27.10.06

The Blue Fund

Here's an interesting idea: The Blue Fund offers "no load, no-Republican" small- and large-cap mutual funds. Companies are screened for social and political responsibility as well as profitability, and big Republican donor corporations don't get to play. IRAs start at $2500.

26.10.06

A Vague, Meandering Post

This year's Booker prizewinner Kiran Desai reports that her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, helped her write the novel that won the Booker, and I do not doubt it. One of my treasured possessions is a copy of the very first short story I published, marked up with Anita Desai's handwritten notes, in delicate purple pen; she was indeed a wonderful teacher. My own mother -- also a writer, also a teacher, also my teacher -- broke her knee last week, a problem that required major surgery under general anesthesia to correct. She is recovering in a hospital not far from her old house, where I, too, spent a portion of my childhood. The place figures in my novel the way it figures in my dreams -- crabgrass, poison oak, swing shifts, linoleum. I am tempted to say, dismissively, You get the picture, but I don't because it isn't true. In Joyce Carol Oates' new collection, High Lonesome, Oates does get the picture -- she has her finger on something important that otherwise resists lyric description, & fits better into the more familiar and more distanced and antiseptic discourses about jobs, economic insecurity, mandatory overtime, minimum wage. A place where reading novels (let alone writing them) is suspect and barely tolerated when there is so much else to do. I read Oates' stories with a tight chest, thinking about Oates' childhood (she was no stranger, I bet, to linoleum), her hunger for books, and about the books she has written, the sheer quantity of them, as if, finding the world lacking the books she wanted to read, she simply made them herself, as you might make furniture to suit an odd-shaped room. Also thinking about the fact of Oates' childlessness. Kiran Desai says she won't have children because then she would have to break her writerly solitude and "be sweet" , which gets in the way of her writing. Her mother, I want to remind her, wrote wonderful books with four children underfoot, along with teaching duties and office hours, including one session in which she gently insisted that yes, I had talent and yes, it was not only worth developing but probably the most important thing I could do -- and her encouragement made all the difference.

24.10.06

Consolations

Working on two books, I'm a novelist by day and a historian by night. The projects have almost nothing to do with one another, except that first, I could not have returned to history except through the particular novel I have written, which began as a historical meditation on why it is currently impossible to do truly interesting and novel work in today's academe; and, second, the return to history as a mode of inquiry consoles the novelist in me because when I'm with the old books whose spines were last cracked a century ago, it reminds me that some things really are written not (or not only) for a contemporary audience, but for the ages.

23.10.06

If I Bring These to Jane's School...

...will I win Mommy of the Year?


via Boing Boing, recipe from eGullet

"Finger" Cookies (use them for air quotes!)
makes ~ 5 dozen
Yield: 5 dozen
Please note, this is not a nut-free recipe!


1 cup butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 egg
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla
2 2/3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole blanched almonds
raspberry jelly

In bowl, beat together butter, sugar, egg, almond extract and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients together, then add to wet and stir thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Working with one quarter of the dough at a time and keeping remainder refrigerated, roll a scant tablespoon full (I used a 1 oz. cookie scoop) of dough into a thin log shape about 4" long for each cookie. Squeeze clost to center and close to one end to create knuckle shapes. Press almond firmly into the end of the cookie for nail. Using paring knife, make slashes in several places to form knuckle. You want them a bit thin and gangly looking, since they'll puff a little when you bake them.

Place on lightly greased baking sheets (or use silicone sheets or parchment); bake in 325F oven for 20-25 minutes or until pale golden. Let cool for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, melt jelly over low heat in a small saucepan.

Carefully lift almond off of each finger, spoon a tiny amount of jelly onto nail bed and press almond back in place so the jelly oozes out from underneath. You can also make slashes in the finger and fill them with "blood.

You can also form toes - just make the cookies shorter and a bit wider and only add one joint instead of two. No almonds for these, just indent where the nailbed should be and add a bit of melted jelly to highlight once they are baked.

