Thursday, December 31, 2015

Copious speaking

From Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts:
Sometimes, when I'm teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I'm not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures run deep.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Closing tabs

Traveling tomorrow (not super-early but early for me), just finishing up getting things ready to go. A few tabs to close:

A shortage of tutu-makers. (Via GeekPress.)

Caleb's 2015 in notes. (I was startled recently by the discovery of the word zarf as applied to the cardboard ring that fills a comparable function!)

Ellis Avery on life at waist level.

The FT's interview with Elena Ferrante (site registration required):
A page is well written when the labour and pleasure of truthful narration supplant any other concern, including a concern with formal elegance. I belong to the category of writers who throw out the final draft and keep the rough when this practice ensures a higher degree of authenticity.
I have designs on this lounge for tomorrow morning....


Have sacrificed my morning run in order to get a handle on the huge list of tasks that need to be done in advance of tomorrow's travels. First up: returning a long-overdue ILL book I procured at great trouble earlier this year.

Peter Riess's Footnotology: Towards a Theory of the Footnote (New York and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Publishers, 1985): “The footnote is (or pretends to be) the carrier of academic information, but is not the object of academic study” (3).

A functional typology of footnotes (pp. 15-17): excursive, supplementary, cautionary, disassociative, disputatious, cartel, clique, camouflage. Footnote neurosis, footnote fetishism, footnoteophobia, footnote aversion.

I am laughing, I think I now have something like five prospective book projects that are equally important to me (reading Austen, reading Clarissa, Gibbon's Rome, triathlon memoir, etc. etc.), but the biggie longterm one right now (I've just sent out a proposal for a short-term research fellowship) is for the most ambitious academic book I have contemplated to date, a literary history of the footnote, 1680-1818. Here is some of what I wrote recently:
In an essay on the history of the transition from marginal annotation to footnotes, Evelyn B. Tribble has suggested that the shape of the page often becomes “more than usually visible” at periods when “paradigms for receiving the past are under stress”: “In the early modern period, as models of annotation move from marginal glosses to footnotes, the note becomes the battlefield upon which competing notions of the relationship of authority and tradition, past and present, are fought” (“‘Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame’: From the Marginal Note to the Footnote,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham [Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997], 229-244). In this context, the page itself rather than the book in all of its rich materiality becomes the focus of interest. This matters for a number of significant literary works of the period that are still widely read, and the monograph that I am looking towards writing will be structured around discussion of those more or less canonical texts: Swift’s Tale of a Tub, Pope’s Dunciad, Richardson’s Clarissa and its increasingly controlling use of footnotes to cross-reference and moralize in subsequent revisions, the self-annotation of mid-century poets such as Thomas Gray and James Grainger, the apotheosis of the footnote in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a convenient end point provided by the multiple texts of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the notorious marginal glosses of the version published in 1817. But I want to offer very full contextualization concerning the more general literary and historical record; more than that, I suspect that there is a good deal of interpretive work to be done on books with footnotes in their own right, especially in the genre of history.

The practices of glossing and marginalia run much longer than the history of the printed book, but I am especially interested in the new structures of page-based meaning that are facilitated by the sudden predominance of notes at the foot of the page rather than as a long appendage at the end of the text as the annotating authors of printed books in the 1680s move relatively quickly from margins to the foot of the page (Marcus Walsh has identified the French historian Richard Simon as an important node of change here, and his books are one of my first targets, with another important early French exemplar being Brossette’s two-volume 1716 edition of Boileau, whose importance for Pope’s vision of what could be done in the Dunciad Variorum has been roundly demonstrated by James McLaverty). These footnotes are continuous with older forms but also strikingly innovative in various respects, not least because one promise of the print world is that an author can relatively easily sanction multiple editions of his or her own work with increasingly complex and multi-layered annotation. One of my interests here is authorial involvement in the production of multiple editions of a given work, not revision in the most general sense but the specific problem of revision as it comes up in the question of writers with a compulsion to annotate their own works. I will be especially keen to find multi-edition works whose critical apparatus increases with each iteration or indeed in some cases transforms the work at hand.

Some initial theoretical work on this concept was done in Gérard Genette’s Paratexts, and the monograph I will ultimately write will touch briefly on some important twentieth-century forms of authorial annotation (The Waste Land, Pale Fire, the novels and essays of David Foster Wallace). In the early modern period, much of the footwork on this topic has been done and has begun to be elaborated in sophisticated critical works: Evelyn Tribble, Anthony Grafton, William Slights in his work on marginalia. But though work has begun in this area in the long eighteenth century, I was taken aback to realize when I began delving into the critical literature that there was no existing literary history of the footnote in this period; I think there’s a need for it, and I think what I must do before anything else is read exhaustively across the 12 or so decades I am contemplating (but with an initial concentration in the first half of the period) just to track the use of the footnote across major genres in English and French. I am especially interested in history, poetry and the novel, but I will be keeping an eye out for other genres that may prove especially interesting (natural history, say, or theology and moral philosophy – I will initially cast a very wide net).

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The telluric hum"

I really liked David Kurnick's Public Books essay on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. Worth reading in its entiretly, but here's what especially captured my attention (I've only read the first installment, will probably get to the others in coming weeks, but this resonates very strongly with my sense of what's most interesting in the series):
What gives unity to the rush of events is Lenù’s sense that Lila’s is the more genuine intellect, hers the more authentic relation to body, mind, action. Lenù’s most persistent fear is that her achievements are pallid reflections of the acumen that vibrates almost painfully from Lila. But this suspicion never settles for long into anything as predictable as competition or envy; Ferrante volatilizes every social and emotional situation. In a thrilling scene toward the end of The Story of a New Name, Lenù, just having published her first book, visits Lila on the floor of the sausage factory. She has convinced herself that she wants to thank Lila for her inspiration, to confess that what’s best in the novel derives from their friendship. Lenù comes, in other words, half in bad faith, and Lila senses it.

