Saturday, July 31, 2004

An ode to editors

In temples in Asia, a figure called Wisdom guards the entrance. She — this figure is invariably female, like most editors today — holds in one hand a book, and in the other, a knife. The knife is for cutting off words.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Monkeys! Monkeys everywhere!

I really like this 12 Monkeys idea. But then, I love monkeys.

July monkey: Describe your first impression of Montreal.

Bridges. Lots of bridges. There was a bigness and bustle, a smirk and a twinkle, that made me fall in love with this city. Just like that. At first sight.

That image of bridges is indelible, though I've never been able to recapture that precise view, find the same frame, when our bus came rolling into town.

I first visited Montreal the summer I was 15.

(Years earlier we drove through on a class trip to Québec City and toured Olympic Stadium, but I don't remember much about it, except for the cyclists going round and round and round and round. I don't think that counts.)

I was staying with my big sister in Ottawa for a month or so, and she planned this little excursion for us. (I love my sister.) So we took the bus to Montreal for a few days, stayed with her brother-in-law in a very cool downtown apartment, took in the Picasso exhibit, and hung out. Croissants and café au lait for everyone!

It represented all that was romantic and cultured, French and exotic, free and far from home (but closer than Paris).

And, oh ya... We went to Foufounes and I had beer. (Maybe it allowed a tad of teeenage rebellion to play itself out too.)

I vowed to live there someday.

Life didn't quite work out as planned. My application to McGill was accepted, but my mom thought Montreal was too far away for a 17-year-old to be moving to, and in a flash it dawned on me that maybe I wasn't cut out to be a civil engineer (bridges!). Maybe I should be exploring metaphorical bridges instead. So I moved to Ottawa, a safe little town where I had family.

As it happened, many years later I fell in love with a man who heralded from Montreal. So we moved to Montreal and had a baby.

Voilà. (The bridges are now hyperlinks.)

Live and breathe the poetry

It's good for you, according to an article in the American Journal of Physiology — Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

The study investigated "the synchronization between low-frequency breathing patterns and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) of heart rate during guided recitation of poetry, i.e., recitation of hexameter verse from ancient Greek literature performed in a therapeutic setting," concluding, "recitation of hexameter verse exerts a strong influence on RSA by a prominent low-frequency component in the breathing pattern, generating a strong cardiorespiratory synchronization." (Via Ed.)

See, I'm not crazy — there's something to it when I talk about how a book "breathes." Science says so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

That's so sarcoplasmic, man

Word of the day:

sarcoplasm (sar·co·plasm) (sahr'ko-plaz"[schwa]m) [sarco- + -plasm] the interfibrillary matter of the striated muscles; the substance in which the fibrillae of the muscle fiber are embedded.

I just love the sound of it. Sarcoplasm.

Food! and it's magic!

Salon presents an article adapted from Philip Pullman's introduction to a recent reissue of Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding.

Lindsay argued that children liked to read about food rather than fairies, and The Magic Pudding was born.

Philip Pullman's been laughing for 50 years already. He's enthralled by every rhyme and drawing.

There's an exuberance, a gusto all through the book that's irresistible. You can feel Lindsay carried away on the wings of his own energy.

If I live to be a hundred, it will still be my favorite children's book. To quote Bill [the sailor], finally: "There's nothing this Puddin' enjoys more than offering slices of himself to strangers." And if you're a hearty eater, sit yourself down with Bunyip and Bill and Sam, and help yourself to a slice. "Hearty eaters," as Sam says, "are always welcome."

I'll take Pullman's word for it. Sounds like a fine addition to Helena's library.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Neuromarketing ethics

John Shirley asks that all-important ethical question: "Why is it okay to rip off stupid people?"

He also offers a very entertaining and paranoid resumé and critique of neuromarketing.

They'll use the principles they learned in the lab to manipulate you when you don't know you're being manipulated and on a level of exactitude never before experienced. They're learning how to push your buttons with mind-control efficiency. What happens when these methods are applied to campaign advertising, and speeches? They're learning how to hypnotize you better, my friends, and maybe it's time to snap out of your trance and realize that. They're tinkering in your fucking brain.

Oh it sounds like paranoid ranting now, but eventually these pricks are going to figure out how to beam this shit right in front of your mind's eye. You'll have to PAY EXTRA not to get movie trailers and political ads beamed into your skull, someday. "I can't afford a neuro insulator and man, the headaches..."

Reminds me of Minority Report, the movie, when Tom Cruise is just walking around and having products pitched directly to him.

John Underkoffler, a futurist who worked on the film as a science and technology advisor, actually singles this out as something to be feared.

I think the clearest warning comes in relation to the kind of Orwellian or Huxley-esque scenario, where your eyes are constantly being scanned, your identity is being assessed at every moment and your location known at all times. In the movie, of course, that's motivated by principally market concerns, commercial concerns. The idea is that if we can identify you at this place and time, then we can advertise very specific to you. "It's time for a Guinness, John Anderton."

That idea was integral from the very beginning in Steven and Alex's conception. The idea that your privacy was really a thing of the past, that the pure market forces had long since eroded everyone's intimate civil liberties to the point where only the wealthy could afford to not be bothered all the time. That was one of the benefits of extreme wealth, that you could afford to silence some states where stuff wouldn't be yammering at you constantly trying to sell you watches and beer.

Saramago's appreciation for kiddy lit

It's OK if I read childrens' books. Maybe it even makes me a better person.

José Saramago thinks it's a good idea:

Portuguese author José Saramago, a Nobel literature laureate, said he believed the world would be a better place if adults were forced to read children's books.

"They are moral fables that teach values which we consider indispensable like solidarity, respect for others and goodness."

Lucid thoughts indeed. (Essays on Lucidity was recently released but is not yet available in English.)

Monday, July 26, 2004


Tomorrow's the day my life will change.

Tomorrow I re-enter the workforce, so to speak. I renew my effort to freelance full-time.

Tomorrow, Helena enters "daycare," as I've chosen to think about it. Though she is on waiting lists for many of the centres in the area, no one has called yet to offer her a space. But my mother-in-law is available.

So three days a week, I'll be glued to my desk, long workdays. I'll squeeze in a few more hours here and there, as I have over the last few months, during the other four days. We even pay a token fee for the child care. That's the plan anyway.

It'll take a couple weeks to work out the bugs in this arrangement — the logistics, the timing and the driving, on top of regaining the discipline of working from home in a serious kind of way and catching up to the schedule for the books I've already agreed to edit, while grappling with the sheer emotional and gut-wrenching experience of being separated from my daughter. How hard can it be?

This isn't a sudden decision — we've been giving this some thought for months. But already there are wrenches thrown into our plans. For example, the proposition that Helena stay the night. Somehow, it feels wrong, dreadfully wrong, that on top of devoting hours of my energies to paying work instead of to doting on my little one she should make her bed elsewhere. Like I'm deserting her.

Sigh. We'll figure it out. It's not like I'm the first mother ever to go back to work.

Helena's been doing weird and remarkable things. Like crafting "hats" for the plastic ducks at the wading pool out of various toy flotsam. "Apo!" (Chapeau.) Like having tea with her teddybears. Like growling back at the neighbour's dog (through the apartment door). Like filling her watering can with tiny Fisher Price people (the primitive kind I played with 30 years ago) — it's raining men.

And the dancing!

She must have about a hundred words that I can make out, though there's an awful lot of gibberish she seems really confident about. The only "sentences" she's uttered are "Papa gone," and "Papa come," though she doesn't always use them appropriately (as far as I can tell).

Mostly I'm going to miss Helena's bug watch. We have ants. Not too many, but enough to make me think, "Eeeww." The first time I squashed and disposed of one I even made sure Helena was otherwise occupied — I didn't think it wise to be drawing her attention to something which may intrigue her to the point she do something with them other than squash and dispose of them. She must've seen something. Now she points her little finger, tracking them, and very clearly articulates, "Bug."

