Wednesday, April 3, 2019

you take paradise, put up a parking lot (John D. MacDonald cover)

Terrific piece by Craig Pittman on John D. MacDonald, the Travis McGee series, and Floridian environmentalism smuggled into the adventures of a knight in tarnished armor:

The more I read, the more fascinated I became. MacDonald’s books weren’t just straight-ahead puzzle mysteries like my grandfather’s Perry Mason books. This author digressed. He quipped. He had a lot to say about a lot of things—particularly about the greed and carelessness driving the bad decisions being made about my state. What he had to say was a revelation to teenage me. I’d spent lots of time hunting and fishing with my dad, as well as camping and canoeing with my Boy Scout troop. Until I read MacDonald, I didn’t realize that the places I’d enjoyed visiting might someday be turned into cul-de-sacs and convenience stores, or that such changes might not be for the best.
My experience with MacDonald’s writing is shared by a lot of my fellow Floridians.
“I read all JDM’s books in my early 20s,” non-fiction author Cynthia Barnett (Rain: A Natural and Cultural History) told me. “My father and grandfather had both read them all and it was a point of inter-generational connection for us. We didn’t agree on many things, but Travis McGee and Florida and rapscallions, we could agree upon.”
The whole thing here.

I read all the McGee books in Jan 2018 (2C2E); it's interesting to me, at least, that both Carl Hiaasen and Lee Child took him as a starting point.  It's interesting that lifestyles that have mass appeal are so scandalous to the people representing the people who dream up these gloriously marketable gigs. Interestingly or not so very, it's seen as dodgy if influencers who promote, as it might be, brand of makeup don't use it, and A Good Thing if they do.

the paranoia of celebrities

If totalitarian regimes greatly restrict public language, pushing people toward coded language but making codes problematic by taking away the shared platforms where they could be unambiguously decoded, then a fraying totalitarian regime where people are bolder with their codes but still lacking the platforms for decoding is doubly problematic.

(Think of a situation where any attempt at alignment, at “clearing up", could constitute an act of transgression in itself, threatening with high costs all participants.)

So while doublespeak and expected complicity were becoming commonplace in the city of my childhood, people were still rightly worried that 1) their codes may be misconstrued, 2) any innocent remark would be interpreted as a code by someone wishing them harm.

Amazing piece on Medium by Anna Gát (Three Prologues to Language), the whole thing here

Sunday, December 30, 2018

adeste fideles

I'm staying with my mother in Silver Spring for a few weeks and have agreed to do an informal event at Politics & Prose down in DC on Sunday, January 6, at 6 pm. 

P&P is at 5015 Connecticut Avenue, NW, which is just by the intersection of Connecticut and Nebraska.  The event will be a sort of get-together downstairs in the Den café - not a formal signing or reading, just a chance to talk about books or whatever else occurs to us.  The link to details on the P&P website is here.

The events coordinator (Jonathan Woollen) and I are also trying to work out a way to distribute largesse.  I am trying to clear books from my mother's garage and guest bedroom - there are foreign editions of The Last Samurai dating back to 2000-2002 (!), books I brought to New York for a residency in 2003 which never managed to get taken back to Europe, books bought at college, books bought as a graduate student, books bought on visits to the US . . . My idea at the moment is that anyone who buys a book at P&P (not necessarily by me) should have a souvenir book for free.  (We may refine this closer to the day.)

I suppose this all does mean I must grapple with updating my website (the horror), but now my mother and I must go to lunch.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


People who at once start talking 19 to the dozen are exasperating. Just consider those documentary films about animals, in which those young, good-looking commentators say something which doesn't have anything to do with an answer. This is actually meaningless, because things are just being read off and because the spokeswoman has never seen the animal.  This is one of my chief torments.

Gadamer, interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist in May 2000 (Interviews 1)

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Many, many months ago I met a reader who commented that I never seemed to write on my blog.  I said all kinds of bad things were happening and I was dealing with difficult people.  He seemed to think I could find something else to write about.  I think if you're struggling to keep your head above water you can't think about anything else.

