Wednesday, June 14, 2017

London on fire

From the entry concerning the secrets of St. Bartholomew's the Greater, featuring bad puns and briny floods and heralded as a rare survivor:
Very little of early medieval London remains intact today, because Londoners, like the unwise Little Pig, built houses of wood, and the city burned down in 1077, 1087, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. Almost anything left intact from these was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Maybe you don't think that's very funny; then, to hell with you.

Secret London: An Unusual Guide is as fantastic as the other book in this series I perused before traveling to Venice.

I'll be in London in about two weeks' time, and I know I won't be visiting very many of these "unusual" places (maybe a couple: the traffic light tree? the Monument?), but just knowing they exist — both the secrets and the guidebooks — brings me irrational joy.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Somerset Maugham meets death metal

Juhan was wearing skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a massive black leather jacket with jangly silver zippers, which hung from his shoulders like the wings of a pterodactyl. In appearance, it was as if Somerset Maugham had, in the final years of his life, decided to take up death metal.
— from Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson.

Can you picture it? Might Somerset Maugham ever have taken up death metal? I'd like to think so.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Shitty, shitty rain

Edinburgh rain was like a judgement. It soaked into the bones, into the structures of the buildings, into the memories of the tourists. It lingered for days, splashing up from puddles by the roadside, breaking up marriages, chilling, killing, omnipresent. The typical postcard home from an Edinburgh boarding-house: "Edinburgh is lovely. The people rather reserved. Saw the Castle yesterday, and the Scott Monument. It's a very small city, almost a town really. You could fit it inside New York and never notice it. Weather could be better."

Photo by Steffani Cameron.
Weather could be better. The art of euphemism. Shitty, shitty rain.
— from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

I wasn't really interested in reading a series starring yet another clichéd troubled-yet-sensitive, hard-drinking detective. But I'm vacationing in Edinburgh in a few weeks' time, and I was told the city features strongly in Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, like a character in its own right, so it seemed appropriate to read one, to set the mood for my holiday.

There's a lightness to the writing, great humour and wit, that makes it vey engaging, despite the grimness of the plot. I was halfway through when I realized that novel hadn't devoted much time at all to the actual mystery of the serial killer. And that's fine — the story certainly didn't bog down in the details of police procedure. I'm curious to see how subsequent Rebus novels play out, now that the groundwork for his character has been established.
Edinburgh slept on, as it had slept for hundreds of years. There were ghosts in the cobble alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements, but they were Enlightenment ghosts, articulate and deferential.
I'm sold on Edinburgh — its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature and rain like judgement.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Does this book make me look fat?

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad, is a breezy read that becomes profoundly sad the instant you step back from it.

The novel consists of 13 stories, each of which could stand independently, chronicling Elizabeth's life, from fat teen to gym-going, food-weighing, unhappy obsessive. She sheds a lot of weight, but loses friends, her mother, and her marriage along the way. She tries on new names along with new bodies, each new identity a new relationship with her body: Lizzie, Elizabeth, Beth, Liz. (And it's her husband's fault when he can't keep up with her preference.)

Many reviews stress how much more this book is about than body image: friendship, loneliness, a girl's relationship with her mother, blah, blah, blah, what it means to be human. Well, no. Everyone of those facets is firmly based in Lizzie's relationship to her body.

Awad doesn't make any overt social commentary; all the criticisms of Lizzie come from within herself, with the occasional boost from her mother. I hate to think that there are women out there who live like she does, but I don't doubt it's true. Also, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for not addressing weight loss more concertedly, and for being relatively happy.

These are tight, well-written stories. Go ahead, read them. No, I don't mean anything by that; you look great.

Globe and Mail
The Rumpus
Washington Post

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Nothing tasted better than a venial sin

Near his flat, he passed a little grocery shop outside which were stacked crates of milk and morning rolls. The owner had complained in private to Rebus about petty and occasional thefts, but would not submit a complaint proper. The shop was as dead as the street, the solitude of the moment disturbed only by the distant rumble of a taxi on cobblestones and the persistence of the dawn chorus. Rebus looked around him, examining the many curtained windows. Then, swiftly, he tore six rolls from a layer and stuffed them into his pockets, walking away a little too briskly. A moment later he hesitated, then walked on tiptoe back to the shop, the criminal returning to the scene of the crime, the dog to its vomit. Rebus had never actually seen dogs doing that, but he had it on the authority of Saint Peter.

Locking round again, he lifted a pint of milk out of its crate and made his getaway, whistling silently to himself.

Nothing in the world tasted as good for breakfast as stolen rolls with some butter and jam and a mug of milky coffee. Nothing tasted better than a venial sin.
—from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reading local

This was the year Beyoncé wore a dress made entirely from the sounds of thunder and lightning. The Painter watched from the couch with his daughter and his wife as the three of them stared at the beautiful woman on the television screen accept a Grammy award.

"I want to be her," said his daughter.

"You want to be a singer?" asked his wife.

"No," she said, "I want to cease to exist. I wish that my life had never begun and my soul could occupy that body instead of my own. I wish this," she pinched the skin of her tiny arm, "wasn't even real. And I lived in there." She pointed towards the television: all of the beautiful, shiny people.

She was only twelve, but times had been tough.
Montreal can boast of being home to countless writers, whether it's writers who were born here and moved on or writers from elsewhere that chose to settle here. Historical giants include the likes of Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler, but you may be more familiar with contemporary names: Heather O'Neill, Steven Pinker, Louise Penny, Jo Walton.

(I don't think these writers share any Montreal-specific quality in their styles per se, but I do love when Montreal itself features as a character in the writing.)

While the "big" city may attract talent, Montreal is not much of a publishing centre, at least not for anglophones since separatism became a thing (see The plight of the angry anglo writer in Montreal). So young aspiring writers face many of the same challenges as those from nowhere towns. Slowly, the anglo marginalization may be changing (see Young writers drive Montreal's literary scene).

Browsing a local bookstore, I realized that Montreal is these days producing some great literature, and I should explore it and give it whatever small platform I can.

An Indoor Kind of Girl
Enter An Indoor Kind of Girl, by Frankie Barnet. It's a slim volume of five stories, packaged with a gorgeous 30s aesthetic, bold white type on forest green. It's a very holdable book with nice wide margins, produced by small press Metatron.

These stories are a slice of life, if your life is twenty-something and has a drifter hipster vibe, viewed through a surreal, but still relateable, lens. I mean, who hasn't worked in an office where the policy was to say you were operating out of New York City, sat by the ocean and caught up with the baby that was the fetus you long ago aborted, or lived in a an apartment that was victim to a turtle (or butterfly) infestation?

An Indoor Kind of Girl is packed with imaginative scenarios tightly woven around characters that are slightly detached, as if they were alien trying to pass for human. There's also a strong feminist undercurrent running through these stories, with some serious subjects, like abuse, abortion, and sexual agency, but they are saved from tragedy through the whimsy of the storytelling (poor capybara!).

Montreal-specific quality? One character nips down to the dep for a bottle of wine. (That's dépanneur to the uninitiated.)

Definitely Frankie Barnet is a writer to watch.

Stories from An Indoor Kind of Girl
"Gay for Her" via Metatron
"It Is Often the Beautiful Ones You Have to Watch Out For"via Matrix Magazine
"A Plot of Ocean" via Peach Mag

And a story that's not in An Indoor Kind of Girl:
"Brewster's Century What?" via Joyland

Interview with Frankie Barnet at Maudlin House.

Friday, May 26, 2017

All Russia's honest men drank like fish

So, where did all this start? Well, it all started when Tikhonov nailed his fourteen propositions to the door of the Yeliseiko village soviet. Or rather, he didn't nail them to the door, he chalked them up on the fence, and they were words, really, not propositions, very clear and succinct, and there weren't fourteen of them, just two. Well, anyway, that's where it all started.
You can see how we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. But sincere. He exaggerates, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much in the end, does it? The spirit is true.

I was tempted to dismiss Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev, as drunken, if poetic, ramblings, lovely ramblings — one man's journey by train to a Moscow suburb. But amid searching for a drink, tales of past drunken escapades, and cocktail recipes (including the likes of White Lilac toilet water and brake fluid), there's a very sober grappling with Kant, free will vs predetermination, the meaning of life, and the angelic orders. And love and death.

And it's quite funny. (In a Bulgakov kind of way.)

Also, it includes graphs, detailing the productivity of his coworkers as plotted against their alcohol consumption.
"What's that got to do with the Social Democrats and Khovanshchina?"

"Plenty! That's where the whole thing started, when they switched from Veuve Cliquot to rotgut. Middle-class intellectuals, rowdyism, Khovanshchina! All these Uspenskys, all these Pomyalovskys — they couldn't write a line without a drink. I've read them, I know! All Russia's honest men drank like fish, yes. And why did they drink? They drank out of sheer desperation. They drank because they were honest! Because they weren't able to relieve the people's suffering. The people were suffocating in poverty and ignorance, you just read Pisarev! This is what Pisarev says: 'The people can't afford beef, but vodka's cheaper than beef, so the Russian peasant drinks, he drinks out of poverty! And he can't buy books, because there's no Gogol or Belinsky in the market, only vodka — yes, there's plenty of vodka, any sort you like, draught or bottled. And that's why he drinks, he drinks out of ignorance!'

"You see? No wonder they were miserable, no wonder they wrote about the peasants, and tried to save them, and no wonder they started drinking out of sheer desperation. The Social Democrats wrote and drank, they drank while they wrote. But the peasants couldn't read and drink both, they just drank! So Uspensky ups and hangs himself, Pomyalovsky lies down under a bar counter and snuffs it, and Garshin flings himself off a bridge, pig-drunk!"
So it's a book about drinking, but it's also about drinking, in all its political, religious, metaphysical glory.

Clearly this book describes much more than a trip to the suburbs. It's a Dante-esque exploration. The ending devastated me. I'm still reeling.

Truly this is a lost classic.

Yerofeev, or Erofeev or Yerofeyev, wrote this prose poem — variously titled Moscow Stations, Moscow-Petushki, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Circles — in 1969, but it was not published in the USSR till 20 years later. Yerofeev cut a tragic figure, and little of his work was ever published.

See also: Venedikt Erofeev: The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is it those eyes want to say?

Another Simenon novel, another bullet to my head.

The Hand, by Georges Simenon, is true to form. Ah, the mind games old married couples play.
"You're going through a crisis typical of almost all men your age..."

If she thinks that, she's mistaken. I know myself. It isn't the infatuation of a man growing old. Besides, I am not in love. Neither am I plunging into some kind of pathological sexuality.

I remain composed, attentive to what is happening inside me and around me and am alone, no doubt, in knowing that there is nothing new in my innermost thoughts, except that I have finally dared to look at them in the light of day.

So, what is it those eyes want to say?

"I pity you..."
This novel might have been as effectively called The Eyes. The eyes are his wife's, the hand his mistress's. Her eyes are a mystery to him — what do they see? — full of curiosity and judgment.

The hand, however, is a compulsion, entirely passive but under his male gaze beckoning. The novel is barely about that hand, but trust the male to choose to make it about that hand.

The Hand starts with a snowstorm. One of their party is lost to the elements. Donald Dodd meanwhile loses his bearings.
"The important thing," my father used to say, "is to make the right choice to begin with..."

He was talking about choosing not only a wife but a profession, a way of life, a way of thinking.

I thought I had chosen. I have done my best. I have worn myself out doing my best.

And, little by little, I have wound up hoping to see approval in Isabel's eyes.

What I had chosen, in the end, was a witness, a benevolent witness, someone who, with a glance, would let me understand that I was keeping myself on the right path.
This is quite a good novel. At under 200 pages, it's an easy diversion but still thought-provoking. I've read enough Simenon to know when to read him; one must take care, as it can send one's soul flying into dangerous territory.

I am at times tired of hearing how the poor hero has been emasculated and has no control over his life, a victim of the various women in his life, fighting societal convention to prove himself to be more than an empty shell. Sometimes I want to read those women's stories.

I marvel that, for all the hundreds of books Simenon wrote, any novel of his could hope to feel original. The Hand is a slow burn with a great pay-off. I should've seen it coming, but I didn't see it coming.
She heaved a sigh, as on every evening, to mark the end of her day and the beginning of a night's rest.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Things I could write about

I found a book at the bookstore, and I wanted it, I wanted it badly. But the more I turned it over, the more I realized I didn't want it so much as I wanted to have written it.

Egg, by Nicole Walker, published by Bloomsbury.

(Also, I've been craving eggs for the last week.)

This book is part of a series, Object Lessons, about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

The egg, however, is no ordinary thing. Is it?

The series includes as subjects objects such as phone booth, eye chart, password, and tumor, but also concepts like silence, jet lag, and traffic.

Things I might like to write about
Grocery list.

Those are just the object things.

The important things I should be writing about include
  • the buskers of Square Victoria
  • the myth of the bored suburban housewife
  • my coworker's doppelganger, who works just one block over
  • how my mother is and is not a feminist
  • the man who lived in two apartments
So I bought a completely different book instead.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

His own little rebellion

Dinner over, he took the empty plastic tray from his hotpot back into the kitchen and dumped it in the bin. He was supposed to separate out recyclable and unrecyclable plastics, but nobody seemed to notice and he was starting to view it as his own little rebellion against the forces of authority, a mask for the real rebellion, the one which could conceivably get him killed. Look at me, I don't recycle, I'm an anarchist.
— from Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hiccups are above any kind of law

Of course, to commence our investigation of hiccups, we must first call them forth: either an sich, in the terminology of Immanuel Kant, which means from ourselves, or else from some other person, but for our own purposes, which is für sich, as Kant terms it. Of course, the best of the lot is both an sich and für sich, and here's what you do: drink some sort of strong spirit, say Starka, or Trapper's or Hunter's vodka, for two hours non-stop. Drink it in tumblerfuls, one every half-hour, if possible without any snacks. If you find that difficult, you can allow yourself a bite to eat, but something really unpretentious: bread that's seen better days, sprats, spiced or plain, or sprats in tomato sauce.

Then break off for an hour, don't eat or drink anything, just let your muscles go limp, and don't strain. And before that hour's up, you'll see for yourself: with the very first hiccup, you'll be amazed at the suddenness of the onslaught; then you'll be amazed at the uniqueness of the second hiccup, and the third hiccup, likewise. But if you're not a complete idiot, you'd better stop being amazed and get down to business: write down at what intervals your hiccup deigns to visit you — in seconds, of course:

8 - 13 - 7 - 3 - 18 ...

Naturally you'll try to establish some sort of periodicity here, even very roughly; idiot or not, you'll have a stab at working out some ridiculous formula or other, to predict the length of the next interval. Try, by all means. Feel free. But life will topple all your half-arsed constructions.

17 - 3 - 4 - 17 - 1 - 20 - 3 - 4 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 18 ...

You know, the leaders of the world proletariat, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are supposed to have made an in-depth study of changes in social structures, and on that basis they were able to predict a whole heap of stuff. But they'd have been completely foxed by this one. Yes, you have entered, in pursuit of a personal whim, the realm of Fate — so bow the knee and be patient. Life will put all your mathematics to shame, both elementary and higher:

13 - 15 - 4 - 12 - 4 - 5 - 28 ...

Now, isn't this the way in which rise and fall, ecstasy and agony, alternate in each individual life — without the merest hint of regularity? Isn't this how catastrophes line up for the human race — in random order? Yes, the law is above us all, and hiccups are above any kind of law. And just as their commencement takes you by surprise, so also will their ending, and ending which, like death, we can neither foretell nor prevent:

22 - 14 stop. And silence.

And in that silence your heart will say to you: they are unfathomable, and we are powerless. We are bereft of free will, at the disposal of a fate which is nameless, and from which there is no salvation.

We are trembling wretches, and they are omnipotent. They are the right hand of God, which is poised above us all, and before which only cretins and scoundrels will not bow their heads. He is inscrutable, and in consequence — He is.

Therefore be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
— "Kilometre 33 to Elektrougli," in Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev.

(With a nod to Danny Yee, whose post saved me from retyping this entire excerpt.)

This novel, which often reads more like a series of prose poems, is very meditative, and in describing each leg of our intrepid hero's journey, it is highly conducive to reading during one's daily commute.

I'm not quite halfway. I lingered over this chapter, realizing how beautifully it encapsulates the feel of this novel to this point: the drinking and Kant and the crazy. The narrator is just within reach of the sublime, and just misses, both inspired and hindered by drink.

Also, wtf? Hiccups are the embodiment of free will?

Monday, May 15, 2017

People are people

I have been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I blame my mother. In fact, I hold her single-handedly responsible for the popularity of this book. (OK, it was probably Obama's recommendation.)

It was back in the fall that I went to the bookstore with a couple of coworkers at lunch, and we came across a display of Sapiens. I recognized the author's name as that behind Homo Deus, which my mother had been telling me about because she thought it would interest me (and she was right), having heard Harari in interview on one of her many news channels. So I pointed the book out to my coworkers, and before I new it they were both buying a copy. (At this point, I was still hoping that someone would get me the future-looking Homo Deus, rather than the history-based Sapiens, for my birthday.) Then started the raves, and the campaigning to "do" Sapiens for book club.

Fast-forward six months. We did indeed last week discuss parts 1 and 2 (of 4) of Sapiens at book club. We went more than three hours and spent most of it at each other's throats. Fighting mostly about feminism, I think, while mostly sober.

This book is provocative. It's not that Harari puts forth any contentious arguments — I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint anything I may actually have learned — it's merely the fact that these subjects were gathered and presented together. Things we take for granted but that we need to talk about. Capitalism. Racism. Sexism. Humankind's violent nature(?).

Some sections seem a little simplistic; that can't be avoided in a book with such ambitious scope.

I'm finding the book to be weirdly judgmental; Harari explains history on this grand scale and that it couldn't've unfolded any other way, but then blames us for it. I can't decide whether this is careless or deliberately manipulative in order to spur action to quell our darker nature, but if the latter is the case, it risks antagonizing the audience it needs to reach and preaching to the choir. Ultimately, where we've been, were we are, and where we're going — it's all inevitable.

I'm not very good at reading nonfiction, so I appreciated having book club as an incentive. I do plan on reading the second half of the book, but I may take a little break before getting back to it.

See also:
Harari's most recent article on the meaning of life in a world without work:
To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.
It sounds like Harari is saying in this essay that in the future, we will all play video games all day long. But I will give Harari the benefit of the doubt that his writing is sloppy, that he does not intend to insult humanity and be so casually dismissive of our choices, that he is trying to express the more meaningful fact that humans are adept at constructing realities to occupy and amuse themselves.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Watching, waking, leaking, planning

Life is busy of late. My reading is very piecemeal. Somehow I've managed to get myself to this point where, unnaturally for me, I'm reading four books or more at the same time. I'm highly distractible these days, and the lack of reading focus exacerbates the feeling of being unmoored. This blog in fact brings some kind of structure and routine to my life, and I miss it when I ignore it. That ends today.

Here's some of what's been going on.

My mother is a feminist, but she doesn't know it. And she's far more open-minded than she believes herself to be.

Thank gawd for television. If it weren't for television, my mother might not recognize Margaret Atwood for the Canadian icon she is. Somehow, Peter Mansbridge and I convinced my mom to give the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale a try, arguing that it's deeply relevant commentary on our Trumpian times.

It's dark and riveting, and my mother agrees.

My mom asked me in our first telephone debriefing, "It's almost like... is this science fiction?" I said the only thing I could say. "Ummm, nnnoooo."

Impulse purchase at a checkout counter: We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I should own a copy of this, leave it lying around the house for visitors to pick up. But I don't have many visitors. I thought about wrapping it up for my teenage daughter, but then thought better of it. She'll find her own brand of feminism without my pressing manifestoes on her. So I sent it to my mother.

If you haven't already, watch Adichie's TED Talk. (Or just listen to Beyoncé. See also.)

As part of this year's Blue Metropolis literary festival, Barbara Gowdy was interviewed by Kathleen Winter, substituting for Heather O'Neill at the last minute. I've read only one of Gowdy's books, The White Bone, and it devastated me to the point that I deliberately stayed away from everything else she published for fear of further devastation or, worse, disappointment. But O'Neill was in fact the main draw for me to attend this event; had I known she was absent, I might not have made the effort, but I'm glad I did.

Gowdy's latest is Little Sister, about a woman who through paranormal means ends up inhabiting another's body, but, if I understood correctly, that body is not a mere vehicle (à la Being John Malkovich) — it's a catalyst for a much deeper experience.

The conversation was fantastic, weaving around this idea of fluidity, that so many boundaries have lost their rigidity, particularly in terms of identity, and everything is leaking into everything else. They also discussed, admiringly, George Saunders' Lincoln at the Bardo, which covers some similar territory (as well as the phenomenon of how similar, or even the same ideas, can crop up independently of one another). I'm very much looking forward to reading both the Gowdy and the Saunders (eventually).

The flights are booked: the kid and I are planning a holiday, splitting our time between Edinburgh, London, and Brighton (with daytrips to the likes of Stonehenge and Oxford).

I'm full up on English literature, but I'd like to read some novels set in Edinburgh. Any recommendations?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

People who took sleep seriously

On the morning of the second day, he opened his eyes and found himself lying in the most comfortable bed he had ever encountered. It was the kind of bed that a person would have to be bodily picked up and carried away from just in order to get up in the morning. But it paled in comparison to the pillows his head rested on, stuffed with down to such precisely-calibrated firmness that they could only have been the end-result of centuries of research. He was covered with crisply-laundered cotton sheets, topped by an old-fashioned quilt. He felt warm and safe and perfectly relaxed. Whatever else had happened to him, he had clearly fallen into the hands of people who took sleep seriously, and it was difficult to hate such people.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

Monday, May 01, 2017


When I was seventeen, I had a very good year. In fact, it may even have started when I was sixteen. I developed a crush on an older man. Even if it started with a crush on his cat.

Clive (the cat) would sit in the middle of the sidewalk outside his shop, beside the bakery I frequented. Soon enough, I was frequenting his shop, pretending to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to have the guts to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to be the kind of cool I hoped to one day actually be. You know, university student cool.

He gave me a poem he'd written about his cat.

Some friends and I took to cutting class, the period after lunch, to hang out at the shop, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.

We talked about what I was reading (he asked; I guess even then I always carried a book with me). That was my Somerset Maugham phase. He knew them all. My crush deepened. He told me to read Butler's The Way of All Flesh; I did.

He asked what I thought about one book or other, I honestly forget which, and I said it was interesting, and he berated me for lazy thinking. And I've never used the word since, unless I was prepared to expand on an argument.

(He also taught me that when someone is lighting your cigarette, you must look him in the eye.)

As an editor, I've been telling this story to my writers for years. You write "interesting," and I will delete it. Tell me why it's interesting, or if you need to build up to a full explanation, at least give me a flavour: unexpected, playful, nostalgic, frightening.

So when I came across the following passage in Dexter Palmer's Version Control, I had some rethinking to do.
If the worst thing a physicist could say about a statement is that it was "false," the best thing he could say is that it was "interesting." This was different from saying it was true: most true things were, in fact, uninteresting. Interesting statements lived on the twilit boundary between fact and question; they held the promise of revealing something unexpected and new about the world, and thus were to be treated with respect. The physicists Rebecca met always seemed to be on the lookout for something interesting, a claim or proposition that seemed to possess some kind of rare interior light.

Rebecca came to understand that Philip's constant repetition of the word "interesting" meant that he was offering what he saw as the most precious of compliments.
Most of my writers are engineers. I am trying to understand "interesting" from their perspective.

But my crush was not a physicist. And I've been hardwired over thirty years to think "interesting" was boring.

See also
The word "interesting"
"Interesting" is a Boring, Overused, and Lifeless Word

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Books! Beautiful books!

It's Independent Bookstore Day, and I feel I ought to spend my day patronizing some. Truth is, there aren't too many in these parts, serving literature in English anyway.

Recently I made a lunch hour trip to one store, not Chapters, that reminded me how intimate and independently curated shops stoke my love for print.

(Frankly, though this store started as an independent — ah, I remember visiting it when... — it was bought out by a local francophone chain and a couple years ago bought again by a still large francophone chain, so while it stands as an English bookstore among a chain of French-language shops, some of which are purportedly but not very practically bilingual, I'm not convinced it qualifies as "independent.")

I fell in love with many books on display. Here's a sample...

Pulp! The Classics: A pulp fiction touch to counter the seriousness of literature.

Picador Modern Classics: Will fit in your pocket. Stylishly.

Alma Classics: Lovely stylized cover art for a retro modern vibe.

Canterbury Classics: Leather-bound with "word cloud" cover graphics for a modern look.

Harper Olive Editions: Bold colours and stripey spines, an eclectic mix of titles that span the past century, many of which I've never heard of.

MacMillan Collector's Library: Compact volumes wrapped in robin's egg blue.

Penguin Essentials: Classics made to look fun and relevant.

Penguin Great Ideas: No longer being produced, but still original and beautiful.

Penguin Pocket Classics: I want them all. I love that the text is made to speak for itself.

Pushkin Press London Library: Small and clever.

Ebooks are fine — I love then, I read them all the time — and online shopping is expedient, but sometimes I still need to go to a bookstore.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Game, narrative, art

Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival is on, and a few events have caught my attention.

Earlier this week I attended a lecture on "New Aesthetics in Game Narratives." Under discussion were Jason Rohrer's Passage, Davey Wreden's The Stanley Parable, and Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia.

Somewhat ironically, while these games are considered classics among game designers and academics, they are not widely known among mainstream gamers. (And I don't fall into any of these categories. What the hell am I doing here?)

I'm not convinced that any of the aesthetics under discussion were exactly new, but the point was made that these games were not merely stories being told in a different format. The act of them being gamified imbued the narrative with a whole 'nother level of meaning. Truly, you could not transfer these games to text and retain the intended effect. Being in the game, playing the game, and being subject to game tropes is essential to the narrative.

[This is in sharp contrast to, say, games in the Assassin's Creed franchise, which have high production value and excel at storytelling, but in a very traditional way (even when it gets meta).]

Of the games on deck, I can claim familiarity only with The Stanley Parable. Kind of Kafka meets Douglas Adams. Kind of beautiful.

Also, I had trouble finding the damn lecture space at the university. I walked endless corridors and checked an infinite number of empty rooms (it seems I came up an unexpected elevator), always circling back on myself, waiting for a voice inside my head to set me on the right path. It dawned on me that this must be part of the planned lecture experience (it wasn't).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Something secretly crafty about bar-codes

Unpacking after one of Lewis's infrequent shopping expeditions was an adventure. Lewis had a theory that there was something secretly crafty about bar-codes, that They were tracking each bar-coded item and compiling vast lists for a purpose made even more sinister and terrifying by being entirely unknown.

So trips to the supermarket inevitably ended with bags and packets piled on the kitchen table, Lewis bent over them with the scissors, cutting off bar-codes, to be burned later. When Seth first saw him doing this, he had inquired whether his flatmate needed regular medication, but it had turned out that Lewis was a relative rarity: a completely sane man whose world-view was almost entirely irrational. Sometimes, thinking about it, Seth wondered if Lewis might not actually be right.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

I can't recall where I heard about this book. I'm sure it was an end-of-year roundup, that may have mentioned this review at Pechorin's Journal.

I'm finding Europe in Autumn to be immensely enjoyable. A sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future (about twenty years after Scotland separates), I'm still waiting for the more conventionally science-fictional aspects to kick in. But it's a well-imagined world of countless independent polities, and thus borders and bureaucracies and the rebel heroes that run counter to them.

I occasionally get lost in the action, but I'm appreciating Hutchinson's ease and wit.

But of course Lewis is right.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The best of all possible worlds

"So here is the question. Given that the information you have is necessarily imperfect. Given that the history of events is necessarily under-determined. The history that you choose to believe will determine the person that you are. If only in a small way. You will be a person who chose to see the world one way instead of another. And that choice will color the way you see the world, and your future, and your image in a mirror. You will never be able to determine conclusively why she acted as she did. But you can determine what kind of person you want to be.

"I can tell you this. That in the absence of perfect information, I choose to believe in the version of events that would occur in the best of all possible worlds."
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer, is a time-travel story. Only, without much time travel. And don't call it a time machine; the physicists in this story prefer "causality violation device."

This is the story of Rebecca, a customer service rep for an online dating service, and her physicist husband Philip, and all their issues. Set in the near future, Version Control covers marriage, grief, alcoholism, friendship, internet dating, self-driving cars (and the insurance implications thereof), racism, white privilege, male privilege, academia, big data, mass personalization, and secession of the Dakotas.
"If everyone could get on the same page and realize that we live in the future, we wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit."
There's a government conspiracy (possibly several). And some questions regarding free will and predetermination.

This is a future where Ronald Reagan is on the 20 dollar bill. At least some of the time.

I first heard about this novel during the 2017 Tournament of Books, where it was noted that "Version Control feels like 400 pages of realist, suburban minutiae with 100 pages of genuinely engaging science fiction slapped on at the end." The ensuing discussion sold me that Version Control was a must read.

In general, I'd say I like science fiction more than I like suburban minutiae. But I also rather like minutiae (it's the suburban stuff I'm not so keen on). What's interesting here is the effect of something as massive as time travel on the minutiae of an otherwise very ordinary existence.

So I read a few hundred pages sharing Rebecca's sense that something was out of whack, with no evidence of any kind that the time machine actually worked. And it was absolutely engrossing.

Who's to say what the best of all possible worlds is? Though the novel's ending is in some ways troubling, ultimately I find in it a hopeful message urging an acceptance of this world as the best of all possible worlds, as it cannot be proven otherwise.

Discussion of Version Control in the Tournament of Books:
Opening Round (vs My Name Is Lucy Barton)
Quarterfinals (vs The Mothers)
Semifinals (vs The Underground Railroad)

Friday, April 14, 2017


Arrogance: that featured among Philip's colleagues, too, though that was more a matter of mien than anything else. If there was one subject about which they tended to be cavalier, it was the ease of doing anything in life besides physics. They were quick to let you know that, in addition to practicing that best and most worthy of all the sciences, they were, as Philip said about himself, "intrinsically multidisciplinary": they'd casually mention that they'd just cycled their first century, or were doing a show with a local band, or were nearly finished with building a kiln. It was as if the stereotype of the physicist as a bespectacled dweeb was something they felt it was their duty and obligation to strive against. And though they never seemed to be quite as skilled at their extracurricular activities as their pride in them might have indicated, if they were perhaps unlikely to play in professional orchestras or chalk up record-beating times in marathons, then it was even more unlikely that top-level violinists and athletes were doing science on the side, as a hobby. Rebecca was never sure whether there was something about physics as an occupation that made it a magnet for the arrogant, or whether the process of becoming acclimated to the culture of physics involved developing a certain conceit about oneself if one was to succeed, but either way she got the impression that arrogance was often a benefit to physicists, rather than a liability.
— from Version Control, by Dexter Palmer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reading for school

I'm fairly impressed with my daughter's reading list for school, and it's only natural that she's more excited over some titles than others (and that goes for me too).

When she told me a few months ago that they were reading The Giver (Lois Lowry) in English class, I wanted to read along. I should read everything on the curriculum!

Sadly, I dropped the ball before I'd even picked it up. They finished The Giver eons ago. Although in a way, I feel I didn't miss a thing; Helena shared her experience of reading it with me in excruciating detail. That said, it's her clear favourite of the required reading this year (so far), and I would like to see it close up. It's finally available at the library — I plan on digging in this week.

Meanwhile in French class, it was Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) (in French). (She's in grade 8 in the French school board, everything's in French [except for English class].) I started near the time she was wrapping up. We came to pretty much the same conclusions: interesting concept but on the whole boring. (We both like the rap though.) But I appreciate the teaching opportunities in it, and I'm glad I read it. What impresses me is the skill of the translation that ensured Helena had an equivalent experience reading the opening chapters (grammatically awkward and spelled phonetically, kind of) in French as I did in English.

The other novels covered in French class, both Scholastic publications, one a time-travel story, the other a mystery, don't particularly interest me. I don't want to read them so I'm not going to. (Why are the books for this class translated from English?)

English class has moved onto The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton). How is it that I never read The Outsiders in my youth? Wow, what a crazy book. It's melodramatic, to be sure, but it's so sincere! I cried. The kid still has a couple chapters to go before we can compare notes, though she tells me it doesn't feel at all dated.

In Latin, they've been reading The Iliad. In Latin. I'm skipping this one. For now.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Art is the shortest distance between two feelings

I headed to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal after work last night, eager to see an exhibit before it closes at the end of the month. It's small (and beautiful), so while there I took a quick look at the other ongoing exhibits, to see if they're worth coming back for. They are.

I was pleased to note that they all have a quasi-literary connection.

Picture for an Exhibition
"For time is the longest distance between two places." This line from Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie serves as the premise for this first iteration of a series of exhibitions of works drawn from the museum's collection. Even before I placed the line, it gripped my heart. It's why I had to see this.

"Beyond Chaos, No. 7," 1998. Betty Goodwin,
What struck me when I walked into the exhibition space is that there are no labels on the walls; no titles or artist names, no lists of materials, no descriptions or concepts (these are available in a handout, but they're notintrusive). The art just is. And everything in this space works, it feels right together, it makes sense. Recurring symbols and structures, images of successive phases of motion. It made me feel freeze-framed, time-stopped.

The standout piece is undoubtedly "Measuring Stick," by Sarah Sze. It looks like the messy desk of some future anthropologist with some bizarre theory of everything (it feels very Terry Gilliam). "Measuring Stick" whirrs and flutters and flickers and trickles. It fascinates. A glimpse onto a working model of something much bigger than this life that I know.

On the other hand, it's Betty Goodwin's "Beyond Chaos, No. 7" that I kept returning to. It made me feel... elevated.

Teresa Margolles: Mundos
In sharp contrast to the previous exhibition, Margolles' works hit home only after reading the labels. But they manage to affect at a subconscious level too.

One piece in particular has a room to itself, and when I walked into it, I felt my soul being sucked out of me. And then I read about it, and I wanted to run the hell out of there. Every few minutes, bubbles fall from the ceiling, made with water used to wash dead bodies who were victims of violence.

These artworks are grim, and they are political.

The literary connection is a tenuous one, but nevertheless: some of the works are connected to Ciudad Juárez, once deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. It's immortalized for me as such in Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Teresa Margolles' work evokes in me the same visceral response that 2666 caused me.

Another piece looks like barbed wire strung across a room, but it's remnants of sutures to sew up victims of violent death after autopsy.

I was so disturbed after my walkthrough, I returned to "the longest distance between two places" — to interrupt myself, to remove myself, to restart myself.

Emanuel Licha: Now Have a Look at This Machine
What do Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, and Franz Kafka have in common? Their books are used as props in the environment of the installation, supporting the context for Licha's creative documentary film. The film has set times for English and French screenings; I'll go back another day for this experience.

The machine is that otherwise known as war.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"Boredom is the mind's scar tissue."

"I don't actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all." Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. "I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that's always going to depend on who you're dealing with."

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, is delightful. I can easily see it being quite a few people's favourite new book, and I've recommended it to some friends as such.

I was a little wary because I'm wary of magic. I just am. Don't mess with magic. Maybe because I don't believe in magic (apart from the magic principles my microwave, for example, and airplanes and the internet operate on), I think it's very difficult to write well — that is, believably.

And the ultimate showdown between magic and science, as this novel was being made out to be, just sounds simplistically grandiose.

But then the Tournament of Books happened, and there was so much love for this book, and dismay when it was knocked out of the running, and hope when it looked it might return as a crowd favourite. So I rushed to my library, and yay.

It turns out it's not really about magic or science. It's a love story. It's about misfit schoolmates Patricia and Laurence and the bonds that develop between them. Patricia is eventually whisked off to magic school, and Laurence becomes the genius scientist we always knew he would be. As adults, their lives collide. A scientist would control nature, but a witch must serve it.

It's light — that is, there's a lightness to it, lightness of touch, lightness of heart. It made me feel happy — but not because of the story, almost in spite of the story. Happy to be immersed in this kind of book. This is a book I wanted to stay up all night with. I loved the experience of this book more than the book itself.

I read it over a cold and still snowy weekend just over a week ago, and I've mostly forgotten the story. I do, however, remember the feeling of reading this story, which is sometimes more important.
Patricia had to crouch down to talk to a confused marmalade cat, who needed help finding his way home. (He remembered what his house looked like on the inside, but not on the outside.)
While it's a lovely book, I don't understand what's so original or genre-bending about this book. It seems to have cast its own spell on its readership. It's sweet and funny, with some great turns of phrase (though, I'm still puzzling over what exactly "Boredom is the mind's scar tissue." actually means).

As for the Tournament, All the Birds in the Sky won over Han Kang's The Vegetarian:
Perhaps because, political situations being what they are, I wanted to know that I was in the hands of a writer who wouldn't be falsely optimistic, but could still bring me joy.
But then it lost to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad:
Anders’s prose — pretty, joyous, and inventive — felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s. Perhaps that feeling came from my own headspace, which is currently dark and stormy. But The Underground Railroad called to me more urgently than All the Birds in the Sky. I suspect in any other year, alongside any other book, the latter would win, in a landslide. But here we are. Happy 2017.
One judge liked its hope, the other opted for a strong dose of reality (despite the liberties taken in expressing that reality).

Had it been up to me to choose between All the Birds in the Sky and The Vegetarian (the only two books of the tournament I've read), I would have talked about trees. Treeness figures in both stories: In The Vegetarian Yeong-hye wants to become a tree — plant matter is persistent, if mute. In All the Birds in the Sky, the Tree is all-knowing; nature ultimately merges with science. The oneness the tree represents is in one case internal, in the other external. Though I read it months ago, The Vegetarian took root in me, and I vastly prefer the feeling of being deeply unsettled over the fleeting flush of All the Birds.
After Laurence and Serafina drifted away, Patricia told Kevin, "I didn't really save his life. He was exaggerating."

Kevin shrugged, causing his watch chain to jangle. "It's his life. One tends to privilege personal insights in such matters."

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A tendency to form inconvenient alliances

This week I read something by Anne Tyler — The Accidental Tourist — because there it was on my reader and I was looking for something non-demanding to read, I must've picked it up for a dollar or so, thinking I should see what Anne Tyler's all about, because lots of readers seem to like her, and I recall a ringing endorsement from Nigella Lawson (even if not for this novel in particular).

If I were a different kind of person, I would've set the book down after a dozen or so pages. Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.
Back home, Macon had kept a stack of index cards giving detailed directions to the houses of his friends — even friends he'd known for decades. And it used to be that whenever Ethan met a new boy, Macon's first anxious question was, "Where exactly does he live, do you know?" Ethan had had a tendency to form inconvenient alliances. He couldn't just hang out with the boy next door; oh, no, it had to be someone who lived way beyond the Beltway. What did Ethan care? He had no trouble navigating. This was because he'd lived all his life in one house, was Macon's theory; while a person who'd been moved around a great deal never acquired a fixed point of reference but wandered forever in a fog — adrift upon the planet, helpless, praying that just by luck he might stumble across his destination.
I'm not even sure why I didn't like it. None of the characters are particularly likeable or admirable, but that's never stopped me from liking a book before. None of them exhibits much growth or acquires much awareness either. I simply didn't care what happened.

I found myself reading for the sake of reading — not that there's anything wrong with that. Maybe in fact it was just the thing to ease me through a tedious workweek. I mean, the story is sweet enough; the book is not offensively terrible in any way. Just... sweet. Maybe I would not have fared any differently with any other book this week.

But I think I can conclude that if this novel is at all representative — is it? — then Anne Tyler is not for me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

That accidental closeness

I began to sweat. I was squeezed between two old women who stared straight ahead with an unnatural rigidity. One held her purse tight under her arm; the other pressed hers against her stomach, one hand on the clasp, the thumb in a ring attached to the pull of the zipper. The passengers who were standing leaned over us, breathing on us. Women suffocated between male bodies, panting because of that accidental closeness, irritating even if apparently guiltless. In the crush men used the women to play silent games with themselves. One stared ironically at a dark-haired girl to see if she would lower her gaze. One, with his eyes, caught a bit of lace between two buttons of a blouse, or harpooned a strap. Others passed the time looking out the window into cars for a glimpse of an uncovered leg, the play of muscles as a foot pushed brake of clutch, a hand absentmindedly scratching the inside of a thigh. A small thin man, crushed by those behind him, tried to make contact with my knees and nearly breathed in my hair.

I turned toward the nearest window, in search of air.
— from Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante.

I don't know which season is best for public transportation. A stranger brushing, or pressed against, my bare skin, or someone coughing into my neck.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman

Last week's blizzard inspired me to pick up The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin. I recall treating myself to this hardcover, Christmas 2015; I was in D.C., and it was unseasonably warm and the timing wasn't right for it. Last week, however, was perfect.

Fittingly, I write this as it's snowing again. So much snow.

I love this book. It is deeply strange and funny and tragic.

You start off thinking you're reading something old-timey, à la Bulgakov. It's charming, but affected — of another era. But it's so not that.

Platon Ilich Garin is a doctor on a mission to carry a vaccine to a remote village, where an epidemic is wreaking havoc (and it's not the sort of epidemic you might expect). Garin's trying to negotiate fresh horses with the stationmaster but there are none he may be stuck there, till someone remembers Crouper, who didn't do the bread delivery so he might be available. And he has a sled, with fifty horses under the hood; the hood basically a tarp, and the horses are miniature, the size of partridges. (Other technology gets mentioned that jars you out of the mistaken belief that this is ninetennth-century Russia; this is not the world that you know.)

So the doctor and the sled driver set out.

And they encounter delay after obstacle after obstacle after delay. The blizzard itself has them moving slow, cold, blind, often in circles. There are literal obstacles, buried under the snow, like the mysterious transparent pyramid, the size of a hat, hard as steel.
"I said, where's the village?!" the doctor shouted in a voice filled with hatred, for the storm, the cemetery, and that idiot birdbrain Crouper who had led him who knows where. He was angry at his wet toes freezing in his boots; at his heavy, fur-lined, snow-covered coat; at the ridiculous painted sled with its idiotic midget horses inside that idiotic plywood hood; at the blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia, which no decent Russian person had any need for at all; at that scientific, pontificating crook Zilberstein, who cared only about his own career and had left earlier on the mail horses without a thought for his colleague, Dr. Garin; at the endless road surrounded by drowsy snowdrifts; at the snakelike, snowy wind whipping ominously above them; at the hopeless gray sky, tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman, which kept sowing, sowing, and sowing these accursed snowflakes.
There are Vitaminders. They have a Mongolian-wise-man feel about them, but more than likely they are merely corporate pharmaceutical kingpins, of the crooked variety, whatever they might be doing in the middle of nowhere.

There's a fantastic 8-page drug trip, where Garin understands everything but retains nothing; he's reduced to tears and a state of infancy (but not innocence). I mean, fucking Vitaminders. With product! It's weird.

Garin's nose — the size and the colour of it — is a recurring image; I wonder if this isn't meant to reference Gogol, though I'm not sufficiently well-read to explain the significance of it.

Tragically, Garin himself is often the reason for the delay, and he never takes responsibility for that. He'd hoped to make it by nightfall, but days go by. And sadly, the novel ends before he reaches his destination, so we never learn how that epidemic turns out.

New York Times review (a bit spoilery).

[I'm thinking it's nigh time I return to Sorokin's Ice Trilogy.]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In the evenings I'm truly unfathomable

Of course, everybody thinks I'm no good. Actually, when I'm hung over in the mornings I'm of the same opinion. But really, how can you trust the opinion of a person who hasn't yet had a hair of the dog? Now in the evenings — oh, God, what depths I can reveal! — always assuming, of course, I've had a good skinful during the day — in the evenings I'm truly unfathomable.

Well, okay, so I'm no good, so what? In general terms, I'd say a person who feels lousy in the morning, and who's buzzing with ideas in the evening, full of dreams and schemes, is just no good at all. Rotten mornings, and great evenings, are a sure sign of a bad person. But if it's the other way round — if somebody's bright and cheerful first thing, full of hope, and then totally knackered by evening, they're nothing but garbage, narrow-minded mediocrities. Complete shits, in my view. I don't know about you, but I reckon they're shits.

Of course, there are people to whom morning and evening are all the same, sunrise and sunset equally pleasing — people like that are straightforward bastards, it disgusts me even to talk about them. Then again, if somebody feels lousy morning and evening alike, well, I just don't know what to say, that's the last word in scum, a complete dickhead. I mean, the off-licenses stay open till nine at night, and the Yeliseev's open till eleven, for God's sake, and if you're not a scumbag, you can always manage lift-off to somewhere by evening, you can surely reach some sort of shallow depths...
— from Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev.

So are you a morning person or an evening person?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

She had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric

I found Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante, to be something of a troubling novel, on several levels.

It's Ferrante's first novel. Perhaps it shows; maybe it lacks fluidity, or something like that — it's jarring. I would not recommend this book as a way into Ferrante. It's narratively less compelling than her other novels. Maybe my hesitation in endorsing it lies simply in that it's so troubling (which, of course, may be the point). This is not an easy book.

Then there's the novels subjects and themes. Also troubling.

This is about Delia, a 40-ish-year-old woman coming to terms with her mother's death. There's the problem of the nature of the death, accidental or deliberate — could it really have been suicide? There's the problem of the circumstances of the death — where she was and with whom, and dressed like that? There's the problem of the relationship of the mother, long ago separated from Delia's father, with another man, whom Delia recalls from her childhood.
It occurred to me that ever since she was a girl Amalia had thought of hands as gloves, silhouettes first of paper, then of leather. She had sewed and sewed. Then, moving on, she had reduced widows of generals, wives of dentists, sisters of magistrates to measurements of bust and hips. Those measurements, taken by discreetly embracing, with her seamstress's tape, female bodies of all ages, became paper patterns that, fastened to the fabric with pins, portrayed on it the shadows of breasts and hips. Now, intently, she cut the material, stretched tight, following the outline imposed by the pattern. For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure. I had never thought about this, and now that I had I couldn't ask her if it really had been like that. Everything was lost. But, in front of Signora De Riso as she ate cherries, I found that that final game of fabrics between her and Caserta, that reduction of their underground history to a conventional exchange of old garments for new, was a sort of ironic fulfillment. My mood abruptly changed. I was suddenly content to believe that her carelessness had been thought out. Unexpectedly, surprisingly, I liked that woman who in some way had completely invented her story, playing on her own with empty fabrics. I imagined that she hadn't died unsatisfied, and I sighed with unexpected satisfaction.
There's the problem of love. Is the title referencing the mother's relationships? Delia's relationship with her mother (not exactly loving, yet somehow fraught with love)? Delia's love life (perhaps troublingly absent)?

There's the problem of memory. How Delia remembers her childhood, and the people and events of her childhood, and the hazy reality of it. The past is quite troubling, and she must finally confront it.

There's Delia's relationship to her own body. Her aging body. Clothes and appearances figure prominently.

