Thursday, January 31, 2013

Prompt editors to be always truthful

Today, January 31, is the feast day of Saint John Bosco, patron saint of illusionists, stage magicians, and editors.

Admirable apostle of youth, founder of religious Congregations, catechist, educator, writer, and a light that shone brightly in our time, you know that one of the greatest powers today is the power of the Press. Prompt editors to be always truthful and to work for the good of human beings, thus serving the greater glory of God. Amen.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

All part of the huge, dirty, torn social fabric

A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen. So says Jackson Brodie, who used to be a private investigator, who used to be a policeman, who used to be in the military, whose role in Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? is far from central, yet somehow he is its heart.

This story is about Joanna, who when she was six witnessed the murder of her mother and siblings, barely escaping herself. Thirty years on, the convicted murderer is being released from prison. It's also about Reggie, who works as "mother's help," looking after Joanna's baby. Reggie is 16 and recently orphaned; her brother is bad news. Then there's Louise, a cop in a marriage gone wrong, and former love interest (or something like it) of Jackson's, who's investigating Joanna's husband.

Louise was an urbanite, she preferred the gut-thrilling sound of an emergency siren slicing through the night to the noise of country birds at dawn. Pub brawls, rackety roadworks, mugged tourists, the badlands on a Saturday night — they all made sense, they were all part of the huge, dirty, torn social fabric. There was a war raging out there in the city and she was part of the fight, but the countryside unsettled her because she didn't know who the enemy was. She had always preferred North and South to Wuthering Heights. All that demented running around the moors, identifying yourself with the scenery, not a good role model for a woman.

Throw in a massive train wreck — Jackson's on board — and these characters and others turn out to be connected to one other in unlikely ways.

This is the second Jackson Brodie novel I've read, and I will read more. I marvel at the writing, that it should appear to be so light and funny, and turn so suddenly very dark. So rambling and seemingly random, but in fact tightly interwoven with every other character's thoughts and actions. It turn out it's quite difficult to quote from this novel, as all the punchy bits rely on how they relate to what happened three pages, or three chapters, earlier.

There is not a lot of good news in this novel. And there are a lot of coincidences, with explanations I was willing to accept.

This is not a conventional mystery novel. There are a few sets of mysterious circumstances, but it's some time before it's at all clear that there is a central mystery that needs solving. And that's fine by me, as I was busy being engrossed in the plenty of very interesting people who have a lot of shit to deal with in their lives. As one review notes, "The mysteries Atkinson is most invested in are those of the human heart."

Monday, January 28, 2013

K is for Kindred

Philip K. Dick. The K is for Kindred — Philip Kindred Dick — and I think that's weird and fantastic.

I'm familiar with the work of Philip K. Dick more by virtue of the many film adaptations of his work than direct from the source material. I intend to rectify that this year.

I've had reason recently to poke at the work of a few authors with respect to their relationship with mental illness, and it comes as no surprise that Dick's relationship with reality is somewhat privileged.

What distinguishes schizophrenic existence from that which the rest of us like to imagine we enjoy is the element of time. The schizophrenic is having it all now, whether he wants it or not; the whole can of film has descended on him, whereas we watch it progress frame by frame. So for him, causality does not exist. Instead, the acausal connective principle that Wolfgang Pauli called synchronicity is operating in all situations — not merely as only one factor at work, as with us. Like a person under LSD, the schizophrenic is engulfed in an endless now. It's not too much fun.

— from "Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes," by Philip K. Dick.

An endless now!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The dark and sooty chamber in his heart

He had to get out. Jackson hated hospitals. He had spent more time in them than most people. He had watched his mother take an eternity to die in one and as a police constable he had spent nearly every Saturday night taking statements in A and E. Birth, death (the one as traumatic as the other), injury disease — hospitals weren't healthy places to hang around in. Too many sick people. Jackson wasn't sick, he was repaired, and he wanted to go home, or at least to the place he called home now, which was the tiny but exquisite flat in Covent Garden containing the priceless jewel that was his wife, or would contain her when she stepped off the plane at Heathrow on Monday morning. Not his real home, his real home, the one he never named any more, was the dark and sooty chamber in his heart that contained his sister and his brother and, because it was an accommodating kind of space, the entire filthy history of the industrial revolution. It was amazing how much dark matter you could crush inside the black hole of the heart.