Translator's Notes (The Mystery Guest)

After translating Grégoire Bouilliere's novel L'Invité Mystère, Lorin Stein created a web site that presents the messy story behind the seamless and apparently quite wonderful translation. (FWIW, here's a quick synopsis: A guy gets a call from his longtime ex, who disappeared without a trace five years earlier; she invites him to a birthday party for a woman he has never met.) The hypertextual presentation of the translator's notes is clunky and nonintuitive. You have to click each blog entry (though there is no obvious prompt or link marker) to get the window that contains all the good stuff. Despite the flawed presentation, it's exactly the sort of meta-book spin-off project that publishers should do more of. Strictly from a book marketing point of view, the site is useful. I wouldn't have known about Bouillier otherwise, and my next stop will be Amazon, where I may well buy the book.

There's something else, too -- a web site like Translator's Notes is a simple way to take some of the "shine" or commodity aura off books, making it less tempting to undervalue them because the labor of writing (not to mention publishing, marketing and distributing) is apparent. What if every book looked like a handmade craft item you might find at Zanisa or Sweet Thunder or Nest...?

16.10.06

The Gashlycrumb Tinies

Jane wasn't herself today at pick-up. She whined and complained that I picked her up, instead of MJ ("I like Daddy so much better") and went on about how she thought I was okay, but she really did love Daddy so much more.

Oh dear. Well, over dinner, we discovered that it had been a rough day all around. Y did not share her toys, R ruined the afternoon walk, A couldn't button her jacket and no one would help her, L refused to wipe his bum at potty time.

He presented it with a length of string, and passed on to the statue of Corrupted Endeavor...

If you'd spent your day with these people, you'd be a little frazzled by the end of the day, too.

Routine

Just completed an excruciatingly close edit of the first 150 pages of EJTOP and sent the material to my advisor. This was a long hard slog -- four solid weeks of steady work with no travel, no appointments, no late nights, and no distractions. Apart from my weekly dinner with my parents and a couple of short meetings, I also did no socializing.

It was monastic, isolating, and extremely effective. It is very difficult to find the time to read and edit a hundred pages at a clip without devoting sustained day-after-day attention to it. I feel like my book is so much better, now that I have been able to do this for a month.

This attention was not undivided. This month was not really like the months before I finished my dissertation, when every waking thought was devoted to The Work. Instead, I stopped and started. I would wake at 7 or 7:30 and usually be at my desk and working (not surfing, not checking email) at 9. I would work until lunch. Sometimes, if I was on a roll, I would not eat lunch. I would get Jane at 2 or so, and start work again after dinner. If I wasn't at my desk, I took notes on little pieces of paper (sorry, Mark!) or directly on the manuscript. (I try to keep a printout of the latest draft handy all the time.) The lost afternoons bothered me - I usually only really start to hit my stride in the afternoon - but I found that I could work productively in the mornings as long as I'd had enough sleep the night before.

The sleep thing has been key. I'm a better, more productive person in the morning if I have gotten enough sleep. Without sleep, I'm only productive in the late afternoon. This is related to depression in some way. Now that I'm getting more sleep (and I'm more productive) I'm a lot less sad and anxious.

5.10.06

Beam Me Up? Sort Of...

Scientists Teleport Two Different Objects

From CNN:

Beaming people in "Star Trek" fashion is still in the realms of science fiction, but physicists in Denmark have teleported information from light to matter bringing quantum communication and computing closer to reality.

Until now scientists have teleported similar objects such as light or single atoms over short distances from one spot to another in a split second.

But Professor Eugene Polzik and his team at the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University in Denmark have made a breakthrough by using both light and matter.

"It is one step further because for the first time it involves teleportation between light and matter, two different objects. One is the carrier of information and the other one is the storage medium," Polzik explained in an interview on Wednesday.

The experiment involved for the first time a macroscopic atomic object containing thousands of billions of atoms. They also teleported the information a distance of half a meter but believe it can be extended further.

4.10.06

For Some Reason, Maternal Intelligence Was Not Considered

For a while I've been skeptical of the magic elixir theory of breastfeeding -- the idea that, if only you pump enough breastmilk into your baby, you will secure superior health, longevity, and especially intelligence for your child.

Now a recent, large study has concluded that ingestion of breastmilk has no effect on a kid's IQ.

What matters is the mother's background, education, and social class. Strangely, earlier studies linking IQ to feeding method failed to take these things into consideration.

From the article:

Breastfed babies are smarter because their mums are clever - not because mother's milk boosts brain power, according to new research.

Scientists say many previous studies claiming breastfed babies are brighter than bottle-fed counterparts have failed to consider one important factor - maternal intelligence.

They found mothers who breastfed tended to be more intelligent, more highly educated and to provide a more stimulating home environment.

And when they compared siblings where one had been breastfed and the other not there was no difference in their respective IQs - showing the key to brainbox children is the mum and not the milk.

In the largest study of its kind researchers looked at 5,475 children in the US - and their mothers - and found omitting mothers' intelligence can "seriously over-estimate the effects of breastfeeding."

The researchers from the Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh said their findings showed when considered in isolation breastfeeding did appear to have a beneficial effect on a child's intelligence.

But once other factors were considered – including maternal intelligence, home environment and socio-economic status - breastfeeding made less than half a point difference to children's intelligence scores.

Back to the Studs, Which Are Not So Studly

In the beginning, there was a plot of land. Some miles away, there was a carriage house. Around the turn of the century, someone said, Instead of building a new house, let's just move the one we have.

That's when the fun began. Now that we've taken our house back to the studs, I can see a lot more of the house's history. It looks the way history often looks -- a record of decisions made under duress, from shortsightedness, cheapness, failure to plan.

To start, it seems the house was set down carelessly. The crooked back wall has never been plumb. The foundation is ringed all around with concrete blocks which, for some reason, have been used as structural elements. These blocks support the studs that in turn support the wooden header beams over the back doors. These header beams are holding up the second floor, which contains a cast-iron tub, not to mention the roof. Two of these enormous header beams are cracked, straight across the middle. In the front of the house, over the doors and windows, where you might also expect to find headers, there are steel beams. Steel. Two of them, mortared together with what appears to be toothpaste. Why steel, here? And not in the back? Hard to say.

The steel beams are resting on two-by-fours. It is a shock to realize, as I am standing there, that I truly do not know what holds this house up. Prayer, perhaps. God's good humor. God is certainly laughing. The house is a testament to the fallacy of "the original" as something worth "restoring." Restoration purists can kiss my nail gun. The only thing "original" about this house is the original cockamamie conception of it -- everything else just followed logically from that first crazy idea. "Let's move the carriage house, instead of building it new." There is no "original" house here -- just an original sin. And, just like the original Biblical sin, its consequences have extended and ramified.

Curiously, it seems the whole house was originally lined with beadboard. Even the ceilings were beadboard. Some of it is bright blue; in other places, it's navy. One section, possibly the oldest, is tucked up almost to the second-floor plate; it was painted gunmetal gray. Discovering it, I thought of Hegel: "When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then a form of life has grown old..." A new feeling blossoms -- a sympathy, of all things, for Gehry, for Wright. The "tear it down, make it new" reaction seems perfectly understandable amidst all this... stuff. All these bad decisions, piled on each other. How many imperfectly soldered steel beams are required to hold them up?

But, perhaps perversely, I want to preserve something of this record of human folly. As a historian, I like stories of folly; I'm partial to history in the satiric mode (to use Hayden White's typology). Perfect restorations of originally perfect houses -- do such things exist? -- now seem bogus, false. They seem like Disney.