Sunday, July 28, 2013

Only really remarkable people see the good in others

Clara saw what others couldn't. Like that little boy in The Sixth Sense, only instead of seeing ghosts, Clara saw good. Which was itself pretty scary. So much more comforting to see bad in others; gives us all sorts of excuses for our own bad behavior. But good? No, only really remarkable people see the good in others.

— from Dead Cold, by Louise Penny.

(I'm glad to say I know some truly remarkable people.)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My whole body impaled itself on a peculiar realization

Imagine a cheerful crowd of Leib Guard officers invading the imperial kitchens, holding the staff almost at gunpoint. Led, as ever, by Svetogorov, we descended into the basement, unlocked a door to a room, and flipped the lid of a chest to reveal layers of straw that covered perfectly preserved, huge slabs of ice. We whipped out our swords and attempted to hack at it, but the highest-grade imperial ice resisted splendidly. Then Svetogorov found an ice pic, and the next moment, shards of ice flew in all directions as if they were alive and trying to escape. My fellows frolicked after them, but I — I froze. One shard had lodged itself at my feet and lay there waiting. It glittered in the candlelight and it seemed to radiate confidence — a groomed, smooth, mature ice. It could have been old. As old as I. It could been the vary same ice from which Empress Anna's Ice Palace had been built. The ice my parents had lain on. Do they not say that ice has memory? Suddenly, it seemed as if my mind — no, my whole body impaled itself on a peculiar realization: if I picked it up, it would become one with me.

— from The Colors of Cold: A New Story from The Age of Ice, by J.M Sidorova.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summer, sloth, snow

"Summer is no fun without sloth," writes Charles Simic on The New York Review of Books blog. "Indolence requires patience — to lie in the sun, for instance, day after day — and I have none left."

While I have not been very present on this blog of late, it is not due to sloth. Sloth will have to wait a couple more days. I have patience left, just enough.


One of the hot books to watch for this month, according to io9 (although the commenters are a bit harsher in their assessment), is The Age of Ice, by J.M. Sidorova.

This bizarre historical novel involves a Russian empress who builds a palace out of ice blocks and forces a disgraced nobleman and a deformed female jester to "marry" there, giving birth to two princes — one of whom discovers later that he's immune to cold. The story of Prince Alexander spans two centuries and three continents, and includes a ton of famous historical figures.

So it's historical fiction, but with a fantasy twist.

There's Russia and there's snow, and these two things in combination call to me.

The Colors of Cold: A New Story from The Age of Ice is available as a free e-book. I snapped it up straight away and I enjoyed it (though I'm not entirely sold on reading a full-length novel in this vein). It definitely reads more like historical fiction than fantasy, but that's not a bad thing.

St. Petersburg in the 1760s was much different than it is now. It was a city cut out generously, for growth, and it had not yet filled its own interstitial spaces. It lay like a fanciful appliqué on the burlap of my country's reality.

The author, a biomedical research scientist, blogs about writing and science at Narratology.



I'm still reading Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. That is, I'd taken a break from it, but on vacation next week I mean to make headway through the second book.

I also picked up some lighter fare, perhaps more appropriate for poolside reading, Louise Penny's Dead Cold.

Ice, ice, cold. Do you see a trend? It's one way to escape the heat.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What is my life for

Crazy. This summer is crazy. Crazy heat, crazy rain. Crazy schedule. Crazy mother-in-law, ensuring our well-laid plans turn to dust.

One evening Helena hands me a sheet of paper. A drawing of a little girl, tears flying in all directions. The caption: I feel lonely and sad.

I flip the page over. It's just a sheet from the stack of paper, old printouts, set aside for recycling. But this is different. It's an excerpt from Sylvia Plath (her journals, material I'd collected for a literary salon). And Helena has crossed out almost all of the words.

...What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited. Yet I am not a cretin: Lame, blind and stupid. I am not a veteran, passing my legless, armless days in a wheelchair. I am not that mongoloidish old man shuffling out of the gates of the mental hospital. I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad. Perhaps you could trace my feeling back to my distant at having to choose between alternative. Perhaps that's why I want to be everyone – so no one can blame me for being I. So I won't have to take the responsibility for my own character development and philosophy. People are happy - - - if that means being content with your lot: feeling comfortable as the complacent round peg struggling in a round hole, with not awkward or painful edges – no spaces to wonder or question in. I am not content, because my lot is limiting, as are all others. People specialize; people become devoted to an idea; people "find themselves." But the very content that comes from finding yourself is overshadowed by the knowledge that by doing so you are admitting you are not only a grotesques, but a special kind of grotesque.

— from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Entry #46, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts (first year);
Journal July 1950 – July 1953.

I am momentarily freaked out, in a desperate, hysterical kind of way (on the inside).

But I choose now to see this exercise as evidence that my daughter knows the power of words, and knows also the power they have over me. Words as a means of expression. Words for effect.

And it's a lesson to remember that my daughter — smart and easy-going, a tough cookie and a good egg — is always a sensitive soul.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


"The vivid tulips eat my oxygen."