— from When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Love was ferocious

Love. Love wasn't sweet and light, it was visceral and overpowering. Love wasn't patient, love wasn't kind. Love was ferocious, love knew how to play dirty.

— from When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The validity of someone else's solution

Within the first couple dozen pages of The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino, there's a murder. The main characters are sketcheed out in simple, broad, vivid strokes. Yasuko, with the help of her daughter, kind of accidentally kills her abusive ex-husband. We're sympathetic toward Yasuko; the jerk deserved it. Their neighbour, Ishigami, a high-school math teacher and genius, offers to help cover up the incident.

A body's discovered in due course, and the investigation gets underway. Turns out that Ishigami went to the same school as Detective Kusanagi, the cop on the case, and they have a mutual friend, Manubu Yukawa, a brilliant physicist, to whom Kusanagi often turns for advice.

And so the mathematician and the physicist — theory and practice — face off.

"You're familiar with the P = NP problem, right? Yukawa asked from behind him.

Ishigami looked around. "You're referring to the question of whether or not it is as easy to determine the accuracy of another person's results as it is to solve the problem yourself — or, failing that, how the difference in difficulty compares. It's one of the questions the Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a prize to solve."

"I figured you might be." Yukawa smiled and tipped back his glass.

Ishigami turned back to the desk.

He had always thought of mathematics at a treasure hunt. First, one had to decide where to dig; then one had to determine the proper excavation route that led to the answer. Once you had a plan, you could make formulas to fit it, and they would give you clues. If you wound up empty-handed, you had to go back to the beginning and choose another route. Only by doing this over and over, patiently, yet boldly, could you hope to find the treasure — a solution no one else had ever found.

Therefore, it would seem that analyzing the validity of someone else's solution was simply a matter of following the routes they had taken. In fact, however, it was never that simple. Sometimes you could follow a mistaken route to a false treasure, and proving that it was false could be even harder than finding the real answer.

Which was why someone had proposed the exasperating P = NP problem.

This book is a treasure, not a false one. Some readers cry foul over the ending, but I think that's because they have fallen into the kind of trap Ishigami sets for his students, mistaking this book for a geometry puzzle, when really it's an algebra problem. One would do well to remember too that Yasuko, Ishigami, the cop, and the physics professor are each trying to solve a different puzzle, with different information at hand.

The resolution is logical, it fits perfectly; it is also heart-rending.

I read this book over a weekend, and it evoked in me all the wow of when my grade 7 teacher read us The Witness for the Prosecution, and it occurs to me he may have been trying to teach us the lesson to avoid the trap, question our assumptions, watch for our blind spots, not just how to construct a perfect alibi.

Background
The review that put this book on my radar: Reading Matters.
Excerpt.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

By studying our cancers

I zipped through Octavia Butler's trilogy of Lilith's Brood in the last couple weeks. The first book, Dawn, stands alone, but once I was in, I was in for the long haul. (The subsequent books in the series demand knowledge of the first, but could be read independently of each other.)

Mostly it's about the recolonization of Earth (some hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse), via a cross-breeding program devised by the Oankali. Lilith is awakened (having been rescued from the dying planet) and the program is "sold" to her. She then leads the first inhabitants reintroduced to a healed Earth.

The big question is: Is humanity being saved or exploited?

The second novel introduces a plan to colonize Mars with pure humans. The alien Oankali race is betting they'll destroy themselves within a couple generations.

What's compelling about this series is how well the alien species and its culture is imagined. The aliens are completely alien, but they are flesh and blood; their ways are weird, but so natural. And over time, they gradually become more human.

Of course one of the biggest attractions of the book is all the alien sex. Which sounds kind of awesome. The Oankali is a species with three sexes: male, female, and ooloi. They mate together "through" the ooloi; the ooloi establishes a neural link with all parties, and mixes all the genetic material. Now throw in a couple humans, a male and a female, to get the cross-breeding — a genetic trade — underway. Once mated, the parties develop a revulsion for mating with anyone else, to the point of not even being able to comfortably touch one another. They connect only through the ooloi. That neural link must be out of this world.

"This isn't just a drug."

"What then?"

