Monday, August 21, 2017

Art is not a mirror but a hammer

I googled "written on the body" and down that rabbit hole I discovered Shirin Neshat.

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born visual artist.

See NPR: Artist Shirin Neshat Captures Iran's Sharp Contrasts In Black And White.

(Art is not a mirror but a hammer.)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Apocalyptic body song

"There is no self and other," she said, laughing into the mouth of death, the blue light at her temple gleaming laser-like into the sky and surrounding air, the song in her head crescendoing in tidal waves and reverberating in the bones of every man, woman, and child around her, her armies plunging and rising as if carried by apocalyptic body song.

And when she rested her body down upon the dirt, arms spread, legs spread, face down, there was a breach to history as well as evolution.

And the sky lit with fire, half from the weapons of his attack, half from her summoning of the earth and all its calderas — war and decreation all at once, a seeming impossibility.
It's been a while since I read The Book of Joan, but I think I still have things to say about it.

It was not an easy read for me. Overly literary, almost poetic. That's not always a bad thing. Usually I would blame myself for not connecting with a book. For some reason, this time, I am perfectly comfortable in not taking the blame. Another time, another place, I imagine I would feel similarly, just that I might explain it away differently.

I mean, "apocalyptic body song." Come on.

While the turns of phrase are sometimes beautiful, they took me out of the story rather than propel me along by fleshing it out.

That said, there's an awful lot to think about here. The trajectory on which our planet is headed, ecologically, politically, maybe morally. "We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power." Resources. "Reproduction wasn't what we mourned. We mourned the carnal." The nature of love, gender, energy, power, narrative. "I wonder sometimes if that's why grafting was born. It restores us to the evidence of a body." Physicality and magicality. "The physical world seemed only a membrane between humans and the speed and hum of information." Rebellion.

In 2049 there is a space station colony where live — if you can call it that — Earth's last survivors, among whom 49-year-old Christine, soon to be "aged out" and thus having nothing to lose, grafts the story of Joan onto her body. "What is the word for her body?"

[It's hard not to think that I would be aged out soon, too.]

[It's hard not to think of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body. It's been eons since I read it, I don't remember it, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say these novels share some themes and theory.]
Two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies. That is how art has preserved its toehold in our universe. Where there was poverty, there was also a painting someone stared at until it filled them with grateful treas. Where there was genocide, there was a song that refused to quiet. Where a planet was forsaken, there was someone telling a story with their last breath, and someone else carrying it like DNA, or star junk. Hidden matter.
Shirin Neshat. Divine Rebellion, 2012.
Los Angeles Review of Books: Retrofuturist Feminism
Now is a fine time for tales of women's resistance, which, above all else, is what The Book of Joan has on offer. Lidia Yuknavitch mines literary and political history for impressive, timely heroines based on the iconic Joan of Arc and her contemporary Christine de Pizan, the only chronicler to write during Joan’s lifetime. Yuknavitch grafts these findings onto layers of material drawn equally from contemporary critical theory, our dire political and ecological realities, and an array of speculative fiction ranging from Shakespeare's The Tempest to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the convoluted folds and counterfolds of her narrative, Yuknavitch binds these various strains together with the fates of an Earth that has not quite survived eco-catastrophe and a parasitic sky realm, CIEL, ruled over by Jean de Men, a sadistic and egotistical television-billionaire-become-dictator: "His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshipped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger," a rise made possible by the "acquiescence" of the powerful and wealthy.
The Rumpus: "A Full-Throated Cry from a Clarion"
In The Book of Joan, the last members of the human race, having "ascended" to a colony in space after a violent event, have lost their sexual organs in a devolutionary process. Insects and reptiles populate the station where these semi-humans orbit a dead Earth; the bugs and lizards are neither animal nor synthetic, but something between. The relationship of Joan, around whom the book revolves, to her companion Leone, is not sexual or platonic but something else. Everything in the novel is both-and, not either-or. "Bodies in Space"
When you center a story in the body, particularly the female body, you're going to have to grapple with ideas of autonomy, consent, life and death. We like the female body when it is wet, unless that wet is urine or period blood. We like the female body when it is DTF, not as much when it is Down To Eat or Down To Fight or, Ishtar save us, Down To Think. As the book twists and turns and changes shape it becomes far less the familiar story of a young girl leading a war, or becoming a nation's sacrificial lamb, and becomes much more about women having control over what is done to their bodies. It also mediates long and hard on those people who want to assert their desire on other people, animals, or the Earth itself.
I can't imagine whom I would recommend this book to.
The beauty is all gone now — but the vastness remains, and I can almost feel beauty just under the surface of things. It hurts to look at it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What did they do?

"Who's that you're talking to? Who is it you're calling to the table?"

"Why you, Granny. And you, Grandpa."

"Then that's what you should say. There was a woman who called everyone to dinner with the words: 'Come and sit yourselves down.' But she didn't say, 'Let the baptized souls come and sit themselves down.' So anyone who felt like it came to dinner: they crawled out from on top of the stove, from behind the stove, from the sleeping shelf, from the bench and from under the bench, all the unseen and unheard, all the unknown and undreamt of. Great big eyes peering, great big teeth clacking. 'You called us,' they said. 'Now feed us.' But what could she do? She could hardly feed such a crowd."

"What happened? What did they all do?" asked the girl, goggle-eyed.

"What do you think?"


"Well, they did what they do."

"What did they do?"

"They all did what they had to do."

"But what was it they had to do, Granny?"

"Ask too many questions — there's no knowing who'll answer."
— from "The Quiet Backwater," in Subtly Worded, by Teffi.

I'm reading this because I'm interested — I've been hearing about Teffi — but also for the Reading Across Borders Book Club, which will be discussing the book Wednesday, August 23, at 7, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

See also Ten Things You Didn't Know about Teffi.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Downstairs neighbour

When a door closes, a window opens.
Mmm, he's not bad looking, I think to myself. Maybe I should have an affair with him.

He smiles hello as I cross the courtyard to get to the stairs. I live on the second level.

He's married, two kids, but almost always outside on his own with a drink, smoking or vaping. Maybe even waiting for me, I begin to fantasize. Always acknowledges me, with a nod or sometimes even, Bon soir. An affair certainly would be convenient.

My key turns the lock, but the door sticks. It's been getting worse the last few days, must be the humidity. Oh, but it's really sticking this time. I bang on the door to get my daughter's attention, maybe if she pulls from the inside...

Mon voisin, meanwhile, is sitting downstairs, enjoying the evening air and his glass of wine. He can't not hear me; we'd see each other if we were looking.

The door is definitely not opening. I instruct my daughter to open the window, I punch the screen out from its frame. I pass my bag of groceries through first. Thank goodness for the bench outside, it'll give me a leg up.

My daughter is embarrassed for me. It's all so ridiculous.

Once inside, I still can't open the door.

I wonder if the neighbour looked up my skirt.

True story.

Monday, August 07, 2017


I'm still trying to wrap my head around Lidia Yuknavitch's The Book of Joan. I thought I didn't like it much — I want to say it's overwritten and self-indulgent. But I'm still thinking about this book, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it. So that's something.

I'll write more about it soon, but in the meantime, here's a TED Talk Yuknavitch delivered last year.
Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What do we mean by love anymore?

