Category Archives: Books

Mutational Analysis in Poetry and Biology

So, Robert Pinsky wrote a cool little piece in Slate the other day titled “In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly.” In it he argues for a particular benefit to be gotten from misremembering a poem: that it brings into focus the choices that were made in the poem, the the consequences of using one word rather than another. He illustrates his argument with Yeats’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” which he presents like this:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem” 

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

He talks about misremembering the [something] as “glory” or “indolence” or “striving” before rediscovering Yeats’s original “meddling.”

In the case of “meddling,” the result of the exercise is to highlight the historical context in which Yeats was writing. Yeats was an Irish poet writing about World War I in 1915. At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, and was actively involved in the war. However, some Irish nationalists used the war as an opportunity initiate a rebellion against English rule. And, in fact, the Irish War for Independence began pretty much as soon as World War I ended.

During Easter week of 1916, Irish rebels seized control of several key buildings
in Dublin and declared independence from England. Yeats wrote a poem about it.

Yeats’s poem was written in response to a request by Henry James, and was originally titled “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations.” In all of this context, the choice of “meddling” seems to point to a degree of ambivalence towards the war, even presaging Ireland’s own neutrality in World War II.

Now, of course, all of this information is, in principle, available to anyone who has both the original text and access Wikipedia. However, for Pinsky, it is this forgetting, the substitution of “meddling” with “glory,” that serves as the catalyst for this particular close reading. And I doubt that, in the absence of some similar impetus, very many people would have focused on this particular aspect of the poem.

In biology, similar mistakes, in the form of mutations, provide one of our most important windows into the structure and function of biological systems. These mutations are sometimes the product of targeted mutagenesis, but can also result from naturally occurring mutations.

A lot of our coarse-grained knowledge of many systems comes from loss-of-function, or knockout mutations, where a mutation removes a particular gene, or renders it nonfunctional. For example, in 1976, Sharma and Chopra first described a recessive mutation in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. Flies inheriting two copies of the mutation exhibited various developmental defects, the most obvious of which involved wing formation. So, the mutation, and later the gene, became known as “wingless.”

This is typical in genetics, where a gene will be given a name based on the phenotypic consequences of losing that gene. So, a gene required for wings becomes “wingless,” a gene required for heart formation might be called “heartless,” and so on.

Kim Jong Il relaxes with some brews.
Due to the nature of the discovery process in biology, many genes wind up with names that are more like the opposite of what the gene actually does. This is sort of like how the least democratic countries always wind up with the word “Democratic” in their names, or how Citizens United succeeded in dramatically curtailing most citizens’ abilities to control their own government.

More subtle mutations, which alter the behavior of a gene or its gene product without completely eliminating it function, are more closely analogous to the misremembering that Pinsky is talking about, however. In a way, a knockout mutation of an important gene is more like just removing one whole line from Yeats’s poem, without regard for grammar, rhyme scheme, coherence, etc. What you would wind up with is a mess that fails in many ways, and is probably not terribly instructive – just like in biology.

Point mutations, which might alter a single amino acid in a protein, provide a more targeted and interpretable set of changes. Such a mutation might cause a small shift in the binding behavior of the protein, or might cause a slight change in the timing of the gene’s expression.

Like in the poetry case, these mutations are more likely to be revealing of the fine tuning part of the creative process, where mutations of small effect arise and are subjected to natural selection. In some populations – things like certain viruses, which have a very large population size and strong selective constraints – it might even be reasonable to think that these alternate, mutant forms have been explored and rejected by past natural selection. In other cases (e.g., large mammals, with relatively small effective population sizes), the most common form we find in nature might not represent some finely tuned optimum, but may simply be a form that works well enough.

Similarly, when we read a Yeats poem, we are inclined to assume that every single word has been chosen with extreme care, that a host of plausible alternatives were considered and rejected by the poet before he settled on just exactly the right word, in this case, “meddled.” I think we are inclined to agree with Pinsky’s final assessment, that “by memorizing his poem imperfectly, I had received a creative writing lesson from a great poet.”

