Friday, December 28, 2018

Highlights of 2018 in reading

Now that I've stopped blogging light reading here, I am in a much less good position to make a real overview - have just gone back quickly through the "finished" file on my Kindle, and am thus no doubt forgetting quite a few books I read in the real, so to speak. This also doesn't include anything I read for work - the monograph that comes to mind as having specially stayed with me is Tina Lupton's Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century, but I cannot even begin to sort out anything from the rest! So this may give the impression of a more frivolous reader than I possibly am in reality (i.e. "many many books about Gibbon, the Enlightenment, Rome, etc.").

Here's a list of absolute favorites for the year, in no particular order:

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography and Things I don't Want to Know: On Writing
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Rachel Cusk, The Outline Trilogy
Justin Torres, We the Animals
Tade Thompson, Rosewater
Fonda Lee, Jade City
Katherine Arden's Winternight books (keenly awaiting the third)
Sarah Perry, Melmoth
Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver
Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir
Knausgaard, My Struggle vol. 6
Martha Wells, The Murderbot Diaries
Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves
Martin Millar, Supercute Futures

Also, many books by Emmanuel Carrere - I will write a separate post at some point, but I think Lives Other Than My Own is the one to read if you read only one (that and The Adversary); and I should single outthe complete works of Sophia McDougall - especially the Romanitas trilogy, but also her delightful YA SF books.

A list of favorite novels by women that are also in some sense especially novels for women:

Sofka Zinovieff, Putney: A Novel
Winnie Li, Dark Chapter
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Susan Choi, My Education
Chelsey Johnson, Stray City
Kate Atkinson, Transcription
Nellie Hermann, The Cure for Grief
Delphine Vigan, Based on a True Story
Hala Alyan, Salt Houses

I liked Catherine Fox's Church of England novels and am sure I will reread them, though they are not quite as much exactly to my taste as the novels of Susan Howatch!

I continue to be grateful for the fact that every year produces a new Jack Reacher novel - this one is one of the best of recent years.

Category of miscellaneous/memoir: Megan and David Roche's The Happy Runner is great - worth reading even if you are only a casual runner (and much of their advice applies equally well to writing). I also liked Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir - which led me to G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, one of the most unusual and memorable books I've read all year. My appetite for nonfiction is less voracious than it is for fiction, but I loved Luke Barr, Ritz and Escoffier. Finally, Alice Kaplan, French Lessons: A Memoir, which is probably one of the things I've read that's closest to the kind of book I want the Gibbon book to be.

Two books notable for the insight they cast on trauma (the first is memoir, the second a novel, but they are both true in important ways - as is Winnie Li's Dark Chapter, mentioned above): Lacy Johnson, The Other Side. Nicola Griffith, So Lucky.

Other SFF favorites (we are living in a golden age of fantasy!):

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few
Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
Laurie J. Marks's Elemental Logic novels
Ben Aaaronovitch's Lies Sleeping
Charlie Stross, The Labyrinth Index
R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War
Ling Ma, Severance
T. Kingfisher's Clockwork Boys
Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand
Dave Hutchinson, last two installments of the Fractured Europe sequence
Sarah Pinborough, Cross Her Heart
Alex Bledsoe, The Fairies of Sadieville: The Final Tufa Novel
Jacqueline Carey, Starless
Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
Christopher Barzak, The Gone Away Place
Robert Redick's Master Assassins
Brian McClellan's newest Powder Mage installment
Nicky Drayden, Temper
S. L. Huang, Zero Sum Game

Best of crime:

Jane Harper, Force of Nature
James McLaughlin, Bearskin (just got this last week, it's superb)
Joe Ide, Wrecked
Lou Berney, November Road
Tana French, The Witch Elm
James Oswald, A Prayer for the Dead
Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny
Robert Galbraith, Lethal White
Nicci French, Day of the Dead (final Frieda Klein novel)
Alan Russell, Gideon's Rescue (nice series featuring detective with K9 partner)
Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand
Louise Candlish, Our House
Laura Lippman, Sunburn
Robert Harris, Munich

I think paranormal romance is not quite as much to my taste as straight-up fantasy and urban fantasy, but there is some good stuff out there: new installment of Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter novels, final installment of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books (did a reread of the whole series first), new intallment of Patricia Briggs' Alpha and Omega books (I like this), new installment of Anne Bishop's Others series.

OK, that's the essentials I think. Happy new year, everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Killer Queen

Currently having a very happy sojourn in Cayman. Having a Kindle means I can download anything reasonably current instantaneously, and it is a special blessing this year that even though I am not in Paris or New York, I can continue to send lists of library requests to Zack at Butler's Delivery Services, so that when I am back in my office there is going to be a bumper load of books waiting for me! I read Christopher Woodward's excellent In Ruins and it made me "need" about twenty new books.

