Friday, December 22, 2006

My year in books

In case you need some last-minute shopping inspiration, or maybe you're feeling at a loss regarding what to discuss with family members you see but once a year, I give you the highlights from among the books I read this year (with links to the interesting things I said about them!), even though I'm generally not given over to this sort of thing. But it was an exceptionally good reading year. I leave in the morning for a few days; maybe you'll have digested this by the time I return.

The good
Book I'm mostly likely to reread:
Middlemarch, George Eliot.

Book I'm most likely to recommend to the largest number of people:
Snow, Orhan Pamuk.

Book that I had very low expectations of but left me stunned (in a good way) (and which I'm likely to recommend to almost as many, but a different group of, people):
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver.

Oh, and! The Intuitionist — that was pretty good, but I don't know what kind of clever category to make up for it, other than "every bit as good as trustworthy sources said it would be." And that Dumas book — that was pretty good, too — for being everything I've come to expect of Dumas.

Children's book that I first encountered this year and which continues to wow me:
Harold and the Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson.

The bad
Book that was drastically overhyped, and which I hated:
Labyrinth, Kate Mosse.

Books I almost wish I hadn't bothered to read, almost (in addition to Labyrinth):
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco.
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
A Grand Complication, Allen Kurzweil.

Books I didn't much like that many people really, really like, which makes me wonder what the hell do I know:
Smilla's Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.

Other books not nearly as good (by which I mean powerful and gripping — writerly skill is not in question) as I expected them to be:
Arthur & George, Julian Barnes.
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel.

The ugly
And I mean that affectionately.

Most memorable scene from a book:
The unmasking of Toro, in Iron Council, by China Miéville, still gives me chills just thinking about it.

Book I'd most like to see filmed:
Iron Council, China Miéville.

Weirdest book (where weird is relative), which I'm still not sure what to make of (most articulate descriptor yet: "trippy"):
Light, M John Harrison.

Luckiest book find:
Horror at Fontenay, Alexandre Dumas, for the cover alone. (The same stories are contained in a relatively recent release, One Thousand and One Ghosts, which boasts being the first translation into English — I'm curious how it compares to my much older "adapted" text.)

The verdict
I read some really great books this year, almost all of them Napoleonic and swashbuckling in one way or another. Really. If you think about it.

Book that made me sit up and say "Why the fuck have I never heard of this book before?!":
The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton. It seems they heard me in New York, though — NYRB Classics releases The Slaves of Solitude February 20, 2007! Buy one! Read it! Share my obsession!

Also, I have decided for myself that War and Peace is not the best novel ever written. Pretty good, but not the best.

My favourite reads this year (alphabetical by author surname, if you need to know), for reasons varied and complicated and not explained here:
Middlemarch, George Eliot.
The Dodecahedron, Paul Glennon.
Snow, Orhan Pamuk.

If I listed more, I'd have to list them all over again. Yes, The Dodecahedron. No, I haven't written a full review of it yet. Yes, actually, I do still intend to. No, I can't quite say why it feels like a favourite, which maybe has something to with why I can't write properly about it. I'm still digesting it. (Ah, bibliophagia!)

So there. Merry Christmas!

Des muscles

Whenever I need a laugh, some weeks more than others, I ask Helena to show me her muscles.

It was just before Christmas last year that she came home and announced that she had des gros muscles. I insisted on evidence.

She clenches her fists, her jaw. Her whole body trembles with the exertion.

Her muscles, pronounced the French way ("myooskl"), make for a good party trick. She takes the command very seriously. After all, here's proof positive that she's a growing girl.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Charmed, I'm sure

The Charmer, by Patrick Hamilton, published in 1953, is set in 1930s Reading.

The eponymous Gorse is a grifter, a player, a user, with a decided nasty streak. He's indifferent to his victims, but also pretty passionless about his gains from them. He has one eye always on the prize, but his focus is on perfecting his technique, his game.

Gorse, when lounging at one end of an expensive bar nearly always wore a monocle and looked like a curious, undistinguished mixture between Bertie Wooster and Satan.

An astute observer would have been more impressed by the moustached-satanic, rather than the monocled-Wooster, aspect of the young man, and would have realized that he was looking at a character by no means unformidable.

Mr Stimpson was not an astute observer, and at the moment even less so than usual, because of his uneasiness at his first entrance into the well-known, well-lit, glittering, thickly-carpeted bar. The fact that Gorse was there, indeed, made the young man seem quite angelic — certainly not satanic.

Nor did Mr Stimpson observe, in the first few minutes of talking to Gorse, that he had been tempted by Satan, in the person of Gorse, and had succumbed. He had, however.

For Gorse had ordered for Mr Stimpson an extremely strong cocktail. This was on the bar beside his own drink, and both had a most pleasant, green, frothy appearance. But Gorse's drink, though it resembled Mr Stimpson's externally, had practically no alcohol in it. He was, therefore, deceiving as well as tempting Mr Stimpson.

"I've taken the liberty of ordering a drink for you," he said. "In my view it's the very best they provide here — but if you don't like it, I'll order something else, and drink it myself . . . I often think it's a pity they don't like you drinking good old beer in places like this — don't you?"

Mr Stimpson did not like cocktails, but, by these last words of Gorse, was of course shamed into readily accepting what Gorse had provided for him. The Tempter tempts with shame very often.

The prize here from Mr Stimpson is information and, in a few hours, a compromising situation that Gorse can later use against him.

The Charmer was originally titled Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse. Indeed, the main character could be said to be Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, who, really, has to choose between the two. Both men are trying to play her, to different ends, but while Stimpson is necessary to move the plot forward, his character is never under study to the degree it is with Gorse and the widow — he's the facilitator to them both.

Stimpson has his crossword puzzles. A drinking buddy, Major Parry, has an Armistice Day Poem to compose. Our lady Joan keeps a diary. All these obsessions are extensions of their egos, and Hamilton invites us into their banal machinations. These are some of the funniest bits of the book (and this book is pretty funny), but also, after a while, the most tiresome (especially the diary entries); however, they serve the purpose of demonstrating how petty — and stupid — these people can be.

I'm now reading about Ernest Ralph Gorse's early years in The West Pier, a recent serendipitous find, said by Graham Greene to be "the best novel written about Brighton." The West Pier is the first of the Gorse trilogy. The Author's Note in my copy states that "There may be some readers who, on learning this, will feel that The West Pier is not a complete story in itself. The author is anxious to assure any such reader that it actually is." Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, I've only just confirmed, is the second, and I assure you that it can stand alone. I'm reading them in reverse order because that's the order in which I acquired them.