Reeking of offal and shrugging off the complaints of her supervisor, Lila launches into a relentless, apparently left-field account of the new world of computer programing in which she’s become immersed in the hours after work. Lenù is crestfallen—but rapt, too—to find her friend’s correspondence course–derived obsession with early digital technology more riveting, even to Lenù herself, than her own authorship. But Lila’s revenge is, as ever, also an invitation: “She was explaining to me that I had won nothing,” Lenù writes, “that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” The Neapolitan novels offer the truest account I know of the telluric hum of being in the presence of a challenging mind, the shaming, tensed pleasure of trying to keep up.
I had to start the first installment a few times before I really got into it (insofar as one is now a Knausgaardian or a Ferrantista, I am the former!), but I gradually realized as I made myself read on that the novel actually has something that reminds me of one of my lifetime favorites, Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. That is probably the best book about sisters, love and rivalry that I know (I thought also a bit of Sybille Bedford's great novel A Compass Error).

Here are the passages of My Brilliant Friend that compelled me to flag them. First, the description of the shoes Lila designs (and yes, it's surely an echo of those shoes in Madame Bovary!):
Once she showed me the designs for shoes that she wanted to make with her brother, both men's and women's. They were beautiful designs, drawn on graph paper, rich in precisely colored details, as if she had had a chance to examine shoes like that close up in some world parallel to ours and then had fixed them on paper. In reality she had invented them in their entirety and in every part, as she had done in elementary school when she drew princesses, so that, although they were normal shoes, they didn't resemble any that were seen in the neighbhoood, or even those of the actresses in the photo novels.
The letter Lila writes to Lenu who is away in Ischia:
It was from Lila. I tore open the envelope. There were five closely written pages, and I devoured them, but I understood almost nothing of what I read. It may seem strange today, and yet it really was so: even before I was overwhelmed by the contents, what struck me was that the writing contained Lila's voice. Not only that. From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy, the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary-school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Sarratore in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but--further--she left no trace of effort, you weren't aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face: it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, of the confusion of the oral; it had the vivid orderliness that I imagined would belong to conversation if one were so fortunate as to be born from the head of Zeus and not from the Grecos, the Cerullos.
And the sequel rumination:
The next day I went unwillingly to take the exams. But something happened that made me feel better. Professor Gerace and Professor Galiani, who were part of the committee, praised my Italian paper to the skies. Gerace in particular said that my exposition was further improved. He wanted to read a pasasge to the rest of the committee. And only as I listened did I realize what I had tried to do in those months whenever I ahd to write: to free myself from my artificial tones, from sentences that were too rigid; to try for a fluid and engaging style like Lila's in the Ischia letter. When I heard my words in the teacher's voice, with Professor Faliani listening and silently nodding agreement, I realized that I had succeeded. Naturally it wasn't Lila's waay of writing, it was mine. And it seemed to my teachers something truly out of the ordinary.
Two other bits that stayed with me: Lila telling Lenu how to translate Latin sentences; reflections on the times characters move into dialect.

"I'm much closer to Kerouac than to Musil"

Christian Lorentzen spoke with Karl Ove Knausgaard (this tab's been awaiting blogging for too long, it's not a new piece). I was especially interested by the reflections on speed:
But speed isn’t something associated with Proust. It’s something we associate with Kerouac, a writer people read in their teens and then often discard. What about him?

I read Kerouac when I was 18, and I left him behind, too. But he and the others in his school turned out to be very important to me when I got around to writing. That kind of energy is completely lacking in modernist writers like Musil, and I’m much closer to Kerouac than to Musil. I discovered that I could come up with things when I wrote quickly that I would never have thought of otherwise, and that’s the way it still is.
I am hungry for those last couple volumes....

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Two Knausgaard bits

(I need to stop blogging and get off the computer, this is ridiculous! Going to leave Ferrante post for another day but wanted to close these two Knausgaard tabs.)

Ane Farsethås interviews KOK for the Paris Review. Here Knausgaard explains why Madame Bovary is the world's best novel:
I’ve read the novel many times, and its details are so vivid—the world is clear and crisp as a landscape after a heavy rainfall. And it has that incredible torrent of emotions and dreams and desires that gain even more force by being so fundamentally misplaced. I think it’s better than In Search of Lost Time. Proust doesn’t have that kind of concentration. Flaubert is interesting. I just read his letters, and they really go backstage. He writes about everything! The most obscene things, sex, prostitutes, what have you. They’re as chaotic as life itself. And then you see that perfectly constructed facade of the novel, which in a way contains it all, but indirectly—it’s highly controlled and composed. That made me realize the value of Bovary is much higher, a thousand times higher than the letters, even though the letters are livelier and closer to life. It’s about creating a universe that’s entirely self-contained and not just true, but actually valid. It’s that validity—which, in the best books, is endless—that is perhaps the true nature of literature.
And an interesting essay by Siri Hustvedt.


Garth Greenwell came to my attention because of his Atlantic essay about A Little Life, and his role as passionate advocate for a book I also loved made me curious to read his own forthcoming novel What Belongs to You.

