The Best New Thing I’ve Read in Weeks

This Anthony Lane homage to Elmore Leonard is not only the best thing I’ve read on Leonard. It’s the best new thing I’ve read in weeks. Every sentence rings. Here’s a prime bit:

One problem was that a single page of him made other writers, especially the loftier and more lauded variety, seem about as legible as wallpaper paste. I recall being given a copy of “The Sea, the Sea,” the Iris Murdoch novel that won the Booker Prize in 1978. It came heartily recommended, so I wasted no time in laying it side by side with “The Switch,” which had been published in the same year. A random sample, from Dame Iris:

Oh, he was slippery, slippery, touchy, proud. I must hold him, I must be tactful, careful, gentle, firm, I must understand how. Everything, everything, I felt, now depended on Titus, he was the centre of the world, he was the key. I was filled with painful and joyful emotions and the absolute need to conceal them. I could so easily, here, alarm, offend, disgust.

Huh? It’s like being swallowed alive by a giant thesaurus. How are we supposed to work out, with any precision, what these fellows actually mean, through veils of verbal blubber such as that? Meanwhile, over in Detroit:

“You notice in the drive?” Ordell said to Louis. “He’s got an AMC Hornet, man, pure black, no shit on the outside at all, your plain unmarked car. But inside—tell him, Richard.”

Richard said, “Well, I got a rollbar. I got heavy-duty Gabriel Striders. I got a shotgun mount in front.”

“He’s got one of those flashers,” Ordell said. “Kojak reaches out, puts up on his roof?”

“Super Fireball with a magnetic bottom. Let’s see,” Richard said, “I got a Federal PA one-seventy electronic siren, you can work it wail, yelp, or hi-lo. Well, in the trunk I keep a Schermuly gas grenade gun, some other equipment. Night-chuk riot baton. An M-17 gas mask.” He thought a moment. “I got a Legster leg holster. You ever see one?”

Be honest, now: Which is better, Dame or Dutch? That is to say, leaving aside both snobbery and its inverse (for no fictional setting, genteel or rough, is intrinsically superior to any other), who is more alert to the life of an English sentence—its rises, failings, falls, and emergency stops? You know the answer. It certainly saved me from spending too much time on Booker Prize novels, whether winners or nominees, then as now. Decades on, I still laugh at the Kojak line, and it’s easy to imagine how a clumsier or less adventurous writer might have handled the same idea: “It’s the kind that Kojak has on TV. He reaches out and puts it up on the roof.” See? Dead on arrival. But technique is not all; more mysterious is what radiates out from such technical command, amid the speeches, and lends dramatic energy to the owners of the mouths. The Murdoch paragraph has a lot to say, but it leaves us utterly clueless as to what either Titus or the narrator is like; they earn no place in our mind’s eye. Whereas Ordell is right there in a couple of deft strokes, egging Richard on, and Richard himself, well, even the words “he thought a moment” put us instantly in the presence of a major blockhead—a wannabe cop, who, it transpires, collects Nazi memorabilia. Character is language in action.

Go have yourself a ball: The Dutch Accent: Elmore Leonard’s Talk : The New Yorker. Lane is one of our best, and he’s never been more inspired than here. Man is a animal.

Virginia Woolf Was a Plant Sensitive and Tough


A glorious find for any Virginia Woolf fan. For a Virginia Woolf fan writing a book about a scientifico-botanical metaphor about the nature of sensitivity and flexibility, it is a treasure. This is from Forster’s  slim 1942 volume, Virginia Woolf, taken from lectures he gave in Cambridge and London in the year after her suicide.

There are two obstacles to a summing up. The first is the work’s richness and complexity. As soon as we dismiss the legend of the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury, so guilelessly accepted by Arnold Bennett, and we find ourselves in a bewildering world where there are few headlines. We think of The Waves and say “yes – that is Virginia Woolf”; then we think of The Common Reader, where she is different; of A Room of One’s Own or of the preface to Life As We Have Known It: different again. She is like a plant which is supposed to grow in a well-prepared garden bed – the bed of esoteric literature – and then pushes up suckers all over the place, through the gravel of the front drive, and even through the flagstones of the kitchen yard.  She was full of interests, and their number increased as she grew older, she was curious about life, and she was tough, sensitive but tough.


The Agony of Editing Virginia Woolf’s Early Journals. Plus Welty on Woolf on Hemingway.

Virginia Woolf, by Christian Tonnis, creative commons license.

I’m having a rich time bouncing about Virginia Woolf: A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909, edited by Mitchell Leaska. This one-volume collection, published in 1990, covers the journals and diaries Woolf kept between the ages of 15 and 27. They fill a blank space left by the better-known and endlessly fascinating five-volume The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 1915-1941.  