The Charmer's cover copy calls it a "spine-tingling tale of seduction and murder." I did not read about any murder. I suspect this must refer to the Masterpiece Theater dramatization (1987), which either took liberties (certainly the character in the cover illustration is not moustached) or stretched to encompass bits from the volumes on either side of it. Early in The Charmer it's noted that "Miles Standish was, in fact, one of the select few first to suspect that Gorse was up to no good in life generally — that he was, possibly, destined to see the inside of prison bars." The book ends with Gorse driving off in his ravishingly new Sunbeam. We're told he is to die painlessly and quickly; it's hinted that this will occur in a car. Reading this, I couldn't tell if this was meant to conclude the trilogy, or if details would be fleshed out in a subsequent volume. But I'm now on the lookout for a copy of Unknown Assailant, hoping for murder, prison, and a fatal automotive incident.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Let the bricks fall as they may

As I'm finishing up a batch of books, I've been thinking about what next, how to tackle some of the unread books I have lying around, and lo, along comes a reading challenge, down on them though I am, that I feel I can get behind, or jump on — I mean support, and actually join, because I can fashion it to include a bunch of stuff I'm meaning to read anyway: The Chunkster Challenge (though I don't think I'll refer to it by name much, because I really hate that word, "chunkster" — saying it makes me feel dirty, and not in a good way, like I'm slumming for all the wrong reasons).

The challenge: to read books of intimidating length, between January 1 and June 30, 2007.

Bookfool defines "chunkster" as anything over 400 pages, but I'm with Ed in saying, that's nothing. I read 400 pages before breakfast. Ed proposes the Super-Chunkster Challenge: at least 4 books over 600 pages.

The way I see it, 6 months equals 6 books. Here's what I'm going to read (order yet to be determined):

Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield (pb, 750 p). Lying around since early 2005, when I promised to read me some Dickens (which I haven't since).

Dumas, Alexandre: The Count of Monte Cristo. Yet to be purchased (and I have a gift certificate earmarked for this purpose), so I don't know exactly how many pages, but it's a lot. I've always meant to read it, and it's been particularly much on my mind since reading Perez-Reverte's The Queen of the South. And I like Dumas.

Powers, Richard: The Gold Bug Variations (pb, 639 p). Finally acquired August 2006. I'm surprised that I didn't read it years ago.

Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver, The Baroque Cycle, Volume I (hc, 944 p). On my shelf since 2004, I think. I loved The Cryptonomicon, and Snow Crash.

Wallace, David Foster: Infinite Jest (hc, 1079 p). On my shelf since April 2006. Because I need to see what all the fuss is about.

Yes, I know that's only 5 books (and only the Stephenson and the Wallace could really be said to intimidate me, and the Stephenson only does so because of its length, at least when considered as the first part of a trilogy).

Number 6 will be a surprise. Maybe Volume II of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Maybe my 10-year-old copy of Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before (oh, damn, that's only 528 p). Maybe Gravity's Rainbow, though I'm not sure I'm ready. Maybe I'll pick up that "new" Dumas book in the spring. Maybe I'll cheat. Maybe I'll count The Red and the Black, even though I've less than 400 pages to go (although, I am in effect reading it twice, in 2 languages). Maybe I'll count Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (527 p), if I don't manage to get to it over Christmas after all. Maybe I'll count something really short, like Un Lun Dun (428 or 464 p, depending), since I'll be snapping it up anyway, first chance I get. Maybe I'll change my mind about the whole thing.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A mystery about art

Last spring, I headed out to a reading that was to feature a trio of gentlemen: one, the main attraction (for me, anyway), was a no-show; another I knew for his work as a translator rather than as an author in his own right; the third I'd never heard of. Wouldn't you know, it's the guy I've never heard of — José Carlos Somoza — who ends up blowing me away.

(Is that expression right, "blow me away." It rolled off my fingertips, I'm sure I use it all the time, but I'm hearing it my head right now, and saying it out loud, and it sounds so wrong, wrong, wrong, and stupid. And meaningless, really. What does that mean, "blow me away"? "Blow my mind" is like blowing a fuse after a power surge, a useful metaphor. But "away"?)

So. The Art of Murder. Welcome to the world of hyperdramatic (HD) art. Artists use people not only as models, but as canvasses, primed and conditioned for painting. The human canvas is contracted to hold its pose during gallery hours or as otherwise specified when the work of art is rented or purchased. (This movement in Fine Art influenced the industrial design of Decorations: people are lamps, soapdishes.)

HD artists work not only on the canvas bodies, physically painting and manipulating them, but on their minds, to prepare them to be art. Brushstrokes are psychological — delicate caresses of the ego, jabbing questions and insults, nuanced variations and repetitions of these for shading.

One canvas is mutilated, or murdered — it depends on how you look at it. This discussion between the two main investigators in Security drives home the point:

"She was a painting. There's no need to look any further than that, Lothar. Deflowering was a painting. I'll prove it to you." She pounced on one of Annek's studio photos and thrust it in Bosch's face. "She looks like an adolescent, doesn't she? She has the shape of an adolescent, when she was alive she walked and talked like an adolescent. She was called Annek. But if she had really been an adolescent, she wouldn't have been worth even five hundred dollars. Her death would not have interested the Ministry of the Interior of a foreign country, or mobilised a whole army of police and special forces, or led to high-level discussions in at least two European capitals, or meant that our positions in the Foundation are on the line. If this had been only a girl, who the shit would have been interested in what happened to her? Her mother and four bored policemen in the Wienerwald district. Things like that happen every day in this world of ours. People die horrible deaths all around us, and nobody could care less. But people do care about the death of this girl. And do you know why? Because this, this," she shook the photo in his face, "which apparently shows a young girl, is not a girl at all. It cost more than fifty million dollars." She repeated the words again, emphasising them with a pause between each one. "Fifty. Million. Dollars."

"However much the work cost, she was still a young girl, April."

"That's where you're wrong. It cost that much precisely because it was not a girl. It was a painting, Lothar. A masterpiece. Do you still not get it? We are what other people pay us to be. You used to be a policeman, and that's what you were paid to be; now they pay you to work as an employee for a private company, and that's what you are. This was once a girl. Then someone paid to turn her into a painting. Paintings are paintings, and people can destroy them with portable canvas cutters just as you might destroy documents in you shredding machine, without worrying about it. To put it simply, they are not people. Not for the person who did this to her, and not for us. Do I make myself clear?"

