Sunday, September 30, 2012

3 nonbook but bookish things

(Or, a birthday wishlist.)

For my legs: Love text, tights by Zohara.

For my walls: 100 book covers to fight illiteracy.

100 artists from 28 countries designed a poster-sized cover for a book from The Observer's "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Times." (Set aside the anglocentricity of the list and any debate over which great novels were overloooked.) Many striking designs arose from the challenge, but I find many of the artist explanations weak.

Some concepts I admire: Nostromo, Charlotte's Web, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. But the one I can picture on my wall is the one pictured here.

For each poster sold, 5 euro is donated to UNESCO projects fighting illiteracy in Africa.

For my laptop: Typewriter sleeve.

Friday, September 28, 2012

It ain't like that

I am a very recent convert to and addict of The Wire. Finishing up season 1 this weekend.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The world of adults

At the time Lola was twenty-two, and she was strong-willed and smart, up to a point, of course, because if she'd been really smart, she wouldn't have gotten involved with me. She was fun, but responsible too, and she had an amazing gift for happiness. I don't think we were too bad for each other. We got on well, we started going out, and after a few months we got married. We had a child, and when the boy was two years old, we got divorced. She introduced me to the world of adults, although I only realized that after we split up. With Lola, I was an adult, living among adults; I had adult problems and desires, and reacted like an adult; even the reasons for our separation were unambiguously adult. The aftermath was long and sometimes painful, but the upside was that is brought a degree of uncertainty back into my life, which what I had really been missing.

— from The Skating Rink, by Roberto Bolaño.

Monday, September 24, 2012

This is a secret

[I am writing this after the household has fallen asleep.]

Clare: This is a secret: sometimes I am glad when Henry is gone. Sometimes I enjoy being alone. Sometimes I walk through the house late at night and I shiver with the pleasure of not talking, not touching, just walking, or sitting, or taking a bath. Sometimes I lie on the living room floor and Listen to Fleetwood Mac, the Bangles, the B-53's, the Eagles, bands Henry can't stand. Sometimes I go for long walks with Alba and I don't leave a note saying where I am. Sometimes I meet Celia for coffee, and we talk about Henry, and Ingrid, and whoever Celia's seeing that week. Sometimes I hang out with Charisse and Gomez, and we don't talk abut Henry, and we manage to enjoy ourselves. Once I went to Michigan and when I came back Henry was still gone and I never told him I had been anywhere. Sometimes I get a baby-sitter and I go to the movies or I ride may my bicycle after dark along the bike path by Montrose beach with no lights; it's like flying.

Sometimes I am glad when Henry's gone, but I'm always glad when he comes back.

I must be the last person on the planet to have read Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. A friend had been pressing it on me, loaned me her copy, and I've kept it on standby for months. Being that I'd just read a story that featured a time-traveler's knowledge of the future in all its free-will-versus-determinism glory, now seemed like the right time.

Best book ever? I'll have to tell my friend, No. But very charming, and worth reading. I'm a little puzzled actually, because this friend loves science fiction and disdains romance; this novel, however, has just a hint of sf in its premise, which is mostly incidental to a first-class love story.

It does remind of a few books that I do love, namely, The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers (for the tone, the character interaction) and What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (for what it says about absence being fully present). Also, the several quotes from A.S. Byatt's Possession has me thinking about rereading that book.

Part of me simply wants to find flaws in this book that seems to be everybody's darling. Clare's too perfect (her loving The Eagles, a definite flaw, seems out of character). The amount of sex this couple has is unrealistic. The lottery didn't seem fair. Some passages tried too hard to be poetic. But who am I kidding? I was late for work one day last week cuz I just had to read to the end of the chapter, and I spent a good chunk of Saturday teary-eyed as I finished it off.

Henry: [...] Running is many things to me: survival, calmness, euphoria, solitude. It is proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to contol my movement through space if not time and the obedience, however temporary, of my body to my will. As I run I dispace air, and things come and go around me, and the path moves like a filmstrip beneath my feet. I remember, as a child, long before video games and the Web, threading filmstrips into the dinky projector in the school library and peering into them, turning the knob that advanced the frame at the sound of a beep. I don't remember anymore what they looked like, what they were about, but I remember the smell of the library, and the way the beep made me jump every time. I'm flying now, that golden feeling, as if I could run right into the air, and I'm invincible, nothing can stop me, nothing can stop me, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing — .

This same friend who loaned me The Time Traveler's Wife wonders if I've read other books that jump around in the chronology, books with a nonlinear narrative structure. Of course I have, I thought, but titles fail me, and my bookshelves are staring me down. Possibly The English Patient, but I don't have a copy on hand to check. Can you think of others?

Friday, September 21, 2012

The last day of summer

This songworm crawls into my ear every year at this time. Kirsty MacColl, The Last Day of Summer.

I think I dropped my guard that time
I was flesh and blood and grit and slime
And I think I may have lost my mind
On the last day of summer
I think I fell in love back there
It was tooth and nail it was bones and hair
And you'll never never know how much I cared
On the last day of summer

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The systematic encouragement of subversiveness

Other people have already reviewed Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age better than I could.

While I love big ideas and big words — and Stephenson uses both, in spades — that sort of book demands a certain attention, a time and a place, to be appreciated. I had a rocky start with the novel, but it won me over finally. Some plottings, sadly, get glossed over, or are plain forgotten, and the ending's a bit crap, but I loved it all the same.

Here are some bits that I took note of, for their humour or insight.

On children:
Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would be called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness.

On cultural differences:
Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possible be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultured thrived and expanded while other failed It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

On transcendence:
Hackworth had made efforts to learn a few Chinese characters and to acquaint himself with some basics of their intellectual system, but in general, he liked his transcendence out in plain sight were he could keep an eye on it — say, in a nice stained-glass window — not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.

On the collapse of nation-states:
The media net was designed from the ground up to provide privacy and security, so that people could use it to transfer money That's one reason the nation-states collapsed — as soon as the media grid was up and running, financial transactions could no longer be monitored by governments, and the tax collections systems got fubared. So if the old IRS, for example, wasn't able to trace these messages, then there's no way that you'll be able to track down Princess Nell."

On subversiveness:
"It wouldn't work," Finkle-McGraw said. "I've been thinking about this for years. I had the same idea: Set up a sort of young artistic bohemian theme park, sprinkled around in all the major cities, where young New Atlantans who were so inclined could congregate and be subversive when they were in the mood. The whole idea was self-contradictory. Mr. Hollywood, I have devoted much effort, during the last decade or so, to the systematic encouragement of subversiveness."

On stories:
"We change the script a little," Madame Ping said, "to allow for cultural differences. But the story never changes. There are many people and many tribes, but only so many stories."

On diplomacy, or something:
"Yo! Aren't you going to invite the King of the Reptiles?"

They looked at me like I was crazy.

"Reptiles are obsolete," said the King of the Shrews.

"Reptiles are just retarded birds," said the King of the Birds, "and so I am your King, thank you very much."

"There's only zero of you," said the Queen of the Ants. In ant arithmetic, there are only two numbers: Zero, which means anything less than a million, and Some. "You can't cooperate, so even if you were King, the title would be meaningless."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

That least predictable of entities

When his ship finally settled it was an hour before dawn, the safe hour, the time when most creatures, no matter what planet spawned them, are least alert. Or so his father had told him before he left Earth. Invading before dawn was part of the lore of Earth, hard-won knowledge directed solely toward survival on alien planets.

"But all this knowledge is fallible," his father had reminded him. "For it deals with that least predictable of entities, intelligent life." The old man had nodded sententiously as he made that statement.

"Remember, my boy," the old man went on, "you can outwit a meteor, predict an ice age, outguess a nova. But what, truthfully, can you know about those baffling and constantly changing entities who are possessed of intelligence?"

— from "Dawn Invader," in Store of the Worlds, by Robert Sheckley.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hope in hopelessness

Maybe because I don't care for Mahler.

The Lost Prince, by Selden Edwards, has a romantic and time-travelly premise, but I never fully engaged with it. It is the sequel to The Little Book, which I haven't read and don't feel compelled to.

The Lost Prince starts in Boston, in 1898. Eleanor Putnam has returned from Vienna with lovely reminiscences and remarkable knowledge. She brings a manuscript she has written about Vienna's musical life; a jewel that will serve her in making her fortune; and a journal that outlines her future. Eleanor in essence leads a secret life, putting in motion events she knows must come to pass.

Spanning 20 years, the book is peopled by William James, Gustav Mahler, JP Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung. Eleanor sings Mahler's praises, so early in the reading of this novel I was inspired to put some on. And I was reminded that I don't really care for Mahler. Too watery. Too florid.

The narration mostly has the tone of a biographical account. There is detachment, but also a sense that the narrator is judging characters in light of how the narrator knows the story to turn out. It's an interesting angle that mirrors how the characters are burdened with their own foreknowledge, but it's to the detriment of forming trust with and extracting sympathy from the reader.