Sylvia Plath reads "Tulips." Recorded in 1961.

(Text and background at Brain Pickings.)


I brought home a bouquet of peonies last week,
deep raspberry pink, and I arranged them
in the living room, near the entranceway.
They are bombs exploding with perfume,
positively soporific.

Crossing the room or leaving the house
I feel like Dorothy in her opium field,
I just need to rest awhile.
(Though for some reason the cat is immune.)
Sweet relief, their exotic powers
are drying up now,
so I can wake up.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer reading

A round-up of summer reading lists and some thoughts about them:
What Does Your Summer Reading Say About You?
We can't say for sure that personality caused people's preferences for some kinds of recreational reading over others. In fact, the causal arrow may sometimes go the other way. Reading might not just reflect who you are, but also influence who you become.

Brooklyn beach reads:
10 Best Summer Books by Brooklyn Authors
at least partly related to or evocative of either the summer or heat or love or laughter or death or sex or the sort of false fecundity that this season offers.

This latter list makes mention of Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa" — which title reminds me of some women I used to know. I looked it up immediately.
A wall of books opened, and I walked like a lamb into that bustling pleasure palace known as Flossie's. Red flocked wallpaper and a Victorian decor set the tone. Pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses and blunt-cut hair lolled around on sofas, riffling Penguin Classics provocatively. A blonde with a big smile winked at me, nodded toward a room upstairs, and said, "Wallace Stevens, eh?" But it wasn't just intellectual experiences. They were peddling emotional ones, too. For fifty bucks, I learned, you could "relate without getting close." For a hundred, a girl would lend you her Bartok records, have dinner, and then let you watch while she had an anxiety attack. For one-fifty, you could listen to FM radio with twins. For three bills, you got the works: A thin Jewish brunette would pretend to pick you up at the Museum of Modern Art, let you read her master's, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Elaine's over Freud's conception of women, and then fake a suicide of your choosing — the perfect evening, for some guys. Nice racket. Great town, New York.


It would seem summer caught me offguard. I'm caught up in a couple long and demanding books that I don't seem to have time for.

I am still working through Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy, and I devote some occasional minutes to Jean-Marie Blas de Robles's Where Tigers Are at Home.

Books all around me, yet not one of them yet has declared itself the book of my summer. I leave on vacation in a week's time and am starting to panic about what reading material to bring.

What are you reading this summer?

Sunday, July 07, 2013


Yesterday, I saw the Gandini Juggling show Smashed.

It's not acrobatic or clowning-around juggling so much as it is a dance performance and artistic statement. (In fact, my favourite segment had the players working only one apple (is it still juggling if you're juggling only one thing?).) It is breathtaking, even jaw-dropping, nonetheless.

The show starts off so civilized, elegant, a little coy, witty; with humour, it pokes at male-female relations and power and control (isn't that what apples are all about?); then the tea party veers off into chaos.

Choreography is inspired by Pina Bausch (see Wim Wenders' spellbinding treatment of her work), and the music for the show is superbly chosen.

I won't reinvent the wheel: McAughtry has an enthusiastic write-up of the show (performed in an outdoor setting), with a breakdown of some of the segments, with video clips.

The Montreal show plays till Monday; if you're in town, check it out. If you're elsewhere, keep your eyes and ears open for a chance to see it.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

How busy I was in my mind

Settled in with my grilled cheese sandwich and beer, I'd watch Lex gamble away the morning, study the faces of the other players, and flirt innocently with the older man who ran the room. He liked me and gave me menthol cigarettes when I ran out of my regular ones, and then took me aside to a table next to the big one in order to share his stash of hard candy. He pulled my chair out and asked me to tell him all about myself, but then didn't pause for me to speak and began telling me all about myself instead: I was a nice girl, he said, and I shouldn't be hanging around all night with a bum like Lex in a place like this.

"She likes it," Lex yelled over, without looking up from his cards.

I smiled and shrugged and chose a pink candy from the dish.

After a while I'd return to Lex's side where I'd dream about the wonderful novel that might contain us, the sordid romance of Lex and me in the underworld. Wasn't I bored just to sit there? the others asked, not understanding how busy I was in my mind, polishing the night until it gleamed like a rare fiction. Bored? How could I be? I was the heroine of a great book.

— from Iris Has Free Time, by Iris Smyles.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Prague, Poland, Odessa, Russia

Kafka gets a Google doodle on his 130th birthday.

Wisława Szymborska got a Google doodle on her 90th birthday yesterday.

The Polish Cultural Institute recommends Polish books available in English translation in 2013 (including Krajewski, one of my recent obsessions).

Tales from Odessa, a Yiddish musical by Socalled inspired by the stories of Isaak Babel, plays at the Segal Centre through Sunday.

What Russians read, an infographic.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Deconstructing music, literature, and semantics: from Schoenberg to Oulipo in 12 easy steps

It's a kind of Gödel, Escher, Bach 2.0. Watch this and you will become smarter (whether or not you understand it):