Monday, June 29, 2015

Light reading update

Overdue a light reading update. Basically, the month in summary: crest of relief when I dig in on a longish series that's good, then dismay when it comes to an end and I am not sure what to read next! Trying to get my act together for a productive week of work starting tomorrow, as that is the thing most likely to improve my mood and morale - this year has been unduly taxing, I am now operating at about 20% capacity, that's not good....

Just finished an advance copy of the excellent Lauren Groff's forthcoming novel Fates and Furies. I found the first half puzzling and a bit unsatisfying (it suffers by comparison with A Little Life, which on the face of it sets out to do some similar things), but the second half makes sense of the first - I wish there had been some way to have the reveal come sooner. Very good, though, regardless.

The latest Expanse installment is just as good as one might expect. I think I will reread the whole series from the start before the next volume, both because they are so intensely pleasurable and because the human element of the story sticks with me more consistently than the intricacies of the protomolecule.

Caymanian author Elke Feuer's Deadly Race, which I enjoyed very much (it's the second installment in a series, both are well-written and engaging but this one asks for less suspension of demographic disbelief in the matter of serial killer populations!).

Stephen King, Finders Keepers (an enjoyable read, good storytelling but the characters are forgettable, types rather than individuals).

Sarai Walker, Dietland (like a sort of inverse sequel to Fay Weldon's Life and Loves of a She Devil).

I liked the first two installment of Sarah Rees Brennan's Lynburn Legacy books so much that I decided to reread them in preparation for Unmade. I was sorry indeed as I read the last page: these books remind me more of Diana Wynne Jones than almost anything I've ever read, it gave me a pang!

Tim Lebbon, Coldbrook (certain similarities to the other book I recently read of is led me to suspect that he must have been as strongly influenced/impressed as I was by The Day of the Triffids in some earlier stage of life).

Then I came upon an amazingly good fantasy series by Robert V. S. Redick. Redick is my "friend" on Facebook, and posted a picture of a gecko there that captivated me sufficiently that I looked up his books: and they are so very good! Also there are four of them and they are LONG, so they got me through a tough week or so. The series is called the Chathrand Voyage, more information here: highly recommended.

I couldn't quite get in a groove after that (I have been reading a lot for work as well too, obviously, including some very interesting stuff about documentation and marginal annotation), so the rest of the list is more miscellaneous: a very brutal zombie novel by Mason James Cole, Pray to Stay Dead; four much more frivolous zombie novels (this kind of urban fantasy is so silly but so relaxing to read), Diana Rowland's White Trash Zombie series; Sarah Hepola's gripping Blackout (this Guardian excerpt captured my attention earlier in the month: not as complex and interesting a book as Caroline Knapp's drinking memoir, but extremely well-written and interesting to read); and Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty (I liked it, the writing is ravishing, but it is more novella than novel - reminded me a good deal of a couple books by Kate Christensen that were more substantial - and I found the late-stage double revelation needlessly melodramatic - one or the other thing would have been enough?).

My bedroom is stacked with dozens of half-read books, but I am too lazy to document that all here - will have to get subsumed into actual writing....

Saturday, June 27, 2015

"Sight moaty and dimmish"

Diseases incident to literary and sedentary persons!

The state of publishing

At the Guardian, Sam Leith argues that we're living in a golden age for the university press. I agree with everything he says - also I want to read some of these UP books he singles out for praise (might have to read a manuscript for the U of Chicago P so that I can get these for free - often honorarium from a press is a choice of a very modest sum of actual dollars or twice that amount in books! The Francis Barber book is already on my list and I am about to go and get it from the library):
In natural history and popular science, alone, for instance: Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s amazing book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins or Brooke Borel’s history of the bedbug, Infested, or Caitlin O’Connell’s book on pachyderm behaviour, Elephant Don, or Christian Sardet’s gorgeous book Plankton? All are published by the University of Chicago. Beth Shapiro’s book on the science of de-extinction, How to Clone a Mammoth? Published by Princeton. In biography, Yale – who gave us Sue Prideaux’s award-winning life of Strindberg a couple of years back – have been quietly churning out the superb Jewish Lives series. Theirs is the new biography of Stalin applauded by one reviewer as “the pinnacle of scholarly knowledge on the subject”, and theirs the much-admired new life of Francis Barber, the freed slave named as Dr Johnson’s heir. Here are chewy, interesting subjects treated by writers of real authority but marketed in a popular way. The university presses are turning towards the public because with the big presses not taking these risks, the stuff’s there for the taking.

