Sunday, December 30, 2007

The best of the season

Best read of the year, hands down the oh-my-gawd-this-book-is-so-devastatingly-inside-my-head book:
The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers.

Best book published in 2007:
Well, I didn't read them all, did I?, but I have a fondness for Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje.

Book that made me cry:
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, by Patrick Hamilton, in particular The Plains of Cement, being Ella's story and the last of the trilogy of novellas published under that umbrella title.

Book that didn't live up to its hype:
The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver.
Oh, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, was a pretty gawdawful excuse for a dystopian postapocaptic novel — hated it.

Best "discovery":
Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolaño.

Book I couldn't finish:
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Book I feel I wasted my time on:
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.

Most awesome book to have received as a review copy and keep on one's coffee table:
The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats, introduced and annotated by Philip Nel.

Book I've raved about and recommended to the most people, and to cross-dressing lesbians in particular:
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

Book whose publication I'm most anticipating:
The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Book (on my shelf) I'm most looking forward to reading — OK, books plural, I can't pick one, but oh, which one do I start next?, I can't decide:
The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon, by Alexandre Dumas.
The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.

Number of books read in 2007, including the one I expect to finish in the next day or two but not counting the one (of the 2 listed above) that I intend to start when I crawl into bed tonight: 50.

Books I'm still thinking about, 1 and 2 years after the fact, and concerning which I continue to have revelations and mean to explore further (in writing, here):

War and Peace (read 2006), the crux of my idea being that the post-hunt scene — the meal, the dance — is central, the near physical centre of the novel, but the heart and soul of it too, and a turning point, when characters finally feel — know — their Russianness, and the French militarily begin to flounder, almost as if this reclaiming of Russianness thumbs its nose at all things French and aristocratic to claim a moral, soulful victory over war itself.

Don Quixote (read 2005), having an understanding (thanks to Alberto Manguel's Massey lectures) of why it is a quintessentially Spanish book — while its themes are pretty universal, blah, blah, blah, I hadn't understood what was so Spanish about it, why it should strike a chord in the Spanish soul more so than that of any other reader, and realizing that it is because it taps into a cultural memory, that the Spanish reader may not even consciously know, that the book parallels Spain's own history in its struggle for identity, with there always being some doubt as to whether it is authentically Spanish or Moorish in origin, with any physical/cultural/social artefact evidencing the one often masquerading as the other.

Hours spent watching Doctor Who this holiday season (including the Christmas special, available on youtube if you didn't already know): infinite, matching the number of times we've said "Allons-y, Alonso!" in this household.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Poet avenger

Discuss:

What we expect from poets is that they avenge evil somehow.


— From "A Note on Poetic Justice," in Other Colors: Essays and a Story, by Orhan Pamuk.

[In what must be a subconscious attempt at editorialization, I keep typing "pests" instead of "poets"...]

Sunday, December 09, 2007

When books talk to each other

Doris Lessing meets Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

It's a way of unprivileging our own position as readers, reminding us, as Ms. Lessing does, that we are only one of the many sets of people who will leave traces of themselves during this planet's existence.


(Via ScribblingWoman2.)

What I read this past week

(Whittling my way through the stack.)

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.
Hmm. Didn't like it much. It's not exactly "Rubbish!" but nor would I name it one of my "top 100 novels of the century." There's some humour in it, the kind that makes you chuckle uncomfortably. It's unsettling, not least because you have to rely on a narrator that seems not entirely credible. Frank in his childhood killed a few kids, but it was just a stage he was going through. But Frank's boastful, and he exaggerates, and he's prone to melodrama of a macabre kind. So we don't know. So many things are left unexplained — the questions, of course, drove me forward. But. Hmm. Surprise ending, yes. The ending makes the journey worthwhile, though it only raises more questions, but it finally places the whole of the book in a context by which to ask and consider the right questions.

Right. I'm not convincing anyone to read this book, am I? It's not without merit. It's weird and kind of creepy (to its credit), and I would recommend it if you have a thing for exploring gender roles and social experiments (of the 'let's raise the kid by homeschooling/by extreme indulgence or the opposite/by dumping the responsibility on distant relatives' kind, kind of).

The Mustache, by Emmanuel Carrère.
Neat. Great premise: A guy shaves his mustache, the one he's worn forever, and no one notices, not his wife, friends, or colleagues, so he figures they're playing an elaborate joke, but his wife's insistence leads him to think she must be crazy, or that he's crazy, and his whole sense of self — his whole life — unravels.

I liked the movie better. The focus is a little different: you spend the book inside the husband's head, but in the movie you watch the disconnect in a married relationship. The acting is superb: silent glances convey pages of 'he knows she knows he thinks she's thinking...' (And the soundtrack featuring Philip Glass's Violin Concerto is perfectly hypnotic.) But the book has a better ending, that he's "appeased by the certitude that now it was over, everything was back in place."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Nobel words

Doris Lessing's Nobel lecture: On Not Winning the Nobel Prize.

Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

One down, far to go

This week I read Doris Lessing's The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, her sequel to Mara and Dann.

It wasn't so much of a letdown as I'd been led to expect. On the other hand, while it could stand as its own story, I don't see it working for someone who doesn't have the baggage of Mara and Dann.

For all the other characters named in the title, it's mostly about Dann. I'd've liked to hear more about Griot. But Griot doesn't seem to know himself very well — he doesn't remember his childhood; he realizes that he's not particularly clever, or charismatic, or ambitious even, and he's jealous of people who are; he's never really questioned himself or his way about things — no one's ever asked him "What did you see?" (but really see) — but maybe he's just starting to when the story ends.

As I said, it's mostly about Dann — Dann wandering around and not doing much at first, and then Dann moping about and being depressed. Which finally made sense to me, because if you've been wandering around your whole life struggling against starvation and drought and slavery and tyranny and war and evil in general, and you somehow get past it all, and you keep wandering around and all you see around you is people fighting more of the same kind, or some variation, of starvation and flooding and slavery and tyranny and war and evil in general, you start to think what is the fucking point of it all. Which is what Dann does. And like all the millions of people who've lived Dann's life and got past it, Dann gets past it too. More or less.

The writing is simple. In Mara and Dann the style helps lend it the quality of fable. This story doesn't have the sweep to let simple stand; it's more psychological and could do with more exposition. On the other hand, given the phrasing, I can hear the story being told — it's of an oral tradition — which lends it sincerity.

Blah, blah, blah, don't bother reading it unless you're a big Lessing fan; it's kind of depressing.

*****

I'm finding my reading rhythm again. I hadn't realized how important was reading on my short commute until I'd lost that rhythm. And how important it is to have this respite as the weather grows colder and the commute becomes more unpleasant (I no longer shake my head and gripe to myself — I speak up. Don't lean on the pole — 6 people need to hold on to that pole. Move away from the door — look, 3 people could stand in that pocket you've created — no matter if you're getting off next stop. Speaking up gets results, dammit.). The trick is having a book in hand; it's not good enough to have one tucked in my bag somewhere. And just do it: read while waiting, read in the metro, while standing and hanging on for dear life, but considerately — keep your book close; rummaging about in your bag will not do. Read while waiting for your espresso (allongé 3/4) to be drawn. Just do it, like going to bed early and eating right and walking more and blogging.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Easy Reader



"Top to bottom and left to right, readin' stuff is outta sight!"

Monday, November 26, 2007

The other books lying around

In no particular order (except for maybe they happen to be piled this way, and ordering them in any other fashion is beyond me for the moment).

(At this very moment I am between (fiction) books — but just for the moment, having finished New Grub Street last night and intending to choose one of the following for when I tuck into bed early this evening. Oh, but which one?)

