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


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


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


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.