The baby instruction manual

My baby did in fact come with a manual. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A Practical Guide to Baby Care, published by the Institut national de santé publique de Québec (and translated into English poorly, but never mind), was handed to me before I left the hospital with Helena.

It didn't tell me much I couldn't figure out on my own, but it has actually provided me with a lot of reassurance over the last 20 months and continues to do so.

Similar instructions manuals are becoming popular in the United Kingdom — how to play with your children.

Parents will be issued with instruction manuals showing them how to teach traditional playground games such as hopscotch, skipping and hide-and-seek to their children in a new move to tackle soaring levels of obesity among young people.

"It's not rocket science, and a lot of it is things previous generations would have done without thinking. But while I don't want to sound demeaning to present-day parents, a lot of parents today haven't been taught particular games or nursery rhymes and so don't know how to pass those on to their children or do them with them," said David Maiden, the PE and youth sport manager with Fife Council.

The Play At Home manuals remind parents how to do everything from ring-a-ring-o'-roses to peek-a-boo to the hokey cokey.

I kind of wish I had one of those. Some days I think I haven't got a clue what to do with my baby. My book doesn't get into the specifics, but it does remind us that:

Interaction between a baby and his parents naturally promotes development. The best toys in the world cannot replace activities with mom and dad. Set aside time to play with your child.

This interaction will change as the child grows older. Do not tickle your baby to make him laugh without giving him time to catch his breath. Avoid shaking him too much.

Thanks for the tip.

The confusion of tongues and the language of God

An article in the current issue of Nature describes studies and experiments that yield conclusions with vast implications for our understanding of language acquisition.

Without linguistic support, an innate capability to make this distinction seems to vanish. So language learning seems to link linguistic forms to pre-existing representations of sound and meaning.

Jessica Lee Jernigan (discovered via Cup of Chicha) articulately summarizes the article (and makes a reference to Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language — a book and idea I'm obsessed with).

This conclusion has interesting — possibly vital — implications for competing theories about language acquisition. According to one theory, language grows as a child grows, and we develop abstract thoughts only when we have attained the means to express them. Other linguists claim that the learning of language doesn't build cognitive abilities so much as it winnows them. In one model, language plants seeds that blossom into abstract thinking; in the other, language prunes away at the wild brush of the infant mind until well-tended shapes emerge, shapes that have meaning within that language. Obviously, this study supports the latter way of thinking.

She notes, "In every creation myth, chaos precedes order."

Once upon a time, people believed in a perfect language — the language Adam and Eve spoke, the language before the Babel Tower fell, the language in which the thing corresponded perfectly to its sign. Once upon a time, people believed that a child raised without hearing the debased, fragmented tongue of his own time and place would speak that language. The search for that primal mind has produced legendarily tragic results. But what if it belongs to us all, what if each of us retains the latent, neglected potentiality to comprehend fullness? What if we all have ears big enough to hear the language of God?

She's right. It's already in us. We just don't listen.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Plea for a literati nation

Michael Dirda in Sunday's Washington Post presents yet another take on the NEA survey of reading in America.

The question, of course, is what are those one in six people reading. And a number of people have addressed that over the last week or so.

By "literary" reading, the NEA report means "novels, short stories, plays, or poetry." But novels is a category that embraces mysteries, chick lit, adventure novels, Westerns, fantasy and science fiction, spy thrillers, possibly even children's picture books (this isn't clear).

He does have some lovely things to say about the realtionship between reader and text:

Those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins. The relationship between a book and reader may occasionally be likened to a love affair, but it's just as often a wrestling match.

He notes how passive readers have become.

Poetry is suffering most of all. Poets keep their language charged, they make severe demands on our attention, they cut us no slack. While most prose works the room like a smiling politician at a fundraiser, poetry stands quietly in the dusty street, as cool and self-contained as a lone gunfighter with his serape flapping in the wind. It's not glad-handing anybody.

Instead of reading Toqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs. In short, we turn toward the bright and shiny, the meretricious tinsel, the strings of eye-catching beads for which we exchange our intellectual birthright as for a mess of pottage. For modern Americans, only the unexamined life is worth living.

Stop blogging. Go read a book.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Make mine a double

In Sunday's Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones reviews José Saramago's latest novel to be available in English translation. (The Double is available in the UK next week, but customers on this side of the Atlantic will have to wait till October.)

How long before mock-pompous becomes plain pompous? About 500 words. Joyce was wise, in Ulysses, to restrict his boring narrator to a single section. Every now and then, a novel achieves greatness despite being narrated by someone obtuse and self-regarding (Doctor Faustus, Pale Fire). Many thousands more have been dragged straight to the bottom by the dead weight of a pompous narrator.

Umm, you know he's a Nobel laureate, right?

Mars-Jones admits:

You don't get to be a Nobel laureate simply by strewing obstacles in the path of your readers. Saramago has a distinctive imagination, characterised not by leaps or flights but by a sublime grinding, as anyone who has read his implacable fable, Blindness, can confirm. From a single premise, he can generate prodigies of grounded fantasy.

The thing is, Mars-Jones's main criticism is valid: the punctuation is weird and troublesome. I would be outraged (and my inner copyeditor is, at every turn of every phrase), were it not for that I happen, coincidentally, to breathe in precisely the same rhythm as Saramago writes.

Writers tend not to like being edited, particularly copyedited. Many toil over comma placement and argue vehemently for the naturalness and necessity of their pauses, eschewing all conventions of punctuation and even grammar (fortunately few break with those of spelling). Bah! We have rules for a reason. It puts everyone on the same page. It's what guides us, all individuals with highly varying speech patterns and emphases, in parsing another's written words.

Saramago is an exception. I will allow him his breach only because I like him so much, only because his punctuation happens to make it easy for me, though probably very few others.

(When does prose become poetry?)

As for the Mars-Jones's contention that Saramago sometimes says too much...

There are elusive truths which must be approached round three corners, but there is also such a thing as going all round the houses for no good reason.

...and sometimes too little...

One of the consequences of the soporific manner of the book is that it sometimes sneaks something past the reader which isn't as self-evident as it is made out to be ('Generally speaking, one does not notice what a bearded man is carrying...'), but if that is a literary effect, it's a perverse one. is a matter of personal opinion. What is obvious to some is elusive to others. Again, I can relate to Saramago on his choices. (Interestingly, my own writing style and, it seems, thought processes, are remarkably similar to Saramago's. My essays in university were often marked down on similar grounds.)

It's an editor's job to recognize ideas and their value, which need fewer words and which need explication. It so happens that Saramago, Saramago's editor, and myself are in agreement.

The review disappoints me because all these points could be levelled against any one of Saramago's works. He reports just enough of The Double's plot to whet my appetite.

Friday, July 23, 2004

The depressing state of kids' books

In a New York Times article last weekend (quick, let me talk about this a minute before the links are archived and inaccessible), Barbara Feinberg takes a look at the summer reading lists distributed to kids these days — the books kids are subsequently tested on.

(I don't remember ever having been given a reading list, let alone being tested on what I did on my summer vacation.)

They depict children who must "come to terms," "cope with" and "work through" harsh realities.

Their suffering is generally caused by adults: a parent has died, or run off, or otherwise acted irresponsibly, drunkenly, selfishly, dissolutely. The children are left trying to put together the pieces. No magic swoops in to aid a resolution; no fantasy cushions the pain. As a group, these books are well written; they have some complex characters and subplots, and are rich in cultural description. But the angst and crash landings of the books is what sticks with you. A 10-year-old attending the creative arts program I run told me, "Those books give me a headache in my stomach."

Why, why, why do we do this to our children? Where do these books come from?

