Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in brief

At the end of December I always do a quick skim back through the whole year's blog posts, mostly to get the book list together (anything named here is something I wholeheartedly recommend, though not all genres appeal equally to all readers - but we are living in a great age of light reading!) but also to get some sense of patterns: patterns to be repeated, patterns to be avoided.

I am always struck by how much of my life doesn't make it onto the blog, and also by how familiar the pattern of overwork, travel, fatigue and respiratory infection seems to be. Only serious resolution for 2015: live life in a way that doesn't get me sick so often!

I do also think I should read fewer novels and more nonfiction, but I don't want to be too penitential about it either, so we will see how that shakes out (I read the last issue of the NYRB last night before going to bed, as my Kindle needed recharging; it is certainly better than reading schlock, but I am not sure it is necessarily better than reading good fiction, so really what I mean is to get more narrative nonfiction, biography, science writing etc. and see if I can tempt myself more regularly in that direction so that I can pre-filter the good stuff from the pap and find something else to occupy my idle hours).

2014 was a good year in many respects. I taught a couple of graduate seminars I've taught before (one on culture, one on fiction of the 1790s) and I spent a huge amount of time and energy developing a new lecture course, Literary Texts, Critical Methods, the one course we require of all English majors. I loved almost everything about teaching that class, but I was especially taken with the nineteenth-century Americans: William Wells Brown's Clotel, Melville, Dickinson. Alternate self is clearly writing on Melville one universe over.

Books that especially spoke to me as I was teaching them (randomly recalled): Boswell and Johnson on the Hebrides; Inchbald's A Simple Story and Godwin's Caleb Williams, two seriously underrated novels; Endgame! An accident of proximity (last fiction, first play) caused me to realize the uncanny similarities between Billy Budd and The Importance of Being Earnest.

I spent a good deal of my reading and thinking time in the spring serving on a committee that advises the Provost on tenure cases throughout the entire university (we're coming up on the busy season for that again). As their tenure is now a matter of public record, I can say that two books I particularly enjoyed out of dozens I read for that charge were Shamus Khan's Privilege and Gray Tuttle's Tibetan Buddhists and the Making of Modern China.

I wrote four tenure letters for eighteenth-century scholars at other universities (this is at least two more than I should do) and a seemingly endless stream of letters of recommendation. I have mixed feelings about being a gatekeeper, but there is no getting around it.

I had three amazing work trips, to Israel, Dublin and Paris respectively. In Paris I served as a member of the thesis jury for a doctoral dissertation: it was at once completely familiar (I must have done this twenty times by now) and wonderfully strange! (The thesis was extremely good.)

The saddest thing I wrote was the obituary for Brent's father.

In January I was finishing up the index for my little book on style, which came out in June (I think it found quite a few readers, but I am afraid that it essentially sank without a trace otherwise: here was one particularly fun review, but I increasingly realize I am not cut out for the publicity end of the book business - I like writing 'em, not hawking 'em, especially not if they are written by me!); between syllabus-writing, minor publicity, revising an article that I first wrote an incredibly long time ago and aforementioned tenure letters, I didn't get any major work done over the summer, but that was OK, as I wanted a bit of a breather before I plunged into next books.

2014 was also the year I came to realize (it dawns on me very strongly now and again) that though I tend to think of my own writing as my real work and everything else as part of a complex and rewarding but fundamentally external set of obligations, my teaching is also my real work, and might in the end be the thing I do that makes me feel proudest! (Writing, as everyone knows, being more conducive to grinding sense of imperfections and ongoing striving rather than any simple sense of achievement and satisfaction.)

(On a related note, 2015 is going to be a year of starting new books rather than finishing ongoing ones - this is enjoyable, they always glow with promise when the words are not even quite yet on the paper!)

Best thing I heard in a theater: The Death of Klinghoffer. Other best thing I heard in a theatre: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead! (Close third: Britten's Curlew River, with the sublime Ian Bostridge. Also: Storm Large.)

Now for a selectively granular record of a rather frivolous year of reading (consider this a list of strong recommendations, with apologies for anything I've accidentally excluded)....

Best book I'd never heard of, courtesy of Marina H.: Delphine de Vigan, Nothing Holds Back the Night.

Favorite "book I somehow never read, or never read since early childhood": Kipling, Kim (and follow-up thoughts on the literature of counter-insurgency courtesy of my friend Joey - was reading Kipling stories all fall on the subway, they are uneven but the standard is incredibly high).

Other favorite "literary" fiction (yes, I know these categories are all slightly fraught): Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun; Knausgaard, vol. 3; Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation; Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests; Teju Cole, Every Day Is For The Thief. Kiese Laymon's Long Division properly belongs here, I think, rather than with the YA books below, though much of the contemporary fiction I most enjoy and admire can't readily be put under any single rubric.

Some older British fiction I just now caughtup with: Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles (too sameish, I think, and rather depressing, but the scene in which Hilly gets home after having all her teeth extracted is unforgettable); Jane Gardam's Old Filth trilogy (superb); Margaret Drabble, The Realms of Gold.

Crime: Megan Abbott, The Fever; Tana French, The Secret Place; Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm; Bill Loefhelm's "Devil" series (three installments so far); Warren Ellis, Crooked Little Vein; Anthony Neil Smith, Yellow Medicine (this guy is a slightly undersung genius); Tom Bouman, Dry Bones in the Valley; Harry Bingham, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (#3 in series); Stav Sherez, Eleven Days and A Dark Redemption; Karin Slaughter, Cop Town; Oliver Harris, The Hollow Man and Deep Shelter; Robert Hudson, The Dazzle (1930s pastiche); Deborah Coates, Strange Country (that might be the only one on this list that has fantastical elements, but there is definite bleed between this and subsequent categories).

Thrillers of excellence: Deon Meyer, Cobra; Terry Hayes, I am Pilgrim; Taylor Stevens, The Catch and The Vessel; Patrick Lee, Runner.

Vaguely science-fictional or fantastic, including alternate history (my heart is really with this category most of all - I have slightly sworn off fiction-writing, but here is where I would be if I were anywhere!): William Gibson, The Peripheral; Jo Walton, My Real Children; Max Gladstone's Craft books; Tim Powers, Declare; Peter Higgins, Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear; Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident; Martin Millar, The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf (it is beyond words for me to say how much I love this series!); Ben Winter, World of Trouble (almost too sad); Dave Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn; Ben Aaronovitch, Broken Houses; Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets; Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex (and reread of entire delightful Laundry series to prepare); Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land; Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters; James S. A. Corey, book 4 of the Expanse; Daniel Price, The Flight of the Silvers (hungry for next installment of this one - pernicious age of trilogies and series fiction!); Laini Taylor's final installment in the Daughters of Smoke and Bone series; all novels by Daryl Gregory.

I will happily read whatever Seanan McGuire publishes under any name, but I especially enjoyed her Mira Grant Newsflash installment titled The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, with the proviso that if my mother had been that classroom teacher, she would have managed to get a higher proportion of the children safely out of the building! (It is part of the point of the story that the teacher is relatively inexperienced, so really it's not a fair comparison.)

Favorite reread (along with much Eva Ibbotson, Diana Wynne Jones and Victoria Clayton): Mary Stewart's Merlin books.

YA: Gwenda Bond, Girl on a Wire; Garth Nix, Clariel; Marcus Guillory, Red Now and Laters (this gets award for most mouth-watering title, but it is a very good genre-busting book too, and probably should go under literary fiction as well).