I've been thinking a lot about love lately.

Here's an explication of the idea of love:
What do we mean by love anymore? Love is not the story we were told. Though we wanted so badly for it to hold, the fairy tales and myths, the seamless trajectories, the sewn shapes of desire thwarted by obstacles we could heroically battle, the broken heart, the love lost the love lorn the love torn the love won, the world coming back alive in a hard-earned nearly impossible kiss. Love of God love of country love for another. Erotic love familial love the love of a mother for her children platonic love brotherly love. Lesbian love and homosexual love and all the arms and legs of other love. Transgressive love too — the dips and curves of our drives given secret sanctuary alongside happy bright young couplings and sanctioned marriages producing healthy offspring.

Oh love.

Why couldn't you be real?

It isn't that love dies. It's that we storied it poorly. We tried too hard to contain it and make it something to have and to hold.

Love was never meant to be less than electrical impulse and the energy of matter, but that was no small thing. The Earth's heartbeat or pulse or telluric current, no small thing. The stuff of life itself. Life in the universe, cosmic or as small as an atom. But we wanted it to be ours. Between us. For us. We made it small and private so that we'd be above all other living things. We made it a word, and then a story, and then a reason to care more about ourselves than anything else on the planet. Our reasons to love more important than any others.

The stars were never there for us — we are not the reason for the night sky.

The stars are us.

We made love stories up so we could believe the night sky was not so vast, so unbearably vast, that we barely matter.
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

Electric Love • Time Lapse from Android Jones on Vimeo.

I've been thinking about love, because I'm wondering if I'm missing some. I might agree that it's a selfish impulse.

I have a few chapters to go to finish The Book of Joan — the days of this summer are long and full. On some level, the book seems to be saying that we have evolved past the narrative of love (or, we will have by the time of the novel's not-too-distant future setting). Love is not to have, it's to be. Yet it laments the private and personal.

How will this love story end?

Monday, July 24, 2017

To surrender to the crucible

To be human the film suggested, was to step into the full flurry and motion of all humanity: to bear the weight of circumstances without flinching, to surrender to the crucible — to admit that history was not something in the past but something you consciously step into. Living a life meant knowing you might be killed instantly, like one who wanders into the path of a runaway train. It was the first time I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos.

When I came out of the theater, I said to my mother, "It's like we're stars in space. It's like space is the theater and we are the bits of stardust and everything everywhere is the story."
— from The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The film is not named, but surely it is Doctor Zhivago that is described. I can't say I feel the same way about this film as Yuknavitch's narrator does, but I remember having a similar epiphany (for me the film was Wings of Desire).

This book is not even a little bit what I expected it to be.

Messianic time.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Today I read the saddest poem

Today I read the saddest poem, flipping through journals at the magazine shop. It brought tears to my eyes. I stopped breathing, and my heart stopped for an instant too.

It was so sad, I had to buy this summer reading issue of Tin House. You can't read something that sad and just put it back on the rack. Plus, there's an octopus on the cover.

The poem is "Dusk" by Tracy K Smith, just recently named US Poet Laureate. Justly so.

"Dusk" starts like this:
What woke to war in me those years
When my daughter had first grown into
A solid self-centered self? I'd watch her
Sit at the table — well, not quite sit,
More like stand on one leg while
The other knee hovered just over the chair.
She wouldn't lower herself, as if
There might be a fire, or a great black
Blizzard of waves let loose in the kitchen,
And she'd need to make her escape.
I came home and told my daughter I'd read the saddest poem, about having a teenage daughter, and she asked me if I needed a hug and I said yes.
I thought I’d have more time! I thought
My body would have taken longer going
About the inevitable feat of repelling her,

Thursday, July 13, 2017

She can talk back to me, though not too much

My vacation reading went off the rails pretty early on. The book I was reading in Edinburgh was set in Edinburgh, but as soon as we settled into the train ride south, a restlessness overcame me. The books I'd brought with me were laid aside, and I picked up other reading material along the way. My London stay was defined by Tim Parks's Calm. On the last day in London I came across Tove Jansson's Letters from Klara, which seemed would make for perfect seaside reading.

(The cover image and the French flaps made this book irresistible to me.)

Letters from Klara is a volume of short stories originally published in 1991, appearing now in English translation for the first time.

Jansson is probably best known for the Moomin books (did you know there's a Moomin Shop at Covent Garden?), but NYRB has been steadily reissuing her adult fiction over the last several years.

The thirteen stories in this volume transcend time; one barely notices the absence of modern technology and the reliance on post or telegram. But they feel shrouded in nostalgia. I read these stories between naps, on the beach and on a plane, allowing each story to breathe, but one could easily devour this volume in one sitting.

These stories are mostly character portraits. They might be interpreted as reflections on a life lived; more than one story alludes to switching careers, how difficult it would be to start over. I feel scolded for both taking matters too seriously and not seriously enough.

On several occasions I found myself talking back at the book and exclaiming in disbelief ("What a bitch!"). People do some nasty things in these stories.

Other people are not we expect or remember them to be.

Above all these stories demonstrate how impossible it is to understand each other and how inscrutable our motivations are. Everyone operates by their own unique internal logic.

But they are sweet and bittersweet.
I think when I have a daughter, I'll teach her to whistle. It could be useful to whistle to each other in case we lost track of each other in the woods. If she doesn't answer, then I'll know she wants to be left alone. If she goes out in The Dinghy, I won't row after her and bring her home if it starts to blow. I won't make her pick blueberries, but she can pick mushrooms because that's fun. My daughter can wear any old trousers she wants to, and she can talk back to me, though not too much. She will look like me but prettier. Autumn is coming, so I won't write any more today.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

An abstract music of galactic desolation

Electronic music had just begun to appear at that time — Pierre Schaeffer, Klaus Schulze — an abstract music of galactic desolation that enraptured me. I wanted Karin to hear it too, but I should never have played that record. I explained that this was a new thing they were experimenting with. "Now just listen to this," I said. "It's like the pulsing of the spheres in space. Don't you think?"

"Quiet," said Karin. "I'm listening."

We listened together. The room seemed to throb electronically. Karin had gone pale and sat utterly motionless.

I jumped up to turn off the music but Karin yelled, "Don't! This is important to me!"

I should have remembered this was the moment when Dante descended into the Underworld and was met by the cries of the lost souls.

"I know," Karin said. "This is it. Now comes the voice of God."

And it came. How could she have known!? A deep, sorrowful bass that cut through the music with incomprehensible words and vanished into the galaxy amidst vibrations that finally lost themselves in silence.

"Forgive me..." I said. "You understand, this is a new kind of music they've just invented."

"No," said Karin calmly, "it has always existed. The lost souls are with us always, I know them. It's like a grey wave — any time, any place, on the street, on the train — obliterating everything. They cry for help and we sink in sin, theirs and our own. Can you play it again?"

But I didn't want to.
— from "My Friend Karin" in Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson.

Sometime in the 80s, my brother discovered Klaus Schulze, and it was much like the times he discovered Kraftwerk and Beethoven. He rushed into the house, headed straight for the stereo, repositioned the speakers so the sound would roll over the dining table. Late for supper, again.