The most troubling thing of all: she is becoming her mother.

See also
New York Times: Return to Naples
The Iowa Review

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The only map we have is woefully lacking

"You used a map to get to this inn yesterday, did you not? Because of that map, you are able to find our way up the road without getting lost. Likewise, in order for us as a species to walk the correct path in life, we need a very detailed map that will tell us what the world is like. Except our map in incomplete, almost entirely useless. Which is why, even now, in the twenty-first century, people are still making mistakes. War and the destruction of the environment and countless other things persist because the only map we have is woefully lacking. It's the mission of scientists to fill in those missing pieces."
A Midsummer's Equation, by Keigo Higashino, is a perfectly delightful old-school mystery story. By which I mean, no hi-tech pyrotechnics, no weird sex, no ultra violence, no obscure specialists in esoteric fields of study you've never heard of. Just a suspicious death, some good old police work, and a fairly innocuous nest of family secrets.

That's a good thing.

It also makes the "Japanese Steig Larsson" proclamation stamped across the front cover silly, though I won't dispute that Higashino deserves to be better known. I loved The Devotion of Suspect X. A Midsummer's Equation is not as innovative a puzzle, but it confirms Higashino as a reliable writer to fall back on when I'm in the mood for a mystery.

Despite physicist Yukawas's insistence on the pursuit of pure truth and knowledge for its own sake, he seems very much concerned with moral truths. It is clear that for him the right path is the one leading to the greatest benefit for humanity. While logical, it may not be strictly legal. And that makes it quite different from many of the mysteries I've read in recent years in which legal justice tends to prevail.

This novel is not thriller. It's a tearjerker.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sending out coded signals

Why do people whose existence you are unaware of, whom you meet once and will never see again, come to play, behind the scenes, an important role in your life?
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood was originally published in French just the week before Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. No doubt this speeded along its translation.

I've read a few Modiano novels now, enough to confidently say this one is typical, if slighter.

This can easily be read in one sitting, if you don't count my getting up to fix myself a cocktail.

This book is all mood, and great to get lost in, but if you're looking to get from point A to B via a traditional story, with, you know, an ending, this book won't get you anywhere.

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood starts in the Paris apartment of Jean Daragane, an aging novelist, who receives a mysterious phonecall, which leads to a meeting with a mysterious couple and further meetings with the young woman (with a mysterious dress), and a mysterious file folder containing a mysterious yet familiar passport photo, and from there it meanders down mysterious memory lane.

The couple had asked Daragane about a specific man, but his memories of him are vague and convoluted and intertwined with equally fuzzy memories of other figures from his past. He'd used the name of that man in one of his novels, and a few episodes also had basis in his memory of his reality.
He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.[...] He had never understood why anyone should want to put someone who had mattered to them into a novel. Once that person had drifted into a novel in much the same way as one might walk through a mirror, he escaped from you forever. He had never existed in real life. He had been reduced to nothingness...
So were they important names, or weren't they?

We never learn what really became of the figures from the past, we never learn much about the murder beyond the fact that there was one (and it's mentioned barely as much as I mention it here), we never know where the dress came from and the young woman never comes back for it. Most puzzling of all to me, we never know what happened to Jean's mother, or why he was temporarily in the care of others.

Tellingly, when Daragane goes to investigate the house of his memories, the local doctor suggests the best informant might be the little boy who was present — but this of course is Daragane himself. I mean, there are episodes from my childhood that, weirdly, my mother knows nothing about. But I know I don't understand them fully because I processed them the way a 7-year-old would.
Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.
It's very Paul Auster, City of Glass, only more realistic. All very fuzzy and mind-bendy. The mood, and the way Daragane processes his memories, is very much exacerbated by the unseasonable heat — it makes everything urgent, sexual, restless, confused.

LA Times, Patrick Modiano's many detours into echoes, longings and tension:
It also has to do with how the past appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
The Northwest Review of Books:
As we age, our brains accept and absorb events differently, and thus our perception of the importance of these events changes too. Storytelling often suggests clean causality, but that, for Daragane, is a youthful interpretation. For him, older and more isolated, the sheer vastness of his memory makes these connections nearly impossible to make.
The New Yorker, The Mysteries of Patrick Modiano

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

He died in the hall with the radio on

I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, Tenth of December, by George Saunders.

I have the impression that Saunders is a big deal. (I read and loved The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip a long time ago.)

The thing is, I don't get on well with short stories in general. I don't know why. Too short to connect, to develop a relationship with? But then there are several specific short stories that I have actually liked. It's the idea of short stories I don't like. That is, I like the idea of reading a story that's short. I just don't like them. Most of them are forgettable, they don't stay with me. I generally don't choose to read short stories.

With that massive disclaimer out of the way, I'll say these stories were quite all right. In fact they were just the thing, the right kind of bedtime reading this past week. I will consider reading more Saunders. The stories are very human and tragic, and several of them have a futuristic or science fiction-y aspect that while not central is essential to the backdrop of the story. Or maybe it is central. That is, the stories start off being very familiar, until suddenly they're really not.

One of the stories ("The Semplica Girl Diaries") I would've loved to experience at novel length.

Another story I loved is shorter than short. (I like really short short stories like this one; I like them better than short stories. They have a meditative aspect like poetry. All that's inessential has been stripped away.) I give it to you here in its entirety.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
That's it. That's the whole gut-wrenching story. Doesn't it make you just — ?

All of the stories in this collection are available online:

Victory Lap
Escape from Spiderhead
Al Roosten
The Semplica Girl Diaries
My Chivalric Fiasco
Tenth of December

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The forgetfulness of sugar

Edgar felt confused. He wanted a cookie, the forgetfulness of sugar. [...] Life was complicated, and dangerous. Edgar needed a teacher. Someone, like the aliens, who could extend long fingers into his brain and adjust the dials, rearrange the chaos of dots until the picture was marvelous and clear, and with no effort at all you would understand why you'd been born in a place where the rain of information never ceased, and where every person was a baffling conceit.
I'm not sure why I accepted a review copy of Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato.

If I'd known more about what it was about, I might not have picked it up. (I remember thinking something similar about Lodato's first novel, Mathilda Savitch.) I don't naturally gravitate toward books that deal explicitly with grief, childhood trauma, family secrets, tragedy. (I don't seem to mind when those themes are implicit, subtly woven into the fabric of a story, but when a book is about overcoming a challenge, I tend to look elsewhere.)

Edgar is an eight-year-old albino boy, Lucy's his mom, his father's gone, dead, suicide. Lucy's got a limp and she drinks too much. They live with Edgar's grandmother, who has her own ghosts to deal with, until she dies. And then Edgar goes missing.

Upon starting in, I wasn't convinced I was prepared to invest my time in 500+ pages, but Lodato's writing is hugely compelling, and comes a point you have to know how it ends. I would've cut a few pages, but in the end I was quite satisfied to have spent a rainy day last weekend blanketed with this book.