Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ma chandelle de Noël

Ma petite chandelle
Est très belle
Elle est décorée
D'étoiles en papier

Elle va me quitter bientôt
Car je vais la donner en cadeau
Noël c'est triste et amusant
Surtout le jour de l'an

Elle va me manquer
Pendant toute l'année
Car Noël est bientôt fini
C'est ainsi

— by Helena, grade 3.

Written for maman et papa at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The furious animation of children

The differences among the children were startling, and yet, in the end, their faces mingled. Above all, the tapes revealed the furious animation of children, the fact that when conscious they rarely stop moving. A simple walk down the block included waving, hopping, skipping, twirling, and multiple pauses to examine a piece of litter, pet a dog, or jump up and walk along a cement barrier or low fence. In a schoolyard or playground, they jostled, punched, elbowed, kicked, poked, patted, hugged, pinched, tugged, yelled, laughed, chanted, and sang, and while I watched them, I said to myself that growing up really means slowing down.

— from What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking for China

Sometime he directed me to one or another of his online projects. That was how I realised that Aykan was a virtuoso of programming. Once, on one of our infrequent rendezvous, I called him a hacker. He burst out laughing, then got very angry with me.

"Fucking hacker?" He laughed again. "Fucking hacker?" Listen bro, you're not talking to some sebum-faced little sixteen-year-old geekboy with wank-stained pants who calls himself Dev-L." He swore furiously. "I'm not a fucking hacker, man, I'm a fucking artist, I'm a hardworking wage slave, I'm a concerned motherfucking citizen, whatever you want, but I'm not a fucking hacker."

— from "An End to Hunger," in Looking for Jake, by China Miéville.

While a friend of mine is sharing her enthusiasm for China Miéville as she discovers Bas-Lag for the first time, I've been experiencing Miéville withdrawal. His next novel is a few months off yet, so I finally turned to Looking for Jake, a collection of short stories that I'd been saving up for just such an occasion.

Ah, it's great to read phrases like, "a bad atmosphere as tenacious as stink," and, "manipulating scobs of gris-gris," again.

A few of the stories are standouts. Namely, "Foundation," "Reports of Certain Events in London," and "Details."

They are cool and original and unsettling. I moved through them relatively slowly, partly in order to draw out the Miéville experience, but primarily to prevent overdosing on the vibe.

The story about the Ikea ball room, for example — I kept returning to it in my mind for days afterward, every time we passed Ikea (twice), every time I received or threw out an Ikea flyer (twice), every time we discussed a potential Ikea purchase, every time the kid mentioned hot dogs, whenever a colleague mentioned having recently been. This to say: the story stayed present, and I will never, ever leave a child of mine to the care of the Ikea ball room, and I want to warn all parents against it. (It turns out, that of all the people I informally polled, none have put a child in the ball room — it was too busy. It makes me wonder who actually enjoys this privilege?)

All this being the effect of a story I didn't even particularly like — the writing style felt off, it dragged a bit. Yet. It creeped me out!

You can't read too much of that kind of thing at once.

When Miéville is being straightforward with the storytelling, when it's about "regular" people in London (as opposed to "creatures" in imaginary worlds), when he's doing dialogue, he reminds me of Doris Lessing. The Londonness, the political sensibility. Banality preserved in even extraordinary circumstances.

A few other stories remind me of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. It's hard not to think of Danielewski when structures are imbued with qualities ordinarily reserved for animate things. "Reports of Certain Events in London," for example, uses scraps of documents to tell its story about streets that move. The alleyways, they fucking move! Also, there's a Johnny Truant–like edginess in a couple other stories (see quotation at the top of this post).

I was reminded of one other voice in particular, though it took me a while to identify. Anne Hébert. Every now and again, romanticism rears its ugly head, brought into sharp relief by the urban setting, and it made me think of Hébert's psychologically starved characters in lush surroundings, her vampires.

What you cannot know is how it hurt.

For we who are not, or were not, our bodies: we, for whom flesh is, or was, only one possible clothing. We might fly or invert ourselves through the spines of grass, we might push ourselves into other ways of being, we might be to water as water is to air, we might do anything, until you looked at yourselves. It is a pain you cannot imagine — very literally, in the most precise way, you cannot know how it is to feel yourself shoved with a mighty and brutal cosmic hand into bloody muscle. The agony of our constrained thoughts, shoehorned into those skulls you carry, stringy tendons tethering our limbs. The excruciation. Shackled in your meat vulgarity.

On the whole, these stories weren't completely satisfying. They're too long, or too short, not tight enough. The characters feel incomplete, the ideas haven't been fully thought out. For whatever reason, these short stories don't quite work for me. (Note also that one story is in graphic form, and the ebook interface in this case was not easy. Had I known, I might've opted for paper.)

I like Miéville best when he's discursive and epic, and that's only just hinted at here. He does manage to establish mood quickly and strongly. I almost wish each of them had been sustained for the length of novel.

If you worry that Miéville might be a little weird for your pedestrian tastes, this collection will give you an idea of what he's capable of. Only know that he's much, much better in long form.

Excerpt: "Looking for Jake."

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Flipback

It's a tiny — but perfectly readable — little book, about the size of a cassette tape.

Its orientation is perpendicular to that of a typical book. Closed, the book has a horizontal "landscape" orientation. The text runs parallel to the spine, and you turn pages upwards.

I don't know what the technical term is for this kind of binding, but the cover is attached only to the back end page, so the binding is super flexible while the spine of the cover lies flat (kind of like those 3-ring binders where you can unfold the cover back from the rings).

It's printed on onion paper, also known as bible paper — the pages are very thin. The 633-page novel I have at hand is barely more than a centimetre thick. (The standard paperback version comes with 384 pages.)

Background
For many months I've been seeing these lovely little books near the checkout in several local bookstores. Sadly for me, it was a weird selection of titles and they were all in French. While I considered picking one up for mere novelty's sake, I figured the language hurdle would discourage me from getting around to actually reading it.

A little investigation shows that these books are an award-winning concept that originated in The Netherlands (where they're known as dwarsliggers), and they've been around for some time in French and as librinos in Spanish.

And as of this past summer, a British publisher (Hodder & Stoughton) is offering titles in English. They're called flipbacks.

For the time being there are only 18 titles, but they are varied — good chance you'll find something to interest to you.

I wanted Cloud Atlas, long on my to-read list, but it wasn't readily available. I finally chose Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved (mostly on the strength of Sasha's review), and I ordered it up. I'm not far enough along to comment on the novel, but I've read enough to know something about the reading experience.

Yay
- Fits in your pocket. Discreet enough to read under the table at dinner parties or take into the toilet at work.

- One-handed functionality. Perfect size for gripping with one hand. One-handed page turning takes a little bit of practice, but it can be done. All in all, suitable for rush-hour public-transit commutes.

- It's a hardcover. Kinda. It's some sort of cardboard, sturdier than a paperback's covering, that won't rip or crease easily. It would have to be to protect the fine paper inside. It takes some effort to ding it up.

- The horizontal orientation means another design opportunity with regard to the cover art. Because it's not enough to turn a cover sideways. Designers get to re-envision such exciting elements as image cropping and text placement.

Nay
- The paper seems so delicate — I wonder if it's undergone strength testing. My book has suffered no damage yet (I have been treating it rather gingerly), but I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before pages are ripped.

- The line spacing is a bit tight. Certainly it's tighter than standard, and it does take some getting used to. I find I tend to use my bookmark as a line guide. Also, reading while in motion, my eyes occasionally trip to the wrong line.

- Margins are near nonexistent, so you'll have to jot down your notes somewhere else.

In sum


I'll happily consider acquiring more flipbacks as the catalogue of titles expands.