This was before trance music, before rave culture. This is how he would share with us his newest, his latest, religion. "Listen to this. Can you hear that? You can hear... Don't you get it?!"

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Still life

One aspect of Vipassana still bothered him, indeed had come to bother him more and more, to the point where he was now ready to stop meditating. "What does it mean, " he asked, "when they say the thoughts are not my thoughts? What can that mean? How can the thoughts not be my thoughts?"
I don't like Tim Parks.

I attended an event several years ago where he was reading, and I overheard him saying things — not publicly, but to an individual — that rubbed me the wrong way. He struck me as a man of tremendous ego. On this basis, I have refused to read his novels, and I read his columns in the New York Review of Books aggressively and antagonistically — I love to hate them and find fault with them wherever I can.

All of which makes it particularly puzzling that I should be drawn to pick up Calm, and that I should find it so satisfying.

There I was, restless and wandering the gift shops of the Tate Modern, and there were lined up all the pretty Vintage Minis, and I suddenly had to have one, I had to have a pretty little book as a souvenir, a book that was Art, and Modern, and Summer, and Britain.

And I picked them up, one by one, to see what they were about. These are slim volumes that excerpt previously published work.

But this vacation was not about love, desire, or drinking, not even motherhood or summer. I almost left with that itch to buy a book unscratched, when Calm caught my eye. Striped shades of purple. Calm. An antidote to my restlessness. By an author I dislike. A paradox like a zen koan. My own little book of calm.

(Weirdly, Calm is the book repeatedly recommended to me by the "which Vintage Mini do you need in your life?" quiz, even when I switch up my responses.)

Calm is an extract from Teach Us to Sit Still, in which the sceptical Parks attends a Buddhist meditation retreat.

Why did I think I could learn something about calm, achieve some kind of calm, via the reflections of an aging white male academic? His pains are not my pains, physical or emotional. His teachings cannot be my lessons.
Attachment with aversion was a new idea to me. But I sensed at once what he meant. It was like when I read an author I despised because I despised him, because I enjoyed thinking what a scandal it was that this man was a celebrity. Or when I kept complaining about a colleague at the university because my identity was intensified by my opposition to him. Or when I listened to the radio outside Ruggero's study in order to loathe it. Did I attach to pain in the same way? Scratching sores. Was it possible that this grand showdown with myself that I had planned and been denied actually had to do with the pain I was now experiencing? The showdown was taking place without my realising it was the showdown.
I may not have learned anything, but I found a calm satisfaction in this book. Something about the relationship between the ineffable and the tangible, inner and outer, stillness and life. Thematically in keeping with what had brought me to this book, the Giacometti exhibition I'd viewed at the Tate Modern — the problem of achieving maximal expression through a minimum of means.

Calm lends itself well to introspection, examining how we think about thought and how we transform wordlessness into words. Parks's reflections only confirm how vast his ego is, but I admire his honesty. And as much as I enjoyed this read, I confess I don't intend to read any more Parks ever.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Book space

Spotted underground:

I suppose storage services have been around for some time, but this ad brings a fresh perspective. My daughter is convinced I am in need of such services.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The power of place

Skulk turned right onto the Mile, up for a couple of hundred metres and then left, onto the George IV Bridge above the dark chasm of the Cowgate. At this time tomorrow it would be crowded, rain or no rain, but tonight it was almost empty, Thursday's revellers mostly behind the doors of the clubs. The machine stalked between the two big libraries to the top of Candlemaker Row, into the alley of Greyfriars and up and over the gate into Greyfriars Kirkyard. It paced past the church towards the Flodden Wall, and paused at the corner where the path turned towards the Covenanters' Prison.

Somewhere at the back of the roofless mausoleum of Thomas Potter (Nuper Mercator Edinburgis) a pebble shifted. A long shape lifted itself from the ground.
— from The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

This may not strike you as a particularly powerful passage, but it chilled me to the bone.

Not hours beforehand I'd walked the same route, stopped for some takeaway, then turned down Candlemaker Row to loop round to my hotel on Cowgate. I lay there in that chasm, recalling the stories our ghoulish tour guide told us of the ghosts in the graveyard.

I am grateful, too, for the history lesson, as Covenanters are deeply relevant to MacLeod's novel.

This turned out to be a most fortuitous choice of reading material while visiting Edinburgh.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

London on fire

From the entry concerning the secrets of St. Bartholomew's the Greater, featuring bad puns and briny floods and heralded as a rare survivor:
Very little of early medieval London remains intact today, because Londoners, like the unwise Little Pig, built houses of wood, and the city burned down in 1077, 1087, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. Almost anything left intact from these was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Maybe you don't think that's very funny; then, to hell with you.

Secret London: An Unusual Guide is as fantastic as the other book in this series I perused before traveling to Venice.

I'll be in London in about two weeks' time, and I know I won't be visiting very many of these "unusual" places (maybe a couple: the traffic light tree? the Monument?), but just knowing they exist — both the secrets and the guidebooks — brings me irrational joy.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Somerset Maugham meets death metal

Juhan was wearing skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a massive black leather jacket with jangly silver zippers, which hung from his shoulders like the wings of a pterodactyl. In appearance, it was as if Somerset Maugham had, in the final years of his life, decided to take up death metal.
— from Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson.

Can you picture it? Might Somerset Maugham ever have taken up death metal? I'd like to think so.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Shitty, shitty rain

Edinburgh rain was like a judgement. It soaked into the bones, into the structures of the buildings, into the memories of the tourists. It lingered for days, splashing up from puddles by the roadside, breaking up marriages, chilling, killing, omnipresent. The typical postcard home from an Edinburgh boarding-house: "Edinburgh is lovely. The people rather reserved. Saw the Castle yesterday, and the Scott Monument. It's a very small city, almost a town really. You could fit it inside New York and never notice it. Weather could be better."

Photo by Steffani Cameron.
Weather could be better. The art of euphemism. Shitty, shitty rain.
— from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

I wasn't really interested in reading a series starring yet another clichéd troubled-yet-sensitive, hard-drinking detective. But I'm vacationing in Edinburgh in a few weeks' time, and I was told the city features strongly in Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, like a character in its own right, so it seemed appropriate to read one, to set the mood for my holiday.

There's a lightness to the writing, great humour and wit, that makes it vey engaging, despite the grimness of the plot. I was halfway through when I realized that novel hadn't devoted much time at all to the actual mystery of the serial killer. And that's fine — the story certainly didn't bog down in the details of police procedure. I'm curious to see how subsequent Rebus novels play out, now that the groundwork for his character has been established.
Edinburgh slept on, as it had slept for hundreds of years. There were ghosts in the cobble alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements, but they were Enlightenment ghosts, articulate and deferential.
I'm sold on Edinburgh — its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature and rain like judgement.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Does this book make me look fat?

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad, is a breezy read that becomes profoundly sad the instant you step back from it.

The novel consists of 13 stories, each of which could stand independently, chronicling Elizabeth's life, from fat teen to gym-going, food-weighing, unhappy obsessive. She sheds a lot of weight, but loses friends, her mother, and her marriage along the way. She tries on new names along with new bodies, each new identity a new relationship with her body: Lizzie, Elizabeth, Beth, Liz. (And it's her husband's fault when he can't keep up with her preference.)

