Friday, June 29, 2012

Faith in science

"Do you feel all right, in that sense, because you don't look great."

"I've been better, no question about that. But be that as it may, I'm still perfectly sanguine about the fact that we are going to get through this little problem in a matter of a few more minutes. This too shall pass Casi."

"This blackout?"

"Yes. I have faith, you know why?"


"Because I am twenty-three years old and in those twenty-three years science has never let me down. And it's not going to let me down now. Two years before I was born was the last time we had one of these, at least on this scale, and you cannot seriously expect me to believe that for the duration of my entire life Father Science has not adequately investigated and prospectively remedied the deficiencies that occasionally cause us to become cloaked in unnatural darkness."

"Forgive me but isn't the strongest proof there's been no prospective remedy what you currently see when you look out the window?"

"But I have faith, faith in science."



— from A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Naked, singular notes, part 2

The more it goes, the more I'm liking this novel, A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava. I mean, I liked it from page 1, but it just gets bigger and better, and more, and funnier, as it goes. It has seeped into my real life, as all the best books do.

A Naked Singularity is about a lot of things. The story, in a nutshell: Casi, a public defender, at age 24 is somewhat disillusioned, both with the system he works within and more generally with all he's managed to achieve (or not) in his time on this planet. A colleague tries to enlist him in committing the perfect crime. There will be swordplay!

But it's also about Beethoven, boxing (more specifically William Benitez), coffee, The Honeymooners, empanadas, the nature of reality, genius, perfection, God, genetics, free will, the nature of justice and morality, perception, and more. Also there are Casi's cases, and in particular the appeal he's working on for a young death-row inmate in Alabama.

Casi's sister Alana — I love her, I wish there were more of her. Somewhat ironically, although she's an artist, and lives a lifestyle, and comes off as flaky in some ways, she's also extremely grounded and sensible, emotionally and otherwise. I get a real sense of how much Casi loves her and why he turns to her.

Alana raises the point during a family dinner early in part 2 about "who the real me is. Who the real any of us is." It's a callow kind of exercise, but I find myself engaging in it this week, because I honestly don't know the answer. Do I feel most myself when I am with the family I grew up with (like Alana, I hate going there, yet I love being there), or with the family I created? When I am working (no!, though I am a certain person, and I like being that person, when out foraging for coffee or lunch, or just shooting the shit, with certain coworking friends), or with old college friends? Online, cultivating personas that are at once not-at-all-me and intensely-and-completely-me, or when I'm entirely alone? Weirdly, although I may be happiest when engaging in now moments (y'know, the stuff going on in my life today), I feel most real when the situation is loaded with history, memory, and yes baggage — I think because it combines weight, weightiness, with a sense of potentiality, whether ever realized or not, the what might've been melded into continuity with my current potentiality. (Actually, Dane brings me back to this in his pep talk to Casi on p 511, about possible worlds, and that on one possible world, these guys do this, and doesn't it make you mad it's not you.)

Some may argue these are merely different facets of the same person, but — and I suppose it reflects poorly on my mental state to admit this — they can feel like very different people to me. (Thanks, Alana, for making me think about this, and sparking some interesting conversations around here.)

Alana goes on to claim that all her good qualities are innate, the product of genetics, and that all her bad qualities are self-generated as a result of environmental factors, the product of circumstance. Very convenient.

And then! The neighbours! If God exists, why the suffering in the world? At what price heaven? And! "Because whether God exists or not, there is still such a thing as justice. Justice exists [...]." Casi doesn't quite seem convinced.

Casi procrastinates at work by making lists. "Because everything is susceptible to discrete, unproblematic listing. Anything can be ranked. Subjectivity has nothing to with it. If something is ranked higher it simply is higher. Better. Understand?" (p 357). Let us quantify the universe and our place in it!

Dane gives an intense exposition on the Beastly Burden Channel, and an incident between a cheetah and pack of hyenas. Animal nature, and the law of the jungle! Actually, I find this passage beautiful, because it's loaded with judgement as the hyena morphs into mangy mutt, filthy dog, rat, weasel. (p 403)

"Of course it can also be quite sad. As a matter of fact just before coming here I was home crying it was so damn sad. It seems a pride, has there ever been a more apt word, of these gorgeous cats had fallen on hard gastronomical times. Anyway one of these famished felines had managed to secure a tasty meal, but is eating alone without catty support. Suddenly it's surrounded by goddamn hyenas, those mangy mutts. Turns out they want the cat to share. Share! Can you imagine? This majestic, sexy, sleek beast giving even the slightest bit of its lion's share to those ratty mouth-breathing pieces of shit. Now if you know anything at all about the situation, you know there's not a lioness in the world that is going to lose to a fucking single hyena, is going to let a hyena take even a morsel of its food. And don't kind yourself, the pussy hyenas know this as well. Of course we're not dealing with a single hyena here, we're dealing with like twenty of the bastards and, as I said, one cat. They surround the cat, these filthy dogs. But the cat, like the viewer, knows that twenty dogs can kill it if they need to. It takes one last bite of its zebra dinner, a zebra it fucking acquired when no one else could, through its feline will and sense of self, a zebra rightfully bestowed on it by the cosmos, then leaves it to the mutts. Well if that doesn't make you cry then you're just an unfeeling bastard and I take my leave of you. The cameraman had to gall to stand there and film these lowly furry rats stuffing their faces, knowing that not one of these weasels would've had the balls to so much as look at our cat crossly if not for their overwhelming numbers."

