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Preview: Light reading

Light reading

"Too much traffic"

Updated: 2016-10-24T06:07:35.846-04:00


"The best fruit in England"


Evidence of the genius of Jane Austen, example #149 - and yes, it's almost nine at night, and I'm only now typing up the notes for the second chapter of the Austen book, "Conversation." I printed out draft zero of chapter one on Friday and it actually looks pretty decent! (Now it goes in a folder and I really won't look at it again till I've got the whole thing drafted - I have a strong preference for start-to-finish writing, it leaves the thing much more even in feel when you've put it together than if you work on bits piecemeal.)

Emma, of course, the visit to Donbury Abbey:
The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.—“The best fruit in England—every body’s favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one’s self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavor of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation—beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries-currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade.” (E 389-90)
Typing up these notes is an easier job than it was for "Letters," partly because there were so very many examples for that chapter but also because I'd run out of appropriately colored post-its and was using those tape tabs instead - they are much less obvious to the eye in an interleaved book, and I am happy that this one's so much easier!

This now marks the conclusion of week 2 (of 8) in Oxford. I am very happy with how things are going, though slightly ashamed that I have yet to plunge into libraries - that's the project for Monday after I eat breakfast and produce quota, but I didn't want to distract myself from writing before I had made at least a small dent. Finished Gibbon vol. 3 this evening, a satisfying landmark - that's the halfway mark (and the final decline of the empire in the West). Reading a chapter of that a day 'religiously' as it were, and have now also put down 2 (very slow - it's only about 35 miles) 7-hour run weeks, and have found a personal trainer to lift with starting on Tuesday, so all is very well with me currently.

Saturday evening snippet


End of week 1 (of 8) in Oxford. Really nice week! Though need to buckle down and start working properly - adjustment period is properly coming to a close....

A Saturday evening Gibbon snippet (new title for book is Gibbon's Rome: A Love Story - it is amazing how just sitting quietly and reading allows ideas to flow, I was having insane thoughts last night about how you would write an opera libretto that would bring the juxtaposition of the father-son dynamic, the father marrying and preventing the son from being able to do so - and not sending the money he promised so that Gibbon has to keep his brokeness a shameful secret from the friends he has been traveling with - and then the moment of impact when Gibbon actually meets Rome the city - but in my book, it's my own love story with the Decline and Fall as well):
I owe it to myself, and to historic truth, to declare, that some circumstances in this paragraph are founded only on conjecture and analogy. The stubbornness of our language has sometimes forced me to deviate from the conditional into the indicative mood.
Main task for remaining weeks is to draft as much of the Austen book as I can (I'm optimistic that I should be able to get most of it down on paper in at least a rough version, top limit of 50K I think for full book so 8 chapters at 5-6K each should be doable in a 1.5K production of quota fashion); glory in libraries and read massive amounts of general footnote stuff (mostly amazing primary sources, especially history and poetry, with footnotes); and (re)read a chapter a day of Gibbon to put myself in the mood.

One of my two talks for the end of term now has an explicit commitment to talk especially about Gray's and Gibbon's footnotes, so I will do some Gray reentry also in between the other footnote reading. Exploration of library system to begin Monday, must first have a proper writing session on Austen and must before that finish typing up notes for the first chapter so that I can proceed to the next stage!

Fast running


Jon Day has a really nice piece at the LRB on two new books about Emil Zatopek:
By modern standards some of his achievements seem modest. He was the first person to run 10,000 metres in under 29 minutes, but runners are now getting close to 26 minutes. He would not have qualified for the 10,000 metres event in the 2016 Olympics, and his marathon times are now matched by those of strong amateurs. The range of his abilities, however, remains unequalled. He was 174.3 cm tall and weighed 68 kg. He had long legs, but his left was slightly thinner than his right. His resting heart rate was measured, on different occasions, at 68 and 56 bpm. Both rates are high for a runner, though it was noted that he was able to recover quickly after exercise. He had an odd diet, fuelling himself before races with beer, cheese, sausages and bread. He drank strange concoctions that he thought would improve his performance: the juice from jars of pickles; a mixture of lemon juice (for vitamin C) and chalk (he thought the calcium would protect his teeth). He ate the leaves of young birch trees because he had noticed that deer did so. Deer run quickly, he reasoned, so he might too.
I will definitely reaad Richard Askwith's - I loved his book Feet in the Clouds more than almost any other book about running....

