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.