However, a lot of poems in the world, even very good ones, are probably more like large mammals, with many of the word choices working well enough, but not necessarily representing some optimum, even a local one. (There is of course, the question, in biology and in poetry, of to what extent one can talk coherently about optima, but that’s a post for another day.) But this process, deliberate or accidental tinkering, is critical both to the creation of great things, and to understanding how greatness is created.

Sharma RP, & Chopra VL (1976). Effect of the Wingless (wg1) mutation on wing and haltere development in Drosophila melanogaster. Developmental biology, 48 (2), 461-5 PMID: 815114

My wife’s book is like Shia LaBoeuf getting hit in the face (i.e., critically acclaimed)

So, one of our regular features here at LiT consists of updates on my wife‘s forthcoming middle-grade novel, Remarkable.

This update comes via Elizabeth Bird‘s blog, which I believe is called A Fuse #8 Production. She is a children’s librarian in the New York Public Library system.

She reported on a librarian preview for the Penguin Young Readers Group’s Spring 2012 releases. In there among the titles being released under the Dial imprint is this:

So they introduce Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley to us by saying that it’s the most impressive debut they’ve seen since Savvy.  Strong words, no?  Then they proceeded to compare it to Holes in terms of its connections between characters.  And thus the bar goes up another notch.  I’m rather pleased with the premise, though.  In the town of Remarkable, everyone there is precisely that . . . except Jane.  This may well be a rallying cry for the dorky girls of the world.  Or at least the ones with overly talented siblings.

Savvy is Ingrid Law’s 2008 Newberry-winning novel, and Holes is Louis Sachar’s 1998 also-Newberry-winning novel.

In 2003, Holes was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight. Holes also starred a young Shia LaBoeuf in his jump to the big screen.

So, without Holes, there would have been no Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which would have been okay, except that our culture would subsequently have been robbed of the phrase “Nuke the Fridge.”

More importantly, we would never have had video of Shia getting beaten up by a shirtless (alleged) Canadian. (NB: You only need to watch the first few seconds of the video, up to the point where the guy on crutches breaks up the fight. After that it’s just some dude slow-dancing with Shia.)

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

My wife’s book is going to be just like that!

Blog 4 Book Lovers review of Remarkable

So, regular reader will already know that my wife, Lizzie Foley, has her debut middle-grade novel coming out next April. I have already explained to you how excellent the book is, and how you should plan on buying it for your kid, and how you should buy a second copy for yourself.

Now, you may be thinking that since she is my wife, I’m not in a position to provide an unbiased assessment of her book. That may be fair in general, but in this case, my biased appraisal of the book also happens to be exactly correct.

As evidence, let me point you to this review, which was just posted at Blog 4 Book Lovers. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the many things about this book that impressed me was how the author juggled an incredible range of topics without making anything in the book seem ridiculous.  The story goes from pirates to sea monsters to fortune telling pizza makers.  I’d never read anything like that.  Another thing were the realistic characters – it must have been something in the writing, because I swear I could picture Jane right next to me.

Here’s a reminder of what the cover looks like (modulo any tweaking that happens in the next six months):

Buy. Read. Enjoy.

Transistor Rodeo in Cafe Review

So, it’s been a little while since I’ve done poetry-related self promotion, and I know you’ve been missing it.

A few months ago, the Cafe Review published a Festschrift dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali. This was exciting for a few reasons:

1) Agha Shahid Ali is awesome, and every literary magazine should devote a Festschrift to him.

2) I learned what a Festschrift is. Apparently it’s German for “party paper.”

3) Since Transistor Rodeo won the Agha Shahid Ali prize, they were kind enough to review it in the issue. They also included a few new poems of mine, which are sort of modified ghazals. I tried writing some actual ghazals, but found that I could not pull it off. So I started tweaking the form. And tweaking it. And tweaking it. Eventually, I settled on a form that now goes by the name “Thus in the Limit.”