(This is what I had to say about it at the time I read it - though actually I am really starting to move in the direction of trail-running despite my horrendous sense of direction and fear of heights, as I have been inspired by SWAP teammates! Albeit last time I hitched a ride with Liz to a trail run I was so freaked out by the first five minutes of rock-clambering with ice that I backed out and ran laps on a flat trail around the lake instead!)

Light reading update


I have said this before, but I really do have a resolution to try and log light reading once a month or so - otherwise it piles up so much that the task becomes off-putting.  Going to try and get at least something down here, without links to purchase as that is so much the most troublesome part of doing a long list at once....This is about three months' worth I think!  Not in chronological order - putting strongest recs up top and then sorting things more or less by category.Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me - dynamite!Reread the first two of Paul Cornell's Secret Police series in order to prepare for the third, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?  I really love these books - the storytelling across volumes is particularly masterful - one of my favorite things in this vein going down.A pair of YA historical fantasy novels that I liked so much I almost wept when I finished the second one - out of hunger for more - I could tell as soon as I was reading the first one that I was in my absolute favorite kind of fictional world.  These come with my highest recommendation - Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes and A Torch Against the Night.Natalie Baszile's Queen Sugar is PERFECT thoughtful immersive story-telling - again, it so pained me to come to an end of the story.  (It was the fact of the TV series that drew my attention to it, but I don't know that I am enough of a watcher to really get into it - the book is really wonderful though.)Max Gladstone's latest Craft novel is particularly good (I love this series too): Four Road Cross.Discovered a new favorite crime writer, James Oswald, and DEVOURED all the books in the Inspector McLean series, despite glitch of latest ones not being available in US for Kindle and having to be ordered from the UK in paperback.  Then I read his OTHER series which I love too, Ballad of Sir Benfro - was mortified to get to the end of what I THOUGHT was final installment and realize that there is still at least one more chunk of story yet to be published.....I am especially keen on these "it's MOSTLY straight crime only slight occult strand" novels and another very good one I read recently was Barbara Nickless's Blood on the Tracks - hungry for next installment!Ben Winters, Underground Airlines - hopefully it was a storm in a teacup around publication re: white authors and race (let's NOT think about Lionel Shriver's dreadful latest comments), but I thought this was haunting and powerful, highly recommended.  And even more deeply recommended: Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.  The novel I have been waiting for him to write - I loved his first one The Intuitionist more than almost anything, and though I think he's written brilliantly since then, no single book of his has captivated me the way that first one did (lack of female protagonist is clearly part of it).  This is incredible - I couldn't put it down.Alison Umminger, American Girls - I loved this!  One of those books that makes me regret I am no longer writing YA (maybe I will again sometime).  Highly recommended.Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers - a very good recommendation from Becca S.  I cannot imagine who would not like this novel - it reads like Bonfire of the Vanities only written out of a much finer sense of humanity.Gina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting - first pages have off-puttingly long list of names to keep track of, and it did give me cause to think with relief that I am not myself living a life so bound up in the lives of others - but it is really, really good, highly recommended.Nina Stibbe, Paradise Lodge.  She is a comic genius, what more is there to be said?  This book is slighter I think than the previous installment, but still very much worth reading.Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow - excellent psychological thriller, better than the over-hyped Gone Girl for sure!Duane Swierczynski, Revolver: a lovely novel of crime and Philadelphia, reminiscent in some good ways of Pete Dexte[...]