The rationale for exposing 10-year-olds to such potentially upsetting books is that children who read about situations different from their own gain a larger frame of reference for understanding human behavior and cultural diversity. Some educators believe that life is harder than it used to be; books shouldn't shield children from this. The argument is, as the head of the English department in a school here in Westchester County told parents, that anxiety is useful to children.


At least Feinberg takes the approach that of this genre, the books best received by their audience are the ones where child characters are afforded some measure of protection by the adults in their world. "But what remains most loved, and most useful in helping children "face adversity," is the realm of fantasy."

This is why Harry Potter is such a success. Poor orphan boy escapes miserable life, comes to terms with his past, confronts his "demons" — it's real but it's not real. All the difficult, award-winning novels have been judged by adults, not children, as teaching valuable life lessons. Like the kid cares...

But should helping children face adversity be the main goal of children's literature? Why does facing adversity have to be understood as work, in adult terms? Don't children have their own ways of processing experience distinct from adults'?

We seem to have lost sight of what children can actually process, and more important, of their own innate capacities. Instead of our children being free to roam and dream and invent on their own timetable, and to read about children doing such things, we increasingly ask our children to be sober and hard-working at every turn, to take detailed notes on their required texts with Talmudic attention, to endure computer-generated tests. And the texts we require them to pore over have become all too often about guarded, world-weary, overburdened children, who are spending their childhoods trying to cope with the mess their parents left them.

(There. Have I quoted the entire article yet.)

This trend, this genre of — what do you call them? — young adult life's-a-bitch-and-full-of-misery-so-have-a-cry-and-deal-with-it books (Cup of Chicha offers a collection of titles and summaries that serve as examples) started in the 60s. I don't believe we as a society actually examined the life of our young ones and determined growing up was more difficult than ever before. This was a me generation of parents: life got hard for the whiny and spoiled whose expectations weren't met. They embraced the cult of therapy and self-help books. Naturally this spilled over onto their children, the books their children got to read, the books they wrote for their children. What makes you think your kid wants to read about how you got over your problems, you selfish, whiny, overanalyzed and misguided soul? Grow up.

Why, why, why do we insist our children grow up so fast? (Cuz we never did?)

Why do we not give kids any credit? You don't learn coping skills from a book. Set an example for them and they'll figure it out. They're smarter than you think they are, and they have a pretty good handle on what's good for them.

On a lighter note, there's plenty of kids' books that make fine reading for everyone.

What is so important about the crossover novel . . . is not what it says about adults, but what it says to children — that the stories which matter to them matter to us as well. If I think back to my high school reading assignments, novels like The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, and The Grapes of Wrath come to mind — all books that examine adult issues and situations. How can we tell children that adult stories are worthy of their time and attention, but their stories are not worthy of ours?

Thursday, July 22, 2004

More on Miéville

It seems I'm not alone in thinking Adam Lipkin's review of Iron Council was unnecessarily negative.

The Mumpsimus initiated a discussion of this and other reviews of Miéville, touching on how his writing might be improved as well as the strength of his media appeal. He is compared to Wolfe, his writing being unwieldy and needing an editor.

I'm reassured that others don't always feel plot is paramount

See Dark Establishment Blog for another opinion and in anticipation of another review.

Turn me on

While watching crap TV the other night, I saw a commercial for the Maytag Neptune Drying Center. And I can't get it out of my mind. It's so sexy. Not so much to look at it, but just think of what it does!

Why did no one think of this before? And why did they call it Neptune?

Hearing about the debate as to whether to open Hemingway's Idaho house to the public is enough to make my head explode. How morbid. Unless they make it a writing center.

Great. Just great. Now I've got that song in my head — it's going to be there all day. Remember that song?

Just like Hemingway,
he did it anyway.
You can be a hero all you have to know is what to say...
And if I want to die
just like Hemingway,
I'll put a pistol in my mouth and blow my head away.

Ah, the 80s.

I was reminded yesterday how much I love J-F. Home from work, he recounts his day and the unpleasant conversation he was having with a lawyer advising him on one of his cases while on some other level his mind was grappling with Fermi's paradox, and in an instant grokking it and feeling elation and dismay at once.

(The paradox can be summed up as follows: The commonly held belief that the universe has many technologically advanced civilizations combined with our observations that suggest otherwise, is paradoxical, suggesting that either our understanding or our observations are flawed or incomplete.)

So we had pizza and beer and discussed fascinating things all evening. (I won't bore you with details. What's that? Too late you say?) But I will note them here to remind me to keep thinking about them, in hopes that someday I may reach an epiphany:

How can one like science fiction and not care about the science of it?
Can someone read books and watch movies about ETs and absolutely not believe in (hope for) the possibility (however faint) of their existence?
Exactly how incompatible are science, or science fiction for that matter, and God?
Are science fiction readers churchgoers? Do they see the need to reconcile these worldviews?

Why in English do we not use the term "anticipation novel"? It's so evocative.

Here are a couple essays on French science fiction:
French Science Fiction: The Occluded Genre
The Fantastic Science Fiction of Maurice Renard

This morning Salon has an interview with Alan Moore in which he discusses pretty much everything, and more. I have only a passing familiarity with his work. I'm not convinced his status is deserved.

People's heads are stuffed with a fantastic amount of information, and I think all too often they cannot assimilate, digest or connect up that incredible amount of data into a coherent worldview. And I like to think that if my work is complex, it's because we live in a complex world. What I'm trying to do is give a bit of coherence to that complexity, to say that it is possible to think about politics, history, mythology, architecture, murder and the rest of it all at the same time to see how it connects.

Information is funny stuff. In some of the science magazines I read, I've found it described as an actual substance that underlies the entirety of existence, as something that is more fundamental than the four fundamental physical forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the two nuclear forces. I think they've referred to it as a super-weird substance. Now, obviously, information shapes and determines our lives and the way we live them, yet it is completely invisible and undetectable. It has no actual form; you can only see its effects. Information is a kind of heat. I would suggest that as our society accumulates information, from its hunter-gatherer origins to the complexities of our present day, it raises the cultural temperature.

I feel that we may be approaching a cultural boiling point. I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing; I really don't know because I can't imagine it, quite frankly. But I think we may be approaching the point at which the amount of information we are taking becomes exponential, and I'm not entirely certain what kind of human culture will exist beyond that point. Except it will happen sooner than we expect, and the difference between us and the kind of people that will exist after such an event will be vastly different than the difference between us and the hunter-gatherer society we've evolved from.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

What I learned today

The main active metabolite of oxcarbazepine is a 10-monohydroxy derivative, 10,11-dihydro-10-hydroxy-5H-dibenzo (b,f) azepine-5-carboxamide.

Sometimes, work can suck. And I miss my baby.

Hawking apologizes to SF fans


How can black holes destroy all traces of consumed matter and energy, as Hawking long believed, when subatomic theory says such elements must survive in some form?

Hawking's answer is that the black holes hold their contents for eons but themselves eventually deteriorate and die. As the black hole disintegrates, they send their transformed contents back out into the infinite universal horizons from whence they came.

Previously, Hawking, 62, had held out the possibility that disappearing matter travels through the black hole to a new parallel universe — the very stuff of most visionary science fiction.

"There is no baby universe branching off, as I once thought. The information remains firmly in our universe," Hawking said in a copy of his speech distributed just before he appeared at the conference.

"I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes," he said. "If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state."

He added, "It is great to solve a problem that has been troubling me for nearly 30 years, even though the answer is less exciting than the alternative I suggested."

Much less exciting. Now all that's left for SF to do is tell the mangled tales of returned space travellers' unrecognizable forms.

Sisyphean ducks

Helena had egg the other day, and she didn't throw up.

The girl certainly seems to know what she likes and to have a handle on what's good for her.

Last winter, after our offers of egg were hesitantly accepted and them regurgitated, we even had Helena tested for an allergy. Nothing. The doctor's best guess was that Helena had some trouble digesting egg. (Thanks for the professional medical opinion.) Or she didn't like it much. (I guess she'd have to really not like it, to think about it for an hour or two and then decide to vomit it all out of there.)

