Friday, December 31, 2010

A "ham sandwich"

At the FT (site registration required), Henry Hitchings has an absolutely lovely essay about dictionaries of slang old and new (the first is one I consulted when I was long ago writing about Jonathan Wild, and the second is probably out of my price range but does indeed sound, as Hitchings says, "lusciously" browsable):
Leafing through the pages of Green’s Dictionary, one accumulates a stock of favourite oddments: an “Oklahoma credit card” is a siphon tube for stealing petrol, a “knocking-jacket” a nightdress, and a “fogle-hunter” a pickpocket who specialises (or really “specialised”, one imagines) in stealing silk handkerchiefs. Some of the illustrative quotations are equally droll: one letter-writer recalls that “I told you in my last how she gave the athletic stockbroker at Hove the mitten” – to be given the mitten is to have one’s proposal of marriage rejected – and another makes the seemingly far-fetched claim that “Penrith is becoming a real funk-hole”, though a funk-hole is here a place of refuge rather than somewhere James Brown might have frequented.

Year's end

I already linked to my year in reading post for The Millions, but before I realized they wanted something short I did the usual maniacal scroll through the year's blog posts, and made a demented cheat sheet for the purposes of summary. I am too lazy to write it up with links, but I think I'll gather the names here with a few thoughts, by category. Anything I mention here is pretty strongly recommended unless I say otherwise.

New and newish 'literary' novels: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (I'd had this lying around forever, somehow didn't quite pick it up, but I really loved it); Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (couldn't put it down); Michelle Huneven's Blame (this book deserved more attention than it got, I thought it was very good indeed, at least as good as Kate Christensen's Trouble). Sam Lipsyte's The Ask belongs in this group too, only I read it in the form of an advance reading copy in 2009!

I thoroughly enjoyed Justin Cronin's The Passage, and do not agree with the verdict of it offered in this hilarious albeit mean-spirited list of the 10 worst novels of 2010 (but I do agree with one of his assessments, a book I read only a chunk of but disliked so much I haven't even mentioned it on my blog!).

Lewis Shiner's Black & White (you can get here for free!) is stunningly good and generically unplaceable; it could have been published as literary fiction or crime or fantasy, it is just when it comes down to it an excellent novel.

I liked Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces quite a bit, only it is sadder and thus less fully immersive than some of his other novels; I also enjoyed Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood.

Connie Willis's Blackout and All Clear, highly recommended but with the proviso that they are definitely really one long novel and should be read consecutively. I also finally read Octavia Butler's Seed to Harvest books, which are much to my taste.

Some rereads: Mary Renault's Alexander books, favorite novels by Cintra Wilson and Helen DeWitt and Alan Hollinghurst. Also, and amazingly immersively (especially the first, which is one of my favorite novels of all time): War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

I continued to read Thomas Bernhard with amazement; this year's discovery was The Loser.

I loved, loved, loved reading Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo and Lymond books; they are not my perfect books, there is something overly complex (almost abstruse) about them, but they are spectacularly good light reading, particularly because of volume. Am tempted to get them for my Kindle and periodically reread; would be nice, anyway, to know that they were there for an emergency! (Also thinking about purchasing Susan Howatch's books for same purposes - or Trollope would work too...)

I also loved Donna Tartt's The Little Friend.

Sigrid Nunez's new novel Salvation City could (appealingly) have been published as YA. Joshilyn Jackson's Backseat Saints is a good example of a book that only contingencies of publishing stopped from making literary fiction/best of year lists.

I loved two strange novels about open-water swimming by Jenifer Levin, Water Dance and The Sea of Light. 2010 turned into a year in which I didn't swim nearly as much as I would have liked, but I will hope to remedy this in 2011...

I discovered F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack novels and Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series.

Elif Batuman's The Possessed was quite magical; it even reminded me of my favorite novel of all time, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows! John Waters' Role Models was also altogether charming.

Some good nonfiction I read (I always read a ton more novels, though): Claire Tomalin's Pepys biography; Loic Wacquant's Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, which made me wish I were a sociologist. Michael Lewis's The Blind Side does not have the depth of either of those two, but I enjoyed it a great deal, despite knowing virtually nothing about football.

Two other important books for me this year as I began work on a new novel: Andrew Dolkart's book about the architectural history of Morningside Heights and the really wonderful book Pervasive Games: Theory and Design (and to a lesser extent the book by 'Ninjalicious' called Access All Areas); also, of course, the Euripides play The Bacchae, which I think I might reread for the eighth or ninth time later this afternoon.

New and newish books by Jo Walton, Diana Wynne Jones (one of my particular all-time literary heroes), Robin McKinley and Terry Pratchett in the fantasy/YA realm (and I also finally got around to reading the fourth installment of Lian Hearn's lovely Tales of the Otori), and by a host of excellent crime writers already known to me: Kate Atkinson, Ken Bruen, Lee Child (times two!), Robert Crais, Tana French, Deon Meyer, Arnaldur Indridason. Also read, for the first time, the crime fiction of Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, David Levien, Ake Edwardsson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom and Jo Nesbo.

Joe Hill's Horns was very good but not as much to my particular personal tastes as Heart-Shaped Box. Robert Harris's Pompeii was not at all bad but not as good as his best books. I liked Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim novels very much indeed. Jilly Cooper's Jump! did not live up to my hopes but was still an enjoyable read.

I was mesmerized and delighted by Keith Richards's Life.

I thought Kristen Hersh's Rat Girl was a considerably better book than Patti Smith's Just Kids.

Indispensable: Gail Steketee and Randy Frost's Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

I enjoyed autobiographies by Monica Seles and Andre Agassi (the latter is particularly worthwhile), as well as Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. And like many other readers, I was fascinated and touched Tony Judt's memoirs, composed and published in pieces in the last months before he died of ALS.

I am sure I have left some important things out, but these are some of the books I loved in 2010....

Production of quota

c. 1,200 words, for a total of 28,260 words

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Production of quota

c. 2,000 words, for a total of 27,042 words.

An aside: it seems clear to me that the blog is a medium curiously well suited to my modes and interests (I include Tumblr-type things under the category of blogs, but not Twitter, which I cannot find any way of feeling enthusiastic about, either as consumer or producer).

I quite like Facebook, though I wouldn't miss it much if it suddenly went away again; but the thing I most regret about it is that it seems clear that most people strongly prefer a social media-Facebook-type format to blogging - whereas to my mind, the way a blog lets you get to know its author over time is uniquely appealing, and the expressive possibilities of blogging also seem unmatched by anything Facebook and its ilk have to offer.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have two good links to offer that come by way of Facebook status updates: a vegetable orchestra (courtesy of Charles Flatt); the eclipse in Biblical and Mesopotamian thought (courtesy of Seth Sanders). Alas, I fear it is the end of an era...

Monkey College!

