Monday, February 24, 2014

Sustain them

My assistant's favourite poem remains a secret, but I maintain that it's not an inappropriate discussion to have. To the contrary, I think it's essential, and my assistant has dropped in my esteem as a result. (My assistant also favours American spelling and is lax about punctuation.)

There are days I'd rather have a poem than an assistant.

Today's poem (courtesy of the Poetry Foundation app):
The Metaphysical Countrygirl

You, functional space
variants in voltage, the only light
Transitory effect of Love
several different lights
Sustain them
you sustain them.

— Omar Pérez (tr. Kristin Dykstra)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

An octopus that doesn't even exist

"Or take our situation, for instance, why do you say it isn't a manifestation of a supercivilization?"

"Hmm, too human. They've discovered that earthlings are on the threshold of the universe. Afraid of the competition, they decide to stop it. Is that it?"

"Why not?"

"Because that's fiction. Dime-store fiction in bright, cheap covers. It's like trying to fit an octopus into a pair of tuxedo pants. And not a plain octopus at that, but an octopus that doesn't even exist."

— from Definitely Maybe, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Despite the awesomeness of the interwebs, there is an appalling dearth of images of octopuses in tuxedo pants, let alone any that approach what this passage conjures in my head. The occasional jacket-wearing octopus, yes. Also, people wearing tuxedoes while eating octopus. But no pants-wearing octopus.

There you have it. Proof that such an octopus doesn't even exist.

Note: It should not be construed that this novel is in any way about octopus — tuxedo pants-wearing octopus, space alien octopus, or octopus of any kind. There is some caviar, though. And to this point, there is some conjecture as to the existence of (non-octopus-like) space aliens. The quoted passage is a simple — and delightful — metaphor.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A romance in lower mathematics

The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics — book by Norton Juster, adapted into animated short by Chuck Jones.

(Via Brain Pickings.)

Moral of the story: "To the vector belong the spoils."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Yes, no, maybe, perhaps

Malianov's wife is away, and a friend of hers comes to stay:
...then he poured her another glass of wine. The decision to toast the use of the informal Russian personal pronoun for "you" came up. Without the kissing. Why should there be kissing between two intelligent people? The important thing was spiritual rapport. They drank to using the informal "you" and spoke of spiritual closeness, new methods of birth deliveries, and about the differences among courage, bravery, and valor. The Riesling was finished, and Malianov put the empty bottle out on the balcony and went over the bar for some cabernet. They decided to drink the cabernet out of Irina's favorite smoked crystal glasses, which they chilled first. The conversation on femininity, which came up after the one on manliness and bravery, went very well with the icy red wine. They wondered what asses had decreed that red wine should never be chilled. They discussed the question. Isn't it true that iced red win is particularly good? Yes, absolutely. By the way, women who drink icy red wine become particularly beautiful. They resemble witches somewhere. Where precisely? Somewhere. A marvelous word — somewhere. "You are a pig somewhere." I love that expression. By the way, speaking of witches — what do you think marriage is? A real marriage. An intelligent marriage. Marriage is a contract. Malianov refilled the glasses and developed the thought. In the aspect that a man and wife are first of all friends, for whom friendship is the most important think. Honesty and friendship. Marriage is a friendship. A contract on friendship, understand? He had his hand on Lidochka's bare knee and was shaking it for emphasis.

I am thus far loving Definitely Maybe, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I love the drunken trajectory of this particular passage.

(I'm slightly puzzled by the pig expression, though, and the use of "somewhere." Perhaps the translation is too literal here. I'll have to ask around. In Polish you can use "somewhere" as an exclamatory expression signifying something between indifference and disbelief. Perhaps something similar is going on here.)

It was originally published in English under the title A Billion Years Before the End of the World. I don't know the rationale for the title change to Definitely Maybe, but I can't help but be reminded of Kraftwerk's 1986 classic, Sex Objekt. (That album is now my reading soundtrack.)

NPR review.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The devil in a bottle

The experience of Mikhail Bulgakov's short story Morphine is exquisite and hallucinatory, but its meaning is a little elusive.

On the surface it's the story of a young country doctor who turns to morphine to quell his stomach pains, perhaps the manifestation of a deeper suffering. Polyakov had been in love with an opera singer, but she left him. "I was a man full of joie de vivre until my domestic drama."

Add a layer of biographical context. Bulgakov himself was addicted to morphine. During the First World War he served as a doctor on the front, where he suffered serious injuries and developed a habit.

Polyakov tries to wean himself from morphine by taking cocaine. "The Devil in a bottle. Cocaine is the Devil in a bottle":
There's no pain. On, on the contrary: I'm anticipating the euphoria that will soon be coming. And then it does come. I know of it because the sounds of the accordion which Vlas the watchman, rejoicing at spring, is playing on the porch, the ragged, hoarse sounds of the accordion, which come flying to me, muffled, through the window pane, become angelic voices, and the rough basses in billowing furs hum like a heavenly choir. But then, after an instant, obeying some mysterious law which isn't described in a single one of the pharmacology books, the cocaine in the blood is transformed into something new. I know: it's a mixture of the Devil and my blood. And on the porch Vlas flags, and I hate him, while the sunset, with an uneasy rumbling, scorches my innards. And that's how it is several times running in the course of an evening until I realize that I'm poisoned. My heart starts thumping such that I can feel it in my arms, in my temples... and then it sinks into an abyss, and there are sometimes moments when I think that Dr Polyakov won't come back to life again...