I was able to get an electronic advance copy through Netgalley and read it last month in one or two compulsive sittings. Both the prose and the relationship between the protagonist and his lover are unforgettably good: the subject matter calls to mind Giovanni's Room inevitably, but the sentences have a wonderfully incongruous touch of Thomas Bernhard! It is the dark mirror of Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name, and the two would be interesting to teach in tandem.

Here is a passage I especially liked:
She had always been driven; as a child she worked harder than any of the rest of us in shcool, she excelled at sports, she was the president of her class, in everything she did she was exceptional. She questioned all of it now, she said, everything she had done, everything she had wanted, not just these public ambitions but also more private needs. We had never talked about sex before; she was so much younger and I had always shied away from it, though she knew something about my own history from the poems I had published, which she searched out and read with an attention they seldom, probably in no other case received. I just wanted to get it over with, she said about the first time she had sex, it was a relief, I didn't want it to be a big deal. She was fourteen when she started sneaking out at night, she told me, boys would wait for her, their cars running on the next street over; they were always older guys, she said, first seniors at her school and then college students she met at parties. I'd lie about my age, she said, I'd say I was sixteen or seventeen and they'd believe me, or maybe they just pretended to believe me. It's not like there were that many of them, she said, maybe seeing the dismay I felt, I didn't even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don't know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dangerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog. Even these desires, I thougth as I listened to my sister, seemed to descend from my father like an inherited disease.
It's getting good coverage: here's a nice PW bit. Highly recommended.

Closing tabs

Trying to tidy up my utterly chaotic apartment - but the counterpart bit of tidying involves closing a lot of tabs that have been open for too long....

Best sight over Thanksgiving - PEZ dispensers at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore!

Closing some tabs:

Photographs of Arctic foxes.

William McIlvanney has died - his Laidlaw books were a favorite with my Scottish grandfather.

Novel-reading has been fairly pitiful, though I need to write separate posts on books by Elana Ferrante and Garth Greenwell that are not pitiful.

Hahahahaha, have been contemplating this line as I thought longingly about blogging - am now on installments 13 to 15 of Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunter novels - they are very good storytelling in their way, albeit somewhat repetitive when binge-read; I would like them better if there were less sex, but this is like saying I would like chocolate chip cookies better if there were no chocolate chips in them! (Also true.) Resolved to read a higher proportion of nonfiction in 2016 as there is less brain rot that way!

Actually I have had quite a few good things now that I think about it - I am always in peaks and troughs of despair and elation, fortunately something good usually turns up to read just when I am utterly dry....

Appealing caper crime: Lou Berney's first two novels, which are not so much my cup of tea as his most recent one but which are still incredibly good - I think he's my new favorite relative-newcomer crime writer.

Another very good first crime novel (from a veteran writer, and it shows): Lisa Sandlin, The Do-Right. There is perhaps a tad too much historical detail, but the writing is excellent and the storytelling is very good too (not always the case): Attica Locke is the closest parallel. I highly recommend this one - I think it will appeal slightly less to the general reader than Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone, as the historical setting is a little too lovingly realized and the story is less plausible, but it is worth mentioning in the same breath, especially on the strength of the characters and the prose.

Denisa Mina's excellent new Alex Morrow novel, Blood, Salt, Water.

Kevin Wignall, A Death in Sweden - great stuff! Not perhaps quite up to Peter Temple in the writing, but very good indeed - that is a standard few can meet, and this is definitely first-rate. Wignall's first few books made a big (positive) impression on me, but he hasn't been on my radar in recent years, and I am hoping that may mean there's some backlist I can catch up on. I just like this guy's brain - you know when you read a novel and it is so intelligent and compact and contained that you feel like you could live with it in your house?

Comfort reread when I couldn't find anything else: Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer (I love her books so much and it makes me very sad that there will be no more of them).

Appealing SF: C. A. Higgins, Lightless (I loved this one, and was perplexed by the negative Amazon reviews - yes, this is a little more simplistic than the Expanse books, say, in the best tradition of YA SF of the 50s and 60s, but it is incredibly gripping and the characters are really nicely brought to life - I hugely enjoyed it).

Mira Grant's latest sapient tapeworm installment, Chimera (she is a genius of light reading, everything she writes is what I most enjoy reading). Good thing for me she is so prolific! (And by the way, when did it become acceptable to apply the adjective "prolific" to, say, serial killers? I see it often and it always strikes me as a solecism!)

On the topic of serial killers, a rather terrible book by Alan Jacobson ccalled The 7th Victim. It is capably written and presumably reasonably well-informed about profiling and FBI procedures, but the main character is so utterly preposterous in her motivations and actions that it ruined everything else good about the book for me. (It reminded me of this very good recent post by Charlie Stross - writers take note....)

Three enjoyable and very light books by Deborah Blake, who I will continue to read despite what I feel to be the basic silliness of this kind of paranormal romance because she is a good writer!

My Greenwell and Ferrante posts may have to wait for another day, that's enough blogging after a long dry spell!

Final thought. If I can do four things tomorrow, everything will be OK:

(1) Run
(2) Finalize my spring-semester syllabus, which will involve a bit of library time, and email it to seminar leaders for Thursday morning meeting
(3) Write the two most pressing letters of recommendation
(4) Get to 5pm makeup powerlifting session

A human ear

Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel lecture:
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven't been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk ... I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.
A very compelling piece - worth a read. I've only read the Chernobyl book, but I've acquired a couple of the others and am hoping to read them in January.

The drift from fiction

Geoff Dyer and others on the blurriness of the line between fact and fiction.


