Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Books are the pillars

Books are a force for peace and development that must be placed in the hands of all. They are also crucial tools for expression that help to enrich languages, while recording their changes over time. In this age of new technologies, books remain precious instruments, easy to handle, sturdy and practical for sharing knowledge, mutual understanding and opening the world to all. Books are the pillars of knowledge societies and essential for promoting freedom of expression and education for all.

Message for International Mother Language Day 2013, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO.

International Mother Language Day has come and gone, and sad to say, I didn't even know it was a day for celebration until days too late. This year's theme: Books for mother tongue education.

Coincidentally, experts of my own mother language marked the day by launching a campaign to preserve diacritical marks, of which there are several in Polish. It's a bit of a backlash against the laziness engendered by texting, but there's a bit more to it than curmudgeonly nit-picking.

The campaign — Język polski jest ą-ę — called on media outlets to do without diacritical marks for a day, and several artists have produced diacriticless pop music, with somewhat ridiculous results.

I'll have to do my bit to read something (maybe Tulli, or Myśliwski) in my mother tongue this year (it's been downhill for me pretty much since age 5), but preferably with diacritical marks intact.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

One by one, they were all becoming shades

But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hyper-educated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

Can we not say the same today? The Dead, by James Joyce, was originally published in 1914. I'd never read Joyce until a few weeks ago.

It was fully engrossing, funny and poignant, and, contrary to my expectation of Joyce, not at all hard to read.

The story takes place during a holiday party. Tension mounts from the beginning, and the reader prepares for a secret to be revealed, but it's not at all clear where that secret resides — the maid, the old aunts, Gabriel's past? Is it political, to do with the Irish nationalist in attendance? Will it fall from the lips of the drunk? And who are the eponymous dead?

One by one, they were all becoming shades.

The secret, it turns out, is much quieter than the possibilities Joyce forced me to consider, but no less devastating for the characters involved.

He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

I read somewhere that Gabriel is generally considered pathetic. But I don't see that. He seems to me to act like an outsider, though he is very much the centre of this story, and very near the centre of the social circle gathered this night. But he is not in his skin, and he questions himself. He is highly sympathetic.

While I think the ultimate revelation is somewhat prosaic, the turmoil Gabriel experiences is intensely human and believable. The emotional complexity that is conveyed is stunning, oh so male, and soul-wrenching, and for this I look forward to reading more Joyce.

Gabriel is of that thought-tormented, hyper-educated new generation, and it is difficult for him, but he does well to find within him kindness.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Snack drawer

One box of almond thin biscuits, excellent with tea
Large bag of Blue Diamond roasted, salted almonds (almost empty)
Tin of Blue Diamond lime and chili almonds
(What makes Blue Diamond almonds so salty delicious?)
Jar of almond-stuffed olives
Handful of lemon pepper almonds, courtesy of a coworker who uncovered this gastronomic wonder at Jean-Talon market
Yogourt-covered almonds, for those rare afternoons when I need a candy fix
One large gold-wrapped bar of chocolate-covered marzipan, best savoured when shared on Friday afternoons
About a half dozen packets of instant barszcz

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The list is in charge

What power a list can have, no? That column down the left with all the letters exactly the same, all capitals, one after another, it's always fascinated me. I've always found lists enthralling, why should I deny it? There's nothing wrong in that either, I suppose, nothing reproachable. A telephone directory was the best thing I could have when I was little; I'd put my finger at the top and slide it down a page where they were all ls or ms, where they were all us. The feeling of tranquility that gives you. The feeling that there is an order to the world. Or at least that it can be put in order. Take the chaos of a hotel, for example, and you put it down on a list. I don't care if it's a list of things to do, of guests, the payroll. Everything that needs to be is there and what is not there isn't because it shouldn't be there. And you breathe easy, sure of having done things as they need to be done. Control. That's what you have when you make list; absolute control. The list is in charge. A list is a universe. What isn't in a list doesn't exist for anyone. A list is proof of the non-existence of God. I said that to Papa once and he slapped me across the face. I said it to sound interesting, a bit to see what would happen, and that's what happened, a slap. But deep down it's true.

— from The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A tale of two nouns

Plural noun
Same plural noun
Plural noun
Plural noun
Plural noun
Plural noun
Plural noun
A place
Plural noun
Plural noun


It was the best of _____, it was the worst of _____, it was the age of _____, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of _____, it was the season of Light, it was the season of _____, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of _____, we had _____ before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to (the) _____, we were all going _____ the other way — in short, the period was so far like the _____ _____, that some of its noisiest _____ insisted on its being received, for good or for _____, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

— from Penguin Classics Mad Libs, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern.

So, according to my sister,

It was the best of cats, it was the worst of cats, it was the age of dogs, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of mushrooms, it was the season of Light, it was the season of matrices, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of dice, we had mice before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Tuscany, we were all going slowly the other way — in short, the period was so far like the pretty book, that some of its noisiest books insisted on its being received, for good or for trains, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A brutal nostalgia

The second life, as everyone knows, always comes with the inconvenient obligation to correct the first one.

And later,

And then he confirmed the feeling I'd had earlier: one of the consequences of the second life was a brutal nostalgia, the notion, so very democratic, so universally accessible and at the same time so surprising, of time lost, even though we might have suffered more in that time than in the present.

I'm reading The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez — a much denser read than I'd expected, though it's only just over 300 pages. Not hard, but weighty. The narrator is slowly unpacking his relationship with his father, and his family's relationship to its community. Neither memory nor history is entirely reliable; accuracy, let alone truth, is elusive.

The setting is Colombia, a country with a politically convoluted history, and the story told here essentially starts with Jewish immigrants at the onset of WWII. Weighty.


Life likes to outdo itself.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A soup like this is what I need

This may be a first for me, quoting from a cookbook:

This recipe, however, has an entirely literary provenance: the minute I read about Ezra'a hopes for the restaurant in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, his plan for a soup made with garlic and love, I knew I had to eat it. Which meant, first, I had to come up with a recipe and cook it. I am not trying to replicate the recipe that the character had in mind, not that I could; but no matter, for this is the sort of soup that came into my head as I read. (I've spared you the gizzards — because I couldn't, in any case, get them past the home front.) With any other writer, there might be a danger of the title's being cloying or sentimental, but how — really — is that possible in an Anne Tyler novel? Your soul gets flayed on every page: I don't think any writer has managed to be so piercing and unrelentingly intense and plain downbeat at the same time.

There's not a sentence of hers I don't love, but after reading any of her books, a soup like this is what I need.

— from "Soup made with garlic and love," in Nigella Kitchen, by Nigella Lawson.

Last night's soup wasn't Nigella-perfect, but I think next time it will be. Maybe I should read some Anne Tyler.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A pterodactyl in Paris

Some time ago I read a review by Rosecrans Baldwin: Pterrifying Pterodactyl Meets Sexy Detective. Thus was I introduced to The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. He writes:

The books are part adventure comic, part hardboiled fiction. They're terrific whodunits that conjure up all the precise atmospheric detail of, say, a Georges Simenon novel, but with twice the plot. And the artwork is striking, paneled like a comic but with historical grit. Here is Paris in its authentic beauty: rainy, crowded and bristling with characters who wear their neuroses like carnival masks.

And I was sold.

This graphic novel is recently available in English, but I figured, hey, I can read a French comic book. In French. I've done it before. So I did it again. Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-sec, tome #1, Adèle et la Bête, by Jacques Tardi.

What I like most about the story is how it combines some pretty disparate elements, all interesting in their own right: prehistoric creatures, seemingly supernatural powers, a feminist sensibility, early 20th-century Paris.

I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details, however, like who's the guy the pterodactyl swoops in to rescue from the guillotine. Not sure if that's the fault of my graphic-novel literacy, or my French. Doesn't matter, I'll read it again and figure it out.

In a weird coincidence, a few days after I brought the book home, my daughter watched the film adaptation at school (they have movie afternoon at the end of the month). From what she tells me, the movie has developed Adèle's back story and filled in many of the details. I look forward to reading about Adèle's further adventures.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

How are you supposed to have any intimacy?

"Stanley, if you closed your store for just a week and you let me elope with you..."

"What a romantic idea. Where would we go?"

"To Montreal."


"What? You have something against Quebec, too?"

"I didn't endure six months of close starvation to lose ten pounds just to gain them back in a few days. Montreal's restaurants are irresistible, as are its waiters."

What do more than 25 million readers see in Marc Levy? All Those Things We Never Said, written in 2008 and recently released in the US, is currently being heavily promoted, including a Paris getaway sweepstakes — sadly, for US residents only (it runs till tomorrow if you're interested), and a bit weirdly, as Paris figures into this novel in only a very small way and as a nice place to die.

Levy is touted as the most-read French author in the world, all his novels topping the bestseller lists in France. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.

All Those Things We Never Said is a "romantic comedy" (admittedly, not really my go-to genre). Julia's supposed to be married on Saturday, but her estranged father's died and he's being buried that day. With the wedding indefinitely postponed, Julia spends the ensuing week getting to know her father, and reexamining life and love in the process.

I very nearly abandoned this novel very early on. I didn't, only because work has been very trying and I couldn't be bothered to think to grab something else to read before heading out on my daily commute. I was well over halfway before I developed any interest in how it might turn out.

It reads like a movie (one of Levy's novels has already had the film treatment) — it is heavy on dialogue. In itself that's not necessarily a bad thing, but the conversation is fairly superficial — it's as if these characters have no internal lives at all. It lacks nuance. These people remain two-dimensional.

Starting in New York City, the story takes us to Montreal and later Berlin via Paris. The writing does nothing to bring these places to life on the page. Berlin fares a little better than the other cities, but then I've never been there, and the Wall plays a vital role in the story. Really, most of the events could've taken place anywhere.

"If there were, I don't know, perhaps a little sitting room or a library, maybe a billiard parlor or a laundry room... then I might have some place to go and wait for you. These one-room apartments... What a strange way to live! How are you supposed to have any intimacy?"

Intimacy? Is this a translation error? Maybe privacy? Or is it meant ironically? If so, it's not sufficiently backed by subtlety of character, or strength of character, for the reader to be cued to interpret it this way.

One German journalist aspires to a Pulitzer, which strikes me as a weird thing for a German journalist to say, or a French author to write, even on the off-chance that it might've been meant symbolically (and I certainly hope it wasn't the translator's choice to create a context for American readers).

What puzzles me most about this novel is how little it feels like a French novel. Not that I can tell you what a French novel should feel like. Maybe the expectation of Frenchness was built up in me because of the Paris sweepstakes connection. Just because an author's French doesn't mean he has to write about France. But there's no depth, no awareness, no reflection; no French philosophical attitude. This is not Michel Houellebecq or Emmanuel Carrère, or Patrick Lapeyre or Hervé Le Tellier. (I name these authors because they are contemporary, and I've read them and they all feel French. To be fair, the first pair can't be said to deal in light romance, and should not be used as a basis for comparison with Levy on any other score but this point about Frenchness I'm trying to make.)

All Those Things We Never Said does not feel French. It feels like a fairly predictable Hollywood movie. This novel was not for me, which is too bad, because there are a couple points that interested me — the father's story about meeting the love of his life and the father's final circumstances — and they could have been developed into very different novels. Have you read it? Am I being unfair?

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Helena came home from school one day recently all excited to tell me about palindromes. There'd been a substitute teacher that day, and the regular teacher hadn't provided a lesson plan. So, palindromes!

And though I know a bit about palindromes, and I know some palindromes, I don't think it had ever occurred to me that there might be palindromes in languages other than English. Thus, my first French palindrome: élu par cette crapule. (For a palindrome to work in French, diacritics are often disregarded.)

And it seems obvious to me now that this is exactly the sort of jeu de mots that Georges Perec might have played with. In fact, he composed a palindrome (in the form of a story or poem, kind of) that is 1247 words long.

