Friday, December 22, 2006

My year in books

In case you need some last-minute shopping inspiration, or maybe you're feeling at a loss regarding what to discuss with family members you see but once a year, I give you the highlights from among the books I read this year (with links to the interesting things I said about them!), even though I'm generally not given over to this sort of thing. But it was an exceptionally good reading year. I leave in the morning for a few days; maybe you'll have digested this by the time I return.

The good
Book I'm mostly likely to reread:
Middlemarch, George Eliot.

Book I'm most likely to recommend to the largest number of people:
Snow, Orhan Pamuk.

Book that I had very low expectations of but left me stunned (in a good way) (and which I'm likely to recommend to almost as many, but a different group of, people):
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver.

Oh, and! The Intuitionist — that was pretty good, but I don't know what kind of clever category to make up for it, other than "every bit as good as trustworthy sources said it would be." And that Dumas book — that was pretty good, too — for being everything I've come to expect of Dumas.

Children's book that I first encountered this year and which continues to wow me:
Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson.

The bad
Book that was drastically overhyped, and which I hated:
Labyrinth, Kate Mosse.

Books I almost wish I hadn't bothered to read, almost (in addition to Labyrinth):
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco.
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
A Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil.

Books I didn't much like that many people really, really like, which makes me wonder what the hell do I know:
Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.

Other books not nearly as good (by which I mean powerful and gripping — writerly skill is not in question) as I expected them to be:
Arthur & George, Julian Barnes.
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel.

The ugly
And I mean that affectionately.

Most memorable scene from a book:
The unmasking of Toro, in Iron Council, by China Miéville, still gives me chills just thinking about it.

Book I'd most like to see filmed:
Iron Council, China Miéville.

Weirdest book (where weird is relative), which I'm still not sure what to make of (most articulate descriptor yet: "trippy"):
Light, M John Harrison.

Luckiest book find:
Horror at Fontenay, Alexandre Dumas, for the cover alone. (The same stories are contained in a relatively recent release, One Thousand and One Ghosts, which boasts being the first translation into English — I'm curious how it compares to my much older "adapted" text.)

The verdict
I read some really great books this year, almost all of them Napoleonic and swashbuckling in one way or another. Really. If you think about it.

Book that made me sit up and say "Why the fuck have I never heard of this book before?!":
The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton. It seems they heard me in New York, though — NYRB Classics releases The Slaves of Solitude February 20, 2007! Buy one! Read it! Share my obsession!

Also, I have decided for myself that War and Peace is not the best novel ever written. Pretty good, but not the best.

My favourite reads this year (alphabetical by author surname, if you need to know), for reasons varied and complicated and not explained here:
Middlemarch, George Eliot.
The Dodecahedron, Paul Glennon.
Snow, Orhan Pamuk.

If I listed more, I'd have to list them all over again. Yes, The Dodecahedron. No, I haven't written a full review of it yet. Yes, actually, I do still intend to. No, I can't quite say why it feels like a favourite, which maybe has something to with why I can't write properly about it. I'm still digesting it. (Ah, bibliophagia!)

So there. Merry Christmas!

Des muscles

Whenever I need a laugh, some weeks more than others, I ask Helena to show me her muscles.

It was just before Christmas last year that she came home and announced that she had des gros muscles. I insisted on evidence.

She clenches her fists, her jaw. Her whole body trembles with the exertion.

Her muscles, pronounced the French way ("myooskl"), make for a good party trick. She takes the command very seriously. After all, here's proof positive that she's a growing girl.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Charmed, I'm sure

The Charmer, by Patrick Hamilton, published in 1953, is set in 1930s Reading.

The eponymous Gorse is a grifter, a player, a user, with a decided nasty streak. He's indifferent to his victims, but also pretty passionless about his gains from them. He has one eye always on the prize, but his focus is on perfecting his technique, his game.

Gorse, when lounging at one end of an expensive bar nearly always wore a monocle and looked like a curious, undistinguished mixture between Bertie Wooster and Satan.

An astute observer would have been more impressed by the moustached-satanic, rather than the monocled-Wooster, aspect of the young man, and would have realized that he was looking at a character by no means unformidable.

Mr Stimpson was not an astute observer, and at the moment even less so than usual, because of his uneasiness at his first entrance into the well-known, well-lit, glittering, thickly-carpeted bar. The fact that Gorse was there, indeed, made the young man seem quite angelic — certainly not satanic.