From Anthony Ervin, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian, a very good recommendation from Jessica S. (I have followed his career with interest because of his connection to my beloved first adult swim teacher Doug Stern, and it is a very interesting book):
Distance freestylers use a hip-driven stroke, arms gliding long in front and legs acting like an engine in the rear.  You can swim far like that.  But a shoulder-driven stroke is better suited in the 50, the shoulders driving down and the legs almost rising up behind you.  I still use my legs for propulsion but additionally employ them as a leveraging tool to rotate my body.  Instead of just trying to move the water as fast as I can, I try to anchor it with my leg to slip around and over it.  That way, I don't need to generate and expend as much power to get into my catch. 
The center for all of my strength is an X axis that crisscrosses my core, from opposite shoulders to opposite hips.  A line of tension runs through me from my fingertip to my opposite toe.  The hardest part in training is to maintain the flexibility and strength through that X axis, through the core from the shoulder to the opposite hip. If I don't have that deep interconnection and unity, gears start flying and my swim breaks down.  In sprinting, the entirety of the body needs to be solid and connected, from fingertip to toe.  It's almost like reverting to the state before you l earn how to swim, when you're tense in the water.
Bonus links: five books for the swim-obsessedtwo of my favorite books about swimming.

Closing tabs


Leaving for the airport very early for a flight to LAX en route to Sydney, and having the usual scramble to get ready to leave town (it's almost 8 and I haven't gotten out to run, must at least do SOME kind of a run though 2hr may at this point be overkill given that I'm not going to sleep much).  Austen notes woefully behind where I'd hoped they'd be, but I can at least bring the LETTERS chapter with me to work on, having made a little packet of xeroxes and selected three out of the ten volumes whose bits are more extensive & haven't yet been transcribed by me into typed notes.  I've mostly packed.  Cleaning up some tabs (was really looking to find one on Austen's letter-writing that I opened a while ago, but will have to use Google to find that again as it does not seem to be here):

Charlie Stross on why interruptions are a disaster when you're trying to work.

That said, Marilyn Berlin Snell on the disaster of the meditation retreat!

Perec in Australia.

Elizabeth Bishop's alcoholic admissions.

An interview with Mary Gaitskill.

Luc Sante on the art of nonfiction.

Geoff Dyer's new book sounds good.

Hermit crabs make homes out of beach trash.

Eighteenth-century documents discovered in birds' nests during cathedral renovation.

Last but not least, a charming bit of nomenclature: "Johnny Blue Pants"!

School books


Also I don't think I linked here to the essay I wrote about why I wish I could read more novels set in classrooms, Crossfit boxes, etc,  I wrote this first as a talk about a year and a half ago (it was my literary classrooms talk) and I am pleased to see it now available to a wider readership!  There are so many things I didn't get to talk about there - Diana Wynne Jones's Magid committees for one which in my theory must have been strongly influenced by how many of her close friends and family were professional academics, there is nothing so much like my day-to-day work life as the administrative conversations in the great underrated Deep Secret!

The dining-room table


I am long overdue a light reading update - I have a resolution to do that at least once a month going forward, otherwise the titles mount up so alarmingly that the task begins to seem overly Herculean - but this is really what I have been working on this month.  Working intensively on a new book project always feels like coming home; smaller or shorter things don't have that feeling of entering a real intellectual world, and my only regret is that I can't have one hemisphere of the brain working on Austen while the other works on Gibbon, which is also at the alluring early stage where everything seems possible and there are almost infinite amounts of appealing new material yet to be unearthed and assembled into some kind of a sensible narrative.Each project asks for its own method - and its own combination of stationery and writing implements! - but this one is more colorful than the last few I've done.  I've already modified the plan from my proposal, and I currently intend to write the book - Reading Jane Austen, an installment in a new Cambridge series that began with Reading William Blake and continued with Reading John Keats - in eight chapters, coded by color here.  First I reread through the complete works plus biography and letters, marking up with a pen.  Then I set up the provisional topics for individual chapters - Letters, Conversation, Revision, Manners, Morals, Voice, Teeth (someone is going to make me change that title later I suspect! But basically, all the gruesome details of social history and ailments of the body that lurk around the edges in Austen's writing), Mourning and Melancholy.  Each one has its own page and a color-coded set of post-its, so that when I then went back through my marked-up volumes, I stuck a post-it to categorize points in the books and also transferred a cryptic notation under the appropriate heading, loosely organized on the page though certainly not rigorously so.The next step will be to type up these notes in individual files, then to start working on the chapters - I like "pushing" a project in its entirety through from stage to stage, so I'll probably get all the notes typed up and only then start writing rather than taking chapters one at a time.  I had this in retrospect quite unrealistic fantasy that I could type up ALL THOSE NOTES (the book is only supposed to be about 60,000 words, not a long one) before I fly to Australia on Sept. 19, but that does not seem likely to happen - it would take more time and concentration than I probably have available to me in this coming week, which also features quite a few evening work engagements, to manage notes on a chapter-per-day basis.  That said, it is worth trying - or else B. will be wondering why I have brought a very heavy bookpack of work stuff on vacation with me, as once I get going on a job like this I really hate to put it aside before it's done!  (More sensibly, if I have "Letters" notes typed up I could work on drafting that chapter from notes, that wouldn't require bringing such a heavy load with me.)[...]



