Friday, July 17, 2015

Venetian comfort

The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, is a strange little novel, set in Venice. One of his early works. It's short, and nothing much happens.

I'm not sure how he achieves it, but the novel has a very sinister tone — the sense that something's lurking in an alleyway or canal. Venice is labyrinthine and mysterious.

McEwan in my view excels at depicting relationships in all their nuance; what little is spoken between characters speaks volumes. Although the details of the story may seems far-fetched, the characters are very real.

And the title tantalizes. I'm still wondering who is seeking comfort from whom, who are the real strangers in this story?
She appeared greedy for the fact of conversation rather than its content; she inclined her head towards him, as though bathing her face in the flow of his speech.
I like this review in New York Times that manages to tell you everything about the novel without actually spoiling any of it, and still make you want to read it. "No reader will begin The Comfort of Strangers and fail to finish it; a black magician is at work."

The movie also is worth watching. It has a terrific cast. And scripted by Harold Pinter, it's mostly true to the novel.

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 MiƩville. 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.