OF all the amazing Institute things this year, the one that most amazes and delights me - it is by far the most important quality-of-life factor for me - is the system that's been put together to get Columbia books to us. Most amazing of all: "Reid Hall (Paris)" is now available as a delivery option on my beloved BorrowDirect! WHOA! The books go to Delivery Services and then get packaged up with the books that Zack's staff pull from the shelves and check out to us and posted to Paris. We're streamlining as we go along; I think most of the other fellows just send a list to our on-site research officer Grant, but since I am requesting so many it makes more sense for me to do a bit more of the work first, so that I send a list of the books as author and title and the stable URL from Columbia's CLIO catalog for the internal ones; initially I had to email lists of BorrowDirect ones too, but now I can request them directly, which is much preferable.

NB I am relying more heavily on BorrowDirect than usual because of the ways the project touches on architectural history; Columbia has an excellent school of architecture, and accordingly a really superb architectural library in Avery, but it's a non-circulating collection, so anything I want from there (scan and deliver will do me an individual essay from a collection) needs to come through the BD network. Funny note on numbers (imprecise): I was surprised when Grant said that the total number of books received as of early November was under 200, but not so surprised that 50 of those are mine! I think I will continue to be responsible for about 25% of total borrowing (I am one of 15 fellows, about half aren't academics), I just have unusually extensive book needs (it is my way of being in the world).

Mostly I'm in work & exercise mode here, those are 2 great pleasures in my Cayman life, but there have been a few other highlights. Very nice dinner last night at Ragazzi, where we were generously comped as a thank-you to the Cayman Islands Triathlon Association (it was a committee meeting for post-race debrief, really my intention was to say hello and then eat on my own at the bar, but there was an empty seat and I was invited to join properly - I always volunteer at the Stroke and Stride races if I'm not participating myself, so it is not quite as freeloady as it sounds!).

On Saturday we went to the movies. The film was Bohemian Rhapsody, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (would have made it a higher priority if I'd known about the prominence of cat actors!). Not a Queen fan as such (the songs I know are great, I like them a lot, but I don't know that I ever listened to an individual album, I just know the classic rock radio hits), but feedback from friends and particularly having read Daniel Nester's thoughts on the movie at Barrelhouse made me figure I would like it, and I did, very much.

Daniel is my personal Queen guru (here's another recent interview that you might like if you liked the movie); he published two amazing books about Queen, in Soft Skull days (I met him because Richard Nash was publishing us both there c. 2004).

Here is God Save My Queen and its sequel. I highly recommend them both - alas, they are not available digitally, so I will have to wait to reread until I am home in NYC.

I was bemoaning the lack of a good real biography of Freddie Mercury, and got this good recommendation from Daniel: Matt Richards' Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury. Which I have downloaded and hope to read soon....

Miscellaneous links: a nice story about a beloved eighteenth-century scholar and what it means to be a first-generation college student; at the Guardian, Brian Dillon on our love affair with ruins; Garth Greenwell's new story; the secrets of wombats' cube-shaped poo.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"A mathematician offers the game"

Karr's memoir book also includes a superb list of memoirs (she stars the ones that are exceptional as books as well as personal histories - I find a high degree of congruence between her tastes and my own). One that I hadn't read and immediately obtained and devoured was G. H. Hardy's heartbreaking A Mathematician's Apology, which comes with a wonderful introductory essay by C. P. Snow.

Snow on Hardy: "His life remained the life of a brilliant young man until he was old: so did his spirit: his games, his interests, kept the lightness of a young don’s. And, like many men who keep a young man’s interests into their sixties, his last years were the darker for it." And this striking description of the relationships Hardy had with a handful of young men over the years:
These were intense affections, absorbing, non-physical but exalted. The one I knew about was for a young man whose nature was as spiritually delicate as his own. I believe, though I only picked this up from chance remarks, that the same was true of the others. To many people of my generation, such relationships would seem either unsatisfactory or impossible. They were neither the one nor the other; and unless one takes them for granted, one doesn’t begin to undertand the temperament of men like Hardy (they are rare, but not as rare as white rhinoceroses), nor the Cambridge society of his time. He didn’t get the satisfactions that most of us can’t help finding: but he knew himself unusually well, and that didn’t make him unhappy. His inner life was his own, and very rich. The sadness came at the end.
The charm of Hardy's style of thought: “The proof is by reduction ad absurdum, and reduction ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”

Here is Hardy on the morality of mathematics:
... there is one purpose at any rate which the real mathematics may serve in war. When the world is mad, a mathematician may find in mathematics an incomparable anodyne. For mathematics is, of all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote, and a mathematician should be of all men the one who can most easily take refuge where, as Bertrand Russell says, ‘one at least of our nobler impulses can best escape from the dreary exile of the actual world’. It is a pity it should be necessary to make one very serious reservation—he must not be too old. Mathematics is not a contemplative but a creative subject; no one can draw much consolation from it when he has lost the power or the desire to create; and that is apt to happen to a mathematician rather soon. It is a pity, but in that case he does not matter a great deal anyhow, and it would be silly to bother about him.