"Direct stimulation of the brain and nervous system." She held up her hand to stop him from speaking. "There's no pain. They hate pain more than we do, because they're more sensitive to it. If they hurt us, they hurt themselves. And there are no armful side effects. Just the opposite. They automatically fix any problems they fin. They get real pleasure from healing or regenerating, and they share that pleasure with us. They weren't as good at repairs before they found us. Regeneration was limited to wound healing. Now they can grow you a new leg if you lose one. They can even regenerate brain and nervous tissue. They learned that from us, believe it or not. We had the ability, and they knew how to use it. They learned by studying our cancers, of all things. It was cancer that made Humanity such a valuable trade partner."

So the Oankali improve humans, using cancer as an agent for good.

I'm including here a picture of a blobfish because it looks just like I imagine one of the cross-breed subadult ooloi whose metamorphosis goes horribly wrong for a little while when it doesn't have recourse to the grounding influence of mates (but it ends up OK).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Logic, that angular old maid with flat hips

The Madonna of the Sleeeping Cars, by Maurice Dekobra, is a very charming novel written in 1925 and recently reissued by Melville House.

The story is told by Prince Gerard Séliman, who works as private secretary to the widowed Lady Diana Wyndham, who set out the terms quite clearly:

"I am a woman to whom you'll be rather more a companion than a secretary, or, I might say, you'll have to play the part of a husband — up to the point of coming into my bedroom. You understand that! You're going to take care of my interests. You're going to give me a lot useful advice. You're going to prevent me from doing stupid things whenever possible, because they tell me that that is the favorite pastime of women of my class. Lastly, I hope you won't hesitate to throw out any questionable admirers, who may try to profit by my feminine caprices."

Séliman carries out his duties with grace and humour, very William Powell, but they become more complicated when Lady Diana realizes that her funds are dwindling and that she may have to remarry. An interesting offer from a Soviet delegation leads to travelling across Europe, encountering secret agents, and enduring harsh times in a Soviet prison.

"Without any doubt, you are the strangest individual I have ever met. You are a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous, if you will forgive me for saying so. A distinguished gentleman at noon — a clown at midnight — you excel in every capacity! Here you are moving heaven and earth for the sake of a woman who is not even yours. To my mind, that isn't logic."

"Sometimes, Griselda, it is dangerous to challenge logic, that angular old maid with flat hips."

The charm of the narrative voice outweighs, for me, the adventurous spy-novel elements, although there are some unexpected and astute observations, often downplayed as mere witticisms, regarding politics, and in particular the Russian, or Soviet, character.

I offered him a gold-tipped cigarette. He accepted it without question. His companion, who possessed a polyhedric figure and broken nose, along with bloody cheekbones, extended his flabby hand toward my case, removed the eleven remaining cigarettes and slipped them into a pocket of his leather coat without saying a word.

I remarked facetiously, "I perceive that your friend practices self-preservation."

The mole-like gentleman made an evasive gesture and replied, "Well, that's Communism, isn't it?"

While much is made of the fact that his style earned its own adjective, dekrobisme, I can't say I've ever seen the word used outside of in reference to Dekobra'a own work, and frankly, not too many people these days talk about Dekobra at all.

All in all, the story feels kind of formulaic, with its femmes fatales and its Soviet thugs, its showdowns and twisty resolutions, its romances and alliances, its Orient Express and its Scottish castle, but it's a perfectly good formula, one that Dekobra may well have developed.

This novel has been filmed twice, and I'd love to see either version, but it seems to have missed out on the kind of Golden Age treatment I picture in my head.

Reviews
Head Butler
The Millions
Washington Post
A Work in Progress

Monday, January 14, 2013

Indebted

I watched Payback yesterday, the documentary based on Margaret Atwood's book — Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth — that served as the 2008 Massey Lectures (a book I believe I have a copy of, but have not read).

It covers the notion of debt, but primarily non-monetary debt: paying one's dues, paying for one's crimes — a debt to society.

This film looks at some particular cases: a code of family honour and revenge in an Albanian village, one man's time in prison for breaking and entering and his guilt for the seemingly irreparabe damage he did to an old lady's sense of security, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the working conditions of Mexican migrant tomato pickers in Florida. Conrad Black and Raj Patel have supporting roles.

The pacing's a bit slow (I've seen better documentaries lately, for example, Freakonomics), and it doesn't cover the material I'd expected to (I've read better treatments of the subject, like the anthropoligical persepective in David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which I admit I haven't yet read the whole of).