What makes a sentence great?  Thanks to Sam Haselby for inviting me to write this one!

Style book now in paperback!


Conjectural histories


I have completely succumbed, by the way, to the allure of Gibbon.  Excited about working on this project!  Here are two small bits that may convey some of the quality I find so irresistible in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

On Gordianus, father and son:
When he reluctantly accepted the purple, he was above fourscore years old; a last and valuable remains of the happy age of the Antonines, whose virtues he revived in his own conduct, and celebrated in an elegant poem of thirty books.  With the venerable proconsul, his son, who had accompanied him into Africa as his lieutenant, was likewise declared emperor.  His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father.  Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.  
(The note to that last sentence reads: "By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children.  His literary productions, though less numerous, were by no means contemptible.")

Or again, in a more contemplative vein (on the difficulty of writing about the empire c. 248-268 CE):
The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration.  Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.

Ruin porn of the 18th century


Have just Amazoned a copy of James Crawford's book, reviewed a while ago by Mary Beard for the TLS (I had a copy via BorrowDirect briefly but it was recalled before I had a chance to read it - I think my borrowing privileges have been suspended three or four times this year for overdue recall books, and I've got another overdue BD book - Louise Curran's fascinating book about Samuel Richardson's correspondence that I forgot to return before I left NYC and that can't be renewed again, I read it but haven't transcribed my notes yet - that has probably just tipped me over again today into delinquency....).  This is Beard's opening:
Inside the monastery of S. Trinità dei Monti, which stands at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, is a room decorated in glorious trompe l’oeil as a ruin. Created in 1766 by Charles-Louis Clérisseau, and originally intended to be the cell of the monastery’s resident mathematician Fr Thomas Le Sueur, it imitates a decaying classical temple, with tumbled columns, a roof open to the sky, encroaching vegetation and a large parrot perched on one of the apparently surviving crossbeams. 

Analytic rage


I wrote about Jenny Diski's life and memoirs for Public Books.  I always feel that this sort of a piece should just trip lightly off the fingers in an afternoon, but really it took quite a lot of my reading and writing attention in June as well, further contributing to my sense of being a useless layabout!  The self-castigation of the academic who is not making progress on her own book projects is not to be believed....

Field review


Remember this?  My review of the year's work in Restoration and eighteenth-century studies is up now at JSTOR (I've also posted it to my profile).  This was a big piece of work - lack of productivity in June and July is probably partly a consequence of pulling all this together in April and May, along with the intensity of the tenure committee obligations.  I feel it as a real accomplishment.

Closing tabs


Quiet summer on the blog - Facebook is getting the sort of idle thought that used to show up here, and I think there is no point resisting the drain in that direction.  Have a lot of open tabs to close, as well as a light reading update that I will write separately.  Funny summer in life - I have done no substantive work of my own, it's all life stuff (apartment declutter, 100 runs in 100 days, family Disney trip etc.) and other people's work stuff - but I am going to have to accept that sometimes I have to pay attention to things that are not a book that I am writing....

The Clown Egg Register.

The beautiful afterlife of Edward Gorey's mink stroller coat.

Starbucks card value exceeds money on deposit at many financial institutions.

Eighteenth-century note-taking (and the interesting underlying link).

Secrets of the London Library.

Roger Luckhurst on trouble in Lovecraft Country.

Sheep View 360.

Baroque wigs of paper.

"Plate it!"


What I love about powerlifting: my installment for Josh Glenn's Hilobrow "Grok Your Enthusiasm" series!

Closing tabs


A tour of the Svalbard seed vault.

Does tenure encourage risk-taking?

A social history of Australia through its swimming pools.

Jonathon Green's dictionary of slang is going online. Also: what's a chuggypig?

A miniature replica of 1950s Boston.

"He smelled amazing, he really smelled good."

So far I have held off actually buying anything here, but I can't quite bring myself to close this tab on my browser. I was especially partial as a child (still am) to the candies made out of pure sugar - the Now and Laters, the Fun Dip, the candy bracelets and the candy buttons that came on a paper band, the Jolly Ranchers, the Runts and Nerds and SweetTarts and Tart 'n Tinys - I am only surprised they don't have Bottle Caps (the cafe at Butler Library used to sell these, and I would buy a box occasionally when I really needed to fuel maniacal paper-grading - it is just as well that I haven't seen them there for a couple years, I think, as those soft tart powdery crunchable disks are irresistible to me).

I don't agree with Janet Malcolm's position on the Constance Garnett translations. I've seen this argued again and again (and it's akin to the Aciman defense of Moncrieff's Proust); I suspect the difference of opinion may be generational, in that when I first encountered the translations of this vintage as a teenager in the 1980s I just found them irremediably flowery and over-elaborate. I much prefer the newer style.

Finally, Katherine Dunn died in May. I was utterly arrested and captivated by Geek Love when I first encountered it. My college classmate Thomas Lauderdale knew Katherine very well, and when he hosted me on the low-budget book tour for my first novel in 2003 or so he not only made me feel like a literary lion, he took me over to Katherine's house for tea. I was incredibly flattered, at the end of our conversation, when she exclaimed, "Dashing!" Then she told me that I had a dashing mind, an adjective that has stayed with me as a high compliment.

"After great pain. . ."


In a single sitting the other evening I read Christina Crosby's A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain. It is not a perfect book - I liked least the more intellectual or academic discussions of literary texts that are interwoven with the memoir (they are all well-chosen and apt, but I think these pages and the poststructuralist moments will limit the audience of a book that otherwise should be read by huge numbers of people). But it captures the feeling of living in a profoundly damaged body in the aftermath of catastrophic accident better than almost anything else I have ever read.

I was worried about whether I should read this book at all - I am already phobic enough about riding my road bike that I don't need to read about someone's accident! But afterwards I thought - yes, I did need to read this book, for reasons that have nothing to do with cycling, and others should read it too.

Here is the statement of purpose:
Because of my condition, I've been pondering the reality that everybody has/is a body. Your body emerges through the perception of others as different from yourself, at a touchable distance, and selfhood is not self-contained. What you want, who you are, how you feel are all brought into being over time and in relation to others, and those thoughts and feelings are repeatedly inscribed, creating powerful circuits that organize a sense of embodied self. Such is human interdependency that my self-regard depends on your regard for me. I need and want a more fully livable life, which turns importantly, if not exclusively, on this play of recognition. Spinal cord injury has cast me into a surreal neurological wasteland that I traverse day and night. This account is an effort to describe the terrain. I want you to know, and I, myself, want better to understand, a daily venture of living that requires considerable fortitude on my part and a great dependency on others, without whose help my life would be quite literally unlivable.
For a short book, it manages to touch on an amazing range of subjects, all of which speak very strongly to me even in the places where Crosby's experience least resonates with my own (it is one of the sharpest ironies of the story that in her previous life Crosby was supremely embodied, a sensualist with a strong sexual dimension and a feeling of power in an athletic body - I just don't have that relationship with my body, I don't have gender or body dysphoria as such but I deeply believe that I should be existing not in a body at all but just as a pattern of intelligence and information in the cloud!). Siblings, chronic pain, the relationship between humans and dogs, death via melanoma, love and loss, motorcycles and the pleasure of the open road, breasts (one's own and those of others), the dilemma of relying on wonderful caretakers who are themselves victims of structural inequities that create shame in those who take advantage of them, the value of friendship and community, the Anabaptist tradition and how an adult seeks out versions of communities left behind - anyway, it's really gripping from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Light reading update


I left it way too long to update! That said, there was a happy development that greatly simplified my light reading life for a spell: Brent did me a "solid" as they say by suggesting that I might enjoy Saturn Run, a space-exploration collaboration from John Sandford and the mysteriously named Ctein. I demurred at first - I very unfairly had lumped together Sandford with James Patterson and similar (I think having "Prey" in the series titles is off-putting, and at some point years ago I clearly conflated Sandford's protagonist Lucas Davenport with the utterly dreadful Alex Cross) - but then I read it and it was utterly delightful! Like the light-reading version of Seveneves or Aurora, two books I liked very much and that stayed with me - it has some of the same qualities as Ready Player One, another book that I resisted initially but gave myself over to with pleasure once I immersed myself in it. Anyway - it then turns out that Sandford has published EIGHT Virgil Flowers novels (a very good spinoff from the Prey ones) and TWENTY-SIX Prey novels - there is one other spinoff that sounds a little more goofy and I think a few other little clutches of books, so I am pretty much done now (alas!), but I have basically been in light reading heaven, with the soothing fact THAT THERE IS ANOTHER PREY BOOK CUED (QUEUED?) UP TO READ NEXT to alleviate needless anxiety. However I have just read the last one and it is now time to make my transition into proper summer reading, which actually for me sidelines the light reading somewhat and starts foregrounding more challenging stuff (about which more anon). So, anyway, Saturn Run plus 34 Sandford thrillers have gotten me pretty happily through the last month or so....As the Prey series came to an end:Joe Hill, The Fireman (not quite as much to my taste as Nos4a2, but still very good)Before that happened, this:Sebastian Faulks, A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts (I loved this one - beautifully written and unutterably moving)James S. A. Corey, The Churn: An Expanse NovellaNicola Griffith, Slow River (I perversely could have done without the split time narration, but it is really a wonderful book, I liked it very much indeed)Sarah Rees Brennan, Tell the Wind and Fire (I might be the perfect target audience for this one - I really liked it - I like all her books very much)Chris Pavone, The Travelers (I think I liked the other book of his I read a little better, but he is a very good writer)Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the WildRichard Kadrey, The Everything Box (not quite to my taste - if you don't find it really funny, the conceit falls flattish!)Jessica Knoll, Luckiest Girl Alive (not sure the voice completely works, but it is well done and I do think it's a better book than Gone Girl in a not dissimilar vein)Craig Schaefer, Red Knight Falling (Harmony Black #2)The final installment of Pam Brondos' Fourline TrilogyC. S. Friedman, the three volumes of The Coldfire Trilogy (good but not great - I lost steam as I got to the last volume)The first two installments of Roz Kaveney's Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood books.Seanan McGuire, Chaos Choreography: An InCryptid novel; Every Heart a DoorwayPatricia Briggs, Fire TouchedKristi Charish, Owl and the Japanese Circus (I liked the writing, but the author doesn't have sufficient grasp of what makes a character likeable or not - the voice and the writing are very good, but the protagonist is so selfish and heedless of the situation of others that I found I just didn't care whether things came out her way or not)Two Rhona Macleod books by Lin [...]

"Two penises"


A funny recommendation from Tyler Cowen: Robert Trivers' Wild Life: Advevntures of an Evolutionary Biologist. Trivers is an extremely distinguished and influential figure, but it is quite an eccentric book (it becomes immediately clear why it wasn't published by a more mainstream press). I was captivated by this bit in particular:
It is a little known fact outside of Herpetology that all lizard and snake males have two penises, one on the left side and one on the right. A given penis is used preferentially depending on whether the male winds around to the right or the left of the female. (If you are a mammal and have a penis, look down at its underside and see if you do not see a line running up it that shows where the two hemi-penes fused during early development.) Initially in evolution, all genital organs tended to be bi-laterally symmetrical. Testicles and ovaries retained this symmetry, but reductions to one also occurred, as in the case of the penis and the scrotum.

