Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Reading Italian style

I leave for Italy next week, and as such I've been reading all things Italian.

Here are two guidebooks I recommend:

Italy, Insight Guides is a little short on logistical details but big on flavour. This is the book I turned to to help me decide what regions I wanted to visit, but I'll probably leave the book at home.

Secret Venice is a treasure trove of weird and wonderful stories concerning the nooks and crannies of Venice, of which there appear to be plenty. Like the graffiti image of a human heart, scratched by a stonecutter who slept in the doorway upon witnessing a Levantine Venetian stab his mother and tear out her heart.

So yes, Venice is on the itinerary, followed by Florence, then Rome, with day trips here and there. (And as part of our preparation, we've been replaying Assassin's Creed II, to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land.)

Quite apart from practical research, I've also been stocking up on novels set in those places. My reading material for the journey includes:

I've already started the McEwan, and it's short and very compelling and it'll be done before I leave. And I'm excited about the Moravia because it was referenced in Mad Men. But it strikes me that these novels are all a little dark. Perhaps something a little lighter, more gelato-inspired, is in order.

Do you have any Venice-to-Rome reading recommendations for me?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Only poetry could win the vote

We were packing our bags. There was nothing that they could say now. Now they were trying anything to make us stay. Like a lover who was trying to talk reason into you as you were throwing your clothes into a suitcase, they went from saying soothing, reconciliatory, sweet things to calling you a complete idiot and telling you that you'd regret it for a sure. Well it was too late for all that.

We would go off on our own. We just wanted to speak French in peace. We wanted to whisper dirty things to our loved ones in French. There was a certain kind of love that could only be expressed in this way.

There was no difference between the expressions I like you and I love you in French. You could never declare love like that in English.

We loved in a self-destructive, over-the-top way. A way that was popular in sixties experimental theatre and certain Shakespeare plays. We loved like Napoleonic soldiers in Russia, penning beautiful letters while seated on the corpses of our dead horses. We were like drunk detectives who carried around tiny notebooks full of clues and fell for our suspects. We were crazy about the objects of our affection the way that ex-criminals in Pentecostal churches were crazy about Jesus. We went after people who didn't know we existed, like Captain Ahab did. We loved awkwardly and hopelessly, like a wolf ringing a doorbell while wearing a sheepskin coat that is way too small for him.

How could you explain that in a political platform? I wondered. I began to write a speech for Etienne. The only way that we would win the referendum would be if the speech-makes came out. Only poetry could win the vote.
— from The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill.

Harkening back to the pre-referendum days of 1995.

Happy St. Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The joules of men

I started reading The Windup Girl some time ago, by Paolo Bacigalupi. It's slow going and fairly demanding reading, but in a rewarding way. There are no infodumps here; the reader has to figure out the terminology and the society and the politics as they go. It's rich world-building. (In this way this book is reminiscent of the work of China Miéville. These authors give their readers a lot of credit.)
Hock Seng's treadle loses its rhythm. "This is a difficult thing, I think. Even the Dung Lord must bow before the Megodont Union. Without the labor of the megodonts, one must resort to the joules of men. Not a powerful bargaining position."
I love this passage from early on in the book, because it makes no sense (what's a megodont? what's a dung lord?), but of course it makes all kinds of sense.

I imagine breaking the lines, for it to take the form of a poem.
Hock Seng's treadle
loses its rhythm.
"This is a difficult thing,
I think. Even the Dung Lord must
bow before the Megodont Union.
Without the labor of the megodonts,
one must resort
to the joules of men.
Not a powerful
bargaining position."
The language of science fiction is poetry.

So I'm plodding along and figuring things out, but also reminded of the value of taking things slow, the richness of slow reading.

Here we have calorie companies and generipping and seedbanks.
Best to trust no one, even if they seem friendly. A smiling girl one day is a girl with a stone bashing in the brains of a baby the next. This is the only truth. One can think there are such things as loyalty and trust and kindness but they are devil cats.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Grade 6 is so over

Two more days of school (sigh), but prom was Friday night.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Things I'm doing instead of blogging

Still reading, but in a pretty distracted way, and mostly just on my short commute.

Vacation planning and house hunting, both of which are time sinks of the highest order.

Cleaning closets, which while mildly satisfactory, the pleasure of giving away all my excess is shortlived, as its absence is barely noticeable in the sea of stuff amid which I live.

Moping, not excessively, but more than I ought to.

Composing blog posts in my head, but then forgetting to actually write them, as if the process of thinking them through were a sufficient mental exercise, and the act of writing them superfluous.