Capuchin monkeys trained as service animals. (Via Brent, who saw it at Naked Capitalism.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Edible crayons (via BoingBoing).

Production of quota

Immensely relieved to be back on a more regular schedule.

Enjoyable, too, to be writing again in the first person.

Briefly stymied by fact that I am now close to 'real time' (almanac-style - it is said that Tom Jones is the first novel composed with an almanac and accurate details about the stages of the moon on particular nights and in particular locations), and have to take into account as I write of Dec. 22 and 23 in New York what the weather actually was.

I must say that I have a pang that I have missed this blizzard, though I am very glad not to have been affected by airline disruptions; I guess I will have to use my imagination when I get to the days after Xmas. (This site is handy.)

c. 1,000 words, for a total of 23,268 words

"A Sentence is not emotional a paragraph is"

At the Independent, Jenny Landreth celebrates the joys of cold-water swimming.

Ed Park on the book-length sentence - and readers offer more examples.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Production of quota

Circumstances did not seem hospitable to the production of quota (I am in the overly quiet little lounge in the Cayman Airport waiting for the Tampa flight to board, I am happiest working in a cafe with light buzz of conversation and movement around me), but Brent in his unassuming way seemed to think it would be a good idea if I tried to squeeze out a few words, and in fact it was easy as pie, it came very painlessly for once: c. 1000 words, for a total of 22,246 words.

At times it is a good thing to be flexible, but it seems to me plausible that the next couple weeks contain enough other disruptions and uncertainties that it will behoove me to cleave to the system of quota production with considerable rigidity...

Light reading has been ongoing; the Kindle is a lifesaver for island living! Nothing of particular substance, but all very enjoyable and very much the sort of thing I like: the two latest installments in Laurie King's Sherlock Holmes series, The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive; two thrillers by Chelsea Cain (the serial killer business is - as is often the case - fundamentally implausible, but the characters are very well-drawn and the writing's appealingly sharp), Heartsick and Sweetheart; and the first two books by Andrew Grant (brother of Lee Child), Even and Die Twice. Interesting to contemplate the phenomenon of sibling authors and the similarities of their choices (it seems clear to me in this case that it is more a question of similar choices independently made than of influence). I am fairly certain that my brother M. will never write a novel, but I still hold out hope that my other brother might do so one of these days!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Production of quota

Day 16: c. 1,600 words, for a total of 18,923 words.

This (slightly to my surprise) brings the first section of the novel to an end: I had initially pictured a sort of archival assemblage as the novel's structural framework; now I think I start to see how this first piece might fit together with others....

(Tomorrow I get to - have to - start a new bit; not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but probably it is good, albeit slightly nerve-racking: it will be a first-person narrative told by the character of my main three who is thus far the most unsympathetic and the most opaque in terms of motivation....)


Not a testament to my photographic skills or steadiness of hand, more just a memento of presence - but it was wondrous to behold...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Production of quota

c. 1000 words, for a total of 16,209 words.

I am having two problems with this book, or rather two different aspects of a single problem strike me as I proceed through these early stages of writing: first of all, it is easier for me to write scenes in which people describe or imagine the games they are creating as opposed to scenes in which the games are actually played, leading to a fairly 'talky' effect; second, I am still a little vague as to what other elements will be included aside from game-playing, so that I really more generally need to find more ways of getting the characters out of living rooms and conversations and actually doing things!

(I think that tomorrow the main 'viewpoint' character will go to a yoga class...)

However I also believe it will be wise to continue with the straightforward production-of-quota method rather than stopping to reevaluate; it is much easier to revise an existing draft than to pull things out of the ether, and I need to get as much of this book down on paper as possible before school starts after the MLK holiday in January.

I was happy to find out that the essay on Restoration theater and the novel is not in fact due till the end of February, which makes me hopeful that I might be able to continue on a more-or-less daily quota basis all the way through until the middle of February or the existence of a full draft, whichever comes sooner.

(It will be more difficult once I'm teaching again, but not, I think, impossible. It is true, though, that one needs to be sensible about how many different quota-type obligations one can appropriately assume; certain exercise goals, for instance, have a bit of the same flavor.)

So: quota-writing through to the point of having as complete a draft of BOMH as possible, and in the meantime, once I'm back in New York, I will embark on the necessary syllabus-tweaking and on the reading and research for the theater-and-the-novel essay; mid-February drafting of that essay, to send out before the end of the month; then a revision of the little book on style, which shouldn't take too long but will need my full attention for a couple successive marathon writing and editing weekends.

I have a lovely vacation scheduled to take place over spring break in mid-March (a tour of various wildlife sites in Costa Rica), so if I can get all these things done by then it would really and truly feel like a justified reward; and then when I get back from Costa Rica, it's buckling down for the end of the semester and also the start of a thirteen-week Ironman training plan.

I am registered for a new race for 2011 to replace the one I had to cancel this year; I have been very doubtful as to whether it would be something I could realistically execute, but now I am feeling more myself and it seems possible, indeed something worth striving for. It is Ironman Coeur d'Alene, and it takes place on June 26, 2011.

This has been a hard year for me, partly simply because of getting so much less done than I had imagined/hoped; but it might be that it will be the end of next summer and I will have both the style book and the Bacchae novel finished and accepted for publication, and an Ironman race under my belt: I am at any rate keeping this in mind as a clear goal to shoot for. It is foolish to judge oneself on the basis of accomplishments, very often they are by no means a productive measure for self-evaluation, but it is still a difficult mindset for someone like me to get out of...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fifteen things

At the Millions, some things about my year in reading.

(NB I started writing a list titled "Ten things about my year in reading," only list-making has a natural tendency to escalate!")

Mystery cheats anonymous

Quota seemed as though it might fall victim to the false sense of accomplishment that comes from doing a ninety-minute treadmill run, but in the end it did get produced: c. 1,100 words, for a total of 15,234 words....

A good link: Music Machinery on what the Kindle might tell Amazon about how we're reading!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The icing on the cake

The excellent Sara Ryan, author among other things of an appealing YA novel called Empress of the World, sent me imaginative and funny interview questions and has posted the results on her blog.

Another good bit: The Explosionist led Tanita Davis at Finding Wonderland to explore Sophie's Edinburgh!

Lining up good things for New York in January: Metamorphoses at the Flea; Doveman: The Burgundy Stain Sessions at (Le) Poisson Rouge; The Beast Boot Camp at Chelsea Piers! Also, TNYA's one-hour swim and tickets to see Derek Jacobi at BAM later in the spring; shades of my teenage self....

Jakkes of Dover

Tom Nealon on eating Chaucer.

Production of quota

c. 1,000 words, for a total of 14,117 words.

I am beginning to get a dim glimpse of the novel's overall proportions, but am still without a sense of how long it will end up being; if it were going to be 60,000 words, though (which is short but not excessively so), I'd be almost a quarter of the way through....

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Production of quota

It was mildly alarming that at lunchtime I still showed no sign of producing quota, but I hied myself to Cafe del Sol and sat down and suddenly thought of some things that would happen next, including a couple of scenes that should fall about two-thirds of the way through the book (I will wait and write these when I get there, that is unless I end up completely drawing a blank in the meantime) and that will initiate the final sweep of the drama....

c. 1,000 words, for a total of 13,059 words

Bonus link: I was delighted to be interviewed for Figment's Getting Rilke feature! (Thanks are due to Lauren Cerand.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wonky webs

At the LRB blog, Nick Richardson on a Wellcome exhibit on the history and culture of mind-altering drugs. No pictures at that site of the webs spiders build on drugs, alas, but I am intrigued by the image galleries. Below: a wonderfully grotesque 1881 image of a "morphinomaniac" with abscesses resulting from subcutaneous injection (close your eyes if you are squeamish!)...

Production of quota

I let the rest of the morning slip away from me after starting it with a nice little run, but packed up my things and took 'em to the coffee shop around lunchtime and do seem now to have eked out today's quota: c. 1,103 words, for a total of 10,862 words.

It's a bit patchy, but the good thing about that is that rounding things out and writing the subsequent scene properly will take me through tomorrow as well...

(I am alarmed to see the highly curtailed nature of holiday cafe hours!)

Good Invisible Things publicity: Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Aquafortis at Finding Wonderland; and perhaps the best thing for my morale, this post in which a reader bucks the trend and actually enjoys Invisible Things "even more" than The Explosionist!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Caviar, champagne, beards

Miscellaneous light reading: N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (loved it and have downloaded the next installment), Gail Godwin's Unfinished Desires, a recommendation from Jo Walton (it did indeed make me want to read more novels about nuns), Liza Marklund's Studio Sex (the 'twist' involved in the journal entries is perhaps a bit too obvious from the start, but nonetheless very much the kind of book I like).

Also, the first two books in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time sequence. These are so much beloved by a couple of my blogging friends (Levi Stahl, Ed Park) that I resolved to give 'em a chance (I have always meant to read them since I first heard about them in Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels - by the way, a previously unknown [and on the whole undistinguished] work of AB's has been unearthed - but never quite took to them when I tried); the University of Chicago Press has released the whole sequence in electronic editions, and the first installment is currently available for free.

I dislike many things about the voice and the milieu, but I realized as I reviewed my year in reading that some of my best experiences in reading this year involved immersive long novels of a sort that do not grow on trees (Dorothy Dunnett, War and Peace), and that Powell's would be worth a pop. I do not find it intellectually and stylistically engaging in the way of Proust, and it also seems to me much less interesting than Henry James in terms of these questions about what one understands at the time versus later on, but there's definitely something addictive: I've downloaded the next four onto the Kindle and certainly plan to read the rest of the sequence in coming weeks.

Something about the style definitely continues to irk me: I marked passages as I read that seemed to me both remarkable and annoying. Here's a good example from the first installment:
On the whole it could not be said that one felt better for Uncle Giles's visit. He brought with him some fleeting suggestion, always welcome at school, of an outside world; though against this had to be weighed the disturbing impact of home-life in school surroundings: even home-life in its diminished and undomestic embodiment represented by my uncle. He was a relation: a being who had in him perhaps some of the same essence that went towards forming oneself as a separate entity. Would one's adult days be spent in worrying about the Trust? What was he going to do at Reading? Did he manage to have quite a lot of fun, or did he live in perpetual hell? These were things to be considered. Some apology for his sudden appearance seemed owed to Stringham: after that, I might try to do some work to be dealt with over the weekend.
I suppose part of the slight embarrassment of reading a passage like this is that the naive narrator is never really fully cast off - the novel's ongoing playfulness about youthful versus slightly older misapprehensions makes the reader (a reader like me?) uncomfortable. The work I am most reminded of, though superficially nothing like it, is Pope's Essay on Man, a poem I particularly dislike because of the trouble it takes to develop an elaborate and fluent idiom that seems to me overequipped given the relative banality and commonplace nature of the thoughts therein expressed!

These passages from the second installment will give a clearer sense of the quality I'm both struck and troubled by:
I must have been about twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, and held then many rather wild ideas on the subject of women: conceptions largely the result of having read a good deal without simultaneous opportunity to modify by personal experience the recorded judgment of others upon that matter: estimates often excellent in their conclusions if correctly interpreted, though requiring practical knowledge to be appreciated at their full value.
In business, at least in a small way, he had begun to 'make a bit' on his own, and there seemed no reason to disbelieve his account of himself as looked upon in his firm as a promising young man. In fact, it appeared that Peter, so far from becoming the outcast from society prophesied by our housemaster, Le Bas, now showed every sign of being about to prove himself a notable success in life: an outcome that seemed to demand another of those revisions of opinion, made every day more necessary, in relation to such an enormous amount of material, accepted as incontrovertible at an earlier period of practical experience.

All the same, although still far from appreciating many of the finer points of Mrs. Andriadis's party--for there were, of course, finer points to be appreciated in retrospect--and, on the whole, no less ignorant of what the elements there present had consisted, I was at the same time more than half aware that such latitudes are entered by a door through which there is, in a sense, no return. The lack of ceremony that had attended our arrival, and the fact of being so much in the dark as to the terms upon which the party was being given, had been both, in themselves, a trifle embarrassing; but, looking back on the occasion, armed with later knowledge of individual affiliations among the guests, there is no reason to suppose that mere awareness of everyone's identity would have been calculated to promote any greater feeling of ease: if anything, rather the reverse. The impact of entertainments given by people like Mrs. Andriadis, as I learnt in due course, depends upon rapidly-changing personal relationships; so that to be apprised suddenly of the almost infinite complication of such associations--if any such omniscience could, by some magical means, have been imparted--without being oneself, even at a distance, at all involved, might have been a positive handicap, perhaps a humiliating one, to enjoyment.
The periphrasis is so noncommittal, ultimately! But there are some good moments, and I am slightly tempted to adopt the artist Barnby's excuse as a catchphrase: "The dust must have confused my powers of differentiation. . . ."

Production of quota

Today: 1,084 words, for a total of 7,129 words. Fighting towards five digits!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Production of quota

c. 1280, for a total of 6032 words.

(In The Explosionist and Invisible Things, I could follow the useful advice that if things seem to have gotten a bit boring, you can always blow something up; in this novel, it's not generically applicable as a solution, but on the other hand it is always possible to send one's characters to a party....)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Deadwood legends

A cool bit at Wired Science about the afterlife of the Homestake gold mine as a physics lab: this is the mythology of my childhood, my father worked on that project for some years in the 1980s at Penn and had a stint actually living in South Dakota while they built the original neutrino-detection tank! The museum sounds as though it will be highly worthwhile; I have long had a yen to visit that part of the world due to the great impression Laura Ingalls Wilder's books made on me as a young child....

Production of quota

Significantly less painful than yesterday.

c. 1595 words, for a total of 4715 words

"I diet on cod"

A great obituary for Peter Hilton, one of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Better late than never

The whole afternoon got caught up in research, but I quailed at the notion of giving up on the quota system so early in the month, and buckled down in the early evening to produce the day's allotment....

c. 1160 words, for total of 3164 words

Procrastinatory tidbits

At the NYRB blog, James Gleick ponders the OED's new and novella-length entry for the word "information."

At the LRB, Michael Wood reflects on linguistic similarities and differences between Lewis Carroll and James Joyce (the piece also quotes, appealingly, a pun from Walter Redfern's book, which I now covet but do not think I will be able to get electronically: "A person who has been given bits of greenery for her birthday instead of the colourful flowers she was hoping for decides to make the best of things. She says: ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’").

As the world comes into its proper alignment!

Just one of those funny little moments....

Probably the thing I find hardest about being in Cayman is lack of near-instantaneous access to the wonderful Columbia library system. After twenty-plus years of having this kind of access at one library or another, I take it almost for granted; I am always running over in the hour before the library closes to grab an armful of books from the stacks.

This morning it suddenly came to me that Julius Chambers's journalistic expose of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was the book I most wanted to get my hands on in all the world (at least vis-a-vis immediate research imperatives of TBOMS). I grumpily inveighed to myself against Google Books when it seemed that I couldn't get it there, regretted that there wasn't an electronic version in the Columbia Library catalog, was about to pay good dollars for an electronic copy elsewhere and then, magically, realized that I could get a scanned PDF copy of Chambers' A Mad World and Its Inhabitants for free at Kobo Books. I have now transferred it to my Kindle for easy reading in a reclining position, as the early stages of novel-writing always make me feel that I would be able to concentrate better if I were lying down with my eyes closed.

Yes, this search and acquisition process can be much streamlined - really I want to be able to do everything through the library homepage and/or Google and Amazon, I need a simplified interface and a real catalog that will integrate different sources into a single e-book source, but it is still very good, this is the world I thought I should be living in when I was a child in the 1970s dependent on others for physical access to libraries and with that terrible sense of literary scarcity best summed up in these lovely and painful words of Randall Jarrell's!

(Haven't yet written the day's quota, unfortunately - got diverted onto the more enjoyable and easy task of doing research. But it must be eked out before the hour of midnight, that is the rule....)

Confirmed, rumored

Infographic of Columbia University's underground tunnels...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The magic circle

I have to warn you that it is a PDF, but Johanna Koljonen's description of the production by "larpwrights" Martin Ericsson and Christopher Sandberg of the last three acts of Hamlet as a three-day live-action role-playing game in Stockholm in 2002 is a fascinating read.

(On a lighter note, I am still disappointed and mildly outraged that the Clydesdale Hamlet does not feature a redacted performance of Shakespeare's play with gigantic horses in the lead roles!)

As I've researched the topic, the three games I've found myself most intrigued by and attracted to are (from simplest to most complex) the Japanese location-based game Mogi, the Swedish game Momentum and the aforementioned Hamlet; I am not for the most part a gamer myself, though I suspect that if I hadn't taken part in Tino Sehgal's "This Situation" I might not be writing this novel about games.

Day 2: c. 1200 words, 2058 words total.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Media blackouts

Wesley Yang finds Nassim Taleb digging in his heels at the notion of having to promote another book...

December resolutions

Non-momentous, but I've just written the first 1,109 words (I am typing straight onto the computer, contrary to my usual practice of drafting with pen or pencil on paper) of my new novel.

I am determined to claw back some sense of accomplishment out of the month of December; I am setting a very modest daily quota of 1,000 words, starting today, and I would like to return to New York on Jan. 5 with something on the order of a third of the book drafted.

If I could keep up the daily momentum and plough on forward with the draft (this will depend partly on how clearly I see the novel's through-line but also on the extent to which other things overwhelm me once I'm back 'in school,' including an essay for the Oxford Companion to the Novel on theater and eighteenth-century fiction - this one's due sometime in February, though I have conveniently forgotten exactly when - and the long-deferred revision of the little book on style), I could have a complete version of the story by the beginning of the summer, with a good chunk of time in July and August to revise it and get it ready to send out before the beginning of the school year?

Not at all certain about this (the whole thing might evaporate and turn out not to be worth executing in the first place!), but I think it is worth trying for....

Monday miscellany

Death at age 98 of a Danish actor said to have been a model for Tintin.

The desk of Oliver Sacks (thanks to Dave Lull).

An Explosionist review, an Invisible Things review.

Suggestive excerpts from Jonathan Franzen's "art of fiction" interview in the forthcoming Paris Review.

A mighty appealing essay by Alexander Chee about book surpluses, e-readers and a life of reading.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The diplomatic bag

Andy Martin does a hilariously good interview with Lee Child for The Independent, including a moniker origin-story that I'd never heard before:
The origin of his name goes back to a mid-1970s train ride in the US. He and his wife fell into conversation with an American who told them that he owned a "European" car. It turned out to be a Renault 5, marketed in the US – to give it a certain Parisian chic – as "Le Car". But the friendly American said: "Lee Car". After that, "Lee" became their surrogate definite article: "Can you pass lee butter, please," and so on. When he and his wife had a baby, the kid was inevitably nicknamed "Lee Child". "I was looking for a name that was short, crisp and memorable," he says. Lee Child (Snr) was born.
It is well known to regular readers in these parts that I think Lee Child is a genius of light reading; he is also a genius of (or at least signal innovator in) publicity, witness the recent Reacher Ambassador campaign! I was invited by Lee's longtime publicist Maggie Griffin to become a "Reacher Ambassador," and seized the opportunity; in my office at Columbia is a box full of copies of the book pictured below (one of those slightly-unsightly-in-its-handling-proportions elongated mass-market paperbacks), and if you see me in New York in coming months (I have a plane ticket from Cayman to JFK on January 5) you should ask me for one...

(Given how few novel ideas there are out there about how to publicize good books, this seems to me an excellent one - give away an earlier installment in the series to hook new readers who will purchase or at least obtain all the others. I don't think the first installment in the series is as good as the later ones - I liked it very much when I read it, but it didn't exude that crack-like addictive aura that the few-volumes-later ones did, and I don't know that it would be the best choice for the give-away - but I see why this one was chosen out of recent installments. I think I would have picked Die Trying, personally; my favorite two are Persuader and The Enemy, but each is slightly anomalous in its way and probably wouldn't have been the best choice.)
(Apologies for the flash - I was too impatient to remind myself properly how to turn it off...)