Best literary book about cycling: Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike. But I also enjoyed the repellent Willy Voet's Breaking the Chain, on performance-enhancing drugs in cycling.

Finally, my recommendations from a rather funny assortment of nonfiction: two excellent and completely different essay collections (both belong on best-of-year lists), Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams and Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America; Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped; Alice Goffman, On the Run (a book I wish I had written myself); Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch; Ari Shavit, My Promised Land; Judy Melineck and T. J. Marshall, Working Stiff; and last but not least, a ringer from eighteenth-century studies (my review is forthcoming in Biography), Julia Allen's Swimming with Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale.

Best wishes for 2015!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Light reading catch-up

I have again left it too long since last logging....

I find this time of year challenging: very tired still from a demanding fall semester, in theory delighted to now be having quiet time at home but in practice too worn out to be making good use of it! A minor lung ailment is limiting total exercise, though I refuse to let it stop me from inaugurating a good run streak. I want to be working but I can't even finish unpacking, and I still have school stuff to finish off (tomorrow, I hope, if I can get it together) before I can really get my head into the new stuff. Very glum and inertial today until I finally dragged myself out the door for a rather chilly run; hoping that if I can run earlier tomorrow, the whole rest of the day will go better as well.

Have basically been having large amounts of very soothing light reading that I may not log individually (I am also due the traditional end-of-year book recommendation post: may do that tomorrow as I do not intend to go out to celebrate the holiday!):

A strange but quite readable thriller, Dwayne Alexander Smith's Forty Acres; a well-written and remarkably appealing pair of North London procedural/noir crime novels (it is slightly implausible that a character in such dire straits at the opening of the first volume would have it so much together as the author implies, but they are very enjoyable, and set exactly in my grandparents' neck of the woods), Oliver Harris, The Hollow Man and Deep Shelter; five novels by Liane Moriarty (these are not my preferred genre, but she is an amazingly good storyteller - these are the books you want for airport reading, the hours pass by in a flash) and then a couple of young-adult novels by her sister Jaclyn Moriarty, the Cracks in the Kingdom books.

An excellent advance copy came in the mail and I devoured it: this is the latest installment in Bill Loehfelm's Maureen Coughlin series (start at the beginning, the writing is very good), The Devil She Knows.

Then I think my favorite of all this batch, a recommendation I plucked (along with several others - I think that was where I got Oliver Harris as well) from a useful Facebook thread instigated by Bruce Holsinger in traditional end-of-semester desperation: Elizabeth Wein's two mesmerizingly good WWII novels, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, then her excellent five-book YA series The Lion Hunters. These last in particular are so much like what I would like to have written myself that I feel EW must be my writerly alter ego (and indeed I see commonalities in the bio)! Very fresh (especially after the first one, which is perhaps a little too much in the Mary Stewart Arthurian vein), but also wonderfully familiar: with all the strengths of Rosemary Sutcliff plus a hint of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond and Niccolo books - highly recommended (the WWII ones are probably even more compelling as writing, she made a leap forward between the two series, but the lion ones are more perfectly and exactly to my taste!).

Resolution for 2014: don't read so many novels!

Rabbits of Gowanus

"These are angry, hardened city rabbits and possibly carnivorous."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Royal icing watch

Gingerbread Fallingwater!

Happy holidays, all. Momentarily off to Philadelphia (if I dally any longer on the computer, I will risk missing my train). Back Friday and looking forward to a spell of a couple of months when I will be able to sleep every night in my own bed!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Closing tabs

Life reentry day: international travel wreaks havoc with exercise schedule and many other things. Yesterday was extremely demanding, and today I am paying the price!

Closing a few tabs in the meantime:

Brook Stevenson interviews Marlon James (his new book is on a pile here, but it's a tome - might have to buy a copy for Kindle as well, easier to hold while reading!).

David Gordon: doomed to read and write?

Chaucer's advice on how to survive the holidays.

For those who have been demoralized by having a journal reject an article! (And underlying link. This fits closely with my own experience as a referee for journals.)

A short history of the shipping pallet.

Perils of digital preservation.

The rise of livestreaming funerals.

Shane Gould on learning to swim.

Last but not least, Michael Hofmann really didn't like it....

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Closing tabs

Twin talk.

Building the fictional bridges on Euro notes in the Netherlands.

Henry Blodget interviews Jeff Bezos.

An interview with my high-school classmate (and scriptwriter for The Interview) Dan Sterling about the response the film provoked from North Korea (and the Washington Post on the Sony hack).

What are MOOCs good for?

The uncomfortable desire to be writing books

I am having a very nice quiet week in Cayman: not completely off from work, but there wasn't any single obvious thing that I needed to motor ahead on, so I'm just taking care of bits and bobs as they come up.

It is always sort of awful to have to write a title and description for a future talk that is as yet not even begun, and this one has the typical flaws of vagueness and grandiosity, but I did enjoy contemplating it this morning and getting some sentences down on paper for the draft program:
“Talking Pages: The Eighteenth-Century Variorum Page”

Jenny Davidson will consider the form and function of the variorum page in Johnson’s Shakespeare editions in the context not just of eighteenth-century scholarly editing but of Scriblerian takes on the edited page. She will look closely at the workings of several specific pages of Johnson’s Shakespeare, but her larger concern is to consider Johnson’s literary career in the light of a late-stage revisiting of the quarrel of ancients and moderns. After telling a sort of prequel story about Swift, Bentley, Theobald and Pope, she will turn to Johnson’s editorial work as an effort of reconciliation and resolution in response to still unresolved tensions between the Scriblerian critical project and the reading techniques of a triumphalist modernity. Johnson’s reclamation of a “conversational” and relatively civil variorum page for what is in some ways a conservative literary project seems to represent a critical turning point in eighteenth-century literary history, and Davidson will conclude by considering analogies between Johnson’s use of the variorum page and the theme of generosity in present-day relationships with the past elsewhere in his writing, with brief excursions to Gibbon and Burke as points of comparison.
This made me think about how there are now three projects I am urgently desiring to work on (four if you count the "Gibbon's Rome" offshoot of the ancients-and-moderns project as a separate book), and how that feeling of desire is so satisfying and yet also so uncomfortable, almost so much so as to make me feel out of breath with anxiety and dissatisfaction that I am not doing anything towards any of 'em RIGHT NOW! I think getting new books started is my single highest priority for 2015, though calm and freedom from anxiety are always the highest thing on the list (time spent on my own work is good for this, so the two goals are not inherently incompatible).

I am still really excited about the Clarissa book, and as I'm teaching that seminar in the spring (and no other course - course release for the Tenure Review Advisory Committee, which keeps me very busy, but it's nice to imagine having the mental space free for doing some bits of actual work on this), it seems not implausible to think I might get some actual pages drafted. But higher priorities for January are to put in some of the groundwork for the Johnson's Shakespeare talk and to draft a proposal for a book that would be something like this only titled "Reading Jane Austen"!

If I'm not miscalculating, I have a full year of sabbatical coming up for 2016-2017: I've been considering taking it as two separate semesters (teach fall and take spring off for two years in a row), as in certain respects you get more bang for the buck that way (two very decent stretches of writing time rather than just one long one, and the fall-semester load of letters of recommendation and job market candidates is heavy enough that it doesn't always feel like leave if you're not teaching), but really if I have all these different books on the go, I should just take both at once, make as much progress as I can and then perhaps apply for a year of fellowship somewhere in the couple years following to finish up what remains undone. A project has to be pretty far forward before I can write a really good fellowship application for it, I think; this is not true for everyone, but seems to be for me....