Not surprisingly, as with any good book, when a story is engrossing, the interface disappears.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Something old and predatory and utterly terrible

"I stared at the whole mass of the bricks. I took another glance, relaxed my sight. At first I couldn't stop seeing the bricks as bricks, the divisions as layers of cement, but after a time they became pure vision. And as the whole broke down into lines and shapes and shades, I held my breath as I began to see.

"Alternatives appeared to me. Messages written in the pockmarks. Insinuation in the forms. Secrets unraveling. It was bliss.

"And then without warning my heart went tight, as I saw something. I made sense of the pattern.

"It was a mess of cracks and lines and crumbling cement, and as I looked at it, I saw a pattern in the wall.

"I saw a clutch of lines that looked just like something. . . terrible — something old and predatory and utterly terrible — staring right back at me.

"And then I saw it move."

— from "Details," in Looking for Jake, by China Miéville.

Monsieur le president

The President is the latest novel by Simenon to be rediscovered by English-speaking audiences, issued by Melville House as part of its Neversink Library.

Again, different from any Simenon I've read to date. This one's a political drama with psychological suspense.

What makes this book different is that all the others deal with seemingly ordinary men — businessmen, clerks, shopkeepers, family men. Ordinary men who in one sense or another, actively or passively, walk away, and by doing so are doing something extraordinary. The President, one might say, is the opposite — the former leader of the nation, a rather extraordinary figure, who has withstood extraordinary circumstances, has taken extraordinary measures to achieve and maintain his status, or the aura of it, is reduced to ordinary actions, is shown to be an ordinary human, mortal, and with all the usual emotions and baser instincts.

The man now is old and ineffectual. He's been cast aside by his country, but still he hopes to make one final, dramatic play. After all, once upon a time, the premier was privy to some financial hanky-panky.

The Premier was livid when he finally gave the signal, in much the same spirit as a general launching a battle half lost in advance.

This would no longer be a bloodletting operation, affecting the whole of France to a more of less equal extent. Those in the know had already escaped, and what was more they had made huge profits at the expense of the medium and small investors.

During all these discussion, Chalamont, as white faced as his chief, had remained in the office, lighting one cigarette after another and throwing each one away after a few tense puffs.

He was not fat in those days. The caricaturists usually depicted him as a raven.

[It very nicely complemented the ambience of the book that I would climb out of the metro every morning at the site of Occupy Montreal.]

The figure of the premier is said to be inspired by Georges Clemenceau, who served nonconsecutive terms as Prime Minister of France as well as holding various other positions of influence.

I don't know how much of the novel is founded in history. It doesn't matter. It's an excellent read, with all the witty detail I've come to expect of Simenon.

He was a big, flabby chap, always dressed up to the nines, always with his hand held out and his lips ready to smile, the kind of fellow who won't express his views even on the most harmless subject without first peering at you to try to guess what yours may be.

The Premier had done nothing to help him, merely staring at him as malevolently as if he'd been a slug in the salad.

"I was at Le Havre, after driving a friend to the boat, and I thought I'd just like to drop in on you . . ."

"No."

That an unpopular trick of his. His "no" was celebrated, for he brought it out frequently, without anger or any other inflection. It wasn't even a contradiction: it simply took note of an almost mathematical fact.

This novel certainly has suspense — an element of mystery combined with politics. But ultimately The President is a character study (as are most Simenon novels). The man of consequence is shown to be suddenly grappling with his impotence, but more simply, to put a more everyman spin on it, it's about a man grown old and coming to terms with the choices he's made.

Tellingly, the title of the book alludes to another figure, the president, who has the power to appoint the premier. Perhaps this is to suggest to the reader that the premier be absolved of some responsibility, that not everything is within his control, that there are higher authorities, whether in public life or private.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November days

Helena turned nine this month. Part of her special day included a trip to the toy store, where she casually informed me that she didn't believe in Santa Claus anymore. She hasn't believed in a while, she says. I guess she just wanted to get it out in the open.

This month I started exercising. Not that I believe much in exercising, beyond that I know that I should. Mostly with the encouragement of my physiotherapist and for the benefit of my knee, I bought an exercise bike (because, who's kidding whom, I will never get my lazy ass to a gym). And I bike almost every day. I'm not sure I've seen much benefit apart from more mobility in my knee, but I suppose it's helping to counterbalance all the cakes I've partaken of this November. Most remarkable of all is how easy it was to develop this new habit. Which has me thinking I ought to try developing more new habits.

The first day of the exercise bike, I figured out how to position and fasten my ereader. But for the time being, it's still a bit awkward — I'll leave ereading for more advanced exercise sessions. Audiobooks are easier. I've just finished listening to Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay — it was charming and poignant and even tragic. But, in its being read me, I feel it's been interpreted. A much more passive experience than reading — I don't get from it what I get from the page when it's at a pace I set in my own voice inside my head. A nice way to pass the time, though.

One of my birthday gifts to Helena: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick. Mostly because I wanted to read it myself. I can't say Helena was particularly thrilled, but then we saw the movie, and we were enchanted, so now we are reliving the magic in book form and waiting for snow.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fairytale update

I had to know how it all turned out. I had to invest in the subsequent volumes of Doctor Who: A Fairy Tale Life.

And it turns out rather well, I think. The Doctor finds the TARDIS, Amy is cured of recombinant yersinia pestis, children thought lost to the serpentine of the Dread Tower are restored to their families, and the galactic tourist industry is well on its way to recovery. (Sorry if I spoiled it for anybody, but really, these resolutions are rather obvious from the start.)

What surprises, and thrills, me most about this SF franchise comic book experience is exactly how much these characters sound exactly how they're supposed to sound, saying exactly the sort of thing they would say. The whole thing was very cinematic, like I'd just watched an episode on TV.

Bonus: Helena's on page 14. So we all read happily ever after.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A language of collapsing jargon

When he speaks he wears a large and firm smile. He has to push his words past it so they come out misshapen and terse. He fights not to raise his voice over the sounds he knows you cannot hear.

"Yeah no problem but that supporting wall's powdering," he says. If you watch him close you will see that he peeps quickly at the earth, again and again, at the building's sunken base. When he goes below, into the cellar, he is nervy. He talks more quickly. The building speaks loudest to him down there, and when he come up again he is sweating below his smile.

When he drives he looks to either side of the road with tremendous and unending shock, taking in all the foundations. Past building sites he stares at the earthmovers. He watches their trundling motion as if they are some carnivore.

Every night he dreams he is where air curdles his lungs and the sky is a toxic slurry of black and black-red clouds that the earth vomits and the ground is baked to powder and lost boys wonder and slough off flesh in clots and do not see him or each other though they pass close by howling without words or in a language of collapsing jargon, acronyms and shorthands that once meant something and now are the grunts of pigs.

He lives in a small house in the edges of the city, where once he started to build an extra room, till the foundations screamed too loud.

— from "Foundation," in Looking for Jake, by China Miéville.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Astronauci

The Google doodle in Poland today celebrates the 60th anniversary of the publication of Stanisław Lem's first science fiction novel, The Astronauts.

The doodle, inspired by The Cyberiad, viewable at Google Polska is crazy interactive.



10 Things You Need to Know about Stanislaw Lem

Coincidentally, just the other day I decided to treat myself to a copy of The Cyberiad. I'll be sure to tell you all about it someday.

Edited to add:
Permalink to interactive doodle now available.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Familiar and unimportant as my big toenail

After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun, is a deeply affecting novella. Had I had any inkling as to what this story was actually about, and had I not already been seduced by Keun's voice in The Artificial Silk Girl, I probably would not have picked this book up, and I'd be the sorrier for it.

First published in 1937, it's a pretty scathing commentary on daily life in Nazi Germany.

"[...] When I get home now, Sanna, I'll find my old man sitting there grumbling, 'Elvira,' he says, 'this place is no better than a concentration camp.' 'Fancy you not noticing that before,' says I. 'We're all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it's only the Government can go running around free.'"