Also: Jack Reacher recently made my list of the fifteen most memorable fictional characters that I could think of off the top of my head who had notionally influenced me (why, though, didn't I think of Sherlock Holmes?).

"I am sensitive about the word glue"

They invented the Post-It note! (FT site registration required.)

Books not bombs

Great Expectations; Hard Times...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Light reading catch-up (travel edition)

All Kindle, all the time: Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist and Peter Dickinson's Tears of the Salamander (both excellent - Hamilton and Dickinson are consistently very good, these books are no exception), four highly implausible but fairly literately written thrillers by Michelle Gagnon, Sherwood Smith's Coronets and Steel, Holly Black's White Cat (I particularly enjoyed this one - the world it's set in is quite reminiscent of Robin McKinley's Sunshine, a book I love), Liza Marklund's The Bomber (interesting and appealing if not up to the standard of Indridason, Nesbo and a couple other of my recent favorites).

Homecoming linkage

Very relieved to be back in one place (Cayman).

The lung ailment is finally on the wane - my mother handed me last Wednesday in Philadelphia a bottle of the disgustingly titled and disgustingly effective Mucinex, and I am continuing to pop the tabs twice daily in hopes of banishing the last of the EVIL PHLEGM from my airways. I might even go for a short easy swim later, though really I will wait for tomorrow to return to exercise (I'm still coughing quite a bit) - it has been a horrible three-week exercise deprivation, with high costs for my morale and mental health as well as for my physical fitness...

Miscellaneous linkage:

At the Washington Post, Monica Hesse on Laura Hillenbrand's ongoing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome (read this piece if you are, like me, a writer feeling unduly sorry for yourself and full of self-dislike at not having written enough recently!).

How Charlie Williams' insanely good Royston Blake novels came to see the light of day.

The maraschino cherry bee crisis!

More Invisible Things reviews: ReaderGirls; The Hiding Spot; Book Chic. And another reader starts (sensibly!) with The Explosionist (alas, something that I could do nothing about is that the cover of Invisible Things pretty much completely omits the fact that it is a sequel - I made sure to do what I could do make the novel a free-standing self-sufficient narrative, but I think it is a pity not to read the earlier book first, in fact really they are probably best thought of as one long continuous narrative).

As this post has unduly elongated itself, I think I will put the light reading catch-up in a separate post. I've also just spent an hour looking through this year's blog for a "my year in reading" post for a literary blog I admire - interesting to contemplate, though counterintuitive to write it in November, as I will hope to have a good month of reading still to come...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reeling and writhing and fainting in coils

Yesterday was the official publication date for Invisible Things, but nothing really happened, I was traveling from Ottawa to Philadelphia and found when I arrived at my mother's house here that there were a lot of copies of the finished book waiting for me in boxes but also a palpable absence in the 'person' of my dear departed cat Blackie, who died here in May - I guess I haven't been back to the house since, and I was slightly overwhelmed by feeling.


Also I still have a lung ailment and an excess of sputum, a term I have switched to after having exhausted the expressive and comic potential of the word phlegm.

Some more self-promotion of a sort:

Erica was kind enough to do an interview with me for The Book Cellar.

A giveaway and interview at Adventures in Children's Publishing.

Liviania at In Bed With Books had mixed feelings about the book.

It is an exercise in masochism to link to this review, but if you need a schadenfreudian pick-me-up you can read it and feel my pain! I think the only thing I can do is go on and write another novel...

Friday, November 19, 2010

A cup of tea

I can't find a good source for it, and I apologize in advance for copyright infringement, but Mapplethorpe's portrait of Marianne Faithfull will perhaps serve as some minor redress for the interview I linked to previously....

(Picture reproduced from this site via Google Images.)

"Now I know how Joan of Arc felt"

I read the first third or so of Patti Smith's Just Kids with increasing hardness of heart. I had thoughtlessly imagined I would love the book, but in fact I am not its ideal reader - I have never idealized Baudelaire and Rimbaud, I find Art irksome (as opposed to the hard yet playful discipline of craft or making things). Patti Smith seems to me to reside at the horrible intersection of the trajectories of Jim Morrison and Susan Sontag BOTH OF WHOM I LOATHE!

A good example of the sort of passage in the opening pages that just makes me shake my head and throw up my hands in temperamental disaffinity:
Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed.

It leads to each other. We become ourselves.

For a time Robert protected me, then was dependent on me, and then possessive of me. His transformation was the rose of Genet, and he was pierced deeply by his blooming. I too desired to feel more of the world. Yet sometimes that desire was nothing more than a wish to go backward where our mute light spread from hanging lanterns with mirrored panels. We had ventured out like Maeterlinck's children seeking the bluebird and were caught in the twisted briars of our new experiences.

Robert responded as my beloved twin. His dark curls merged with the tangle of my hair as I shuddered tears. He promised we could go back to the way things were, how we used to be, promising me anything if I would only stop crying.
Ugh! It is intolerable!

I stopped feeling so antagonistic around midpoint, though. There are glimpses even in the first third or so of a more appealing insight and self-awareness (the description of her own response to seeing Jim Morrison perform is spectacular - "I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence" - and I also love the notion of Robert Mapplethorpe having to purchase the porn magazines he used for his collages while they were still sealed and returning to their room at the Chelsea hotel to "unseal the cellophane with the expectation of Charlie peeling back the foil of a chocolate bar in hopes of finding a golden ticket"). A bit more of a sense of humor develops as Smith narrates the trials and tribulations of her early attempts to perform before a crowd (it is not one of the more humorous books I have ever read, however, and it compares very poorly in this and other respects to Keith Richards' autobiography - the main mention of Keith Richards here, I note in passing, is in the admittedly compelling yet depressing and perhaps inadvertently hilarious scene in which Smith attains social prominence in the Max's Kansas City circle by giving herself Keith Richards' haircut!).

Patti Smith is an artist of the body, that is what it comes down to - she expresses her frustration with writing ("it wasn't physical enough"), it is force of will and personal charisma that lead to her success as a musical performer (and I still think that the cover of Horses is a greater collaborative creation than anything on the album - in the 1920s she would have been an Isadora Duncan, she is that sort of innovator). She says elsewhere of Mapplethorpe "Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph" - this seems to me a fair description. But the love for Mapplethorpe and the way the book works as an elegy, these are very unusual and striking, I will grudgingly admit that I was won over by the end...

Making fly girls blush

More from Paul Devlin on transcription errors in a recent anthology of rap.