Nor did Mr Stimpson observe, in the first few minutes of talking to Gorse, that he had been tempted by Satan, in the person of Gorse, and had succumbed. He had, however.

For Gorse had ordered for Mr Stimpson an extremely strong cocktail. This was on the bar beside his own drink, and both had a most pleasant, green, frothy appearance. But Gorse's drink, though it resembled Mr Stimpson's externally, had practically no alcohol in it. He was, therefore, deceiving as well as tempting Mr Stimpson.

"I've taken the liberty of ordering a drink for you," he said. "In my view it's the very best they provide here — but if you don't like it, I'll order something else, and drink it myself . . . I often think it's a pity they don't like you drinking good old beer in places like this — don't you?"

Mr Stimpson did not like cocktails, but, by these last words of Gorse, was of course shamed into readily accepting what Gorse had provided for him. The Tempter tempts with shame very often.

The prize here from Mr Stimpson is information and, in a few hours, a compromising situation that Gorse can later use against him.

The Charmer was originally titled Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse. Indeed, the main character could be said to be Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, who, really, has to choose between the two. Both men are trying to play her, to different ends, but while Stimpson is necessary to move the plot forward, his character is never under study to the degree it is with Gorse and the widow — he's the facilitator to them both.

Stimpson has his crossword puzzles. A drinking buddy, Major Parry, has an Armistice Day Poem to compose. Our lady Joan keeps a diary. All these obsessions are extensions of their egos, and Hamilton invites us into their banal machinations. These are some of the funniest bits of the book (and this book is pretty funny), but also, after a while, the most tiresome (especially the diary entries); however, they serve the purpose of demonstrating how petty — and stupid — these people can be.

I'm now reading about Ernest Ralph Gorse's early years in The West Pier, a recent serendipitous find, said by Graham Greene to be "the best novel written about Brighton." The West Pier is the first of the Gorse trilogy. The Author's Note in my copy states that "There may be some readers who, on learning this, will feel that The West Pier is not a complete story in itself. The author is anxious to assure any such reader that it actually is." Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, I've only just confirmed, is the second, and I assure you that it can stand alone. I'm reading them in reverse order because that's the order in which I acquired them.

The Charmer's cover copy calls it a "spine-tingling tale of seduction and murder." I did not read about any murder. I suspect this must refer to the Masterpiece Theater dramatization (1987), which either took liberties (certainly the character in the cover illustration is not moustached) or stretched to encompass bits from the volumes on either side of it. Early in The Charmer it's noted that "Miles Standish was, in fact, one of the select few first to suspect that Gorse was up to no good in life generally — that he was, possibly, destined to see the inside of prison bars." The book ends with Gorse driving off in his ravishingly new Sunbeam. We're told he is to die painlessly and quickly; it's hinted that this will occur in a car. Reading this, I couldn't tell if this was meant to conclude the trilogy, or if details would be fleshed out in a subsequent volume. But I'm now on the lookout for a copy of Unknown Assailant, hoping for murder, prison, and a fatal automotive incident.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Let the bricks fall as they may

As I'm finishing up a batch of books, I've been thinking about what next, how to tackle some of the unread books I have lying around, and lo, along comes a reading challenge, down on them though I am, that I feel I can get behind, or jump on — I mean support, and actually join, because I can fashion it to include a bunch of stuff I'm meaning to read anyway: The Chunkster Challenge (though I don't think I'll refer to it by name much, because I really hate that word, "chunkster" — saying it makes me feel dirty, and not in a good way, like I'm slumming for all the wrong reasons).

The challenge: to read books of intimidating length, between January 1 and June 30, 2007.

Bookfool defines "chunkster" as anything over 400 pages, but I'm with Ed in saying, that's nothing. I read 400 pages before breakfast. Ed proposes the Super-Chunkster Challenge: at least 4 books over 600 pages.

The way I see it, 6 months equals 6 books. Here's what I'm going to read (order yet to be determined):

Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield (pb, 750 p). Lying around since early 2005, when I promised to read me some Dickens (which I haven't since).