There's this other theme that resonates with me hugely, and it's related to genius, or at least, fulfilling one's potential. Only now that I'm looking back, I can't really find anything to sustantiate this reading, it must be all in my head. But I'd decided I can relate to Casi, I too was once young and thought to be, if not exactly a genius, then at least very, very smart. And then very suddenly it just didn't pan out for me. But I still check the gauges, that so-and-so accomplished whatever by age twenty-something, and whosit published whatsit at exity-ex years of age, to measure my (lack of) progress. As if it's not too late for me. As if I could be both the prodigy I once was and a late bloomer. I feel for Casi, but he's only 24. Just wait, boy.

I was like that Benitez. I had maybe not always put the appropriate work in and had therefore messed up. I too had lost. But likewise I would rise again. Everyone I saw around me looked like they were were in my way and I was sick of walking around these people and would start to go through them if need be to get what I wanted, needed. (p 492)

And the heist. Free will, striving for perfection, the slipperiness of morality — all very interesting. How this aspect of the book represents subject matter of obsessive interest to myself?: what makes someone walk away from their life?

Part 2 leaves two great mysteries unanswered: 1. What did Traci draw in the condensation on the window? Once Casi saw it, he couldn't unsee it (p 405). Does it matter what it was, and I wonder if De La Pava had a specific image in mind even if he chose not to tell us. 2. Casi had the energy to call either Dane or Toomberg, not both, before heading to the airport, and he had finally decided, and the decision surprised him, but finally the phone didn't work (p 455) — what had he chosen?

The Big Read continues at Conversational Reading, and if you're at all interested in knowing to what degree these themes play out in the novel, I urge you to explore the discussions there.

I'm onto part 3 of the novel, which puts me well ahead of the reading schedule — I can no longer help myself. I am saddened to be nearing the end, relieved to count at least 150 pages to go. I find myself laughing out loud quite regularly, and in public places, and that's a good thing.

A Naked Singularity is highly readable, and I highly recommend it.

"Life is nasty, malevolent, toxic, evil, and brutish. And you know the worst part? The part that really sticks in my craw, whatever a craw is."


"It's too short."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The ideas of Northrop Frye

The Ideas of Northrop Frye airs on CBC this week.

The progam is available online:
Part 1
Part 2

We unknowingly, but happily, tuned into part 1, while driving home in the car last night. Part 2 airs this evening.

I've never read anything by Northrop Frye, but it's quite evident that his influence is all around me in the book-blogging community.

If I understand correctly, Frye's thinking is that literary criticism should be something more/other than scholarly. Criticism must work to understand, not to judge, literature (e.g., through its historical context, its aesthetic structures, etc). It is literature's purpose, after all, to engage us in thinking about the world.

Clearly Frye loved literature and treated it and treated his relationship to it very seriously, but not too seriously.

"Were art to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness."

Worth listening to.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Interesting, though: Brenner and God

There was never a riotous crowd in front of the abortion clinic, but somehow that silent threat from the church-types was even more menacing, because there's nothing worse than a sighing aggressor. A well-known fact: behind every mass murderer there's a mass sigher.

Simon Brenner is an ex-cop. Now he works as chauffeur for the 2-year-old daughter of an abortion doctor and a construction magnate, shuttling her between them. One day while he's at a gas station counter, little Helena is stolen out the car.

His sense of duty (not so much to his employers but to the job he was hired to do) as chauffeur and guardian, his feeling of guilt, and his old police instinct conspire to overrule any compunction he has about leaving this matter to the proper authorities. Really, even while he's following up leads, he wants to know, and he wants the job done right, but you sense that he'd rather not be involved at all.

Brenner and God, by Wolf Haas, is newly translated and issued by Melville House (available June 26). It turns out that this story is several books along in a series starring Brenner (and a few of them have been made into movies). There are hints of back-story, but certainly this novel reads well as a standalone. Definitely I would love for more of this Austrian series to be available in English, please.

The real cops are essentially absent from the story, and since we follow the plot from Brenner's point of view, when they do appear they come off, unsurprisingly, as somewhat incompetent. There are lots of leads (and nonleads) on this case, and it's not immediately clear which ones to follow. On the mother's side, there are antiabortionists and politics, and on the father's side there's a lot of money and politics, and on both sides there are people with their hands in other people's pockets.

But here again is the advantage of being the murderer. You don't have to go around agonizing about the little moral prescriptions.

The undisputed star of this novel is its narrator, exhorting us to "pay attention, because this is important" (which makes you pay attention) and making witty observations — "interesting, though:..." — about the characters, or life, and interpreting situations for us, occasionally skipping ahead a bit of the story and prefacing the retelling with "believe it or not" (which makes it more believable). Also, there's a constant reminder that the immediate events are unfolding 35 hours after Helena disappeared, or 53 hours, etc, which makes for excellent pacing.