Against the 1%

Some funny food details in this FT lunch with Thomas Piketty, who seems to have been making a point by choosing a really mediocre lunch venue (I do understand the preference for quiet research time over lunch!): "the now tepid bolognese," "ripe and soothing" cubes of pineapple, "a rubbery crêpe au sucre"....

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

James Kilik, 1950-2015

June 20, 2015
Art Alliance of Philadelphia

Thank you for being here with us this evening to celebrate the memory of Jim Kilik.

Early life

These thoughts are from Jim’s dad Gene:
In 1950 when Jim was born at the very tiny, now very large Overlook Hospital in Summit, the family was living in a newly built split level (built as one of the huge number to house the newly created families formed during and after WW2) in Florham Park, NJ.

His family, under the mistaken notion that children living in the cities and suburbs were deprived of the experience of country and farm living, decided when Jim was about five (his brother Michael was 4 years older) to move to a seventeen-acre Old MacDonald farm in Readington, NJ, where sheep, chicken (broilers and laying hens), ducks, a big vegetable garden, three dogs and about twenty odd cats shared the residence. (Literally: spring lambs usually were born during February snow storms and were kept in the kitchen with the mother for a couple of days. Nothing is dumber than sheep except the Shepherd who has moved from the city or suburb.) While Michael bought the whole idea of farm life, Jim ignored the whole adventure. He didn't move in a society centered around a barn. He was all business even then.

(And I’ll add in my own voice a story that I’ve heard Gene tell now and again that I really love, a little story about “Jimmy” as a kid – Jim was always a good baseball player, as borne out in more recent years by his enthusiasm for serious recreational softball. And the neighborhood kids – probably Young Gabe most of all – would ask Jim to come out to play ball. And Young Jimmy would say – “I can’t come out to play right now. I’m a busy kid!”)

Jim understood from the beginning that the family wasn't really cut out to be farmers, and eventually the rest of the family caught on, so next stop, the old house in Murray Hill, NJ, where Jim quickly got disillusioned with public schools and in about the third grade transferred to the Far Brook School -- a school that had the knack of bringing out the interests and talents, whatever they were, of the kids that accepted the freedoms allowed by the school, a move that changed his life.

The primary mover in the change of Jim's attitude was the music teacher, Eddie Finckel. Yes, and the old plastic clarinet that Jim's Uncle Allen had gathering dust since he put his musical talents with other discarded detritus in storage. There was no one like Eddie Finckel who could dig out the talents of every kid who came under his low-key but large expectations. So, naturally, when Eddie and his wife Helen started their Vermont summer camp, Jim was among the first to sign up. He was camper and then counselor and for at least one summer led a group of wonderful kids who performed under a charming but forgettable name. (Note: maybe someone here remembers what that group was called?) At camp there were a bunch of guys and girls like Hal Slapin who never lost touch with each other.

(And a nice other note on the Far Brook years comes from Jim’s classmate Lucy Marks, who remembers Jim performing a memorable Caliban in the Tempest production for their eighth-grade graduation: “every time I see that play I am reminded of how Jim growled, “I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother. . .” Lucy also adds that her great love of the Mozart clarinet concerto is thanks to Jim, who would always oblige her by playing her favorite passage.)

After Far Brook came a short time at prestigious private high school in Morristown, a school that didn't suit Jim at all. He transferred to the public regional high school, Governor Livingston, where he played in the band and firmed up his wish to someday become a real musician. He also became friendly with boys in the neighborhood, mainly Gabe Allocco. He and Gabe, one summer, helped Gabe’s father, a first-class carpenter, tear off the multiples of rooves on the old house and install a new wood shingle roof that was closer to the original on the eighteenth century house.