Some of the stranger entries in the latest Guinness Book of World Records.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A resolution

I know it is so impractical, it is bad enough having one book unrevised let alone two, but if I get back from Thanksgiving and find myself still utterly languishing at the thought of revising the little book on style, which needs a thorough reframing and reimagining before it goes back out into the world, I am going to buckle down (notwithstanding need to write many letters of recommendation) and draft as much as I can of "The Bacchae on Morningside Heights." I was longingly eyeing NaNoWriMo, only I knew November would not be the month, but it would be highly worthwhile to get 30-50,000 words of a novel down on paper before my sabbatical is over; I think I must do it....


At Largehearted Boy, Martin Millar's playlist for Lonely Werewolf Girl sequel Curse of the Wolf Girl, which I cannot wait to read but which I must wait for until I am either (a) back in the continental U.S. or (b) able to get it electronically. In my opinion Martin Millar is a Genius of Literature...

Glory bumps, vowel movements

I have nothing in particular either for or against the Rolling Stones: you heard a lot of 'em, one way or the other, growing up in Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s with classic rock playing on the radio in cars and restaurants and elsewhere, but they've never been a band I've listened to seriously. But Keith Richards' Life is superb. There is something interesting or captivating or striking on every page (Mick and Keith as Aubrey and Maturin from Patrick O'Brian's books; Keith musing with Paul McCartney on a beach in the Turks and Caicos on creating inflatable dog kennels with patterns to match the breeds within - spotted for Dalmatians, etc. etc. etc.).

(Why didn't I spend the early 70s doing pharmaceutical-grade cocaine, writing songs and driving speedboats hither and thither across the Mediterranean, the Long Island Sound and various other bodies of water?)

A sample of the sort of thing the musically inclined will find irresistible:
I asked Johnnie Johnson, how did "Sweet Little Sixteen" and "Little Queenie" get written? And he said, well, Chuck would have all these words, and we'd sort of play a blues format and I would lay out the sequence. I said, Johnnie, that's called songwriting. And you should have had at least fifty percent. I mean, you could have cut a deal and taken forty, but you wrote those songs with him. He said, I never thought about it that way; I just sort of did what I knew. Steve and I did the forensics on it, and we realized that everything Chuck wrote was in E-flat or C-sharp--piano keys! Not guitar keys. That was a dead giveaway. These are not great keys for guitar. Obviously most of these songs started off on piano and Chuck joined in, playing on the barre with his huge hands stretching across the strings. I got the sense that he followed Johnnie Johnson's left hand!
(It is slightly a pity that we are not in the near future, really the Kindle edition of this book - which was what I read - should have clips of all the chords and musical examples.)

And an early passage that caught my attention, thematically appropriate given the fact that I have an ongoing horrible bronchial ailment involving much phlegm that will not go away (it is making me wretched), a passage I feel certain no other reviewer will have quoted thus far (it describes an early flatmate):
Phelge was a serious flobber. Mucus from every area he could summon up. He loved to walk into a room with a huge snot hanging out of his nose and dribbling down his chin, but otherwise be perfectly charming. "Hello, how are you? And this is Andrea, and this is Jennifer..." We had names for all different kinds of flob: Green Gilberts, Scarlet Jenkins. There was the Gabardine Helmsman, which is the one that people aren't aware of; they snot it and it hangs on their lapel like a medal. That was the winner. Yellow Humphrey was another. The Flying V was the one that missed the handkerchief. People were always having colds in those days; things were always running out of their noses and they didn't know what to do with them. And it can't have been cocaine; it was a little too early. I think it was just bad English winters.
(Vision of alternate universe in which Sylvia Plath encountered Keith Richards that winter...)

Chatty fingers

I'll be doing a live web chat this evening from 5-6pm EST at inkpop - join me there if you find yourself at a loose end...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Books, covers

Colleen Mondor throws down the gauntlet! Her beef is with the cover of The Explosionist - here's the link to the underlying cover contest at Bookshelves of Doom, which challenges readers to produce new cover art for a handful of books (including mine) whose covers were too "generic and girly" for teenage boys to be seen reading them!

I don't have strong opinions on covers myself, having read some huge proportion of the total number of books consumed in my life in library bindings. But it is true, the covers for The Explosionist and Invisible Things haven't been what I initially imagined.

The mental picture I had before the first book was ever accepted for publication was something more like the amazing Prokhudin-Gorskii photographic archive (the pictures are from Russia c. 1900, but taken with an unusual and uncanny color process that makes them really like nothing else on earth - you get the feel of it with the one I've included here):

I like the misty colors on the cover of Piers Vitebsky's superb book The Reindeer People:

I guess that without really thinking about it (I am not a visual person) I imagined a cover built around something like the old photos of Edinburgh buildings and street scenes - something more like this - capturing the panoramic feel of the city, and its vertical range...

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

A must-read: Ed Park at Bookforum on the Chicago Manual of Style.

(I too have a special relationship with the famed fourteenth edition, due to my brief tenure as managing editor at the now-defunct Yale Journal of Criticism, and strong opinions on hyphenation...)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Light reading catch-up (more Kindle)

Another novel from the heavenly pen of Ken Bruen, The Devil.

Sigrid Nunez' lovely novel (could have been published as YA!) Salvation City; she is always worth reading, this one is startlingly different in tone and subject matter from the last book of hers I read but it is of a kind I very much like.

Camilla Lackberg's The Ice Princess: not bad but a bit so-so.

Jennifer Lynn Barnes's Raised By Wolves, highly readable but built more on a paranormal romance chassis than on a young-adult or urban fantasy one.

And a non-Kindle tome: Jilly Cooper's Jump. Not a patch on the best of her earlier books, but still an enjoyable read. It is no discredit to the book as a whole to say that she writes animal characters particularly well, and that the star of the cast is a goat!

I continue to languish in bed with a highly undesirable and glumness-inducing lung ailment...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Declining and falling

At the New York Press, Adam Rathe on the history of indie publisher Soft Skull (via The Rumpus).

A strange business

At the LRB, Julian Barnes on Lydia Davis's Flaubert:
There is a slightly pretentious term in wine tasting and wine writing called ‘mouthfeel’. (It is also slightly baffling: where else might you feel wine if not in your mouth? On your foot?) The Oxford Companion to Wine calls it a ‘non-specific tasting term, used particularly for red wines, to indicate those textural attributes, such as smoothness, that produce tactile sensations on the surface of the oral cavity’. There is similar mouthfeel about translation. Its general development over the last century and more has been away from smoothness and towards authenticity, away from a reorganising interpretativeness which aims for the flow of English prose, towards a close-reading fidelity – enjoy those tannins! – which seeks to echo the original language.


An interview with me at Creative Writing Now about research and world-building in alternate history.

(I am laid low with a bad chest cold that is making me extremely glum...)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Trey-eight revolve 'em"

An absolutely fascinating piece by Paul Devlin at Slate on transcription errors in a new anthology of rap. It could usefully be read by people editing Shakespeare plays...

Three weeks

until the official publication of Invisible Things.

