlike beaks, which can give you a nasty nip.

“And their sexual habits—the male, you see, donates a sperm-filled leg to the female.

“That, and their ancientness.

“And their simultaneous adventurousness—how they threw off the repressive shell and moved out, to float free.

“And then, I guess, their sliminess.”

He giggles. “I do like the slimy.”


Did indeed devour the new installment of Knausgaard this week. I am addicted to these books. This one is very funny and also cringe-inducingly awful, as indeed adolescence itself is cringe-inducingly awful. A good interview with Don Bartlett about translating Knausgaard.


The semester's not properly over yet (two more weeks of this-and-that), but I do have a bit of a breather today, to my relief - this semester has been sufficiently taxing that I basically have no willpower left, I was toiling till three o'clock yesterday on something I should have been able to finish by ten in the morning!


Haven't been logging light reading partly because it has been mostly Xanax-style tranquilizing reading rather than of general literary interest. Should probably make some attempt to get it down here for the record: here are recommendations if you need to bathe your brain in well-written and undemanding urban fantasy....

SEVEN books about demons by Diana Rowland, TWO novels and TWO novellas by Melissa Olson about supernatural crime-scene cleanup, THREE very appealing novels by Anne Bishop on more science-fictional animal shape-changer lines and then TEN or so in an earlier fantasy series that unfortunately deployed the same stylistic means for having animal shape-changers talk telepathically to people (eroding my belief in the particularities of either of the fictional worlds), THREE demon/super-natural power novels by John Conroe (who is a very good writer but who has marred his series by giving his protagonist too many powers), ONE funny one by Harry Connolly with the appealing title A Key, an Egg, An Unfortunate Remark.

Also Elizabeth Wein's new installment in the WWII flying YA books (these are wonderful), Meghan Daum's new anthology of essays by writers who don't have children, two utterly brilliant novels by Hanya Yanagihara (I have reviewed A Little Life for Bookforum and won't say more here now, but this was a great link - indeed I know these young men very well myself).

And a few other things that deserve posts of their own!

Interesting stuff out and about town: my friend Preeti Vasudevan's absolutely beguiling Veiled Moon at the Met; an unusual sound-installation project called Earshot, a collaborative project by my former student Jason Bell among others. This took place at a very nice little bar in Williamsburg (two free cocktails were included in the very modest ticket price, and I also had what was pretty much the platonic ideal of a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich - ruminations on the difference between Morningside Heights and Williamsburg very strong in me, I live in a neighborhood where I can live mostly in my own head, I am not worried about how I dress or the quality of the food and drink I consume or the self-performance of life on the street and for the most part those around me share my values, Williamsburg is a neighborhood where the hipster aesthetic leads to an ethos of INSTANTIATION - people actually care to the utmost about whether it really is a delicious cocktail or sandwich or a good shirt or beard or what have you....).

Closing tabs:

A comprehensive history of the gym.

Stephen Elliott on the strange experience of having his memoir turned into a movie.

Visualizing the migration of honey buzzards.

Test-driving Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion. (Needlessly snarky, but I wished I could share this one with my father - we had a very good memorial for him in Philadelphia a couple weeks ago, and I need to write up what I said there so that I can post it here.)

Additional posts to follow, only I need to leave shortly to head downtown for POWERLIFTING, which has been the balm to my soul this semester - without that plus copious amounts of urban fantasy on my Kindle, I am not sure how I would have survived the semester....