Many reviews stress how much more this book is about than body image: friendship, loneliness, a girl's relationship with her mother, blah, blah, blah, what it means to be human. Well, no. Everyone of those facets is firmly based in Lizzie's relationship to her body.

Awad doesn't make any overt social commentary; all the criticisms of Lizzie come from within herself, with the occasional boost from her mother. I hate to think that there are women out there who live like she does, but I don't doubt it's true. Also, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for not addressing weight loss more concertedly, and for being relatively happy.

These are tight, well-written stories. Go ahead, read them. No, I don't mean anything by that; you look great.

Globe and Mail
The Rumpus
Washington Post

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Nothing tasted better than a venial sin

Near his flat, he passed a little grocery shop outside which were stacked crates of milk and morning rolls. The owner had complained in private to Rebus about petty and occasional thefts, but would not submit a complaint proper. The shop was as dead as the street, the solitude of the moment disturbed only by the distant rumble of a taxi on cobblestones and the persistence of the dawn chorus. Rebus looked around him, examining the many curtained windows. Then, swiftly, he tore six rolls from a layer and stuffed them into his pockets, walking away a little too briskly. A moment later he hesitated, then walked on tiptoe back to the shop, the criminal returning to the scene of the crime, the dog to its vomit. Rebus had never actually seen dogs doing that, but he had it on the authority of Saint Peter.

Locking round again, he lifted a pint of milk out of its crate and made his getaway, whistling silently to himself.

Nothing in the world tasted as good for breakfast as stolen rolls with some butter and jam and a mug of milky coffee. Nothing tasted better than a venial sin.
—from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reading local

This was the year Beyoncé wore a dress made entirely from the sounds of thunder and lightning. The Painter watched from the couch with his daughter and his wife as the three of them stared at the beautiful woman on the television screen accept a Grammy award.

"I want to be her," said his daughter.

"You want to be a singer?" asked his wife.

"No," she said, "I want to cease to exist. I wish that my life had never begun and my soul could occupy that body instead of my own. I wish this," she pinched the skin of her tiny arm, "wasn't even real. And I lived in there." She pointed towards the television: all of the beautiful, shiny people.

She was only twelve, but times had been tough.
Montreal can boast of being home to countless writers, whether it's writers who were born here and moved on or writers from elsewhere that chose to settle here. Historical giants include the likes of Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler, but you may be more familiar with contemporary names: Heather O'Neill, Steven Pinker, Louise Penny, Jo Walton.

(I don't think these writers share any Montreal-specific quality in their styles per se, but I do love when Montreal itself features as a character in the writing.)

While the "big" city may attract talent, Montreal is not much of a publishing centre, at least not for anglophones since separatism became a thing (see The plight of the angry anglo writer in Montreal). So young aspiring writers face many of the same challenges as those from nowhere towns. Slowly, the anglo marginalization may be changing (see Young writers drive Montreal's literary scene).

Browsing a local bookstore, I realized that Montreal is these days producing some great literature, and I should explore it and give it whatever small platform I can.

An Indoor Kind of Girl
Enter An Indoor Kind of Girl, by Frankie Barnet. It's a slim volume of five stories, packaged with a gorgeous 30s aesthetic, bold white type on forest green. It's a very holdable book with nice wide margins, produced by small press Metatron.

These stories are a slice of life, if your life is twenty-something and has a drifter hipster vibe, viewed through a surreal, but still relateable, lens. I mean, who hasn't worked in an office where the policy was to say you were operating out of New York City, sat by the ocean and caught up with the baby that was the fetus you long ago aborted, or lived in a an apartment that was victim to a turtle (or butterfly) infestation?

An Indoor Kind of Girl is packed with imaginative scenarios tightly woven around characters that are slightly detached, as if they were alien trying to pass for human. There's also a strong feminist undercurrent running through these stories, with some serious subjects, like abuse, abortion, and sexual agency, but they are saved from tragedy through the whimsy of the storytelling (poor capybara!).

Montreal-specific quality? One character nips down to the dep for a bottle of wine. (That's dépanneur to the uninitiated.)

Definitely Frankie Barnet is a writer to watch.

Stories from An Indoor Kind of Girl
"Gay for Her" via Metatron
"It Is Often the Beautiful Ones You Have to Watch Out For"via Matrix Magazine
"A Plot of Ocean" via Peach Mag

And a story that's not in An Indoor Kind of Girl:
"Brewster's Century What?" via Joyland

Interview with Frankie Barnet at Maudlin House.

Friday, May 26, 2017

All Russia's honest men drank like fish

So, where did all this start? Well, it all started when Tikhonov nailed his fourteen propositions to the door of the Yeliseiko village soviet. Or rather, he didn't nail them to the door, he chalked them up on the fence, and they were words, really, not propositions, very clear and succinct, and there weren't fourteen of them, just two. Well, anyway, that's where it all started.
You can see how we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. But sincere. He exaggerates, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much in the end, does it? The spirit is true.

I was tempted to dismiss Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev, as drunken, if poetic, ramblings, lovely ramblings — one man's journey by train to a Moscow suburb. But amid searching for a drink, tales of past drunken escapades, and cocktail recipes (including the likes of White Lilac toilet water and brake fluid), there's a very sober grappling with Kant, free will vs predetermination, the meaning of life, and the angelic orders. And love and death.

And it's quite funny. (In a Bulgakov kind of way.)

Also, it includes graphs, detailing the productivity of his coworkers as plotted against their alcohol consumption.
"What's that got to do with the Social Democrats and Khovanshchina?"

"Plenty! That's where the whole thing started, when they switched from Veuve Cliquot to rotgut. Middle-class intellectuals, rowdyism, Khovanshchina! All these Uspenskys, all these Pomyalovskys — they couldn't write a line without a drink. I've read them, I know! All Russia's honest men drank like fish, yes. And why did they drink? They drank out of sheer desperation. They drank because they were honest! Because they weren't able to relieve the people's suffering. The people were suffocating in poverty and ignorance, you just read Pisarev! This is what Pisarev says: 'The people can't afford beef, but vodka's cheaper than beef, so the Russian peasant drinks, he drinks out of poverty! And he can't buy books, because there's no Gogol or Belinsky in the market, only vodka — yes, there's plenty of vodka, any sort you like, draught or bottled. And that's why he drinks, he drinks out of ignorance!'

"You see? No wonder they were miserable, no wonder they wrote about the peasants, and tried to save them, and no wonder they started drinking out of sheer desperation. The Social Democrats wrote and drank, they drank while they wrote. But the peasants couldn't read and drink both, they just drank! So Uspensky ups and hangs himself, Pomyalovsky lies down under a bar counter and snuffs it, and Garshin flings himself off a bridge, pig-drunk!"
So it's a book about drinking, but it's also about drinking, in all its political, religious, metaphysical glory.

Clearly this book describes much more than a trip to the suburbs. It's a Dante-esque exploration. The ending devastated me. I'm still reeling.

Truly this is a lost classic.

Yerofeev, or Erofeev or Yerofeyev, wrote this prose poem — variously titled Moscow Stations, Moscow-Petushki, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Circles — in 1969, but it was not published in the USSR till 20 years later. Yerofeev cut a tragic figure, and little of his work was ever published.

