Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saffron grey

The epigraph that starts off Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, by Jasper Fforde, is taken from Alfred North Whitehead and sets up its most interesting premise:

There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material. . . . When the light enters your eyes and falls on the retina, there is motion of material. Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is merely motion of material. . . . The mind in apprehending experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.

Fforde's world this time is not to be found on library shelves or in nursery rhymes; it's a wholly new invention, taking as its foundation the light spectrum. Citizens are classed by what they see; that is, their station in life is determined not by the colour of their skin, but by the colours they are able to perceive. Heredity also plays a role in that colours can be mixed; offspring are generally expected to inherit the ability to perceive to a certain degree a mix of the colours of their parents (marriages between complementary colours are forbidden).

This is a parody of a dystopia, set in our future. The event that brought about this society is never specified, but there are a few references to the world and personages we know.

Every page sheds light on some absurdity, the structure of this society dependent on such rules. For the most part, the book plays as sheer entertainment, although there is the occasional glimmer of social commentary, where the danger of blind conformity to order is quite pointed.

But Shades of Grey is funny.

Suddenly my eye was caught by the figure of a man in his early thirties, standing in the shadows of the alleyway opposite. He was grimy and unshaven and had NC-B4 carved rather clumsily below his left clavicle — most scars were neat affairs, but his looked like a bad weld. He was also inappropriately naked and, while staring vacantly up at the sky, was actually peeing on his left foot.

"Stafford?" I whispered, a tremor of fear sounding in my voice.

"Yes, Master Edward?"

"There's a naked man in the alleyway behind us. I think it might be . . . Riffraff."

Stafford turned around, looked at the man and said, "I don't see anyone."

"How can you not see him? He's peeing on his own foot."

"Master Edward, you can't see him."

"I can."

"You can't. He doesn't exist, Master Edward — take Our Munsell's word for it."

I suddenly understood. The Rules, despite their vast complexity and extensive range, had no way of dealing with anything that had no explainable position within a world of absolutes. So instead of attempting to understand or explain them, they were simply awarded the status of Apocrypha and stridently ignored lest they raise questions of fallibility.

"He's Apocryphal?" I asked.

"He would be if he were there — which he isn't."

I understood Stafford's reticence. Admitting that Apocrypha actually existed was a grave impiety punishable by a five-hundred-merit fine. A whole range of euphemistic language had developed to refer to them, but no one generally did — a slip of tense could leave your hard-won merit score in tatters.

"I've never actually seen an Apocryphal man," I noted, unable to stop staring, "and, um, still haven't. Do you think they might all look the same — if they existed?"

"I've only not seen one," said Stafford, following my gaze to where the unseeable man was now pouring cooling water over himself from a water butt, "so I've no idea what one shouldn't look like."

The plot of Shades of Grey is at times a little unfocused, but the world-building is an extraordinary feat! It seems the spoons in my house go missing for entirely different reasons, thankfully, than those which brought about the spoon shortage in Fforde's world. (The version I read was colorized for spelling.)

I've read, and loved, all but one of the Thursday Next books; I read the first Nursery Crimes book and intend to read on. I'm pleased that Fforde is capable of stretching his creativity in this entirely new direction, and I look forward to reading further adventures set amid this colour-based society.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Today the metro is surprisingly spare. Everyone gets a seat. Revelling in the luxury of space, some people are resistant to moving their bag so that someone can sit beside them.

Earlier in the week, a middle-aged man laden with bundles stands in the aisle and becomes engrossed in the book the woman seated nearest him is reading. He bends and adjusts and draws his face nearer her shoulder. When a seat becomes available, he opts to stay where he is and wait for the page to turn. The train lurches and he loses his balance. He quickly retakes his position and finds his place.

Yesterday, a youthful trio with placards and open arms offer free hugs outside the metro entrance. No one takes them up on it. I consider it, but settle for a smile.

All she wants for Christmas...

... is her two maxillary lateral incisors.

She lost one before breakfast, due to the force of her tongue and talking too much. It'd been wiggling for only a couple days, but I think the front tooth needs the room to come in.