At the New Yorker, Alex Abramovich on the culture clash between Warholites and VU:
“We spoke two completely different languages,” Mary Woronov, who’d been a dancer with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, said. “We were on amphetamine and they were on acid. They were so slow to speak with these wide-open eyes—‘Oh, wow!’—so into their ‘vibrations’; we spoke in rapid machine-gun fire about books and paintings and movies. They were into ‘free’ and the American Indian and ‘going back to the land’ and trying to be some kind of ‘true, authentic’ person; we could not have cared less about that. They were homophobic; we were homosexual. Their women, they were these big round-titted girls, you would say hello to them and they would just flop down on the bed and fuck you; we liked sexual tension, S & M, not fucking. They were barefoot; we had platform boots. They were eating bread they had baked themselves—and we never ate at all!”
Here's Douglas Wolk on the reissue of the Matrix tapes and Dean Wareham ditto - might have to acquire this set....

(One of my cats has been having dental woes - he had to go in Monday to have seven [!] teeth extracted - but when the vet was here last week to do the preliminary check-up, we had a funny conversation about Lou Reed. Dr. P. spotted the name on the spine of a book on my shelf, and told me the tale of how he bid through some kind of charity auction for the leather jacket Clinton gave to LR when he played at the inauguration - and then got it signed by Lou himself....)

Saturday, November 21, 2015


I think I will have the blackcurrant Eton mess - and the Marmite black velvet (FT site registration required).

Truth and lies

"Bob has his trainers feeding dogs baloney treats. We don't do any of that mushy stuff."

(The Robert Crais books are extremely enjoyable reading, by the way: the first is Suspect, the second is The Promise. Crais's books have in my opinion gotten better and better; where Michael Connelly's have become more formulaic over the years (with the last few Bosch books feeling like thinned-out outlines of their former selves), these have become richer and more complicated in terms of character and voice.

"Literary criticism, but in real time"

Andy Martin shadows Lee Child. I have to say that this is an incredibly funny idea I wish I had thought of myself, though I am not sure I would have had the patience to follow up on it, regardless of questions of access!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Celluloid heroes

Entertaining evening with L., who I do not see often enough, watching Nobuhiko Obayashi's wonderfully demented film House. The girls are enchanting and it is genuinely haunting despite the kitsch. Then we wandered fruitlessly around the neighborhood looking for a place to eat, but it was grotesquely crowded. Found a high-top table finally at Smith & Wollensky, where we lifted a glass in my father's memory. (We shared a shrimp cocktail to start and sides of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes; L. had the sirloin, I had branzino.)

Personal blogging

In an effort to reclaim the territory of the blog back from social media....

They are jackhammering up the street in front of my apartment. The noise is such that the two cats are agitated; it was so loud downstairs that a little boy with his father was afraid to leave the building!

I am up so early only because I had an 8am tooth-cleaning appointment; you have to make them so far in advance, it's the only safe time when I really know I won't have a conflict. It's a beautiful day, upper 50s and sunny; lying in the chair, though, gave me a view of my sandals that made me acknowledge that they have lived their last days - the foam footbeds are completely torn out in chunks - no longer shoes of respectability - I have thrown them in the trash....

Closing a few tabs:

A nice piece at the Guardian about Nadia Sirota and her Meet the Composers show.

Anne Fernald on Goodnight, Moon and modernism. (Mush!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Light reading round-up

Long overdue, possibly in part because it represents mostly a good deal of pap (a word that makes me think of Beckett - much used by my grandmother to disparage the quality of modern store-bought bread, but it is always what I think of when I am too enmired in series fiction).

It is a difficult time of the school year, I think: hard to keep energy levels high with a fairly long stretch to go until the winter break. But my history of the novel class has gone well and I should be able to do some decent regrouping over the break. I booked my ticket to Cayman, I'll be there for almost three weeks....

(Oh dear, I see it really is more than a month's worth that needs logging, that is a pain.)

Slightly shameful list - if I keep reading like this, I am going to ROT MY BRAIN! But I am starting to feel that impatience and hunger for REAL reading and REAL writing that should indeed precede a sabbatical year - MY TIME WILL COME if I can get through to May....

Anyway, a few standouts first:

The best of this bunch, an absolute miracle - Lou Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone. Everyone should read this one, it is incredibly good: among other things gives a better picture than almost anything else I have read (Kate Atkinson's Jackson Browne books might be comparable) of the long shadow violent death casts over individuals and in families. Have read another book of his now too, which I liked but which is more in Elmore Leonard vein (less my cup of tea): Gutshot Straight.

A fun reread of I Capture the Castle, prompted by a blog post I can no longer locate - I read this book obsessively over and over again as a child, don't remember when I last revisited it but was struck this time by how much more than I remembered it almost represents Austen pastiche (did Dodie Smith know about the three notebooks of Austen's juvenilia?).

An essential book of nonfiction - I am sure it will be superseded, but I don't think there's anything currently better that will serve as an introduction to the topic of transgender as it affects children and adolescents, and it would make a good choice for one of these "all entering first-year college students read the book and discuss" assignments: Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. I was really impressed with this one.

Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning (and here's a good interview with Larissa at the Guardian).

A really appealing SF novel that has a twist about HOARDING, amazingly: Emma Newman's Planetfall (not to slap a label on it, but I really like this vein of feminist science fiction - count me a fan, I will read whatever she writes now, slight shades of Jo Walton!).

M. H. Boroson, The Girl With Ghost Eyes (one of the best historical fantasies I've read for a long time - at times the culture is laid on a little thick, perhaps, but it is refreshing and appealing to see something that does not yet again rehash, say, the Heyeresque British Regency vein with a tincture of magic!).