She's never had a problem with egg as an ingredient in other things — egg bread, for example.

Anyway, she's expressed interest in eating egg, with a decided preference for whites, and intends to digest it thoroughly.

She's a good egg, that girl.

Currently, for the second time in a week, she's staying with J-F's mom, so I can get some, ahem, work done.

Frankly, editing this 98-chapter text on neurological disorders in children is giving me a headache. It reinforces my suspicion that as a child I was severely neurologically disordered, and I continue to be so. The descriptions of migraine onset triggers are acting as triggers in themselves.

But I'd better just buckle down and do it. It's not like I have a real job to go to. Remember my interviews of the other week? Sigh. This makes three times now I've been declared overqualified for jobs in Montreal. What does that mean? When people say "overqualified," I always think "bullshit."

What this means is that people with more professional authority than I think I deserve more money, I deserve to work in a stimulating environment, I deserve far better things. So they say. Well, I don't care what I deserve anymore. I just want a regular paycheck, with regular work hours, so we can buy ourselves a regular condo and go on regular vacations to New York City and Paris, like regular people. I can't wait to show Helena Paris. So many carousels!

I also think Montreal is a little underqualifed for my standards of work. Just get over the bilingualism thing already. English copy deserves the attention of a specialist in English. Ditto French. A bilingual copy editor is generally not a good copy editor. Good enough, you seem to think. Ah, Montreal, you have so much to learn.

So here I sit, editing away on various freelance contracts. And the guilt is unbearable. I'm at home after all — you'd think I could attend to my toddler's needs while I whip out chapter after chapter. It's a tough sell, convincing "others" (all those strangers who pass me in the street and dare to judge me), but most especially convincing myself, that freelance work at home is still real work, like watching a toddler is a different kind of real work, and you just can't do both at the same time. And I can't live on 4 hours of sleep a night.

Yesterday we went to the playground for a couple hours in the morning. Took a jaunt over to Mont Royal to buy whatever vegetable we'd run out of and really needed. Dropped off some film, picked up some Swiffer cloths. Home for lunch, then off to the wading pool for an hour or so. Two loads of laundry, and only two chapters edited. I'm a little tired.

The wading pool is a lot of fun, though I'm still adjusting to the behaviour of children. What odd creatures. (They walk right up to me and try to take the watering can out of my hand. Imagine doing that as an adult...)

Helena decided to move a couple dozen of the communal plastic yellow ducks from the corner of the pool to a highly superior patch of water along one side. Very methodical, focused, two or three at a time. One little girl came to liberate a duck and Helena had the gall to give her some attitude (a brief shout and an outstreched hand). Oh well; only 26 ducks to manage now.

By the time Helena completed her transport efforts, most of the ducks had drifted back to within inches of their original positions. She didn't care.

We walked right across the middle of the pool. It's deeper than I imagined, creeping up on Helena's armpits. She showed a bit of hesitation, but plodded on through. Brave girl.

We were already getting ready to leave when a lifeguard blew his whistle. "Everybody out of the pool." Relative quiet as all the splashing stopped. The kids were out, the ducks stayed in. I looked up to see a young woman wearing the standard-issue "sauveur"-emblazoned white t-shirt standing in the middle of the pool. She was also wearing galoshes up to her knees, a rubber apron, and a gas mask while pouring in what I assume to be chlorine, stirring it up as she walked the perimeter.

We'd been splashing about while the water was at its "dirtiest." We know by the smell that the pool is kept highly chlorinated. I'd rather soak my feet in a bath of chlorine than baby pee. I think. I don't know how long the kids had to wait before going back in.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Cat heaven

Margaret Atwood gets cats. I mean, really understands them. My cats anyway.

Read her story in Brick.

My cats like this story. They'll be wanting me to read it to them every night.

I always suspected that if they were bigger, and I were smaller, they'd play with me till I died. In their younger days anyway. Now they only dream.

Picture his words

Alberto Manguel explores the relationship between words and images in the current issue of Geist.

Perhaps the strongest, clearest exposition of the relationship or conflict was given in the eighteenth century by the German scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. . . For Lessing, words could (or should) fully describe and explore the emotions; images, however, required greater restraint and found the power of the emotions. Lessing pointed out that a poet can depict the emotions of a character at any given moment and allow the reader to follow his or her progress through the narrative; a painter or sculptor is bound to the instant and is therefore constrained to a single expression. For Lessing, one “reading” evolves in time, the other in space; both require the active participation of the audience.

In his lovely anecdotal way, Manguel's essay is an ode to the comic book. Words and images, time and space, serving imagination, politics, absurdity, all.

Sunday, July 18, 2004


I finished reading The Scar, by China Miéville. It took me a few weeks, but what a ride!

(Both the Pan Macmillan China Miéville site and the Runagate Rampant have articles and tidbits, but neither has been updated recently.)

In so many ways, it is the complete opposite of Perdido Street Station (which, frankly, I preferred, I think.) Perdido Street Station was dark and urban (just like me!); The Scar was a wide open space.

The opening chapters reminded me of, of all things, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, perhaps for no other reason than that it takes place at sea, and I've never been one for sea-faring tales. There's a sense that somehow it doesn't belong with the others, which is a silly point to make regarding a book that is just the second one set in the world of Bas-Lag. Perhaps it's a strength that it makes you feel adrift, between places, not connected, with nowhere to firmly plant your feet.


With each new New Crobuzon novel, Miéville must specify more and more of his imagined cosmos; there will be fewer shadows at the corner of things, his vision will become more described and less implied. In this book, for example, I found the external perspective of New Crobuzon as a naval and imperial power shrank the city, imaginatively, so that it became just another late nineteenth-century analogue European city, rather than occupying the almost mythic, archetypal and unaccountable place it did in the earlier novel.

Where PSS followed the building of character, making choices, taking responsibility, becoming human, The Scar witnesses the unraveling of character.

Even the "science" at the crux of these novels is opposite.

The Scar mines "possibility." "They set free forces that they were able to tap. Forces that allowed them to reshape things, to fail and succeed simultaneously — because they mined for possibilities. A cataclysm like that, shattering a world, the rupture left behind: it opens up a rich seam of possibilities... For every action there's an infinity of outcomes... Tapped by possibility machines, outcomes that didn't quite make it to actuality were boosted, and made real."

Like being able to watch Schrodinger's cat and choose.

Behind PSS was crisis energy and the "conviction that underlying the facticity of the world, in all its seeming fastness, was an instability, a crisis pushing things to change from the tensions within them... Things, while even as they were, were always in crisis, always pulled to become their opposite."

If what was and what was not were allowed to coexist, the very tension — the crisis at the center of existence — must dissipate. Where was that crisis energy in the real becoming what it was not, if what it was not was right there alongside what it was?

One of the blurbs for The Scar boasts, "This is not your grandfather's science-fiction/fantasy novelist." I don't know what that means.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next Crobuzon novel, but it may be a year or so before it's available in paperback. In the meantime, I read what others have to say about it.

The New York Times says that:

Iron Council, by China Miéville, is an exemplar of what some are calling the Next Wave in British science fiction. The name is a sly reference to the New Wave of the 1960's, when English and American writers . . . cast a suspicious eye on genre staples like space travel and future technology. The Next Wave . . . mixes left-leaning politics and a taste for horror into cautionary tales of societies gone wrong at the core.

The generic comments apply equally to the first two Bas-Lag novels. This world is slowly being revealed to us, for us to figure out as we go.

Without ever spelling out the details (any more than Isaac Asimov explained the intricacies of his robots' "positronic brains"), Miéville treats magic as another form of technology, one that follows dimly apprehended rules and that typically exacts a cost greater than its practitioners anticipate.