The one that's been dangling digustingly for weeks came out during a bedtime snack.

This entailed some complicated logistics. If two teeth are wrapped in one tissue, the Tooth Fairy may assume there's only one and leave compensation accordingly. But if packaged separately, the Tooth Fairy may find just one and leave. The eventual solution: two separate tooth packages elasticked together.

Thank goodness they fell when they did: A day later and the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus may have crossed paths, and that would be too crowded a night!

Friday, December 18, 2009

My new favourite Christmas carol

(Via BoingBoing.)


"They do things which, normally, you'd only expect vertebrates to do."

Like tool use.

Check out the amazing video: "Underwater footage reveals that the creatures scoop up halved coconut shells before scampering away with them so they can later use them as shelters."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Clarity of mind

Chapter 3 of The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann) is pretty long.

Hans is greatly embarrassed and offended by the bestial behaviour of the Russian couple in the room next door. But while at first he directs his moral outrage at them, he very quickly shifts the blame from the individuals to the world they inhabit, the thin walls, the shoddy construction.

Hans seems disrupted. As much as he tries to maintain the regularities of his everyday life — the clothes, the mannerisms — something's out of whack. "In fact, he felt as if he had only just now reestablished a connection with yesterday, as if he were taking in the whole picture again, as it were, which had not really been the case since he awoke."

A lot of characters are being introduced at breakfast. I hope I can keep track of them all.

What year is this, by the way? 1913? Is it possible the influence of Coco Chanel is being felt?:

Almost all the women wore close-fitting jackets of wool or silk, called "sweaters," in white or bright colors, with shawl collars and side pockets; it looked very pretty when they just stood there chatting, both hands buried in their sweater pockets.

Hans meets the doctor, who seems to be bursting with good intentions such that he has no control over where they stick. Hans and Joachim go for a walk and encounter the Half-Lung Club (having undergone pneumothorax operation), some sweaters among them.

[A headline in The New York Times in 1913 reads: SURGICAL CURE FOR ADVANCED CASES OF CONSUMPTION; The Induction of Artificial Pneumothorax, or Compression of Affected Lungs with Nitrogen, as Tested in 1,000 Cases, Gives Remarkable Results in Pulmonary Tuberculosis. (This practice was ultimately found to be of little benefit and was discontinued.)]

All these patients, so full of life, so it seems to Hans. Joachim explains that they are free of time.

Hans's cigar doesn't taste good. All that fresh air in the mountains, of course! I believe this to be a sign of Hans's habits not sitting quite right in this environment.

On page 62 I encounter the 3rd instance of an auditory... jolt — it's like a grimace directed at the reader. The first was the cough, which came of illness; the second a whistle from a half-lung, an operational byproduct, a grotesquerie; now a wail in death. These are startling noises in sharp relief to the overall tone; like someone jumping up and shouting boo! while you're enjoying a calm mountain view.

Hans laughs quite a bit, by the way — uncontrollably. Perhaps it's a bit extreme, or inappropriate, or nervous, to be liberating and healthy. I don't know.

Herr Settembrini, strange little man they encounter on their walk. Charm and style. Wisdom and knowledge. Enthusiasm, lust. "One must apply truth and energy in naming things. It elevates and intensifies life." "Form opinions! That's why nature gave you eyes and reason." He's provocative!

Hans takes to philosophizing about time:

"There is nothing 'actual' about time. If it seems long to you, then it is long, and if it seems to pass quickly, then it's short. But how long or how short it is in actuality, no one knows."

And "what is the organ for our sense of time?" Hans is quite agitated about the subject. It seems to be pissing off Joachim a bit, but with some level of amusement too, as he later teases Hans about the outburst.

It's less than a day since his arrival and Hans is acclimatizing to the sanatorium routine. Wake, breakfast, walk, nap, second breakfast (with beer, since he is loathe to break his old habits, but he finds its effect completely stupefying), another little walk, another nap (rather, "rest cure"). It seems a bit ridiculous, really — I think we're meant to see it this way, as through Hans's eyes, to be taken aback by the eating and resting and lazing, the general apparent healthfulness among the ill, the disconnect from the world at the foot of the mountain, the difference in how time moves and the activities that fill it.