Dumas, Alexandre: The Count of Monte Cristo. Yet to be purchased (and I have a gift certificate earmarked for this purpose), so I don't know exactly how many pages, but it's a lot. I've always meant to read it, and it's been particularly much on my mind since reading Perez-Reverte's The Queen of the South. And I like Dumas.

Powers, Richard: The Gold Bug Variations (pb, 639 p). Finally acquired August 2006. I'm surprised that I didn't read it years ago.

Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver, The Baroque Cycle, Volume I (hc, 944 p). On my shelf since 2004, I think. I loved The Cryptonomicon, and Snow Crash.

Wallace, David Foster: Infinite Jest (hc, 1079 p). On my shelf since April 2006. Because I need to see what all the fuss is about.

Yes, I know that's only 5 books (and only the Stephenson and the Wallace could really be said to intimidate me, and the Stephenson only does so because of its length, at least when considered as the first part of a trilogy).

Number 6 will be a surprise. Maybe Volume II of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Maybe my 10-year-old copy of Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before (oh, damn, that's only 528 p). Maybe Gravity's Rainbow, though I'm not sure I'm ready. Maybe I'll pick up that "new" Dumas book in the spring. Maybe I'll cheat. Maybe I'll count The Red and the Black, even though I've less than 400 pages to go (although, I am in effect reading it twice, in 2 languages). Maybe I'll count Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (527 p), if I don't manage to get to it over Christmas after all. Maybe I'll count something really short, like Un Lun Dun (428 or 464 p, depending), since I'll be snapping it up anyway, first chance I get. Maybe I'll change my mind about the whole thing.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A mystery about art

Last spring, I headed out to a reading that was to feature a trio of gentlemen: one, the main attraction (for me, anyway), was a no-show; another I knew for his work as a translator rather than as an author in his own right; the third I'd never heard of. Wouldn't you know, it's the guy I've never heard of — José Carlos Somoza — who ends up blowing me away.

(Is that expression right, "blow me away." It rolled off my fingertips, I'm sure I use it all the time, but I'm hearing it my head right now, and saying it out loud, and it sounds so wrong, wrong, wrong, and stupid. And meaningless, really. What does that mean, "blow me away"? "Blow my mind" is like blowing a fuse after a power surge, a useful metaphor. But "away"?)

So. The Art of Murder. Welcome to the world of hyperdramatic (HD) art. Artists use people not only as models, but as canvasses, primed and conditioned for painting. The human canvas is contracted to hold its pose during gallery hours or as otherwise specified when the work of art is rented or purchased. (This movement in Fine Art influenced the industrial design of Decorations: people are lamps, soapdishes.)

HD artists work not only on the canvas bodies, physically painting and manipulating them, but on their minds, to prepare them to be art. Brushstrokes are psychological — delicate caresses of the ego, jabbing questions and insults, nuanced variations and repetitions of these for shading.

One canvas is mutilated, or murdered — it depends on how you look at it. This discussion between the two main investigators in Security drives home the point:

"She was a painting. There's no need to look any further than that, Lothar. Deflowering was a painting. I'll prove it to you." She pounced on one of Annek's studio photos and thrust it in Bosch's face. "She looks like an adolescent, doesn't she? She has the shape of an adolescent, when she was alive she walked and talked like an adolescent. She was called Annek. But if she had really been an adolescent, she wouldn't have been worth even five hundred dollars. Her death would not have interested the Ministry of the Interior of a foreign country, or mobilised a whole army of police and special forces, or led to high-level discussions in at least two European capitals, or meant that our positions in the Foundation are on the line. If this had been only a girl, who the shit would have been interested in what happened to her? Her mother and four bored policemen in the Wienerwald district. Things like that happen every day in this world of ours. People die horrible deaths all around us, and nobody could care less. But people do care about the death of this girl. And do you know why? Because this, this," she shook the photo in his face, "which apparently shows a young girl, is not a girl at all. It cost more than fifty million dollars." She repeated the words again, emphasising them with a pause between each one. "Fifty. Million. Dollars."

"However much the work cost, she was still a young girl, April."

"That's where you're wrong. It cost that much precisely because it was not a girl. It was a painting, Lothar. A masterpiece. Do you still not get it? We are what other people pay us to be. You used to be a policeman, and that's what you were paid to be; now they pay you to work as an employee for a private company, and that's what you are. This was once a girl. Then someone paid to turn her into a painting. Paintings are paintings, and people can destroy them with portable canvas cutters just as you might destroy documents in you shredding machine, without worrying about it. To put it simply, they are not people. Not for the person who did this to her, and not for us. Do I make myself clear?"