Miéville's language is interesting and skilled, chosen with deliberate purpose:

To convey both the weirdness and the familiarity of his vividly elaborated world, he peppers his sentences with unusual words("serein," "strath," "atramentous," "cuneal") that will send most readers to a good unabridged dictionary—- and back again to this challenging but deeply rewarding novel.

Adam Lipkin's review at Bookslut is immensely frustrating. Make up your mind Mr Lipkin:

"clearly an immensely talented writer"
"He nicely nails tough bits of dialogue or characterization."
"The man can write. He just chooses not to."

Mr Lipkin seems intent on disliking this book, not because it's bad but because it doesn't quite break the molds its fans claim, because it's not as good as Miéville's popularity should warrant.

This is a world that is just begging for a good story. If Miéville ever decides to work on his storytelling skills as much as his world-building ones, that story might finally be told.

A great writer could (and should) make their experiments work to forward the plot — or, at the other extreme, lose the pretense that the plot actually matters. Miéville, however, lets his own desires to examine politics and flout literary conventions get in the way of simply writing a good book.

As a fan, I have to say that Miéville's constructed world is so fucking amazing, the storytelling doesn't particularly matter. In fact, the digressions and lost trails help make that world believable. An examination of politics is vital — that's why I read this stuff: to explore ideologies, their social consequences, their moral implications. I don't believe Miéville has any pretense about plot.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Eating sins

We rented The Order last night, or The Sin Eater as it's known outside North America.

This is not a very good film, but it was pretty compelling nonetheless. After all, there's that nugget of an idea of a sin-eater:

a man who for trifling payment was believed to take upon himself, by means of food and drink, the sins of a deceased person.

Sin eaters were not uncommon in the British isles up until the 19th or 20th century. According to this text on Funeral Customs, the practice of sin-eating derives from pagan history.

A less known but even more remarkable functionary, whose professional services were once considered necessary to the dead, is the sin-eater. Savage tribes have been known to slaughter an animal on the grave, in the belief that it would take upon itself the sins of the dead. In the same manner, it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client--and whatever the consequences might be in the after life--in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal. That such a creature should be unearthed from a remote period of pagan history would be surprising enough, but to find reliable evidence of his existence in the British Isles a hundred years ago is surely very much more remarkable.

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

But its link to Catholicism is tenuous. I have no idea what that link might be.

Wikipedia addresses the subject, but provides no insight.

The act of being a Sin-Eater is/was generally considered a cardinal sin by the Catholic Church because it provided absolution outside the purview of the priesthood, and resulted in immediate excommunication.

Frankly, I'm surprised to turn up so little information on the practice. I'm sure I've heard of it before, that it's cropped up in books or movies. The idea of it is not unfamiliar.

The movie also deals with the last of the Carolingians, whose love of knowledge and education rivalled that of the Jesuits. (Myself, I have a lot of trouble distinguishing one order from the next.) But the existence of Carolingians at least has some basis in fact.

The educational influence of the Carolingian revival of learning was continued in some way down to the dawn of the era of university education in the thirteenth century.

Rick McGinnis has interesting things on all these subjects, and others spurred by a viewing of the film, and he includes a lot of links to published reviews.

He calls it "a film whose thematic foundation was a motley pile of rancid old anti-Catholic mythology, some of it dating back as far as Luther and King James."

(I don't know how anti-Catholic it is, though it's definitely anti–Vatican and its politics, which is what Catholicism is all about, I guess.)

If The Order, as a thriller, has any particular flaw, it's the fact that the whole story hangs on a point of theological practice that's not only absurd, but false. Or, as Bob Campbell in the Seattle Times put it:

"Gradually, it dawns on the audience that this is the entire drama. Someone is offering unearned forgiveness to the naughty! He must be stopped!

"This is a problem? The list of sinners saved by last-minute confession is already endless.

"The Order treats these acts of mercy as the ultimate in apocalyptic horror."

Really, how sinful is the eating of sins? Relative to, say, the buying of indulgences? I would eat the sins of some, if it truly eased their burden.

Not so black after all

Stephen Hawking is set to present findings on black holes at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin, Ireland, on July 21.

"A black hole only appears to form but later opens up and releases information about what fell inside. So we can be sure of the past and predict the future."

Hawking did not elaborate on the BBC program how the information could be extracted from the black hole.

Nor does he elaborate on the nature of the philosophical and practical consequences of the information extracted.

Is this where our futures lie? In the shreds that seep into the cosmos from out of the gaping abyss?

Friday, July 16, 2004

Sense and sensibility

Helena has figured something out. I'm not sure exactly what, but there was a definite lightbulb moment earlier this week that triggered some odd behaviour.

Weird experiments for toddlers:

Sight (or lack thereof)
Close your eyes.
Really, really squinty tight.
Variation 1 – Find your way to Mama, guided only by her voice.
Variation 2 – Spin round and round and round. Try to determine your orientation in the room by flailing your arms about wildly.

Sound (or distortion thereof)
Put your hands over your ears.
Take them away.
Now put them back.
Now sing.
Raise your volume. As loud as you can go.


Thursday, July 15, 2004

The land of my father

Stalin World and its environs.


This could be my father's story. Almost. Or my mother's, for that matter.

In May 1944, Stasiek was in a trench looking up at the monastery of Monte Cassino, the Nazi-held stronghold in Italy that commanded the road to Rome, and anchored the German 'Gustav' line. The fortress was considered almost impregnable. . .

My father, also Staszek, was there too.

Labelled 1944, this must be Italy. Posted by Hello

That he survived the battle was remarkable. More remarkable yet was what he and his comrades had survived to reach that point.

The Russians would've come for my mother's family in the night, but they had advance word. My grandfather's mistress had "information," and she helped ensure my family's passage to Arkhangelsk, a safer alternative than others.

There was a logging industry. My mother remembers the barges, how her brother nearly lost his life. My mother has a fear of water.

There were many trains and villages. When we watch Doctor Zhivago, my mother says it was like that, the trains, the poverty, the snow.

Samarkand, Tashkent, Dzhambul, Frunze, Alma Ata.

At the Chinese border, they were turned back. The family is being divided.

My grandfather and his oldest son have joined the first division. Marysia volunteers her services to communications efforts in Pahlevi. Dyzio and Krysia are placed in orphanages. My mother is the youngest of the siblings, and my grandmother keeps her close.

The surviving Poles walked or hitched rides on boxcars, thousands of miles over the endless steppe and taiga. Many were walking skeletons by the time they reached their transit camps near the Caspian Sea. Wracked with disease and starving to death, families were separated, never finding each other again. Parents lost their children, children their parents.

Krasnovodsk. The Caspian Sea. Pahlevi. The family is finding each other. Poles have been allowed some freedoms. Someone is in love with Marysia and is helping deliver messages.

Tehran. Ahvaz. My grandmother suffers from dysentery. My mother is blind from malnutrition. Tranports are arriving. There are refugee camps in India.

I don't know precisely how my father came to be thrown in prison. Though only 14 or 15 years old at the time, he was already a subversive, distributing socialist literature. I believe he was taken while at school. He never saw his family again.

A Russian prison camp. That's my father fourth in line. Posted by Hello

He tried to trade his bread ration for cigarettes. A fellow prisoner took him under his wing and set him straight — war is no time to be a smartass. (That man was a prince.)

I never heard the story from my father, but legend has it he escaped. Penza, Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Aden, Asmara.

He joined with the Polish forces that had been allowed to mobilize under British command.

Iraq, November 1942. Setting up camp. Posted by Hello

Staszek survived Monte Cassino, survived a bullet to the elbow. My mother's father and her brother were there too, but they wouldn't know Stan till years later, in Coventry, when he'd rent a room from the family.

There is some crucial part of his story that I've missed, something I may never understand. In the long journey from the Soviet gulag, through the battlefields of Italy, to his new homeland, through the losses and the pain, something happened during his trials that freed his soul, something that I may never grasp. He has turned the other cheek and come away with his soul and his humanity intact.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

I liked The Da Vinci Code, but I watch PBS

Charles Taylor wants to save literature from the literati.

Reading, for Solomon, is always, without exception, a good thing. To hear him tell it, no one ever picks up a trashy book to kill time, no one ever gets around to that classic he always meant to read and finds that it bores him silly. Reading will always leave us better informed and better citizens, Solomon would like to think. But the very nature of a democratic society doesn't offer any guarantees. "Without books," Solomon writes, "we cannot succeed in our current struggle against absolutism and terrorism." Where does he think the terrorists got their absolutist ideas from? And what lessons against absolutism will someone who turns to the works of Ann Coulter or Michael Moore learn?

Solomon wants people to be encouraged to read, and they should be. But it's not going to happen as long as the champions of literature keep telling people the culture they enjoy is nothing but junk, and as long as they keep extolling the highest achievements of language but don't share a language with their countrymen.


Helena has a favourite book.

As if it suddenly occurs to her, a smile spreads across her face and she repeats, "Patate. Pata... Patate." She scrambles for her copy of La grosse patate, by Aubrey Davis.

We received this book as gift. It is the French translation of the English text, The Enormous Potato.

This is a retelling of an old folktale, The Great Big Enormous Turnip, credited to Alexei Tolstoy.

One by one, reinforcements are called in to help yank the potato from the ground. This repetitive quality is no doubt the heart of its appeal to Helena.

Amazon identifies the reading level as ages 4 to 8, though I can't see enjoying reading this book so much as being read to from it (like Helena, as a 20-month-old).

Although Helena tolerates my strange French accent, she seems to understand that this books calls out for Papa's expertise. It sounds so natural in French — patate! patapouf! popote! — I can't imagine the English version having the same grab.

The pages are bright yellow. I don't particularly like the illustrations by Dušan Petričić, but I can appreciate how others might attribute to them a certain charm. In fact, I find it very annoying that the focal point of the illustrations is in the fold of the two-page spread, though perhaps this is a deliberate trick to physically draw young noses into the book.

Neither does Helena care for the pictures. But she likes to hear the story told. At least the first 20 pages or so (about two-thirds) — to about where the potato pops out — after which invariably she wanders off to explore much more interesting things.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Stamps for the storyteller and the most beautiful place on Earth

Maud Newton uncovered a page of postage stamps commemorating Hans Christian Andersen.

My favourite are definitely the series from Poland, although the offerings from Monaco breathe a sweet, soft sadness.

Poland, 1987. Posted by Hello

(I have a particular fondness for Polish art of the 1980s, but more on this another time.)

Preparations for the celebrations of the writer's bicentenary are well under way.

He was a storyteller for children of all ages, but he was more than that. He was a critical journalist with great enthusiasm for science, an existential thinker, an observant travel book writer, a passionate novelist, a deft paper cut-out artist, a neurotic hypochondriac and a sex-fixated eccentric. He was a man with demons, dreams, yearnings and visions. He was a man of flesh and blood.

The biography by Jackie Wullschlager promises a colourful portrait.

Perhaps it's time to revisit the fairy tales with Helena. I read quite a number of them while I was nursing her, but I have doubts as to how much Helena retained and I certainly didn't give them my full attention.

They are dark but full of humanity. I don't feel the need to "protect" my baby from these stories. (I'll endeavour to record our progress here.)

Helena's familiarity with Hans Christian Andersen is limited to the musical, starring Danny Kaye, the acquisition of which I viewed as an investment. "Inchworm" is one of our most effective lullabies, though the beauty and simplicity of it may not lull Helena so much as my variations to the lyrics on the theme of mathematical combinations bore her to sleep.

I'd love to show her The Little Mermaid, an animated tale true to the text, from years before Disney Disney-fied the story. I remember seeing it at the theatre — must've been the early 80s — and it devastated me, but it stayed with me (in a good way).

In the spring of 1993 I spent a few weeks in Portugal. On the advice of a stranger, I took the train to Sintra and stayed a week. It's a short trip from Lisbon; by midmorning the main square is packed with tour buses, but they're all gone well before suppertime. No one ever stays. But I did, and to this day I think of it as one the most peaceful times of my life. The morning mist had a meditative quality. After an early breakfast of coffee and oranges, I walked. Just up the street from where I stayed was a modest cottage with a plaque commemorating Hans Christian Andersen's stay.

It's easy to see how that magical place can inspire fairy tales.

Prisoner at the fair

As it happens, we watched another episode of The Prisoner this weekend, The Girl Who Was Death.

Patrick McGoohan, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, follows the girl of the title to a fairground. We reviewed the opening footage of this scene repeteadly; the set looks suspiciously like La Ronde.

The scenes were allegedly shot on location at the now defunct Battersea Funfair in 1967.

However, one shot includes, off in the distance, a flag that looks suspiciously Canadian.

J-F theorizes that stock footage of amusement park rides in action may have been used. I'm not convinced this makes sense if filming was to occur at Battersea anyway, but I have no alternate explanation.

If anyone can supply a reason for a Canadian flag to be flying at Battersea Funfair, or identify the flag that might be mistaken for Canadian, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, July 09, 2004

No peeking, duck

I'm experiencing significant lag this week. In my head, as well as when it comes to posting. As if I'm not getting around to pulling back my skull cap and shaking the debris loose from inside in time. Everything feels stale and musty.

This was almost the post I would live to regret. But lag saved me from that hell. All the anger and resentment were damped down by confusion.

This is the one where I might've written that J-F can be so infuriatingly thick sometimes, and that I wish Helena would shut up and leave me alone for a minute.

But I don't really mean any of that.

J-F was on holiday from work this week, which meant I had a bit of a holiday too. At least, I got to sleep in a little.

Helena spent a night with my mother-in-law this week as well. I missed her terribly. It was achingly difficult. Having decided to look for work, and to make daycare arrangements for Helena (because it's in her best interest, regardless of the outcome of my job search), I'm painfully aware of how much less time together we will have together. Not only do I genuinely want to spend as much time as possible with her now, before there's no time to spare, I feel doubly guilty for not doing so.

However, Helena had a change of pace — she had the run of the house and yard, and even went swimming; I survived the nightmarish pangs regarding leaving her in my mother-in-law's care in the immediate vicinity of a swimming pool; and J-F and I spent a lovely evening out.

A highlight was venturing into a nearby bar, which until now had seemed intimidating, as if we weren't cool enough to cross its threshold. Sad, because it is the bar closest to home. As it turns out, Bar L'Intrus is a very inviting place. Comfortable. An establishment I'm proud to call my neighbourhood bar. (They were even playing some jazzy Polish tunes, among other ethnically flavoured music.) From now on, I will take all my friends there.

Baby stuff I need to note for posterity before it's forgotten forever:

Helena has developed a taste for tabouleh. She even pinches her pita around it to scoop it up. For some reason, I'm very proud of this. (She still makes a face at hummus though.)

Did I ever mention Helena's heart-shaped nostrils? They were decidedly heart-shaped in her early days, a little less so now.

I remember looking at her tiny hands in those first few days after she was born and remarking on the extraordinary length of her life line, trailing off into the folds of her wrist. Of course, at that time all she had ahead of her was unlimited potential life. I suppose our hands, our lines, are shaped by our experience, and she'd had none. I should look into her palms again tomorrow.

I am awed by Helena's colouring technique. She's master of the light stroke, wisping across the page. But she has experimented with aggressive blots of colour, layered into bumps. I've watched her scratch at her art to peel away some mud, revealing bright colours beneath it. Genius, I say.

Helena takes me by the finger and leads me into the closet alongside her and closes the door, so it's just the two of us standing in the closet in the dark for a minute. Sometimes she babbles a bit or knocks on the door, and often I comment on the dark or question her as to her motives. What on Earth is going through her head?

She can spend easily an hour repeatedly depositing the same $4.32 in small change into her piggy bank. Drop it all in, ask mommy to empty it out, drop it in again...

The doll. It's a really ugly doll, but Helena cares for it. Helena props it up or seats it in her chair, she feeds it and gives it a drink, she adorns it with ribbons and teatowels, she cradles it in her arms.

When the fridge door opens, Helena makes a grab for what she can. Inevitably she comes away with the squeeze bottle of French's mustard (which I don't like and J-F rarely uses and neither of us can remember buying). I've learned to choose my battles, and I don't choose this one. Only once did I find a yellow smear on her cheek. J-F fights the good fight, and it's a struggle. Hence the expression in our household, "like taking mustard from a baby."

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Prisoner numbers

At Maisonneuve, Frank Smith remembers The Prisoner.

Number Six was a brooding and paranoid figure, quite unlike any hero I’d seen before (or have seen since). While Emma Peel and John Steed were out preventing quirky villains from achieving world domination, Number Six was more likely to be found pacing back and forth in his kitchen after having smashed up his radio, or running along a beach being chased by a weather balloon.

I always liked Number Six. He was cranky and quick-witted; he fought against the system; and despite being brought to his knees each time he stepped outside the box, he never stopped trying and instead grew ever more subversive in his attempts to escape. When you are twelve and living in Ohio, this sort of thing speaks to you in a very specific way.

Like when I was 16, in Southern Ontario.

My grade 8 teacher called us by number. Easier for him to keep track and maintain his files, he said. I was number 8. In an act of civil disobedience, I refused to answer. I pulled that only once. He was a very large and imposing man. He once held Keith by the neck up against the blackboard. At least a foot off the ground. I heard he died some years ago of a brain hemorrhage.

I regret to say we've not yet watched all of the box set. I need to fully digest the episodes viewed to date before proceeding — a slow but satisfying process.

Bad books for kids

Madonna, Billy Crystal, Jimmy Fallon, Paul McCartney, Jay Leno, Will Smith. And on, and on, and on.

Is there any good children's literature being written anymore? Or is it just harder to find amid the big bucks and celebrity hype?

The battle for kiddie lit has been waged, but as yet no one is winning.

Younger children aren't to blame for what is published, because young kids don't pick their reading lists. Parents do. And apparently they suck at it, because there is a smaller and smaller market for really good picture books. . . It is not enough to give kids books. We must give them ones that don't suck ass.

I'm not worried about rich celebrities getting richer by authoring bad picture books. Writers like me aren't underpaid. Teachers are underpaid. Supermarket checkout workers are underpaid. The vast majority of writers (myself included) perform the most minor of services. But the best, whether they write for kids or adults, expand readers' understanding of what words are, and what they do. And that's why we must not give ass-sucking books by Billy Crystal and his ilk to our children, because only great books teach us how to read.

Maybe it's the genuine dearth of good kids' books that makes everyone believe they could write a better one. Everyone. As if it were an easy thing to do. Just whip off a children's story off the top of their head.

Writing for children must be one of the most difficult things a person could choose to do. You must be engaging, without being phony. Smart, without being condescending. All things moral and good, without being preachy.

Children are excellent, honest critics. If little Johnny doesn't want to read, maybe it's because the book you're giving him is crap.

But there is a small window, one in which Helena is perched now, where you can show them the pleasures of reading, the worlds books have to offer. Before she gains full independence to make her own choices.

Do children's authors not realize the responsibility they take on?

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Let x = x

NASA has an artist-in-residence, and her name is Laurie Anderson.

Why should NASA set aside money for paintings and music? "Art is what's left behind of history," said Bertram Ulrich, curator of the NASA Art Program. "It's a way to document something for future generations."

Science and Art! What a perfect combination! How come nobody ever thought of that before?

NASA began its art program in 1963 but never before had it tapped a resident artist, nor had it pushed the aesthetic envelope so boldly by choosing a performer whose large-scale theatrical productions blended "Star Trek" and Melville. Anderson is no Faith Hill.

A serious musician. Her work is actually supposed to mean something.

The idea of an avant-garde electronic fiddler hanging out with rocket geeks at NASA's research centers may seem like an odd collaboration. At the Ames center in Silicon Valley, Anderson stood inside a virtual airport control tower to view scenes of Mars terrain, taking photos and recording notes in a small red notebook. The researchers' reaction to their visitor was mixed, according to a NASA newsletter. One confessed to being a huge fan; another doubted the partnership of art and science. "What's she going to do, write a poem?" the researcher asked.

In fact, Anderson's passions run parallel with the pocket-protector crowd. She has collaborated with the Interval Research Corp. in California to design a wireless musical instrument called the Talking Stick, which emits sound when touched.

Laurie Anderson has been innovating violin-based instruments for decades, as a musical tool but also as a performance art thing-in-itself.

She took her art to the streets of downtown New York. She once stood on a block of ice, playing her violin while wearing ice skates. When the ice melted, the show was over.

I heard this story for the first time when the school orchestra was visiting Boston as part of a music exchange program in the spring of 1985. Me and this other girl — I can't remember her name, don't know what instrument she played, and have only a vague recollection of what she looked like (big hair) — we were billeted to stay with Kirsten, a violinist like myself.

Kirsten was cool. We smoked cigarillos down by the river. I bought a Clash (Sandinista!) t-shirt. We people-watched. Hordes of Deadheads were in town for a show. More interesting were the cliques of cool people amassing for the Pretenders concert that night.

After wasting away the afternoon, Kirsten thought she'd take us over to a friend's place at the university. But it wasn't really her friend, it was her older sister's friend, and the family didn't know about this friendship, not even the sister knew, cuz they wouldn't approve. In retrospect, I figure Kirsten was probably buying drugs off her.

The thing is, no one knew her real name. She was referred to affectionately as Madwoman. Cuz she was mad. Crazy, that is.

We sit on the floor of Madwoman's room while she gripes about the term paper she's struggling with, and, because it has something to do with said paper, she tells us the story of Laurie Anderson and the ice skates.

Like that, I was a fan.

When I got home, I tried to spread the word about Laurie Anderson, but it didn't go over well. The electric violin connection didn't pass with my music teacher (and I really should've known better since he'd frowned on my report on Erik Satie, dismissing him as trivial). Nobody knew what I was talking about.

See this fan site for more on Laurie Anderson.

Maud Newton headed this news item "Language is a virus from outer space," a famous lyric.

Those famous words are attributed to William S Burroughs (for whom I hold the deepest respect for his attempts to infiltrate the Scientologists). The statement is often abbreviated to "Language is a virus."

I have yet to meet someone who can satisfactorily explain the statement, let alone point to a precise source, and full context, for the quotation.

The gist and intent of the sentiment seem to reside in The Electronic Revolution.

Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash owes a vast debt to the idea.

Language is a virus from outer space. — William S Burroughs

Another breach of trust

Journalistic ethics at the National Post may be in question.

In a story mysteriously filed under Arts, the CBC reports:

In a brief note to readers, the Post said it had discovered that medical reporter Brad Evenson had fabricated names and quotes.

The paper said nine articles dating back to December 2002 contained "quotes that were either the result of other conversations, internet exchanges or readings, but they were not made by the people cited."

Although the note does not say Evenson was fired, it indicated that his "articles have not appeared in the paper" since senior editors became aware that he had been making up material for his reports.

First the editorial opinions came under control. Now the facts.

Monday, July 05, 2004

What I remember

We tuned into CBC in the car on the way home this evening and were lucky to catch Next: "The Pills That Ate My Brain: Neuroceuticals and Freedom of Thought."

This is really exciting stuff, I thought. Enhancing the cognitive function of the brain. Enhancing memory. Erasing memory. Freedom of thought, defining thought in legal terms.

The irony is that, as much as I wanted to blog about some of the issues raised, I'm having trouble recalling most of the show. Only a general impression remains.

It's all about control, of course, and the fear that someone other than yourself may be accessing and controlling your memory, your thoughts, the stuff that makes you you.

Memory-enhancing drugs are already on the market. An aging baby boomer population creates an obvious demand for such a "medication." We've medicalized another natural process.

As with mood-altering drugs one might wonder whether they treat a "disease" or simply make you more "competitive."

We need to acknowledge that many "prescription" drugs are often used illegally and for recreational purposes, purposes other than those for which they've been medically and governmentally approved. That a drug can help Grampa remember the name of his childhood pet has vaster implications.

If a drug can access a memory, perhaps erase a memory, how long before the technology exists to modify one, or to insert a pure fiction? Time-release capsules, like a computer virus, to bend your perception of reality and control your actions.

Some of the dangers of neurotechnology.

Neuroceuticals: nutritional supplements for the brain.

Freedom of thought is a poorly understand constitutional right, but the technologies already exist to threaten it. The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE) in Davis, California, tries to provide legal theory and principles to guide courts, policy makers and civil liberty experts.

Brain fingerprinting is designed to determine whether an individual recognizes specific information related to an event or activity by measuring electrical brain wave responses to words, phrases, or pictures presented on a computer screen. [It] is considered a type of Guilty Knowledge Test, where the "guilty" party is expected to react strongly to the relevant details of the event or activity.

See also The Journal of Cognitive Liberties.

Additional links.

Coincidentally, we watched and enjoyed The Butterfly Effect the other night. Chilling and disturbing in ways I hadn't expected. The life-changing events at issue were indeed gruesome and difficult. And this is the only problem with the concept of the film — these events were not butterflies. We can certainly extrapolate to understand that even insignificant events might have profound effects, but on this count I really felt I was slammed in the face with a sledgehammer.

The question of how one accesses memory, and then travels in time to alter the facts constituting the memory, is never satisfactorily addressed (but then we never really expect movies to solve the problem of time travel).

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Read this book!

The First Century After Beatrice, by Amin Maalouf. It's really happening. Go find a copy right now. It's important.

Bare branches: the branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit.

The technology to identify the sex of a fetus became widespread in Asia in the mid-1980s, and more and more parents each year have used it to weed out less-valued daughters before they are born. Even though identification of the sex of a fetus, as well as sex-selective abortion, is illegal throughout Asia, the balance of boys and girls in the younger generations continues to worsen in many of these countries.

In China, according to the 2000 census, there are 120 boys for every 100 girls.

Scarcity of women leads to a situation in which men with advantages — money, skills, education — will marry, but men without such advantages — poor, unskilled, illiterate — will not. A permanent subclass of bare branches from the lowest socioeconomic classes is created.

And that makes trouble.

Throughout history, bare branches in East and South Asia have played a role in aggravating societal instability, violent crime and gang formation.

Love your daughters! Value them. Tell your governments to treat them fairly. Make sure they are never thought inferior or second-class. Teach your sons to respect them.

Movie meme

You can see the movie meme Scribbling Woman posted, along with links to its earlier and other incarnations.

I won't reproduce my list here, not because I have anything to hide — I freely admit that I consume crap by the bucketfull — but because I don't think anybody would care.

(Why do we do these things?)

However, following the instructions to add three movies to the list, I would add Pi, The Big Lebowski, and The Cook, The Thief, The Wife, and Her Lover, being films reactions to which offer some insight into the character of people who see them. Maybe.

Shoot. Just three? OK. Scratch those. How about Liquid Sky, Cube, and The Hudsucker Proxy?

Maybe I should simply offer you a list of movies, my favourite, for very different reasons, of all time (in alphabetical order):

The Big Lebowski
Bitter Moon
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White, Red) — I'd be hard-pressed to have to choose just one of them. OK, White. White is my sentimental favourite.
Until the End of the World
Wages of Fear
Wings of Desire

Does that make a round number of some kind? My Top X. Aw, fuck it.

To my mind one of the greatest entertainment industry mysteries of all time:
How is it that Tom Cruise, short and a scientologist, comes to choose roles in such very interesting (but not particularly "successful") movies: Eyes Wide Shut, Minority Report, Vanilla Sky (all of which I am considering adding to the above list)?

Saturday, July 03, 2004


Today was the day. A summer's day perfect for intitiation to seasonal water rituals.

Testing the waters. Posted by Hello

Helena splashed up a storm.

Exhausted from water play, she was asleep by 6. We'll see if she sticks out the night. . .

To hell with it

The July 5 issue of The New Yorker finally hit the stands in these parts yesterday (believe me — I've been checking every day this week), though it seems our neighbours south of the border were privileged to see it a few days beforehand.

Helena was asleep in the stroller before we even hit the magazine store. She stayed asleep while I indulged in a cappuccino and burrowed into the comfy chair to read.

Caitlin Flanagan is still infuriating, but a little softer.

According to Rebel Dad:

She seems to have a harder time embracing the kind of all-consuming motherhood that she has sung the praises of in the Atlantic. . . And her transition from at-home mom to magazine superstar has softened her view of working parents, even as she retains fondness for traditional mothers.

See the press release for a summary of the article.

I find it hard to put a finger on what's wrong with the way Flanagan thinks. She's often illogical and her arguments are inconsistent. Like lot of people I know. Real and good people.

She's just so damn self-centred.

She writes:

In my childish apprehension of things, my father was happiest when he was sitting in his armchair reading a big, fat book, and my mother when she was standing at her ironing board transforming a chaotic basket of wash into a set of sleek and polished garments.

Well, it's a sign of maturity that she recognizes this picture-perfect memory as her childish apprehension of things. What freaky world does she think she grew up in?

It's hard to feel sorry for Flanagan. Twelve years old when her mother decides to put her professional training to good use. Now, I can't exactly relate — my mom stayed home. But the moms of many of my friends did not. None of them feel toward their mothers the kind of anger and resentment Flanagan relates. She comes across as a selfish, spoiled, unlikeable adolescent who refuses to make any effort in understanding anything that isn't going her way.

Obviously, there are no easy and universal answers. I'd like to believe that Flanagan has always known that. She's just had trouble expressing it. It's her snobby–preachy writing style that has wrought her so many enemies. The attitude in her writing is softening. With more real-life experience, she's more willing to admit her own shortcomings and hypocrisies.

Apartment 11D nicely sums up what I expect is going through the heads of most mothers reading the article, looking for answers no one can offer:

Are the kids better off with me rather than some professionals who would be making duckies and shit out of yarn and a soda can? With lots of other kids around them?

Duckie crafts and friends v. treats and kisses. I don't know. Maybe it's a draw.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Reading in the half-light of semi-consciousness

Disclaimer: This is a record of my emotional reaction to a novel. No critical analysis was involved in the creation of this post.

Finally. Finally, finally, finally! After five long years, I can move Reading in the Dark, by Seamus Deane, from the shelf of unread books in my bedroom to the main repository.

Apparently, "Deane's book is the warmly compassionate, painstakingly gorgeous work of a mature man who wishes to memorialize the dead without yielding to sentimentality."

Yet somehow too sentimental for my taste.

He re-creates a landscape where the two principal modes of Irish myth-making, nationalist and supernatural, intertwine like a double helix, a landscape where the fabulous mingles with the workaday, where fairy children, one eye green and one brown, stand by police cars in the flickering light of Derry's tribal bonfires.


The language was "poetic," and the strung-together vignettes were somewhat poignant, funny, charming, etc.

But I found it all dreadfully boring.

Things Irish hold no particular appeal for me. But there must be more to my disinterest than that.

Family secrets. Skeletons and ghosts. Big deal. Everybody has those. I couldn't bring myself to care.

My fault, or the author's fault?

Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996, along with the far superior and vastly more haunting and mysterious Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.

A reading guide is available.

Thursday, July 01, 2004