The above exchange occurs more than 100 pages in and really bangs the reader over the head with the Point, but from page 1 this alternate world is unveiled and rather gently examined without having to be explicated. It's not exactly masterful, lyrical writing, but what is masterful is that this alternate reality is wholly believable. This book is generally classified as a mystery, but it's a little bit literary, and a lot speculative. In this way it reminds me of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (although Whitehead's command of language is far superior) — this genre-blending, this construction of an alternate reality so firmly grounded in our own and so delicately skewed that the reader can't help but buy into the sideways squinting perspective on it. One technique common to both books is the quoting of extracts from "historical" treatises from the school of thought that forms the basis of their worlds.

It's worth noting that Somoza gave up a career in psychiatry to pursue writing. His training is put to obvious use in developing his themes and character profiles.

The narrative cuts between scenes of investigating the crime and following the progress of one particular canvas, but the tension builds rather slowly, and it's more intellectual than visceral — the novel is as much a meditation on art as it is a mystery.

Investigators are racing to establish the identity of the killer before he strikes again. They anticipate trouble at the opening of a major HD exhibit. It's a tribute to Rembrandt, but it comes off more as a Guernica:

"We've always thought humanity was a mammal which could lick its own wounds. But in fact we're as fragile as a huge painting, a beautiful but terrifying mural painting which has creating itself over the centuries. That's what makes us so fragile: slashes on the canvas of humanity are hard to repair. And the Nazis slashed the canvas to ribbons. Our convictions were smashed, and their fragments scattered throughout history. There was nothing we could do with beauty, except to grieve over it. There was no way we could get back to Leonardo, Raphael, Velazquez, or Renoir. Humanity became a mutilated survivor whose eyes are wide open to horror."

So. Some interesting ideas about the nature of 20th and 21st century art. The crime may be a statement about art, or maybe it's art in itself. Art as a kind of self-negation. What makes art last is that it is ephemeral. You know, stuff to think about.

I don't read a lot of mysteries, but I certainly enjoy them from time to time. The resolution of The Art of Murder did not come as a surprise, but I found it fitting and satisfying (which is rare in my reading of mysteries).

José Carlos Somoza has written about a dozen novels, but only 2, so far, have been translated into English. He won the 2002 CWA Gold Dagger for The Athenian Murders (which I'll be looking for). The style and setting of each of his books is vastly different from the others.

José Carlos Somoza: official website.
The Art of Murder: excerpt.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Sheets from a Christmas notepaper pad. Sticky note in top right corner, on which is written in red marker, "C'est la fête de Papa!" (which it will be next week), signed by the artist (legible only on the one component I was asked to contribute and sign; otherwise the "writing" is better described as scribbling with intent to convey a particular meaning but not the least bit successful in doing so). Two stickers in the top left, one of which must be a motorcycle and the other to come from the flowers and butterflies sheet, but with no other rules (eg, regarding size, colour, orientation — I asked) guiding their selection; the stickers must be side by side, but their order is free and spontaneous.

Currently, the installation comprises 7 components, but there are plans for expansion. The artist has plotted the area for a total of 21 panels to span the entire length of the hallway between two doorframes.

Sometimes I think I'm too permissive, that the use of supplies in this manner is wasteful, but these concerns are far outweighed by my curiosity to know what will happen next.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Helena's stories

Adèle and Simon
After expressing my desire for it on the basis of one review, Helena did in fact receive a copy of Adèle and Simon for her birthday. It's a hit, and is oft-requested at bedtime. We test our memory in listing all Simon's belongings and we search for (and find) the lost items; when people arrive at Simon's house with his things, we retrace our path to find out where we recognize their faces from; we study the map. I'm confident Helena, when one day we take her, will not get lost in Paris, though we do at times lose ourselves in the illustrations.

Anyway, if you're looking for a Christmas present to delight a 4-year-old girl (or boy, I guess — Simon is a boy after all, and there's nothing particularly "girly" about the story), consider this book.

Ngonghe & Nurlna

Helena, who used to refuse to name her dolls and bears, now invents near unpronouncable names regularly. (The dolls and bears for the most part remain unnamed though, slipping into character as the situation demands.)

She tells me my name, maybe the name of my teddybear, and sketches out the scenario I'm required to perform.

Helena (Ngonghe) and I (Nurlna) first meet when I answer the door — apparently she knocks on the doors of the homes of strangers. We go shopping together (in my bedroom), and buy a cat (the real one lying on the bed). We take the cat home (Helena's bedroom) on the metro (a train of child-sized chairs in the hallway). She thanks me for my help and asks, "Do you want to sleep with me? At my house?"

She makes up beds for us, tucks me in, and makes herself comfortable. She turns to me and smiles, "I love you. What's your name again?"

The bath
Bathtime, much like every other time of day, has become storytime. It's easier on me though: since Helena's mobility is reduced in the bath, she resorts to good ol' storytelling, as opposed to enactment.

She tells me a story with a little dog and a big bad wolf. Red riding hood makes an appearance, I think, as does Han Solo. There's an imprisonment and, later, ice cream.

As the bath draws to a close she decides to recap the story she'd told me only minutes earlier. She tells me there was also an octopus in the story, only she didn't tell me about him because he wasn't there.

(Weirdly, most of her bathtime stories these days feature Han Solo and Chewbacca — weird cuz I don't think there's ever been mention of them in our home since Helena was born.)

The nosebleed
Of all the possible vacation anecdotes she could tell — the zoo, her wonderful aunt, the nooks and crannies in her aunt's home, her birthday presents, the local park, the shopping expeditions and Christmas decorations (including a Santa sighting), the neighbour's baby, airport security checks, the airplane — the one that gets told most is the one about the nosebleed. Her nosebleed, on the flight home, which, admittedly, freaked me out at the time. It was an intense experience while I was in it, but quickly passed into the realm of the forgettable while the more pleasant, general impressions of our trip endure. But Helena sees her world differently than I do, and it seems she knew the nosebleed story would fascinate her daycare peers.

The doctors
It is our habit to watch Doctor Who together. If ever I try to hurry bedtime, whether to watch a program or for some other selfish reason, my efforts always backfire. Helena has, however, become very compliant in being scrubbed and pyjamaed with the prospect of watching Mommy's program with Mommy, and in Mommy's bed to boot. She used to ask a lot of questions, but they've trailed off a little, as she must now realize they'll be answered with, "Ssshhhh!" Or maybe the complexity of the program (compared with, say, Dora) challenges her question-asking abilities. But she does save up some questions for commercial breaks and for ensuing days, and what remains unanswered has not, that I can tell, caused nightmares or existential crises. (I dread having to explain the nature of The Beast. While once I regaled her with book and film summaries, describing them as epic battles between good and evil, over breakfast, I haven't so much since she learned to talk, daunted by the possibility of follow-up questions.)