It is chilling, even while ostensibly recounting the tales of a party girl. I guess this excerpt is fairly representative of the sort of reality check or punch in the gut the book delivers ever few pages. What this excerpt fails to convey, I think, is how light the overall tone is, how the narrator is young and vibrant, worldwise yet naive.

Then they said Göring would be talking on the radio that evening. All the ladies were going to stay at Aunt Adelheid's to hear him. Thinking nothing of it, I said I'd rather not hear him, because I always got the feeling he was telling me off. And that was absolutely all I said on the subject, but even so it was far too much. It's true, though: one of those speeches begins harmlessly enough, going on about the magnificent German nation which will overcome everything, and you feel you're being praised and flattered for listening to it. Then the radio lets out a sudden flood of abuse, saying everyone who offend against the nation's will for reconstruction will be smashed, and those who go in for harmful carping criticism will be destroyed.

My heart always stands still when I hear those speeches, because how do I know I'm not one of the sort who are going to be smashed? And the worst of it is that I just don't understand what's really going on. I'm only gradually getting the hang of the things you must be careful not to do.

It turns out I know next to nothing about Nazi Germany. What I do know centers around wartime and the Holocaust. Reading about the time before is somewhat horrifying. It's like Nineteen Eighty-four, only real.

People are denounced, their neighbours denounce them, on the slightest pretext. They are questioned and jailed and worse.

Suddenly I remembered something Paul had said. I'll never forget the evening when he told us about countries where you can say what you like, where you don't have anything to fear as long as you don't break God's ten commandments. There are countries, he said, without any hidden dangers, where you can greet people any way you like — and you can weep on days of rejoicing and laugh on days of mourning, just depending how you feel at the time.

And suddenly it was all too much for me. Here I sat, going to be punished and I didn't know why. I didn't know what was good any more, I didn't know what was bad any more. I thought of those countries obeying God's ten commandments, where good is good and bad is bad. I though to the far-off foreign lands Paul talked about. I could not keep from crying harder than I'd ever cried in all my life before.

Pretty easy to see why the book had trouble getting published, why it was censored.

Beyond politics, Keun also manages to show great emotional insight at an individual level. For example, Algin takes no notice of his wife Liska, who flirts shamelessly with another man.

Having got to know Liska the way a man gets to know a woman only if he lives with her for years, sleeping with her all that time — well, he's got not to know her again. It's like reading a wonderful poem, and learning it off by heart because you like it so much and you want to be able to recite the whole thing. And when you do know it off by heart you can slowly begin to forget it again. Which is what people generally do.

Everybody's so bloody ineffectual. As citizens. As lovers.

Despite all the heavy shit of history to grapple with, despite all the heavy emotional shit of love and jealousy and boredom, the prose is fresh and clear.

But Algin was there. He was alive. Drunk, but alive all right. Sitting there with an old man with a bristly haircut. I knew the man by sight. He sits in Bogener's wineshop every afternoon and every evening, by himself, circumspectly drinking half a bottle of claret. I knew his way of beckoning to the waiter. I knew his way of giving a tip. I knew his usual seat. I knew the newspaper he read, I knew the wine he drank. I knew when he came in and I knew when he left. I'd never spoken to him, never thought much about him, but he was familiar to me, familiar and unimportant as my big toenail. And to see him sitting in a different part of the café talking to Algin struck me as strange, mysterious and not quite right, as if my big toenail had suddenly taken the place of my eyelashes.

This is a tough book to write about even though it's relatively short (less than 200 pages). It's a love story, and it has a gossipy tone, but then it's something much, much more serious.

The Artificial Silk Girl was a smooth read and interesting as a historical artefact. But this book — After Midnight — is on an altogether different level. I look forward to more of Keun being available in English.

**********

My favourite image: "The streets were shiny black, like eels. Wet and slithery."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A slight aura of something dubious and unpleasant

A thin, grey man with a bicycle was going on angrily about not being allowed through. He had finally got a new job, he said, and he had to be on time. Unpunctuality could mean bad trouble for him. And even if his employers did realize he couldn't help being late, they might still be angry with him. Life's nearly always like that: you put difficulties in a person's way, and a slight aura of something dubious and unpleasant still clings to him whether it is his fault or not. "Look, be reasonable, will you?" a fairly high-up SA man, drinking coffee from his flask, told the thin, grey cyclist. "Don't bleat on like that! Just be thankful to the Führer for his high ideals!"

"That's right," said the thin, grey man, "the Führer gets to have the ideals and we get to carry the can." His voice was trembling; you could tell his nerves were worn to a shred. The people who'd heard him were struck dumb with alarm, and the SA man went red in the face and could scarcely get his breath back. All at once the grey man looked utterly broken, extinguished. Three SA men led him away. He didn't put up a struggle.

His bicycle was lying on the ground. People stood around it in a circle, staring in nervous silence. It shone dully in the rain, and had a subversive look about it; nobody dared touch it. Then a fat woman made an angry face, flung her arm up in the air in the salute of the Führer, said, "Disgusting!" and kicked the bicycle. Several other women kicked it too. And then the cordon opened and let us through.

— from After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Paper dolls

Kids crying boredom? Give them a tissue.

Helena recently stayed over at her grandfather's for a night, and though she'd mildly protested the arrangement at the start, when she came home she was pleased to tell me, "I didn't get bored at all!"

She handed me a handful of tissue, which turned out to be a hospital's worth of very delicate children with various illnesses.

The one on the left has measles, the one on the right was undergoing an operation.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chrysalis

More than a few of the reviewers seemed perplexed by — or simply undecided about — the meaning of the air chrysalis and the Little People. One reviewer concluded his piece, "As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of 'authorial laziness.' While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture."

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story "put together in a exceptionally interesting way" that "carries the reader along to the very end," who could possibly call such a writer "lazy"?

The review Tengo reads, of Air Chrysalis, the novel within the novel of 1Q84, could apply equally well to 1Q84. Haruki Murakami is no debut novelist, but I don't doubt that he knows exactly his own strengths and weaknesses and what the critics make of him. He also is guilty of deliberately cryptic posturing, and yet he carries me along to the very end.

Lines like these crop up every so often:

On a table behind the dowager stood a vase containing three white lilies. The flowers were large and fleshy white, like little animals from an alien land that were deep in meditation.

This description strikes me as brilliantly weird. But other lines aspiring to similar effect fall flat.

I prefer a couple other Murakami novels over this one, but I like this one better than some.

I've developed a fondness for Murakami, not for what he says, not for how he makes me feel, but for making me remember how I once felt.

At the risk of repeating myself, reading Murakami reminds me of my university days, talking late into the night, being and discovering deep and cool.

It turns out that the world of 1Q84, for all the talk of parallel reality, is scarcely different at all from, uh, reality.

The most interesting review I've read of 1Q84, in addition to connecting it to dots drawn by Philip K Dick, makes the point that it works differently on readers depending on where they're coming from literarily speaking:

I suspect part of the problem is that critics tend to focus on the fact that Murakami is a Raymond Chandler fan — he's even translated three Philip Marlowe novels into Japanese (and that dowager in the sunroom I mentioned way back at the beginning? Straight out of The Big Sleep). So they "get" the parts of Murakami that feature aloof, minimalist protagonists stumbling through the world looking for answers to their mysteries, but the weird stuff? That's just... weird. Science fiction readers, though, are much more accustomed to this sort of thing, and the first question they'd ask isn't so much "what the heck is going on?" but "does Murakami make this work?"

The disappointment I feel in this book lies in its lack of 1984ishness. A few potentially ominous signs that the character had slipped into a world not like the one we know had me expecting some doublethink, a denunciation or wrongful imprisonment for misunderstanding the rules of this world, but a couple hundred pages on I realized this wasn't going to happen.