"A stubborn little bulldog of a reviser"

Thinking memoir these days - Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir was helpful not least because of how much it encourages you to write bad pages in the wrong voice first and worry later about how it is all going to come right! "Carnality" is her term for what makes memoir come alive - can you feel it through the five senses? My own personal carnality (yes, of course there are sounds and smells and colors as well) is overwhelmingly in words and ideas....

Some highlights:
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice…. The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound like the person wielding it—the super-most interesting version of that person ever—and grow from her core self…. However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.

A memoirist’s nature—the self who shapes memory’s filter—will prove the source of her talent. By talent, I mean not just surface literary gifts, though those are part of the package, but life experiences, personal values, approach, thought processes, perceptions, and innate character.
There's a good account of why Karr couldn’t write the story of her childhood in the form of a novel, and how and why The Liars' Club only came to life when she admitted that it had to be nonfiction (I heard Robert Polito tell this story, they were in the same writing group during those years, but it is nice to have a citable version from the author herself!). Maybe the most useful stretch for teaching would be Chapter 14: “Personal Run-Ins with Fake Voices.”

Karr writes extremely well about the psychological shift she experiences, with each book project, of finally finding the right voice: “The images in my head suddenly had words representing them on the page. And accompanying the words was a state of consciousness. It almost felt like I’d walked into some inner room where my lived experiences could pass through and come out as language.” Her sequel thought (and why she is a memoirist rather than a novelist, this wouldn't be true for many writers of fiction): “If the voice worked as a living contract with the reader, it also strangely bound me to candor. To make stuff up would somehow have broken the spell the voice cast over me.”

She is also particularly good on revision:
I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiraling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.

On the most basic level, bad sentences make bad books. Poet Robert Hass taught me you can rewrite a poem by making every single line better. I revise and revise and revise. Any editor of mine will tell you how crappy my early drafts are. Revisions are about clarifying and evoking feelings in the reader in the same way they were once evoked in me.

... other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision ....

... those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.

For me, the last 20 percent of a book’s improvement takes 95 percent of the effort—all in the editing. I can honestly say not one page I’ve ever published appears anywhere close to how it came out in the first draft. A poem might take sixty versions. I am not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.

Monday, October 22, 2018

'old broken Gibbons piece reveals itself'

Nico did a diary piece for the LRB and a more production-oriented essay for the NYT. I share his fondness BTW for the three-flap French folders....

(I was hoping that I was going to be able to see MARNIE on the simulcast night - it is in local theaters in Paris on Nov. 10 - but I am currently about 98% sure that in the same time interval I am going to need to be present at a party for Institute fellows hosted by the Columbia founder - still slightly hoping that he might have us for early evening drink rather than full mid-evening hospitality and I can dash off thereafter - but no, I see the screening starts at 18:55, that won't work. That said, should be able to pay for access online thereafter, so it is not a total disaster, though I'd have liked to see it in a theater!)

Also - is it because of Orlando Gibbons that people want to say Gibbons instead of Gibbon for the historian, or does it just work better in English in the plural form?

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Wormwood forest

Ah, I see that it is exactly a year since I last posted here - a link to Gene's obituary. He has been much on my mind this month, for obvious reasons.

Am deep in Gibbon book and its writing - just spent the afternoon reading a book that I first heard about more than ten years ago (in this TLS review, though I can't access the whole piece without requesting it through ILL - in all these years, the TLS still hasn't improved the usability of its archive!), Mary Mysio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. It is a very good book without being a great one (the excellence of the topic exceeds the skill level of the writer, perhaps - the copy-editing isn't great and in the hands of a different publisher it might have developed into something more for the ages). Which is to say that it doesn't have the literary force (the unforgettable shock value) of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, with which it must be read in tandem (I'm thinking about a reread now). And yet it is an absolutely extraordinary story! Not least in the episode it recounts about the release into the wild of several small herds of Przewalski's horses, a longtime favorite of mine (I just saw some at the small zoo at the Jardin des Plantes the other week).

My reading was prompted by this passage in Gibbon, in which he discusses the repeated and ongoing invasions of the Illyrian provinces after the death of Valens:
Could it even be supposed, that a large tract of country had been left without cultivation, and without inhabitants, the consequences might not have been so fatal to the inferior productions of animated nature. The useful and feeble animals, which are nourished by the hand of man, might suffer and perish, if they were deprived of his protection: but the beasts of the forest, his enemies, or his victims, would multiply in the free and undisturbed possession of their solitary domain. The various tribes that people the air, or the waters, are still less connected with the fate of the human species; and it is highly probable, that the fish of the Danube would have felt more terror and distress, from the approach of a voracious pike, than from the hostile inroad of a Gothic army. (26, 1:1068-69)
The Gibbon book is going to be weaving together a lot of different stories, memoiristic as well as critical, but is really about the cast of thought that makes information become intellectually and analytically interesting....