A lot of information is divulged only as its required, as if the narrator suddenly remembered that it might be useful for the reader to know something even though it occurred 14 years previously and there's been no mention of it till now. And as often occurs in biographies, when the "story" shifts to cover another aspect or character, some information is repeated, either to remind the reader or to reconsider it in a new light.

The title was a bit of a mystery to me. It's about halfway through the novel that it becomes clear to whom the title is referring, and only near the end that the title is explained (and it's not relevant at all). I feel the story lacks focus and takes a long time to decide what it wants to be about.

A good chunk of the ssecond half of the novel covers the devastation of the first World War, in the form of letters from the front and later in Eleanor's search of the hospitals and wards that house the unfortunates, unknown and unclaimed.

"There is a great deal of hope within the hopelessness of your mission. There are thousands of unidentified and unaccounted-for soldiers in the aftermath of this horrible war. The odds are on your side."

This novel is about 200 pages too long. The war sections contribute little to the plot; while the repetition of the horrors might work to great literary effect when used by some writers, here it's at cross-purposes with the biographical tone, and so it managed only to bore me. The text is very repetitive, to the point that I felt no guilt in skimming for several pages at a time.

Yet. The Lost Prince has a great number of interesting threads to pull on. The exercise of free will in order to attain that which is predestined. How the present, and even the future, informs our past. Jung's collective unconscious, and how our dreams can inform our waking life.

I know little of William James, and what I know of Freud and Jung is mostly learned from popular culture. I'd be curious to know how well their ideas are represented by Edwards. I wish Edwards had spent more energy on these men and their ideas than on the eponymous subject.

Monday, September 10, 2012

To be someone else

And why would you start writing again?

There are things we do without any reason of for the most trivial of reasons, I said: going out and walking along the road during the rush hour and looking at people in their cars; showing up in midafternoon at the box office of a movie theater or browsing in bookshops or sitting on a balcony watching people on their way home, and repeating to yourself in you mind, why am I doing all this? why today did I walk to a bookshop or go to a movie theater and just as I got to the door decide not to go in? We do thing that have no meaning or only acquire meaning over time, perhaps because deep down we want to change our lives at the last moment, when everything appears fixed, like those roulette players who one second before the close of bets nervously shift a tower of chips, from one number to another, and then bite their fingers; because we're searching for some kind of intense experience, or because we want to be someone else, yes, to be someone else, there you have your answer: I write to be someone else.

I think that's the passage that made me love this book, Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa. At least, it's one that made me understand that I already did, and why. Maybe these questions are obvious to most people, but I find comfort and reassurance in hearing them voiced. It's why we write, but it's why we read too.

[Y]ou know, there's a sentence in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, which says: "Man is a fickle creature of doubtful reputation, and perhaps, like a chess player, he is more interested in the process of reaching his objective than in the the objective itself," I don't know if you remember it . . . I shook my head and Supervielle continued: that's what we were discussing, my friend, that simple yet profound way of reading experience, what drives a person to make one decision and not another at a specific moment? to get off a train, get on a boat, cross the street? What there is at the end of a life is irrelevant, it isn't the result that makes a life exceptional, but the path trodden, am I being excessively obscure? There are great lives that don't get anywhere, but what does it matter? That's not a paradox.

These are the questions that Simenon asks and which his characters answer in unconventional and often unacceptable ways — it's what draws me to him. Gamboa asks them in a context that's more intellectual and emotionally safer. Our narrator is attending the International Conference on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem.

Part 1 concerns the narrator's invitation to the conference, his journey there, and some of the goings on in and around the conference setting over its first days. This is interspersed with portions of one lengthy presentation at said conference, the story of Walter de la Salle, an evangelical pastor and founder of the Ministry of Mercy, told by José Maturana, ex-con and disciple, who is found dead in his hotel room a few hours after his presentation.

Part 2 gives us 3 more of the conference presentations: The story of two brilliant but "unambitious" chess players. The tale of a Colombian man hard done by and the revenge he exacts, this story bearing more than a little resemblance to The Count of Monte Cristo. And the porn actress's reminiscences.

Part 3 kind of disintegrates. There are story fragments, including a piece presented by the narrator as part of a roundtable discussion. But these stories are not fleshed out and we are distracted by the war raging through this city, the bombs that dirupt the conference proceedings. As one character puts it, "there are times when literature has to take a back seat."