There are some graphic bits, but the overall tone thanks to the narration is light, and even when the narration casts doubt on Brenner's sanity and motivation, we root for him the whole way.

What does God have to do with all this? Well, Brenner meets him, and the experience is pivotal in spurring Brenner on to follow through.

The good lord just gazed upon all this with a smile because — free will.

Friday, June 22, 2012


"I believe I'm in the mood for some coffee, would you like to join me?"

"No, I'm never again leaving this office."

"Well I'm going to get some, would you like me to bring you back some form of beverage?"





"I'm easy, just get me one of those I think it's called a fatslap-push-push-on-the-bush-consigliere-capillary-freezy-supremicious or something, extra non-decaf please. Now when the guy pours the espresso into the foamy milk please make sure that he pierces the smallest possible area of the upper foam. The result should be akin to a brown pin prick on a sea of white. Moreover, when he pours the espresso in he should do so at such a deliberate rate that the espresso and the milk, which incidentally should be foamed to no more than a seventy-five percent congealment status, will not mix but rather will form two distinct levels featuring two different colours, with a great deal of wavy quantum action taking place at the border where they conjoin. Once that's done I shall like a fair amount of cinnamon sprinkled atop of the now pierced milk. Now when I say a fair amount of cinnamon I do not mean the the entire surface area should be covered. Rather the appearance of the cinnamon should be not unlike that of a distant nebula, such appearance with which I'm sure you're familiar. Remember, a cinnamon nebula is the goal. A cinnebula if you will. As for sugar, enough should be added to combat the inherent bitterness of espresso coffee but not so much added that it overpowers all the other competing flavors the beverage brings to the table. Also do not stir the beverage, as such a stirring would undoubtedly compromise the dual-level system I just mentioned. Instead add the sugar at a rate where each individual sugar granule will have its component molecules sufficiently bombarded by surrounding molecules, traveling at a high rate of speed due to the extreme heat of the beverage, as to occasion the dissolving of the granule before it reached the bottom of the cup. Lastly, please take care to walk the drink over with minimal bipedal concussion so as to not disrupt the dual-level system. Thanks man."

"I'm just going downstairs to the gentleman with the newsstand so do you want from the orange-lidded dispenser or the brown?"


Sweet silence.

— from A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

6 more reasons to love Wes Anderson

[Via MobyLives.] Shelly and the Secret Universe, The Francine Odysseys, The Girl from Jupiter, Disappearance of the 6th Grade, The Light of Seven Matchsticks, and The Return of Auntie Lorraine.


I had the privilege of reading an early incarnation of the novel now to be published as Seraphina, a story about music and (shape-changing!) dragons, family secrets and growing up. The world in which it is set is incredibly rich and complex, and the characters intensely "human." It made me cry, and you can consider that an endorsement.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, will be released on July 10.

I met Rachel online many years ago — she's one of the first bloggers I ever interacted with and one of the smartest, funniest bloggers I know. She created the fabulous comic book Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming, and it's in part thanks to her encouragement, and the fine example she sets in striking a balance between literary smarts and smart-assery, that I ever made it through Don Quixote, Middlemarch, etc.

I've not yet read the published version of Seraphina (but my copy is on the way). The story has changed considerably since the draft I saw, but it's peopled by the same characters and set in the same world. Rachel has spent years pouring her soul into this work. It can only have gotten better.

Congratulations, Rachel!

Web sites
Rachel Hartman
Short story prequel

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I would grow wings and shed the shackles

I thought all that but mostly I thought about ten million dollars. I thought about each of those dollars all the way back to the office. In the warmth of that office, with Swathmore in front of me all animated and sounding like a Peanuts adult, it was the money I thought of. At my current rate, it would take me a little over two centuries to gross ten million dollars. Patience, it seemed, was all I needed. With ten million dollars I could return all my phone calls and answer all my mail without my heart tightening.

I would never ride the subway again and even if I did it would feel different. I would do very little I didn't want to and lots I did. I would feel joy and relief.

I would have a library.

Well, first a house to put it in, not a glorified closet. And there I would sit, in a crazy regal chair made of fine Corinthian leather smoking a pipe for no good reason while draped in a crushed velvet robe. I would read until my eyes failed and my head overflowed. Any book that sounded even mildly interesting I would buy. And not cheesy paperbacks either, hardcovers only. Leather-bound collector's editions if possible and appropriate. I would read everything of note ever written. Gilgamesh to Grendel, Gibbon and Gass, Goethe and Gödel, Günter Grass and non-G works too. I would devour them all. And when I tired of reading I would swim in my pool, parting the azure blue water like a veloce human knife. Or I would visit the equally lush home of my mother and her others, now swimming in the knowledge that I singly moved them out of their cramped quarters.

I would grow wings and shed the shackles that kept me tethered to this place and day. Thus freed, I would soar up and through the air, above the Earth, to exotic locales where I would be pampered beyond my wildest dreams. Venice, Paris, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo, Rio, Athens would be my homes.