In Jim’s life there were, as in most lives, ups and downs. In Jim’s there were plenty of ups but one terrible down: the death of his brother, Michael. Michael was on his way to do a good deed when he was in an accident that caused a coma that lasted a year before he died. Michael was 39.
Professional career

Jim graduated from the New School of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied clarinet and saxophone with Ronald Reuben of the Philadelphia Orchestra (he also worked with Loren Kitt and Kalmen Opperman). During a long and successful career as a freelance musician in the greater Philadelphia area, Jim played many different kinds of music; he was a member for 22 years of the Delaware Symphony, but also performed regularly with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, Network for New Music, Relache and the Playhouse at the Hotel Dupont in Wilmington.

I have heard many funny tales of these years, some of them not perhaps suitable for this sort of occasion (much alcohol was clearly consumed – and it is still slightly a regret that we were not able to host this gathering at the Pen and Pencil Club, which would have been a suitable venue but which isn’t set up to accommodate so many people at once!). Just a glimpse of their flavor will come from Jim’s friend John Hall’s reminiscence of when he first moved to Philadelphia in 1971 – he met Jim when Jim’s roommate lent him a place in their apartment in the 900 block of Pine Street while John looked for housing of his own. This is how John describes it:
The Pine Street apartment was the place where friends gathered on Friday nights (the only night when we took time from studying and practicing to socialize) before going out to a Pine Street pizzeria for hoagies, cheese steaks, beer, and pizza. A noteworthy and now-famous feature of this apartment was its attic, which Jim thoughtfully lent (rent-free) to our friend Todd Hemenway and wittily dubbed “The Winter Palace” since it had no heat, no running water, and broken windows so that the snow fell inside as well as out. Todd lived there for two years.
The other terrible “down” in Jim’s life

Gene wrote of one terrible “down” in Jim’s life. There was another that it’s important to remember this evening. Many of you know that Jim had to give up playing professionally in the spring of 2001. He had been struck by hand-focal dystonia – dystonia is one of the horrible afflictions that can strike professional musicians and others (in the mouth and embouchure, often, for brass players, but in Jim’s case in his hand). He followed with great interest Leon Fleisher’s activism and research around the problem of dystonia, participated in interviews for a documentary about dystonia awareness and was a very active supporter of the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. Among other treatments he tried, Jim traveled to New York for a splinting trial – the theory was that by immobilizing the dystonic hand for two months it might “learn” or find new neural pathways on coming out of the splint. The leader of that trial, Dr. Steven Frucht, wrote these words to my mother after hearing of Jim’s death:
I have very vivid memories of Jim’s participation in the splinting trial. He was so engaged and willing to participate to help other musicians. I remember how astute his observations were about his condition, and how he understood the challenges facing similarly affected musicians.

It was a great privilege to meet and care for him.
Two important things to remember about Jim

When I think of the legacy Jim left behind, I think of his selflessness and generosity in two very important different domains: teaching, family and friends.

First, then, some thoughts on Jim’s teaching.

Jim was a longtime faculty member at Settlement Music School, as well as being on the faculty at Widener University in Chester.

These words come from Jim’s student Bill, a retired psychology professor at Temple who came regularly for coaching on the pieces he was playing with a local amateur orchestra and for summer music camps. Bill wrote this letter to Jim in February:
I wanted you to know how much your teaching and coaching has meant to me over the years. You are the first clarinet teacher who said to me (at various points in time) that you had been thinking about what the previous lesson had been about and now you had some additional suggestions. They were always on the mark. That alone set you apart from the ordinary “what do we work on this week” approach. You either knew the music I needed to learn (I was continually amazed at the range of your repertoire) or you got the score and a recording and proceeded to help me figure out how to play the piece . . . or at least how to be a bit better at faking it. That’s another unique feature about your teaching style: being willing to learn something new. Of course, the result on the student, me, was to make me work all the harder without feeling discouraged. Any number of times with a concert coming up I would bring the passage at hand and you would give me the encouragement that I was playing it just fine. A typical Kilik quote: “I don’t want to say anything because I will ruin it. It’s just fine.” Boy, those words helped me more than you can imagine. You know the repertoire and the techniques for both E-flat and bass clarinet. My being able to play (or attempt to play!) those instruments gave me entree into a literature that I never could have imagined performing on the standard clarinet. Your knowledge of the instruments from mouthpiece to bell helped me to get a far better sound and to gain almost enough information to ask Mark J. intelligent questions. Well, maybe not quite yet.
And this comment is from Rosemary Banks, the mother of one of Jim’s absolute prize students, Nzinga, who is now in her third year studying jazz at William Paterson University, after hearing from some other students and colleagues of Jim’s at a gathering at Settlement Music School last weekend:
I had always thought Mr. Kilik treated my daughter Nzinga very special by how vigilantly he taught her, and the support he gave outside the classroom. But yesterday I learned he did that with all his students, his friends, his colleagues. That makes me respect and appreciate his integrity and heart even more.