The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi.
An Islamic saga dating back to perhaps as early as the seventh century, chronicling warriors, kings, tricksters, fairies, courtesans, and magical creatures. Which I received on my birthday actually, but it's a review copy, so I'm not really sure it counts. But it kind of does, cuz it's an awesome gift of a book. "Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction"!

The florid news writers, the sweet-lipped historians, revivers of old tales and renewers of past legends, relate that there ruled at Ctesiphon in Persia (image of Heaven!) Emperor Qubad Kamran, who cherished his subjects and was a succor to the impecunious in their distress. He was unsurpassed in dispensing justice, and so rigorous in this exercise that the best justice appeared an injustice compared to his decree.


Excerpt.
Blog.

The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing.
Because I love-love-loved Mara and Dann, and this is the sequel, and though I hear it's something of a letdown, I have-have-have to know what becomes of them.

Only Revolutions, by Mark Danielewski.
A review copy, received at the time of its release in paperback. I keep turning it over and over. Still I can't make up my mind which end to start reading it from.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.
Because I've been intrigued by the write-ups of a few of this author's books, and last spring's discussion at Bookblog made me pick up a copy. I'm not sure if there are actually any wasps in it, but it seems to have enough else (its surreal quality! and a psychopath!) to recommend it, including a blurb on the back cover from The Times (London) calling it "Rubbish!"

Zig Zag, by José Carlos Somosa.
I loved The Art of Murder by this author, not least for its genre-blending but most particularly for its utterly unique premise. Zig Zag seems to lean toward more conventional SF, and I expect it will complement nicely the discussions we've had in this household of late regarding the possibility of watching the past as it unfolds (if you travel x light years and have a superstrong telescope...).

The Mustache, by Emmanuel Carrère.
Something a little metaphysical — that age-old problem of identity. A couple bloggers wrote about it last year, and I saw the movie in-between. My copy includes another novel, Class Trip, but I'll try the mustache on for size first.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker.
I hadn't meant to buy this book — I have another unfinished Pinker by my bed, and having read a full 3 of his already, I don't expect anything exactly new. Which is fine, because even if I'm familiar with the concepts, any idea he chooses to flesh out will make an interesting and entertaining read. But then I went to hear his presentation on the book, and I got caught up in all the excitement and bought one to get it signed. Yes, I will write about the lecture someday, but now I feel I should really read the book first to do it justice.

(The problem with reading non-fiction, for me, is that I need to digest it in small bites. Which means I need to be reading something else between meals. Literary snacking. Which for me is vaguely unsatisfying, and leaves me feeling spread thin, unfocused. I don't like this feeling, but don't see a way around it.)

Other Colors: Essays and a Story, by Orhan Pamuk.
Another review copy. I've dipped into it a few times. It's not the sort of book to read in one sitting. I will endeavour to post snippets and my thoughts about the book (I have some!) accordingly, from time to time.

Do you think I can read them all by year's end?

Of course, there's a ton of other books lying around, most notably Infinite Jest, which I vow to finish, erm, someday. Somehow I don't see myself even starting on Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle this year.

I, for one (probably the only one), wouldn't mind having an ebook reader. Heck, I've wanted one for years. Guarantee me that it won't be obsolete anytime soon and that books I actually want to read are available in this format, and I'm sold (assuming it's moderately priced). I've run out of shelf space as well as space for more shelves and money for more space.

Are you reading anything good right now? Anything great? Anything in particular you're trying to clean off your plate?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The books lying around, and Grub in particular

(Which post turns out to be really about just the one book, my having lost focus, or found focus, and saving some other ramblings for later.)

Books received for my birthday: None.
It's like no one really knows me.

Books I have hanging about the house, and which I'm dying to read, but seem to have absolutely no time for:

New Grub Street, by George Gissing.
This is a library book it seems like it's taking me forever to read, but it feels like very suddenly I'm approaching the end. I looked into Gissing on the recommendation of... something I read somewhere, ages ago, by someone I respect (was it Doris Lessing?), and because of comments regarding Patrick Hamilton to the effect that Hamilton is the literary descendant of Dickens via Gissing. Well, I'd read some Dickens, so now some Gissing.

I don't find Gissing to inspire page-turning the way either Hamilton or Dickens do, but he does show keen insight into the workings of the world. Two things in particular fascinate me about this book:

1. Publishing — is it about art or about business? which only goes to show that the various crises the publishing industry regularly faces along with the criticisms hurled at bestselling authors for writing to formula and having no literary merit are not new.

2. Women. The period covered is one of transition: women are finding independence and starting to earn their own way in the world without shame. The Married Women's Property Act has just come into effect.

The matter of divorce: "Isn't it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can't do so and be quite free again?"

Gissing is modern. He's a feminist.

(And it's this transition in women's status that I find profoundly interesting. There's a little of this in Hamilton, and more of it in Christina Stead's Letty Fox; women working in shops but still aspiring to husbands of means. I've read books about women on estates with servants and about modern women, but very little about those in between, as if they never existed, though they may be the most real of all.)

Oh, and 3. The middle class, the admission that there is one.

"Biffen," he continued, "when I first made his acquaintance, had an idea of writing for the working classes; and what do you think he was going to offer them? Stories about the working classes! Nay, never hang your head for it, old boy; it was excusable in the days of your youth. Why, Mr. Reardon, as no doubt you know well enough, nothing can induce working men or women to read stories that treat of their own world. They are the most consumed idealists in creation, especially the women. Again and again work-girls have said to me: 'Oh, I don't like that book; it's nothing but real life.'"

"It's the fault of women in general," remarked Reardon.

"So it is, but it comes out with delicious naiveté in the working classes. Now, educated people like to read of scenes that are familiar to them, though I grant you that the picture must be idealised if you're to appeal to more than one in a thousand. The working classes detest anything that tries to represent their daily life. It isn't because that life is too painful; no, no; it's downright snobbishness. Dickens goes down only with the best of them, and then solely because of his strength in farce and his melodrama."


It sounds like a backhanded compliment to Dickens, and Gissing may even be asserting his superiority over him. The whole thing's laden with irony: Of course, this is exactly the sort of novel Gissing has written — the daily life of the working class.

And the women characters (although not exactly work-girls), meanwhile, want to read precisely this kind of novel:

"Best or worse, novels are all the same. Nothing but love, love, love; what silly nonsense it is! Why don't people write about the really important thins of life? Some of the French novelists do; several of Balzac's, for instance. I have just been reading his 'Cousin Pons,' a terrible book, but I enjoyed it ever so much because it was nothing like a love story. What rubbish is printed about love!"

"I get rather tired of it sometimes," admitted Edith with amusement.

"I should hope you do, indeed. What downright lies are accepted as indisputable! That about love being a woman's whole life; who believes it really? Love is the most insignificant thing in most women's lives. It occupies a few months, possibly a year or two, and even then I doubt if it is often the first consideration."

Edith held her head aside, and pondered smilingly.

"I'm sure there's a great opportunity for some clever novelist who will never write about love at all."

"But then it does come into life."

"Yes, for a month or two, as I say. Think of the biographies of men and women; how many pages are devoted to their love affairs? Compare those books with novels which profess to be biographies, and you see how false such pictures are. Think of the very words 'novel,' 'romance' — what do they mean but exaggeration of one bit of life?"

"That may be true. But why do people find the subject so interesting.?"

"Because there is so little love in real life. That's the truth of it. Why do poor people care only for stories about the rich? The same principle."


Gissing's a realist, with a touch of the cynic about him. This novel does deal with matters of love, in fact, but these are matters of business and of complications, and of how other (better?) relationships are sullied by these.