There's something unsatisfying about the structure of this book. I found all of the stories and fragments compelling but felt real disappointment that they weren't given equal weight, that these stories were treated unfairly. (As opposed to say, Cloud Atlas, where the stories balance each other, at least by page count, although I didn't care for a couple of them at all.) There's no thread tying all the disparate stories together, apart perhaps from a tunnel motif (if you stretch some metaphors) and an appreciation for chicken sandwiches.

It's part of the point of the book, I think, that things unravel — the stories, the conference, life itself. Because while the stories may be fascinating, outside is real life. All the biographical accounts are embellished or borrowed or misremembered; distilled into a narrative, they are no longer real. And as in real life, some stories make headlines, and others do not get the attention they merit.

[I]t has happened too many times in the history of thought and culture that the genius of exceptional people is unrecognized because of the stupidity and limited vision of their contemporaries, but what can we do if we live surrounded idiots and simpletons?

It's not a conventional novel, but there's a lot for bibliophiles (of the sort who pack Zweig and Schulz on holiday) to latch onto.

Friday, September 07, 2012

An insane tree

Lucretia and the Kroons, by Victor Lavalle, is short (I read it over two evenings), intense, scary, sad, weird, and more than a little surprising.

[I'm not sure how I came to be reading this novella — I think I had the author mixed up with someone else. It turns out: I had not read anything by Victor Lavalle previously. But I will be sure to look up more of his books now.]

The story starts on Loochie's 12th birthday, and her best friend can't make the party because she's dying of cancer. (Had I known about this, I probably would not have picked up this book.) When Sunny gets out of the hospital, the girls plan a crazy afternoon to make up for lost time.

She was trembling again. She was used to climbing fire escapes, but hadn't ever scaled a tree. It didn't help that this was an insane tree in an insane woods in an insane park that had appeared — insanely — in this apartment.

These trees weren't at all like the ones she'd seen on trips to the Queens Botanical Garden or Flushing Meadows Park. These trees were like their demented cousins. They were so tall they seemed to run as high as her entire apartment building. Sixty feet straight up, that big. Their trunks were misshapen, bubbling out here and there in thick knots, and their outer barks gray and ashen, as if burned. In places the bark showed great tears and the inner bark was sickly white, the color of bones. She didn't want to climb this tree. She didn't even want to touch it. But then she heard the calls out in the meadow once again and she had no choice. She reached for the lowest branch of the nearest tree and climbed.

It's amazing what a person can do when her life depends on it.

That afternoon is a rollercoaster of a metaphor that veers off into unforeseen directions. Yes, Lucretia must come to terms with losing her best friend. But there's no maudlin sentimentality here. This is a horror story, with creatures lurking in shadows and worlds turned upside down. And then there's the ending, which churns everything over again.

I might compare it to Henry James's Turn of the Screw insofar as it's not clear whether events are occuring in an objective reality or inside someone's head, but Lucretia is decidedly modern and urban in feel. Also it's a little like Neil Gaiman's Coraline. At least, I felt a similar frisson reading Lucretia.

Your sense of creepiness may vary, but I highly recommend this story.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

This is the way our ancestors worked off their aggressions

But even the flightiest girl could not ignore Danton's lack. He was liable to weary after only a few hours of Mass Dancing, when the fun was just beginning. At Twelve-hand Bridge, Danton's attention frequently wandered and he would be forced to ask for a recount of the bidding, to the disgust of the other eleven players. And he was impossible at Subways.

He tried hard to master the spirit of that classic game. Locked arm in arm with his teammates, he would thrust forward into the subway car, trying to take possession before another team could storm in the opposite doors.

His group captain would shout, "Forward, men! We're taking this car to Rockaway!" And the opposing group captain would scream back, "Never! Rally, boys! It's Bronx Park or bust!"

Danton would struggle in he close-packed throng, a fixed smile on his face, worry lines etched around his mouth and eyes. His girlfriend of the moment would say, "What's wrong, Edward? Aren't you having fun?"

"Sure I am," Danton would reply, gasping for breath.

"But you aren't!" the girl would cry, perplexed. "Don't you realize, Edward, that this is the way our ancestors worked off their aggressions? Historians say the game of Subways averted an all-out hydrogen war. We have those same aggressions and we, too, must resolve them is a suitable social context."

"Yeah, I know," Edward Danton would say. "I really do enjoy this. I — oh. Lord!"

For at that moment, a third group would come pounding in, arms locked, chanting, "Canarsie, Canarsie, Canarsie!"

In that way, he would lose another girlfriend, for there was obviously no future in Danton. Lack of Fit can never be disguised.