I’m reading this for many reasons, among them the way Woolf embodies, often in an extreme, exquisite form, the sensitivity to experience that is at the heart of the orchid-dandelion hypothesis that I’m writing a book about. (Here’s my early cut at The Atlantic.) But I felt some deep sympathy for not just Woolf but the volume’s editor when, over my coffee and granola this morning, I read his preface.

This one-volume journal, Leaska writes, was taken from seven separate notebooks Woolf kept in her late adolescence and early youth. Woolf used some of these notebooks mainly as personal diaries, others as places in which to draft essays or write her quick sketches of characters or landscape. The first six volumes reside in the New York Public Library, the seventh in the British Library. In the first six, he tells us, Woolf’s handwriting “was small, irregular, and hard to decipher, particularly in the 1897 and 1899 notebooks.” Yet he laboriously transcribed them all, peering and typing away in the New York Public Library, and “only on a few occasions has it been necessary to admit defeat with the insertion of an [illegible] or to add a question mark in square brackets — [?] indicating editorial doubt.”

Anyone who has transcribed old letters or journals can readily feel his pain. Fortunately for Leaska, the seventh volume had a typescript, so he didn’t have to transcribe it.

But the pain gets worse. For after Leaska had transcribed the first six volumes, he discovered that he hadn’t really had to — it had not been necessary, in other words, to so strain his eyes, budget, back, and patience  — for Virginia’s husband and literary executor, Leonard Woolf, had left a typescript of all those journals, which, somehow, no one had told him about. (This despite that Hogarth Press, which published this book in the UK, was started by the Woolfs.) Thus “I was unaware of its existence until after making a complete transcription of the first six journals.”

Which is as close as Leaska, who could later write a biography of Woolf, comes to complaining.

PS Heaven above. My search for reviews of Leaska’s biography, “Granite and Rainbow,” led me to a Times piece — a 1958 review by Eudora Welty of a Woolf essay collection — in which Welty writes about Woolf writing about Hemingway.

She thought Hemingway’s characters talked too much, but she would, ‘if life were longer,’ care to read the stories again.


Hemingway “lets his dexterity, like the bullfighter’s cloak, get between him and the fact ***. But the true writer stands close up to the bull and lets the horns – call them life, truth, reality, whatever you like – pass him close each time.”

Life is full of unexpected pleasures.

Image: by Christiaan Tonnis, some rights reserved.

Elmore Leonard Is Gone

What a loss. What spirit and humor and ear and humanity and comedy and, at times, excruciating tension. That scene toward the end of Killshot where the gun is on the table and the two bad guys are talking and laughing and she starts to think Maybe I can just grab it and shoot ’em. And it was always scarier because if you’d read a couple Leonard books you knew he was willing to kill off a good guy (or gal) right when you least expected; never saw it coming.

Good Lord. This will take some time to getting used to.

The Times does a nice job here.

Mr. Leonard’s narrative voice was crisp, clean and direct. He had no time to waste on adverbs, adjectives or tricky verb forms, and he had no patience for moody interior monologues or lyrical descriptive passages. His dialogue, too, was succinct, as in this passage from “Riding the Rap”:

“ ‘She isn’t home,’ Raylan said.

“Bobby nodded toward the red Toyota in the drive.

“ ‘Her car’s there.’

“ ‘She still isn’t home,’ Raylan said.

“ ‘Maybe she’s asleep or she’s taking a shower.”

“ ‘When I say she isn’t home,’ Raylan said, ‘it means she isn’t home.’ ”

It takes only three words — “Look at me” — for Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark in “Get Shorty,” to strike terror into the hearts of the deadbeat clients he hounds for late payments. “You never tell the guy what could happen to him,” Chili explains. “Let him use his imagination, he’ll think of something worse.”

via Elmore Leonard, Who Refined the Crime Thriller, Dies at 87 –

Clip at the top from Out of Sight. Ima have to go on a Leonard jag now. Could get me through the winter.

Dogs and Zero Gravity, The Experiment

Behold the fruits of having a flying-obsessed 11-year-old who watches too many flight videos. This should really be at BoingBoing, but I found it first.* (I want a remake with Miles & Xeni.)

I love the deadpan expressions on the humans. Dog too, for that matter. Give it credit for just trying to deal.

*Maybe. I didn’t check; they may already have it.

Now this is a gas — Gass on Roth

For reasons that will become apparent in 2015, I was digging around this morning about Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and I ran into this luscious paragraph, which opens William Gass’s review of the novel in the New York Times, January 04, 1987.