And I'm enjoying this novel because it's nothing like a love story.

Has anyone else read Gissing?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Waiting for the Doctor

In 1984, you could exterminate a Dalek by pushing it out of a 2nd storey window.

Since the 3rd season of the new series of Doctor Who ended, Helena and I have been borrowing the old series from the library. Our selections are made in a haphazard fashion — in this sense I'm revisiting it the way I saw it in my youth, and Helena is experiencing it for the first time much the way I did: randomly, but memorably.

A current favourite: "The Resurrection of the Daleks." I marvel at the seeming ease with which the fearsome Daleks are disposed (see in particular this clip, through to about 1:39).

We're glad to know Davros now, as he's rumoured to be returning.

And we'll be scouring the web this weekend for a glimpse of the 5th Doctor.

See also Ed's impression of "The Caves of Androzani."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Un tas de complete vieux bollox."

Did anyone besides myself actually read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth through to the end? Did you hate it as much as I did?

Do you care that Mosse has a new book out (Sepulchre)? Will you waste your time on it?

Read the digested read instead.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The literary man of 1882

"...But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I — well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits. Now, look you: if I had been in Reardon's place, I'd have made four hundred at least out of "The Optimist"; I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and — all sorts of people. Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street. But our Grub Street of to-day is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy."


— from New Grub Street, by George Gissing.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The 2007 Massey Lectures

...one of which I was fortunate enough to attend (more on this as soon as I'm able)...

Read: The City of Words, by Alberto Manguel.
Listen: The Massey Lectures, broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas, November 5 – 9. The Q&A sessions that followed each lecture will likely not be aired on the radio, but will be podcast.
Participate: House of Anansi Press forum.

Browse past Massey Lectures (to read or listen, by the likes of Doris Lessing, Carlos Fuentes, John Ralston Saul).
The Massey Lectures: background.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Pirate girl

It was February when she announced she wanted to be a pirate for Halloween, and every few weeks thereafter, she reminded me of the fact.

For the third year in a row, Helena showed up at daycare in "home-made" costume. I'm not averse to spending the money on a prepackaged ensemble, but we've yet to come across one that satisfies Helena's whims to her standards.

Pirate, fortunately, is a fairly straightforward costume to assemble. This year's pièce de resistance: parrot on shoulder.

Halloween has been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, one of the toughest days of the year for me as a mother. I continue to grapple with encouraging Helena's individuality, while fearing for the potential devastation of not fitting in.

Meanwhile, Helena has the distinction of being one of very few non-princess girls.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"The snows of yesterday"

The war came. My friends fell away, most married and soon were showing their young bodies much swollen in parks, and, later on, were sitting with their fair and dark hairs pinned up, in new cotton Mother Hubbards, playing watch-dog to baby carriages. They looked very youthful, more than I did, and very vapid, as if they had never been to school and never read a book. They looked like themselves at the age of four; and soon — after that — but I'm advancing the clock a bit — they had with them replicas of themselves at the age of four; and by that time had aged, looked careworn, a bit thinner, and were urging me to go back to Mother, get married, think of the older values. They kept asking me if I believed in those ideological salves; if ideology itself was not the soporific of the people and whether women especially ought not to go back to the old race-ways. Later on, this emptiness of head gave them heartaches. They became unhappy with their husbands. If their husbands were away at war, needing something to think about, they became the most serious possible little nuns of the progressive school movement and worried about diet, and should you spank Junior! But where were the lively, smart girls of my adolescence — where are the snows of yesterday?


— from Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead, published in 1946.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Oh, nothing frightens me!"



For the little terrors in your life: The 13 Ghosts of Halloween, written by Robin Muller and illustrated by Patricia Storms.

The story's told in verse and singable to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas, and we do slip into and out of the melody as we go. It's about 10 kids with 3 pets making their way through a haunted house.

Our copy's in French, but Patricia's charming illustrations need no translation.

Helena is particularly fond of the menacing "deux tête ratatinées" (wrinkled heads?), which happens to be very hard to say. While I twist up my tongue, this bilingual family is puzzling out translations for ourselves, a pleasure of a challenge when dealing with a vocabulary that's a little beyond the everyday.

We've been having a lot of fun counting up monsters and subtracting children on every page. The colours are fantastic, the clocks are crazy (we sure know when midnight is), and the creatures are gruesomely entertaining.

The book is also a big hit at Helena's daycare: "Non, je n'ai peur de rien!"

Patricia's blog: BookLust.
The sneak peak and other background.
Interview.

Thanks, Patricia!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Words and stuff

Or: how I plan to increase my IQ by 10 points in less than 48 hours.

Wednesday night:
Alberto Manguel delivers the 2007 Massey Lectures: The City of Words.
"How can stories lend a whole society an identity...?"

Thursday night:
Steven Pinker presents his book: The Stuff of Thought.
Now, in The Stuff of Thought, Pinker marries two of the subjects he knows best: language and human nature. The result is a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. What does swearing reveal about our emotions? Why does innuendo disclose something about relationships? Pinker reveals how our use of prepositions and tenses taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and how our nouns and verbs speak to our notions of matter. Even the names we give our babies have important things to say about our relations to our children and to society.


So how is it that two seemingly parallel constructions:
The City of Words
The Stuff of Thought
— are in fact not?

The city is made of words.
But.
The stuff makes up the thought.

My brain hurts already.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"The secret bustle of red blood"

This Lydnam Lodge was a folly and could never pay for itself. "Every egg cost a dollar," said Grandmother Morgan; but the Lodge was a convenient place to quarantine her children as each one reaped a wild oat; and it was a senseless delight, a pleasance which she felt she would allow them. She did not care for it herself. Grandmother Morgan, once she found she could not in any way turn the place into a boarding house, stayed away from it. She missed the clink of china and glass, the endless brushings of brooms, the glimmer of clean windows, the smells of rooms overfurnished with bedspreads, toilet covers, and women. She missed the bottles hidden in boot boxes, the crystal sets, the card games — especially perhaps the big poker game at which she herself was such a hand. She liked the cutting of lawns, the consultations with plumbers and plasterers, the quantities of goods in drawers and cupboards, the bustle of company, the thieving and picking, lashing of competitors, the brawling, the fight for life. Where can you feel it more than in a hotel or in a money game? She never objected even to what went on in the rooms, if these humam frailties were kept out of sight. For that was life to her, like the secret bustle of red blood, a woman who longs and fornicates and a man who thirsts and sucks. What was there out in the country, among the chickens and plants?


— from Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead.

Used books in Montreal

"Walk into a good second-hand book shop, and there's an interesting selection made by a person, not a committee."

"It's the human aspect that's fun," Raymond says, "because the shop takes on the colour of your neighbourhood." Mount Royal Ave., home to a string of used-book shops is "a very human-level street. You wouldn't have that kind of success in, say, Brossard where it's all cars. Used-book shops don't work as drive-throughs. But if there were a couple in each neighbourhood, you'd find a lot of very different shops, and books."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The girl and the cat

It's taken almost 5 years, but she's finally bigger than the cat.



The cat is not particularly enamored of this turn of events, but he's shown more patience this last month — heck, the whole 5 years — than I ever thought possible.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

You know, life

(In which the verb "to feel" is used to excess.)

Aurgh. This happens every so often: so much to say, no time to say it. All these glorious jewels and lumps of coal losing their immediacy, and amounting to nothing much, really.

See, even that paragraph above — I wrote it 4 days ago.

Umm.