The above exchange occurs more than 100 pages in and really bangs the reader over the head with the Point, but from page 1 this alternate world is unveiled and rather gently examined without having to be explicated. It's not exactly masterful, lyrical writing, but what is masterful is that this alternate reality is wholly believable. This book is generally classified as a mystery, but it's a little bit literary, and a lot speculative. In this way it reminds me of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (although Whitehead's command of language is far superior) — this genre-blending, this construction of an alternate reality so firmly grounded in our own and so delicately skewed that the reader can't help but buy into the sideways squinting perspective on it. One technique common to both books is the quoting of extracts from "historical" treatises from the school of thought that forms the basis of their worlds.

It's worth noting that Somoza gave up a career in psychiatry to pursue writing. His training is put to obvious use in developing his themes and character profiles.

The narrative cuts between scenes of investigating the crime and following the progress of one particular canvas, but the tension builds rather slowly, and it's more intellectual than visceral — the novel is as much a meditation on art as it is a mystery.

Investigators are racing to establish the identity of the killer before he strikes again. They anticipate trouble at the opening of a major HD exhibit. It's a tribute to Rembrandt, but it comes off more as a Guernica:

"We've always thought humanity was a mammal which could lick its own wounds. But in fact we're as fragile as a huge painting, a beautiful but terrifying mural painting which has creating itself over the centuries. That's what makes us so fragile: slashes on the canvas of humanity are hard to repair. And the Nazis slashed the canvas to ribbons. Our convictions were smashed, and their fragments scattered throughout history. There was nothing we could do with beauty, except to grieve over it. There was no way we could get back to Leonardo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Renoir. Humanity became a mutilated survivor whose eyes are wide open to horror."

So. Some interesting ideas about the nature of 20th and 21st century art. The crime may be a statement about art, or maybe it's art in itself. Art as a kind of self-negation. What makes art last is that it is ephemeral. You know, stuff to think about.

I don't read a lot of mysteries, but I certainly enjoy them from time to time. The resolution of The Art of Murder did not come as a surprise, but I found it fitting and satisfying (which is rare in my reading of mysteries).

José Carlos Somoza has written about a dozen novels, but only 2, so far, have been translated into English. He won the 2002 CWA Gold Dagger for The Athenian Murders (which I'll be looking for). The style and setting of each of his books is vastly different from the others.

José Carlos Somoza: official website.
The Art of Murder: excerpt.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Sheets from a Christmas notepaper pad. Sticky note in top right corner, on which is written in red marker, "C'est la fête de Papa!" (which it will be next week), signed by the artist (legible only on the one component I was asked to contribute and sign; otherwise the "writing" is better described as scribbling with intent to convey a particular meaning but not the least bit successful in doing so). Two stickers in the top left, one of which must be a motorcycle and the other to come from the flowers and butterflies sheet, but with no other rules (eg, regarding size, colour, orientation — I asked) guiding their selection; the stickers must be side by side, but their order is free and spontaneous.

Currently, the installation comprises 7 components, but there are plans for expansion. The artist has plotted the area for a total of 21 panels to span the entire length of the hallway between two doorframes.

Sometimes I think I'm too permissive, that the use of supplies in this manner is wasteful, but these concerns are far outweighed by my curiosity to know what will happen next.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Helena's stories

Adèle and Simon
After expressing my desire for it on the basis of one review, Helena did in fact receive a copy of Adèle and Simon for her birthday. It's a hit, and is oft-requested at bedtime. We test our memory in listing all Simon's belongings and we search for (and find) the lost items; when people arrive at Simon's house with his things, we retrace our path to find out where we recognize their faces from; we study the map. I'm confident Helena, when one day we take her, will not get lost in Paris, though we do at times lose ourselves in the illustrations.

Anyway, if you're looking for a Christmas present to delight a 4-year-old girl (or boy, I guess — Simon is a boy after all, and there's nothing particularly "girly" about the story), consider this book.

Ngonghe & Nurlna

Helena, who used to refuse to name her dolls and bears, now invents near unpronouncable names regularly. (The dolls and bears for the most part remain unnamed though, slipping into character as the situation demands.)