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Light reading catch-up

I hate it when I leave it too long between logging one tranche of reading and the next, it becomes a nuisance rather than a pleasure to write it up here. But since I am now genuinely enjoying a quiet day in Cayman, I thought I would get a grip on it and clear the backlog....

Kiese Laymon's essay "My Vassar Faculty ID Makes Everything OK" caught my attention for obvious reasons, and I immediately got hold of his two books (I've been hearing great things about his YA novel from Sara Ryan and others for a while): How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division. Both are superb, and I am buying copies for my mother and several others for Xmas; the essays are reminiscent of James Baldwin, in the best possible way (it is a strain I miss from the neurasthenic subdivision of contemporary essay-writing: I want to hear much stronger and more widespread crypto-preacherly rage!), and the novel is absolutely a delight.

Probably my other favorites were another pair of books that (BECAUSE I AM AN IDIOT) I read in the wrong order: however, third installment in trilogy will come soon and I expect I will read again from the start at that point, I liked 'em that much. I blame Adam Roberts, whose best SF round-up was where I got the recommendation and which didn't mention the fact of the book in question being a sequel; BUT I also blame my own voracious and forgetful nature as a reader - I could tell something wasn't quite right about the opening, but wasn't willing to put the book down to figure it out. When I finished and went to find whether there was yet a sequel (it's coming in May 2015), I realized that in fact I had already bought volume one the year before, only it wasn't on my current Kindle - it must have been on the one I left in the pocket of a plane that took me to Portland, ME when I was travelling for The Magic Circle. Anyway, these books are PERFECT - it's massive Soviet-era alternate history of a fantastical stamp, more on the Ballard-Pynchon axis in terms of style than the Pullman-Aiken-Explosionist one but still pretty much exactly the sort of thing I most enjoy reading. Hungry for vol. 3! Here's the author's site; the books are by Peter Higgins and are titled Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear.

Many novels by Patricia Briggs, very convenient for purposes of travel (I wish she was still writing fantasy as opposed to werewolf, but I suspect market pressures drive one pretty strongly towards the latter), some Eva Ibbotson rereading for comfort, Michael Connelly's new novel (these are always readable but increasingly thin, confirming my sad conviction that 90% of bestselling fiction will be much less good than the 5% of genuinely brilliant genre fiction that is too violent or troubling to be enjoyed by all); a couple other good recommendations from the Adam Roberts piece (other pet peeve: when will we have a world of simultaneous publication in all English-language markets?!?), Dave Hutchinson's rather delightful Europe in Autumn and Joe Abercrombie's Half a King.

Oh, and one other one I really loved, though I can't remember now where I got the recommendation: Terry Hayes' I am Pilgrim.

I have a bit of a breather this week at B.'s, then home Sunday for a few days of maniacal end-of-semester grading, brief holiday interlude and then three weeks of INSANE WORK AND FITS OF EXERCISE! I am excited about the latter - I have two different book proposals I want to work on, and two talks I need to get some kind of a handle on (one for a general audience at a liberal arts college, one for a plenary address at a conference I really want to have something good for). Various other things churning around at the back of my mind, but time is finite, I must reconcile myself to that in advance.

I ran a 10K on Saturday and got back to hot yoga today for the first time since August, both of which bode well for exercise prospects in upcoming weeks, but it is certainly still possible that I have one more major respiratory ailment in me for 2014, so I'm trying not to count my chickens....


Edinburgh University gives a library card to a cat.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sweetness and light

Paris was amazing partly just because walking around and thinking about past and present and looking at things is so amazing. About the only thing I did my last day there was lunch with a friend and Columbia colleague near the beautiful Reid Hall (conversation included exploring the possibility that I might teach there in some future semester).

I do not have the gift of assiduous museum-going, and really my only goal was to hit this one, which quite lived up to my expectations. I am not a good photographer, but this gives a little bit of a taste of the wares on offer:

Afterwards, a cupcake from Bertie's Cupcakery! (The proprietor is ""The Girl" of DC Rainmaker fame, and also made some custom-designed cookies to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's acquisition of their first boat, a Nimble Nomad named Gunny.)

No discredit to an excellent cupcake, but the best dessert I had in Paris was with A. at Le Stella (after a dinner that started with a green bean and parmesan salad, then scallops and sole): a vacherin glace of utter deliciousness!

I had another very good dessert that involved a sort of almond and pistachio foam with raspberries in it, and the other thing I ate several times and most enjoyed was the "filets de dorade" (sea bream), in one case with anchovy butter and in another with sauteed fennel....

Small houses

A short history of the doll's house (FT site registration required). I wish I'd gone to see that shop while I was in Paris (though truthfully I already did about as much as I can manage): but it does seem as though I should see the exhibition when I am in England next summer....

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Mimi sandwich

Life is full of good things just now, only so many good things that I don't have time and leisure to appreciate them fully!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading on Wednesday night with Mimi and Jenny O., but stayed out much later than was really advisable.

The St. Thomas Messiah on Thursday was extremely good: while the soloists are capable though nothing extraordinary (sparkly soprano!), the sound of the boys of the choir is truly the most amazing thing you will ever hear!

After being stuck on a subway platform for almost an hour yesterday on the way to doctor for allergy shots and flu vaccine (high frazzle factor), and also just being out late two nights in a row, I got up at an ungodly hour and then couldn't get into the dreaded RAPS to read files - very stressful couple hours as I developed a few workarounds with the help of a colleague and an office computer - but at some point I had a sad epiphany that really I should not go to my old friends' holiday party in Brooklyn this evening, it was going to prompt a minor nervous breakdown to have another night out given that I also need to be in Prospect Park tomorrow morning at 9am to run 10K for a good cause (and flying out of the country again on Monday).

Much light reading and other Paris catch-up to do still, but not sure how much I will get through this evening. Bed may be on the agenda SOON!

One of those days

I am not super-prone to having "one of those days," as I am (though a victim to mood swings and melancholy like the rest of the world) of a relatively even temper, but I have to say that today started very badly - I got up shortly after 6 (that's never good!) to read electronic files for a 10am meeting, only to find I was locked out of the system. Spent almost an hour frenetically waiting/re-attempting password on two different devices, neither of which wanted to accommodate me - Facebook complaint garnered help from an extremely kind colleague, and by 8:30 I was at the office reading legitimately on a desktop there, but it was certainly not a good start to a long day!

The day ended well, though, with a meeting for my smallish group of eighteenth-century students and associates who need to think about job talks and how to prepare for them; and then I came home and was handed an absolutely delightful package by doorman Felix. It was clearly from its shape a tin of something delicious (hahaha, if it had been something like bicycle cleats instead it truly would have been devastating!), and as he knows I love sweets we were possibly equally excited; I came upstairs and tore it open and it was a really lovely present from my dear friend Helen's mother Becky Lewis, selector of treats par excellence!

With a nice note, too; it is Becky and my dear sister-in-law Jessi who read my style book and responded by sending me amazing boxes of chocolates! Thank you, Becky - what a lovely treat - THIS WILL AID MY PASSAGE THROUGH COMING DAYS!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Paris was absolutely lovely, but I am very happy to be back at home with two funny cats and a real computer (the technology conspired against "real" blogging - there is a very complex and roundabout way to post pictures taken on my iPad in entries here, but the device kept crashing and I gave up and posted to Facebook instead - will put some of that stuff up here later on at a quiet moment, though life re-entry is now slightly daunting).