[The novella I happened to be reading alongside the undertaking of 1Q84 was, coincidentally, far more Orwellian, and frightening for being grounded in a real time and place in our recent history. That book was After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun, set in 1930s Germany. But more on this another time.]

There's nothing Orwellian about 1Q84. Which is fine. But I feel a tiny bit cheated. Even though I was carried along to the very end. And really, I loved every minute of it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Simenon redux

It's about this time last year that I caught the Simenon bug, when I read my first roman dur (quite possibly my first Simenon ever, though my memory unreliably wavers around potentially having read a Maigret novel in association with a high school French class). To date I've read eight of them. And this is while exercising restraint. Can you say "addicted"?

I won't list all the ones I've read here as you can easily access them via this blog's index (by author) or by clicking the Simenon tag at the bottom of this post. I will say that my favourite to date is Red Lights.

Most of those I've read have been New York Review Books classics. This publisher has been steadily releasing Simenon titles since 2003. Last month saw the publication of Act of Passion. I don't have a copy yet, but here's how it opens, and here's a bit from Roger Ebert's introduction (I've heard that Ebert claims to have read a hundred-something Simenon books!).

But another small publisher with big ideas has entered the Simenon fray. I read The Train — in the Neversink Library from Melville House — just a few weeks ago. I think it's currently my second favourite — a punch in the gut you never see coming, and subtler than most. Today sees the publication of Melville House's second Simenon title.

I have The President on deck, and I'll tell you all about it soon. It starts like this:

For more than an hour he had been sitting motionless in the old Louis-Philippe armchair, with its almost upright back and shabby black leather upholstery, that he had lugged around with him from one Ministry to another for forty years, till it had become a legend.

They always thought he was asleep when he sat like that with eyelids lowered, raising just one of them from time to time, to reveal a slit of gleaming eyeball.

Thanks, small and independent publishers! Keep them coming!

Some other Simenon-related stuff:

An exhibition — The inaugural exhibition of the recently opened Museé des lettres et manuscrits in Brussels is dedicated to the works of Simenon. (On till February 24, 2012.) (Via.)

A blog — The Man from London takes its name from a 1934 Simenon novel and espouses a great deal of admiration for his work. If you're at all interested in Simenon's output, you'll find browsing through this blog's archives a pleasure. (In doing so just now I'm reminded that Julian Barnes has an essay on Simenon in Something to Declare — a copy of which is somewhere in this house — which I may or may not have ever read long before I became a Simenon fan.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Spider house rules

Helena never used to flinch. These days I suspect she mostly pretends to be scared of them because you're supposed to be scared of them. And it turns out spiders aren't scary at all if you know exactly where they are. At all times.

Hence Helena's desire to confine our recent arachnid visitor — who lurks in one bathroom corner one day, another the next — to a particular location.


The plans I found end there, and have not yet been continued. But these notes begin to explain the shoebox she's been carrying around.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Advertising



I don't understand advertising. I don't understand how it works. How is it that it still works when I know what it's trying to do? The most astute ad men while they can appreciate an ad's workings will still be seduced by a turn of phrase, an image, or the idea behind them.

But when I don't see what it's trying to do, it appears to be pointless — and what's the point of pointless advertising? Some ads, no matter how hard I look, have neither cool nor clear branding going for them. I know that I'm cynical by nature, and I tend to question my surroundings, but I couldn't possibly be immune to advertising, could I? Is anybody immune to advertising?

The advertising agency Leo Burnett earlier this year released a book about its HumanKind philosophy. Humankind, by Tom Bernardin and Mark Tutssel, Leo Burnett Worldwide. It should be of some interest to advertising professionals. As a coffeetable book it's sure to interest many casual browsers. It is gorgeous. But I'm not sure who would read it cover to cover (although, I did).

(Note: I'm not actually completely stupid about advertising. I did work at an agency for a couple of years (in the capacity of "quality assurance specialist"), and some aspects of my current job also have a marketing angle. Also, I once dated someone who is now an advertising mogul. But I won't pretend that I know a whole lot about the business either.)

Humankind starts off reading like a manifesto.

HumanKind breaks the routine into which the advertising industry fell during the let-the-good-times-roll years of the late-20th and early-21st century global economic boom (and to which many people in the industry still adhere). People then had money to burn — or they could easily borrow the money to burn. Merchandise and services were flying off shelves. We were generating a need for products whose only purpose was to placate clients and shareholders' desire for more, more, more. Creativity rooted in genuine human need was devalued. In its place "positioning" began to masquerade as creativity.

Because of all of this, many of us who market brands — and if you're reading this book, that may mean you — got lazy and began to forget that it's people who make the difference. We found ways to communicate based on our needs and ambitions. People? Who are they?

Empty at its core, faithless to human needs, and untrue to the world in which we live, this sort of creativity sputtered and finally lost its power.

The Internet had a lot to do with this, of course. People today are savvier yet more cynical — savvier because information is literally at our fingertips, more cynical because information is literally at our fingertips.

People have gone from passive to empowered, from one-size-fits-all to wanting and expecting everything to be custom-made, from inferred knowledge to direct knowledge.

We are no longer "consumers" first, but humans first.

[...]

We can no longer build brands, we can only move people. We can no longer position brands, we can only create content that encourages authentic conversations between people and brands based on a brand's human purpose. We can no longer rely on ads that speak to people, we must provide people with opportunities to act. As marketers, we can no longer claim that it is up to us to be the motor that drives brands, we can only empower people and let them take the steering wheel themselves.

But the book soon dwindles into a portfolio of case studies. Ultimately, I'm not sure that it's more than a lush piece of marketing collateral for the agency itself. Still, it has inspired me to react.

Leo Burnett's biggest success, without a doubt, at least in terms of embodying the HumanKind philosophy, is Earth Hour. This now annual global event is, at its core, a marketing campaign. It raises awareness regarding a specific issue. It doesn't matter that we don't know that World Wildlife Fund is behind it. In this case, marketing isn't about sales.

As I already mentioned, this book is gorgeous: photo spreads, bold font, pages of colour. There are slogans spattered throughout, often big white text on pink or orange or green. Things like, "value of the brand to society = value of society to the brand." "Ad agencies don't create iconic brands, people do." That all (good) advertising is an invitation to people to act.

On sober afterthought, I'm no longer reacting viscerally — when first I closed this book, my gut was screaming that advertising is stupid (is it because I so badly don't want to be played?). How can anyone make money with this, how can they spend so much money to create this, who does advertising work on?

But, on sober afterthought, I'm finding much to admire in HumanKind; for example, the Museu Efémoro, where a rum distillery sponsored the cataloguing of street art in Lisbon.

An interesting supplement to this book, both as reinforcement and occasional counterpoint, is a documentary I recently watched, Art & Copy (which can be viewed in its entirety online), in which the importance of connecting with your audience is stressed above selling a product per se.

The modern advertising agency, according to the film, stemmed from a fundamental shift in thinking about advertising — from words, often illustrated as an afterthought, to art, in which design was integral to the message being conveyed. Hence the Creative Director was born.

Mostly though, this film features people who just love doing advertising, because it can be clever and cool, and when they're lucky, they make a lot of money by helping someone make a lot money. But I'm not convinced a lot of people understand how it works.

Don Draper cut through all the bullshit when he said, "I don't sell advertising, I sell products." Has the essence of advertising really changed all that much from the world as portrayed in Mad Men?

Yeah, advertising can be cool. Humankind almost makes me believe that it can even mean something.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fairytale, Doctor-style

Recently I read the first instalment of Doctor Who: A Fairy Tale Life, courtesy of the review copy system at NetGalley.

This selection was driven by my curiosity on two fronts:
1. I'm a fan of the Doctor Who TV series, and I wonder about the other aspects of fandom so many others engage in.
2. I wanted to try out the possibility of reading a comic book on my ereader.