No, better yet, I would be homeless. Owning and owing nothing and no one. I would exist well outside the norms and concerns of society, my only concern my personal advancement and evolution as a human being. As such I would only intake the very finest our tepid species had been able to produce. Only the finest foods in my shell, which shell would be subjected to only the finest medical care. Through my repaired ears and into my melon only the most angelic music would pass, which by now you know would include a healthy dose of live Ludwig. And along with those notes only the finest thoughts, arguments, theories, hypotheses, assessments, deeds, proofs, actions, creeds, kudos, slogans, phrases, sayings, limericks, and memories. Okay that last one's tricky but beauty in, beauty out, as I would be transformed into a timeless yes evanescent superbeing who didn't know what anything cost.

— from A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

What would you do with ten million dollars?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Naked, singular notes, part 1

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava. People are gushing over this book. Big Read at Conversational Reading.

Chapter 1, I felt rushed along, perhaps much like bodies are rushed through the system of night court, but while the voice was literate and articulate and witty and knowledgeable and competent, this was very bleak and depressing.

It was desensitizing, first to Crime — it happens all the time, over and over again, and while it's somewhat sobering, it's also hard to be shocked by it, it's a state of normal, kind of like how I feel when I follow the news too closely. It's mostly sympathetic to the "criminals" but I felt desensitized against their plight as well, it's just a hopeless and persistent way of being for them, they're all in bad situations, and it shouldn't be that way, but that's just the way it is. So sympathy, but hopelessness and also apathy, that I or anyone would be able to change the world in any meaningful way. Had the book gone on in this way for much longer, I don't think I could've stuck with it.

Chapter 2, the neighbours. "The three of them were good customers of Columbia University. Alyona was purchasing a doctorate in Philosophy [...]." I love how this is put, showing education as commodity. (Isn't Alyona a girl's name?)

The project: to play all episodes without commercial interruption on a continuous self-propelling and repetitive loop, and by so doing turn Ralph Kramden into an actual human being. Why The Honeymooners? Feels wrong for 20-somethings in this day and age. (And Charlie's Angels, Three's Company, Herb Tarlek.)

Casi had a black and white set (p 51). (I remember Grape Ape, by name anyway, but I've never heard of Magilla Gorilla.) That puts him in my generation, maybe a couple years younger than me. So if he's 24, the novel is set in the early/mid-90s? Mention of e-campus puts it a couple years later, maybe? [Later... Alana remembers the record player, and has a 50-disc CD player (p 129). Someone mentions Spandau Ballet (p 177).] Oh, I get it — it's contemporary with about the time De La Pava would've started working on this novel.

Chapter 3, the office. Casi is "almost tragically late," and the morning I read this I am myself already tragically late, so whatthehell I stop for a leisurely coffee on my way into work and read some more. Casi learns he messed up with Ah Chut (p 73).

I stared at the jacket and just like that wanted be Leon Greene, Esq. I wanted those life moments of highest suspense and relevance to be in my immutable past. Wanted to have been at that desk for thirty-five years and not find the slightest thing wrong with that. And in those years would not once have worn casual clothes to work even if I wasn't going to court or meeting one of my clients, all of whom incidentally I would give the benefit of the doubt despite decades of empirical opposition, and in all that time I would never have raised my voice or used salty language at the office either. And I would bring that quiet dignity to the office every day without fail by the sharpest eight-thirty and would remove it no later than four-thirty, with the same forty-five minutes excluded for the lunch Helen would pack, and allow myself only one glass of wine a night with my light dinner five-thirty and maybe trade some words about our kids and their kids and draw steadily increasing paychecks and save for retirement and talk about pensions and never produce any evidence of having noticed that every square inch of the third inhabitant of that square, one Julia Ellis, was skin-raisingly gorgeous and at precisely that moment I realized I no longer wanted to be Leon. [p 64]

Chapter 4, no one grabs the shooter (p 106), no one minds the purse snatcher (p 108).

Chapter 5, family. Alana. I start to think about this as a book about Beethoven.

Chapter 3x2x1 (it's a perfect number!) features the neighbours again, discussion about the Second Coming, would Jesus use Television as a medium, Pascal's Wager.

Chapter 7 starts with the courtroom underwear anecdote, and, well, maybe cuz I'm a girl, but was that really necessary? Then there's the guy with the third ear, Richard Hurd (get it?) — now that's got to be a metaphor or something... Over lunch, Dane explains to Casi the War on Drugs, and now he really starts to pick at our morality and our sense of justice. Dane leads us, via perfect numbers and Pythagoras, through the concept of perfection and his attempt to achieve perfect legal representation.

Casi keeps trying to interrupt Dane to ask how he knows he's Colombian. For some reason I find this very funny.

Chapter 8, a blind date, preceded by a lot of daydreaming:

But why limit myself? Forget those puny living types, I could have dinner with fucking Beethoven! Ludwig van Beethoven my friend. I would ask him about Antonie Brentano, what went down there. Then I would say, between the appetizers and the main course, something like my sister Alana contends you didn't really create music. Particularly with the late string quartets, she says, there's no way any mere human could have created that stuff. Instead what you did was more like discover notes that had already been celestially arranged to optimal psyche-rattling effect. In other words, your function was not unlike that of a receiver picking up radio waves that could never be heard with the naked ear. Which theory, I would say, would seem to be belied by the apparent painstaking manner of your compositional process. What say you Lud? [p 217]

And there's the question again: How can you represent someone you know is guilty?