Here’s the generous and thoughtful review, by Michael Macklin:

If you are looking for poems that surprise, let me mention this unassuming mother lode. Try these lines from “Love Song”: 

      Words leapt from your mouth then
      like a gymnast on the moon.  You were so
      lively and full of pockets. 

Don’t worry, I am not giving away secrets: There are a number of poems entitled “Love Song” in this slender volume. But I would use this opening stanza as a description of what Jon Wilkins, the poet, does. Using the same title for each of a series of poems, he sends words zipping and zinging through our senses like a knife-throwing magician, then ducks behind the nearest title for a new and completely differently balanced set of knives: 

      Always assume it is your lover
      who stands
you said at the end
      of every tunnel and is waving 

      a scarf or an axe. . . . 

Leap to the next “Love Song,” and so on. But Wilkins is not just fast of flashy; he prays, catalogues, theorizes. He does these things by himself in the loneliness of space, or else naked and drunk after the prom with William Carlos Williams in his own Mean-Joe-Green-meets-the-boy-with-a-Coke version of “Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina.” 

In the section called “Prayers,” Wilkins uses the titles to place us in a specific time, physical space, and attitude, i.e. “7:34 am, styrofoam cup, metal table / Prayer”: 

      Still too early
      for beautiful
      people. Just
      the dust
      mask / leaf
      blower who
      may / may not
      regret former
      truancies and that scar.

His prayers are bright, twisted pieces of cellophane that wrap the everyday in what feels like the mathematics of modern meditations. He uses slashes to turn his short lines into fractions, as though he were working out the balance necessary to prove his theories on God / world. He ends this prayer, “Lord, make me hot as coffee, / and I’ll melt this world like sugar.” Wouldn’t we all like to believe that of ourselves? 

If I had been taught prayer or mathematics by Wilkins, I might have stuck with them. Not because I always agree with him, but because he would keep me fascinated by what was coming next. His ability to keep us off balance and interested is uncanny. As he says in “Please don’t hate me because I’m perfect”: 

      God, I wish I had a nickname like Rabbit.
      I wish I’d spent more time swimming as a kid. 

He leaves us wishing as well.

And here are the three poems that were included in the issue:

Thus in the Limit

Just like you, she came here for the fountains
of youth and chocolate. She found them occupado.

Occupational hazards and other children follow
her through the streets, but the alleys disobey,

dissolving like salt behind her. You can find her now
tucked in behind the baking soda with her umbrella,

unbearable to her parents, who claw at the old country,
backs to a black hole of immodesty and television,

transvestites and flavored mayonnaise, of mountains,
moonless nights that almost resemble, almost reassemble

Thus in the Limit

Just like you she came here with a bag full
of chalk and yellow tape. Her fear of snakes

sneaks up on her now and again, coiling her
on herself like the long braids of the peculiar

pelacur girls she used to watch with a braid
of envy, fear, and desire. She is a tidal wave,

a tiny wafer, lingering on the tongue
of a Priest, full of unsprung anticipation,

an incipience and a retrospect and the twisted cable
connecting them, impossibly long and longing

Thus in the Limit

Just like you she came here overflowing
with a need to feel superior, an age-old

rage holds her heart – gentle but joyless,
resentful, like holding the hair of the girl

hurling in the dorm toilet. Still beautiful –
still never going to fuck you. One day she

may see you again, and generations later
erupt like a pimple on a weedy chlapec,

slapstick now, from far away, but the boy
is a killer, has no nation, no hesitation

The Genetical Book Review: The Psychopath Test

So, welcome back to the Genetical Book Review! This episode? The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronon. Ronson is the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, which the movie was based on.

Also, his name is what my name would be if I were from Iceland.

