Tuesday, February 23, 2010


All my life I have been passionately interested in monomaniacs of any kind, people carried away by a single idea. The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.

— from Chess Story, by Stefan Zweig.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Being mom to a 7-year-old means I get exposed to a lot of crazy TV.

We've come to love iCarly. The show is fun and dynamic. It doesn't patronize or moralize to its audience. Often it's brilliantly weird and random.

Here's the funniest thing I've seen in ages. (Sadly, the video at this link cuts short the barrage of cabbages at the end. To see the full (unembeddable) clip, go to iCarly's cool web show highlights. This video is described as: "Fred meets iCarly — We have Fred HERE in our studio!!! And this is an ALL NEW Fred video featuring US!!!") I don't remember laughing so hard!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mysterious inventions

I'd picked up The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, some time ago, along with a few other New York Review Books classics, whose acquisition was in part inspired by the NYRB challenge I've been following with interest, but mostly, they're simply beautiful and very eclectic books that feel good, in your head and your hands. So it was after having chosen this title that I thought to look up the author and see if I ought to know more about this book before reading it that I discovered Sawyer spent an episode of Lost being interrupted while trying to read it. (Man, does he make reading sexy!)

There's not much I can tell you about this book. Jorge Luis Borges (to whom the novella is dedicated) in his prologue said that "To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." A mere 94 pages of story, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it when I came to the end, but by now I've read it about two and a half times, and I find it hard to argue with Borges' judgement.

The story begins thus:

Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time, I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me. But here I am, without provisions, trapped in the smallest, least habitable part of the island — the marshes that the sea floods each week.

I am writing this to leave a record of the adverse miracle. If I am not drowned or killed trying to escape in the next few days, I hope to write two books. I shall entitle them Apology for Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. My books will expose the men who violate the sanctity of forests and deserts; I intend to show that the world is an implacable hell for fugitives, that its efficient police forces, its documents, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and border patrols have made every error of justice irreparable. So far I have written only this one page; yesterday I had no inkling of what was going to happen. There are so many things to do on this lonely island! The trees that grow here have such hard wood! And when I see a bird in flight I realize the vastness of the spaces all around me!

We don't really know what the narrator is doing on this island, but it soon becomes a love story, and then it's a mystery, and, well, I can't say much more. It's a slim novella, and the titular invention doesn't take hold (or at least become clear as having taken hold) till about half way through, but it's full of mood and mystery and musings on consciousness and the soul. And time. And memory. Love. Immortality.

Being a loyal watcher of Lost, I delighted in finding similarities between the TV show and this novella, and I couldn't help but read for clues to Lost's resolution. I'm fairly certain there is no answer to be found in these pages, but it's fun to draw parallels and theorize about the outcomes, to revel in the interconnectedness.

- The action takes place on a desert island in the South Pacific.
- The island is rumoured to be the focal point of a mysterious, infectious disease.
- The narrator is a convict on the run from the law.
- He comes across a group of people, living in a civilized if somewhat anachronistic manner.
- He appears to be caught in a time loop.
- He considers the possibilities that these people are ghosts or aliens.

I highly recommend The Invention of Morel for literary Lost fans.

It's par for the course for me that the introduction is better saved for later. This one doesn't spoil the story per se, but it's more meaningful after having a sense of Bioy Casares' style and getting a feel for the way he transitions through seemingly different genres.

According to the introduction, Morel has become a kind of cult cultural touchstone; for example, it's referred to in the Argentinean film Man Facing Southeast (1985) as a possible inspiration for the eponymous man's story. (I repeat this here because that's one of my favourite movies of all time!)

If you don't want spoilers, don't read the Wikipedia entry on this book.

Introduction to this edition, by Suzanne Jill Levine.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Playing cards

J-F had asked me to pack playing cards, and, well, I forgot. On some level I was thinking, "Why would we need cards on vacation in Cuba?! There are other, better ways to spend our time."

On the whole, I think I was right. We survived the tedium of the airport; it was only once we'd reached our final destination, when we saw some people playing cards at a table in the hotel lobby, that he was reminded and he asked me, and I remembered that I'd forgotten.

On the whole, I was right. There was no time for cards. You don't bring cards to the beach, or poolside. "Free" time, "downtime," was spent napping or watching CNN. Time at the bar was spent talking. We talked. Quite possibly more than we have in years. It was only very occasionally that a lull would fall over us, and it was a comfortable lull, though one or the other of us might say, "Too bad we don't have a deck of cards," only half-heartedly meaning it.

It wasn't till the last day that we meant it.

On the last day, we check out by noon, with six hours to kill before boarding a bus for the airport. Relieved, emotionally and logistically, that this should be the first cool day we'd experienced. It was easier this way to not wish we were at the beach; easier also to wear jeans and sensible shoes. But it was early evident that we should do something more than quietly drink mojitos all afternoon.

