Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wheat, chaff

At the New Republic, Malcolm Harris on a new book about how to make a violin prodigy. I might have to get this one - it is a pang, it is one I would have sent to my father! My mother taught Sarah Chang for a while when she was (more notionally than actually, I feel) enrolled at Germantown Friends School - perhaps I will get a hard copy, then pass it on to her when I am done....

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dirty laundry

Via Jordan, a horrifyingly fascinating tale of scandal at the Stanford Business School. The best (worst) bit is the negotiating advice in the emails from the dean to his new partner about how to negotiate with her estranged husband:
Phills had also come to believe that, with Saloner, the co-author of a textbook on strategy, now egging her on, the normally diffident and indecisive Gruenfeld had suddenly grown more aggressive, even ruthless, in their ongoing divorce and custody disputes.
“You are being too rational and generous,” Saloner—sometimes posing as “Jeni Gee” on Facebook—had counseled her at one point. “Spewing the anger that you feel, even if it is unrelated to what you want, would make you a less predictable and rational adversary.” Telling Phills what she really thought of him, he advised, would “push him back like a right to the jaw.” At regular intervals, he bucked her up. “You are awesome,” he told her. “You are the victim here. Roar!” Or “You’re a star! Way to totally act w power.... Can you drive this process home now while you have momentum?”
Everyone seems to have behaved with implausible degrees of recklessness (I am especially horrified by the details about electronic passwords and shared accounts); there is a cautionary tale here, too, about how to think about the generous housing benefits that universities dole out to their most valued faculty....

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Language become gesture

From Colm Toíbín, On Elizabeth Bishop:
In certain societies, including rural Nova Scotia where Bishop spent much of her childhood, and in the southeast of Ireland where I am from, language was also a way to restrain experience, take it down to a level where it might stay. Language was neither ornament nor exaltation; it was firm and austere in its purpose. Our time on the earth did not give us cause or need to say anything more than was necessary; language was thus a form of calm, modest knowledge or maybe even evasion. The poetry and the novels and stories written in the light of this knowledge or this evasion, or in their shadow, had to be led by clarity, by precise description, by briskness of feeling, by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling; the tone implied an acceptance of what was known. The music or the power was in what was often left out. The smallest word, or the holding of breath, could have a fierce stony power.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tail-pieces of morality (NSFW!)

Working furiously this weekend, but with one very funny extra bit of reading. I'm doing a sort of mini-independent study with the two graduate students who are working as my graders for the history of the novel course, we're just reading three extra novels and some bits of criticism, and the first one up for discussion this afternoon is Cleland's Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

I don't think I've reread this since undergraduate days. It is really delightful - a sort of blithe defense of libertinism written in a uniquely appealing periphrastic style of considerable elevation! Here's a funny bit from the end:
Charles then roused me sommewhat out of this ecstatic distraction with a complaint softly murmured, amidst a crowd of kisses, at the position, not so favourable to his desires, in which I received his urgent insistence for admission, where that insistence was alone so engrossing a pleasure that it made me inconsistently suffer a much dearer one to be kept out. But how sweet to correct such a mistake! My thighs, now obedient to the imntimations of love and nature, gladly disclose, and with a ready submission resign up the lost gateway to entrance at pleasure: I see! I feel! the delicious velvet tip! -- he enters might and main with -- oh! --- my pen drops from me here in the ecstasy now present to my faithful memory! Description, too, deserts me and delivers over a task, above its strength of wing, to the imagination: but it must be an imagination exalted by such a flame as mine, that can do justice to that sweetest, noblest of all sensations that hailed and accompanied the stiff insinuation all the way up, till it was at the end of its penetration, sending up, all the way up, till it was at the end of its penetration, sending up, through my eyes, the sparks of the love-fire that ran all over me, and blazed in every vein and every pore of me: a system incarnate of joy all over.
The phrase "stiff insinuation" gives me a yen to be reading late Henry James....

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Light reading catch-up

I had cause several times, in the last few weeks, to contemplate the fact that if novels didn't exist, I would have to develop a completely different life coping strategy!

The semester is going well, but I am very busy. If I can just do everything I need to over the next couple weeks, I have five days in Cayman with B. at the end of the month, which will be very nice.

Three standouts:

Deon Meyer, Icarus: excellent contemporary South African crime fiction, highly recommended (start at the beginning of the series if you haven't read them already).

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti: a science-fiction novella that captures the absolute best qualities of the form as it existed in the fifties and sixties and yet could only have been written in our own millennium. I loved it!

Craig Laurance Gidney, Bereft: a subtle and extremely appealing YA novel - really more of a novella - recommended by Chip Delany (Gidney was one of his students). This is an understated piece of work - I suspect that the main reason it didn't find a big mainstream YA publisher was that it's almost more scene-setting than story as such - but it is absolutely lovely work. The character, the voice, the settings: everything is perfectly done. Some literary agent should sign Gidney up right away and get him a great deal for his next YA book!

The rest of the heap (some quite good, others not so much):

Criminal: Harry Bingham's latest Fiona Griffith's installment, This Thing of Darkness (I have liked this series very much so far, but alas, in this volume Fiona has become implausibly omniscient/omnipotent, and also the crucial technology point at the end, about cutting only a given part of a transatlantic data cable, is absolutely preposterous!); Asa Larsson, The Second Deadly Sin (very good series, start with first installment as they read better in order); Saul Black, The Killing Lessons (I liked his books as Glen Duncan very much, but this is a kind of book I can hardly read - call it "preposterous serial killer fodder" - both the killing and the investigating are so farfetched as to seem made up out of the whole cloth, and I am sorry to say that the next book I name also comes under this heading - I was quite disappointed); Karin Slaughter, Pretty Girls (I am overusing the adjective, but I am just going to have to say "preposterous" again! She is a very good writer, the storytelling is excellent, but the idea that people would actually behave like that beggars belief); Simon Toyne, The Searcher (very silly in its final developments, but I liked it better than these excessively lurid serial killer ones).