She tells me my name, maybe the name of my teddybear, and sketches out the scenario I'm required to perform.

Helena (Ngonghe) and I (Nurlna) first meet when I answer the door — apparently she knocks on the doors of the homes of strangers. We go shopping together (in my bedroom), and buy a cat (the real one lying on the bed). We take the cat home (Helena's bedroom) on the metro (a train of child-sized chairs in the hallway). She thanks me for my help and asks, "Do you want to sleep with me? At my house?"

She makes up beds for us, tucks me in, and makes herself comfortable. She turns to me and smiles, "I love you. What's your name again?"

The bath
Bathtime, much like every other time of day, has become storytime. It's easier on me though: since Helena's mobility is reduced in the bath, she resorts to good ol' storytelling, as opposed to enactment.

She tells me a story with a little dog and a big bad wolf. Red riding hood makes an appearance, I think, as does Han Solo. There's an imprisonment and, later, ice cream.

As the bath draws to a close she decides to recap the story she'd told me only minutes earlier. She tells me there was also an octopus in the story, only she didn't tell me about him because he wasn't there.

(Weirdly, most of her bathtime stories these days feature Han Solo and Chewbacca — weird cuz I don't think there's ever been mention of them in our home since Helena was born.)

The nosebleed
Of all the possible vacation anecdotes she could tell — the zoo, her wonderful aunt, the nooks and crannies in her aunt's home, her birthday presents, the local park, the shopping expeditions and Christmas decorations (including a Santa sighting), the neighbour's baby, airport security checks, the airplane — the one that gets told most is the one about the nosebleed. Her nosebleed, on the flight home, which, admittedly, freaked me out at the time. It was an intense experience while I was in it, but quickly passed into the realm of the forgettable while the more pleasant, general impressions of our trip endure. But Helena sees her world differently than I do, and it seems she knew the nosebleed story would fascinate her daycare peers.

The doctors
It is our habit to watch Doctor Who together. If ever I try to hurry bedtime, whether to watch a program or for some other selfish reason, my efforts always backfire. Helena has, however, become very compliant in being scrubbed and pyjamaed with the prospect of watching Mommy's program with Mommy, and in Mommy's bed to boot. She used to ask a lot of questions, but they've trailed off a little, as she must now realize they'll be answered with, "Ssshhhh!" Or maybe the complexity of the program (compared with, say, Dora) challenges her question-asking abilities. But she does save up some questions for commercial breaks and for ensuing days, and what remains unanswered has not, that I can tell, caused nightmares or existential crises. (I dread having to explain the nature of The Beast. While once I regaled her with book and film summaries, describing them as epic battles between good and evil, over breakfast, I haven't so much since she learned to talk, daunted by the possibility of follow-up questions.)

Last week I made the mistake of hurrying an already way-overdue bedtime and explaining I wanted to watch a program.
"Doctor Who?" It's almost an accusation, that I'd exclude her.
"What program? What's it called?"
"Is it about a house?"
What's it about?
"It's about a doctor?"
"What's his name?"
"Is he a house?"
"No. That's his name. Dr House."
"Dr Who?"
"No. Dr House."
Helena says it's a silly name. How can a person be a house? It does not occur to her to question Dr Who's name. We engage in a little unintentional Abbott & Costello repartee.
Then, "Does he have a spaceship?" Which leads me to think our Doctor Who watching may have effects other than the nightmares I worried about.

Regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted to celebrate the season. Tonight, instead of watching Doctor Who (which Helena was so looking forward to), we'll be watching Dr Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas — or, as Helena likes to call it, Dr Who-ss.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Angry young man

From Orhan Pamuk's Nobel lecture:

As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but — just as in a dream — I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Words and music

1. I finished The Shadow of the Wind. After my initial underwhelmed impression, it got worse. Unnecessarily long and complicated, and with a plot hole I couldn't find an answer to and characters whose motivations weren't believable. The mood was kind of nice to start — a bookish mystery, love of books, that sort of thing — but then it got bogged down with... I'm not sure what. I know lots of people loved this book — I'd really like to know what it is about it that spoke to you.