Chapter 9 brings the case of Ramon DeLeon, and it's clear when he meets with the DA and others that Casi is (and knows himself to be) the smartest guy in the room. I guess this quality was always there but slightly obscured by smart-assery and/or not entirely giving a shit, but now it's evident. And he gets to thinking what if a truly talented person focused his efforts on the sort of scheme DeLeon has in mind.

Also, there's some announcement with respect to the Human Genome Project, which should dat the events of the novel to 2000, but it's winter in the book, and I don't see a date matching up. And here comes this spectacular digression on being liberated from one's genes, no longer being told what to do, and being able to create superhumans

Chapter 10's a bit weird, the bridge, Uncle Sam and the chimp, and the Kramdens get a new neighbour. We hear a bit more about the appeal for Jalen Kingg who's due to be executed. "It was no longer a matter of choice or free will once the candy appeared. We were dealing with a genetic makeup, namely mine, that was incapable of dealing with matters of this nature. (p 262)" And there follows the story of the rainbow candy, which is really, really sad.

But mainly it's about the Hurtado case, how he won't take 2 to 4, over the 3 and a half to 7. But Hurtado wants to fight it, and Casi can't sleep, and it's like he's caught a bug, some inspiration to win this case, and he's being very clever but "I should have been kissing her ass from the outset." "Why didn't you?" "I don't know, genetics?" (p 262) and meanwhile Dane is tugging at the desire, need to achieve perfection in the form of a crime, whose monetary value keeps increasing from paragraph to paragraph. Casi loses the case. The effect of which is chapter 11, in which Casi says yes to Dane's scheme.


Some stylistic quirks I was having a hard time getting over:
- "my" for "am I" — why not " 'm I" or even " 'mI" if you want to get the full slurry rushedness of it?
- d'know for don't know — what's wrong with the conventional dunno?
- the lack of commas, particularly in the vicinity of names when people are being addressed — I've encountered several garden path structures, where a name could be taken for the object of what's going on in the sentence rather than being immediately understood as being used in a vocative sense

Given that this novel was originally self-published, I'm not surprised that there should be copyediting-type glitches of this sort, and apart from the above-mentioned deviations from established convention the writing is otherwise fluid and clear. Not sure if there is less of this as the novel goes on, or if I'm just getting used to it.

  • ears — Casi's ear pain, the man with the third ear, hearing above the din, auditory hallucinations; Beethoven's deafness; possibly related, niece Mary refuses to speak
  • genetics, DNA, the Human Genome Project — lot of little throwaway mentions (e.g., in conversation with his sister, wrt id-ing people, a stamp of who you are, why'd you do it, see mentions above
  • Beethoven
  • genius — the nature of; Eddie van Halen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Wilfred Benitez, all gifted and accomplished at a younger age than Casi (p 61); Mozart, Eistein, Pascal, Nietzsche, Wagner (p 209)
  • perfection — the perfect chess opening: "Sixteen hundred years they been playing this game and it took a homeless brother in the park to come up with the perfect opening." (p 23); extreme beauty (p 91); perfect attendance (p 92); the perfect crime (p 93); mathematical, but also the perfect crime. Practice (p 45) makes perfect?

Monday, June 18, 2012

That's the din

I read somewhere that the music I like now is the music I'll like for the rest of my life. My fucking brain or something like that won't find new kinds of music pleasurable from about this point on. What the hell is that? Good thing I like this music. C'mon youth wasn't carefree it was intense and intense is good. It's like this house. I never want to come here but when I do I end up liking it. Just to see everything through that prism again you know? A happy youth I must have had overall. Or was I miserable but with a poor memory? Oh whatever. Remember that old record player in the lime green case, the one with the detachable knobs? I saw it in the garage the other day. In the garage Casi! I put it on and it worked. I mean I didn't have any records to really test it but it was spinning and that was amazing enough for me. I remember the oldsters would start in with the endless clave patterns and you and I would reach for that thing in protest. Then up to your room for a little Reader's Digest Edition of the LVB piano sonatas, remember thinking RD was like good? And remember we would limit ourselves to the pre-Heiligenstadt Testament ones to exclude our runaway favorite, the cataclysmic Appasionata, with you being definitely partial to the Opus 28 Pastorale because it was supposedly after this one that he told Krumholz he would be taking a new path and me arguing that those kinds of ancillary matters were not fairly considerable and that sometimes, just occasionally, overwhelming popularity is warranted and that the second 27, The Moonlight, with its initial melancholia was the greater work? Remember that? Well if you listen to them now I bet you'll be sent up to that room whether you're willing or not. And if you listen the right way then you're forced to actually be that person. Isn't that just the height of weirdness? That's what this house is, a giant green record player with detachable knobs, which is usually fine but can sometimes be opposite. Sometimes it can be the realization that images seem blurrier now, sounds more muffled, and yet somehow we're inappositely picking up speed. We're picking up speed and you and I have been thrown out of the kitchen where we used to make ice cream floats, armed solely with ATM cards that have our pictures on them and a little bar graph in the corner that's somehow linked to our fingerprints but only until they get the DNA coding capability fully functional and maybe your green record player does still technically work but not really and don't pay it any mind regardless because I have a fifty disc CD player that positively compels neighbors to call the police and blast it anyway so that when the opening movement of the C minor Symphony nears its close at allegro con brio tempo I swear Casi that the sky is going to literally open up and forget all of Ludwig's later Ode to Joy crap because now it's God — for want of a better word — surveying the broken to regretfully diagnose a violent remedy then reaching down and doing something about this mess, no longer content to just watch, and you were right about Lincoln Center that time because yet it was great and how could it fail to be but it does have to be louder, or more accurately we needed more money to get closer and make it louder, loud enough that the notes come straight from heaven, replace your bone marrow and you start to question yourself as a physical being and I think the more time passes the louder and louder it will have to be in order to be heard above the din . . . hear that? That's the din."