Reading. I've done some. I feel like I'm in a slump. Nothing I pick up quite grabs me, with the notable exception of Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter, which has sat in a stack for years, a gift I simply had no interest in, but one evening I just picked it up, opened it, and started reading. Very poetic. It took a while to find the rhythm; in typical Ondaatje fashion, it's not entirely chronological, and not always obvious whose story is being told. But find a rhythm I did, and whether I understood what was happening didn't matter much, I was along for the ride, but then the last portion felt like a different book entirely, and then it was over, and again nothing I pick up quite grabs me.

The Post-Birthday World (Lionel Shriver) I read weeks ago. While I expected it to devastate me, it didn't. It was compelling enough, but kind of ugly. The language, the characters. If you haven't already heard, basically it follows two trajectories from a critical decision point (a kiss!) in the protagonist's life. Great concept for a novel, but none of the characters apart from Irina felt real, which maybe isn't a flaw, the point being made that we really are the heroes of our own lives, all the others merely bit players. I felt distanced (deliberately?) And of course, it's kind of the point that neither path has an entirely satisfactory conclusion, but it was more depressing than that — just ugly. It made me feel dirty even, to dare to consider the "what if," which I'm not sure was the point or has to be the case. I feel scolded for considering that things, banal things, could be any different than they are. Or maybe that ugliness isn't really there in the book — I'm juxtaposing it from some other part of my life (but where?) onto what I read, or expected to read. There's a different kind of discomfort with this book than with Kevin, and I can't put my finger on it. Maybe identifying that discomfort is the point.

I'm trying to read The Railway, by Hamid Ismailov, but I'm getting nowhere.

I'm trying to read The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I'd had it in the back of my mind to get to this someday, and one day there it was in front of me, a used copy with a dark, sketchy cover and great illustrations within. It felt like a sign, finding it that day, when I was at loose ends for what to read. But. Maybe I'd appreciate it better in the dead of winter.

Yikes. Is that all I've read (been trying to read) lately?

I've picked up Danielewski's Only Revolutions off the stack countless times, but I get hung up over which end to start reading from first, and that's just too hard for now.

I read, a month ago already, Patrick Hamilton's Unknown Assailant, being the last part of the Gorse Trilogy (the first two bits of which I read about a year ago, and this third having been not previously available). I had things to say about it, I think, and I'm stunned to discover I didn't document those thoughts here. It's decidedly weaker than Hamilton's other books, but still there was insight into character, less Gorse's than that of his victims (and I think that's a strength).

I'm starting to worry that this slump, this mood, might colour whatever book I choose to pick up next, that the next book if read at any other time might be the greatest novel ever, but in current conditions might go unrecognized by me.

So there you have it. Blah.

Work is a bit trying these days, for various reasons but a major one being the office just moved to a new location. And while it thrills most of my coworkers, it bothers me that we're now on top of a shopping centre with its massive food court giving the illusion of choice and I have to walk through the mall to and from the metro, threading my way between glassy-eyed shoppers who don't know the rules of escalator usage, and I've yet to settle on a coffee spot, and when I do, I'll still have months of training the barista to know to start my espresso, allongé 3/4, as soon as he sees me coming. All of which makes me feel angry.

The long drive to see my mother for Thanksgiving, and the long drive home, with near intolerable sleeping arrangements in between.

And I feel sick. My head won't stop hurting, partly for inadequate sleep, partly for the noises and fumes of the final renovations of the new office space and the fact that the temperature is not yet balanced (ie, it's fucking cold). And now I'm just whining. How pathetic.

I'm just not altogether here.

The girl, though, through all this is fabulous. And I feel remiss for not documenting her full fabulosity. I will try harder.

And my cat is amazing.

I did find a book this week. By accident. I'd never heard of it. I brought home Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead. From the opening page, it feels perfect. (Does it qualify as chick lit, I wonder.) I feel a little bad for leaving other books unfinished (it's out of character, besides), but I think I'm going to go read it now.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Fourth-rate science fiction"

Doris Lessing is a favourite of mine, and today she won the Nobel prize for literature.

The veteran US literary critic Harold Bloom has so far provided the only voice of dissent. Describing the academy's decision as "pure political correctness", he said to the Associated Press today that "although Ms Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."


I was introduced to the work of Doris Lessing almost 20 years ago, in a class on dystopian literature: we studied The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five.

The Fifth Child made me dread having children. I think of this book often; when I look at my child and think how lucky I am, I am choked by the realization — the sense Lessing imparted in that slim novel — of how little control I have over who my child is.

I happened to be reading The Good Terrorist in the early part of September 2001. It's the banality of the protagonist's life that stunned me.

Mara and Dann is, for its fairy-tale quality, my favourite, from which I learned to play the game: What Did You See?

All of these affected me quite profoundly.

And there were others in between.

I read The Golden Notebook just a couple years ago. I haven't yet managed to write about it. The best books are the hardest to write about. Even the preface had me crying out, "Yes."

From "Problems, Myths and Stories," in Time Bites:
...when you belong to a reading generation, there is a whole web or map of references, information, knowledge that you have taken for granted; you realise that reading has been a parallel education, filling and extending what education you in fact did have. With contemporaries you talk from inside this web, or net, or reference,...


From "A Reissue of The Golden Notebook," in Time Bites:
I have to conclude that fiction is better at "the truth" than a factual record.


I quite agree.

Give me fourth-rate science fiction any day.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"Humanity entered a new space age"

"I say without hesitation and without excuse that this is a turning point in history. Never has the threat of Soviet Communism been so great, or the need for countries to organize themselves against it."

— British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, November 1957.

Sputnik, launched 50 years ago today.

You are here:

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

Click!

"Finding Patrick Hamilton feels somewhat like joining a secret society."

(Thanks, Tom.)

Ah, to live life as a not-quite-5-year-old

Me: "You're always singing. Why are you always singing?"
Helena: "Because I love singing."

The girl is always singing. Most days I adore the constant chatter, the voice experimenation, the musical nonsense, the running commentary of her day put to song. It puts a smile on my face.

Some days I wish she'd shut up already. But she sounds so... so happy.

Me: "How come you're so happy?"
Helena, with a roll of her eyes at the obvious: "Because it's fun."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things I discovered while browsing in the magazine shop during my lunch break

1. Tim Parks reviews That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, in the London Review of Books. And still he thinks very little of William Weaver's ability as a translator. (I haven't read That Awful Mess, but I really, really want to.)

2. The Insufferable Gaucho, by Roberto Bolaño, in The New Yorker.

In spite of everything, his life was happy. It's hard not to be happy, he used to say, in Buenos Aires, which is a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, although if you look closely it's more like a perfect blend of Lyons and Prague. Every day, he got up at the same time as his children, had breakfast with them, and dropped them off at school. He spent the rest of the morning reading at least two newspapers; and, after a snack at eleven (consisting basically of cold cuts and sausage on buttered French bread and two or three little glasses of Argentine or Chilean wine, except on special occasions, when the wine was, naturally, French), he took a siesta until one. His lunch, which he ate on his own in an enormous, empty dining room while reading a book under the absentminded gaze of the elderly maid, and the black-and-white gaze of his deceased wife looking out from photographs in ornate silver frames, was light: soup and a small portion of fish and mashed potatoes, some of which he would allow to go cold. In the afternoon, he helped his children with their homework, or sat through Cuca's piano lessons in silence, or Bebe's English and French classes, given by two teachers with Italian surnames, who came to the house. Sometimes, when Cuca had learned to play a whole piece, the maid and the cook would come to listen, too, and the lawyer, filled with pride, would hear them murmur words of praise, which struck him at first as excessive, but then, on reflection, seemed perfectly apt. After saying good night to his children and reminding his domestic staff for the umpteenth time not to open the door to anyone, he went to his favorite café, on Corrientes, where he would stay until one at the very latest, listening to his friends or friends of theirs discussing issues that he suspected he would find supremely boring if he knew anything about them, after which he went back home, where everyone was asleep.