Hester Young, The Gates of Evangeline (farfetched but extremely well-written - I wished it had been written and edited slightly more closely in line with genre fiction constraints rather than literary fiction ones, in terms of tightness of plotting, but really it's good).

Garth Nix, Newt's Emerald (fascinated by the puzzle of how Heyer's Austen pastiche voice came to have such very wide influence - in fact this taken together with Dodie Smith makes me think my Austen book needs to have a little chapter on that at the end!).

Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil (extraordinarily readable, as per Rowling's storytelling gifts, but on the artificial end of the crime fiction spectrum, and you increasingly sense that the main thing she's interested in is the developing relationship between Cormoran and Robin!).

Also very artificial but very enjoyable (there is a clue early on in the form of one of the protagonists reading Agatha Christie's Crooked House!), Peter Swanson, The Kind Worth Killing.

Christopher Buelmann, The Lesser Dead (chilling tale of ancient vampires in NYC, also very well-written).

An Expanse novella (this series is pretty much the best thing around in SF-inflected light reading!), The Vital Abyss.

David Wong, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (Gibsonesque near-future surveillance neo-noir, with an appealing sense of absurdity).

Then I got happily dug in (this was just as I went to Cayman at the end of October) to two nicely complementary series, the first of which I've read before but are pleasantly rereadable - Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels, of which there are ALMOST TWENTY, a blessing - and also an interminable fantasy series, Katharine Kerr's Daggerspell and successors. The reincarnation conceit really makes these books feel as though they will go on forever, which is not entirely a good thing but convenient for travel purposes; I stalled out partway through the fifth installment and am not sure I will take it back up, but I am grateful to the series up to that point for whiling away a few hours pretty happily.

Then a palate-cleanser (Scudder was ongoing), Ed Caesar's Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon.

Melissa Olson's second boundary magic book, Boundary Lines, which I thoroughly enjoyed (she is a good writer) - and in a roughly similar vein, also well-written, Ilona Andrews' second innkeeper installment (these really are funny, I think they are fairly tongue-in-cheek), Sweep in Peace

Kristina Ohlsson's latest, Hostage, which I thought was very good (this series has picked up momentum for me, and I thought this was the best one so far).

Matthew FitzSimmons, The Short Drop (fast and enjoyable read in a genre that is not quite my favorite). (On which note, as a supplementary note for a novel that's preoccupied with diners, where have all the diners gone?)

I was in mild despair earlier as I mistakenly thought there was a new Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London book - it turned out to my disgust to be just installment #5 of a graphic novel serial in which I have no interest! But I was happily able to console myself by downloading Robert Crais's new novel, The Promise, which passed the evening very nicely.

A few other more substantive things deserve their own posts....

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Robert Hanks on Jenny Diski's writing career. I've read pretty much everything she's published in book form - I had a Diski binge right when I first discovered her, and have followed her ever since with huge enthusiasm - I think that first novel is still really an extraordinary read, but my other favorites are her books of nonfiction (the Montaigne-esque essays in On Trying to Keep Still, the Antarctica book). We once shared a student in common, J.M.L., who confessed she thought of us as her two Jenny D.s! The ongoing cancer diary at the LRB is almost too upsetting to read (and the Lessing installments are fascinating too).

"There is no empirical reason for his gloomy attitude"

At the WSJ, Liesl Schillinger on why Knausgaard can't stop writing:
To heighten the stakes and to increase Knausgaard’s resolve, his publisher at Oktober suggested he produce the book serially, “as Dickens did,” one short volume a month, then rerelease them as a single, 1,500-page magnum opus. Knausgaard thought the idea was “fantastic.” If he missed a single deadline, he would be publicly shamed, at least in his own mind. “The risk factor was very important,” he says. “I couldn’t say, ‘I need more time.’ If you have to do it in eight weeks, you can’t care about the writing or composition; anything goes. It’s a way of making yourself free.” However, once the terror of falling behind on his deadlines had liberated him, Knausgaard wrote so many pages so quickly that he and his editor, Geir Gulliksen, realized a new format had to be devised. They and Oktober’s then-CEO, Berdahl, announced that they would publish six full-length novels, back to back: And thus, My Struggle was born. Fed up with the artifice of fiction, Knausgaard decided to use actual names and events to the greatest extent possible. “I felt like I never said what I really meant to anyone; I was trying to please everybody. I felt like a coward, and I wanted to break out of all of that.”
(Nice shot of Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain in one of the photos!) Here was Knausgaard at the NYTBR on reading Michel Houellebecq's latest novel.

Secret messages

The masked letter (I have an earlier one like this in my hypocrisy book!) and other steganographic ploys.

Words and miles

At the Atlantic, Nick Ripatrazone on why many writers run:
The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of pages, and both forms of regimented exertion can yield a sense of completion and joy. Through running, writers deepen their ability to focus on a single, engrossing task and enter a new state of mind entirely—word after word, mile after mile.
One day I really am going to write a personal book about exercise....

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wheat, chaff

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dirty laundry

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

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Language become gesture

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

Tail-pieces of morality (NSFW!)

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Light reading catch-up

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

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

Three standouts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 09, 2015

Think big

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

Good teeth

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

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

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Towel love

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

Dimples and dismay

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

The Zone

An excerpt from Voices from Chernobyl at n+1.

Lost sound

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

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

A bucket of meat

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

Friday, October 02, 2015

The mind's construction in the face

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

Distress, deviance

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 01, 2015


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

Gay, Rivers, Beacon

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Light reading round-up

As always, the peaks and troughs of joy and anxiety - I will never again find a good novel to read, this novel's amazing, this novel's OVER and what am I going to read next?!?