— from A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

Two things I love about this passage:

How a trigger, in this case an auditory one, can take you back, to be a person you once were. Only it feels here, in its intensity and in the context of the big Honeymooners thought experiment that we're following throughout the novel as a backdrop to this, more like actual time travel, that a loop can make it real.

Beethoven and the sky opening up. Cuz I love Beethoven (and in particular the late quartets, which get mentioned later in the book), and I think De La Pava must too to be able to write about it this way, and that's how it feels to me — like the sky is opening up.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hold it tightly by its little tentacle

"I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy."

"Cherish it!" cried Hilarius, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be."

For a few weeks now I've been scouring local bookstores for a copy of The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. I have some Pynchon on my shelf that I mean to get to some day, but now, now! — since that episode of Mad Men with Pete Campbell on the train reading The Crying of Lot 49 — I have to read that Pynchon first, and now.

Were it available as an ebook, I'd have downloaded it by the time that episode's final credits had finished rolling.

By an amazing coincidence, the day I've coordinated my schedule to make a lunch-hour trip to a particular bookstore on which I'm betting to have an actual physical copy is the day I receive news that Penguin has struck a deal with Pynchon, and his books are available digitally as of today.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Mad Men effect played a role in nudging both parties to reach an agreement.

See also: Why the Hell is Peter Campbell Reading The Crying of Lot 49?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The detective counterquestion

You should know, there's a right moment for everything. For plants, when to plant them, when to water them, when to harvest them; for animals, when to feed them, when to milk them, when to slaughter them; for children, when to make them, when to nurse them, when to kick them out on their own; for fingernails, when to cut them, when to file them, when to polish them; and hair, too, very important. But only a very few know how important the right moment is for the detective counterquestion.

— from Brenner and God, by Wolf Haas.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Books as art

True to form, I've been meaning to see a particular art exhibit for weeks, but I've been putting it off or forgetting, until now, just days before it closes.

Judging Books by Their Covers, is on at the SBC Galerie D'Art Contemporain, April 14 – June 9, 2012, and was presented as part of this year's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

I convinced a coworker to make the trek with me on our lunch hour yesterday — a 20-minute walk each way, and about 20 minutes to explore art in the 2-room gallery.

(We peeked into another gallery on our way out. Frankly, I find this building amazing — the lobby board listed at least a dozen galleries, all housed in this old building with the slowest elevator in the world. Seriously sssoooo slow, you'd have time for a quickie between floors. Did I just say that out loud? From top to bottom, or vice versa, you could perform a whole wardrobe change plus, and emerge an entirely different person. But I'm glad to have discovered this place, for the art I mean.)

I expected a show of actual book covers, à la Chip Kidd, or whoever, but that's not what this is. The concept of this exhibition relates more to the ability of a book cover to draw you in, through words, images, colour, texture. These are recontextualized books as objects.

The works by the five artists represented in this show could be described as bold, intricate, feminist, objectifying, irreverent, or political. The review in the Belgo Report has more details. I found them curious and interesting.

Whatever I do or don't get about art, this exhibition is a great conversation starter — about what books you have or haven't read, how you arrange them, whether these books are real or made up, how touchable these books look, and in particular with Hans-Peter Feldman's five-panel work of black and white photographs how much you want to pull those books off their shelves, turn them over, flip them open.

As much as I love my e-reader (for its portability, searchability, etc) and the e-communities that talk about books, I don't buy all this crap about technology making reading social. An e-reader lying on a coffee table is little more than a gadget, compelling no one to ask about or explore what's inside (except at a most factual or technical level). But print books, stacked on desk corners, splayed open on armchairs, scattered around a house — these are social catalysts into the minds of the flesh-and-blood people you live with. Even though this exhibit features mere pictures of books, it drives home the point that nothing quite compares with actual, physical, printed books.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The thing coming after the final straw

Still at the precinct, you are printed, each of your fingers rolled in black ink then onto vestal white paper. The resulting bar code is sent to Albany for the purpose of producing a rap sheet, an accordiony collection of onion paper that means everything where you are. It means everything because sentencing like Physics and other sciences builds on what came before so that the worse your past was, the worse your present will be, and no sane person doubts the rap sheet's depiction of the past since it's based on unalterable fingerprints and not relative ephemera like names or social security numbers. I say no sane person because when once confronted by an individual who steadfastly claimed not to recall in the slightest what I deemed to be a highly memorable conviction on his sheet and one that substantially increased his exposure, I asked him if he planned to launch a Lockean defense whereby he could not be held responsible for something he didn't remember as such act was not properly attributable to his personal identity at which point he gave me the blankest of stares in response then started saying increasingly odd things in rapid succession until I realized that he not only sort of knew what I was talking about, which was weird enough, but that he was undeniably insane and my ill-advised Locke reference was like the thing coming after the final straw to tip him over the Axis-II-Cluster-A edge, as it were, so that I thenceforth stopped doing things like that.