Ah, life.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A trick of the light

In the evening we went to see "Angel Street," which I recommend to anyone who wants to be absorbed and taken out of his daily round of interests. You sit on the edge of your chair most of the time and it is really a grand mystery story. Every member of the cast is excellent.

The handsome villain is so well played that the audience hisses him, and the old detective is a joy. But the part which seems to me incredibly hard to play, night after night, is that of the wife, who is slowly being driven insane by her husband — a very fine piece of acting.

— Eleanor Roosevelt


Angel Street, by Patrick Hamilton. Or Gaslight as it is perhaps better known (in large part thanks to the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and introducing Angela Lansbury).

Earlier this summer, I watched the movie, and the British film that came before it. While thoroughly enjoyable, and with more similarities than differences, apart from telling a great, thrilling, suspenseful mystery story, they didn't wow me. I'd seen the Hollywood movie years ago, so I knew the basic plot. I dozed off a few times during the British movie, so I'm not sure I'm not lying when I say I've watched this one too. I watched them dutifully, as a completist, to find the Patrick Hamilton in them. I found a little: mostly in the maid, her aspiring beyond her station. There wasn't the drink and thoughtless cruelty I've come to associate with Hamilton, though there was cruelty, deliberate and purposeful — Hamilton does seem to have an interest in the mechanisms of cruelty of all kinds. And madness — certainly madness is central to Hangover Square, but most of Hamilton's characters are one way or another driven out of their minds (in a much looser sense), usually through a fog of drink, by desperate circumstances (does tedium count?).

So, what of the play? How much liberty had been taken with the films? How much Hamilton was in them really? I hunted, pinpointed, and purchased a copy of the play, in a charming shop.

I've mentioned before that I'm not one much for reading plays — they're meant to be seen, after all — but this was a wholly engrossing reading experience. (Maybe I should read more plays.)

It speaks to Ingrid Bergman's screen presence, if not her performance (for which she received an Oscar), that I couldn't help but picture her as I began reading the first act. It speaks to the strength of Hamilton's writing that by the end of that act that picture had entirely vanished.

The play is — as plays ought to be, I guess — tighter, without superfluous backstory or unnecessary complications. Hollywood added a layer of coincidences, which I now see for the distractions they are. Here, every word — and, I imagine, every look — counts. Here, everything cuts to the chase.

Mrs Manningham. But I'm married to him. You must go. I must think this out. You must go. I must cling to the man I married. Mustn't I?

Rough. Indeed, cling to him by all means, but do not imagine you are the only piece of ivy, on the garden wall. You can cling to him if you desire, as his fancy women in the low resorts of the town cling to him. This is the sort of wall you have to cling to, Ma'am.


*****

Gaslight has returned to the stage this past summer. The director of the London production makes the point that it is quite a modern play, and a good play.

"It actually calls for stylish and truthful acting. There's no way you could play it with your hand on your chest. There's no requirement to be histrionic. The tone of it is too well-written and in that sense it's a 1930s play, not a pastiche 1880s play. In actual Victorian melodrama, the situations were much more extreme and bloody than they are here."

...

"It's difficult to talk about it, because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a thriller in the Victorian manner, but it's a thriller written by someone who can really write. He pitches you into the situation between the husband and wife within three lines of the opening. You don't know how you get into the terror — it just happens after about three sentences."

Far from being passé, the play, he believes, was ahead of its time. "Without wishing to sound too portentous about it, you can see the hint of a play that, in a different world, in a different theatre, he might have written — about sex."

The flirtatious relationship that Manningham has with his maid-servant, one of the many means by which he sadistically undermines his wife, is telling: "The maid is very important in creating the atmosphere of the play, suggesting the kind of middle-class marriage where the wife is neurotic and not available to her husband. Gaslight is not a feminist play but it's a marvellous portrait of a desolate marriage. It's hetero-hell."


The play as written on the page turned out to be a good deal steamier than either film version, the innuendo more blatant.

*****

A little history of Hamilton translated to film:

Putting aside the novels and coming back to the films, I saw them with fresh eyes. The key Hamilton terms are missing: cement, plains, pleasure. Those three words recur endlessly, as he describes the slate and limestone city of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Hard, unyielding surfaces. Snot-grey grass. Miserable hotels. Crowded bars. But Hollywood doesn't do cement or pleasure (as Hamilton understood it). It specialises in fake surfaces, overblack shadows that follow actors across trembling walls.


(I'm not sure I agree. Hamilton is full of fake surfaces, though they be not the facades of buildings but the manners of people.)

*****

Sean French, Hamilton's biographer, on what went wrong on Hamilton's path to success and on the recent revival of his work.

Sometimes I think the only answer is to forget literary criticism — just push a book into people's hands and say: "You'll enjoy this. Now go away and read it."


In the time it's taken you to read this far, you might've already read, or viewed, or enacted in your head — experienced — Act One.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cavalier

Another new book by one of my favourite dead authors!

I'd been awaiting Alexandre Dumas's The Last Cavalier Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon for months, but its publication date came and went with Amazon showing it unavailable. I'd stopped checking, but I'm heartened to find it's finally made an appearance, as swashbuckling a one as ever there was.

Michael Dirda:

...Claude Schopp — France's pre-eminent Dumas scholar — discovered that, during the very last year of his life, the novelist, though ill, suffering and out of critical favor, had somehow turned out a daily newspaper serial about "the adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the age of Napoleon." Because of Dumas's death, the novel was never finished and consequently never published in book form. So Schopp assembled all the newspaper installments and edited them. Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine appeared in France in 2005 and is now brought out in an excellent English translation by Lauren Yoder as The Last Cavalier. It's absolutely wonderful.

Yes, it's full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliche and period flourish, and old-fashioned enough in its storytelling to wander into lengthy historical and biographical digressions. What's more, we only possess the first third or so of the original mammoth saga envisioned by its author. (A letter exists outlining the entire plot.) No matter.


Bourbon loyalists! Shopping bills! A witch's prophecy! Malay pirates! Tigers and pythons! The battle of Trafalgar!

Dumas with the help of research assistants produced 300 volumes. I have so much more to look forward to...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Say "Uncle"

"Uncle is an elephant. He's immensely rich, and he's a B.A."

Uncle, by JP Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is amazing. Imagine the Moomintrolls living in Gormenghast, only more urban.

Moat and drawbridge, of course. There are stairways and elevators and waterfalls and chutes and tunnels, and a bathing pool in a secret location that defies the logic of space. There are towers, so many towers, one of them haunted. There are 2 stores: one where things are impossibly cheap and one where they are outrageously expensive, in which Uncle found an artificial pineapple for 33 pounds and bought it at once. "Uncle is the last person in the world to put artificial fruit on the sideboard, but he can't resist anything that is capable of being thrown."

But it's an episode about shoes that made me a convert — not for the shoes in themselves but for the depiction of the politics surrounding them.

The Old Monkey's uncle is called the Muncle and he's a very nice person, but seems to live for footwear. Uncle likes him, but thinks he is a bit too fussy about shoes.

However, he told the Old Monkey that the Muncle would be welcome, and, about half an hour later, just as he had settled down to his paper, the Muncle arrived. He was wearing an enormous pair of travelling boots. These have electric motors in their soles so that they can run along with him, and they come up so high that he can lean on the top edges. He always keeps a lot of stuff in them, including several pairs of smaller boots and shoes.