I really might have to read this book, though it's a minor splurge (and too new to be available yet at the library) - have pasted in the bizarrely steampunk (of course colonialism really did produce this kind of effect, it's not a novel observation) photograph of a nineteenth-century New Zealander with pet tuatara.

Jonathan Losos' Anole Annals blog is one of my great internet pleasures. I cannot really say that in another life I am an anole specialist, as really I do not have the eye or temperament for a natural historian (in a near alternate life, I am writing about Melville and Dickinson, and in a further-away but still plausible one I am an epidemiologist!), but I do really love 'em, and I like the styles of looking and writing on display here - makes me think of another book I very much liked, Richard Fortey's Dry Storeroom No. 1.

My morning's first meeting has been rescheduled from 10:45 to 12:45, buying me an extra hour before I need to be on campus at 11:30: that is good, I must just now try not to waste it all delightfully on the internet....

Thursday, December 04, 2014

A perfect day

(Though with the proviso that given that I am in Paris, it did not include any patisserie or other sweets - that may be remedied in coming days.)

I am staying in a cozy little maid's room on the top floor of a small apartment building near the Pasteur metro (will move tomorrow to stay with friends near the Champs Elysees). Got up at a very dark 8 o'clock to type up my notes for the dissertation defense this afternoon, then had a lovely thirty-minute run down the hill to Les Invalides and back home; really probably had time for longer, but this sort of occasion (i.e. dissertation defense) prompts feelings of anxiety about being ready in time, untoward disasters, etc. so I thought I'd better leave some slack!

We took the bus to the Sorbonne; first the examiners had lunch together as a group, then we did the defense in a highly ceremonial room (the candidate sits facing the five jurors, then rows of audience behind, including friends and family). In the break, we were lucky enough to get in to see the chapel, which is not usually open to view: rather splendid and haunting sight.

I am relieved to say (and intend to write an email to thank my excellent high-school French teacher) that I was very readily able to understand the presentations of colleagues speaking in French, though it is absolutely beyond me even to comprehend let alone produce a brief bit of colloquial conversation in bar or restaurant! Both the dissertation and the defense were very good, and we then followed the traditional proceeding and adjourned to a cafe for the small party the candidate throws for examiners and family - champagne and delicious snacks were involved.

Just now catching up on internet at the corner cafe with a glass of wine and a rather substantial cheese and charcuterie plate. A day truly well spent!

Tomorrow, I have the leisure for a longer run I think....

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Life in the modern world

(or perhaps just the world of prosperous adulthood?) is more manageable than it used to be.

I am writing from Cafe Pasteur (free wifi), having just had a truly Davidsonian lunch (you should be able to order this more often in the US - beef carpaccio, buffalo mozzarella, salad and fries - not ordered separately, that's how the whole thing comes!).

Travels went pretty smoothly: I flew Premium Economy on the way over, though I'm in the regular economy class on the way back (daytime flight doesn't matter so much), and it was well worthwhile. Skipped lines to check in and go through security, and the seats are much more spacious: I didn't really get much sleep, maybe an hour and a half dozing, but it's nice not to be so claustrophobically tucked up against others and seat backs and so forth.

(I just remember the days when you had to have traveler's checks and what have you - pretty amazing to take out euros at an airport ATM and use a credit card to buy a train ticket from a machine - and the internet is a pretty nice thing too for those who are prone to homesickness!)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three links and then three more links

Hearing the voice of James Weldon Johnson.

Melville's marginalia.

Charades and puzzles in the Lady's Magazine (shades of Emma!).

Posting will probably be light for the rest of the week, as I'm only taking my iPad with me to Paris rather than my extremely heavy laptop. It has required an insane frenzy of work in order to get ready to leave town: I'm all packed, I will go and do teaching meetings and give my final lecture for LTCM, then come briefly home and fall into a taxi to the airport!

As well as the dissertation defense at the Nouvelle Sorbonne that is the real purpose of my trip, I will see a few friends and generally wander/soak up atmosphere. Three places I'm hoping to hit: the Sade exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay; the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature; and last but not least, Bertie's Cupcakery!

"'Tis first"

#700, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin:
The Way I read a Letter's - this -
'Tis first - I lock the Door -
And push it with my fingers - next -
For transport it be sure -

And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock -
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock -

Then - glancing narrow, at the Wall -
And narrow at the floor
For firm Conviction of a Mouse
Not exorcised before -

Peruse how infinite I am
To no one that You - know -
And sigh for lack of Heaven - but not
The Heaven God bestow -

Friday, November 28, 2014

A language thing

This tab's been open for a while: a long and interesting interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard by Kyle Buckley for Hazlitt. Here's a good linguistic bit about radical Norwegian and conservative Norwegian:
Written Norwegian is basically Danish. Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun wrote in Danish. There are these small modifications, but it is still very Danish. That’s the conservative. And then you have another language that is invented, that a man travelling the countryside wrote down everything and invented a language, which is based on the way people speak, which is very different but still, both are Norwegian.

And then you have the thing in between, a kind of radical language, BokmÃ¥l, which is also a sociological thing. If you were on the left side in the ’70s you would talk in way to side yourself with the workers, and so on, and it is a language thing. When I was growing up the writers I liked wrote like that, but when I started writing my first book I needed a kind of a distance, and I took that distance in that conservative language. At the same time Marcel Proust was translated for the first time into Norwegian, and his language is very conservative and has a very French feeling to it. It was something completely new in Norwegian language and I was obsessed with it. There’s a lot of it in my first book. Kind of French-conservative-Norwegian language, long, long sentences. I don’t think it’s possible to relate this to English, because you have a kind of standard English, don’t you?

Expert testimony

Language Log on "Plebgate."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The writing on the wall

I had fun last night lecturing on Beckett and Adorno: I was having slight qualms about having assigned such a difficult piece, but I think it was worthwhile (you never up your intellectual game if you don't read the really hard stuff sometimes, and it is in my view a genuinely revelatory essay - here's the JSTOR link for "Trying to Understand Endgame" though I'm not sure if that's gated for Columbia users only).

Here's a bit I really like (in an effort to get across the true force of Adorno's point, I was elsewhere in lecture describing the disgusting stretch of track where you wait for the front car of the uptown 1 train at 14th St. - I am not sure why, but it is always full of the most revolting detritus, all sorts of trash in several inches of water - it prompts me to think how glad I am it is not my job to clean it up):
What becomes of the absurd, after the characters of the meaning of existence have been torn down, is no longer a universal--the absurd would then be yet again an idea--but only pathetic details which ridicule conceptuality, a stratum of utensils as in an emergency refuge: ice boxes, lameness, blindness, and unappetizing bodily functions. Everything awaits evacuation.
Next year I really will have to put "The Waste Land" on the syllabus as I am so often alluding to it: will move around "The Death of the Author" and "The Intentional Fallacy" to put with it, and will probably also add "Tradition and the Individual Talent" somewhere although that would be too many different things for one week of class....

Bonus link: most enjoyable Wikipedia entry I came across while checking out a few of the allusions in the Endgame passage I worked through in class (I really had no idea it was a dog biscuit!): "Spratt's medium"!