Hans's heart is pounding. Not out of fear, or anticipation, so to him it signifies a mind–body disconnect, that the body is acting independently of the soul and without reason.

So after dinner, there's another rest cure before tea. Hans is loving the rest cures and particularly his splendid lounge chair. He doesn't take much notice of the traces of blood in his handkerchief (duh-duh-DUH).

On waking, Hans announces to Joachim that he may not be able to stay. (He couldn't possibly leave!? We're only on page 96!) He prides himself on being healthy, but he's craving the doctor's attention. He pokes fun at the lifestyle in evidence, but he's clearly drawn to it all the same. It seems he fears succumbing to the spell of the place. The man's a walking paradox. His time here (not a full 24 hours to this point) has been as if in a haze, yet he's demonstrated, and himself felt, some remarkable clarity of insight and judgement. In going away, has he stepped out of himself? Or having stepped out of his daily life, has he become more himself? Hans really does seem afraid, and befuddled, even while he can philosophize on abstract points; he's losing his bearings. But no sooner does he express the possibility of leaving than it is forgotten. It's time for tea! Then another walk, and a rest cure, and supper.

Hans is to bed early and dreaming fitfully, twice about Madame Chauchat, the white-sweater-wearing door-slamming Russian woman.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The mountain

Another exercise in reading slowly and carefully. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. I'm not sure what led me to this book — Mann keeps coming up over the last little while — a few choice soul-jarring quotations and a title that evokes days past, my own secret mountain. It's calling out to me. Here I am. It's time.

I'll save AS Byatt's introduction and the chronology for later.

From the author's foreword: "[I]n Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody." This is a historical novel, not because the story is old but because it took place at a very particular point in time, that is, before the Great War, which changed life as we know it forever. We are warned also that the story will be told in precise and thorough detail. Indeed, Mann spent something like 12 years writing this novel.

Hans Castorp is journeying from Hamburg to Davos-Platz. (My mother's been there! I must find pictures!) I'm instantly reminded of another Hans, in Swabia, I read about not too long ago.

So Hans is headed to the sanatorium for a little vacation. He's 23 years old, he's written exams, he's set to start a kind of engineering apprenticeship. I'm not sure why he's taking this 3-week sojourn, but very suddenly, helped by distance and heady heights, he finds that he's been lifted out of himself. His cousin Joachim meets him at the station. A military man? He's been here for 6 months aleady. Their relationship is familiar yet awkward; they are conscious of not appearing (to themselves? to observers?) to be too warm with each other.

The air at 5300 feet?: "It lacked odor, content, moisture, it went easily into the lungs and said nothing to the soul. (p 9)"

Joachim seems to identify with the community of the sanatorium: us, we, our. We learn that bodies, presumably dead ones, leave the sanatorium. Also that patients undergo psychic dissection. Hans finds this all pretty hilarious (and so do I). A woman died day before yesterday in the room to be Hans's.

They had reached the second floor, when Hans Castorp suddenly stopped in his tracks, mesmerized by a perfectly ghastly noise he heard coming from beyond a dogleg in the hall — not a loud noise, but so decidedly repulsive that Hans Castorp grimaced and stared wide-eyed at this cousin. It was a cough, apparently — a man's cough, but a cough unlike any that Hans Castorp had ever heard; indeed, compared to it, all other coughs with which he was familiar had been splendid, healthy expressions of life — a cough devoid of any zest for life or love, which didn't come in spasms, but sounded as if someone were stirring feebly in a terrible mush of decomposing organic material.

Why is Joachim here? During dinner he lets on to the monotony of the forever here. He's here under orders.

To this point, the book really is quite funny thanks to some ridiculous images and the pacing of them.