See also: Venedikt Erofeev: The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is it those eyes want to say?

Another Simenon novel, another bullet to my head.

The Hand, by Georges Simenon, is true to form. Ah, the mind games old married couples play.
"You're going through a crisis typical of almost all men your age..."

If she thinks that, she's mistaken. I know myself. It isn't the infatuation of a man growing old. Besides, I am not in love. Neither am I plunging into some kind of pathological sexuality.

I remain composed, attentive to what is happening inside me and around me and am alone, no doubt, in knowing that there is nothing new in my innermost thoughts, except that I have finally dared to look at them in the light of day.

So, what is it those eyes want to say?

"I pity you..."
This novel might have been as effectively called The Eyes. The eyes are his wife's, the hand his mistress's. Her eyes are a mystery to him — what do they see? — full of curiosity and judgment.

The hand, however, is a compulsion, entirely passive but under his male gaze beckoning. The novel is barely about that hand, but trust the male to choose to make it about that hand.

The Hand starts with a snowstorm. One of their party is lost to the elements. Donald Dodd meanwhile loses his bearings.
"The important thing," my father used to say, "is to make the right choice to begin with..."

He was talking about choosing not only a wife but a profession, a way of life, a way of thinking.

I thought I had chosen. I have done my best. I have worn myself out doing my best.

And, little by little, I have wound up hoping to see approval in Isabel's eyes.

What I had chosen, in the end, was a witness, a benevolent witness, someone who, with a glance, would let me understand that I was keeping myself on the right path.
This is quite a good novel. At under 200 pages, it's an easy diversion but still thought-provoking. I've read enough Simenon to know when to read him; one must take care, as it can send one's soul flying into dangerous territory.

I am at times tired of hearing how the poor hero has been emasculated and has no control over his life, a victim of the various women in his life, fighting societal convention to prove himself to be more than an empty shell. Sometimes I want to read those women's stories.

I marvel that, for all the hundreds of books Simenon wrote, any novel of his could hope to feel original. The Hand is a slow burn with a great pay-off. I should've seen it coming, but I didn't see it coming.
She heaved a sigh, as on every evening, to mark the end of her day and the beginning of a night's rest.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Things I could write about

I found a book at the bookstore, and I wanted it, I wanted it badly. But the more I turned it over, the more I realized I didn't want it so much as I wanted to have written it.

Egg, by Nicole Walker, published by Bloomsbury.

(Also, I've been craving eggs for the last week.)

This book is part of a series, Object Lessons, about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

The egg, however, is no ordinary thing. Is it?

The series includes as subjects objects such as phone booth, eye chart, password, and tumor, but also concepts like silence, jet lag, and traffic.

Things I might like to write about
Grocery list.

Those are just the object things.

The important things I should be writing about include
  • the buskers of Square Victoria
  • the myth of the bored suburban housewife
  • my coworker's doppelganger, who works just one block over
  • how my mother is and is not a feminist
  • the man who lived in two apartments
So I bought a completely different book instead.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

His own little rebellion

Dinner over, he took the empty plastic tray from his hotpot back into the kitchen and dumped it in the bin. He was supposed to separate out recyclable and unrecyclable plastics, but nobody seemed to notice and he was starting to view it as his own little rebellion against the forces of authority, a mask for the real rebellion, the one which could conceivably get him killed. Look at me, I don't recycle, I'm an anarchist.
— from Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Hiccups are above any kind of law

Of course, to commence our investigation of hiccups, we must first call them forth: either an sich, in the terminology of Immanuel Kant, which means from ourselves, or else from some other person, but for our own purposes, which is für sich, as Kant terms it. Of course, the best of the lot is both an sich and für sich, and here's what you do: drink some sort of strong spirit, say Starka, or Trapper's or Hunter's vodka, for two hours non-stop. Drink it in tumblerfuls, one every half-hour, if possible without any snacks. If you find that difficult, you can allow yourself a bite to eat, but something really unpretentious: bread that's seen better days, sprats, spiced or plain, or sprats in tomato sauce.

Then break off for an hour, don't eat or drink anything, just let your muscles go limp, and don't strain. And before that hour's up, you'll see for yourself: with the very first hiccup, you'll be amazed at the suddenness of the onslaught; then you'll be amazed at the uniqueness of the second hiccup, and the third hiccup, likewise. But if you're not a complete idiot, you'd better stop being amazed and get down to business: write down at what intervals your hiccup deigns to visit you — in seconds, of course:

8 - 13 - 7 - 3 - 18 ...

Naturally you'll try to establish some sort of periodicity here, even very roughly; idiot or not, you'll have a stab at working out some ridiculous formula or other, to predict the length of the next interval. Try, by all means. Feel free. But life will topple all your half-arsed constructions.

17 - 3 - 4 - 17 - 1 - 20 - 3 - 4 - 7 - 7 - 7 - 18 ...

You know, the leaders of the world proletariat, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, are supposed to have made an in-depth study of changes in social structures, and on that basis they were able to predict a whole heap of stuff. But they'd have been completely foxed by this one. Yes, you have entered, in pursuit of a personal whim, the realm of Fate — so bow the knee and be patient. Life will put all your mathematics to shame, both elementary and higher:

13 - 15 - 4 - 12 - 4 - 5 - 28 ...

Now, isn't this the way in which rise and fall, ecstasy and agony, alternate in each individual life — without the merest hint of regularity? Isn't this how catastrophes line up for the human race — in random order? Yes, the law is above us all, and hiccups are above any kind of law. And just as their commencement takes you by surprise, so also will their ending, and ending which, like death, we can neither foretell nor prevent:

22 - 14 stop. And silence.

And in that silence your heart will say to you: they are unfathomable, and we are powerless. We are bereft of free will, at the disposal of a fate which is nameless, and from which there is no salvation.

We are trembling wretches, and they are omnipotent. They are the right hand of God, which is poised above us all, and before which only cretins and scoundrels will not bow their heads. He is inscrutable, and in consequence — He is.

Therefore be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
— "Kilometre 33 to Elektrougli," in Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev.

(With a nod to Danny Yee, whose post saved me from retyping this entire excerpt.)

This novel, which often reads more like a series of prose poems, is very meditative, and in describing each leg of our intrepid hero's journey, it is highly conducive to reading during one's daily commute.

I'm not quite halfway. I lingered over this chapter, realizing how beautifully it encapsulates the feel of this novel to this point: the drinking and Kant and the crazy. The narrator is just within reach of the sublime, and just misses, both inspired and hindered by drink.

Also, wtf? Hiccups are the embodiment of free will?

Monday, May 15, 2017

People are people

I have been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I blame my mother. In fact, I hold her single-handedly responsible for the popularity of this book. (OK, it was probably Obama's recommendation.)

It was back in the fall that I went to the bookstore with a couple of coworkers at lunch, and we came across a display of Sapiens. I recognized the author's name as that behind Homo Deus, which my mother had been telling me about because she thought it would interest me (and she was right), having heard Harari in interview on one of her many news channels. So I pointed the book out to my coworkers, and before I new it they were both buying a copy. (At this point, I was still hoping that someone would get me the future-looking Homo Deus, rather than the history-based Sapiens, for my birthday.) Then started the raves, and the campaigning to "do" Sapiens for book club.