It turns out that navigating a comic book on my Sony Reader is entirely possible. Once I opened the file (Adobe PDF format), the ereader presented an interface heretofore unseen by me. I've read novels in PDF and somehow the text is magically reflowed to accommodate my screen settings. In this case, the page dimensions and comic panels are, sensibly, preserved, but I'm able to zoom in and out and scroll up, down and side to side, much like when you read a PDF on your computer screen. The resolution is surprisingly good.

But the navigation quickly becomes tedious, and sadly, my ereader does not support colour, so I found myself flipping from ereader to laptop to appreciate the colour and to make sure I didn't miss any frames and was following them in the right order. So it's not exactly an immersive experience the way other ebooks are, or as is a printed graphic novel in hand.

As for the story, the Doctor and Amy travel to the year 7704 on the planet Caligaris Epsilon Six, a holiday world engineered to look and act exactly like a medieval fantasy. But the tourist industry isn't operating the way one would expect it to, and there are signs of biological contamination. Uh-oh.

Of course now I need to know what happens next. I will be ordering the collected subsequent instalments.

Do you read comic books or graphic novels on your ereader? Any tips for me?

Do you dare confess? Do you read novel or comic book spin-offs of science fiction or other franchises?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The forest of story

How do you say "1Q84"? Do you pronounce all the elements separately — one-Q-eight-four? Or eighty-four? For months I've been wrongly referring to it at IQ-84 (because IQ trips so naturally). Maybe Q-teen eighty-four? (My daughter has taken to reading the cover by column — Japanese style! — as eighteeen Q-ty-four.)

As his doubts increased, Tengo began deliberately to put some distance between himself and the world of mathematics, and instead the forest of story began to exert a stronger pull on his heart. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.

The older he became, the more Tengo was drawn to this kind of narrative suggestion. Mathematics was a great joy for him even now, as an adult. When he was teaching students at the cram school, the same joy he had felt as a child wold come welling up naturally. To share the joy of that conceptual freedom with someone was a wonderful thing. But Tengo was not longer able to lose himself so unreservedly in a world of numerical expression. For he knew that no amount of searching in that world would give him the solution he was really looking for.

— from 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.

To the end of book one, the worlds in 1Q84 do not appear to be all that different from our own (except for the two moons, but maybe that's not another world after all, maybe that's the book the girl wrote, or the one Tengo is still writing). Certainly there's no hint of a totalitarian state as is suggested by referencing Orwell's 1984. The affinity with 1984 comes in the treatment of memory, and its power to rewrite history.

"Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us — is rewritten — we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

The characters of 1Q84 are beginning to accept that their realities are "an endless battle of contrasting memories."

This novel did not grab me from the start as some other Murakami books have, but still it exerts some magical pull. It moves swiftly, almost without you realizing it, and before long is deeply engrossing. All the Murakami I've read has been dream-like, disorienting, provocative. 1Q84 is no exception, but I find it also touches on some much more serious subject matter: violence against women, but also the morality of vigilante justice (more than one scene put me in mind of Natsuo Kirino's Out).

Having finished book one, I am very grateful at this point that the whole of the story has been published in a single volume. It's not a mindfuck the way The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is, but it definitely comes across as better controlled and more mature than some other Murakami novels I've read. And I want to know more about Chekhov and the Gilyak.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The intellectually offensive union of sickness and stupidity

No, I'm not the least bit offended by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. But it's so easy to mock the patients who people this novel. And Mann does, and I immensely enjoy his doing so.

Part of the magic of the Mountain: I picked it up again the other week after a hiatus of several months, and it's as fresh and engaging as if I'd left off only the day before. (Why did I leave off at all if it's so good, you ask? I don't rightly know. It demands attention, and once the momentum is interrupted and the spell is broken, it's easy to forget how rewarding time with it is.)

No doubt this magic is connected to Mann's treatment of time as one of the major themes.

What is time? A secret — insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time? What a question! Is time a function of space? Or vice versa? Or are the two identical? An even bigger question! Time is active, by nature it is much like a verb, it both "ripens" and "brings forth." And what does it bring forth? Change! Now is not then, here is not there — for in both cases motion lies in between. But since we measure time by a circular motion closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation — for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here. Moreover, since, despite our best desperate attempts, we cannot imagine an end to time or a finite border around space, we have decided to "think" of them as eternal and infinite — in the apparent belief that even if we are not totally successful, this marks some improvement. But does not the very positing of eternity and infinity imply the logical, mathematical negation of things limited and finite, their relative reduction to zero? Is a sequence of events possible in eternity, a juxtaposition of objects in infinity? How does our makeshift assumption of eternity and infinity square with concepts like distance, motion, change, or even the very existence of a finite body in space? Now there's a real question for you!

Hans Castorp turned these sorts of questions over and over in his own mind — a mind that, since his arrival up here, had tended to quibble and think indiscreet thoughts of this sort and had perhaps been especially honed and emboldened for grumbling by a naughty, but overwhelming desire, for which he had now paid dearly.

Chapter 6 gets very philosophical. We meet Leo Naphta, Jewish-born Jesuit. His conversations with Herr Settembrini, and others, are intense and also confusing (to Hans as well as myself). Various kinds of dualism, religious and philosophical. Free will, politics (in philosophical sense, never actually discussing the real matters of the day), pragmatism. Art and science. There's a section promoting cremation as a more logical alternative to burial.

Hans is finally arriving at some truths.

At this point Hans Castorp spoke up, breaking into their conversation with the courage of simple souls. He stared into space and declared, "Contemplation, retreat — there's something to it, sounds quite plausible. One could say that we live at a rather high level of retreat from the world up here. At five thousand feet, we recline in our lounge chairs — and remarkably comfortable they are — and look down on the world and its creatures and think things over. To tell the truth, now that I stop and think about it, my bed — and by that I mean my lounge chair, you understand — has proved very beneficial over the last ten months, made me think more about things than I ever did in all my years down in the flatlands, I can't deny that."

And still, it's funny.

The mood of pallid Frau Magnus in particular seemed without a glimmer of hope; she exuded bleakness of spirit the way a cellar exudes damp. And perhaps even more explicitly than Frau Stöhr, she represented the union of sickness and stupidity that Hans Castorp had declared intellectually offensive.

Hans, originally at the sanatorium to see his cousin for a 3-week visit, has been there now for over a year. It's almost 2 years since I started reading The Magic Mountain, and suspected I'd be letting the story unfold in near real time. It still captivates me, and I love it for slowing my mind down.

And yet, I'm setting it aside again to indulge in Murakami's 1Q84. Sometimes it all a bit too much for Hans — he needs to stop and consider his friends' philosophizing in his own time and space, somewhere away from them, as do I. And Hans has another order of thinking to do now that his cousin has left to rejoin the world below.

I return to "the bourgeoisiosity of life."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life, fate

Life and Fate. Sounds big, deep, sprawling. It is.

Life's a mess. Really there's no getting around it. You make plans, they go wrong. You make other plans, they go wrong in a different way. After much consideration I've come to the conclusion that life has a multiplicity of different ways in which things can go wrong. Incidentally, my father's a physicist and is very keen on things like multiplicity, which is how we ended up a million miles from Moscow in Kazan, because he was working on something important for the war. The War. Now there you have a serious example of things going wrong. However, because of it, we socialists had a real chance to show the world what we were made of, which is steel. Ask Comrade Stalin. My mother is not a scientist. She believes in fate. But it seems to me that in the end fate is just as messy and hard to live with as life.
— from Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, a BBC4 dramatization.

So here's a book I had absolutely no interest in reading. I knew a little bit about its history (written in 1959 and banned in the USSR and not published there till nearly 30 years later), and a little about it's subject matter (life — and the lives of some Russian Jews in particular — in Stalinist Russia during World War II). I don't find either point very compelling — I've had my fill.

But then this radio dramatization caught my ear, and I was hooked. As it stars Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, you could say the production is of decent quality. I have trouble with audiobooks and radio plays in general in that they tease me into believing they're conducive to multitasking. But I can't do it. If I'm to get anything out of them, I need to give them my attention, at which point I figure I might as well just read the book. I ended up listening to most parts of this drama twice, to ensure I had the characters and events straight, but I was very glad to do so.

Some of the early great lines include: "How could I talk to a woman who thought Balzac wrote Madame Bovary?" and: "A way to a Russian's heart is through his brain."

As you might guess from the book's title, there's a great deal of philosophizing going on.

Identity's one of the major themes. There's a passage I went back to — it turns out it was just a short sentence, but in my head it had expanded into something unwieldy. I can't recall the original phrasing, but its sense was that the woman hadn't ever really thought of herself as Jewish; she went to Russian school, had Russian friends, played Russian games, read Russian books — of course she was Russian. (This is something I actually spend a lot of time thinking about, albeit with regard to identities other than Jewish and Russian.)

There's some similar musing about science. That there's no such thing as Stalinist science, or Jewish science, etc, it's just science, that's all, but of course not everyone sees the world this way. Isn't that mind-boggling? That someone could dispute your science because it wasn't Soviet enough?

Then there's love.

I wanted to tell him everything, and I told him nothing at all. I wanted to ask him everything, and I asked him about eating black bread. Is it possible to lose everything because we don't speak when we must? I was an idiot...

[Oh, I have been an idiot. Listening to this production is an emotional double-whammy these days, for what it is and for the real life it reminds me of.]

It's quite a drama. There are funny bits, and poignant bits, and clever bits, and bits that made me cry. There's a lot about doing the right thing, and a lot of "if we only knew," and of course we never do, which makes it all the harder.

Some people see it as a counterpart to Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think there's more war, and less peace, in Life and Fate. Maybe only it seems more brutal because these historical events are closer in time. But the comparison captures the right sprawl, and there's a similar quality of introspection.

The radio drama leaves some plot points unresolved. Perhaps they are treated this way in the book as well. I'm tempted to find out.

The BBC4 Life and Fate page has a couple video clips featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, on the story but also on the nature of radio drama, as well as some other background material. Apparently the podcasts are no longer available for download, but if you ever come across the opportunity to give them a listen, take it.

Reviews
The Economist
The Times Literary Supplement

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cover charge

Which cover do you like better?


Would you pay a premium (of, say, 50% more) to have the book with your preferred cover? Have you ever insisted on a particular edition of a book (and paid for it)?

Friday, October 14, 2011

only the snow can begin to explain



E.E. Cummings was born this day in 1894. "anyone lived in a pretty how town" is the first of cummings' poems I ever experienced (in high school, no less). I knew anyhow town — I lived there. It is my favourite of his poems to this day. Some days, to hear it, makes me immeasurably sad.

Long coveted and newly acquired: E.E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I'm going to bed

video

To read!

(Inner Sanctum, 1948.)

I think she's flirting. I can't decide if it's sexy, creepy, or ridiculous.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The indigestion of an unfulfilled duty

Eberhard Mock, Criminal Councillor investigating the serial killings that occur in The End of the World in Breslau (by Marek Krajewski), adheres to the maxim, primum edere deinde philossophari ("eat first, then philosophize").

I'm glad that he does. Apart from the detail that helps the historical setting of 1925 Breslau come alive, whenever Mock sits down to a meal, it gives the reader, as well as Mock himself, the time to consider and digest the investigation, not to mention the opportunity to reflect on events related to his personal life.

The troubled barman of Petruske's tavern placed a plate of thick, fried bacon slices in front of Mock. When Mock pointed to his empty tankard, the barman assumed an expression of someone greatly put upon. Mock decided to torment him even further by ordering some bread and horseradish. An existential agony swept across the barman's features.

Mock observed the effects of alcohol and anger in the eyes of the wretchedly dressed drunks crowding the tables and walls. The most genial person in the place seemed to be the blind accordionist playing a sentimental tune. Had he not been blind, he would been glaring at Mock just as amicably as the builders, carters, cabbies and bandits crammed into the bar.

Mock tore his eyes away from his brothers in alcoholic misery, and set about his food. First he decorated the slices of bacon with mounds of horseradish, then, using a knife, pressed it into a hot mush after which, with a faint sigh, he devoured the smoked and roasted meat followed by slices of dark, wholemeal bread. He washed down the strong taste of meat and horseradish with Haas beer.

Scanning the bar with bloodshot eyes, he listened to the swearing and cursing. Foremost in this were unemployed workers, embittered at the whole world. All of a sudden a butcher joined in their laments to complain about capitalist exploiters who undervalued his rare ability to decapitate a cow with one blow.

Mock had a revelation: the supper had not been unpalatable because it consisted of foul and badly prepared food, but because his mouth was acidic with the indigestion of an unfulfilled duty.

It's full of atmosphere and attitude; it has tremendous period verisimilitude, a smattering of Latin, and wit (you might call it a running gag that one of Mock's subordinates is chided for not knowing Latin — Krajewski himself is a classics scholar), which make this novel highly engrossing, despite the severe brutality.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second in Krajewski's series of Eberhard Mock investigations, but its events take place in 1925, well before those in Death in Breslau, which is set primarily in 1933. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Nazi elements of the first book, and the added level of intrigue with regard to the bureacracy and administration of a police investigation, I preferred this second novel with its "simpler" storylines.

There are the bizarre serial killings, the scenes of which always include a calendar page indicating the date of death. And then there's Mock's marriage — his wife feels mistreated and so sets out on her own sexual adventures and develops an association with the Monistic Community of Breslau (a kind of secret society — fictitious). The pacing is brilliant — Krajewski sticks with one storyline at a time, till just about the point where you're close to forgetting the other existed before he switches tracks.

Meanwhile, there's an end-of-the-world cult gaining popularity in Breslau. Oh, and there's some trouble with Mock's nephew, who is neglecting his studies and getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Do you think all these elements might be connected?

Mock is fairly unlikeable, though he does have a strong sense of justice. The fact of his moral ambiguity means you never know what he's going to do next.

I'm ordering up the third book of the series straight away. And I'm delighted to learn that there are even more Breslau books, although they are not yet translated.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. As a noir crime novel, it falls into a subcategory of mystery, but I think the end-of-world cult aspect gives it a nice, Halloween-y edge.]

Friday, October 07, 2011

Truth, beauty, genius

Erasmus Valentine had a fondness for women of a certain age, and that age was at least sixty. He loved their soft, stretched flesh, hanging off their arms like wings, and the look of surprise in their eyes when he made love to them. He loved their stiff gray hairs, which stuck straight out from their scalp and were often dyed a strange false shade of lavender or orange, and he loved their long beaklike noses. If he was particularly lucky, their cries of passion would even sound like squawks.

He was often successful in his amorous quests. Though sometime surprised, or confused, Valentine had loved many, many women of London, none younger than fifty-seven — and that one looked quited ancient for her age. But one bird had escaped his net, and it was the bird he wanted to catch more than any other: Ada Byron, the Countess of Lovelace herself. She was a different sort of bird. Ada had been famous for being wild and brilliant in her youth, and age hadn't tempered her with caution — as it often did — but with confidence. She still smoked cigars, gambled, and wrote tracts on the future of analytical engines with just as much fervor as — if not more than — she had when she was in her twenties. When her husband died thirty years ago in an accident involving the steam presses he made to shape wooden ceilings into cathedral-like patterns, she hadn't sought a new husband. Not out of grieving, but because she didn't see the need for one. She was independent. She laughed at bawdy jokes, and drank with the men after supper. And she had rejected all of Valentine's advances. But she was coming to Illyria today, and Valentine was determined to persevere.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace contributed to Charles Babbage's analytical engine. She is widely held to have been the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace also appears in All Men of Genius, first novel by Lev AC Rosen. But as should be clear from the excerpt above, it is not quite the same Ada Lovelace. This one is sixty-seven, a widow who smokes cigars and wins at poker.

But she is but a bit player in All Men of Genius.

This is steampunk. (And it's steampunk week at Tor.com.) Victorian London, horseless carriages that run on different principles than our own, mechanical prostheses, gears, a lot of clockwork, a kind of science that may resemble magic more than what has been borne out in our history.

Violet, age 17, wants to study science at Illyria College, but the school is (as the schools are in her day and age) male only. She applies under the name of her twin brother and gains entry. Now she has to go about in disguise.

All Men of Genius is said to be inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) and Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest. I read Twelfth Night for grade 13 English — I remember I made some clever comment about "Illyria" sounding like "delirium" — so I can attest to there being commonalities. Clearly, character names and plot devices have been liberally borrowed. I have not read Earnest — but, oh look, there it is on my shelf, can it be that I really haven't read it? — but an Internet review of the synopsis makes the similarities to this play clear as well.

This is a charming novel, about science, about girls doing science, and about beauty.

"What's so funny?"

"That all you should see in flowers is scientific principles," he said, "even when a man tried to show you their beauty."

"But that is their beauty," Violet said, pursing her lips. "Really, I don't know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields. As if the stars and planets themselves are lovely, but to map the way they turn takes that away from them. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty."

And it's about love, too. Love is bound to gum up the works.

Cross-dressing, mistaken identities, killer automata, invisible cats. The pacing is perfect. All Men of Genius is sweet and funny and full of joy.

Excerpt.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Books not to be seen reading in public

Standing room only again in the metro the other morning. I'm used to it. I pull out my novel.

I feel someone's eyes on me. A middle-aged man, balding, bespectacled, seated in front of me.

He's not staring at me so much as he's leering at my book. Still, unpleasant.

I'm reading The End of the World in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski. (Excerpt.)

The spectacular cover art gracing the English translations of the Eberhard Mock investigations, from Quercus Publishing, is by Andrzej Klimowski.

Here. Take a good, close look.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Horrified, yet still strangely enthralled

A book.

An old book actually. Yellowed pages. The dry, musty smell of old parchment. A weathered cover of leatherlike material with more than its fair share of cracks. When I reached out to trace it with the tip of my finger, something strange happened.

The book shifted beneath my touch, as if trying to escape.

I yanked my hand back in surprise.

I stared at the book in a kind of sick fascination, the way one stared at a bad traffic accident, disgust and horror mingling with a deep-seated need to see, to understand, to know just how bad it was.

Tentatively, I reach out again.

This time the cover yielded slightly to my touch but didn't pull away. Maybe I'd just imagined it. Something still didn't feel right, though. The book was warm, pliable, like a living thing rather than an inanimate object.

I half expected to hear it breathing.

Horrified, yet still strangely enthralled, I gently pushed the cover open.

Eyes to See, by Joseph Nassise, is a bit weird. I can't say I've read anything quite like it before. It's broadly classified as "fantasy" (according to the promo notes) but pulls elements together from various (sub)genres. There are ghosts, a witch (who performs magic), a berserker, a demonic ritual, an old manuscript, serial killings. And Jeremiah Hunt, a near-blind man who sees ghosts.

Jeremiah gained this special sight in his efforts to track down his daughter, who was abducted from his home. Years later, the police have stopped looking. His wife left a long time ago. He makes a living as a ghostbuster, relying on seeing and interacting with ghosts, tactically possessing and/or being possessed by them. Oh, and, the dead can see emotions. Occasionally, the cops call on him for help, although they don't know the precise nature of how Hunt comes to his "intuitions" about their criminal situations.

On this particular police case, a couple seemingly ritualistic murders, his background as a classics professor even comes into play.

Drawing on all these different traditions, the book had potential, I thought — a crazy energy. But ultimately, the world-building was weak, falling into the trap of telling not showing (including a completely irrelevant explanation by Jeremiah of the different classes of ghost — apparitions, spectres, poltergeists, etc — which is doubly ridiculous once we learn how ignorant he is of the supernatural world), and trying to be too many things for its own good.

The tone, especially the dialogue, in trying for a clipped noir-ish feel sounds laughably repetitive and predictable. Also, the narration's switching in perspective is needlessly disorienting, and there are continuity errors.

The plot was engaging enough that I had to see how the story ended, but I don't see myself picking up Jeremiah Hunt's further chronicles.

Excerpt.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. While this novel fits all the criteria to be the perfect creepy lead-up read to Halloween, the writing is more horrific than the story, and its quality makes it the most disappointing book I've read all year.]

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Rainy afternoon

It's rainy and cold.

Before surrendering to a lazy day, I thought I'd give it one last shot to get the kid active, even though I didn't much feel like it myself.

"How about we go shopping for a skirt, like you wanted?" "No!" "What if we hang out at the bookstore?" "Yes!"

She never ceases to surprise me.

So we went to the bookstore.

I thought about buying a copy of The Train (Simenon) for myself, seeing as how my electronic review copy is set to expire in a few days and I have to have this book on my shelf. But more than that, I wanted to browse, to discover something.

I opened a copy of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, started reading it, and, three pages in, determined it was crap, or, at least, not for me, not today.

Here's what we bought:

The Project's for me, of course, and I must say its first three pages were vastly more compelling than anything else in the store. Today anyway. It's been on that list in the back of my mind of books to watch for for some time, and it puts me in mind of that Doctor Who Episode, The Lazarus Experiment — I'm sure they have nothing to do with each other, but it's as valid a reason as any to choose one book over another.

Happy, rainy reading.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful

Every day that passed nibbled away some of my meager capital of happiness. That isn't the right word, but as I can't find another, and as people are always talking about happiness, I am obliged to make do with the word myself.

The Train, by Georges Simenon, has been nibbling away at my conscience since I put it down over a week ago.

It turned out not to be the book I expected it to be, and it is all the finer for it.

I had expected some kind of psychological suspense, some small mystery — the sort of thing I've come to expect from Simenon. Man walks away from his ordinary life, to finally really start to live. And on the other side of the tracks he discoveres life with prostitutes and other criminal elements; he may become involved in crime, even murder, himself. What the reader generally discovers is the seedy side of of an ordinary mind. It's what happens when you give in to impulse, desire, your baser instincts; when you let the monster of existential dread crawl out of a tiny crevice in your brain, the monster sets up house and governs your affairs.

That's what most Simenon novels feel like (his romans durs).

Early on it dawned on me that The Train was not a typical roman dur. It was some kind of war story, and potentially, since Marcel is riding a train going god knows where, and his story becomes entwined with that of a Jewish woman, a story about the Holocaust — not the sort of thing I like reading about, although far more horrific than any "horror story" in the conventional sense.

But the book isn't that either.

Altogether my impression, when war broke out, was that fate was playing another trick on me and I was not surprised for I was practically certain that was going to happen one day.

This time it wasn't a microbe, a virus, a congenital deformity of heaven knows what part of the eye — the doctors have never been able to agree about my eyes. It was a war which was hurling men against one another in tens of millions.

The idea was ridiculous, I realize that. But the fact remains that I knew, that I was ready. And that waiting, ever since October, was becoming unbearable. I didn't understand. I kept wondering why what was bound to happen didn't happen.

What was bound to happen didn't happen.

Marcel is not led to his death. He does not commit murder or consort with prostitutes. In fact, he doesn't even walk away from his life — at least, not in a very deliberate way.