Chapter 2 is a flashback through Hans's childhood and youth, remembering his father and his grandfather and the baptismal bowl:

His father's name was there, as was in fact his grandfather's, and his great-grandfather's; and now that syllable came doubled, tripled, and quadrupled from the storyteller's mouth; and the boy would lay his head to one side, his eyes fixed and full of thought, yet somehow dreamily thoughtless, his lips parted in drowsy devotion, and he would listen to the great-great-great-great — that somber sound of the crypt and buried time, which nevertheless both expressed a reverently preserved connection of his own life in the present to things now sunk deep beneath the earth and simultaneously had a curious effect on him: the same effect visible in the look on his face. The sound made him feel as if he were breathing the moldy, cool air of Saint Catherine's Church or the crypt in Saint Michael's, as if he could sense the gentle draft of places where as you walked, hat in hand, you fell into a certain reverential, forward rocking motion, your heels never touching the ground; and he also thought he could hear the remote, cloistered silence of those reverberating spaces. At the sound of those somber syllables, religious feelings got mixed up with a sense of death and history, and all of it together somehow left the boy with a pleasant sensation — indeed, it may well have been that it was solely for the sake of that sound, just to hear it and join in reciting it, that he had once again asked to be allowed to see the baptismal bowl. (p 24)

Hans and his grandfather have a mutual sympathy and physical affinity. "Children and grandchildren observe in order to admire, and they admire in order to learn and develop what heredity has stored within them. (p 27)"

Hans relishes the ritual of his life. He also loves living well.

The narrator refrains from calling Hans mediocre, qualifying the suggestion. Hans doesn't rise to meet the occasion not because he's not capable but because he doesn't see why he should (sounds like my generation). And this is on page 37 very poetically laid out to be not the fault of the individual but of the times (oh, it's not my fault after all?). He respects work, but does not love it; it stands in the way of, while being the means to, his enjoyment of a fine cigar. He works to live.

As for the rest, Hans is an unwritten page. He does not know himself what kind of person will grow out of his past. At this point, his doctor prescribes for him a change of air. (Joachim, it turns out, is seriously ill — sounds like tuberculosis.)

Here ends chapter 2.

I get the feeling Hans's life will take a turn he had never imagined, his stay at the sanatorium to be life-changing, life-defining.

José Saramago is also currently rereading The Magic Mountain. Perhaps he will post his thoughts here.

Monday, December 07, 2009


At the age of 7, Helena has announced that she hates pink.

She and Adèle have a game on, to not wear any pink to school. That'll last until they have to put on their gym shorts.

She tells me this as we're preparing for bed. I'm helping her pull off a pink hoodie (the one she wanted to wear every single day last week). Her pink nightdress with the strawberries is laid out. She's standing on her bed, the hot pink comforter tangled round her feet. She's haloed by pink mosquito netting.

She hates pink. Finally. Just like me.

She loves black, she tells me. Black is the new pink.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


- Milorad Pavić died this week. Go read Dictionary of the Khazars. It remains one of the most original books I've ever read. The "story" is told via encyclopedia entries, with many of the same entries being reworked in each of the 3 major sections — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — the mystery being to which of the religions did the Khazar people convert. There was a time when the problem of translation greatly fascinated me, and I worried over whether it would be better to change an entry heading and risk deviating from the very right word in order to preserve the alphabetical order of the original or to change the order of the entries in compliance with the target language but thereby tainting the impact of the proper unfolding of the narrative. In Krakow I came across a Polish version, which I treasure for its binding. I spent some time comparing translations, but I arrived at no conclusions.

- Which quite interesting dead person are you?

- Fabulous video of printing and bookbinding.

- International science fiction this month at Words without Borders. Includes work by Stanisław Lem and about Stanisław Lem. I've scheduled this issue as next week's lunchtime reading.

- The Doctor Who 2009 Christmas Adventure Calendar! Although, sadly, some treats are not available in my area.

Books I haven't said much about
- The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman. Don't bother. This review says it all.

- Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn. Weird and wonderful and really touching, provided you have a weird sense of humour and can get past all the freakshow stuff.

- Generosity, by Richard Powers. It's ages since I read this already, and I still don't know what to say about it. Wonderful premise, and worth talking about. But as to the question of happiness, its essence, other recent reads have handled this with more passion and guts (namely The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk).