Replaying Assassin's Creed II in the belief that it is valid preparation for our upcoming trip to Italy, to familiarize ourselves with the streets and landmarks of Venice, Florence, ...

Not MOOCing, at least not since I completed a course on the world of wine, from grape to glass, even though I'm enrolled in a fiction writing MOOC — although I did watch The Beach, as "research," because the course featured insight from Alex Garland.

Not colouring either, and not watching Mad Men anymore, which makes me sad.

Trying hard to be nice, but allowing myself to think nasty, spiteful thoughts.

Stressing on behalf of my daughter, to ease her stress about year-end provincial ministerial exams along with all the other stresses of being 12.

Shopping, mostly for the kid because she won't stop growing, and also for a fancy dress and sneakers in preparation for grade 6 prom(!) (which went swimmingly yesterday).

Stressing about all of it, about work, about life in general, about getting my shit together and the prospect of buying and moving into a new house.

Wandering aimlessly, which allows me also to devote time to several of the tasks noted above.

Drinking Italian wine, of which I've never been a great fan, in order to prime my palate and develop an appreciation for it.

Dreaming strange dreams, like how the plane was landing in Skopje instead of Venice, and my phone needed charging but I'd gotten the day wrong so I hadn't had time to get a plug adaptor. I had to look up Skopje when I woke up.

Remembering to breathe.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

From the Penumbra-verse

Having enjoyed Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I long ago subscribed to his newsletter.

This week he tells of a mysterious little book, Iterating Grace, that is cropping up in mailboxes around San Francisco.

It's a neat little story, and completely in line with Penumbra, fetishizing bookish artifacts while embracing the digital future.
In Silicon Valley, so many people had collaborated to create so much, only to watch it crumble and wonder how real it had ever been. For a lot of tech workers, this only led to despondency and debt. But Crooks seemed to find the dot-com economy's impermanence electrifying. Start-ups, he realized, were a kind of spiritual exercise. He wanted to live that experience again, but in the purest possible form. He wanted to "touch the ESSENCE without gloves," as he put it in the summer of 2003, in an email to his uncle.
Quite apart from, Who is Koons Crooks and how did he get here?, Iterating Grace comes wrapped in an enigma of its own: who wrote it?

The short book has been digitized — it's a quick and interesting read. And Alexis Madrigal details the circumstances of the book.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Buffering

1.1 Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, is one of my favourite books in recent history.

2.1 Some books I want to read cold. I don't want reviews to colour my impressions. This is one of those books. Partly because I want to be able to later report on it purely, without my personal opinion having been influenced. Partly because I want to test myself: read the material, write the exam, gauge whether I arrived at the same conclusions as the acknowledged experts. Partly because I want my journey to be wholly original, so that I can then write something wholly original. It represents a tension between individual and collective thought.

2.2 I was caught sitting somewhere, waiting, and it was not appropriate to be reading a real book, and it was not clear how much longer I'd be waiting like this and my attention was unfocused, so I started reading my phone, and I skimmed a review I'd bookmarked (see 2.3). I noticed reference to the cover art and thought I could safely read this section without encountering spoilers, but then I realized it was about the US edition of the novel. My copy looks completely different. Whatever this review said, it would not apply.

2.3 Christopher Urban in Los Angeles Review of Books — A Satin Island of the Mind:
A characteristic of a good (and usually difficult) novel is that it teaches you how to read it as you go along. Satin Island does so without even having to open its pages. On the cover of the book, five of the subtitles: "Treatise, Essay, Report, Confession, Manifesto," are crossed out, leaving only "A Novel," and rightly so; for Satin Island is indeed all those things, but it is first and foremost a novel. The colorful foil jacket is a great piece of cover art (a co-worker picked it up after seeing it on my desk all day, and asked if she "Could just look at it?"), and it, too, offers numerous possible interpretations. Easiest of all is to connect the dots of oil (or ink?) to see a stick figure, an effigy, a Christ-like crucifixion of the shroud mention in the book's beginning, cutting sideways, right to left, across the top of the graph-paper background. But turning the book horizontally and (touching on a soccer analogy made in the book) one sees the figure as a goalie, protecting the "grid-like" net, the streaking dots as the projected path of the ball, the "goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick," to take a line from Handke.
2.4 Or possibly it was this review, by Jonathan Russell Clark at The Rumpus, which starts with the clues on the (American) cover:
On the cover of Tom McCarthy's new novel, a number of words appear crossed out. "A manifesto," "an essay," "a report," "a confession," and "a treatise" are all struck through, leaving only the words "a novel" un-slashed. But none of these terms quite captures what Satin Island really is: a polemic.
And later:
The stories, if we can call them that, have little or no thrust, no narrative momentum. Instead, they greatly suggest meaning with proximity yet seem to mock you for finding any. In other words, McCarthy throws out many of the so-called rules of fiction writing in order to depict something he believes to be greatly missing from realism: the erratic and associative movements of the mind.
2.5 My cover has a colour wheel (rather, a buffering symbol in full colour), dripping with thick black oil. The oil slick is slightly raised, satiny to the touch. I love that the front- and endpapers show the oil bleeding down from the top edges. I love that my copy is now fairly filthy, signs of rubbing against other books, stains from being slid across tables, a lots of tiny rips in the jacket from me cramming it into my purse, a hefty scratch not quite tearing the paper likely caused by my keys being jostled about in said purse, and some buckling, having dried after partly sitting in a wet spot of white wine. I usually take good (but not obsessive) care of my books, but this one looks like I picked it up off a park bench.