Coincidentally, later the same evening that Helena and I were getting word nerdy, I was reading my book (which was rather big on coincidence) and it happened that the point was made that a character's cellphone ringtone was a palindrome — Bach's Crab Canon.

See also how Vi Hart folds space-time with Bach and plays a music-box Möbius strip.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

When the curtain comes down

If you are rich, if you are poor
It's all the same I'm sure...

Monday, February 04, 2013

A between-place

Ragle Gumm is at the centre of his universe. Everything revolves around him.

Time out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick, was published in 1959. It's set primarily in small-town America, the 50s. There's a sense that life is good, anything is possible. This is the world through which Ragle Gumm moves. Every day he plays the puzzle contest in the newspaper, "Where will the little green man be next?" And every day he wins.

But Ragle is not entirely at ease with this world. It's a little too good to be true. At first it seemed, to this reader, that there's a little Cold War paranoia seeping in. But no, maybe it's just regular paranoia, a bit conspiracy-minded, like everybody but you is in on something. Also, Marilyn Monroe is conspicuously absent.

And then Ragle's world starts to fall apart, in more ways than one.

Maybe I'm not moving. Caught in a between-place. Wheels of the pick-up truck spinning in gravel . . . spinning uselessly, forever. The illusion of motion. Motor noise, wheel noise, headlights on pavement. But immobility.

It becomes clear that Ragle's got some sanity issues going on.

And it turns out that there's another world outside of Ragle's. It's the world of 1996, and there's a war going on with the lunar colonies.

Reality according to Philip K. Dick is never what it seems to be, and it can be constructed in various ways, requiring the collusion of multiple government bodies, or sometimes just the active cooperation of your own mind.

The ending was a bit of a disappointment to me, not in how the story was resolved, but in its execution. The last 30 or so pages feel like a different book altogether — it becomes expository and futuristic.

The magic of this book lies in its nostalgia for the 50s. There are weird details about the Book-of-the-Month club and its selections, fashion trends, and a fad for all things Italian. Dick writes about a future in which his present is a rose-coloured past. His 50s are rich with the things we would indeed grow sentimental over forty and fifty years later.

Time out of Joint is a weird little story. But it has great insight into how our minds go about creating our individual realities, how we choose details to form our memories, and how some memory gets physically lodged in our bodies. Hopefully we are none of us as deluded as Ragle Gumm, but we are each in our way the centre of our own universe.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Right to the last twist of necktie

Appearing, Bill Black said pleasantly, "Hi, Ragle. Hi,Vic." He had on the ivy-league clothes customary with him these days. Button-down collar, tight pants . . . and of course his haircut. The styleless cropping that reminded Ragle of nothing so much as the army haircuts. Maybe that was it: an attempt on the part of sedulous, young sprinters like Bill Black to appear regimented, part of some colossal machine. And in a sense they were. They all occupied minor status posts as functionaries of organizations. Bill Black, a case in point, worked for the city, for its water department. Every clear day he set off on foot, not in his car, striding optimistically along in his single-breasted suit, beanpole in shape because the coat and trousers were so unnaturally and senselessly tight. And, Ragle thought, so obsolete. Brief renaissance of an archaic style in men's clothing . . . seeing Bill Black legging it by the house in the morning and evening made him if he were watching an old movie. And Black's jerky, too-swift stride added to the imoression. Even his voice, Ragle thought. Speeded up. Too high-pitched. Shrill.

But he'll get somewhere, he realized. The odd thing in this world is that an eager-beaver type, with no original ideas, who mimes those in authority above him right to the last twist of necktie and scrape of chin, always gets noticed. Gets selected. Rises. In the banks, in insurance companies, big electric companies, missile-building firms, universities. He had seen them as assistant professors teaching some recondite subject — survey of heretical Christian sects of the fifth century — and simultaneously inching their path up with all their might and main. Everything but sending their wives over to the administration building as bait . . .

— from Time out of Joint, by Philip K. Dick.