The movie finally comes together for me when the concept of debt, or payback, is rephrased as making reparation — what sets the balance right again. Money, time, spiritual penance? And of course there will be differing views on whether a debt has been settled depending on whether you're talking to a labour lawyer, a victim of crime, a priest, etc.

What makes this movie interesting to me, though, is that I watched it against the backdrop of a weekend in which I was immersed in Lilith's Brood, a trilogy by Octavia Butler in which extraterrestrials salvage humans and other species after Earth's nuclear destruction. The Oankali restore the humans and the planet, and restore them to each other, kind of.

The book makes me think of debt insofar as it questions: what do we owe our planet, our species, other species; to what do we owe our humanity (and how much of that debt is cultural versus genetic); to what extent would we owe someone or something for saving our life (or saving our species) and at what price?

That's fairly superficial, but there's something else too. I get the feeling we wouldn't have a sense of debt if there weren't a sense of honour or pride which could be injured. And that sense can originate within an individual, a family, a community, a species — any debt we feel is based in the thing, the unit, the code to which we feel allegiance.

So suddenly, this little science fiction trilogy is about a lot more than repopulating the planet — it's become socioeconomic. The Oankali call themselves a species of traders — they trade in knowledge and genetic material. A communal species with high intelligence, they claim their primary sense of debt is to the preservation, or continuity, of life.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

These were the happy people of the world

These were the happy people of the world. They were amusing themselves. They had done nothing to deserve happiness, but they were happy. Or, what is the same thing, they thought they were. And is not the formula of oriental happiness to do nothing?

— from The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, by Maurice Dekobra.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The parking lot forest of dead Christmas trees

Christmas trees at the side of the road this week prompted me to undress our own, which I did this morning, thinking we'd set it out on the curb this evening in time for pick up.

But when I stepped out of the house this morning, there were no Christmas trees in sight.

I soon found them, however. A couple buildings down from us is a parking lot — really two parking lots with a sloped drive between them, a slope where all the parking lot snow is mounded.

It seems someone rescued all the discarded trees of the neighbourhood in the night and planted them here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A mismatched pair of genetic characteristics

"You have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics. Either alone would have been useful, would have aided the survival of your species. But the two together are lethal. It was only a matter of time before they destroyed you."

[...]

Jdahya made a rustling noise that could have been a sigh, but that did not seem to comer from his mouth or throat. "You are intelligent," he said. "That's the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we've found, though your focus is different from ours. Still, you had a good start in the life sciences, and even in genetics."

"What's the second characteristic?"

"You are hierarchical. That's the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It's a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as problem, but took pride in it or din not notice it at all..." The rattling sounded again.

— from Dawn, book one of Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler.

So far, so very readable. When humanity destroyed the Earth, extraterrestrials saved the survivors, Lilith among them, and salvaged what they could of the planet. Lilith has been preserved for a couple hundred years, and when she is awakened and introduced to an alien culture, naturally she has a lot of questions.

What do you think: Is having a hierarchical nature incompatible with intelligence?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Crossword resolution

Though I work as an editor, I am at times dolefully inarticulate. I'm of the general philosophy that there's a lot of stuff I don't need to know, I just need to know where to find out that stuff when I need to. On the whole, this approach works just fine. But there are times I wish I knew stuff just a little bit faster. That includes words. I wish I knew more words, the right words, when I need them.

Just after Christmas I picked up for myself a New York Times Sunday Crossword 2013 Weekly Planner Calendar, to sit on my desk at work, the idea being that exercising the puzzle-solving neural pathways will make them, and related word-retrieval mechanisms, stronger.

I love crossword puzzles. I used to be very good at them. I used to meet my sister regularly at the pub on the weekend — we'd enjoy beer and wings and the Sunday crossword, and we wouldn't leave till it was done. But it's been years since we lived in the same city, and I'm out of practice.

So I have this weekly planner, with a crossword puzzle per week. The calendar starts at December 31, and I was worried I wouldn't finish the first puzzle by the end of the work week. So I started a few days early. And, with a little input from a couple colleagues, it was completed on schedule.

My daughter made a new year's resolution this year, and when she asked me what mine was, I told her about this puzzle project, one a week, to exercise my vocabulary and general knowledge, to exercise my brain in ways I haven't lately. "But Mommy! You're brain is perfect! Don't get too geeky." [I've been replaying that soundbite in my head for days now, every time anything starts to go horribly wrong.]