Also: mene mene! I have a probably annoying habit of asking students to gloss things that might be worthwhile to pursue (the meaning of a word, the substance of an allusion), and it is often difficult to tell in a big lecture course whether it's that students know the answer but are shy about uttering it or whether they genuinely don't know and I should go ahead and say it. I was surprised that "mene mene" and the Rembrandt painting of the scene were not more widely familiar. But it is also clear to me that it's not just that I delve most deeply into things because I am the professor and responsible for the material (it is incumbent on you if you're teaching properly to have really done your utmost to have pursued details in passages you're actually actively reading in class), but that what one editor I worked with a long time ago called my "terrier-like" inability not to try and get to the bottom of things is a good part of the reason that I am a professor in the first place!

(It is idle curiosity, often, but especially given the thematic connection of biscuits, I was reminded of the "empire biscuit" internet rabbit hole I went down after seeing Brave with B. and wondering what exactly those iced biscuits with glace cherries on top actually were. I must confess to having a minor obsession with biscuits. Hmmm, biscuits in literature: that is what I should write for the editor I'd like to work with but have been too busy to think of anything for....)

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate the holiday. I had a funny conversation at the doctor's office the other day with the very nice young man who works at the front desk: he said that a well-intentioned but possibly misguided adult had given a dismaying lecture about Thanksgiving as holiday of genocide to his twin five-year-old nieces, and that while he agreed with the substance of the critique, he thought they were really too young to be given much beyond the fantastical story of Pilgrims and Indians joining together to celebrate....

Monday, November 24, 2014

Minor medical woes!

I really was OK when I ran yesterday afternoon, but woke up at 4am and was coughing so much that I couldn't go back to sleep at all: or at least not until about 8:30, when I drifted off for an hour or so (then a team of workers arrived to replace the gas meter in the kitchen as I scrambled for sweatpants and tried to create the impression that I had not still been asleep when they rang the doorbell). Day not off to a good start!

Nighttime coughing sufficiently alarmed me that I thought I'd better get myself in to the doctor's office, though I was pretty sure I didn't need antibiotics; I am growing soft in middle age, clearly, as I cannot remember the last time I canceled a class for illness, but it was the only way to make sure I got in before the holiday, and with this trip to Paris early next week I did not want to take any chances.

And now indeed I have a good answer as to why I was fine while running and not fine in bed. It is one of those phrases where you can only say "apt diagnosis," airway hyperreactivity syndrome in the wake of the two respiratory ailments that have been dogging me these last five weeks. Doc recommends liberal use of albuterol, which I already have for asthma (I take it as a precaution before running, to avoid wheezing, thus no particular respiratory distress with exertion - but bed is full of allergens), plus Claritin and a prescription for a serious cough suppressant called benzonatate. Woo-hoo!

I don't think this will magically clear things up, but I am relieved that doctor finds lungs otherwise clear and that I now have a good explanation for respiratory distress of the last few weeks. Should be able to spot this one more quickly next time, now that I have a name for it....

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Closing tabs

A long-overdue post to close some tabs. I am finally running again this weekend, very slowly, though lungs are still impaired. In work as opposed to lung capacity, though the two may be loosely aligned, I am at the point of the semester where I am barely functioning at 60% capacity - teaching Heart of Midlothian and associated criticism tomorrow just overwhelmed me with a desire to write JEDEDIAH CLEISHBOTHAM on all forms of social media, and I must also, alarmingly, write a lecture on Endgame and Adorno for Tuesday evening!

A wonderful personal assistant from my friend Jill's company Lambent Services helped me clean up my work office so that I have lots of room for NEW PROJECTS (about which more anon at some more leisurely moment probably about a month from now). This service is highly recommended - that office has always been a chaotic and neglected enclave, to the point of functionality being impaired, and I am going to make sure to have regular tune-ups to keep it in good nick.

Liz had an extra ticket to this for Thursday: Black Mountain Songs. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking: I had some pangs of guilt that though I am a dedicated teacher with considerable meta-interest in teaching, I have never (yet) been involved in a really utopian teaching scheme. I wouldn't rule it out, only in reality such things probably happen mostly in summers and I am not sure I would survive year-round teaching! Deep Springs has always interested me as a possibility: now I think they either have gone or about to go co-ed, it might be an actual opportunity?

Other bits of interest:

On founding your own country. (Via I.H.D.)

Helen DeWitt's personal library.

Lottje Sodderland on recovery from a stroke.

The Tingle Alley bear report.

Himalayan marmots! (Via B.) Also, an eagle's view of London.

Slight obsession with this historic food site, especially the ices... (Original link possibly via Teri D.?)

Last but not least, pygmy marmoset loves being brushed with a toothbrush and a short history of the black pug.

I must log the light reading or it will be forever lost in the dim mists of history. It has mostly been a very large number of werewolf-vampire-type novels that I think I will not log individually - Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels novels, which I thought were really very good (I should not have then read the first couple of the Edge series, they are not so much suited to my taste); Stephen King, Revival (suffered for me in comparison to The Shining and sequel, which I read last year, but certainly worth the time); two crime novels by the Israeli writer D. A. Mishani, The Missing File and A Possibility of Violence, both very much the kind of thing I enjoy reading; a reread of a favorite novel of mine by Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret, now happily available for Kindle (this caused me to think I should write a long essay or a short book about her); Heather Abel's fascinating and troubling Gut Instincts, an excellent Kindle Single about celiac and mysterious gut woes (could be paired with Leslie Jamison's Morgellon's essay and Sarah Manguso on illness for an interesting trio); Dorothy Hughes' The Expendable Man; then Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson novels en masse (still finishing the last few of these - it is mighty soothing to have such a good flow of high-quality light reading).

Also I remembered during grumpy desperate non-exercising binge of book acquisition that I very much wanted to read my longtime digital correspondent Robert Hudson's second novel, and finally got around to obtaining a copy: it is called The Dazzle, and I enjoyed it hugely. Recommended in particular to readers of Peter Dickinson and good interwar period pastiche, but really it's just very appealing (good use of epistolary format!): I am going to pass it on to my mother now, in confidence that she will enjoy it as much as I did.

Monday, November 10, 2014


More coverage of Ed Park's departure from Amazon:
Bezos’s last line of defense against the ire of the literati had been Park, the lone survivor of Amazon’s initial push into publishing of the big-time, hardcover variety. Three other promising hires out of “legacy” publishing, including former Time Warner Book Group CEO Larry Kirshbaum, all preceded him out the revolving door. In the intervening five years, genre books have done well — sometimes very well — over at Amazon’s West Coast operation, while big fiction and nonfiction have floundered, partly due to the bookstore boycott. Genres sell briskly as e-books, while the literary mid-list is still largely hand-sold in physical bookstores, so the Amazon authors hurt most of all by the lit world’s hostility are those it might like the most. Out of the earshot of the hosts, one agent at the party told me that for his kind of work, “Amazon is the publisher of last resort.”
When I signed a contract with Amazon for my last novel (Ed was my editor, and he was the most amazing person to work with obviously - he really should have been credited as a full-on collaborator, the book changed so much for the better as I worked for him!), a friend in publishing asked me, "But won't it be strange not to see your book in bookstores?" I had to say that it would not be much different from my previous experience with traditional publishers! My YA books, though they were published by HarperTeen, were not ordered by B&N and other chains, and had truly abysmal sales (the first one didn't clear the limit for republication in paper, so the sequel was released as if in all appearances it was a standalone, hardly surprising that readers found that frustrating). If you are a small midlist book at a traditional publisher and don't catch the world's attention particularly, it is not as though your book really will be in stores in any systematic way.

In general, I am really moving away from novel-writing: in any line of work, you will need to spend a good bit of time publicizing your own stuff and being out on the road, and it is really bad enough having to do that for ONE writing career let alone two. Increasingly sure, and happy about it, that I am a scholar and nonfiction writer in my heart of hearts - that said, future projects will include more crossover work a-la-Geoff Dyer (it is easier for me to force convergence between roles as professor of eighteenth-century British literature and author of literary nonfiction than to shoehorn in the novel-writing thing)....

Changing your mind

This is fun: I got asked by the Chronicle of Higher Education to contribute my thoughts on what nonfiction book of the last thirty years genuinely changed my mind about something important. It is curiously hard to think of instances of this (I suppose the account of decision-making in the Kahnemann Thinking, Fast and Slow has changed my idea of how I should conduct a search?). I enjoyed writing this one.

Saw The Death of Klinghoffer on Saturday at the Met. It is amazing: somber, beautiful, MAJOR. Very glad I didn't miss it. Still chewing over thoughts in the wake. I was thinking and talking about documentary art last week already with Clotel, and having been to Israel this year probably intensified my experience too: the score is just absolutely staggering, though.

Back to teaching today. Really this is good: my fall break was rather wasted, I did valuable and important things I suppose (and continued to recover from lingering cold) but it is hard not to feel that I should have gotten a lot more work and exercise in somehow! Next four weeks will be extremely demanding and I am of course, impractically, consumed with ideas of all the books I want to be writing - more thoughts on that at some more leisurely moment....

Friday, November 07, 2014

"Hamster dreams of sushi"

The link did not come from B., but the post title did!

Reconceiving the Grand Tour

Interesting piece by John Hooper at More Intelligent Life on how digital humanities techniques can reveal new stories that emerge from old research.

"Infuriating; possibly illuminating"

Shades of my relationship with Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels!

"Now Casanova's memoirs"

On reimagining biography. Makes me want to read both the book described here and John Lahr's Tennessee Williams biography....

(Thinking quite a bit about annotation as I am - slightly to my regret, as it is causing much procrastination - drafting a proposal for funding to integrate some electronic annotation tools and digital close-reading tutorials into my introduction to the major course for next year....)

(Also thinking seriously about making 2015 the year of reading mostly nonfiction except for novels I am truly eager to read?)

Animal knotting

Can a snake tie itself into a knot it can't get out of? (Via GeekPress.)

"I want candy"

I want some of these!

"I don't read Albanian, alas"

At the WSJ, Eben Shapiro interviews David Bellos on the art of translation. Here was a bit I hugely enjoyed:
In the new Kadare book that you translate, was there any particular passage or word that was particularly challenging to translate?

“Twilight of the Eastern God” is set in Moscow in the late 1950s. In it, Kadare refers to a mildly avant-garde and therefore politically scandalous hendecasyllabic couplet that had written in Albanian. It’s not a fiction—Kadare’s poetry was published in Albania and translated into Russian while he was still a student in the Soviet Union. I translate Kadare from his French translations, as I don’t read Albanian, alas. However, by inexplicable serendipity the Russian translation of the couplet that Kadare gives in transliterated form in the French edition of the novel allowed me to invent two lines of English verse that are also hendecasyllabic! There was absolutely no point in doing it—English verse isn’t measured in syllables anyway, so readers aren’t going to notice. But if you want an example of the kind of crazy challenges that translators encounter and sometimes meet (more by luck than genius, I must add)—well, that one certainly sticks in my mind.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Wires of underground influence

Teaching Billy Budd next week, I'm excited:
About as much was really known to the Bellipotent's tars of the master-at-arms' career before entering the service as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky. The verdict of the sea quidnuncs has been cited only by way of showing what sort of moral impression the man made upon rude uncultivated natures whose conceptions of human wickedness were necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality--a thief among the swinging hammocks during a night watch, or the man-brokers and land-sharks of the seaports.

It was no gossip, however, but fact that though, as before hinted, Claggart upon his entrance into the navy was, as a novice, assigned to the least honorable section of a man-of-war's crew, embracing the drudgery, he did not long remain there. The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, an ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a singular occasion; all this, capped by a certain austere patriotism, abruptly advanced him to the position of master-at-arms.

Of this maritime chief of police the ship's corporals, so called, were the immediate subordinates, and compliant ones; and this, as is to be noted in some business departments ashore, almost to a degree inconsistent with entire moral volition. His place put various converging wires of underground influence under the chief's control, capable when astutely worked through his understrappers of operating to the mysterious discomfort, if nothing worse, of any of the sea commonalty.

Saturday, November 01, 2014


It is unseemly that a minor cold can make me so grumpy - think of everyone battling genuinely major ailments of one kind or another! - but it is essentially two weeks now with no exercise, and despite everything else in life being pretty much OK, my mood has suffered as a result. Made a plea on Facebook and have lined up some good light reading suggestions for the rest of the weekend (I don't teach this week, due to the fall election holiday - I need to get my act together to do some of my own proper work, but in the meantime I'm slightly at sea without the need to do Monday and Tuesday's course readings over the weekend). Hoping to spend the evening so completely immersed in a fictional world that I stop paying attention to my own glumness!

Have had a rather good run of entertainment in the world as opposed to the mind over the last week or so, though the Britten is quiet in a way that made me feel AWFUL about periodic inability to suppress coughing (in fact it reminded me that I heard the War Requiem a number of years ago at Carnegie Hall with an even worse cold - conservation of character over time!).

First, courtesy of my friend T. who got us comps, the inspiring Storm Large at the Public Theater. Genuinely magical performance: I think everyone in the room was transported and uplifted! Lots of good samples at Youtube and I am going to order up some of the back catalog (bought the new album after the show, though my iPod touch is now so ancient that it won't update with iTunes). She's been singing with our friend Thomas Lauderdale and band Pink Martini recently, which was why it caught my attention; it was an absolutely wonderful show, enough so that I download and read her autobiography the next day. I suppose if you're only going to get one, an album is a more obvious choice than the book, but I hugely enjoyed it: definitely recommended (here's the Amazon link).

On Thursday, the extraordinary Britten parable Curlew River, part of the Lincoln Center White Light festival and performed, appropriately, in the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Here's a review that conveys the feel of the performance. I had never heard Ian Bostridge in person: it is a beautiful work, and I could not imagine a better performance than his in the part of the Madwoman. The moment at the end when the child's voice comes through is genuinely unearthly. Drinks afterwards with Nadia and Nico, which was also fun; Nadia is recovering from pneumonia, we are all working a bit too hard in ways that tax the immune system.

And last night, at the Bushwick Starr, the excellent Ghost Quartet. Here's the NYT review. It took me a little longer to be won over - the performers are superb, but only a couple songs in the first forty minutes stood out for me, and there is always that risk of whimsy - the story also could still use a little focusing - but I really loved the last part, when the lights go out and the story really ramps up in intensity and appeal. The show is sold out through its final performance on Nov. 8, but if you get there by 7:15 or so, they can probably fit you in.

I will definitely download the cast album: the two standout songs in the first stretch are "Any Kind of Dead Person" and "Four Friends" (during which shots of whisky are poured for the audience - very welcome, on my part, and temporarily quieted my lung ailment!)

Miscellaneous light reading (too lazy to paste in links):

I did finish the Richard Morgan "Land Fit for Heroes" trilogy (decent writing, but way too much fighting and the three main characters are all too similar to each other).

Felix Francis, Dick Francis's Damage: actually this one is much better, I had really written the collaborative ones off as dreadful but this reads more like an actual Dick Francis novel as of ten years ago - i.e. still something like a child's cartoon of peak-era Francis, but much more readable!

Tricia Sullivan, Shadowboxer (very appealing, though I thought it would have been edited differently for a larger publisher - some pacing issues - but she's a great writer and I am eager for the next installment).

Patrick Rothfuss, The Slow Regard of Silent Things: an immersive read, I like his writing a lot, but could not shake uncharacteristic politically correct impulse to disapprove of laudatory representation of anorexic OCD heroine!

Then, happily, William Gibson's new novel, The Peripheral: there was one funny moment when I had a sudden pang for the more sincere, less self-conscious pleasures of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, but really this is very good, I can't imagine anyone who likes reading novels at all not enjoying this. (Gibson shares with the late lamented Iain Banks the ability to write female protagonists that actually feel to me like they could be myself!)

Then Paulo Bacigalupi's The Doubt Factory, a good recommendation from Brent (and an interesting example of how a novel might attempt to approximate argument) though I wasn't sure I bought the ending.

Friday, October 31, 2014


At the LRB, Colin Burrow reviews a new book about the history of philology. Of interest to me in a general sense as well, for obvious reasons, but I particularly enjoyed this bit at the end:
This layer of general interest in knowing about humanity – call it culture – can all sometimes go wrong when academic specialisms waltz into the room. My mother, who was the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (and whose eightieth birthday recently prompted what must be the ultimate public recognition in the form of a Google doodle: the techies in California clearly like reading fantasy), once said at a dinner with a group of American academics that she loved The Faerie Queene. ‘Oh, are you a Spenserian?’ came the eager reply. When my mother said, no, she just liked reading Spenser and liked his fantastical imagination, the light went out in her dining companions’ eyes. Yes, academic disciplines are a wet sock to the imagination, but not everything we do is contained within their soggy outlines.

"Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!"

Nicholas Dames on the literary history of the chapter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching edition

Posting around here has been sparse due to excessive other demands, so I thought I'd just give a glimpse into what I've been up to. Yesterday taught a favorite novel, Amelia Alderson Opie's Adeline Mowbray: or The Mother and Daughter. Today, another really wonderful and underrated novel, William Wells Brown's Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter. (Titling coincidence merely serendipitous - but see Franco Moretti's argument about direct and indirect articles in "Style, Inc."!)

Here's the critical reading assigned in addition to the novel for tonight's lecture (which I am still in the process of writing):

#Ann duCille, “Where in the World is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 (2000): 443-462
#Jonathan Senchyne, “Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 140-158
#Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14

And here's the assignment students will write for seminar this week. It is the last of four short assignments that they write as they build up to working on a final essay that will include both close reading and critical argument; it is designed to let students practice skills as well as coming to a deeper understanding of the novel itself.

Please write answers to the following questions.

1. One of the critical essays you read for this week offers this overview of critical assessments and interpretations of Clotel:

The runaway slave’s mastery of neoclassical diction, which some see as little more than a flaunting of his educational attainments, is for other readers a subversive deployment of the King’s English to tell the slave’s story. What one critic views as structural chaos, another sees as a creative appropriation of multiple forms – from the oral tradition of the slave narrative to the sentimental emplotments of women’s fiction. Where one sees only the bourgeois pretensions of the black middle class, another finds an “informed use of folklore” that offers an insider’s view of the plantation system[.] (Ann duCille, “Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 [2000]: 443-462; 456)

a. Make a list of three to five of the novel’s most conspicuous formal or stylistic traits (you can include the three that duCille isolates here, only I would like you to describe them in your own words and in as factual or descriptive a manner as possible).

b. Then offer at least two possible arguments concerning the way each particular trait works in the novel. Make sure that these arguments are formulated so as to satisfy the implicit expectations we have of interpretation: not just what the trait involves or how it works, but also what it’s for or why it matters.

2. Near the end of the essay, duCille writes: “When all is said, done, and disposed of—the borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing—the real problem with Clotel lies in the particular slippery nature of Brown’s brand of realism, which both deploys and denies the documentary impulse that drives the reading, if not the writing, of African-American literature” (458).

a. Write a paragraph or two that first paraphrases and then amplifies or illuminates this critical assertion. What does duCille have in mind when she lists borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing as crucial elements of Clotel? Give specific examples; you can refer back to your answer to question 1 if you feel you’ve already touched on some of the relevant details.

b. What does it mean to say that this novel’s “brand of realism . . . both deploys and denies the documentary impulse”? Pick that statement apart by explaining what duCille means by “the documentary impulse” and identifying where it can be seen in Brown’s novel – three or four examples will do. Then consider what it means to make a distinction between deployment and denial in this context.

3. One obvious oddity of Brown’s novel is that though it regularly invokes real historical incidents, the timeline/chronology is distorted: there are a number of internal contradictions as well as departures from real historical chronology. What are the effects of these contradictions and anomalies? What do they tell us about the novel’s mode of representation? Offer a thesis and support it with specific examples.

4. Jonathan Senchyne uses the phrase “strategically edits” to describe what one chapter in Clotel does to and with Lydia Maria Child’s story “The Quadroons” (“Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 140-158; 157). That phrase itself represents a kind of argument about Brown’s fictional practice. Use the phrase “strategically edits” as the jumping-off point for a fuller description of what it means and why it matters when Clotel borrows and adapts another literary text.

5. When I lecture on Clotel on Tuesday evening, I will consider some questions about the advantages and limitations of close reading as a method for getting a grasp on novels. In some ways, Clotel is very different from, say, Emma (it’s more like Paradise Lost in the sense that it would be perverse to read it without considering questions of history and politics). But it remains important, I would say, to attend closely to the novel’s narrative voice. Find a two- to four-sentence stretch that you think can fairly stand in for the novel’s narrative voice more generally. Then write a paragraph characterizing that narrative voice. What do we know about the narrator? What are the predominant traits of the narrative voice? Make sure to consider intellectual, affective (emotional) and political dimensions as well as more narrowly stylistic ones.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Closing tabs

Rather grumpy about ongoing minor respiratory ailment. Had hoped I might be able to run for a bit today, but really I'm still hawking up huge gobs of disgusting phlegm, it will not do lungs any good to strain them with exercise! Behind on various work stuff, generally feeling rather low. (About to dig in on clearing some of these overdue tasks, which with any luck will lead to a feeling of considerable relief .)

Nice writeup of last week's Swift symposium. I had a very funny conversation afterwards with an elderly Irishman who was peculiarly vivid of conversation. He was excited to tell me that I was "a BORN LECTURER: BORN TO THE PODIUM" - also I used two words he was unfamiliar with, paratactic and hypotactic, which let him tell me a wonderfully complex multi-part anecdote about an alcoholic friend of his, now deceased, who was a great lover of language and once told this gentleman, when he used the word "creature" to describe a lady, "to refer himself to the discipline of the dictionary"! This is now a good new phrase in my repertoire. Said friend died in hospital of complications due to alcoholism, but on his deathbed sung this gentleman two songs which I promised I would go and hear online: one I think was "The Parting Glass," if I am remembering correctly, and the other was a Gaelic song whose title loosely translated into "Nobody knows her name" (various versions here). Some reciting of Yeats was also involved....

Fun to see this profile of an old friend in my Digg feed!

Jane Goodall's jungle.

The link B. sent me yesterday really did bring a smile to my face: the Shetland Pony Grand National!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bringing home the bacon

Fou lard.

In other news, I have a slight cold - perhaps 3 out of 10 on Davidsonian ailment scale. It is making me feel as though I would benefit from a full head transplant!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hot zone update

Sitting at my desk in New York and trying to gear up to write a letter of recommendation that's due today - fortunately I don't need to be on campus until three, as I still have quite a bit of reading to finish before class as well.

Dublin was excellent but phenomenally tiring - any time I was not actually seeing people and doing conference things, I was essentially huddled in bed in my hotel room (fortunately it was quite a nice room - I put up the Do Not Disturb sign and just left it up!).

Interesting interview with Richard Preston at the New York Times about current plans to update his thriller-like account of Ebola as of the early 1990s, The Hot Zone. I vividly remember reading this during my first year of grad school - my roommate LeeAnn had the hardcover and I devoured it! I have been following Ebola developments closely and with interest: my two main fantasy alternate careers are neurologist and epidemiologist, and I am a little sorry that I am not involved in planning and organizing ways to contain the epidemic.

I am relieved to see that Preston admits that one bit of the book is especially in need of correction (I always wondered!):
In the original “Hot Zone,” I have a description of a nurse weeping tears of blood. That almost certainly didn’t happen. When a person has Ebola, the eyes can turn brilliant red from blood vessels leaking and blood oozing out of the eyelid. That’s horrifying, but it’s not someone with tears of blood running down their face. I want to fix that.
Here's his piece in this week's New Yorker.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Closing tabs

I have that uneasy pre-travel feeling that I am forgetting something extremely important, and indeed I have a ton of stuff to do tomorrow morning (including packing), but I seem to have survived the frenzy of talk-writing and lecture-writing and so forth....

Have been spoiled with some very good light reading. When I read the good stuff it makes me wonder why I waste my time with second- and third-tier nonsense! On the other hand, the hours must be whiled away some way or another - but I do think I will have a year sometime when I will only read novels I really really want to read, and that the rest of my reading should be narrative nonfiction etc.

Anyway, Deon Meyer's Cobra is superb - hard to imagine a better book in this sort of vein. Then I read a delightful trio of books on the recommendation of Charlie Stross: Max Gladstone's Craft books. I was slightly skeptical at first - it's purely personal preference, but I really always like it best when urban fantasy follows a single character as either first-person narration or third-person limited, it's part of my affinity for character- and voice-driven fiction - but was utterly won over. These books are great! Interestingly Deon Meyer is using a very similar form of narration, in terms of pacing and following a set of characters, though the books are in most other respects about as different as you could imagine.

Just now halfway through a book I have been awaiting for a long time, Garth Nix's new Abhorsen installment Clariel. The original trilogy of Old Kingdom books, along with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, were the inspiration for The Explosionist and sequel: I kept haunting the shelves of the Bank Street Bookstore looking for something like and as good as those two sets of books, and when I couldn't find them, I thought I would just have to try and make something like that myself....

Closing tabs:

Nobody knows what running looks like.

Metadata scarf and cowl!

Medieval pet names (courtesy of Rivka).

Puggle production line? (Wishful thinking edition.)

Four years later, a lost African gray parrot is reunited with its former owner:
When Nigel vanished four years ago, he spoke with a cultivated British accent.

Little is known about where the African grey parrot went, what he did — or who he was with — in those missing years. But when he was reunited with his owner, Darren Chick, in Torrance last week, the British accent was gone and the bird was chattering in Spanish, often mentioning the name “Larry.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Marginalia redux

Strange to say, thinking about marginalia last week for class turns out to have been much more closely related to one of my current scholarly obsessions than I had quite imagined. I'm speaking on Saturday in Dublin (here's more information about the event) on Swift and commentary; been reading rather maniacally and now trying to put thoughts in order, but here is a funny bit from one of my favorite essays in a really excellent new collection.

One delightful but painful side effect of working on this talk has been that I am now absolutely consumed with the desire to spend some months sitting in rare book libraries with amazing tomes before me: I do have a sabbatical coming up, not next year but the following one (i.e. 2016-17), with the only problem being that I have two competing projects that I am equally excited about, The ten-week Clarissa and the new one for which I have just now created a folder on the hard drive titled "Ancients and moderns"!

So, Paddy Bullard, “What Swift did in libraries,” in Jonathan Swift and the Eighteenth-Century Book, ed. Bullard and James McLaverty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 65-84 (the quotation is on 72):
[I]t is clear that Swift was an unusually active reader. This activity often involved a kind of conversation with the text written upon the printed page. The tone of that conversation was often indignant or otherwise aggressive--the anti-Scottish invective of his notes on Clarendon ('Cursed hellish Scots!'--'Greedy Scotch rebellious dogs'--'Diabolical Scots forever', etc.) is not untypically virulent.
Also: "The regularity of Swift's anti-monarchical marginalia across several volumes gives it a ritual quality, as though he were leafing through his books looking for opportunities to perform it. . . . It seems that Swift found in the pages of his personal library a textual site just secure enough to bear anti-monarchical inscriptions that were too dangerous for him to make in any other kind of papers, either published or private" (74).

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Jam yesterday

From William Sherman, "Dirty Books? Attitudes Toward Readers' Marks":
According to his former lodger, the translator and playwright John Henry Jones, Empson was once forced to buy the London Library a new copy of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: when he returned it they found it covered not only with his marginal notes but with the jam from his morning toast. When I cited this anecdote in a Times Literary Supplement review, Jones himself wrote in to elaborate on the nature of Empson's marginalia: "The work in question was W. W. Greg's parallel-text edition of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and the librarian . . . was hardly straining at a gnat in demanding a fresh copy--the book was virtually done to death in Empson's zeal to demolish Greg's argument in favour of the B-text, a process which . . . was maintained throughout all quotidian activities."

Closing tabs

A weird crystal.

The notorious difficulty of breeding hyenas.

The Sasquatch of Minecraft.

An interview with James Ellroy.


Impending closure of one of my very favorite New York restaurants, La Lunchonette.

Bad electronic health record software and the handling of the Dallas Ebola patient.

Stephen Fry on the battle for gay rights in Estonia. (Courtesy of Tarvo.)

Finally, something amazing: most epic bike ride ever? I would NEVER do this, but it is lovely to watch....

Book Traces!

I'm really excited about this event! Here is librarian Karla Nielsen's description of why this library-marginalia crowdsourcing project really matters:
Andrew Stauffer describes the importance of the project very eloquently on the Book Traces website but I want to underscore his description of these books as constituting a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collection. Viewed that way, they are a treasure. Historians of reading constantly face an evidence problem because it is difficult to find or follow past readers’ traces. However, not all post-industrial nineteenth century books look like treasure from the outside. They can be crumbly and fragile, riddled with what librarians call inherent vice. Faced with these volumes, some readers, and some library circulation managers, are happy for a rationale that justifies moving them offsite or online. There are many discoveries to made if you think to look, but we need to start looking before the evidence is moved out of sight or obliterated.
More information on the project here (and the lovely Tumblr showcase. Andy will come to class this evening to explain and inspire: I like the show-and-tell aspect to this whole thing!

The readings I've given my students to complement and contextualize the project (must now write lecture!):

#William Sherman, “Dirty Books? Attitudes Toward Readers’ Marks,” from Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 153-178
#H. J. Jackson, “‘Marginal Frivolities’: readers’ notes as evidence for the history of reading,” in Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote (New Castle, DE and London: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library, 2005), 137-151
#Andrew Stauffer, “Hemans by the Book,” European Romantic Review 22:3 (2001): 373-380
#Nicholson Baker, “Discards,” The New Yorker (April 4, 1994): 64-86