Here's an early review (the discussion in the comments thread makes me laugh and shake my head - authors have no control over covers!), and I'll post links as other stuff comes up, including entries in the forthcoming Traveling to Teens blog tour.

I won't be blogging regularly at the site I used for The Explosionist, as it seems to me to make more sense to consolidate my efforts here, but I'll probably use the sidebar there to keep track of interviews and online reviews. I've also just posted the author's note over there, as it wasn't included in the ARCs that went out this summer.

(I am pleased to know that US residents can pre-order a Kindle edition!)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Avenging disco Romanovs

I love Cintra Wilson's Critical Shopper columns...

Light reading catch-up (Kindle edition)

The device itself continues to suit me extremely well, with the caveat that it is surprising and frustrating how many books aren't available for Kindle. Still plenty to read, I guess: but I will be glad when rights stop being sold in specific territories and electronic editions can be sold internationally....

Connie Willis's All Clear started off as a bit of a disappointment. I liked the first installment immensely, but I was unpersuaded by the first half of All Clear that this really needed to be a separate novel: the scenes of anxiety about London bombings, shelters, finding one's friends, etc. are compelling individually but when repeated cumulatively have more the feeling of an actual bad dream than of a novel; there is too little narrative shaping for my taste. The last third or so of the book is superb, though, and the conclusion is hugely emotionally gratifying, in a way that perhaps partly depends on the nightmarish aspect of the first part of the book; I just wonder whether there would have been some way to cut/edit the full manuscript so that it would have been a single long novel in one volume and without the relative longueurs of the first part of the second installment.

Arnaldur Indridason's Hypothermia is absolutely excellent, pretty much the pinnacle of what this sort of fiction ought to be: I really, really enjoyed it.

Sara Paretsky's Body Work felt a bit formulaic; she has perhaps written this book too many times before, and yet it is still a highly readable book...

Michael Connelly, The Reversal. I approached it without huge enthusiasm, it was more just something that was available that seemed sensible to load onto the device as a precaution, but I found it very good; I'm hoping that there may be a further installment of the tale, it seems to leave off with the opening for a sequel. I like it when authors of longtime series mix things up a bit; the alternating points of view work very well here, I think, and you always feel with Connelly that you are in the hands of a professional, in the best possible way.

Ake Edwardsson, The Shadow Woman (the 2010 publication date on this one misled me - I hadn't read it before, but it falls quite early in the series, giving an annoying backwards feeling to the series-driven reader): not bad, but not nearly up to the Indridason standard.

Ken Bruen, The Sanctuary: A Novel. Jack Taylor discovers Xanax! Seriously, though, Ken Bruen is a huge favorite of mine, and this is an extremely compelling installment in what is probably his most mainstream-mystery-type series. Very good writing indeed - makes my mouth water with envy, I wish I could write books like this....

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A bottle imp

An interesting and gruesome story of a lampshade made of human skin.

Herrings galore

Oliver Sacks is working on his backstroke. (Hat tip: Dave Lull.)

My favorite bit of the exchange:
[Pop Matters:] Time travel: where, when, and why?

[OS:] I would go back 300 million years or so, for I have always longed to see the earth in its Carboniferous age, long before mammals evolved, or even flowering plants. The planet was the domain of gymnosperms, non-flowering plants, then. There were ferns and tree ferns, and giant Calamites—segmented relatives of today’s horsetails, ten- or 20-meters high. There were huge Lepidodendron, a meter and a half in diameter, related to today’s tiny club mosses. And there were cycads, very similar to those that survive today.

A poached egg and a double Jack Daniels

How Athol Fugard came to stop drinking.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Avant-garde documentaries

Jonathan Lethem goes to the movies (via The Millions).

Three links

Charlie Stross bemoans the dominance of steampunk; Phil Nugent mourns the passing of the Walkman; Ed Park makes my mouth water.

The black cat club, readers' edition

A catalog of bookstore cats (via L. Lee Lowe).

A dried chameleon and the eardrum of a lion

At the TLS, a rather lovely reminiscence by William Dalrymple of his encounters with Bruce Chatwin (the occasion is the publication of a collection of Chatwin's letters). For me as a reader Chatwin has been eclipsed by Sebald, who seems to me immeasurably the greater writer, but I am attracted to Chatwin's curiosities of course - I think Dalrymple may slightly overstate Chatwin's current lack of fashionability?

Here's a good bit, anyway:
“I’ve never liked big books”, he writes while hard at work on The Viceroy of Ouidah, “so I don’t see why I should try and write them. Unless you’re Tolstoy most of the ‘great books’ of the world should have been cut in half.” One characteristic remark notes how “I have written four bad pages and will reduce them to a single line”. He also advises younger writers to avoid journalism “because ultimately it corrodes”, and while he occasionally writes for the TLS, he believes that “the besetting sin of all English writers is their fatal attraction for periodicals, their fascination for reviews and their passion for bickering in print. Resolution of the month: Never write for newspapers”. Above all he advises writers to avoid listening to reviews, which he says are “paralysing”: “Don’t flap too much about the critics – and never try to please them (it isn’t worth it). The function of an artist is to work for a) himself b) to leave something memorable, for the future, to shore up the ruins. Fuck the rest of them!”.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The third ear

From James Wood, How Fiction Works:
Nietzsche laments, in Beyond Good and Evil: "What a torment books written in German are for him who has a third ear." If prose is to be as well written as poetry--the old modernist hope--novelists and readers must develop their own third ears. We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.

An arabesque on the usual formula

A curious detail at the end of the NYT obituary for Eva Ibbotson, whose father was a physiologist who did pioneering work on artificial insemination:
Survivors include three sons, Piers, Toby and Justin; a daughter, Lalage; two half-siblings, Jonathan and Ruth, from her father’s second marriage; and seven grandchildren.

Because of her father’s dedication to his work — “Thanks to DNA profiling,” Piers Ibbotson said on Tuesday, “it’s been established that he did indeed ‘draw on his own resources’ ” when outside sperm donors could not be procured — Ms. Ibbotson is also survived by an additional raft of half-siblings whose precise number is unknown.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The authorial life

Thanks to Barry Eva of A Book and a Chat for a very enjoyable chat earlier this evening! (The interview's in MP3 format here.)

Plumb lines

Leonard Cassuto interviews Oliver Sacks for the B&N Review (link courtesy of Dave Lull). Lots there to ponder, but I was especially taken with this bit:
[OS] I'm tantalized by the inadequacy of all description. For example, with Parkinsonism, I think that an adequate description of someone with Parkinson's getting up and walking across the room would require 600 pages of dense prose, and it wouldn't have an extra word in it. It would also be enthralling and gripping. I like Clifford Geertz's notion of thick description. Things are never thick enough. I like the way how in a novel, ten seconds of consciousness, or thirty seconds of consciousness, can take fifty pages to describe.