Last week I made the mistake of hurrying an already way-overdue bedtime and explaining I wanted to watch a program.
"Doctor Who?" It's almost an accusation, that I'd exclude her.
"What program? What's it called?"
"Is it about a house?"
What's it about?
"It's about a doctor?"
"What's his name?"
"Is he a house?"
"No. That's his name. Dr House."
"Dr Who?"
"No. Dr House."
Helena says it's a silly name. How can a person be a house? It does not occur to her to question Dr Who's name. We engage in a little unintentional Abbott & Costello repartee.
Then, "Does he have a spaceship?" Which leads me to think our Doctor Who watching may have effects other than the nightmares I worried about.

Regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted to celebrate the season. Tonight, instead of watching Doctor Who (which Helena was so looking forward to), we'll be watching Dr Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas — or, as Helena likes to call it, Dr Who-ss.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Angry young man

From Orhan Pamuk's Nobel lecture:

As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but — just as in a dream — I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Words and music

1. I finished The Shadow of the Wind. After my initial underwhelmed impression, it got worse. Unnecessarily long and complicated, and with a plot hole I couldn't find an answer to and characters whose motivations weren't believable. The mood was kind of nice to start — a bookish mystery, love of books, that sort of thing — but then it got bogged down with... I'm not sure what. I know lots of people loved this book — I'd really like to know what it is about it that spoke to you.

2. Shadow reminded me of my experience reading Kate Mosse's Labyrinth. Both feel like a promise of something quite interesting, that with a little editing could succeed as young adult novels. Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about, because by many standards they're both wildly successful. But there's something juvenile about them — and I don't mean that derogatorily — I can't put my finger on it: not the writing style, or the subject matter. Maybe because the lead characters are young? I want to say there's something immature about the treatment of themes and the understanding of people, but there I go being insulting again, and it's not entirely true besides. So what makes a young adult novel a young adult novel (Rachel?)?

3. I'm all caught up and on schedule, finally, with my reading of The Red and the Black. Now if only I could write something about it. Hmm.

4. I've said it before, but I really hate having more than one book on the go at a time. Honestly, I don't know how people do it. It drives me crazy. I think I multitask effectively, but only when I see things getting done; that is, I multitask my tasks, but one at a time; that is, the cost of task-switching at some point interferes with my ability to do the tasks well. Obviously, I don't know what I'm talking about.

5. I'm loving The Art of Murder. Now to find time and space in which to read it uninterruptedly. The mystery aspect of it at this early point is still a mystery to me, but the premise is certainly worth some discussion. (Excerpt.)

6. What's with all the reading challenges? (Boy, do I ever sound like a spoilsport today.) I've come to the realization that they're not for me. I won't say any more on the subject because I'm bound to offend people if I do, and I doubt my reasoning would make any sense.

1. There's something about jazz. Some of it carries me away. For years I've been trying to educate myself on the subject. To that end, the music library needs occasional augmentation. I requested and received for my birthday Art Tatum and Thelonius Monk. I've been in kind of a jazzy mood of late, but, it turns out, not quite that kind of jazzy.

2. Also received, but not requested, was the soundtrack to The Triplets of Belleville (which I've not seen but have forever wanted to), which is a little closer to the kind of jazzy I'm feeling these days. Also, both J-F and Helena seem to like it, and it's magical when just a little music can put a spring in the household's steps.

3. A Philip Glass violin concerto was the soundtrack to La Moustache. The movie and the music haunted me for days. Requested and received, the concerto now haunts me daily. A perfect mood match, and not the least bit jazzy. Hmm.

4. I pulled out an old CD, The Storyteller & the Fisherman, stories by Mohammed M'Rabet, translated and read by Paul Bowles. I couldn't tell you what most of the stories are about; the voices, music and market noises hypnotize me before I can make sense of anything. It reminds me of the hazy dazy trance in which I travelled through Tunisia.

5. I've started listening to Christmas music; that is, I've been hearing it for weeks and ignoring it — this week, I started listening. Mostly I hate it, but it's unavoidable out there in the city, so I've decided it's important to listen to the music I like in the comfort of my own home to make up for all the commercial crap and help spark a little genuine Christmas cheer. I burned a CD of my favourites some years ago, but it's scratched and unplayable, so I've been trying to recreate it, which means a little of the cheer is actually being lost amid the swearing. And even though I've heard it a billion times and bopped around to it, that stupid BandAid song made me tear up this morning. Stupid song, making me cry. What kind of Christmas spirit is that?

6. The building contractor for some reason decided to tackle the "problem" of our condo's courtyard walls (mostly aesthetic, but not entirely) now, this week, in the cold, in the snow, when it's dark at 7 in the morning. Stupid, noisy contractor.

The both together
A new study suggests speakers of different languages perceive rhythm differently; the researchers' work has the potential to uncover a new link between language and music. (Via Collision Detection.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

A 4-year-old's Christmas scene

That's Père Noel on the right, a girl telling him a secret, a gaggle of small children at his feet, and a grown-up looming over them on the left.

I think Helena's artwork is getting weirder, a little bit creepy even. This scene was no doubt inspired by Friday's daycare visit to Santa's court in the adjoining mall. Crowds thwarted them from meeting him personally — they'll return another day.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Books for drunks

Five novels for your inner drunk, among which is Hangover Square, by my latest passion, Patrick Hamilton:

Hamilton — who, until a recent revival in which his vicious streak of black humor and sometimes-astonishing gift for disturbing imagery was discovered by a new generation of critics, was best known for providing Alfred Hitchcock with the raw material for Rope — tells the story of the perfectly named George Harvey Bone, a schizophrenic good-for-nothing who drowns out the “dead moods” inside his skull by constant drinking. Bone doesn’t have a job; he has a career that largely consists of talking about all the things he could do if he wasn’t drunk. He doesn’t have friends; he has, like most alcoholics, a bunch of people he drinks with and who can’t stand him the minute they sober up. And he doesn’t have a girlfriend; he has an actress he’s obsessed with and who loathes him, and who will meet a grisly but unforgettable fate, burning up among Hamilton’s beloved London lowlifes in an eerie foreshadowing of the nightmarish days to come (Hangover Square was begun in 1939 and completed in 1941). The descriptions of Bone and his contemptible ’friends’ careering aimlessly from pub to pub are among the truest in all of drunk fiction.

Doesn't that just sound like the best?

