13 November 11

A Dab of Tolstoy

I just finished reading War and Peace for the first time. It’s a delicious book — not a slog at all, though I started it well over six weeks ago. There’s something very evenhanded about Tolstoy’s writing, how he’s able to move seamlessly from historical narrative to the lives of his characters. The historical narrative is what got me inspired to read the novel: I had just finished reading David Chandler’s definitive one-volume history The Campaigns of Napoleon and thought that War and Peace, the quintessential novel about the Napoleonic era, was the perfect follow-on. That the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation was on our bookshelves helped matters. As for why I read the Chandler, this was a result of our calligraphy workshop this summer. Our teacher Sheila Waters designed and calligraphed the maps for the Chandler book back in 1965, and I was able to see many of the mylar originals!

The next work of fiction I’m going to read shouldn’t take me as long: Terry Pratchett’s new book Snuff.

Posted by at 09:37 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [1]

22 June 11

John Ruskin, Meteorologist

I just finished reading Paul N. Edwards’ excellent book A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. This book is a history of the information infrastructure that has grown as the sciences of meteorology and climatology have developed since the 19th century. The title of the book comes from the following quote, which Edwards uses as the book’s epigraph:

The meteorologist is impotent if alone; his observations are useless; for they are made upon a point, while the speculation to be derived from them must be on space…The Meteorological Society, therefore, has been formed not for a city, nor for a kingdom, but for the world. It wishes to be the central point, the moving power, of a vast machine, and it feels that unless it can be this, it must be powerless; if it cannot do all it can do nothing. It desires to have at its command, at stated periods, perfect systems of methodical and simultaneous observations; it wishes its influence and its power to be omnipresent over the globe so that it may be able to know, at any given instant, the state of the atmosphere on every point on its surface. — John Ruskin (1839).

John Ruskin as a twenty-year-old was into meteorology. Who knew?

Posted by at 09:07 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment

7 March 11

State of Siege

Last week I finished reading Fernand Braudel’s masterful tome The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, a book which I’ve been wanting to get through for about twenty-five years now. Looking around for other retellings of the same theme I came across the author Roger Crowley, who has recently written the books 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West and Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, The Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World. Crowley is an able storyteller, and I finished both these books in rapid succession. Sieges are at the center of both books: the siege and the fall of Constantinople being the subject of the first, and the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 being the centerpiece of the second book.

After reading Crowley’s narrative I decide the siege of Malta would make a great movie, hitting a number of good storytelling tropes: an epic defense against overwhelming odds; the sacrifice of one contingent of the defenders to buy time for the rest; and finally rescue by the arrival of reinforcements just in time (delayed by the ditherings of Philip II off in Spain). Sieges don’t seem to make it into war movies very often though. What comes to my mind is Helms’ Deep in The Two Towers, and switching from fantasy to history, the 1964 movie Zulu. This list of top ten siege movies doesn’t really add any other examples of siege warfare, most of the movies on the list being thrillers or horror flicks. I don’t think the siege of Constantinople has quite the potential for being a movie as does the siege of Malta. Not that 15th-16th century Mediterranean history has the slightest chance of making it into the movies: how can you film a historical drama without there being any English royalty around?

Posted by at 11:22 PM in Music and Film | Link | Comment [2]

25 February 11

Paris, 1986

The metro.
The dogshit.
The smoke.
The traffic.
The noise.
The stairs.
The walls.
The silence.


Fake smile.
Fake joy.
Fake French.
Fake marriage.
Fake self.

on a perch
weaving tales
(in flawless French)
to save her life

This is a contribution to the Language, Place Blog Carnival hosted this time by Jean at Tasting Rhubarb with a theme of “another place, another language, another self.”

Posted by at 05:50 AM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [1]

5 February 10

Fighting for the Right to Study

Slumber party at Shields Library! Students have occupied the library in protest of cuts that will reduce services. In a very different approach to last fall’s protest in Mrak Hall, this one comes with the full support of the Chancellor and Provost. Library staff have volunteered to work at the library to provide minimal assistance. I wonder if there will be midnight cocoa runs, ghost stories, and strange dreams…

Posted by at 10:06 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment

21 January 10

Joyce While Spinning

I’ve started listening to Ulysses while working on some hand-dyed (not by me) merino wool. I’m planning fingering/sock weight. It’s beautiful at least in singles, we’ll see what it looks like plied.

I couldn’t get the second CD to work for some reason and am a thwarted Joycean. Loving the language, the exuberance.

It’s still raining.