Some Nordic crime fiction: Jussi Adler-Olsen's new Department Q installment (I can't get a handle on the tone of these, but they're not bad); two pleasantly bland Icelandic crime novels by Yrsa Sigurdardottir; Camilla Lackberg, The Drowning (well-written but wildly implausible, and I am annoyed to realize I have come very late to this series, I would have been better off starting at the beginning of the sequence but I didn't like this one so much that I really want to go back to the same characters years earlier); Kristina Ohlsson's The Unwanted (the best of this batch I think, and I am going to order the next one right away).

A fun novel in Sandman Slim vein, Chris Holm's The Collector. (Covers are wasted on me, but this design is very charming, and the book was well-written - second installment already downloaded.)

A high fantasy novel I found remarkably good (hugely impatient now for next segment of story!): Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. So good! (Robert Redick is the other author in not dissimilar vein that I've read recently with comparable enjoyment.)

And two absolutely delightful novels in a subgenre that's a favorite of mine, near-future Gibsonesque surveillance-society noir: Paul McAuley, Something Coming Through and Edward Ashton, Three Days in April. I thought both of these were extremely good - fresh voices, appealing characters, funny and interesting writing. One has aliens, one doesn't, but the literary DNA is similar in either case....

Mail order

Economics of the dark web. (Shades of Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel!)

Plague, pestilence

What was the plague that hit Athens in the summer of 430 BCE?

Veils of technology and speculation

At Public Books, N. Katherine Hayles on narratives of human extinction by Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson.


Sending a potato in the mail.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cintra Wilson is a genius!

I've been looking forward to this book for a long time (here's where I first heard about it from Cintra) and it did not disappointment. This is as funny as her still-underrated novel Colors Insulting to Nature and as smart and sharp as her best political writing. I loved it and didn't want it to end! In my mind, the best sections are the ones on Beltway fashion (a must-read!), Utah and the women of the south - in some sections of the book, the integration of the old Critical Shopper columns feels a bit awkward, as they are very funny and full of aphoristic zingers but don't tend to have the depth of some of the newer analysis written specifically for the book - but it is altogether a wonderfully intelligent and funny comment on contemporary American culture.

Here's the Southern Belle bit excerpted at Salon; here's a good interview at WWD.

Closing tabs

School started!

It's tiring but exhilarating: certainly my favorite time of year. Just teaching one class this semester due to extensive committee responsibilities (interesting ones, not tedious at all): the eighteenth-century novel survey. Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year is up first: this is an incredible book, everyone should read it....

Closing tabs:


It's on my "bucket list" (I hate that expression, but it's unavoidable!) to publish a book with Graywolf.

A nice interview with the author of The Three-Body Problem.

"Black Chronicles II": photographs of people of color in Victorian England.

Duane Swierczynski on M. Night Shyamalan's latest.

Death of a white alligator.

Sisyphean Funtime! (Via Jonathan L.)

Wish I could be in Dublin to see this.

Colum McCann on the tunnels beneath NYC.

Light reading:

I read so many lightweight novels last week that I experienced a sudden and intense and altogether uncharacteristic revulsion towards all fiction! Individually a number of these were very good, but the cumulative effect was slightly sickening (a-la Double-Stuf Golden Oreos).

Seanan McGuire's new October Daye novel, A Red-Rose Chain (very satisfying installment in good series, though her Mira Grant books are more exactly to my taste);

David Lagercrantz, The Girl in the Spider's Web (very good, certainly up to standard of the original series - probably better than installments 2 and 3);

Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (enjoyable but light; suffers from the inevitable comparison to Susanna Clarke, and also gives me that feeling - most Regency pastiche does this to me - that Georgette Heyer has a lot to answer for! Naomi Novik was wise to take Patrick O'Brian as her Austen-via influence rather than Heyer for the Temeraire books);

Terry Pratchett's final Discworld installment, The Shepherd's Crown (I think the Tiffany Aching books, together with the "Death" subset of the Discworld books, are really Pratchett's most sublime accomplishments - plus Good Omens of course - some of the recent Discworld books have felt pretty thin/overly ideological [trains! progress!], but I very much enjoyed this one);

Nancy Kress, Yesterday's Kin;

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey (not the author's fault, really, but I know Austen's work too well to enjoy this kind of pastiche - this was the one that tipped me over to feeling that many moons would pass before I would again pick up a fantasy novel set in this period!).

Brief turn to nonfiction: Richard Lloyd Parry's gripping People Who Eat Darkness and also Cintra Wilson's new book, which deserves a post of its own.

Really I can't stay off the fiction for long, though: I very much enjoyed Christopher Barzak's Wonders of the Invisible World, and then of course - red-letter day! - Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel, Make Me. Wildly implausible of course in all sorts of respects, but I love these books so much, and I thought this was a very good installment: the writing is focused, energetic in a way that not all of the recent books have demonstrated.

Finally, I fulfilled the terms of an old promise to B. - that I would watch all of season I of Orphan Black so that we could watch the second season together (he having correctly assessed it as belonging to the small subset of television that I would particularly enjoy).

Monday, September 07, 2015

"An aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour"

In his last days, Oliver Sacks rediscovered the pleasures of a food of his youth. (Via Becca.) Shades of Lear here: "Men must endure. Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all."