I haven't acquired this book yet, but, having read two and a half Hamilton books and with two and a half more on my shelf ready to go, I consider myself something of an expert, and I can tell you that in Hamilton's books, people go to bars, or round to the pub, and it's never a happy experience, though it may sometimes be vaguely satisfying, and you watch the drinks perform their transformations, loosening people's tongues or quickening their tempers or dulling their good sense, and it is an achingly real reading experience. Thank you, Mr Hamilton, for being the observant drunk you were.

Also on the list, Crime and Punishment. Missing from the list, Under the Volcano, although frankly, I don't really remember what it's about, just the feeling of having drunk too much and going about in a stupor. (Link via Ed.)

This be the end

While away, I treated myself to The End, the last in A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket. (Excerpt.)

I love this series. It's not particularly meaty; both the characters and their adventures are rather like sketches that hint at depths never fully realized. It's fun (in a grim way) and easy, with more mood and attitude than substance. And that's fine. Like an Edward Gorey drawing: charming, witty, morbid. It's also deceptively mature and well crafted, with simple but meaningful metaphors (the story is like an onion) and life lessons ("It depends on how you look at it."). It has all the elements of classic children's literature — orphans, boarding school, eccentrics, treasure, circus freaks, a quest — pared down to their barest, ugliest essence.

I love the wordplay and the literary allusions. I only regret that I cannot read these books as a 10-year-old. (I look forward to Helena's experience of them.)

What I love about The End is that very little is solved or resolved. The reader is warned:

But it cannot be said that The End contains the end of the Baudelaires' story, any more than The Bad Beginning contained its beginning. The children's story began long before that terrible day on Briny Beach, but there would have to be another volume to chronicle when the Baudelaires were born, and when their parents married, and who was playing the violin in the candlelit restaurant when the Baudelaire parents first laid eyes on one another, and what was hidden inside that violin, and the childhood of the man who orphaned the girl who put it there, and even then it could not said that the Baudelaires' story had not begun, because you would still need to know about a certain tea party held in a penthouse suite, and the baker who made the scones served at the tea party, and the baker's assistant who smuggled the secret ingredient into the scone batter through a very narrow drainpipe, and how a crafty volunteer created the illusion of a fire in the kitchen simply by wearing a certain dress and jumping around, and even then the beginning of the story would be as far away as the shipwreck that left the Baudelaire parents as castaways on the coastal shelf is far away from the outrigger on which the islanders would depart. One could say, in fact, that no story really has a beginning, and that no story really has an end, as all of the world's stories are as jumbled as the items in the arboretum, with their details and secrets all heaped together so that the whole story, from beginning to end, depends on how you look at it. We might even say the world is always in medias res — a Latin phrase which means "in the midst of things" or "in the middle of a narrative" — and that it is impossible to solve any mystery, or find the root of any trouble, and so The End is really the middle of the story, as many people in this history will live long past the close of Chapter Thirteen, or even the beginning of the story, as a new child arrives in the world at the chapter's close. But one cannot sit in the midst of things forever.

And this, I think, is an excellent introduction for 10-year-olds to both literature and life. Interconnectedness and continuity.

Most of the allusions throughout the series are superficially appropriate to the characters and situations but don't run very deep. They provide a chuckle to those in the know, perhaps make the reading of juvenile fiction more tolerable for parents. In youngsters they may inspire questions, but perhaps more important is the mere forming of an acquaintanceship — that years later they will not shy away from, say, Prufrock or Ishmael for finding something familiar in them.

Count Olaf in a climactic scene, which takes place on a coastal shelf, quotes Philip Larkin. "Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, and don't have any kids yourself." And this, my friends, is the theme of the Baudelaires' story, perhaps life itself: They fuck you up, your mum and dad.


That's the nose in the middle, with the whiskers to either side and the eyes just above them. Less obvious, you will find the paws in the corners.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Over the last week I've missed my blogging home tremendously, but now that I'm back I don't know what to say. Much like when meeting up with old friends, it takes the time to consume a bottle of wine before you reestablish your old rhythms. I feel like I should be brimming with fresh insight and self-realizations. I have a fog in my head. I'm in the dark, fairly familiar with my surroundings by now for all this groping about but I haven't found the light switch yet. I mean, you know, life and stuff. Oh, what the hell am I talking about, sounding so maudlin.

Being away from home was lovely, in fact very much like going "home," as far as hanging out with my sister means "home," which it does quite a lot.

Helena was exceptionally charming, with only very few and minor outbursts.

We did nothing that could be called sightseeing, wandered aimlessly around Dupont Circle (several times), bought shoes in Georgetown, went to the zoo, stopped by the World Bank (for which adventure Helena has a wonderfully official visitor's pass) where we lunched (Helena chooses salad bar over pizza).

The highlight of Helena's trip was the nearby playground.

The highlight of my trip was sharing far too many bottles of wine with my sister. And the shoes. And the used Patrick Hamilton book I found.

We watched Mary Poppins. I asked Helena what she would do with her tuppence: put it in the bank or feed the birds. Without hesitation she opts for banking it. What about the birds? Who's going to feed the birds then? She tells me Michael wants to feed the birds, he can feed the birds.

That's it. I should go reflect more carefully on my week before reporting anything further.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Up and down, and up and away

1. Does anyone have a job for me? I do mostly medical copyediting, but I'd do just about anything (though preferably something vaguely editorial, and slightly more literary, at an outrageous salary please). I make a decent cup of coffee even. And I can write too, kind of. My bread-and-butter contract upped and went (I'm assured that the quality of my work was not in question, simply they have the resources to produce the journal fully in house now), which has me thinking, at age 37, (ack,) what the hell do I want to do with my life.

2. Curses on Ana Maria, and on that accursed Popword, on which I've spent more time in the last few days than pretty much everything else.

3. I feel the assault of Christmas. The commercial Christmas crap ought not to start till December 1. Leave my birthday a Christmas-carol-and-tacky-decorations-free zone.

4. I haven't packed yet, but I feel confident about getting it done in the morning. The laundry at least is laundered.

5. I've spent far too much time carefully considering what reading material to bring with me. I'm bringing The Red and the Black (Stendhal) and The Art of Murder (José Carlos Somoza). (Also Harold and the Purple Crayon and Harold's Circus.)

6. I've been reading — in an effort to delay the forthcoming pleasures of Patrick Hamilton, and to leave my vacation book alone, and to enforce some schedule discipline on myself for the group reading project book (and I'm really not liking having so many books "open" at the same time — it's a pervasive uncomfortableness, I'm at loose ends) — The Shadow of the Wind, which a third of the way in, underwhelms me. A pleasant enough comfort read, but I don't think the blurb comparisons with Umberto Eco (my recent realizations notwithstanding) or Arturo Pérez-Reverte (though I can see the Dumas-style romance adventure connection) are deserved. An example of word-of-blog run amok? To me it reads like a young adult novel (and that's not meant as an insult). — More on this when I finish it.