We have 11 pesos (convertibles) to spare. We check the hotel gift shop. No souvenir playing cards, or playing cards of any kind. Against J-F's remonstrances ("We might really need another peso or two!") I spend one and a half pesos on a souvenir bookmark, for myself (I had to!). Two more pesos on a pack of Lucky Strikes to enjoy with another round of mojitos.

Let's check the gift shops on the strip. Dominoes everywhere, but no cards. (What about canasta? Doesn't the whole world love to play canasta? Didn't the Ricardos play canasta?) We've gone the length of the strip and into the town proper. We go into the shopping mall, which has more-regular stores such as locals (what few of them there are in these parts) might patronize. No cards at the grocery or the toy store.

We try a shop that's displaying an odd combination of children's books, stationery supplies, and souvenir trinkets. There's one pack of cards in a glass display case, locked. The cards are miniature (about half the size of usual). The fronts of the cards appear to be unspectacular. I believe the backs are marked "Cuba," but because of the angle I can't be certain. We have to ask for the price. About 6 pesos (~$7 Canadian).

The afternoon is near gone by now. We opt to save the pesos for a snack at the airport.

J-F spends the rest of the day fantasizing how we will defect to Cuba, open up a shop, a house of cards. (Certainly, his surname hints that he is destined for this life.) There will be souvenir cards with landscapes and landmarks, cards with beach scenes, cards with topless beach scenes, and cards depicting Che. Regular cards and miniature cards and novelty cards, for Cubans as well as for tourists.

The fantasy gets us back to the hotel, and through one last mojito. It carries us to the airport, and through a couple more hours of waiting. It rides with us all the way home.

It's a nice fantasy. We talk about it still, every day.

I learn now from The World of Playing Cards that, in Cuba, cards have been banned since the revolution.

My research into the matter has been fruitless. I find one document asserting that playing cards were quite popular after the defeat of Batista, and those featuring revolutionary leaders were traded much in the manner of cards with sports figures. A card with Commander Camilo Cienfuegos was more valuable than one with Castro (Camilo mysteriously disappeared later that year). I surmise that this fact may also play into the disappearance of cards from Cuba.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cover story

I finished Sputnik Sweetheart, and I greatly enjoyed it.

But at about the halfway mark, I started periodically checking the back cover, thinking: this is not the story I thought I'd bought into. Not quite.

The back cover reads like this:

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves.

A college student, identified only as "K," falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments–until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, "K" is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.

Firstly, "urbane" — not so much. Perhaps what we see of Miu's Japan may be called urbane, but she would be the only character with any measure of polish. (However, her style is strong enough that I find myself suddenly wanting to buy fashion magazines; I want to be urbane.)

Jazz bars? None in this book. No jazz either, except for the Dizzy Gillespie glasses and a reference to Bobby Darin. I don't think that counts.

Coffee shops? I counted 3. None serve to provide atmosphere. Twice they are invisible backgrounds for a conversation — characters go in, they talk. I couldn't tell you the first thing about them — size, clientele, are they upscale? are there cigarette butts on the floor? brightly lit? quiet? I have no idea. (Oh, right. In one of these coffee shops, an Astrud Gilberto song is playing. A bossa nova. I guess that counts as a bit of jazz. But still, this is a coffee shop, not a jazz bar.)

The other instance, K tells us he stopped off at a coffee shop for around an hour and read a bit to kill some time before going off and doing whatever. A café in Rome and a couple in Greece also come into the story but only as incidentally as the coffee shops.

Jack Kerouac. OK. There's Jack.

The Beatles — none. There's one mention of Huey Lewis & the News, but definitely no Beatles. A fair bit of classical music though.

"A college student." This is a bit tricky. He was a college student back when he met Sumire, but that was 3 years ago. When exactly he realized he was in love with her I do not know. He covers the "college" part in, like, half a page. I'm not convinced this is an accurate representation of the story. Definitely merits rewriting.

"Classmate"? No. Fellow student. They met at a bus stop.

"[F]inds himself [...] beset by ominous, haunting visions." Count the continuing, pervasive sense that something bad has happened (with one scenario in particular returning to his mind). Count one haunting "experience" — "vision" is too sensorially narrow, and denies the plausibility of its actually having happened, which I believe it did. So I'd have to say "beset" is the wrong word here, and also "visions," and I'm not too happy with "ominous" either.

All of which has made me little bit angry. The whole description on the back cover is a shoddy piece of work.

It was a thoroughly entertaining novel regardless, but I'm a bit disappointed about the jazz bars. The promise of jazz bars was one of the selling points. I'd love to read about jazz bars, I thought, maybe while listening to some jazz.