Also: Jerome Groopman on Sacks' autobiographical writings (with some especially interesting thoughts on what happened when one of Sacks's older mentors plagiarized extensively from his work on migraines after discouraging Sacks from publishing such "trash"):
Sacks attributes Friedman’s bad behavior to a role reversal of the “youthful son-in-science” outshining “the father.” I take a less generous view. Serving on grant review committees, I have observed senior researchers who are fair and well-intentioned, but also those who slam proposals from creative investigators, then steal their ideas. Similar fratricide occurs with submitted manuscripts, with reviewers denigrating competing research so it is not published. There is an ugly side to the scientific hierarchy that comes from unchecked lust for success and fame.
I have been thinking very strongly, over this last week or so, about the fact that while it is easy to descend into a swirling array of plans for self-improvement amidst lashings of self-criticism, I could really boil down my remaining life goals to one thing: to make sure that everything I write from now on aspires to whatever I can muster of the spirit and kind of Sacks's best writings!

Friday, September 04, 2015

The sorrows of gin

My former student Siobhan Phillips on women and the gin market.

Values of the 19th century

At the Guardian, Stefan Collinis diagnosis after reading the latest volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters:
Berlin’s admirers are prone to say that there is mean-spirited, reverse snobbery at work in criticisms of his constant hobnobbing with the rich, powerful and well-connected. But the justifiable charge against him here is not that he liked the company of such people: it is that his cultivated intimacy with such circles habituated him into thinking of himself as being on the inside, able to pull strings and to drop a word in the ear of those with one kind of power or another without having to mount a properly argued case in public, which might then have been open to challenge. He enjoyed his insider status and he liked his opinions to have influence, but he hated to have to acknowledge them publicly or to be drawn into controversy over them. He undeniably possessed a streak of deviousness or even cowardice, and his genuinely liberal principles were often in tension with his equally deep need to be liked and admired.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

I have been steeling myself for the death of Oliver Sacks since he made his terminal illness public earlier this year, but it's still a hard one to process.

I never really met him personally (I saw him speak several times, and we exchanged letters), but he was my literary hero, and more than just a literary hero: more like my childhood hero Jane Goodall, I think, than like most of the many writers I've been obsessed with since, many of whom one couldn't really persuade oneself it would be actually enjoyable to meet (Gore Vidal, Anthony Burgess - I felt significantly reconciled to the fact that I never met Burgess before he died when I read Paul Theroux's "my other life/my secret history" piece about AB).

I found so many things to love in Sacks's last memoir (powerlifting!), but one thing I didn't really write about in that post is the way that Sacks inspires me because he is both hero and everyman: his struggles with depression and weight gain and substance abuse, his wrestling with his sexuality, his long periods of self-dissatisfaction are balanced out by his joy in the natural world, his remarkable empathy, his love for music and his lucid literary intelligence. What a life!

Some links:

Here's what I wrote in Bookforum some years ago about his hallucinations book.

A delightful NYT bit from 2008.

Maria Popova's thoughts on the recent memoir (great pictures).

I am 90% certain that Oliver Sacks had a membership at Chelsea Piers, unless it was some other increasingly frail elderly Englishman who swam there so regularly. I did not want to accost him and introduce myself, not least in case I was mistaken but mostly because I didn't want to bother him! But I wished I could invite him to come to our powerlifting club at the "Iron Arena" by the sand volleyball court. I think he would have liked the vibe...

We had one good friend in common, a friend who died about six months after I met him but who left an indelible impression on me. That is swimming teacher and life coach extraordinaire Doug Stern, who I wrote about here and also here in connection with Sacks.

Doug was a remarkable person. I signed up for his deep-water running sessions when I had to stop running due to a stress-fracture (this was about 1.5 years into my mega-fitness mid-30s transition), and I knew right away - THIS WAS THE GUY WHO WOULD TEACH ME HOW TO SWIM PROPERLY SO THAT I COULD START DOING TRIATHLONS! It was all wrapped up in a slew of emotions, distress about the stress fracture and then more intensely distress at my friend Helen Hill's murder, which happened the first week of January 2007 and which sent me into a mental tailspin. Signing on for swimming lessons with Doug was like entering a magical new world, a refuge from real life but also something more real than life itself usually feels.

But Doug had something wrong with his shoulder and neck that turned out to be cancer, and those lessons that spring were bittersweet due to his frighteningly rapid physical decline. (I remember staying after the session one time because Doug wanted to get in the pool and he'd promised family members he wouldn't swim without someone else present, but he had lost so much fat and muscle that it was too cold for him to stay in: he had to get out after just a few minutes, it was heartbreaking.)

Doug was anxious to tell his life story, and I sat down with him and a tape recorder for one initial session. He was too sick after that to record anything more, and the piece (which I shared with his family and a few friends) had to stand alone. He talked about being a patient in hospital, empathy, pain, life, death and bicycles.

(Links: Tom Demerly wrote this letter to Doug after Doug first got the cancer diagnosis; here's Doug on arm recovery; and here's a memorial thread for Doug on the Slowtwitch forum.)

Doug ran an annual swim camp in Curacao. I was hugely keen to attend - only Doug died, and also I am romantically involved with a fellow who lives on another Caribbean island, so there was no way it made sense to go there for the swim trip the following year (January is my precious Cayman time), though his friends and swimmers kept it going.

But I was tantalized by my knowledge (I am a person of the internet, Google is one of my natural senses!) that Oliver Sacks had once written a short piece about the Curacao swim camp, and I got up my nerve to write Dr. Sacks a letter in which I enclosed a copy of Doug's thoughts and asked him whether he had access to the old story in Triathlete magazine, which not all the powers of Columbia library access and internet persistence seemed to be able to grant me.