But a Bulgakov-loving Russian I know tells me this is a story about the revolution, how morphine (or vodka, or whatever) is the only means of coping with the insanity, horror, devastation, absurdity of sovietism.

Indeed, Polyakov's diary runs from January 1917 till his death in February 1918. "There's a revolution going on there." "Far, far away is dishevelled, turbulent Moscow." Perhaps the woman he pines for, unreasonably, is Mother Russia.

Medical professionals will view Morphine as a document with educational value, for example: "Bulgakov's short story Morphine documents the decline of Dr Polyakov and illustrates a number of salient professional issues such as self-medication, abuse of authority and risks to patients."

So many stories in this one story. And if we go back to the beginning, it's still not clear where happiness lies.

Morphine was originally published in 1926 and is generally collected in A Country Doctor's Notebook. Morphine is also published on its own as a New Directions Pearl.

Has anybody seen the adaptation of A Young Doctor's Notebook with Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe?

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Typical archetypical

It's a futuristic mystery dystopian sci-fi action-adventure romance. More or less.

Archetype, by M.D. Waters, is a terrifically engrossing read, perfect for a day spent sick in bed, or a weekend trapped inside your home, or very long bus rides. You get the idea. It's the kind of book that's more unputdownable than others.

The reviews and promo copy consistently reference Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. There's some of that.

Emma wakes up in a medical facility with no memory of her life before "the accident" and little knowledge of how the world works outside of the hospital. Clearly she is expected, by her husband as well as by her doctor, to conform to a specific model of wife. There's an intense Stepford Wives vibe (and a direct reference to that classic) to Emma's education regarding her expected behaviour.

Meanwhile, Emma deals with nightmares, which early on we suspect may be memories, and an inner voice that expresses constant resistance to the world outside. Emma thinks of the voice as a third party, but it's more likely a voice of conscience, or consciousness, her true self struggling to emerge through the haze of medication and neuroelectrical treatments.

It's only gradually that we become aware of the sociopolitical circumstances beyond the four walls to which Emma is confined, and indeed from which it seems she's being "protected." Women are commoditized and fertility is highly prized.
"That seems to be the big enigma for us all. Nobody can seem to pinpoint the exact reason, so they blame it on Mother Nature. Her way of compensating for the overpopulation of our species.

"Unfortunately, we'd already begun taking the steps to take are of this ourselves. Globally limiting families to one child, and at that time — oh, I'd say this started roughly two hundred years ago — couples could change the sex of their child to whatever they wanted. Men wanted their family line to continue, you see, so they chose male children more often than not."


But if you have the ability to change a child's sex, why not make more girls?" I say when I am sure his long explanation has ended.

He finds the book he was looking for and pulls it free, then heads back to his chair. "It has been outlawed after what happened last time. We do not want to risk a shortage of boys. Forcing nature to do our bidding is a risky business."

Gradually we learn about the Women's Training Centers, where women are prepared for marriage.
"Roughly a hundred years ago, a civil war broke out and split the United States right down the middle. Women in the west live free, while the east forces women at a young age into society as they see fit. It's slavery masked as a training center."

So that's the dystopian backdrop. The rest is spoiler territory.

Archetype is more entertaining than thought-provoking, but it does raise some interesting issues about identity. It's not Atwood-caliber prose or imaginings. And perhaps it tries to pack in a plot — or genre — or two more than it ought. But it's suspenseful, and there are a few twists that caught me off guard. And I will be reading the sequel, Prototype, due out in July.

(Note that this book is in some places billed as YA, but it's a little too steamy, in my view, to fit comfortably in this category.)

Profile: Shelf Awareness (in which the book sounds smarter than its author).
Review: A.V. Club.

Friday, February 07, 2014

How you do remember happiness

Clever people have been pointing out for a long time that happiness is like good health: when it's there, you don't notice it. But when the years have passed, how you do remember happiness, oh, how you do remember it!
— from Morphine, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Some books I'd ordered arrived yesterday. Coincidentally they're all Russian, setting off an olympic marathon of Russian literature.

I've yet to read past the first paragraph of Bulgakov's short story Morphine, but I love the design of this slim volume, the feel of it, it's whiteness, it's lightness, like a sheet of ice. Happiness.

Monday, February 03, 2014

What is tango?

"Tango?" said Mrs Rupa Mehra in alarm. "What is tango?"

"Bye, Ma," said Meenakshi. "Tango. A dance. We're going the Golden Slipper. Nothing to worry about. There's just a large crowd and a band and dancing."

"Abandoned dancing!" Mrs Rupa Mehra could hardly believe her ears.

— from A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

(I'm only about a third of the way through the book, but the number of pages is alarmingly high — easily the equivalent of two average novels.)

Part seven with all its parties and socializing has been particularly delightful. Lots of clever repartee, and throwaway lines like, "He's just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature."