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


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.)

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.

- 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.

- 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 . . ."


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.