— from A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava.

A Naked Singularity is this summer's Big Read at Conversational Reading (see schedule). I've been having a hard time not opening it over the last month, and now I'm having a hard time holding back so I don't get too far ahead of the scheduled discussion. So far, so excellent.

A kind of reader's guide
Publication history

Monday, June 04, 2012

A slightly manic thrill

I read The Bellwether Revivals ages ago, but it occurs to me that I never said as much about it as I meant to. In truth, a few months on, I don't remember its details. However, I remember loving it.

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood, is the sort of book you want to stumble upon some rainy weekend and stay up all night reading. It may not be a literary classic, but the atmosphere is rich, the ideas provocative, and the pacing is perfect.

From the publisher's description:

The Bellwether Revivals opens and closes with bodies. The story of whose bodies and how they come to be spread about an elegant house on the river near Cambridge is told by Oscar, a young, bright working class man who has fallen in love with an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris, and thereby become entangled with a group of close friends, led by Iris's charismatic, brilliant, possibly dangerous brother. For Eden Bellwether believes he can heal — and perhaps more — through the power of music.

It's clear early on not only that Eden is a condescending little prick but that he is likely diagnosably personality disordered. He's musically talented, and generally intelligent, and he's hung up on Descartes's mind–body dualism.

"Well, let's extend that line of enquiry..." Eden sipped his wine. "If I told you there is music that makes you happy, and some that makes you sad, you wouldn't disagree with me, right?

Oscar shrugged. "I suppose not."

"Well, Mattheson believed — and I believe — that composers have the power to affect and manipulate your emotions, your passions, as Descartes put it. When they're writing music, they have the potential to make you feel whatever they want you to feel. Sort of like a chemistry experiment: if certain elements are put together in a certain formula you get a certain reaction. Would you say that's a big leap to make?"

"I don't know," Oscar said. "Maybe."

"Well, Descartes didn't think so. He said even those with the weakest souls can acquire an absolute command of their emotions, if — and I quote — if art and industry are used to manage them. And Mattheson believed the same thing. He said that, in some structural way, music and emotions resemble each other. The man was a genius, and I don't use that word lightly." Eden waited. There was a glimmer of something in his expression that made Oscar feel uneasy, a slightly manic thrill in commanding the whole group's attention. "Mattheson took Descartes's ideas and applied them to music. In Capellmeister, he basically lays down a set of instructions for composers, to show them how to induce certain emotions through their work — to achieve that empire over the passions Descartes was talking about."

Maybe Eden's really onto something, but as the story unfolds we learn that he is extreme, persistent, megalomaniacal, and severely deluded.

Wood orders his elements well enough. Many of the reviews criticize the stilted dialogue and the lack of depth to his characters. Specifically, Eden's hold as charismatic leader of the group of friends is called into question; this doesn't bother me, as the reader's access to the group is limited to Oscar's outsider perspective. For me the draw of the ideas and the pull of the story made for a highly engaging read.

My shelf space is limited. I weed my books semi-regularly (every year or so), and I'm much quicker to part with books than ever I used to be. These days, when I finish a book I ask myself, am I likely to want to reread this book, or is it a book I'd like my daughter to "discover" on my shelves. If the answer to these questions is no, I give the book away. I consciously kept The Bellwether Revivals, for myself or my daughter or guests to find some rainy eve in the distant future. To me this is a fine and sufficient measure of a book.

Globe and Mail
Kevin from Canada
National Post

Sunday, June 03, 2012

An open city

I really wanted to like Open City, by Teju Cole. The more I read about it during this year's Tournament of Books, the more I wanted to read it for myself. I even began cheering for it, and even though it lost the championship round, when next I passed through a bookstore and saw it, I had to have it. (Also, I think the cover is gorgeous!)

I was drawn in by its meandering approach. I thought, this is a novel I could write. I walk around my city and think about stuff all the time. The narrator wanders and drops into places and thinks. I didn't think that counted among major publishers as a novel these days. I could do that.

There are things I don't really like about Julius. He's a little self-righteous. He saves lives, he reminds us. He's a little too well read with too much cultured leisure for someone in their final year of residency. Pretentious (the character, the author, the book? — I'm not sure).

Despite his supposed worldliness, Julius (born and raised in Nigeria, a German mother — we never know why they are estranged) is very much American. When he visits Belgium, "I felt suddenly, an irrational shame at speaking French badly and Flemish not at all." This statement rankles. One should feel shame in this situation, it's most rational, isn't it? So I think it's at this point that my feelings about Julius, and the novel, coalesce into something more negative.