- The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer. I read this back in the spring and loved it. Very poignant. Much like the movie of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in plot and mood.

- Platform, Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq is very provocative and challenges my comfort zone. I quite liked Platform (I read it in March) and found the characters more mature (read: morally acceptable) than in the other couple novels of his I'd read. I think I have more to say on this book yet. I find myself rather hoping that Houellebecq has something new out soon.

Books I plan to read soon
- The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. Under way; stay tuned.

- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Because one day I was in a bookstore and I felt like buying a book, and I've been meaning for a couple years to look this one up, so I took a look and it just felt right, really right.

- The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer. Review copy.

- The Last Supper, by Paweł Huelle. I'd read about 100 pages when I realized I had no idea what was going on. A little too frenetic for the headspace I've been living in of late. But I'll come back to it in short order.

- The Book of Fathers, by Miklós Vámos. Review copy.

- The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Because it was cited by Roberto Bolaño as a book that marked his life. Plus I had trouble stopping after reading the first paragraph. (You can read the introduction for yourself.)

- Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde. Advance reading copy, of the US colorized version (ie, edited for spelling and I know not what else). Can't wait actually. I could use a little levity.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"Who's the lady with the log?

We call her the log lady:

Sometimes ideas, like men, jump up and say "hello." They introduce themselves, these ideas, with words. Are they words? These ideas speak so strangely.

All that we see in this world is based on someone's ideas. Some ideas are destructive, some are constructive. Some ideas can arrive in the form of a dream. I can say it again: some ideas arrive in the form of a dream.

I received Twin Peaks on DVD for my birthday, and I'm ecstatic for the opportunity to watch it. I was very aware of the phenomena of it as it happened almost 20 years ago, but for some reason I didn't see most of it. I must've had some crazy job with weird hours, although I remember talking with my coworker Robert about it, or maybe it was on the night I usually went out dancing, and I didn't own a VCR in those days. But I can see it now, as if for the first time.

Adding to my enjoyment — we've just finished season 1 — is the fact that I've now read Infinite Jest, so when the black, billowy triangle-ish shadow flits across the curtain in the red room, I could say, Oh my god, what does that belong to, how creepy is that?!

It turns out that Twin Peaks and Infinite Jest have several features in common. The black, billowy triangle-ish shape of horror, menacing French-Canadians, white hair overnight, the face in the floor (or, well, bloodstain in the carpet, but...), the dream-logic, the weighty significance of dreams, a spiritual dimension that allows for shamans or wraiths.

Not least of the similarities is that they serve as an obsessive puzzle to be figured out almost more than they do as entertainment. And they're both very funny.

Last night I dreamed I was flushing all my clothes down the toilet, and shoes, including the worn out pair I actually threw out last week, only it was like my younger self, only sometimes it was my daughter, and I (we?) were being scolded by my older self for clogging the toilet, for not disposing of them properly.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Skin like lace

I just finished reading Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, being the third in trilogy of His Dark Materials. Oh, it had me all teary toward the end. Maybe that's just PMS, but it is a beautiful story and it sings to the atheist in me: this is it folks, make it count, your life is in this world! But it's still very spiritual, with angels and witches and Dust and the interconnectedness of all things.

I read the first two books in the series ages ago (and the movie, The Golden Compass? kind of boring), and it says something (about me, yeah, but I mean here about the books) that I didn't rush out for the next one with that I-can't-wait-to-get-my-hands-on-it fervour. (I borrowed these books from the library for crying out loud.) These books have worked on me kind of slowly. I thought them charmingly well-written, blah, blah, but then halfway through the second one oh my god, and I realized why some some Christians might not like these books at all.

But the thing is: the story's much bigger than the sum of its parts. Sure, there's adventure and a magic about it all — the battles and the daemons and the land of the dead — but it's bigger than all that. It all comes together and wheedles into your soul.

Plus, it's superbly well-crafted. Here's my favourite sentence:

She felt as if her skin had turned into lace and the damp and bitter air could flow in and out of her ribs, scaldingly cold on the raw wound where Pantalaimon had been.

Oh, I wish I could read this as a 12-year-old.