7. I spent a lot of time with my cat today. He's very cool.

8. I'm still thinking about War and Peace. Last week I finished watching Bondarchuk's epic film adaptation, but I haven't had the mental space to sort out all my thoughts. I liked it very much. Stay tuned.

9. I leave tomorrow for a week. Blogging will be intermittent, perhaps nonexistent or quite possibly better than you've seen it in months. I expect to have time enough once at my destination to post a bit on The Red and the Black (to chapter 21).

10. I dread travelling with small children. Every time, I dread it.

Isabella was 4 (once)!

Today is Isabella's 4-plus-30-something-th birthday. Helena crammed a muffin full of candles for me this morning. Later there will be book browsing and Chinese food and champagne, and laundry and packing for a weeklong visit with my sister in Washington, D.C., with 4-year-old Helena in tow.

(Isabella remembers that after her 4th birthday party, she wasn't feeling very well, and had to lie down on the couch.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Helena is 4!

Today is Helena's 4th birthday. Yesterday was full of giggles and family and pizza and cake and presents and antics.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Tito and Rose

Helena attended a teddybear workshop today.

When I come to pick her up, she introduces me to her new best friend bear, Tito, who wants to sleep with her tonight. She advises me that Tito is afraid of cars and of Christmas trees.

Helena tells me that Rose told her to ask me to write her name both on Tito's tag and on the tag of his shirt. "Rose est presque une educatrice," Helena says. I confirm that she means Rose — Rose whose 4th birthday party we attended a couple weeks ago. Yes, because "Rose nous dit qu'est-ce qu'on doit faire."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Various charms

1. Today was picture day a la garderie, without the drama and hysterics of last year. According to Helena it went very well; she did not make faces, she blessed the photographer with nice smiles and willingly took various poses with flowers. According to the note left by her éducateur, they somehow managed to coax a smile out of her in the end. I'm just glad there were no tears.

2. I had some errands to run this morning, and very conveniently I polished off the last bite of my croissant aux amandes just outside of one of my now-favoured used book stores, so I went in. I came out with The Charmer, by Patrick Hamilton. The cover illustration is perfectly charming, and the back cover tells me it was dramatized for Masterpiece Theatre. Inside the cover I learn it was originally titled Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953). The disclaimer says, "All the characters in this book are entirely imaginary. So also are Mr Stimpson's Crossword Puzzles, the clues to which the reader is advised not to be beguiled into attempting to solve." I am beguiled.

3. I said I'd take a little break from Mr Hamilton, but I don't think I want to after all. I had started eyeing another book — well, erm, reading it actually — I ordered it, it arrived, I had to sample the goods — but I'd been meaning to save that one for my vacation next week. So now I'm all in a tizzy — what do I read now, and what do I read then?

4. I've temporarily abandoned my French reading of The Red and the Black. I've been trying so hard to stay on pace, not to get ahead, that all of a sudden there was no time for it or I'd be falling behind. But this is temporary. Stendhal and I will just have to get along in English for a little while. Besides, my French edition is away on business this week with my personal translator.

5. Helena wants a Dora birthday cake. I haven't got a clue where to find one. I'd had the idea to order an "edible image" I could plaster onto a cake of my own devising, but that idea didn't occur to me till after the shipping time window had closed. I could not find Dora candles. I did find a marzipan Dora, but she looked kind of creepy, and Helena doesn't like marzipan (yet). (I remember getting marzipan "fruits" in my Christmas stocking when I was 4 and thinking them horrid.) For all the lovely bakeries in my neighbourhood, their cakes are elegant and for those of discriminating taste, like myself, but sadly not for the likes of my almost-4-year-old daughter. Her birthday is Monday; family will gather to celebrate on Sunday. I am so screwed.

6. We've attended 3 birthday parties in the last 2 months. Helena hadn't expressed any interest in a party of her own, but when invitations to the most recent fête were distributed, she asked if she also could give out cards for her birthday. My understanding is that this is not about a party per se, but that she wants to give something to her friends by way of celebration. (I've been thinking to bring helium balloons to the daycare that her classmates can take home. Maybe.) However, when I picked Helena up yesterday, little Mathilde approached to show me the billet Helena had given her — a half-centimetre square paper with a green scribble dot — to fêter sa fête. I am so screwed.

7. Just the other day I read about Adèle and Simon, by Barbara McClintock. Today I had the opportunity to turn its pages. Utterly charming! I must have this for my little girl. (But it'll hold till Christmas, I think.)

8. On my way home, I missed my metro stop, kind of; that is, I forgot I had to change to another line. I wasn't even reading, or engaged in serious daydreaming; I was simply mistaken and confused, convinced this train would take me to my doorstep. I have often imagined this scenario, but it's never happened before today.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

About Doris Lessing

The Adventures of Doris Lessing, including her condescension and contradictions, ostensibly a review of two of her books but referring to very many and with some biographical detail, as told by John Leonard in The New York Review of Books, who sums up:

Except that so often she is the only grownup in the room. For a dervish, Lessing's not exactly light on her feet. Lofty and heavy, dogged and relentless, stubborn and punitive, she wears you down. It's as if she knows so much, and so much better, that we have to carry her around — as Dann carried the snow dog to safety — all the way to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize long overdue. She has written tens of thousands of pages, many of them slapdash, millions of words, none of them mushy, one masterwork, The Golden Notebook, and may be the twentieth century's least ingratiating great novelist, whose fatalism is often difficult to distinguish from complacency, and who is harder on women than on men: there is "a basic female ruthlessness," she has said, "female unregenerate, and it comes from a much older time than Christianity or any other softener of savage moralities. It is my right."

Much to think about in this essay, and many, many more books by Doris Lessing for me to read....


Have I mentioned? I love Patrick Hamilton.

I finished Craven House this weekend. What Mr Hamilton says makes me laugh; what goes unsaid makes me cry.

Whereas the first signs of a failing brain in the average human are believed to manifest themselves in the form of odd straws, or irrelevant flowers sticking out from their persons; and whereas this in in actual fact a mainly false belief, there is no doubt whatever that, when suspicions of this sort come to centre round an old lady, the trouble first sets in around the Hat. A cherry too much, a rose too dangling, an apple too great, a bunch of grapes to the bad, and before you know where you are, you have a thick-veiled, white-booted, painted, muttering nodder, charging along the streets, mixing with the crowd, and waiting with eternal nods at street corners, to the bewildered horror of the public at large.