2. Shadow reminded me of my experience reading Kate Mosse's Labyrinth. Both feel like a promise of something quite interesting, that with a little editing could succeed as young adult novels. Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about, because by many standards they're both wildly successful. But there's something juvenile about them — and I don't mean that derogatorily — I can't put my finger on it: not the writing style, or the subject matter. Maybe because the lead characters are young? I want to say there's something immature about the treatment of themes and the understanding of people, but there I go being insulting again, and it's not entirely true besides. So what makes a young adult novel a young adult novel (Rachel?)?

3. I'm all caught up and on schedule, finally, with my reading of The Red and the Black. Now if only I could write something about it. Hmm.

4. I've said it before, but I really hate having more than one book on the go at a time. Honestly, I don't know how people do it. It drives me crazy. I think I multitask effectively, but only when I see things getting done; that is, I multitask my tasks, but one at a time; that is, the cost of task-switching at some point interferes with my ability to do the tasks well. Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about.

5. I'm loving The Art of Murder. Now to find time and space in which to read it uninterruptedly. The mystery aspect of it at this early point is still a mystery to me, but the premise is certainly worth some discussion. (Excerpt.)

6. What's with all the reading challenges? (Boy, do I ever sound like a spoilsport today.) I've come to the realization that they're not for me. I won't say any more on the subject because I'm bound to offend people if I do, and I doubt my reasoning would make any sense.

1. There's something about jazz. Some of it carries me away. For years I've been trying to educate myself on the subject. To that end, the music library needs occasional augmentation. I requested and received for my birthday Art Tatum and Thelonius Monk. I've been in kind of a jazzy mood of late, but, it turns out, not quite that kind of jazzy.

2. Also received, but not requested, was the soundtrack to The Triplets of Belleville (which I've not seen but have forever wanted to), which is a little closer to the kind of jazzy I'm feeling these days. Also, both J-F and Helena seem to like it, and it's magical when just a little music can put a spring in the household's steps.

3. A Philip Glass violin concerto was the soundtrack to La Moustache. The movie and the music haunted me for days. Requested and received, the concerto now haunts me daily. A perfect mood match, and not the least bit jazzy. Hmm.

4. I pulled out an old CD, The Storyteller & the Fisherman, stories by Mohammed M'Rabet, translated and read by Paul Bowles. I couldn't tell you what most of the stories are about; the voices, music and market noises hypnotize me before I can make sense of anything. It reminds me of the hazy dazy trance in which I travelled through Tunisia.

5. I've started listening to Christmas music; that is, I've been hearing it for weeks and ignoring it — this week, I started listening. Mostly I hate it, but it's unavoidable out there in the city, so I've decided it's important to listen to the music I like in the comfort of my own home to make up for all the commercial crap and help spark a little genuine Christmas cheer. I burned a CD of my favourites some years ago, but it's scratched and unplayable, so I've been trying to recreate it, which means a little of the cheer is actually being lost amid the swearing. And even though I've heard it a billion times and bopped around to it, that stupid BandAid song made me tear up this morning. Stupid song, making me cry. What kind of Christmas spirit is that?

6. The building contractor for some reason decided to tackle the "problem" of our condo's courtyard walls (mostly aesthetic, but not entirely) now, this week, in the cold, in the snow, when it's dark at 7 in the morning. Stupid, noisy contractor.

The both together
A new study suggests speakers of different languages perceive rhythm differently; the researchers' work has the potential to uncover a new link between language and music. (Via Collision Detection.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

A 4-year-old's Christmas scene

That's Père Noel on the right, a girl telling him a secret, a gaggle of small children at his feet, and a grown-up looming over them on the left.

I think Helena's artwork is getting weirder, a little bit creepy even. This scene was no doubt inspired by Friday's daycare visit to Santa's court in the adjoining mall. Crowds thwarted them from meeting him personally — they'll return another day.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Books for drunks

Five novels for your inner drunk, among which is Hangover Square, by my latest passion, Patrick Hamilton:

Hamilton — who, until a recent revival in which his vicious streak of black humor and sometimes-astonishing gift for disturbing imagery was discovered by a new generation of critics, was best known for providing Alfred Hitchcock with the raw material for Rope — tells the story of the perfectly named George Harvey Bone, a schizophrenic good-for-nothing who drowns out the “dead moods” inside his skull by constant drinking. Bone doesn’t have a job; he has a career that largely consists of talking about all the things he could do if he wasn’t drunk. He doesn’t have friends; he has, like most alcoholics, a bunch of people he drinks with and who can’t stand him the minute they sober up. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend; he has an actress he’s obsessed with and who loathes him, and who will meet a grisly but unforgettable fate, burning up among Hamilton’s beloved London lowlifes in an eerie foreshadowing of the nightmarish days to come (Hangover Square was begun in 1939 and completed in 1941). The descriptions of Bone and his contemptible ’friends’ careering aimlessly from pub to pub are among the truest in all of drunk fiction.

Doesn't that just sound like the best?

I haven't acquired this book yet, but, having read two and a half Hamilton books and with two and a half more on my shelf ready to go, I consider myself something of an expert, and I can tell you that in Hamilton's books, people go to bars, or round to the pub, and it's never a happy experience, though it may sometimes be vaguely satisfying, and you watch the drinks perform their transformations, loosening people's tongues or quickening their tempers or dulling their good sense, and it is an achingly real reading experience. Thank you, Mr Hamilton, for being the observant drunk you were.

Also on the list, Crime and Punishment. Missing from the list, Under the Volcano, although frankly, I don't really remember what it's about, just the feeling of having drunk too much and going about in a stupor. (Link via Ed.)

This be the end

While away, I treated myself to The End, the last in A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. (Excerpt.)

I love this series. It's not particularly meaty; both the characters and their adventures are rather like sketches that hint at depths never fully realized. It's fun (in a grim way) and easy, with more mood and attitude than substance. And that's fine. Like an Edward Gorey drawing: charming, witty, morbid. It's also deceptively mature and well crafted, with simple but meaningful metaphors (the story is like an onion) and life lessons ("It depends on how you look at it."). It has all the elements of classic children's literature — orphans, boarding school, eccentrics, treasure, circus freaks, a quest — pared down to their barest, ugliest essence.

I love the wordplay and the literary allusions. I only regret that I cannot read these books as a 10-year-old. (I look forward to Helena's experience of them.)

What I love about The End is that very little is solved or resolved. The reader is warned:

But it cannot be said that The End contains the end of the Baudelaires' story, any more than The Bad Beginning contained its beginning. The children's story began long before that terrible day on Briny Beach, but there would have to be another volume to chronicle when the Baudelaires were born, and when their parents married, and who was playing the violin in the candlelit restaurant when the Baudelaire parents first laid eyes on one another, and what was hidden inside that violin, and the childhood of the man who orphaned the girl who put it there, and even then it could not said that the Baudelaires' story had not begun, because you would still need to know about a certain tea party held in a penthouse suite, and the baker who made the scones served at the tea party, and the baker's assistant who smuggled the secret ingredient into the scone batter through a very narrow drainpipe, and how a crafty volunteer created the illusion of a fire in the kitchen simply by wearing a certain dress and jumping around, and even then the beginning of the story would be as far away as the shipwreck that left the Baudelaire parents as castaways on the coastal shelf is far away from the outrigger on which the islanders would depart. One could say, in fact, that no story really has a beginning, and that no story really has an end, as all of the world's stories are as jumbled as the items in the arboretum, with their details and secrets all heaped together so that the whole story, from beginning to end, depends on how you look at it. We might even say the world is always in medias res — a Latin phrase which means "in the midst of things" or "in the middle of a narrative" — and that it is impossible to solve any mystery, or find the root of any trouble, and so The End is really the middle of the story, as many people in this history will live long past the close of Chapter Thirteen, or even the beginning of the story, as a new child arrives in the world at the chapter's close. But one cannot sit in the midst of things forever.

And this, I think, is an excellent introduction for 10-year-olds to both literature and life. Interconnectedness and continuity.

Most of the allusions throughout the series are superficially appropriate to the characters and situations but don't run very deep. They provide a chuckle to those in the know, perhaps make the reading of juvenile fiction more tolerable for parents. In youngsters they may inspire questions, but perhaps more important is the mere forming of an acquaintanceship — that years later they will not shy away from, say, Prufrock or Ishmael for finding something familiar in them.

Count Olaf in a climactic scene, which takes place on a coastal shelf, quotes Philip Larkin. "Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself." And this, my friends, is the theme of the Baudelaires' story, perhaps life itself: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.


That's the nose in the middle, with the whiskers to either side and the eyes just above them. Less obvious, you will find the paws in the corners.