THERE have been thousands of different drawings of the world, many maps made of reality. Each puts the gods, the good, the false and the true in a different place. They cannot each be correct – there are too many counterclaims – yet society after society has sailed to greatness (not simply to the doom they also doomed themselves to) following these false charts, these fictions that have been projected upon the planet. And the planet, like the great screen of a drive-in movie, accepts them all, lighted by the illusions of passion, for as long as the passions last. If so, then our lives are made of fictions, beliefs we construct and then dwell in like a beach house in Malibu. When we change our life – one of the central themes of Philip Roth’s magnificent new novel, a remarkable change of direction itself – we recreate ”a counterlife that is one’s own anti-myth,” as Mr. Roth’s protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, surmises.

And later:

These are a few of the questions Philip Roth’s latest novel considers, turning them round like meat on a spit. With respect to his own past as an author, there are many questions – the hedges, qualifications, objections entertained by critics – to which it gives a resounding answer. ”The Counterlife,” it seems to me, constitutes a fulfillment of tendencies, a successful integration of themes, and the final working through of obsessions that have previously troubled if not marred his work. I hope it felt, as Mr. Roth wrote it, like a triumph, because that is certainly how it reads to me. 

I’m with Gass every step of the way on this. Highly recommended, both review and book.



David Dobbs’s Semi-Weekly Reader, 16 August 2013

Some of my recent reads, on the porch reading table. Post TK if weather allows. (at da house)

When I’m at work I do a lot of reading, so when I’m not at work, I try to do a lot of reading.

Books first.

I usually read 3 or 4 books at once — or, you know, going back and forth. Right now it’s these.

I’ve been meaning to read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo for years, finally had the good sense to bring it along on a sort-of-work trip, and found it a roaring delight from page one, full of wit, surprises, adventures, and splendid writing. This passage includes almost all of that, so why not:

Call for the Dead is John LeCarré’s first novel. (It’s obscured in my photo — of course it’s obscured! — in the Kindle atop the stack.) Frightening how full a skillset this young, unschooled novelist wielded; the novel, which also gives us George Smiley for the first time, brings immense pleasure. And LeCarre’s introduction to this re-issue, which is essentially a memoir of his earliest days as a writer, is priceless.

As to writing—yes, since abandoning boyhood poetry, I had had one shot. While I was still teaching at Eton, the Bodley Head asked me to write a German reader for them, to be aimed at the Ordinary Level examination students. So I wrote them a story about a pavement artist who one afternoon produced a masterpiece in pastels on a paving stone in Trafalgar Square: a Mona Lisa. Better. And he knew. Rain was coming, so was the rush hour. He had no fixative. The paving stone belonged to the Council, not to him. My story was a nice little metaphor, now that I come to recall it, for my frustrated talent, even if I didn’t know what talent it was that was lying on the ground unregarded by the hurrying passersby. Needless to say, the story was unsuited to the Bodley Head’s purposes, and they turned it down. Years later, Graham Greene, who was some kind of co-opted director of the Bodley Head, who published him, wrote to me suggesting that I go to them. But that’s writers for you: I had not forgiven them, and I never will.

He goes on to describe the origin of the novel’s heroine. (Note: He mentions here ‘the trays of files of men and women I was supposed to suspect’; he’s referring to the real-life files of questionable persons that it was LeCarré’s real-life task to review in his job at MI5.

I wrote in penny notebooks. On the train to and from Great Missenden, in lunch hours, in the grey morning hours before going off to work. Ann, my wife at the time, typed the stuff out; we were broke, but we risked an Olivetti portable on hire purchase at a few shillings a week. I pitched straight into the story, no messing with outlines, skeletons or flow charts. I hadn’t the smallest idea where I was going. But I had Smiley, I had my trays of files of men and women I was supposed to suspect, but had never met. And I had in my memory a little crushed Frenchwoman in the hospital at Chamonix when I had been skiing there soon after the war. She had been staying at my hotel, and when the manager told me she had broken not just one but both her legs, I went to visit her.

Adventures with a Naturalist is the signature work of Roy Bedichek, one of three mid-20th-century Texas historian-folklorist-writer-naturalists (along with J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb) who wrote with astonishing freshness and courage about everything from insects to the insanity of right-wing Texas politics. All three were heroes to my mother and godfathers to the likes of governor Anne Richardson and novelist-naturalist Rick Bass, who wrote the foreword for this edition. This volume shows Bedichek to be a match for Thoreau or anyone else when it comes to clean relation of close observation. It’s a beautiful book.

An Army at Dawn, by Rick Atkinson, is incredible: now and then uneven, as one might expect from a 250,000 history that is part of a trilogy; but fascinating throughout and extremely sharp at its best:

Rick Atkinson’s “An Army Ar Dawn,” of a minor tank battle early in the Tunis campaign. Demonstrating again there are no minor battles.