Nzinga and I always said that when she played in New York when she became a famous musician, she would send airfare and front seat tickets to Mr. Kilik. That was our dream. We are still in shock and terribly hurt that he is gone, but for us he will always be there in that front seat—very reserved and thoughtful, but obviously supportive with a kind of suppressed pride.

We will never ever forget him and we miss him so much!
These were Nzinga’s own words:
He was not only a great teacher but a great caring person as well. I had only hoped for him to see me reach the apotheosis of my playing so he could witness all his hard work put into action. He was the best teacher I have ever had and I wouldn't be where I am without him. He was always committed, never late, always went overtime on lessons and always believed in me. I can go on and on about his greatness.
And really capturing the essence of Jim’s gift as a teacher are a few thoughts from Danielle, another of Jim’s prize students from over the years (my mother remembers going with Jim to hear her play Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps).
I really hope he knew what an important part of my life he was—a teacher and a mentor during such a significant part of my growing-up. I so clearly remember my first lessons with him in the basement of Jenkintown SMS. He taught me so much, including perhaps the most important lesson that I come back to so often in my teaching career: to take my own ego out of teaching. He was an amazing teacher and an amazing musician, but at some point he stopped playing at my lessons because he didn’t want me to pick up his own idiosyncrasies. When I went to college and had the option to continue studying with him, he told me it was time to get a different perspective. In my lifetime I don’t think I have ever seen a teacher who was able to make these kinds of decisions and I am so grateful to him. Not to mention the hours and hours of basically free lessons he gave me during summers whenever I needed help.
By emphasizing teaching, I don’t want to downplay Jim’s deep musicianship. I know many other friends and colleagues here who played with Jim over the years would say something similar, but in lieu of a complete roundup I will just share this comment from Mike Shaedel, pianist and Settlement teacher who played with Jim regularly, mostly through the Settlement Contemporary Players:
I enjoyed working with him so much. He was such a fine musician and a fine human being. He had a warm friendliness and seemed to operate completely outside the competitive spirit that often marks the music world. I appreciated that so much, it made working with him such pleasure!
Finally, there Jim’s legacy of generosity and warmth to friends and family. He was the partner my wonderful mother deserved her whole life and was lucky enough to find in the middle of both their lives.

I have many fond memories of Jim around the house – eating a banana for breakfast every day, on the rationale that the potassium in it was essential for heart health (when explaining this, he used to make a little gesture as of a creature keeling over dead like a canary in a coal mine); calling out “WHEEEEEE!” as he drove over a pothole, of which Philadelphia streets have very many (I should add, on the theme of generosity, that the reason I was so often in a car with Jim was that he was always eager to help my mom out by ferrying her visiting children around town as needed!); doing a 50-mile charity bicycle ride with me and my brother Michael and his lovely wife Jessi, who had a special connection with Jim (Jessi said recently that it was only in conversation with Jim that she learned that the “P&P” had an actual name, and that those letters stood for Pen and Pencil – they had both had stages of Philadelphia life, not at the same time, in which they regularly frequented that legendary joint). Jim had a huge amount of enthusiasm for softball, for bike-riding, for a whole host of errands and tasks that made my mother’s life easier.