3.1 It's about a fucking corporate anthropologist. How awesome is that?
I was the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy. The Company (let's continue to call it that) advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas — to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.
3.2 Peyman is his boss. I also work with somebody called Peyman. I had never encountered the name before I worked with him. Our Peyman is an IT guy. But also vague and elusive.

3.3 I wondered if the next character might also be relatable to someone I work with. Lo and behold, a robotic Finnish monologue.

3.4 There were other things I'd been thinking about that suddenly worked their way into the novel. The problem of "field" versus "home." How the company where I work runs on anxiety. And then the things I read about would crop up around me. Like the traffic patterns. And thyroid cancer. What if this novel were actually telling me my story, and I was reading it just ahead of it happening? This turned out to be not that book. (How would I go about writing that book?)

But the more you start looking for things (like dead parachutists), the more they start cropping up.

3.5 Do you remember the raid on the Armando Diaz school, during the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa? Me neither, and I used to keep informed back then. U's friend finally tells him her account of the events. I've heard more about the raid in the last few months, in the news and on Netflix, than I did at the time.

3.6 It's a buffering problem. Everything is slightly out of sync. Always in a state of being processed. That is, lag is a problem, buffering is its state of being.

4.1 U compiles a lot of dossiers — scraps of paper stuck on walls or sorted into portfolios. My dossiers are pastel-coloured sticky notes gently tapped onto the sausage coils of my brain, but with a swoosh of the hair on my skull, they waft away.

4.2 I had at one time intended to quote passages — 2.3 The Company's premises; 4.1 On Lévi-Strauss; 5.5 The Company's logo, a Babel tower; 7.9 The buffer zone of small objects on the counter in front of the woman at the bar; 8.9 The cleaning of the desk; 8.12 Tabula rasa, carte blanche; 10.3 On elemental properties, differentiation in its purest form; 12.17 Text messaging as the key to immortality; 14.12 The anachronism of payphones — but they've all run away from me. Just read the book.

4.3 Duncan White in The Telegraph:
There is evident pleasure taken in puncturing conventional consolations. We don’t want plot, depth or content," McCarthy has said. "We want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern." McCarthy will give you pleasure but he won't give you resolution. Closure is an illusion, the Koob-Sassen Project cannot be understood, the Great Report cannot be written. U tells us that there are occasions when he thinks he is about to grasp "the plan, formula, solution" but "before waking, with a jolt, I watched it all evaporate, like salt in a quiet breeze".
Yes, we want pattern. Beautiful, beautiful pattern. We create it when it isn't there.

4.4 It feels significant that subconsciously I chose my laser-cut metal bookmark depicting the New York City skyline — the view as if from Staten Island — to mark my place.

4.5 The report still needs to be written:
Then the Great Report would not be something that was either to-come or completed, in-the-past: it would be all now. Present-tense anthropology; anthropology as way-of-life. That was it: Present-Tense Anthropology™; an anthropology that bathed in presence, and in nowness — bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well.
4.6 I can't get over how smart this book makes me feel. It makes me complicit. I will be part of the Present-Tense Anthropology™ armed resistance movement. I feel simultaneously connected and disconnected, in a state of buffering. Erudite books generally make me feel stupid, or at least small. Therefore, either this book is not nearly so smart as I think it is or it is much more.

4.7 The employee–employer described by Patty Hearst syndrome. We are all cogs. We are all the machine.
This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I'd deploy in my work for the Company from then on in: feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that re-weaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have a called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.
4.7 Jeff Turrrentine in The New York Times:
McCarthy isn't a frustrated cultural theorist who must content himself with writing novels; he's a born novelist, a pretty fantastic one, who has figured out a way to make cultural theory funny, scary and suspenseful — in other words, compulsively readable.