The story: As Nazi tanks approach, Marcel's family takes the decision to leave, or rather they go with the flow, and end up leaving, just like everybody else. They board the train, but Marcel is separated from his pregnant wife and his little girl. And Marcel doesn't seem to know how he feels about this. And when Anna boards the train, Marcel starts to feel a little differently.

Anna's mysterious and exotic, and maybe a little dangerous. But she is also a very sympathetic character, for whom the cicumstances may be consequential.

It's a distressing novel because it's about doing the right thing, and it forces you to consider what the right thing is. How often when we do the right thing is it the socially expected thing, the socially accepted thing? Doing right is an adherence to social norms and standards; it has very little to do with being good. Often, "right" and "good" coincide. But it's devastating when they come into conflict.

The horror in this novel is subtle. It has very little to with Nazis or with war, although both contribute to the circumstances in which this particular horror thrives, when man forgets his social contract and his actions are less than human. It's somewhat understandable that when you know the Nazis are coming, your social order starts to fall apart, but the savage animal acts, man against man, are not made more agreeable by acknowledging their source.

So. Here I am talking about brutality, but the novel doesn't really show much evidence of it. It's subtle. Simenon's subtle. It's like this. For example. The train is packed with people wanting out, some have tried to bring all their belongings, others have brought the wrong belongings. And the barmaid favours someone with her favours, and under cover of dark they have sex, right there on the train, inches away from everybody, and really, aren't there more important things toward which to be directing one's attention and energy. The scene (and this sort of behaviour recurs) is not particularly long or lurid, but it's somehow... indecent. And even though it registers on Marcel as such, he starts not to care. And so the slip into something less than civilized.

"Even so, we shall probably never see anything we leave behind again..."

The idea didn't upset me. On the contrary, it filled me with a sort of somber joy, like that of destroying something you have patiently built up with your own hands.

Marcel was a sickly child, till he grew into a sickly youth. He spent years in a sanatorium, and somehow survived to become a weak man. He sheds his home, his material possessions, his family, and his dignity. The thing he clings to and protects with the most fervour is his spare eyeglasses, but one day he stops caring about even that.

I am not ashamed to say that I was happy, with a happiness which bore the same relation to everyday happiness as the sound produced by passing a violin bow across the wrong side of the bridge bears to the nomal sound of a violin. It was sharp and exquisite and deliciously painful.

But perhaps that is also the day he truly loses sight of his life. He is unable to discern what is right, what is good, what is happiness.

Somehow, everything lost comes back to him. (The compass he never had remains lost to him.) When the novel ends, Marcel has "a wife, three children, a shop in the Rue du Chateau." And such an ending was devised to leave a very bitter aftertaste. It's all wrong, but other choices would've been wrong too. All those savage, inhuman acts are still there — when the war is over we are not better people; merely we can manage to apply a shinier veneer.

Maybe Marcel should've lived a different life, maybe he would've been happier then, truer to himself — but probably not. Contrary to the publisher's blurb that Marcel confronts "a blood-chilling choice," rather it is existential spleen–chilling.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. Had I known more about the story I'd've seen that it doesn't really fit my idea of a chilling autumn read. However, the story is psychologically, morally disturbing, and a very powerful read.]

Friday, September 23, 2011

Out of print

I'm not what you'd call an impulse shopper. I've wanted one of these t-shirts forever, but which one? It had to be a design I liked and a book I loved. Something that expressed something about me. Finally, a day came when I felt I deserved a little something, and about a year and a half after first hearing about these tees, I decided. The Master and Margarita.

The shirt is thin, but it's a good-quality print, and the cut and the feel make for a remarkably comfortable fit. I love it.

(I'm fairly certain now that I want to dress my daughter in Darwin's Origin of Species, but I'll have to think on this for another month or two.)

And, for every purchase, a book is donated to a community in need.

I did in fact read The Master and Margarita (by Mikhail Bulgakov), but it must've been a lifetime ago. I remember Pontius Pilate and the politics of the crucifixion, and something about a cat, bearing some resemblance to my actual cat, but little else. I've been wanting to reread this for several years now, and now I'm really going to have to, so as not to appear a fraud.

An e-version of the translation by Richard Pevear is widely available under a creative commons license.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret

I got kind of excited last month about there being a new Ondaatje. I got caught up in the hype, and I think I even said, "Ooohh, a new Ondaatje!" But then I thought, wait, do I even like Ondaatje, I don't remember. So by the time I actually picked up The Cat's Table, I had mentally prepared myself for disappointment. It took but a few pages before I was all, oh, Ondaatje, I remember, he's good.

The cat's table is that table in the dining room positioned furthest away form the Captain's table, reserved for those passengers of least consequence. And this is where 11-year-old Michael gets to sit during his 21-day journey from Ceylon to England.

[My mother would've made a similar journey, but she would've been a few years older, a few years earlier. I must ask her about it.]

There's not much happpening in this book. It is a novel — a voyage — of discovery: of passing the time, hearing stories, and plotting adventures, of fast friendships, unknown territory, and gossip. (It's a lot like how I remember camp to be: bonding intensely with a group of strangers over a relatively short period, and making your own fun.) As readers we overhear the passengers' stories and see certain events and have to piece them together much as Michael does.

[O]ur table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.

The thing I take away from this novel is how children's experience of things, of life, is always somewhat removed from anything like an adult reality. There. That was a hard sentence to write. I almost said a child's experience is childish, or naive, or incomplete, and that's not exactly true. It's still a perfectly full and true and valid experience, just different.

I think The Cat's Table has this in common with The Fragile Mistress, which I read earlier this summer. In both cases, the "children" are exposed to situations that are beyond their ability to understand them, not because of their age exactly, but because they're not privy to the whole story and have to fill in the blanks by themselves, and the logic drawn upon to smooth over the gaps varies if you're 8, 11, 14, or 39.

You have to be careful with these things. See, I was once a child myself, and there's some stuff I remember, and some stuff I learned. I remember overhearing someone say, about me, you can't expect her to understand, she's just a child (I was almost 8), and I remember being very angry about this. I learned that grown-ups often underestimate children, at least in terms of their capacity to grok. So now I try very, very hard not treat children like children.

[Just this weekend my daughter did something crazy, but I maintained my composure. I heard their voices, her and the girl from a neighbouring cottage, coming through the trees. I didn't know there was a path through these woods, I thought you had to go by the road to access her cottage. Maybe they're coming along the shore, rock-jumping — tricky, but doable since the water level's low. Then I see them, paddling their canoe up onto our tiny shore. And I was horrified! that someone let them — an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old — paddle themselves across the lake. Of course, nobody let them — the canoe was there, and inspiration struck. And then I saw that the both of them were life-jacketed, and the 10-year-old actually seemed to know what she was doing, handled the canoe with more ease than I could, and was very confident in instructing Helena on what to do. So I plastered a smile over my horror, and deep down felt a little proud, happy for her for embarking on her own adventure. Then they paddled out to where J-F was fishing before returning the canoe to its point of origin.

What was my point? Oh, yes. To the 8-year-old mind, canoeing across the lake seemed very reasonable. It is a valid and beautiful experience, and Helena will remember it very differently from how I will.]

The Cat's Table is by far my favourite of the few Ondaatje novels I've read. While the language of the others was more beautiful, more poetic, it also sometimes works to keep the reader at a distance. The Cat's Table, however, is a straightfoward exercise in storytelling, and I was charmed by it. There's nothing pretentious about it, and I recommend it as an entry point to Ondaatje's work.

You might like to give a listen to Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Michael Ondaatje. I met Michael Ondaatje once, at a fundraiser for world literacy — he was a notable attendee, and there were signed copies of The English Patient up for auction. (Come to think of it, Jian was there too, but I didn't meet him, he was the musical entertainment.) Someone actually introduced us while we were milling around near the bar. I had not read anything of his at this point. We made small talk — the weather? travel? — while we drank our drinks. We didn't talk about books at all.