Fast-forward six months. We did indeed last week discuss parts 1 and 2 (of 4) of Sapiens at book club. We went more than three hours and spent most of it at each other's throats. Fighting mostly about feminism, I think, while mostly sober.

This book is provocative. It's not that Harari puts forth any contentious arguments — I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint anything I may actually have learned — it's merely the fact that these subjects were gathered and presented together. Things we take for granted but that we need to talk about. Capitalism. Racism. Sexism. Humankind's violent nature(?).

Some sections seem a little simplistic; that can't be avoided in a book with such ambitious scope.

I'm finding the book to be weirdly judgmental; Harari explains history on this grand scale and that it couldn't've unfolded any other way, but then blames us for it. I can't decide whether this is careless or deliberately manipulative in order to spur action to quell our darker nature, but if the latter is the case, it risks antagonizing the audience it needs to reach and preaching to the choir. Ultimately, where we've been, were we are, and where we're going — it's all inevitable.

I'm not very good at reading nonfiction, so I appreciated having book club as an incentive. I do plan on reading the second half of the book, but I may take a little break before getting back to it.

See also:
Harari's most recent article on the meaning of life in a world without work:
To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. The meaning of life is always a fictional story created by us humans.
It sounds like Harari is saying in this essay that in the future, we will all play video games all day long. But I will give Harari the benefit of the doubt that his writing is sloppy, that he does not intend to insult humanity and be so casually dismissive of our choices, that he is trying to express the more meaningful fact that humans are adept at constructing realities to occupy and amuse themselves.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Watching, waking, leaking, planning

Life is busy of late. My reading is very piecemeal. Somehow I've managed to get myself to this point where, unnaturally for me, I'm reading four books or more at the same time. I'm highly distractible these days, and the lack of reading focus exacerbates the feeling of being unmoored. This blog in fact brings some kind of structure and routine to my life, and I miss it when I ignore it. That ends today.

Here's some of what's been going on.

My mother is a feminist, but she doesn't know it. And she's far more open-minded than she believes herself to be.

Thank gawd for television. If it weren't for television, my mother might not recognize Margaret Atwood for the Canadian icon she is. Somehow, Peter Mansbridge and I convinced my mom to give the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale a try, arguing that it's deeply relevant commentary on our Trumpian times.

It's dark and riveting, and my mother agrees.

My mom asked me in our first telephone debriefing, "It's almost like... is this science fiction?" I said the only thing I could say. "Ummm, nnnoooo."

Impulse purchase at a checkout counter: We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I should own a copy of this, leave it lying around the house for visitors to pick up. But I don't have many visitors. I thought about wrapping it up for my teenage daughter, but then thought better of it. She'll find her own brand of feminism without my pressing manifestoes on her. So I sent it to my mother.

If you haven't already, watch Adichie's TED Talk. (Or just listen to Beyoncé. See also.)

As part of this year's Blue Metropolis literary festival, Barbara Gowdy was interviewed by Kathleen Winter, substituting for Heather O'Neill at the last minute. I've read only one of Gowdy's books, The White Bone, and it devastated me to the point that I deliberately stayed away from everything else she published for fear of further devastation or, worse, disappointment. But O'Neill was in fact the main draw for me to attend this event; had I known she was absent, I might not have made the effort, but I'm glad I did.

Gowdy's latest is Little Sister, about a woman who through paranormal means ends up inhabiting another's body, but, if I understood correctly, that body is not a mere vehicle (à la Being John Malkovich) — it's a catalyst for a much deeper experience.

The conversation was fantastic, weaving around this idea of fluidity, that so many boundaries have lost their rigidity, particularly in terms of identity, and everything is leaking into everything else. They also discussed, admiringly, George Saunders' Lincoln at the Bardo, which covers some similar territory (as well as the phenomenon of how similar, or even the same ideas, can crop up independently of one another). I'm very much looking forward to reading both the Gowdy and the Saunders (eventually).

The flights are booked: the kid and I are planning a holiday, splitting our time between Edinburgh, London, and Brighton (with daytrips to the likes of Stonehenge and Oxford).

I'm full up on English literature, but I'd like to read some novels set in Edinburgh. Any recommendations?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

People who took sleep seriously

On the morning of the second day, he opened his eyes and found himself lying in the most comfortable bed he had ever encountered. It was the kind of bed that a person would have to be bodily picked up and carried away from just in order to get up in the morning. But it paled in comparison to the pillows his head rested on, stuffed with down to such precisely-calibrated firmness that they could only have been the end-result of centuries of research. He was covered with crisply-laundered cotton sheets, topped by an old-fashioned quilt. He felt warm and safe and perfectly relaxed. Whatever else had happened to him, he had clearly fallen into the hands of people who took sleep seriously, and it was difficult to hate such people.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

Monday, May 01, 2017


When I was seventeen, I had a very good year. In fact, it may even have started when I was sixteen. I developed a crush on an older man. Even if it started with a crush on his cat.

Clive (the cat) would sit in the middle of the sidewalk outside his shop, beside the bakery I frequented. Soon enough, I was frequenting his shop, pretending to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to have the guts to be in the market for retro clothing. Pretending to be the kind of cool I hoped to one day actually be. You know, university student cool.

He gave me a poem he'd written about his cat.

Some friends and I took to cutting class, the period after lunch, to hang out at the shop, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.

We talked about what I was reading (he asked; I guess even then I always carried a book with me). That was my Somerset Maugham phase. He knew them all. My crush deepened. He told me to read Butler's The Way of All Flesh; I did.

He asked what I thought about one book or other, I honestly forget which, and I said it was interesting, and he berated me for lazy thinking. And I've never used the word since, unless I was prepared to expand on an argument.

(He also taught me that when someone is lighting your cigarette, you must look him in the eye.)

As an editor, I've been telling this story to my writers for years. You write "interesting," and I will delete it. Tell me why it's interesting, or if you need to build up to a full explanation, at least give me a flavour: unexpected, playful, nostalgic, frightening.

So when I came across the following passage in Dexter Palmer's Version Control, I had some rethinking to do.
If the worst thing a physicist could say about a statement is that it was "false," the best thing he could say is that it was "interesting." This was different from saying it was true: most true things were, in fact, uninteresting. Interesting statements lived on the twilit boundary between fact and question; they held the promise of revealing something unexpected and new about the world, and thus were to be treated with respect. The physicists Rebecca met always seemed to be on the lookout for something interesting, a claim or proposition that seemed to possess some kind of rare interior light.

Rebecca came to understand that Philip's constant repetition of the word "interesting" meant that he was offering what he saw as the most precious of compliments.
Most of my writers are engineers. I am trying to understand "interesting" from their perspective.

But my crush was not a physicist. And I've been hardwired over thirty years to think "interesting" was boring.

See also
The word "interesting"
"Interesting" is a Boring, Overused, and Lifeless Word

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Books! Beautiful books!

It's Independent Bookstore Day, and I feel I ought to spend my day patronizing some. Truth is, there aren't too many in these parts, serving literature in English anyway.

Recently I made a lunch hour trip to one store, not Chapters, that reminded me how intimate and independently curated shops stoke my love for print.