This is what I got back in the mail. (I've transcribed the text at the bottom.)

Jan 3/10
Dear Jenny Davidson.

Thank you for writing to me - and especially for sending me that immensely moving, and utterly Doug-like, comment/conversation with Doug about being disabled, trussed up, losing muscle and strength, foreseeing his end, being maddened by the stupid rituals of the hospital (being woken at 2AM to have one's BP taken, etc), but, equally, his characteristic efforts + power to make personal, human contact with his fellow-patients - his nurses, his doctors etc. --

I enclose a copy of the "Triathlete" piece I wrote in 1997.

Perhaps I will see you in Curacao one year, tho' I am still somewhat disabled myself at this point from two operations (L knee replacement, R hemilaminectomy) on top of each other.

With all good wishes,

And the article itself:


Nothing much to say, only it's been much on my mind these past few weeks. The event itself is especially clearly marked in my mind because it was the week I moved into a rather desolate and lonely sublet year in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I felt unanchored there, but also shamed by the much more profound exodus I saw on television.

(That was the only year in adulthood that I've lived with broadcast television, and I am sure the scenes are more strongly seared onto my mind for that reason; I think I stayed calmer than many, during the months after 9/11, by dint of consuming news only through newspapers and a dial-up internet connection.)

Just sharing a few pieces (old and new) by friends more immediately affected than I was:

Alan Chin was on site taking photographs.

Phillip Dyess-Nugent wrote this piece about the friend we both lost in Katrina's long aftermath.

And a lovely song I can't listen to without tears flooding into my eyes, the inimitable Pete Sturman's "Wasn't Plannin' on Leavin'" - you can hear it at that link, don't miss it....

Closing tabs

Pictures of chickens.

Goat Uber, a.k.a. Rent-a-Ruminant.

Julia Cheiffetz had a baby and cancer while working at Amazon.

Ten steps to PhD failure. (The book is 57 Ways to Screw up In Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students, and I have already ordered a copy.)

Light reading round-up (as always, I seesaw between panic that I will never again find anything good to read and huge relief when I come upon mention of something appealing - have just downloaded a good new batch of stuff and feel relatively calm about it just now!):

John L. Parker, Jr., Once a Runner (not sure why I didn't come across this one sooner - it's very good fun - a bit melodramatic, but a nice companion for In Lane Three, Alex Archer!);

Chuck Wendig, Zeroes (good, but the premise and storyline are perhaps overly familiar by now);

Karin Slaughter, Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes (I find this "teaser" approach for new crime fiction woefully effective - now gnashing my teeth waiting for Pretty Girls - ditto the delectable Small Wars, teaser for the forthcoming Jack Reacher novel Make Me, which will be my reward after my first day of teaching - assuming I am not so greedy as to read it on the Tuesday night before my first lecture);

The first two books in Hakan Nesser's Inspector Van Vetteren series, a good tip from Jane Y.;

Ruth Ware, In a Dark, Dark Wood (I liked this quite a bit, but I wished it hadn't been told in flashback/memory loss mode - I think the story could have stood on its own);

Ellis Avery's second installment in her Family Tooth series, On Fear, about which my only complaint is that it's much too short, I want to read a whole book's worth of this;

Nick Holdstock, The Casualties (odd, appealing);

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (I really, really liked it, despite the way it's almost too much of the zeitgeist - shades of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play! - I've had it on my Kindle for a while, and I guess I was holding out against it because I am suspicious of "literary" novels that get singled out for "genre" content/acclaim, but I should have read it sooner, I liked the earlier book of hers I read and this one is exceptionally good);

And my top pick from this batch, a really wonderful trilogy by Robin LaFevers (this was a recommendation from Sara Ryan), the His Fair Assassin trilogy. I love these! They have some of the appeal of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series, only much less sex (for me this is a plus); really, really appealing historical fantasy.

The two other posts I am going to write now are more mournful (Oliver Sacks, Katrina).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

One last gasp

Two full weeks before the first week of classes. They include a dissertation defense and a number of meetings of one kind or another, but I am still hopeful that I can get in one last gulp of work before the roller-coaster takes off....

(Minor Works and Pride and Prejudice are at the office I think - will have a foray there tomorrow to collect!)

This is for a book proposal that I am determined to get out by the beginning of September. Additional incentive provided by the fact that I am signed up for an October departmental work-in-progress talk, and I've already committed my Johnson-Shakespeare stuff to the Book History Colloquium (spring schedule isn't yet posted), so I really need to be able to present this project instead: a hard deadline will concentrate the mind like nobody's business!

It is my eternal regret that I habitually let so many summer days go by without tapping into the vein of maniacal productivity; it was a stress factor in June and July that I had to prepare that talk for Oxford, but really in the end I was extremely glad of it, as it meant I did a good chunk of research and drafting (chaotically, under the gun) in a summer that otherwise might have passed by without me getting much traction on anything in particular. If I can just get this one thing done additionally, I will feel OK about summer accomplishments.


Lucy Sparrow's world of felt. (Via Becca.) This is my favorite:

Cross-referencing: Alan Hollinghurst on "the Bourbon, the sugared Nice, the rebarbative ginger-nut". Also, though in general Icelandic hotel breakfasts are superb, there was an additional frisson at the Geo Hotel Grindavik to find that in addition to lavish spread of eggs, breads and rolls, ham, salami, pate, salmon-roe-in-a-tube (shades of this!), cheese, pastry, fruit, yogurt, etc., there were also two little canisters of biscuits next to the tea and coffee station: Bourbon biscuits and custard creams! Which remind me so much of my English grandmother....