He came scooting over the drawbridge with an anxious expression, then drew up with a joyous shout. "Not a spot of mud on them!"

He is always terribly afraid, when he comes to visit Uncle, that Beaver Hateman, the leader of the Badfort crowd, may splash his boots with mud. Beaver Hatemean always tries to. But today he had seen nothing of him.

He sat down by the open window with a smiling face.

"So glad to see you, sir, and also my nephew. He looks well, though I am sorry to see his shoes are dusty. Nephew, open the right-side compartment in my travelling boots and you'll find a pair of dove-coloured visiting shoes. Ah, that's a relief. My travelling boots are rather heavy."

Then he looked keenly at Uncle and said: "Excuse my saying so, sir, but your shoes are somewhat shabby. I wonder if you'd gratify me by putting on a really nice pair?"

Uncle said to the Old Monkey:

"Just look in my number eight shoe saloon, and on the fourth shelf to the left you'll find a pair of red ones; I rather think it's the sixty-ninth pair from the door. Bring them here."

The Muncle seemed deeply impressed by this speech. He had never imagined that even Uncle possessed such a vast stock. He was still more deeply moved when the Old Monkey appeared with an exquisitely shaped pair of elephant's morning shoes of a deep red colour.

"Oh, those look very well, sir!" he cried, in a rather envious voice. He was thinking hard how he might regain his lost ground as shoe expert.


Then he pulls some poems out of his pocket, and Beaver Hateman comes by and ruins the Muncle's shoes and it's decided they should give him a new pair from the store. And we never hear of the Muncle again.

It's a strange world Uncle lives in, but one that I have no trouble accepting — my 4-year-old's imagination devises similar joys and evils, where complications and near magical solutions are a matter of course. The child's logic reigns supreme here.

For example, the school room is immensely long, and the teacher is railed in, but beside their desks the boys can access the many underground passages that lead up into the teacher's compartment.

The Economist wonders whatever happened to Uncle:

Much of the humour in "Uncle" is so quirky and understated that it is more likely to appeal to an adult than a child. For example, in most successful children's literature, a haunted tower would be genuinely spooky. In Uncle's castle, however, it is a great disappointment. One room is said to be inhabited by a ghost known as the White Terror. But the phantom turns out to be only a foot high, and stands on a bedside table, muttering monotonously, "I did it! I took the strawberry jam!" Quentin Blake, the book's illustrator, muses that "The books have always had terrific fans, but they have never attracted a mass following because they are so eccentric." Charlie Sheppard at Random House agrees that "there just may not be enough truly eccentric children out there." Even the most ardent Uncle fans would probably also concede that the stories suffer from a certain lack of narrative structure.


Nothing much happens. I mean, lots of stuff happens, but there's no plot to speak of. Uncle keeps pace with a child's attention span and concept of cool.

I'll be scouring the shelves of the second-hand shops for more Uncle titles.

Fans of Uncle: sinister cabal.
Looking for Uncle: a plea for reissues.

Next fall, NYRB publishes the second volume of Uncle's tales, Uncle Cleans Up.

Tales from Homeward: Uncle is alive and well and maintains a blog.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The end of our journey

It was around six in the evening, and light the colour of opal, pierced by the golden rays of the autumn sun, spread over a bluish sea.

The heat of the day had gradually expired and one was starting to feel that light breeze which seems like the breath of nature awaking after the burning midday siesta: that delicious breath that cools the Mediterranean coast and carries the scent of trees from shore to shore, mingled with the acrid scent of the sea.

Over the huge lake that extends from Gibraltar to the Dardanelles and from Tunis to Venice, a light yacht, cleanly and elegantly shaped, was slipping through the first mists of evening. Its movement was that of a swan opening its wings to the wind and appearing to glide across the water. At once swift and graceful, it advanced, leaving behind a phosphorescent wake.

Bit by bit, the sun, whose last rays we were describing, fell below the western horizon; but, as though confirming the brilliant fantasies of mythology, its prying flames reappeared at the crest of every wave as if to reveal that the god of fire had just hidden his face in the bosom of Amphitrite, who tried in vain to hide her lover in the folds of her azure robe.

Though there was apparently not enough wind to lift the ringlets on a girl's head, the yacht was travelling fast. Standing in its bow, a tall, bronzed man was staring wide-eyed at the dark, conical mass of land rising from the midst of the waves like a Catalan hat.

"Is that Monte Cristo?" asked the traveller, who appeared to be in command of the yacht, in a grave and melancholy voice.

"Yes, Excellency, " said the master. "We are just reaching the end of our journey."

"The end of our journey" the traveller muttered, with an indefinable note of dejection. Then he added under his breath: "Yes, this is port." And he relapsed into thoughts that expressed themselves in a smile sadder than tears.


— from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

I know that smile.

This book has everything: Sailors! Napoleonic sympathizers! Corsicans! Assassins! A purloined letter! An island fortress prison! Hidden treasure! Hashish dreams! A suspicion of vampires! Family secrets! Italian masquerades! Bandits! Illicit love affairs! A long-lost son! Traitors! An oriental princess sold into slavery! Shame and dishonour! Optical telegraphs! Cross-dressing lesbians! Opera! A challenge to a duel! Gunplay! Poison! Courtroom drama! Really a lot of poison! Vengeance! Justice! And love!

(Not necessarily in that order.)

Oh, I hope I didn't just ruin it for anyone.

Although, I do think the Count goes too far in the end, with Maximilien. "You must needs have wished to die, to know how good it is to live." That was a bit much.

But really great book! Way better than television!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Back from nowhere

Saturday, J-F and I got in the car and drove. Without a destination, without a plan, and, for the most part, without worries. We had it in our heads to head for Quebec City, not to stay there — we'd done that before — but to explore the villages in its environs. But early on we accidentally followed a road over a bridge to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence. We toyed with the idea of ferrying back across, but the one sign we passed indicated the ferry was closed (other options would've been available further up the road, but that would've involved scheduling). We followed the river on its south side.

Highlights:

The best pizza since we'd moved to Montreal, in a tiny diner called Le Villageois, in a village we don't recall the name of. Not as good as Ottawa's Colonnade, but closer (not too far out of town, and still on the seaway's north shore, I believe), although I doubt we'd be able to find it again. With green peppers still crunchy.

Kamouraska. When I saw it was lying directly in our path, I insisted we stop there, because of its literary connection (to a book I've never read and I've never had an interest reading, but which I'm now intent on tracking down), but mostly because I just think the name is very cool, evoking something exotically romantic and Russian, the exact opposite of the sense I have of Nowhere, Quebec (in fact the name is Algonquin for "bulrushes by the water"). Anne Hébert novelized a love triangle and real-life murder that took place there in 1839, to which the tiny village owes much of its fame. But it's pretty (in a way no photo could ever capture), in such a stark, cruel way. On the shore is a plaque quoting from Hébert's book; the character describes the view from her house, which opens up onto the river, and captures both the harshness of the living conditions and the beauty and hope in the peculiar light that is cast over the landscape. I wish I could cite that passage here, but I didn't copy it down, so that will have to wait till I someday encounter it in context.

A tasty Trois Pistoles ale, in Trois Pistoles. The place is apparently riddled with legends (which I'm endeavouring to learn more about), commemorated in the names of the town itself, its church, and other landmark sites, as well as in the imagery on the beer's label (the devil came in the guise of a black stallion to help raise the church).

A fine romantic dinner in a hotel restaurant in Rimouski. I had lamb rolled in tea and chocolate and exotic spices, on cranberry quinoa.

The village of Estcourt, at the tip of Lake Pohénégamook. A frontier town, bordering Maine, with a distinguished history of bootlegging and border disputes. Several concrete obelisks mark the current US–Canada border. We amused ourselves by circling these and, like Homer, weaving from one country to another, or more ominously proclaiming things like, "My shadow falls across two nations." A few house actually straddle the line. A rickety wooden bridge crosses the border where it veers to split the river; care is taken to maintain it, as, were it ever to entirely collapse, it could not be rebuilt under the current terms of the border treaty.

The fact that our entire journey was somewhat coloured by our having watched Inland Empire the night before we set out. I'm not sure what I mean exactly, and I certainly don't know what the movie means, but our backroad roadstops felt, well, Lynchian — whatever that means — but in a good way if that's possible.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Telegraph

Claude Chappe invented an optical telegraph network that operated in France from 1792 through 1846. It was instrumental in Napoleon's succees. It appears it may figure prominently in the Count of Monte Cristo's vengeance.

"Yes, indeed, the very thing: a telegraph. Often, at the end of a road, on a hilltop, in the sunshine, I have seen those folding black arms extended lke the legs of some giant beetle, and I promise you, those bizarre signals so accurately travelling through the air, carrying the unknown wishes of a man sitting behind one table to another man sitting at the far end of the line behind another table, three hundred leagues away, were written against the greyness of the clouds or the blue of the sky by the sole will of that all-powerful master. Then I have thought of genies, sylphs, gnomes and other occult forces, and laughed. Never did I wish to go over and examine these great insects with their white bellies and slender black legs, because I was afraid that under their stone wings I would find the human genie, cramped, pedantic, stuffed with arcane science and sorcery. Then, one fine morning, I discovered that the motor that drives every telegraph is a poor devil of a clerk who earns twelve hundred francs a year and — instead of watching the sky like an astronomer, or the water like a fisherman, or the landscape like an idler — spends the whole day staring at the insect with the white belly and black legs that corresponds to his own and is sited some four or five leagues away. At this, I became curious to study this living chrysalis from close up and to watch the dumbshow that it offers from the bottom of its shell to that other chrysalis, by pulling bits of string one after the other."

"So that is where you are going?"

"It is."

"To which telegraph? The one belonging to the Ministry of the Interior, or the observatory?"

"No, certainly not. There I should find people who would try to force me to understand things of which I would prefer to remain ignorant, and insist on trying to explain a mystery that is beyond their grasp. Come! I want to keep my illusions about insects; it is enough to have lost those I had about human beings. So I shall not go either to the telegraph at the Ministry of the Interior, or to the one at the observatory. What I need is a telegraph in the open countryside, so I can see the fellow fixed in his tower and in his pure state."


— from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

A ghost in the machine.

1799: Napoleon seizes power. Sends the message "Paris is quiet and the good citizens are content."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Disorder

In books
Recently read:
Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood — I'm not much for short stories, and wouldn't've searched this book out, but given me as a gift, once day it struck me as perfect commute reading. And it was. On every page something poignant or clever, or downright sad or funny, or just plain true. Most of the stories are interconnected, weaving through characters' lives over decades, and I much preferred these stories to the ones that didn't have these characters in common (though it could be said they were loosely thematically related), which just goes to show that my preference for novels over short stories extends to works with novel-like qualities and the short story in itself still has a long way to rise in my estimation.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathan Stroud — It's very good. "Young adult" stuff. I'd dogeared some pages to quote here, but that was long ago and the desire has left me and the books are shelved. There was a mystical passage, about The Other Place, the land of the djinn and other spirit creatures, a place of a kind of oneness and nothingness of being, which was pretty mind-blowing, and I'd love to know what an 11 year old would make of it. I think Stroud knows and respects his audience: he's not afraid to use big words or complicated sentences, and he explores some very dark themes and nasty character traits.

Currently reading: The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas. I'm not quite halfway yet, but this book? This book is awesome! It's like a thousand books rolled into one. There's even vampires!

I'm trying to find time to read the following, copies of which are floating around my space:

Only Revolutions, Mark Z Danielewski

The Railway, Hamid Ismailov

The Post Birthday World, Lionel Shriver — Found brand new for $5. I don't understand why. I'm a little scared to read this actually. I expect it'll rip my heart apart.

Uncle, JP Martin — This one's Helena's, but it's still a little beyond her level of interest — it matches my level perfectly though: "the silly and skewed world of Uncle, a fabulously rich Elephant who oversees the denizens of his labyrinthine estate and fends off the attacks of his enemies, the hapless Badfort crowd."

Angel Street, Patrick Hamilton — Of course. Waiting only for the perfect day, a free day, in which my brain will be unhampered and can consider it with its full attention.

For vegetables
Just when I thought all was lost, I found a new vegetable peeler. I haven't actually used it for peeling vegetables yet, but it's been put to good use the last week perching on my kitchen shelf making me smile. It's sure to work divinely — I can tell by the feel of it.

(This picture was available on the internet. It is in no way meant to represent my actual kitchen workspace.)

Of the child
Things she says — has always said, but I don't think I ever noted:
pantynose
hairycut

Umm, I meant to write something about Helena here, but I've entirely forgotten what. Something about how much she's grown or learned. How sweet she is or strong-willed. How she's always singing. Always.

I glimpsed her future self the other day. We were at the park; I gave her warning that we'd be leaving in five. And suddenly she was someone else — herself, but older maybe. Not a fuzzy outline of a person, but for a moment firmly drawn and complete. Something in her manner and her mannerisms. Something exuding from her face and her fingerips. She walked toward me, "But, mom." No argument came. A grimace of a pause in her expression. "I don't know how to explain." But I could tell she wanted to. "I don't have the words." She jumps up onto the bench, seating herself on the tabletop. Her hair falls over her eyes; her hands palms up on her knees reaching for answers. Like a college girl. She lies back on the picnic table, flinging her legs up, resting her right ankle on her left knee. She glances at me but talks to the sky. "I don't know how to explain, mama, but it just doesn't feel that it's time to go."

That's not what I meant to write at all.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What keeps

Stories keep. Good ones, anyway.

Ideas... Some ideas keep better than others.

I've been keeping quiet, keeping a low profile, keeping things to myself, storing up uninteresting anecdotes. Days go by without my writing anything, and it doesn't seem to matter. Everything eventually fades into the background.

I read The Keep some weeks ago, by Jennifer Egan. I really enjoyed it on the level of solid entertainment. Mine was a review copy, as it's just recently out in paperback, and the timing couldn't've been more perfect. It was a great summer read, but its quasi-Gothic feel makes it well-suited to the cool season ahead.

As I mentioned previously, it hints at being deep without being demandingly deep. Sometimes I find that annoying in a book — sometimes it makes me hate a book — but this time it worked for me.

Here's a meaningless comparison: it reminds me of Lev Grossman's Codex. Meaningless cuz nearly nobody's read Codex. And further meaningless cuz I can't really articulate why. The juxtaposition of gothic over thoroughly modern times. Thematically, that old question of reality; the extent to which we are the author's of our own adventures (heroes of our lives), or bit players in someone else's plot. And if it comes to that, I much preferred Codex, which was just, you know, cool.

The Keep has a story (within a fortress, or keep) within a story (within a prison, or keep) within another story (whose destination is the keep). This outermost story was really weak, with a voice insufficiently different from those of the other narrators and that didn't ring true.

Still, the story, as a whole, was kind of cool.

A couple things stick with me.

One is the guy's (the guy in the fortress story) obsession with his cellphone, his satellite, his need to be connected. Because I've felt it too. I think Egan is passing judgement (though I may be wrong), and I'm not sure I agree. We all need to feel connected, and that connection is as valid no matter by what means it takes place, technological or spiritual.