LC: Then if I follow your thinking, the concrete is the plumb line that leads you into any sort of useful description of consciousness.

OS: Yes. By the same token I am somewhat tormented by the linearity of writing in a book. It would be nice if I could present a globe, with plumb lines dropping from every place, which is partly why I like footnotes. Kate [Sacks's assistant and frequent collaborator, Kate Edgar] has to restrain me from writing footnotes to footnotes. I think anything you look at deeply enough will take you to a great many things.

Out of sight, out of mind

I have a shameful confession: when I was in New York, people kept on saying "You have a book coming out soon, don't you?" At that point I would cringe internally and then stumble into an explanation of how I don't yet have a publisher for the little book on style and that it needs another round of revision . . . before suddenly realizing that yes, I do have a book coming out soon!

It is of course Invisible Things, sequel to The Explosionist and due out officially as of November 23.

I'll be devoting quite a bit of time over the coming month to doing various online publicity bits.

I'm excited about the Traveling to Teens blog tour that Steph Su has very generously arranged for me.

And this evening at 6:30pm eastern time, I'll be interviewed by Barry Eva for his Book and a Chat program; the program will be available afterward as a podcast, and I'll link to it then.

I like speaking in public and writing a blog, so this may seem self-contradictory, but I shrink from all forms of authorly self-promotion, and have been very slow to do what I need to vis-a-vis this stuff. I have to take the time here to thank my friend and former student Julia Hoban, author of the excellent Willow, for her help in this regard. She has kindly but firmly reminded me how important it is to do this sort of thing, and in fact she is directly responsible for both of these two publicity opportunities, as she recommended me to Barry for his show and sent me the link to the Traveling to Teens website, which I might not otherwise have seen!

Saturday, October 23, 2010


From Sterne's Sentimental Journey:
The old officer was reading attentively a small pamphlet, it might be the book of the opera, with a large pair of spectacles. As soon as I sat down, he took his spectacles off, and putting them into a shagreen case, return’d them and the book into his pocket together. I half rose up, and made him a bow.

Translate this into any civilized language in the world--the sense is this:

‘Here’s a poor stranger come in to the box--he seems as if he knew no body; and is never likely, was he to be seven years in Paris, if every man he comes near keeps his spectacles upon his nose—’tis shutting the door of conversation absolutely in his face--and using him worse than a German.’

The French officer might as well have said it all aloud; and if he had, I should in course have put the bow I made him into French too, and told him, ‘I was sensible of his attention, and return’d him a thousand thanks for it.’

There is not a secret so aiding to the progress of sociality, as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. For my own part, by long habitude, I do it so mechanically, that when I walk the streets of London, I go translating all the way; and have more than once stood behind in the circle, where not three words have been said, and have brought off twenty different dialogues with me, which I could have fairly wrote down and sworn to.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The best possible images

Interesting piece by John Gapper at the FT about why Annie Leibovitz's pictures don't sell for as much money as Richard Avedon's (site registration required).

Salamander crossings

Maureen Tucker is fed up! (Via Carl Wilson.)

A queen of light reading

I was sorry to see just now that Eva Ibbotson has died; I really love her books, especially her earlier historical romances. Michelle Pauli had recently interviewed her for the Guardian; their conversation included this exchange, which made me laugh:
A degree and postgraduate study in physiology at Cambridge University, inspired by a mistaken desire to follow in her father's footsteps, proved to be a "complete disaster" – except for a meeting with the man she would spend the next 49 years of her life with, an ecologist called Alan Ibbotson.

"You've no idea what it was like in the labs those days! Blood spurting everywhere! I had these enormous rabbits and I had to take their temperature and they didn't like it. Who would? I spent my whole year at Cambridge with my hair stuck up with blood and scratch marks on my wrists," exclaims Ibbotson. "Then, fortunately, in a very unmodern and unfeminist way, Alan said he thought he'd better marry me and take me away from science. I have to say I was incredibly relieved."

Creeping chervil

James Jolly does a really excellent interview with Nico Muhly for Gramophone. This was a bit I particularly liked; it concerns Nico's score for the film adaptation of The Reader, it is the sort of thing I think about a lot:
At the end of the movie Hanna Schmitz has learned how to write and how to spell her name, and there’s been this cue that’s been in for a few minutes because we’re moving quickly through time, so there needs to be music there. And when she writes her name on a piece of paper to say she’s received a package or whatever you’ve a number of choices about what the music’s going to do. You think, “Well, we can give her something, we can give her a note there”, “We can not notice it” or we can kind of undercut it and make it sinister. It’s a question of a single pitch – it’s a G sharp or a G natural in the harp or the oboe or whatever. And the scary thing is that in the first draft I did, it had this note in it and it really made it seem like it was okay she killed all those people and that adult literacy is really good and good on her!

Shell games

A paragraph that completely blew my mind, when I first read it during my freshman year in a borrowed copy of Genette's Figures II (the aesthetic properties of those Editions du Seuil volumes are very strongly imprinted on my imagination) - I give it here in the translation of Alan Sheridan as published in Figures of Literary Discourse ("The Frontiers of Narrative"):
Direct imitation, as it functions on the stage, consists of gestures and speech. Insofar as it consists of gestures, it can obviously represent actions, but at this point it escapes from the linguistic plane, which is that in which the specific activity of the poet is practised. Insofar as it consists of words, discourse spoken by characters (and it goes without saying that in a narrative work the role of direct imitation is reduced to that), it is not strictly speaking representative, since it is confined to reproducing a real or fictitious discourse as such. It can be said that verses 12 to 16 of the Iliad, quoted above, give us a verbal representation of Chryses' actions, but the same cannot be said of the next five lines; they do not represent Chryses' speech: if this is a speech, actually spoken, they repeat it, literally, and if it is a fictitious speech, they constitute it, just as literally. In both cases, the work of representation is nil; in both cases, Homer's five lines are strictly identical with Chryses' speech: this is obviously not so in the case of the five narrative lines preceding it, which are in no way identical with Chryses' actions: "The word 'dog' does not bite," William James remarked. If we call poetic imitation the fact of representing by verbal means a non-verbal reality and, in exceptional circumstances, a verbal reality (as one calls pictorial imitation the fact of representing in pictorial means non-pictorial reality and, in exceptional circumstances, a pictorial reality), it must be admitted that imitation is to be found in the five narrative lines and not at all in the five dramatic lines, which consist simply in the interpolation, in the middle of a text representing events, of another text directly taken from those events: as if a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, anticipating certain modern methods, had placed in the middle of a still life, not the painting of an oyster shell, but a real oyster shell. I make this simplistic comparison in order to point out the profoundly heterogeneous character of a mode of expression to which we are so used that we do not perceive its most sudden changes of register.