Jim and my mother were devoted partners for twenty years, and in the wake of Jim’s cancer diagnosis in late December they got married officially in January. I wish we had had more time to celebrate that union. The final thing I want to tell you about, and I think it’s my favorite memory when I think of Jim, is just the way he used to say my mother’s name. “Caroline” – it was immensely fond, affectionate, yet it also had a tone of seriousness acknowledged her authority, and he definitely thought she had the final word on everything that mattered! My mother is all things that are excellent, but she is not eminently teasable, and I think Jim is really the only person who had license to tease her: as, for instance, about the habit that she and I share, of pouring a largish tumbler of whisky late at night before bed – Jim had a particular gesture that I really can’t reproduce, but that I categorize with the canary-in-a-coal-mine bananas-are-full-of-potassium motion, in which his eyes went very wide and his hands moved apart to signal the very massive nature of the tumblerful that tended to get poured!

And on that highly appropriate note, please get another drink and something to eat, and let us return to this excellent music and an evening of stories and reminiscences.

Friday, June 12, 2015


I have had several bad pangs of missing my father this week. One came when I realized that the restaurant I hoped to have a quiet memorial dinner at with B. next weekend in Philadelphia (we are there for my stepfather's memorial) has since closed! Another came just now when I saw this lunch with the FT piece (interviewee is Richard Desmond), which included a refrain I know he would have hugely appreciated (Desmond has ordered a 580-pound bottle of wine):
I carve into a courgette tart. Desmond heaps English mustard to the left of his tuna. The cuff of his right sleeve rubs into the pesto. The wine is delicious, especially now that I have stopped seeing the reflection of the FT expenses department in my glass.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Barthes at 100

At the TLS, Neil Badmington on a spate of recent celebrations and biographical projects on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roland Barthes. Lots of great stuff here (the intellectual milieu that totally absorbed my late teens!), but I especially wish I could get to this exhibit at the BnF:
The heart of the exhibition is in the adjoining Galerie des donateurs – a small, quiet, dimly lit room. Moving anti-clockwise around eighteen glass cases containing materials from the BnF’s Barthes archive, we follow the painstaking and painful development of A Lover’s Discourse, which was a bestseller in France when it was published in 1977. (Samoyault reveals that 70,000 copies were sold in the first year alone.) From an intimate “journal amoureux” whose pages record a series of personal incidents from the summer of 1974, through reading and teaching notes (Goethe, Plato), filing systems, diaries, pages from the book’s manuscript and eventually the corrected typescript, the final text unfurls. Its roots in a life and a love are laid bare, as is the physicality of Barthes’s method of working: ink colour changes often, as do writing instruments and materials; new passages are taped or stapled over existing text; different forms of index are sketched and re-sketched; a heavy blue marker pen strikes out unwanted phrases, such as five lines of commentary on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Pour un tombeau d’Anatole which did not appear in the published book. Punctuating these preparatory materials are artworks produced by Barthes during the period in question, while headphones at the far end of the gallery play music by Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and Fauré. (Barthes was an amateur pianist.)

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Summer bliss redux

I cannot describe the feeling of calm elation that steals over me as I wait in the stacks for the elevator....

(I am laughing - predictable person of regular habits - I had to give the picture a slightly different title as I see I said exactly the same thing last summer!)


At the NYT, Oliver Sacks on the mishearings of deafness:
And yet there is often a sort of style or wit — a “dash ”— in these instantaneous inventions; they reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences, and I rather enjoy them. Only in the realm of mishearing — at least, my mishearings — can a biography of cancer become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians), tarot cards turn into pteropods, a grocery bag into a poetry bag, all-or-noneness into oral numbness, a porch into a Porsche, and a mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to “Kiss my feet!”

Thursday, June 04, 2015

A wave of trauma

is rippling through my Columbia community. The Barnard library is closing for good (it will be reinstituted in a new building), and this means that the Barnard books that we normally are allowed to hold onto for months, indeed years at a time must all be returned to their home! NOooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!

(Also, WHERE IS SHKLOVSKY'S THEORY OF PROSE, book #6 on the overdue list?!?)