(Haruki Murakami's website has a neat section that covers the music in his books.)

The book was lovely, though. Not nearly so rich as the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. While Sputnik Sweetheart still messes with your sense of what's really happening, versus is this a dream or some alterreality, it's a pretty light read.

"You know, I've never thought I wanted to be somebody else," Sumire blurted out once, perhaps urged on by the more-than-usual amount of wine she'd imbibed. "But sometimes I think how nice it would be to be like you."

Miu held her breath for a moment. Then she picked up her wineglass and took a sip. For a second, the light dyed her eyes the crimson of the wine. Her face was drained of its usual subtle expression.

"I'm sure you don't know this," she said calmly, returning her glass to the table. "The person here now isn't the real me. Fourteen years ago I became half the person I used to be. I wish I could have met you when I was whole — that would have been wonderful. But it's pointless to think about that now."

Sumire was so taken aback she was speechless. And missed the chance to ask the obvious questions. What had happened to Miu fourteen years ago? Why had she become half her real self? And what did she mean by half, anyway? In the end, this enigmatic announcement only made Sumire more and more smitten with Miu. What an awesome person, Sumire thought.

The thing about Murakami books, you never do find out what happened to the cats.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The assassins

This book — Hashish, Wine, Opium — is one of the weirdest, sublimest little gems I've ever had the pleasure to stumble upon. It's four essays — three by Théophile Gautier and one by Charles Baudelaire — with a marvelous introduction (by Derek Stanford) that sets the historical, artistic context in which the essays were conceived.

Baudelaire makes the point in his essay, "Wine and Hashish: Compared as Means for the Multiplication of the Personality," that a dictionary tells you nothing about wine. (He quotes Lavater: "May God preserve those he loves from profitless reading!") You can learn the meaning of the word "wine," but you will learn nothing about the meaning of the thing itself.

Well, no need to do drugs yourself when you can refer to the decadents' accounts. Gautier describes the effects, in "Hashish," as occurring in three waves; here is his impression of the second, arguably most intense, phase:

Not more than half an hour had passed before I succumbed once more to the hashish. On this occasion, the vision was of greater complexity and even more astonishing. In an atmosphere of confused light, there fluttered a never-ending swarm of myriads of butterflies, their wings rustling like fans. Giant flowers with crystal cups, enormous hollyhocks, lilies of gold and silver, shot up and spread about me with detonations like those of fireworks. My sense of hearing had become abnormally acute. I could hear the very sounds of the colours. Sounds which were green, red, blue or yellow, reached my ears in perfectly distinct waves. An overturned glass, the creaking of an armchair, a whispered word, vibrated and echoed within me like peals of thunder. My own voice seemed so loud that I did not dare speak for fear of shattering the walls or of myself exploding like a bomb; more than 500 clocks were singing out the hour to me in their fluting, brazen or silvery voices. Any object brushed against would emit the notes of musical glasses or an Aeolian harp. I swam in an ocean of sonority in which there floated, like an island of light, motifs from Lucia or the Barber. Never had such beatitude flooded me with its waves: I had so melted into the indefinable, I was so absent, so free from myself (that detestable witness ever dogging one's footsteps) that I realized for the first time what might be the way of life of elemental spirits, of angels, and of souls separated from their bodies. I was like a sponge in the midst of the ocean: at every moment floods of happiness penetrated me, entering and leaving by my pores for I had become permeable and, down to the minutest capillary vessel, my whole being had been transfused by the colour of the fantastic medium into which I had been plunged. Sound, perfume and light came to me through multitudes of channels as delicate as hairs through which I could hear the magnetic current whistling. According to my sense of time, this state lasted some three hundred years, for the sensations came in such numbers and so thickly that true appreciation of time was impossible. The attack passed and I saw that it had lasted a quarter of an hour.

Gautier's entries appear to blend fact with fantasy; they bear the typical dreamlike quality of his stories.

It seems that in the mid-1800s, inspiration was a very serious concern, to artists and philophers, but also to scientists. Thinkers of various persuasions would engage in drug behaviour not in pure debauchery but as part of a thorough study of those elements that contribute to an aesthetic.

Baudelaire's account attempts to be a more objective account of the effects of wine versus hashish; it carries an authoritative tone and is sprinkled with anecdotes. He ultimiately comes down on the side of wine: it is profoundly humane, whereas hashish is anti-social (and in particular warns those whose "temperament is confined to the splenetic" against it).

Why ingest any substance at all when you can exult in such poetry as these men have to offer!

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Prompted no doubt by Kim's post on excuses for buying books, I woke up today itching to buy a book, and no good reason at hand. So what fortuitous timing that a store coupon should find its way into my inbox this morning!