(Frankly, though this store started as an independent — ah, I remember visiting it when... — it was bought out by a local francophone chain and a couple years ago bought again by a still large francophone chain, so while it stands as an English bookstore among a chain of French-language shops, some of which are purportedly but not very practically bilingual, I'm not convinced it qualifies as "independent.")

I fell in love with many books on display. Here's a sample...

Pulp! The Classics: A pulp fiction touch to counter the seriousness of literature.

Picador Modern Classics: Will fit in your pocket. Stylishly.

Alma Classics: Lovely stylized cover art for a retro modern vibe.

Canterbury Classics: Leather-bound with "word cloud" cover graphics for a modern look.

Harper Olive Editions: Bold colours and stripey spines, an eclectic mix of titles that span the past century, many of which I've never heard of.

MacMillan Collector's Library: Compact volumes wrapped in robin's egg blue.

Penguin Essentials: Classics made to look fun and relevant.

Penguin Great Ideas: No longer being produced, but still original and beautiful.

Penguin Pocket Classics: I want them all. I love that the text is made to speak for itself.

Pushkin Press London Library: Small and clever.

Ebooks are fine — I love then, I read them all the time — and online shopping is expedient, but sometimes I still need to go to a bookstore.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Game, narrative, art

Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival is on, and a few events have caught my attention.

Earlier this week I attended a lecture on "New Aesthetics in Game Narratives." Under discussion were Jason Rohrer's Passage, Davey Wreden's The Stanley Parable, and Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia.

Somewhat ironically, while these games are considered classics among game designers and academics, they are not widely known among mainstream gamers. (And I don't fall into any of these categories. What the hell am I doing here?)

I'm not convinced that any of the aesthetics under discussion were exactly new, but the point was made that these games were not merely stories being told in a different format. The act of them being gamified imbued the narrative with a whole 'nother level of meaning. Truly, you could not transfer these games to text and retain the intended effect. Being in the game, playing the game, and being subject to game tropes is essential to the narrative.

[This is in sharp contrast to, say, games in the Assassin's Creed franchise, which have high production value and excel at storytelling, but in a very traditional way (even when it gets meta).]

Of the games on deck, I can claim familiarity only with The Stanley Parable. Kind of Kafka meets Douglas Adams. Kind of beautiful.

Also, I had trouble finding the damn lecture space at the university. I walked endless corridors and checked an infinite number of empty rooms (it seems I came up an unexpected elevator), always circling back on myself, waiting for a voice inside my head to set me on the right path. It dawned on me that this must be part of the planned lecture experience (it wasn't).

Monday, April 24, 2017

Something secretly crafty about bar-codes

Unpacking after one of Lewis's infrequent shopping expeditions was an adventure. Lewis had a theory that there was something secretly crafty about bar-codes, that They were tracking each bar-coded item and compiling vast lists for a purpose made even more sinister and terrifying by being entirely unknown.

So trips to the supermarket inevitably ended with bags and packets piled on the kitchen table, Lewis bent over them with the scissors, cutting off bar-codes, to be burned later. When Seth first saw him doing this, he had inquired whether his flatmate needed regular medication, but it had turned out that Lewis was a relative rarity: a completely sane man whose world-view was almost entirely irrational. Sometimes, thinking about it, Seth wondered if Lewis might not actually be right.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

I can't recall where I heard about this book. I'm sure it was an end-of-year roundup, that may have mentioned this review at Pechorin's Journal.

I'm finding Europe in Autumn to be immensely enjoyable. A sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future (about twenty years after Scotland separates), I'm still waiting for the more conventionally science-fictional aspects to kick in. But it's a well-imagined world of countless independent polities, and thus borders and bureaucracies and the rebel heroes that run counter to them.

I occasionally get lost in the action, but I'm appreciating Hutchinson's ease and wit.

But of course Lewis is right.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The best of all possible worlds

"So here is the question. Given that the information you have is necessarily imperfect. Given that the history of events is necessarily under-determined. The history that you choose to believe will determine the person that you are. If only in a small way. You will be a person who chose to see the world one way instead of another. And that choice will color the way you see the world, and your future, and your image in a mirror. You will never be able to determine conclusively why she acted as she did. But you can determine what kind of person you want to be.

"I can tell you this. That in the absence of perfect information, I choose to believe in the version of events that would occur in the best of all possible worlds."
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer, is a time-travel story. Only, without much time travel. And don't call it a time machine; the physicists in this story prefer "causality violation device."

This is the story of Rebecca, a customer service rep for an online dating service, and her physicist husband Philip, and all their issues. Set in the near future, Version Control covers marriage, grief, alcoholism, friendship, internet dating, self-driving cars (and the insurance implications thereof), racism, white privilege, male privilege, academia, big data, mass personalization, and secession of the Dakotas.
"If everyone could get on the same page and realize that we live in the future, we wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit."
There's a government conspiracy (possibly several). And some questions regarding free will and predetermination.

This is a future where Ronald Reagan is on the 20 dollar bill. At least some of the time.

I first heard about this novel during the 2017 Tournament of Books, where it was noted that "Version Control feels like 400 pages of realist, suburban minutiae with 100 pages of genuinely engaging science fiction slapped on at the end." The ensuing discussion sold me that Version Control was a must read.

In general, I'd say I like science fiction more than I like suburban minutiae. But I also rather like minutiae (it's the suburban stuff I'm not so keen on). What's interesting here is the effect of something as massive as time travel on the minutiae of an otherwise very ordinary existence.

So I read a few hundred pages sharing Rebecca's sense that something was out of whack, with no evidence of any kind that the time machine actually worked. And it was absolutely engrossing.

Who's to say what the best of all possible worlds is? Though the novel's ending is in some ways troubling, ultimately I find in it a hopeful message urging an acceptance of this world as the best of all possible worlds, as it cannot be proven otherwise.

Discussion of Version Control in the Tournament of Books:
Opening Round (vs My Name Is Lucy Barton)
Quarterfinals (vs The Mothers)
Semifinals (vs The Underground Railroad)

Friday, April 14, 2017


Arrogance: that featured among Philip's colleagues, too, though that was more a matter of mien than anything else. If there was one subject about which they tended to be cavalier, it was the ease of doing anything in life besides physics. They were quick to let you know that, in addition to practicing that best and most worthy of all the sciences, they were, as Philip said about himself, "intrinsically multidisciplinary": they'd casually mention that they'd just cycled their first century, or were doing a show with a local band, or were nearly finished with building a kiln. It was as if the stereotype of the physicist as a bespectacled dweeb was something they felt it was their duty and obligation to strive against. And though they never seemed to be quite as skilled at their extracurricular activities as their pride in them might have indicated, if they were perhaps unlikely to play in professional orchestras or chalk up record-beating times in marathons, then it was even more unlikely that top-level violinists and athletes were doing science on the side, as a hobby. Rebecca was never sure whether there was something about physics as an occupation that made it a magnet for the arrogant, or whether the process of becoming acclimated to the culture of physics involved developing a certain conceit about oneself if one was to succeed, but either way she got the impression that arrogance was often a benefit to physicists, rather than a liability.
— from Version Control, by Dexter Palmer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reading for school

I'm fairly impressed with my daughter's reading list for school, and it's only natural that she's more excited over some titles than others (and that goes for me too).

When she told me a few months ago that they were reading The Giver (Lois Lowry) in English class, I wanted to read along. I should read everything on the curriculum!

Sadly, I dropped the ball before I'd even picked it up. They finished The Giver eons ago. Although in a way, I feel I didn't miss a thing; Helena shared her experience of reading it with me in excruciating detail. That said, it's her clear favourite of the required reading this year (so far), and I would like to see it close up. It's finally available at the library — I plan on digging in this week.

Meanwhile in French class, it was Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) (in French). (She's in grade 8 in the French school board, everything's in French [except for English class].) I started near the time she was wrapping up. We came to pretty much the same conclusions: interesting concept but on the whole boring. (We both like the rap though.) But I appreciate the teaching opportunities in it, and I'm glad I read it. What impresses me is the skill of the translation that ensured Helena had an equivalent experience reading the opening chapters (grammatically awkward and spelled phonetically, kind of) in French as I did in English.

The other novels covered in French class, both Scholastic publications, one a time-travel story, the other a mystery, don't particularly interest me. I don't want to read them so I'm not going to. (Why are the books for this class translated from English?)

English class has moved onto The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton). How is it that I never read The Outsiders in my youth? Wow, what a crazy book. It's melodramatic, to be sure, but it's so sincere! I cried. The kid still has a couple chapters to go before we can compare notes, though she tells me it doesn't feel at all dated.

In Latin, they've been reading The Iliad. In Latin. I'm skipping this one. For now.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Art is the shortest distance between two feelings

I headed to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal after work last night, eager to see an exhibit before it closes at the end of the month. It's small (and beautiful), so while there I took a quick look at the other ongoing exhibits, to see if they're worth coming back for. They are.

I was pleased to note that they all have a quasi-literary connection.

Picture for an Exhibition
"For time is the longest distance between two places." This line from Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie serves as the premise for this first iteration of a series of exhibitions of works drawn from the museum's collection. Even before I placed the line, it gripped my heart. It's why I had to see this.

"Beyond Chaos, No. 7," 1998. Betty Goodwin,
What struck me when I walked into the exhibition space is that there are no labels on the walls; no titles or artist names, no lists of materials, no descriptions or concepts (these are available in a handout, but they're notintrusive). The art just is. And everything in this space works, it feels right together, it makes sense. Recurring symbols and structures, images of successive phases of motion. It made me feel freeze-framed, time-stopped.

The standout piece is undoubtedly "Measuring Stick," by Sarah Sze. It looks like the messy desk of some future anthropologist with some bizarre theory of everything (it feels very Terry Gilliam). "Measuring Stick" whirrs and flutters and flickers and trickles. It fascinates. A glimpse onto a working model of something much bigger than this life that I know.

On the other hand, it's Betty Goodwin's "Beyond Chaos, No. 7" that I kept returning to. It made me feel... elevated.

Teresa Margolles: Mundos
In sharp contrast to the previous exhibition, Margolles' works hit home only after reading the labels. But they manage to affect at a subconscious level too.

One piece in particular has a room to itself, and when I walked into it, I felt my soul being sucked out of me. And then I read about it, and I wanted to run the hell out of there. Every few minutes, bubbles fall from the ceiling, made with water used to wash dead bodies who were victims of violence.

These artworks are grim, and they are political.

The literary connection is a tenuous one, but nevertheless: some of the works are connected to Ciudad Juárez, once deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. It's immortalized for me as such in Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Teresa Margolles' work evokes in me the same visceral response that 2666 caused me.

Another piece looks like barbed wire strung across a room, but it's remnants of sutures to sew up victims of violent death after autopsy.

I was so disturbed after my walkthrough, I returned to "the longest distance between two places" — to interrupt myself, to remove myself, to restart myself.

Emanuel Licha: Now Have a Look at This Machine
What do Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, and Franz Kafka have in common? Their books are used as props in the environment of the installation, supporting the context for Licha's creative documentary film. The film has set times for English and French screenings; I'll go back another day for this experience.

The machine is that otherwise known as war.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"Boredom is the mind's scar tissue."

"I don't actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all." Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. "I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that's always going to depend on who you're dealing with."

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, is delightful. I can easily see it being quite a few people's favourite new book, and I've recommended it to some friends as such.

I was a little wary because I'm wary of magic. I just am. Don't mess with magic. Maybe because I don't believe in magic (apart from the magic principles my microwave, for example, and airplanes and the internet operate on), I think it's very difficult to write well — that is, believably.

And the ultimate showdown between magic and science, as this novel was being made out to be, just sounds simplistically grandiose.

But then the Tournament of Books happened, and there was so much love for this book, and dismay when it was knocked out of the running, and hope when it looked it might return as a crowd favourite. So I rushed to my library, and yay.

It turns out it's not really about magic or science. It's a love story. It's about misfit schoolmates Patricia and Laurence and the bonds that develop between them. Patricia is eventually whisked off to magic school, and Laurence becomes the genius scientist we always knew he would be. As adults, their lives collide. A scientist would control nature, but a witch must serve it.

It's light — that is, there's a lightness to it, lightness of touch, lightness of heart. It made me feel happy — but not because of the story, almost in spite of the story. Happy to be immersed in this kind of book. This is a book I wanted to stay up all night with. I loved the experience of this book more than the book itself.

I read it over a cold and still snowy weekend just over a week ago, and I've mostly forgotten the story. I do, however, remember the feeling of reading this story, which is sometimes more important.
Patricia had to crouch down to talk to a confused marmalade cat, who needed help finding his way home. (He remembered what his house looked like on the inside, but not on the outside.)
While it's a lovely book, I don't understand what's so original or genre-bending about this book. It seems to have cast its own spell on its readership. It's sweet and funny, with some great turns of phrase (though, I'm still puzzling over what exactly "Boredom is the mind's scar tissue." actually means).

As for the Tournament, All the Birds in the Sky won over Han Kang's The Vegetarian:
Perhaps because, political situations being what they are, I wanted to know that I was in the hands of a writer who wouldn't be falsely optimistic, but could still bring me joy.
But then it lost to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad:
Anders’s prose — pretty, joyous, and inventive — felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s. Perhaps that feeling came from my own headspace, which is currently dark and stormy. But The Underground Railroad called to me more urgently than All the Birds in the Sky. I suspect in any other year, alongside any other book, the latter would win, in a landslide. But here we are. Happy 2017.
One judge liked its hope, the other opted for a strong dose of reality (despite the liberties taken in expressing that reality).

Had it been up to me to choose between All the Birds in the Sky and The Vegetarian (the only two books of the tournament I've read), I would have talked about trees. Treeness figures in both stories: In The Vegetarian Yeong-hye wants to become a tree — plant matter is persistent, if mute. In All the Birds in the Sky, the Tree is all-knowing; nature ultimately merges with science. The oneness the tree represents is in one case internal, in the other external. Though I read it months ago, The Vegetarian took root in me, and I vastly prefer the feeling of being deeply unsettled over the fleeting flush of All the Birds.
After Laurence and Serafina drifted away, Patricia told Kevin, "I didn't really save his life. He was exaggerating."

Kevin shrugged, causing his watch chain to jangle. "It's his life. One tends to privilege personal insights in such matters."