The other is this word KEEP.

1 a archaic : CUSTODY, CHARGE b : MAINTENANCE
2 : one that keeps or protects: as a : FORTRESS, CASTLE; specifically : the strongest and securest part of a medieval castle b : one whose job is to keep or tend c : PRISON, JAIL
3 : the means or provisions by which one is kept


To keep things out like a fortress. To keep things in like a jail.

The thing you take care of. The thing that keeps you going.

And that's the thing I've kept from The Keep — that thing. What's that thing that keeps you going? That drives you.

Love? Truth and honour? My child.

That thing I keep in my keep — it changes. Some days it's the secrets of my past. Some days it's my hopes for the future.

1 : to take notice of by appropriate conduct : FULFILL: as a : to be faithful to b : to act fittingly in relation to c : to conform to in habits or conduct d : to stay in accord with (a beat)
2 : PRESERVE, MAINTAIN: as a : to watch over and defend b (1) : to take care of : TEND (2) : SUPPORT (3) : to maintain in a good, fitting, or orderly condition — usually used with up c : to continue to maintain d (1) : to cause to remain in a given place, situation, or condition (2) : to preserve (food) in an unspoiled condition e (1) : to have or maintain in an established position or relationship — often used with on (2) : to lodge or feed for pay f (1) : to maintain a record in (2) : to enter in a book g : to have customarily in stock for sale
3 a : to restrain from departure or removal : DETAIN b : HOLD BACK, RESTRAIN c : SAVE, RESERVE d : to refrain from revealing
4 a : to retain in one's possession or power b : to refrain from granting, giving, or allowing c : to have in control
5 : to confine oneself to
6 a : to stay or continue in b : to stay or remain on or in usually against opposition : HOLD
7 : CONDUCT, MANAGE
intransitive verb
1 chiefly British : LIVE, LODGE
2 a : to maintain a course, direction, or progress b : to continue usually without interruption c : to persist in a practice
3 : STAY, REMAIN : as a : to stay even — usually used with up b : to remain in good condition c : to remain secret d : to call for no immediate action
4 : ABSTAIN, REFRAIN < can't keep from talking >
5 : to be in session
6 of a quarterback : to retain possession of a football especially after faking a handoff
- keep an eye on : WATCH
- keep at : to persist in doing or concerning oneself with
- keep company : to go together as frequent companions or in courtship
- keep house : to manage a household
- keep one's distance or keep at a distance : to stay aloof : maintain a reserved attitude
- keep one's eyes open or keep one's eyes peeled : to be on the alert : be watchful
- keep one's hand in : to keep in practice
- keep one's head down : to avoid attracting notice
- keep one's nose clean : to avoid trouble especially through good behavior
- keep pace : to stay even; also : KEEP UP 1
- keep step : to keep in step
- keep to
1 a : to stay in b : to limit oneself to
2 : to abide by
- keep to oneself
1 : to keep secret
2 : to remain solitary or apart from other people


I have worms in my fridge.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The problem of the narrator

Bedtime stories this week were plagued with difficult questions: Who's saying that? Where does it say that? Then is it the dog saying that? Why not? How do you know it's not the dog saying that? But if it's not the dog and not the boy, who's telling the story? Why can't we see him?

I considered telling Helena that it's Dr Seuss who said it — he's the one telling the story. I could show her his photo again. But strictly speaking, it's not true. First, the book was authored by Theo LeSieg; while they're the same person, is it true to say they're the same writer? More pertinently, neither Seuss nor his personas is telling the story. He has written the story down, but it's told by an anonymous, omniscient 3rd-person narrator. Which is what I told Helena. Which was met with a blank stare.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Prepositional thinking

A Spaniard is inferior to a Frenchman in one respect: your Spaniard thinks things over, but your Frenchman thinks them up.


— from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On my walls

The date of the first draft of this post is August 21, 2004 — almost 3 years ago.

I meant to share with you one of my "collections," as many people were doing at the time. I year or so later I meant to resurrect that draft, to share with you, as many people were doing at the time, what's on my walls. I'm reinspired to share.

My walls have changed since then. But the things on them are not so different; although, wall space being limited, some of these images are in rotation.

Currently on my walls:
Bal, Andrzej Pagowski (above left)
A Passage to India, Wiktor Sadowski (left)
The Bear, Mieczyslaw Wasilewski (below)
Trzynasta Narzeczona dla Ksiecia, Andrzej Pagowski

In my closet, waiting their turn (pictured throughout):
The Captive Mind, Stasys Eidrigevicius
The Dogs of War, Waldemar Swierzy
Don Juan, Wiktor Sadowski
Wherever You Are, Stasys Eidrigevicius
Zycze Wewnetrzne, Andrzej Pagowski



The first Polish poster I bought was to decorate my room in residence at university. (The Dogs of War, Waldemar Swierzy.) I paid $8. It's worth considerably more than that now, though it's been sitting in my closet for about 18 years. I don't exactly know what the appeal was; this particular image seemed to hold a bit of antiestablishment shock value, but beyond that I recognized in it an ineffable Polishness I wanted to connect with.

Somewhat curiously, I have not seen a single of these movies. I have no sentimental draw to any of them beyond that inspired by the poster art itself. (Some of these, however, were not my first picks for acquisition, but rather served as consolation prizes in eBay auctions that didn't go my way.)

The Art of the Poster
American films have always been very willingly watched by the Poles not only because of their quality but also due to the role that USA played in the consciousness of an average Polish citizen living in a communist country. Many went to see American movies to become acquainted with the country that was meant to counteract, both culturally and politically, the Soviet Union. These were the times when only few people were allowed to travel, so western films and American in particular, showed different patterns of social and cultural behaviour. They influenced fashion, the choice of music and provided an instant trip to a different world. The attitudes caused by American films raised the concern of the communist establishment, to such an extend, that for almost ten years/1949-1957/American movies disappeared from Polish screens. In the late fifties/the era of political metamorphosis set off by Stalin's death/American films were back, this time to stay for good. We have a great pleasure in presenting these posters to you. They were made in the period 1947-1992 and they are a part of "The Art of Poster's" collection consisting of over five hundred American films' titles from the period 1947-1999.


(Above left, a poster by Stasys Eidrigevicius for The Captive Mind, a theatrical presentation of the work by Czeslaw Milosz. This is neither film nor American, but it is certainly the most political representation to be found in my closet.)

Others call this bullshit.

A lot of patronizing drivel had been written about the 'Polish School' of poster design being a 'product' of a 'resistance to Communism' or some such (and by extension, of an overwhelming desire to breathe free under the learned guidance of a Bushmonkey-on-a-cheney). That view, espoused by Western writers who don't know any better, and Polish ones (who should know better) has been omnipresent lately. No matter that the idea of art as an expression of political circumstance is par excellence a classic communist one.

In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true : free from commercial stranglehold, these artists produced brilliant works over an extended period of time. A lot of talented people found themselves in the right place at the right time. Like any artistic movement (or 'school'), it had its own dynamics, peaks and valleys. Indeed, some of the most accomplished works were political (pro-socialist). And now the fact that Polish film poster is dead (and had been so since 1989 when the film distribution was privatized) is further evidence of that.


Resources
Freedom on the Fence — a digital documentary project

The Art of Poster
Classic Polish Film Posters
Kinoart.net
Polish Poster Gallery
Polish Posters Shop

Andrzej Pagowski — official website. (I haven't consciously favoured any one artist over another, but a survey of my likes and dislikes gives Pagowski an edge.)