A long time ago my ex's mother had breast cancer.  That is, it had been in remission and came back. The thing I remember about Norma is that she never talked about it, never complained. 

One problem with dealing with difficult people is that it takes up a lot of energy.  It's hard to force yourself to do more than tackle immediate problems.  But in late summer/early autumn I forced myself to write some applications - one for a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one for a Stipendium in Berlin for writers in a language other than German, one for a grant from the Society of Authors.

It looks as though I didn't get the stipendium (the announcements were to go out in December).  The Radcliffe fellowships won't be announced until March.  But today, when I came in from doing a load of laundry, I found a letter from the Society of Authors and a cheque - they'd given me a grant which will let me replace my ailing MacBook.  (Its keyboard died in July 2016; I've been nursing it along with an external keyboard every since.)

So that's the good news for the year, because I was wondering what I should do.  I could definitely cut costs by switching to a PC - it's not nearly as worrying if a $300 laptop suddenly has to be replaced. And it's not as though I'm a fan of Macs - I loathe Apple with every fibre of my being.  But it would limit the kinds of book I could write.  I would have to leave all my Mellel documents behind.  I had the feeling that it would be bad to sit down and try to think of a book that did not require X, Y and Z, and talk myself into it. 

So now I don't have to make that decision.  Thank you, Society of Authors!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sexual Codes of the Europeans in Evergreen Review

A long time ago I started thinking about a book of sexual codes, inspired by Calvino's Invisible Cities. What if cities had sexual codes - that is, systems of conventions for communicating sexual preferences, like the bidding systems of bridge? Travel books would include a brief overview of the relevant codes, the way they now sometimes include useful phrases for ordering a meal or finding the way to the train station.

I was thinking how odd it was: endless ingenuity has been spent developing bidding systems, to the point where if you play bridge with a new partner you always start with a conversation where you ask whether they play Acol, Standard American, Precision or some other system, and where, if you're playing a natural system, you ask whether they use standard conventions (Stayman, Blackwood), whether you will play weak or strong no trump, weak jump overcalls, what system of discards you'll use, and much more. If you play duplicate, everyone has to fill out a preprinted (!) card setting out the conventions they play for the benefit of opponents. The hanky code is the closest thing to this that I've heard of in the sexual realm, but a) it was always pretty simple and b) I'm told it is now passé. For the most part, the rules for communication never get past NO MEANS NO and YES MEANS YES. 

Bridge players are obsessed with finding a good fit, and they understand that no system is perfect. (Hence the restless search for workarounds.) But the outcome is not the only thing that counts. It's boring to get a strong well-balanced hand. Sometimes you pick up a hand that's not very good and get wildly excited, because it gives you the chance to deploy a convention that rarely comes up. Preferably a really complicated convention. A rare, complicated convention that both partners have probably half-forgotten - the Multi-Colored 2 Diamonds is best of breed. The partners bid on, gazing at each other with a wild surmise...

Anyway, I thought about this as the basis for a book, and sometimes talked about the book, and most people (not, perhaps, being bridge players) looked at me no so much with wild surmise as with blank incomprehension. But I went to New York several years ago and had dinner with Dale Peck and began talking about bridge and sexual codes, and Dale understood instantly! Dale had willfully revived the hanky code in his youth; Dale had been a fanatical bridge player; we talked and talked.
Dale is now editor of the Evergreen Review, an online magazine, and he has published "Sexual Codes of the Europeans: a Preliminary Report" in the latest issue. It's here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

shoulder to shoulder

Today I got an uplifting email in an account I rarely use for registrations.  I'm not convinced this will rate as Good News for Modern Man for anyone I know, but it cheered ME up.  This, mind you, on a day marred by the Hardyesque twists of fate which technology has made so commonplace (and no, I DON'T want to talk about it).  Excerpt from cheering email:

Exciting News - ShareLaTeX is joining Overleaf!

We've got some exciting news — Overleaf and ShareLaTeX are joining forces, and we will be bringing our teams and services together as we continue to build the best tools for collaborative writing.