The concern of Craven House, then, can well be apppreciated, when Mrs. Hoare came down to lunch one Saturday afternoon, in a picture hat belonging to an unknown era, and adorned with a bright blending of large water grapes and pink ribbons, guaranteed to cause the Not All There school of nephews and nieces to toss their caps into the the air at the final and crushing defeat of their opponents.

Immediately she had taken her place, which she did with a mixture of slight coyness and a slight consciousness of being brazen, Bertha began to wheeze. This she continued to do before receiving a sharp glance from Miss Hatt, when she shook unsteadily, and remembered herself.

"Oh, Mrs. Hoare?" said Miss Hatt, agreeably, and in general.

"I sometimes wear it, you know," said Mrs. Hoare, and the company turned very pale. . . .

"Oh, yes," said Master Wildman.

"Yes. My Solicitor, you know," said Mrs. Hoare, with a winning smile.

"Oh, yes," said Master Wildman. "I see."

There was little else about the hat. In fact, most of the book is made up of such little windows on the inhabitants of Craven House.

Craven House was Patrick Hamilton's first novel, and it shows. It takes a while for the language and the characters to settle into each other. The early chapters are overwritten. It lacks polish and the precision that I felt sculpted The Slaves of Solitude, but brims with real and pathetic people and is no less devastating.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky arrived on my doorstep last week, but I'm going to take a little break from Mr Hamilton before I start in again. It's just too emotionally bleak to read so much of him all at once.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Bedtime story

It's a treat for Helena some evenings to curl up on the sofa, already pyjama-ed, with blanket and favoured plush toy du jour, and watch the hockey game with her father.

This particular evening* she shows as much interest in the game as I do (ie, none) and clambers onto my lap with a "so, whatcha reading" expression on her face.

She gingerly extricates my book from my hands, searching my face for a reaction, to make sure it's ok. She identifies all the "H"'s on the cover — front, side, and back. (It's Craven House, by Patrick Hamilton.) She riffles the pages, confirming there are no pictures within. She mischievously suggests we read it together.

"Ca c'est toi," she points at the dumpy old woman drawing back curtains from a window pictured on the cover. This is not flattering — I'm almost insulted — but "on fait semblant."**

She turns to page 1, appropriately flipping past the author info and title pages, and begins.

"Il était une fois une petite fille, s'appelle Mommy Isabella."***

Helena offers me a sentence per page. There's a witch, and she wants the little girl's magic shoes. There's also a little boy imprisoned somewhere. He wants candy. The little girl marches up the steps to her house. "Hurry, hurry, I want coffee."

Helena tells me I have to calm down, stop laughing, or she won't read any more to me this evening. I bite my lip.

Fortunately, Helena has begun to turn pages 10 at a time. The witch makes occasional appearances to thwart some action or other but she is beaten off. The little boy doesn't want to take a bath.

At page 223 Helena yawns. She promises she'll finish reading to me another night. She wants to go to bed.

*That would be Tuesday, for those of you fact-checking against team schedules.
**"It's pretend."
***"Once upon a time, there was a little girl, called Mommy Isabella."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The mysterious flame, and other crap

I like Umberto Eco, I really do. He's smart and funny. I've always enjoyed him in interview, and I've made a point of getting out to his readings and lectures when the opportunity arose. I read quite a bit of his work in the course of my studies, on semantics and the philosophy of language (I have a particular fondness for The Search for the Perfect Language).

So I like Eco. (I even wrote him a clever (I thought) letter once, regarding my copy of Misreadings, which was misbound, with some signatures missing and others repeating. He never replied.)

Then there's his novels.

I loved The Name of the Rose. Frankly, though, it's the movie I remember more clearly than the book. Different beasts, both wonderful. Full of wonder.

Foucault's Pendulum I raved about, without really understanding it, having read it when I was young and pretentious. I'd like to read it again someday.

The Island of the Day Before has languished on my to-read shelf for many years, bookmark stuck on page 55. I've tried a few times, but I can't seem to get past page 55.

Baudolino I received as a birthday present the day after Helena was born. I read it while breastfeeding. I enjoyed it well enough, but without ever feeling fully engaged. Reading while breastfeeding can do that, but some authors can do that all on their own. It occurred to me that maybe I didn't really like Umberto Eco's novels after all.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was painfully boring, and, as far as I can tell, pointless.

The premise is this: Yambo, a rare-books dealer, suffered a stroke and lost his memory. He retains implicit memory, automatic things like how to brush his teeth and drive a car. Explicit memory is twofold: Yambo's semantic or public memory is intact — it's scholastic, general knowledge; but his episodic, autobiographical memory is gone. So he goes in search of it amid the objects in the attics and secret rooms of his old family home.

I like this idea. What am I without my memories? What do my belongings say about the sort of person I am? Yambo learns very little from his wife, family, friends, emphasizing the limits on how well anyone can possibly know him.

So the novel starts pleasantly enough, in Yambo's haze of fog. Eco quotes TS Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Dante, Dickens; he makes reference to all manner of classic literature, poetry, and fairy tales. I know many of these. This starts me on my own sentimental journey, wondering why I remember some things, why they resonate, and not others.

But the more references Yambo has, the less they mean anything, to him or to me. The novel quickly degenerates into a beautifully illustrated but dry catalogue of experience without significance.

Yambo has lost his emotional sense of being. Would he necessarily then be unable to react emotionally to his present? Yambo is detached from himself, and so are we. This makes for a plausible and intellectually consistent point to the story, but it doesn't make for very good fiction.

The storytelling, those loose threads strung between cultural objets, is never personal enough for me to buy into this character, to engage in his quest, to feel for him. And it's not general enough to be the cultural odyssey of everyman. It leaves me cold. It seems to leave Yambo mostly cold too.

Some stimuli do manage to spark something:
"It's not that," I said. "It's that I felt something inside. Like a tremor. No, not like a tremor. As if . . . You know Flatland, you read it too. Well, those triangles and those squares live in two dimensions, they don't know what thickness is. Now imagine that one of us, who lives in three dimensions, were to touch them from above. They would feel something they'd never felt before, and they wouldn't be able to say what it was. As if someone were to come here from the fourth dimension and touch us from the inside — say on the pylorus — gently. What does it feel like when someone tickles you pylorus? I would say . . . a mysterious flame."

Hence the title. I happen to have read Flatland, so this actually means something to me.