As part compensation for muddling through a tedious project and part reward for doing so successfully (and part escape — because I wasn't quite finished with it yet), I walked out of the office this afternoon and into a bookstore.

I had a book in mind, kind of, but I found myself standing by the Haruki Murakami shelf, and though I'd had it in mind to check out a particular Murakami title next (later this year), my fingers set on Sputnik Sweetheart, and this is the book I pulled from the shelf and started reading, and left with minutes later.

The first 3 pages tell me it's about a 21-year-old college girl who reads Kerouac and wears Dizzy Gillespie glasses and falls in love with a married woman 17 years here senior.

I'd like to think it's about my 23-year-old self being in love with my 40-year-old self. She never read Kerouac, but if I am recalling correctly, my 23-year-old self would approve.

It all feels very right — it having been a Valentine's Day promotion, the book title featuring "Sweetheart," it being (at least a first glance) a kind of love story, and myself still basking in the afterglow of a vacation romance with Murakami (oh, and, hey! remember Sigue Sigue Sputnik? sigh) — that I should forsake Baudelaire, and Mann, and Casares, and take Murakami to bed with me tonight.


I must be a philistine. I didn't love Ian McEwan's Atonement. And I feel terrible about it. This is the fourth McEwan book I've read, and I consider myself a fan, but I didn't love Atonement, and I prefer Saturday (and we'll see what else as I continue to read through his oeuvre).

There is much that is highly admirable in Atonement, but I simply didn't connect with it. After forgiving the fact that the novel is terribly predictable, I admit there are things about this book that are exquisitely beautiful — the story above all — and it brought me to tears.

(For a précis, see elsewhere. I'm not interested in reviewing the book so much as examining my reaction to it.)

McEwan has a deft way with some very complicated emotions, particularly not fully formed ones, inching toward being effable. And yet he is able to map them; he seems to know what parts of the emotion are common ground, what will be understood without being said, in order to describe the rest of it most simply.

Also, there were a number of wonderful maxims McEwan produced throughout the book. For example, "It was not generally realized that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone."

I like this passage for conveying all the naive self-certainty of any reasonably smart 13-year-old:

These thoughts were as familiar to her, and as comforting, as the precise configurations of her knees, their matching but competing, symmetrical and reversible, look. A second thought always followed the first, one mystery bred another: Was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelmingly probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers. She knew this, but only in a rather arid way; she didn't feel it.

So why don't I love Atonement the way I'm supposed to?

I expected something epic (I don't know why). Instead: the first half covers the emotional life of little more than a single day. The second and fourth sections cover similarly slight slices of time, with only the third part describing the experiences of a couple weeks. There's a certain kind of stillness required for reading time treated in this way, and the words themselves couldn't draw me into that state. Maybe, simply, this wasn't the right time for me to be reading this book.

It's the first section, half the book, that sets the stage, that culminates in the act for which the atoning shall be done. The second section confused me. I'm still not entirely sure why it's there. It's Robbie in France, retreating to Dunkirk. Conditions are hard, and one might almost think Robbie is atoning, that this is his punishment. Robbie's been wronged, of course, but this section has the effect of making me forget. Rather than intensify his suffering, it serves to dilute it — he suffered war just as thousands of other young men did. Perhaps he would not have, had Briony behaved differently, but this fact does not elicit sympathy from me.

So then, finally, Briony gets on with her atoning, late in the novel, and this reassured me somewhat. (But as a writer, she's God: to whom does God need atone?)

I think Briony's rejection letter (at about three-quarters through the book — I'd just about lost hope) holds a clue to my disenchantment:

However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the technique of Mrs Woolf. The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylized version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement.

Certainly Briony's initially submitted draft was improved upon, as it's clear she incorporated some of the other suggestions made, but I can't help but believe some of the observations might be equally well levelled at McEwan. "Precious" is a bit strong. But it feels too much like an exercise in style (and not being a fan of Mrs Woolf, it's an exercise lost on me). It lacks the ease and simplicity I've come to associate with his writing. Yet, the prose has a "floaty" quality (I'm sure that's a technical term), but in a heavy way, like a wet butterfly. It's not languorous but rather wilted in the heat. There's something like a surface tension, an anticipation — the thing can't move freely, but it won't alight, trying to keep a cool distance on the hottest day of the year. In this way it remind me a little Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, which I loved. So maybe this attitude is all very deliberate, but it feels at cross-purposes and doesn't work for me here.


Days later, my opinion has softened somewhat. The several passages I've reread are quietly charming; they are not assaulting me with their pretensions.

However, I continue to believe that style gets in the way of the sincerity I've loved in some of McEwan's other books.

If you are among those who love this book, please, share with me why.