The more substantive reason that this is a very unfortunate development: Barnard has effectively been the high-quality usable undergraduate collection here. Theoretically Milstein (housed within Butler) should be the undergraduate collection equivalent to the Lamont-Widener or CCL-Sterling situation at Harvard and Yale respectively, but after renovation that collection got dispersed across almost a dozen different reading rooms on different floors, all of them so heavily populated by students as study areas that getting around to get to a specific shelf is a distinctly horrible experience; then, too, the purchasing for Milstein was never sufficient to offer real doubles for essential stuff, and a lot more books only exist in Butler than was my experience at Harvard or Yale. Whereas the Barnard collection has been amazing and also ultra-accessible/user-friendly - alas, no more....

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


(Ah, a friend has tweeted my favorite part of the Bookforum review I was toiling over in April-May - shared here!)

Life re-entry

I must say that I was absolutely overwhelmed on Monday and Tuesday by life re-entry panic. This to-do list is going to kill me!

All I really want is to be exercising and getting back into my own work mode, but instead I have this huge list of school things and life things and especially things to do with my father's estate that must be ticked off (Pennsylvania estate taxes must be prepaid by June 6 for the discount, the condo closing is early next week and I belatedly realized yesterday that my brother in NJ had the only set of keys with electronic fob and mailbox - my sister-in-law came to the rescue, express-mailing them this morning to paralegal in Philadelphia).

Dissertations are being defended left and right and I need to round up a few more committee members for the third of three upcoming (I hate to ask the same people multiple times, it is a lot of extra work, but then again we ask those people because they are so good at it and answer emails promptly - no virtue goes unpunished in academia!).


I have an amazing slate of work stuff that I'm really excited about, but need to clear the head space so that I can actually get down to business. Summer projects: researching and writing the talk for this Johnson Shakespeare conference (this is the most pressing!); writing proposals for books about reading Austen and reading Clarissa. Back-burner upcoming project is the Gibbon's Rome book, but that will mostly have to wait till my year of sabbatical in 2016-2017 (woo-hoo!). Also a Secret Editorial Project that I will wait to unveil till it's more official, but that should be pretty interesting....

I have a very demanding year upcoming; only teaching one class per semester, due to course release for administrative stuff, but the two really huge things are that I will be chairing the Tenure Review Advisory Committee (that's between 70 and 80 tenure cases over the year), and I've also agreed to do something that as a Young Person was one of my institutional dreams (it's an honor to be asked, I couldn't say no!): writing the annual eighteenth-century studies roundup review for Studies in English Literature, which entails reading and reviewing the 100+ books and journal issues published in my field in 2015. It will be very interesting, I think, and it should benefit my graduate students down the road in terms of giving me a keener sense of the field as it currently exists, but it is a lot of work.

Closing tabs:

My review of Hanya Yanagihara's new novel is in the new issue of Bookforum, but not available online (read Garth Greenwell's piece instead!).

Ben Anastas on the pain of being edited.

Victor LaValle interviews Mat Johnson (keen to read his new novel).

At Public Books, Benjamin Eldon Stevens writes about a novel I loved, Jo Walton's Just City.

Jane Yeh has a poem in the New Republic!

An excellent interview with my colleague Edward Mendelson about morals and criticism.

A tale of two velodromes!

Miscellaneous light reading around the edges (lots of planes and trains):

Asali Solomon, Disgruntled (I really liked this one - very clear and captivating voice and vision, and of course due to the Philadelphia stuff I am especially interested - going to send a copy to my mother now as I think she will much enjoy it).

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (I think he's an extremely good writer, and yet I do not love his books - I suppose that my preference is for something more character- and voice-driven, which is really not a criticism, just an observation!).

Andrew Klavan, Werewolf Cop (title of genius!)

Tim Lebbon, The Silence - I really, really liked this one.

Anyway, I've spent the morning clearing various minor list items, and am no longer feeling quite so panicky (I also have a personal assistant scheduled to come a couple times in the next few weeks to help me/make me do mine and my dad's postponed taxes for 2014, apply for Global Entry and more passport pages, move things from home to office, etc. etc.).