Roth’s Nemesis: I’m usually all in with Roth, but this one, while good — and a book that would be quite impressive from an unknown writer — I found disappointing. Maybe I’m missing something.

I also read Transatlantic, by Colum Mccann. Liked it, but not as much as I expected to.


Shorter fare:

Best science bits I read:

In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness  by Ed Yong. Strange. The story too.

“The Fall and Rise of Gene Therapy.” Carl Zimmer profiles the scientist who comes back from a medical disaster, and brings gene therapy back with him.

Study: Rising Military Suicide Rate Not Linked To Deployment  I had suspected this was the case. Because But it’s not PTSD! Bad research distorts our understanding of a serious disorder. (And my own PTSD Trap.)

The Great Recession, genetic sensitivity, and maternal harsh parenting  Interesting, clever study that seems to support the orchid-dandelion hypothesis I’m writing a book about. The mothers who reacted to harsh economic conditions by growing more harsh with their children also (as a group) reacted to improving conditions by amping up their warmth the most.

A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA. Amy Harmon does her inimitable thing; on GMOs and OJ.

The Science of Handwriting: Scientific American  Paywalled, alas (I  wish SciAm had a pay-per-read option). But Brandon Keim here takes a really smart look at science suggesting that handwriting has some cognitive pluses that typing does not. This science in question is all provisional. Keim’s piece is a model of how to handle science that is both tetchy and  early in its curve. Plus — whatever he was using — he writes beautifully.

Pieces of mind: introducing the Guardian’s new psychology blog An incredible group of scientists start a new blog. Must-follow if you’re into neuro-psych.

In Need of a New Hip, but Priced Out of the U.S. Yet more evidence that the money-changers have thoroughly taken over the U.S. medical system. No one looking at our system would conclude it’s about delivering medicine. They could quite sensibly conclude it’s about collecting money.

The Arsehole Gene

The science of animal consciousness  At Aeon

MRI Shows Twins Fighting in the Womb – YouTube You can thank BoingBoing’s expectant @maggiekb1 for that.


Deeply disturbing stories about NSA spying on us: 

How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets

Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’

The NSA is turning the internet into a total surveillance system

Email service used by Snowden shuts itself down, warns against using US-based companies


Other delights:

Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book

‘The Music Is Waiting to Be Tapped’: Listening in the Era of the Stream Alexis Madrigal on vinyl, etc.


Alluring unread things on my Read It Later list:

Genetic relationship between 5 psychiatric disorders estimated from genome

Everyday insanity: Psychosis and the mundane by Vaughan Bell

The 25 Best Websites for Literature Lovers – Flavorwire


For another, doubtless more comprehensive round-up — though I bet he missed the Bedicheck — see my friend Ed Yong’s weekly I’ve got your missing link right here updates (here’s last week’s), which come out every Saturday once Ed finally gets out of bed and finishes the long job of brushing his teeth.

62 of the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, via Mental Floss

Below behold the main library at Trinity College, Dublin:

Image courtesy of Irish Welcome Tours’ Flickr stream.

That’s one of 62 featured at Mental Floss’s gorgeous gathering of lovely libraries ’round the globe. A couple of my other favorites:

Bibliotheque National de France, Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Zubro.

Abbey Library of St. Galen, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Stibiwiki

Get the rest at Mental Floss.

Today’s Reads: Berlin photofest, awesome genetics, poisonous solitary, funky smell, and Foucaultian creationism

The first in a semi-daily posting of links I’ve enjoyed.

Genetics Are Awesome – Imgur  Mind-blowing photos that stitch together faces of close relatives. Vid version here.


Berlin and Munich Revisited  – A photoblog by the fabulous PD Smith, author of City, as he (re)visits one of the great ones.



Is long-term solitary confinement torture? : The New Yorker – Atul Gawande on a question that haunts also Brandon Keim’s fine report The Horrible Psychology of Solitary Confinement  H/t PetulantSkeptic


The Millions : The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions  Moby Dick neck and neck with Huck Finn as Lolita comes on strong ’round the final turn.


The startling sense of smell found all over your body  Smell receptors aren’t just in your nose. They’re … all over. Gloriously strange stuff from the up-and-coming Vero Greenwood.

The surprising sense of smell found all over your body

ADHD Drugs Don’t Boost Kids’ Grades, Studies Find – What is says on the tin.

Foucaultian creationism  – A Storify of Carl Zimmer’s takedown of, well, Foucaultian creationism.

In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A. –  This could scarcely be uglier. A must read.