The Psychopath Test traces Ronson’s exploration of psychopathy: what a psychopath is, how you identify one, the effect they have on society, and society’s efforts to contain them. The book is written engagingly, and makes for a quick read, even if you’re as slow a reader as I am. Ronson mixes historical and medical information with interviews of both psychopaths and the doctors who have sought to define and/or treat them. Some of the accounts, you can imagine, touch on some fairly gruesome events, but the light manner of the writing should make the material palatable even for those with weaker stomachs for that sort of thing.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the fact that the material is presented chronologically — not in the order that things happened, but in the order that Ronson learned about and understood them (ostensibly, at least). The effect is a really interesting one, which fits well with what seems to be one of the books goals. By the end of the book, Ronson has deconstructed the whole notion of sanity/insanity, as well as the motives of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, police, the entertainment industry, and journalists, including himself.

He achieves the effect by writing in a sort of semi-gonzo, close first person, chronicling his own reactions and beliefs along the journey. First, he learns x, and so he believes X. Then, in the next chapter, he learns y, and starts to doubt his belief in X. And so on throughout the book. The result is a message that is fragmented, but also nuanced and faceted. This mixture of sometimes contradictory conclusions actually seems quite fitting, given the complexity of the phenomenon, and our limited understanding of it.

Even out of that complexity though, there are two big take-home messages that rise above the others.

First is the fact that psychopathy is not really a well-defined, discrete thing. There is a continuum not only of severity, but of type. Two people could both score high on the eponymous psychopath test (constructed by Bob Hare, who features prominently in the book), but actually exhibit quite different suites of behavior.

This, of course, is not news to anyone who has spent time studying psychiatric disorders (or any other sort of complex disease). Labeling is a necessary part of science and of medicine, as it is what allows us to communicate with each other in an efficient way. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves that these labels refer to abstractions, and that the thing we care about is typically a lot more complicated, and a lots less well understood, than a monolithic label implies.

Which is to say, while it might not be news, it is always good to be reminded of it.

Second is the idea that there are a lot of aspects of society that have a vested interest in reducing people to their maddest edges, as Ronson puts it. Reality television and daytime talk shows seek out people who have something going on that is crazy enough to be entertaining, and then edit out all the boring (read “sane”) bits. Journalists do likewise, seeking out the extreme behaviors and personalities that will make for good quotations and compelling stories. Pharmaceutical companies benefit monetarily from the application of clinical labels to any behavior that lies outside the norm.

And so forth.

There are obviously a lot of very ill people out there. But there are also people in the middle, getting overlabeled, becoming nothing more than a big splurge of madness in the minds of the people who benefit from it.

The other thing that struck me was the chapter on the DSM, the big book that defines all mental illnesses. I think I had always assumed that there was some sort of rigorous, evidence-based process by which disorders were included or excluded. It seems that, well, not so much. It seems more like it is a veneer of codification laid on top of a bunch of idiosyncratic opinions, passed through a filter of special interests. Sigh.

Basically, if you work in the field, you may already be familiar with many of the stories, and may already have internalized many of the punchlines. But, for most people, The Psychopath Test provides an entertaining, informative, and often troubling look at medicalization and exploitation of mental health in our society.

Ronson, Jon. The Psychopath Test. New York: Riverhead Books, 2011.

Hare, R. D. (1980). A research scale for the assessment of psychopathy in criminal populations Personality and Individual Differences, 1 (2), 111-120 : 10.1016/0191-8869(80)90028-8

Buy it now!!

What’s that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Psychopath Test  now through:


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Remarkable on Amazon

So, just a couple of days ago, I posted about the fact that my wife received advance copies of her book. We’ve just learned that it is already available for preorder on Amazon. You can check it out here.

If you rub your hand on your computer screen, you can imagine that the large, red “Remarkable” is in raised letters.

At the moment, the Amazon page has the age range listed as 4-8, but that’s a typo. The target age group is actually more in the 8-14 range. Basically the same age group as the first few Harry Potter books.