— from "The Native Problem," in Store of the Worlds, by Robert Sheckley.

Ah, subways. And here I thought they were the source of my aggression.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Those baleful dusks

He continued to work with his Russian teacher, Andrescovich, but something had started to go wrong with the mechanism. The young Polish master stopped winning tournaments. Instead, he would always come second or third. These were anxious years, and the history of Poland, which had always been sad, seemed to be somehow embodied in this young man full of dreams. And what happens to young men like Ferenck, when they gain a certain fame and their personal lives get in a mess? They generally start to develop a weakness for hard liquor, which they justify by stress, or nerves, or those baleful dusks when the sky of Warsaw fills with a purple light, as if tongues of fire were swallowing the city and souls of its citizens, and then the glasses succeed one another on the bar counters, filled with transparent, highly concentrated liquids intended to counteract that complicated sense of abandonment in which the mind can find no rest, a glass, knocked back in one go, is followed by a second, then a third, and so Oslovski's hours started to darken and black clouds cover his soul, presaging bad weather.

— from Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa.

I like this passage because if references the history of Poland. I've known a few Polish souls, tormented poets (I call them "poets" in a poetic sense) who, it might be said, also embodied that anxious, desperate, tragic history. Maybe you have to be Polish, or know Polish history at least, to fully appreciate what this means. Or maybe one can say similar things about citizens of countries all over the world — embodying the histories of, say, Panama, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Portugal.

This excerpt comes from a story about two chess players, a Pole and a Swede, which story is being presented at a conference in Jerusalem on memory and biography attended by the narrator of Necropolis.

There are elements of Oslovski's biography (and here's one peeve: Ferenck Oslovski is not a very Polish name — the first name is near unpronounceable, and as for the surname, there's no "v" in the Polish alphabet) that remind me of Hans Reiter in 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, and this is one of the beauties of Necropolis — how it draws, often explicitly, on wide and varied sources.

The narrator recalls Stefan Zweig's Chess Story (or Royal Game, as it is sometimes known) as a point of reference, but while these chess players are also obsessed with the game (as it seems all decent players must be), they channel it, or sublimate it, into something altogether more reasonable — healthier, happier, wiser.

Coltodino drank his beer as he listened to them, and said, how is it that the two of you, who not only have a passion for chess, but also play it brilliantly, never wanted to take is farther? and Gunard said, there's too much pressure to deal with. Oslovski confirmed his friend's words, and added, what prize in the world is greater then [sic] this? Watching the sun set over the sea, playing with a friend, eating and drinking, eh? That's life, friend, what a privilege it is to be alive, would you like a sandwich?

Monday, September 03, 2012

La drôle d'aventure

I'm fixing supper when Helena taps me on the shoulder, "Just tell me I'm hired." "Hired for what?" "A job! Just hire me." "OK. You're hired." A few minutes later, Helena shows up for work the next morning. We are uncertain as to the precise nature of her job, but she settles into her workstation and asks where she can get a coffee. I bring her an iced chocolatte, "Don't get used to it." And it soon becomes clear that she's taking her new job, a writing gig, very seriously.

Here's part 1 of what I hope will be an ongoing serial from my blog writer intern.

La drôle d’aventure de Tommy

Il était une fois un petit garçon qui s’appelle Tommy. Il était très tannant à l’école. Aujourd’hui le 15 septembre, Tommy avait un examen de maths, mais… bien sûr Tommy n’a pas étudié. Le matin avant l’examen, dans la cour, tout les élèves de la classe de Tommy étaient très stressés de l’examen, à part Tommy qui… lui a pas trop d’interêt à faire du travail. Au retour de la récré, l’examen commence. Après deux ou trois minutes, Tommy lâche son crayon et relaxe comme si rien n’était. Tout le monde le regardait, et bien sûr son meilleur ami, Max, continue à faire son travail. Il savait que Tommy n’allait pas faire son travail. Comme d’habitude!!! Madame LaPoire, la prof, voit que Tommy fait encore des niaiseries. Elle le mets en retenue à la récré. Il est rentrée dans le local et il y a un monsieur assie à la table, Tommy le rejoint et lui aussi se met à la table. Le monsieur dit –Tu es le garçon parfait!– –Hein?! Je ne comprend rien!– Aussitôt, avant que Tommy n’ait fini sa phrase, il disparut! Il apparut sur une planète bizarre.

— from La drôle d’aventure de Tommy, by Helena Kratynski-Fournier (age 9).