Lightly fantastical: Paul Cornell, Witches of Lychford; an extremely appealing series by Leigh Bardugo, very much to my taste, called the Grisha Trilogy (these are very good - read if you like Laini Taylor's trilogy); Ilana C. Myer, Last Song Before Night (many strengths here - good writing and character development, I will read what she publishes next - but she is not really interested in worldbuilding, the generic fantasy setting is extremely bland); Lisa Tuttle, The Silver Bough (not sure why I missed this at the time, as it is very much the sort of thing I like); Diana Rowland, White Trash Zombie Gone Wild (I held out against this series for a long time as I found the title premise offputting, but really they are extremely good - definitely recommended to urban fantasy readers).

Oh, yes, and another real standout: Clancy Martin, Bad Sex (brilliantly well-written, stayed with me, though similar in mode to other books I've read recently - Vendela Vida, Kate Christensen).

Friday, October 09, 2015

Think big

Diana Nyad takes Proust's In Search of Lost Time as her life model!

Good teeth

Lucy Kellaway lunches with Jonathan Franzen for the FT. I am laughing, I have been a Franzen defender in my time (his books are better than 95% at least of those with a reasonable claim to be worth reading, why trash him?), but he does have a nearly unprecedented ability to say things that make him sound utterly insufferable!

I bogged down halfway through Purity (might finish it this weekend) - the East German scenes seem to me embarrassingly bad, and the limited range of characters and emotions (especially female characters and female emotions) struck me more here than with his last couple books, but it is certainly well above the bar of basic readability...

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Towel love

I've had this tab open for a while - a very nice piece about a favorite novel of mine, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. (Also a great fan of the dalmatian books!)

Dimples and dismay

Mr. Foote's other leg. I wish I could see this - someone has to bring the production to NYC! Simon Russell Beale is a genius - I saw him in Jumpers, I really thought nobody could have topped Paul Eddington in that role and yet that is exactly what Beale managed to do....

The Zone

An excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl at n+1.

Lost sound

At the LRB, a great piece by Colm Tóibín on two new books about the eighteenth-century castrati:
The French soprano Emma Calvé wrote in her autobiography about hearing the castrato Domenico Mustafà in 1891: ‘He had an exquisite high tenor voice, truly angelic, neither masculine nor yet feminine in type – deep, subtle, poignant in its vibrant intensity … He had certain curious notes which he called his fourth voice – strange, sexless tones, superhuman, uncanny!’ Another writer wrote of a castrato voice that it was ‘so soft, and ravishingly mellow, that nothing can better represent it than the Flute-stops of some Organs’, which themselves were ‘not unlike the gentle Fallings of Water’.

Nonetheless, as Feldman writes, ‘we still lack access to the sound of the castrato’s voice, save some early recordings of the last castrato.’ It is as though we had the letters of Wordsworth and Coleridge and some reviews of their work, or some wonderful descriptions of Impressionist painting, but not the things themselves – the poems or the paintings.

A bucket of meat

Excited to see that Svetlana Alexievich has been given the Nobel Prize for Literature. I've only read one of her books, but it's really one of the most memorable things I've ever read (I have a long quotation from it in my style book): here were my thoughts when I read Voices from Chernobyl almost ten years ago.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The mind's construction in the face

At Vanity Fair, Francis Wheen on the life and work of Josephine Tey.

Distress, deviance

At the Guardian, Olivia Laing on two new biographies of Lou Reed.

"Three hot pancakes lavishly coated in Grand Marnier syrup and orange peel"

The FT lunches with Marian Goodman, site registration required. (I am not at all in that world except because of having done that show of Tino Sehgal's called This Situation at MG's gallery - she hosted a big dinner for us all at a restaurant before the show opened, and my sense of her corresponds quite closely to what is presented in this article.)

Pang of missing my father, who would have been interested to see this one as he followed TS's career closely - and a terrible pang earlier today as B. and I watched the (hugely enjoyable) movie The Martian. The scene where the lead character's fix-it MacGyverism involves using hexadecimal code to program the camera to communicate through 360-degree swiveling was so much what he would have found enjoyably preposterous that I found myself looking to my side to see what he thought!

Thursday, October 01, 2015


Via Tyler Cowen, Yelp for people (the article is by Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post).

Gay, Rivers, Beacon

At the TLS, Min Wild on Margaret Doody's new book about Jane Austen's names:
Doody’s argument typically works like this: “in an ‘Emma Woodhouse’ of Hart-Field we find reference to Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton) and to Queen Emma, to the rich family of Watson-Woodhouse and to a woodshed, to perfection and ego, to queenship and hardship”. Later, possible significations of “Hartfield” are forensically turned over: a white hart was Richard II’s emblem, there are White Hart pubs, and hearts can be lost, but the name itself is ersatz and “sounds made-up”, Doody explains. Fishing with her in these waters can feel thankless, and sometimes dull, but an acutely perceptive point may suddenly emerge. There are no fields or deer in tepid Mr Woodhouse’s faded Hartfield: “it is like a memory of the country”.