But, hey. Puzzle #1 is done, and I'm feeling a mite bit more cruciverbabendy.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Old knowledge, new knowledge

"I told them about Manutius."

She did it.

"How it's this amazing ancient book, totally a historical treasure, totally old knowledge, OK — "

She actually did it.

" — and then I explained how there's this nonprofit that's trying to break the code — "

"Nonprofit?"

"It sounds better than, like, secret society. Anyway, I said they're trying to break the code, and of course people perked up at that, because everybody at Google likes codes —"

Books: boring. Codes: awesome. These are the people who are running the internet.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, was one of the best Christmas presents ever (thanks, bro!)! [Along with all the movie-watching you enabled!] [And the amazing red velvet bed cover (thanks, sis!)!]

This is not serious Literature, but there's so much love in it, for books, for codes, for secret societies, for the internet, for quests, for fonts, for obscure skillsets, for interconnectedness, for secret passageways built into bookshelves.

Mostly what I love about it this story is simply the intersection of old books with new technology. Because they don't have to be mutually exclusive.

This was the perfect holiday read — the kind of book you sneak off to read a chapter or two of for a few quiet moments away from the hecticity, the kind that helps a long journey pass easily, the kind that makes me wish I worked in a crazy weird bookstore.

Also, it turns out that Manutius is an actual historical figure, believed to have been the first typographer to use a semicolon.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

On s'aime comme ça



The kid and I watched Un monstre à Paris (A Monster in Paris). (Watched on Netflix in English; regret that we couldn't see it in French.)

Can't stop singing. Loved it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Lazy days

I feel like I've been holed away for weeks rather than mere days, although maybe it really has been much longer in terms of my headspace.

My hometown at Christmas was (unusually for its microclimate) blanketed with snow, and I returned to Montreal to record-breaking piles of the white stuff. Perfect for taking cover and staring into other worlds.

Three movies I've seen...

Moonrise Kingdom. So charmingly naive while being the exact opposite of naive. Visually it reminds me a little of Greenaway, only it's sweet and funny and ironic. The soundtrack (a lot of Britten) goes some way to promoting this comparison too. Thematically, I'm not sure — the strength of true love, the innocence of childhood, they fuck you up your mum and dad? But lovely. (Bill Murray: "I had to work with a bunch of scouts and kids. No money can make that right, can it?")

Stalker. Not what I expected, based on having read the source material (Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers). No alien gadgetry, no reanimated corpses, no backroom thuggery, no black market economy, not much obvious unpleasantness at all. Tarkovsky stripped away all the details of the novel to focus on one trip into the Zone, one philosophical issue: the nature of the true unconscious wish that might be granted upon reaching The Room. The film is gorgeous, everything looks organic, walls and faces are mossy, mouldy. The Zone itself is lush, quite the opposite of the barren desolation the novel invoked, in fact more like Chernobyl is now; it's the town skirting the Zone that's colourless, dead.



This is art. But I'd still love to see a true adaptation of the Strugatskys' novel.

The Other. Based on Thomas Tryon's novel, which I read a couple months ago, I think the trailer with its voiceover and screams may be more chilling than the movie as a whole. The book is one of the scariest I've ever had the pleasure to read. The movie missed the mark on the characterization of the supporting characters, but it has all the classic elements of an evil-child horror movie, perfect for a dark and stormy night.

Three serials I recommend...
These are weirdly interconnected. Race, class, money, love. And a lot of desperation. (I watched these on Netflix.)

Daniel Deronda. Wow. I have got to read more George Eliot. I was fascinated by the Victorian-era look at Zionism. (Part 1 on Youtube.)

The Way We Live Now. An adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel, inspired by financial scandals of the 1870s. (Part 1 on Youtube.)

Hell on Wheels. I wouldn't say I'm a fan of westerns, and nothing about post-Civil War frontier expansion holds much appeal for me, but this show is strangely compelling. The same time period as the Eliot and Trollope stories, it also features some railroad-related financial and sociopolitical shenanigans, but with a harsher breed of day-to-day difficulties. And several scenes flashed through my mind on my way home when my train was blockaded by First Nations protesters and delayed for several hours. Only the first season is currently available on Netflix, but I look forward to seeing more when I can. (Trailer.)

In queue
Prometheus today, and the continuation of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga.

What are you watching these cold snowy days?