(And why does he always refer to his friend as "my friend"? Why is his friend the only character without a name? Is it the same friend thoughout?)

This review in the Guardian comes closest to expressing my distaste for Julius:

Part of the delight of Cole's book is how it exploits refinement until Julius reveals himself as a poseur through intellectual over-reaching, disclosing an irony for which readers may not be prepared. One instance of this comes when Chinese musicians in a park remind him "of Li Po and Wang Wei, of Harry Partch's pitch-bending songs, and of Judith Weir's opera The Consolations of Scholarship".

How to read Open City is obliquely signalled by these pretentious pratfalls. In the notes of the trumpet of another Chinese band, Julius hears the "spiritual cousins of the offstage clarion in Mahler's Second Symphony". I'm not a musician, but I suspect that's twaddle. But when he hears, in the same tune, the "simple sincerity of songs I had last sung in the school yard of the Nigerian Military School", and is returned, trembling, to a state of childhood innocence, the observation has the force of something genuine. The little emotional space to which no one else in the city is likely to have access is much more important than the public-facing attitudes of the cultural dandy.

I don't generally judge books, or movies, etc, by the virtues of their characters — I love a good antihero — but in this case, there's little more to the story than what Julius thinks about a broad range of topics. Nothing to hang it all together.

My final verdict: overrated. But. While I don't see myself pressing Open City into people's hands, I do wish there'd been people reading along with me. I'm not very interested in what people think of Julius, or his experiences. More interesting are the people he encounters, their hard experiences, and his tangents of thought (is this the point of the book? that Julius is in many ways, after all, immigrant status aside, privileged or lucky? that this earns him the right to be condescending and this is the controversial point on which the "story" hinges? his self-centredness?). I see this novel as a great springboard for other discussions, to talk about, for example, Idi Amin, or reverse racism, Zionism, Sharia, or immigration, or our relationships with our neighbours, or taxicab etiquette. In many ways it's a worthwhile book, for what it inspires me to think about, but not as a novel.

One might assume the title to be referring to New York, but it's Brussels that during WWII explicitly declared itself an open city to be spared bombardment. To be an open city reeks of defeat, surrender, hypocrisy, even collusion, and I realize now maybe that's what this post-9/11 novel is about.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The house of ideas

"How rude of me not to introduce myself," the lizard who had been doing all the talking said. "I am Reynold and these are my friends, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, Reynold, and Reynold."

"Is everybody here called Reynold?" I asked.

"Of course not," Reynold said. "That would be ridiculous. There are lizards named Raymond and Helena and a lot of things."

There are times I feel pretty ripped off about my childhood, my youth. Not that I had a tragic upbringing or anything, but sometimes it seems to me that it was somewhat confined, limited. Like how come I never got to read Lizard Music as a kid?

I've been hearing great things about Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater, over the last several years and particularly since it's been reissued in The New York Review Books Children's Collection. So I picked up a copy for Helena (my 9-year-old daughter, not a lizard) last Christmas.

She hasn't read it yet. I had started to read it aloud one evening this winter, but I got a little uncomfortable at the bit where 11-year-old Victor is trying his mom's cigarettes, and I thought I should read ahead on my own to see what we were in store for.

This book is very cool. A whole lizard society just beyond our reach!

Victor's parents are away on vacation, and Victor's big sister goes off with her friends, so that leaves Victor all alone, building model airplanes and watching late night TV. After the movie, the lizard band comes on. A bunch of weird things happen in the next couple days—Victor meets the Chicken Man and his chicken Claudia whom he keeps on his head under his hat—and most of the weird things have to do with lizards, and so Victor undertakes an investigation.

The book is a little dated in terms of the references to Walter Cronkite (Victor's obsession with him is shared by the lizards). Also the television world of the 70s included poor reception, snow, stations going off the air at a certain hour, and late night programming, all of which may feel a bit ancient to a culture where you can watch SpongeBob SquarePants on demand.

I think Helena will love it, eventually, when I manage to convince her to give it a try (she's just not the reader I was at her age). I know she can really get behind concepts like pod people and invisible islands.

The House of Ideas was a big empty building with nothing in it. It had no windows and only one door. Outside the door a lizard sat at a small desk. On the desk was a little wooden box. If a lizard had an idea, he could go to the House of Ideas and give an Agama Dollar to the lizard at the desk. Then the lizard at the desk would unlock the door for the lizard with the idea, who would slip inside and shout his idea. For example, a lizard might get the idea that lizards should not give advice to their friends unless they were asked for it. He would go to the House of Ideas, pay one Agama Dollar, and shout, "Lizards should not give advice to their friends unless the friends ask for it." Then the lizard at the desk would lock the door, and the lizard who had the idea would go away satisfied.

"In this way," Reynold explained, "we have collected and kept safe all our ideas for generations."

"You mean that you think all those ideas are still in there?" I asked.

"Of course," Reynold said. "How are they going to get out?" This struck me as a little dumb, but it didn't seem polite to say anything about it.

You can listen to Lizard Music, read by the author, at the Pinkwater Podcast and Audio Archive (files are available under a Creative Commons license).

Neeble neeble neeble.