In any case, it is easy to reveal the trait in Anolis males. You hold him upside down and manipulate the penis on either side to cause it to extrude. When both are extruded they look like two bananas peeled outwards.

I used to amuse myself by showing this feature off to Jamaican men, knowing that having two penises would arouse excitement, as well as admiration. "One for the yard, one for the road," was a common excited response.

The transition to summer


Always awkward and more protracted than I would like! But this is the beginning of a full year of sabbatical - I won't be teaching again till September 2017 - and once I get into a groove, it should be pretty idyllic. I'll be based mostly in NYC with frequent trips to Cayman, but I have two really exciting additional places to be.(And most immediately, I'll be embarking on the "Reading Austen" book and working on a few smaller non-academic bits, including a piece about Jenny Diski. Clarissa project has not been forgotten but is temporarily on the back burner....)I'll spend the Michaelmas term (early October through early December) as an Oliver Smithies visiting lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford (I'll be working on the literary history of the footnote with special emphasis on Gibbon and history-writing).And I'll spend six weeks in February and March as Sovern/Columbia Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Here is the project I'll be working on (I'm really excited about this!): “Gibbon’s Rome”“It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764,” wrote Edward Gibbon in a draft of his memoirs, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.” Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would expand to treat the long history of the empire as it migrated east, not just the history of the city in which the empire had its origin, and his research took place in libraries, cabinets of medals and so forth in London, Paris, Lausanne and Geneva as well as in the streets of Rome. But the physical landscape of Rome as Gibbon first encountered it in the 1760s provided much of the emotional impetus for the project, and the city figures in the history in a number of different ways. In “Gibbon’s Rome,” I am proposing a long essay or a short book (probably in the region of 40,000 words) that tells the story of what Gibbon saw in Rome and what it meant to him. I am envisioning a narrative not oriented exclusively towards scholarly readers but written more in the style of something like Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome; another model, in a rather different vein, is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. The narrative will weave together a number of different strands with the goal of producing a lively narrative history with a literary-critical bent: recounting the series of choices and accidents that led Gibbon to Rome as a place and a topic; reading important passages from some of the works of history that were formative for Gibbon (this is a book about Gibbon’s reading as well as about Gibbon as tourist!) in earlier years and that contributed to the research techniques and evidentiary protocols that underpin Decline and Fall; considering the rise of the Grand Tour as a mode of self-cultivation and development for wealthy young British men over the first half of the eighteenth century; vividly describing the streets and buildings Gibbon walked through, the state they were in during this period and the kinds of collections of artifacts he was able to visit and examine; and of course analyzing and celebrating the language of Decline and Fall. I will draw on visual and journalistic records made by other visitors during the same period in order to bring the setting most powerfully to life.My goal in this project is not just to recount the[...]

"Documents, ink, methods of drying"


I loved this Paris Review interview with Hilary Mantel. I have been reading her for a long time, ever since my college professor and literary inspiration Simon Schama recommended A Place of Greater Safety to me c. 1993 (and then I read all the backlist):
When I began work on the French Revolution, it seemed to me the most interesting thing that had ever happened in the history of the world, and it still does in many ways. I had no idea how little the British public knew or cared or wished to know about the French Revolution. And that’s still the case. They want to know about Henry VIII.



Kevin Young remembers Prince.

(I have been listening to Prince a great deal over the last couple weeks, especially to Lovesexy - the most baroquely sensual and hyperverbal album I have ever loved! - and Sign o' the Times - I had a huge collection of bootleg Prince tapes in the late 80s, many of them made for me by a friendly co-worker at Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia the summer of 1989, but they are long since lost or destroyed. Might need to fill out the collection again.)