Here’s the product description:

A wonderfully whimsical debut that proves ordinary people can do extraordinary things 

In the mountain town of Remarkable, everyone is extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily gifted, or just plain extraordinary. Everyone, that is, except Jane Doe, the most average ten-year-old who ever lived. But everything changes when the mischievous, downright criminal Grimlet twins enroll in Jane’s school and a strange pirate captain appears in town. 

Thus begins a series of adventures that put some of Remarkable’s most infamous inhabitants and their long-held secrets in danger. It’s up to Jane, in her own modest style, to come to the rescue and prove that she is capable of some rather exceptional things. 

With a page-turning mystery and larger-than-life cast of characters, Lizzie K. Foley’s debut is nothing short of remarkable.

Amazon promises that if you order now with two-day shipping, you’ll receive the book the day it comes out . . . in a little under seven months.

Remarkable ARCs

So, it’s been a little while since I posted an update on my brilliant wife‘s upcoming book. A couple of weeks ago she got these in the mail: 

These are ARCs, which apparently stands for “Advance Reader Copies.” That is just one of many acronyms that these children’s publishing types throw around. (Children’s publishing is sort of like the military that way.)

As you can see from the picture, the book will come out in Synchronous Reader Copy form in April 2012.

My wife’s two-page catalog spread

So, the winter catalog just came out from Dial (which is part of Penguin), and it contains a nice two-page spread about my wife, Lizzie Foley, and her forthcoming middle-grade novel, Remarkable. I’ve written about her and her book before, here and here. The key piece of information here is that it will be coming out on April 12, 2012, and I guess that if you want to purchase a nine-copy floor display, you may do so for $152.91.

Oh, and that the Export Territory is “WOO”

Because the text on the pages is a little bit hard to read in the images, here is the excerpt:

In the distance, Jane could see the tall, castlelike building that was home to Remarkable’s School for the Remarkably Gifted. She imagined that her sister and brother were having a fabulous, nonboring day at their fabulous, nonboring school. They probably hadn’t even bothered to notice how interesting this Wednesday wasn’t.

She took a deep breath, which she was planning on using to exhale a long, bored sigh, when suddenly she saw a straw wrapper float into the classroom through the open window. The wrapper glided toward her and landed gently on top of her desk.

Jane was so surprised that it took her a moment to notice that there was tiny spiky handwriting on the straw wrapper. She squinted at it.

“GET READY,” it read in all-capital letters. 

The picture on the second page is what she looks like now. The picture on the first page is what she looked like when we met, and I first developed the almost crippling crush on her that I still have today.

My wife interviews the creator of the evil supervillain Zachary Ruthless

So, although this blog tends not to dwell on personal topics, I have written before (here and here) about my wife, Lizzie K. Foley, whose middle-grade novel, Remarkable, is slated to come out next April under the Dial imprint of Penguin. This makes her a member of the Apocalypsies, a group of writers whose first middle-grad or young-adult novels come out in 2012. The Apocalypsies have a group blog, the motto of which is “Read ’em like there’s no tomorrow!”

The Apocalypsies are posting interviews with authors from the analogous 2011 group. My wife has just posted her interview with Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless, which introduces us to this child supervillain.

Here’s an excerpt:

1. So I’m working under the assumption that this book is autobiographical. Do you care to elaborate?

My book, Mr. Fuzzy Pants Goes To The Zoo, is the heartwarming story of Carl the Cockatoo who falls in love with a pair of pants. I love zoos and … wait! What’s this? They changed the title to The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless … (pulling out hair) … What the … (spitting and slamming fist) … This isn’t the book I wrote! How dare they! (howling and stomping) … They’ll be sorry! I’ll blast them with ray guns! Hide their notebook paper! Put spiders in their shoes! Eat their dessert! I’ll … I’ll … but to answer your question, no this story isn’t autobiographical at all. Why would you think that?

 Check out the rest of the interview here.