Posted by at 09:09 PM in Spinning | Link | Comment [2]

10 January 10

Not Reading for the Plot

I’ve discovered the e-audiobook service at the Sacramento Public Library, and now I’m knitting away while someone reads me a book. It’s wonderful. I’m gobbling up big books I’ve read before and bigger ones I haven’t.

I’ve always managed to miss Edith Wharton. I saw the film version of the Age of Innocence when it first came out but it seemed a Merchant Ivory period piece, pretty and insubstantial. What I’m astonished by in the book is how perfectly she nails American (specifically, New York postbellum but easily transposable to a Boston I knew when I lived there in the 1990s) snobbery. This might get dull after a few hundred pages but it unfolds in such perfumed, stifling, dark-panelled and rose-bedecked prose that I find myself pulling at my neckline, trying to get more air.

I will never again say that irony is not one of the weapons in the American writing arsenal. Wharton deploys it like a stiletto, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and bearing at its tip an orchid poison. I’m following along in horrid fascination.

For anyone still reading this blog, any recommendations for other books, given how much I’m enjoying this?

Posted by at 07:42 AM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [3]

10 December 09


We’re now well into the off-season, and one of these days we will need to break out the baseball movies to make it through the winter without ballgames to entertain us. Maybe we’ll even watch some we haven’t seen before. Of course the tropes of these movies will be familiar: sports movies seem to center around the same half-dozen tropes: the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits (Major League), the player on an end-of-career Redemption Quest (For Love of the Game), the Miracle Rally (Major League again)…

The above links are all from a wonderful site that took me only six years to run across, the by-now-quite-misnamed TV Tropes. This is a wiki whose participants have been cataloging all the tropes of creative storytelling they can identify: not just in TV, but in film, literature, poetry, anime, games, theatre, and real life. Completely fascinating. Even A Spot of Tea hasn’t escaped their attention.

Posted by at 10:26 PM in Music and Film | Link | Comment [2]

12 May 09

Rhétorique Française

I am very happy to be back in touch with an old friend and wonderful translator from my Harvard Press days, Art Goldhammer, and even more so to learn that he has a blog, French Politics. It’s a great way to follow gallic happenings, which I admit I haven’t been, much. (I really wish there were a counterpart for Spain, and if anyone knows of one, in Spanish or English, please let me know.)

Today there’s a link to an article by Jean Daniel of the Nouvel Observateur on his recent luncheon meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy. This is quality, elegant writing, and reveals, as Art points out, a nuanced series of layers in the French President which I found surprising. (Why? I mean, nobody can argue he’s not a clever bastard.)

Nuanced he may be, but Sarkozy doesn’t seem to tire of the sound of his own voice, and the quote in the article I thought most telling about his character, about his vision of his place in history, and which he apparently uses to justify his “maverick” independence, is this one: « Les grandes choses, on les décide seul car le consensus interdit l’audace. Reste que les grandes réformes, comme la décolonisation ou l‘élection au suffrage universel, sont nécessairement impopulaires au départ puis qu’elles modifient le cours des choses. » (The really big things, you decide on alone because consensus precludes audacity. So the great reforms, such as decolonisation or universal suffrage, are necessarily unpopular at first, because they change the course of things. Sorry if my translation’s not as good as Art’s would be, but you get the idea.)

This sort of quote would in years past have found its way into British A-level, Oxbridge entrance, or university examination papers, with the simple addition of the word “Discuss.” We’d have been expected to provide copious (but not too many!) historical examples along with memorized quotes for bonus points and provided a series of pros and cons, plonking down in the end on one side or the other, trying all the while not to make it look too pedestrian. Our French counterparts, though, would have been expected to provide, in addition to such arguments, an elegance of phrasing and structure.

I bet Sarko aced these kinds of exam questions.

Posted by at 07:43 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [3]

26 February 09

Delighting in a New Vowel

Hanging around the hispanohablantes on Ravelry has introduced me to the gender-unspecific vowel that is apparently now being widely used in Spanish texting: @.

Spanish, like many Romance languages, has an obligatory masculine/feminine divide in nouns. Sometimes the endings are unintuitive (la mano [the hand], el drama [drama]) but mostly “a” is feminine, “o” is masculine. This being a culture where historically the masculine incorporated everyone, in the 60s if you said “hola a todos” it was assumed you meant hello world, or hello everyone, masculine feminine and neuter.

I’m delighted to see new spanish-speaking knitters chime in on Ravelry with the “hola a tod@s,” the ‘o’ encompassing the ‘a’ as a perfect, ambi vowel. It’s particularly heartening because in fact not all spanish-speaking knitters are female, nor are all of them straight, and I love the inclusiveness that’s implied…

Posted by at 09:41 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [7]