Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An education in love

Maria Popova presents a lovely overview of Leo Buscaglia's ideas — she focuses primarily on the topics of education and labeling — as presented in Love: What Life Is All About.

She notes:
Buscaglia ends with a reminder of how our disembodied illusion of separateness contributes to our inability to inhabit our own selves and how the pathologically overlooked gift of human touch reconnects us not only with each other, but with our own deepest humanity.

(I think Buscaglia might be horrified by today's socially mediafied culture.)

The excerpts Popova chooses bring a nostalgic tear to my eye. Believe it or not, I've been thinking a lot about Leo lately. I think because Helena is about the age I was when my mother and I would spend hours watching Leo Buscaglia's lectures together. Every few months, the PBS pledge drive ensured a marathon of Leo love.

I can't say I enjoyed it exactly. My mother had control of the television (one television, and just the two of us). I'd sit pyjamaed with a Shirley Temple. I wouldn't've done it if it were just to make my mother happy. Part of me must've found it interesting. But it's not anything I told my friends about.

But my mom and I. We'd laugh. And cry. And hug.

I'm not the sort of person to dole out Iloveyous unthinkingly; I won't say it, or anything, if I don't mean it. Sometimes I think of Leo, even these days. Like he's wormed his way into my conscience, or is sitting on my shoulder, entreating me to tell people how much I love them.

I see a lot of myself in Helena; when she turns a certain way, her demeanour, it's like I'm watching myself. Only she's prettier, and kinder, and more loving. I can't believe she loves me so much.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dirty words

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren't nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough.
— from On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William H. Gass.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Even the murders move more slowly down here."

Resurrection, by Wolf Haas, is a charming little crime novel. That is, there's very little crime in it, it just zips along from taxicab to curling strip to castle to restaurant, and before you know it, you're halfway through when you realize, oh, right, it started with a couple of dead bodies, presumably foul play, now what's that all about?

The setting is Zell, an Austrian ski resort, but with very much a small town vibe. Inspector Simon Brenner, recently resigned from the police force, is now "investigating" (that is, writing occasional reports), this time on behalf of an insurance company.

It's been three-quarters of a year since the bodies on the ski lift, so it's not exactly an "active" investigation. Brenner's just muddling into situations.
The German had this bad habit. Purely insofar as, let's say, cars and drivers go. She always looked you right in the eye when she was talking to you. Now, normally, that's not necessarily uncomfortable. But in this case. She was hissing down the Autobahn at 130. And on top of that, well, no hands after all, even if she was a good driver, unbelievable, but still, just her two arm-stumps on the steering wheel. And when she was talking, she always took her eyes off the road and looked right at Brenner with those enormous eyes of hers. Because they were magnified so big by her farsighted glasses.

"It's quite lovely here," she says.

"Here in the tunnel?" Brenner says.

He was thinking, I'll make a joke, and if I make a joke, maybe I'll get her to look back at the road again, at least in the tunnel, because this here's a place with oncoming traffic. But, nothing doing, she didn't understand it was joke, and Brenner, of course, ready with a stereotype: Germans, no sense of humor. She looked at him with her polyp eyes and said:

"No, here in Zell."

"You don't like it in Hamburg?"

"I do. Quite lovely. Quite lovely indeed. But everything moves very fast there. Whereas here, everything's allowed to move a tiny bit — just a bisserl — more slowly."

Needless to say, we're all the same down here. We don't like it when a German imitates our dialect. And it wasn't any different for Brenner, a bisserl. And then that bit about the "slowly," practically — well, it's true, of course, but we don't like hearing it. But Handless didn't mean it quite so generally, because now she says:

"Even the murders move more slowly down here. In Hamburg, shot on the spot. And here, deep frozen."

And then, she even laughed. Brenner thought: This I don't understand, either, what's so funny about that.
This is the very first Inspector Brenner novel, but the third to be available in English. I really enjoyed Brenner and God for its wit and philosophical musing; The Bone Man was a bit madcap, and the crime seemed to bog down the story. But Resurrection is simply delightful. What little story there is moves with more agility than Brenner's migraine-addled thought processes. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but without all those pesky crime details getting in the way, it's simple, swift, and funny.

And there's more by Wolf Haas — Come, Sweet Death — coming from Melville House soon.

(See also my recap of Wolf Haas at the Blue Met a few weeks ago.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Entangled in Poland

He tried smiling roguishly into the side mirror. What a tragedy. Like a German pretending to find Polish humour funny.
Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, has a lot going for it, starting with a wealthy corpse with a skewer through his eye in a repurposed monastery, journeying through quack psychiatry and marital infidelity, and ending in the archives of Poland's secret service.

Prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a solid protagonist. There's nothing spectacular about him — and I mean this as a compliment. No quirks, no special methods, no esoteric hobbies (not poetry or opera), no drinking problem; he's not a fuck-up, at least not in anything but a very average way. He dresses well, perhaps above his station ("a suit the colour of diluted silver").

His intuition occasionally comes into play — a niggling feeling that something's not right, not complete — but it never overshadows the real work, the research, exhausting all avenues. His problem: he's bored. Personally and professionally. So when he actually finds something interesting, it can drive him pretty far.
He reached his block and glanced up at the illuminated kitchen window on the second floor. He didn't feel like going home, so he sat on a bench in the courtyard to enjoy the June evening. It was already after nine, but it was still warm and light, and there was a smell of the city cooling down. At moments like these he felt like the nightingale in Julian Tuwim's poem, who upsets his wife coming home late for supper.
It's references like this that make me feel connected to my Polishness.

Warsaw is the backdrop. We visit its parks and cafes, and tour through its various districts. Contemporary Poland really comes alive in the chapter openings, where Miłoszewski runs down the day's headlines — it's 2005 — touching on local politics and including the weather report.

The story digs back into the days of Communism and the rule of General Jaruzelski, and the unpleasantness of those times follows Szacki into the present day.

I suppose most readers will view all these elements as "colour" to round out a good crime story. For me, the murder is an entry point to contemporary Polish culture and recent history.

See also the following reviews:
Swiftly Tilting Planet

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What would it be like to read Bulgakov for the first time now?

"I don't know if you have ever been in love. Really and truly. If you have, you're a lucky man, If not, I envy you like the devil, because you have the greatest adventure of your life ahead of you — perhaps. Do you know what I'm talking about? It's like with books. It was great to read The Master and Margarita at grammar school, but I'm green with envy to think there are adults who still have that ahead of them. I sometimes wonder: what would it be like to read Bulgakov for the first time now? Never mind. Anyway, if you want to reply: 'I don't know,' it means you haven't loved yet."
— from Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski.

These are not new sentiments being expressed here, but I find this little monologue from a minor character in the final pages of this contemporary Polish crime novel odd for two reasons.

Odd thing number one: I love books. Sure, there are times I prefer the company of books to people. But I my love for books is not on the same scale as my love for my loved ones. These are entirely different orders of love; it would not occur to me to juxtapose them.

Odd thing number two: To read a beloved book again for the first time is a common enough wish. I've heard people wish this of Jane Eyre. Childhood classics, coming of age classics. Mind-bending SF classics. Simply it surprises me that the sentiment should be expressed regarding Bulgakov.

I read The Master and Margarita more than twenty years ago, loved it, but remember next to nothing about it. I've been planning to reread it — perhaps this year is the year — and in a different translation, it'll be as if I'm reading it for the first time. Won't it?

What would you like to read again for the first time?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The future of reading

Today's episode of Spark on CBC Radio focused on the future of reading in the internet age. How, generally, the rhythm of our lives and the rhythm of deep reading no longer intersect.

Listen online:

Robotics in work and life: Margaret Atwood on robots and AI.

Bite-sized reading: Rooster, an app that breaks down novels into easily digestible bite-sized chunks.

Scanning and skimming: It turns out we do read differently whether text is on screen or on paper. A conversation with Maryanne Wolf, neuroscientist and author of Proust and the Squid. One of the points made is that reading is not a natural thing — it's totally learned. So internet reading feeds our predatory/preservationist instincts for watching, searching, jumping, quick processing. "The quality of our attention is a mirror of the quality of our thought."

Social reading: The idea of "social reading" is not for me — I read alone, I don't want to be intruded upon. But this segment is about a story-sharing app, Wattpad. Of course stories are a social phenomenon, and this app seems to be about engaging with people who want to tell them.

With commentary by bookfuturist Tim Carmody.

The 53-minute podcast is worth a listen. . . or you may wish to spend that time reading instead.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The magnificent octopus

Although this blog was not named for the cephalopod, I have a certain fascination with these creatures. I would be remiss not to share this review of Octopus!. (And how is that not a fantastic name for a book?!)

One argument is that extreme self-reliance requires extreme engagement with the environment. We associate intelligence with dependence in childhood, longevity, and civilization; but in the case of the octopus, it seems that the opposite conditions promote curiosity, problem-solving, speedy learning, and sensitivity.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

If I had a completely different life

Łazienki Park
I wonder what it would be like, thought Szacki, if I were to park in the courtyard and go up to the flat on the second floor, and find that girl waiting for me? If I had a completely different life, different CDs, different books on the shelves, if I smelled a different body lying next net to me. We could go for a walk in Łazienki Park, I'd tell her why I had to be at work today — let's say at an architectural studio; she'd say I was brave and that she'd buy me an ice cream near the Theatre on the Island. Everything would be different.

How unfair it is that we only have one life, mused Szacki, and that it so quickly bores us.
— from Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski.

This book is interesting to me on two main counts: 1. The victim (this being a crime novel) was engaged in Family Constellation Therapy, which is a real thing and a terrifically weird thing. 2. It's very rich from a cultural perspective — life in contemporary Poland — with mentions of everything from the Green Day concert in Katowice to the commemorative stamp issued to honour ski jumper Adam Małysz ("the Polish Batman").

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Does a constraint force a compromise?

Matthew Carter on designing typefaces that compensate for technology, from the phenomenon of inkspread to screen resolution.

Friday, May 02, 2014

"It's not real German, it's more like the nightmare of German."

Wolf Haas is the author of a series of comic crime novels featuring private investigator Simon Brenner, a former cop. Three of them are now available in English, and a fourth is on its way. (The English publications are not in the order of their original release.) I saw Haas yesterday evening at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

Haas is Austrian, and so is his German. "If it sounds weird, sounds wrong, it's a good translation." He apologizes for his English, but explains that when he reads in German, he also has to apologize for his German: "It's not real German, it's more like the nightmare of German." There is not only one kind of German.

His writing style is unique. It's very much like spoken language, lively, verbal tics and all. He writes the way he does because he likes the sound of it. (And it makes for very compelling reading.)

He likes reading in English because it's as if he's reading a book someone else wrote. He is distanced from the words; the words come as a surprise and he's not as judgemental of them as if he were reading them in his own language.

On top of which, in English they sound more like a real whodunit. He seems to romanticize the American crime thriller. As I riffle through scads of Scandinavian bestsellers in my head, I realize he means the hard-boiled, noir tradition.

In his view (and mine) it's the narrator of these books who's the main character, not the detective.

There's an attempt to explain the detective Simon Brenner to those who have not read any of the books. The interviewer likes the Columbo analogy; I don't. Brenner may have a common-man appeal about him, but he's not that clever. A bit oafish; not exactly clumsy, but intellectually sloppy. He never controls a situation; things happen to him.

Haas describes Brenner as a dinosaur of a man, an old-fashioned stereotype, only he tried to make him more likeable. Like his uncles. The kind of man who has to appear strong, tough; says little, but drinks a lot. Remember, Brenner's an ex-cop, and all-round fuck-up. "He tries to think, but he's too tired."

So how does he solve anything then (or does he)? "I don't want to be rude in a foreign language, but that's when the narrator kicks his ass."

While some of his writing has a basis in reality, Haas admits that much of it is pure fantasy; for example, Brenner's hometown is a real village, but Haas has never been there. Haas travels to promote his books, of course, and he discusses how those experiences are creeping into his books. But he's wary of opening his mind too far; his books are, after all, about small villages with narrow-minded people.

When did Wolf Haas realize he needed to write? He sets the interviewer straight: "I do not need to write. I want to write." Being a writer was a more attractive alternative to having a proper job, though not so viable in the beginning. What he learned from his days writing advertising copy: when you have an idea, you have to stick with it, run with it past the point of no return. He confesses that it's somewhat embarrassing to write crime stories — it's ridiculous.

I picked up a copy of Resurrection and he signed it for me. We even managed some (very) small talk. I asked him whether he reads a lot of crime novels, does he have a favourite crime writer, but it turns out, no, he reads maybe 2 or 3 a year, he likes reading all kind of things, "even poetry" (and it sounded to me a little like a line). Lovely man, shy, a bit nervous and awkward — real, with things to say.

Read Wolf Haas.