(Queen Loana does not make an appearance till quite far along in the book. Her image is inextricably linked to Yambo's sexual awakening and his first love, unrequited, he now believes to be the love of his life.)

Previously I mentioned that I had the distinct impression that Eco is shitting on his readers. My words were chosen carefully.

Two particular scenes made me scrunch up my face — and I'm not a squeamish person. First, shortly after arriving at his childhood home, Yambo goes out to take a shit in nature, in the vineyard, "enjoying a pleasure that went back to Neanderthal man" even while "Shit is the most personal and private think we have." Second, Yambo learns the story of his grandfather's revenge on the Fascists who detroyed his newspaper office and forced him to drink castor oil, a little lesson about talking politics. His grandfather tracked the one man for more than 20 years; revenge involved a bottle of aged essence of shit.

It's not the events per se that disturb me, it's that they seem so out of place. I don't feel like they have shock value exactly, it just feels uncomfortable, like here's a man (I mean Eco here, not the Yambo character) indulging himself, finding it somehow satisfying, maybe even liberating to be so frank, but at the expense of others.

A sixty-year-old man (Yambo, but Eco in a way too) trying to recapture his youth (granted, Fascist Italy and war stole a good portion of it from him), possibly having spent his whole life doing so, reliving his vaguely sexual, adolescent longings. After a brush with death, is that really what a 60-year-old man will devote his brainpower to thinking about — copulation and evacuation?

(It's all much clearer to me now as I write about it. The book is making some kind of sense. But it wasn't any fun for me.)

In The Name of the Rose, Jorge condemns Aristotle's Poetics, Book II, on Comedy. He disapproves of laughter. There's no doubt the man couldn't take a joke.

Anthony Burgess in his review of Foucault's Pendulum wrote, "For while it is not a novel in the strict sense of the word, it is a truly formidable gathering of information delivered playfully by a master manipulating his own invention — in effect, a long, erudite joke."

In interview, on writing such epic novels as Flame Eco says, "The real challenge is to make the writing process last as long as possible, always delaying the moment of the end. It is so beautiful to live for many years with your story, while nobody else is knowing what are you doing, and in every moment you can pick up an idea or an image from your everyday experiences… I cannot understand these authors who concoct a new novel every year. Where is the fun, then?"

Eco then is having fun. Writing novels is his hobby, his secret pleasure, all for himself, like a private joke. He plays, and he jokes, on paper and in person (I've heard him). He must live well. He's a Bondologist. I suspect he likes his women. Like Yambo, I'm sure he occasionally revels in his bodily functions, this dirty thing called life.

I'd really like to think he's putting one over on us. The Mysterious Flame sits better with me if I think of it as an old man's joke (even if I don't find it very funny).

Interestingly, the only review of Flame on Eco's official website is a negative one: gimmicky, clumsy, boring, static. This gives me hope that Eco acknowledges it as such, perhaps even wants the public to know it.

Apparently Eco has stated that The Mysterious Flame will be his last novel. I'm kind of relieved.


A clip from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (via Maud Newton), in which the depiction of bathrooms and toilets is psychoanalysed and it is postulated that waiting for a film to begin is like staring at a toilet bowl waiting for the return of excremental remainders.

An examination of the social contract of male restroom etiquette, breach of which places the very fabric of our civilization in peril.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A red and black reminder

Go read the first 6 chapters of The Red and the Black. Then go talk about it.

Utterly and magnificently ... useless

Paul Auster on reading and writing, his acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters:
In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

To do something for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing it. Think of the effort involved, the long hours of practice and discipline required to become an accomplished pianist or dancer. All the suffering and hard work, all the sacrifices in order to achieve something that is utterly and magnificently ... useless.

I am desperately hoping to find Travels in the Scriptorium under my birthday tree. Even though it won't be released on this continent for months. Even though the verdict on it appears to be "slim" and "disappointing."

One review, and some others.
Digested read.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

After midnight

The drinking's easy. Le bloguemonde is uninspiring. Better to watch Monty Python instead.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

It's a screwcap

I announced to J-F that I was off to the grocery, and gentleman that he is he offered to go in my stead. You could tell though, the offer was insincere. It's unsafe, he argued feebly. I can see the back of the grocery from our front window. Oh, I have an idea, let's both go, it'll be romantic — which just goes to show that I am in fact drunk enough to forget for a moment that there is a child asleep in the house.

So I went, and picked out a bigger bottle of even cheaper red wine. For 5 minutes I stared at the snack foods, picked up a bag of peanuts, put back the bag of peanuts, picked it up again, left it behind. Then the cashier tried to tell me my coupon didn't apply to this particular wine. (Is there anyplace else in the world where flyers are delivered to one's door that include coupons for wine?) But it did, and I'm glad we got that sorted out.

Interestingly, I noted 3 individuals wandering about the grocery store aimlessly, each with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.

The moon, hours away from full, is amazing.

The wine, it turns out, is near undrinkable, but drink it I shall.

I should've bought the peanuts.


Perhaps some clarification is in order. Ya, I wanna write the Great Canadian Novel, only not too Canadian, cuz that could be downright boring, not great at all, they only get interesting when they stop obsessing about their Canadianness, or the wilderness, and I know very little about Canadianness or wilderness, so let's just say a Great Novel. Thank you, for all the encouragement and kind words. My mentioning it was not in fact a desperate plea for attention and validation (well, not more so than blogging in general is); nor was it jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon, cuz that kind of thing just isn't for me; it's just something that's come up a lot lately, as something I've always thought about doing someday, and some people advising that I may as well exert my energies on that sort of thing as on anything else, whether scaring up more freelance work or looking for a regular job or intensive language training and possibly translation studies (as, this town is bent on having bilingual editors, and I could spend hours telling you and potential employers why this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but it won't change their hiring practices, and they'll be content with bilingual publications that are "good enough" (and my French is not, though it might be for some jobs in a field that didn't actually depend on one's use of the language); English-only jobs are few and far between,) or deciding I want to do something altogether different with my life and starting over.

Plus, I heard a wonderful real-life anecdote the other day, which is just the perfect frame to hang a novel on.

Only, I started putting some things to (figurative) paper the other day, and it was hard, and it was crap.

But now I feel the pressure. Cuz about 17 people read it right here that I'm going to do this. So now I have to.

Also, I have to run to the grocery store for a bottle of wine.

Now what?

So it's National Drunken Writing Night. I don't know which nation, but it is night. I bought a bottle of wine among groceries today, but how is it that that's the only alcohol in the house? I opened it with dinner, about 3 hours ago, and had to share, and there's just a dribble left. I've had about 3 glasses, then, of crappy grocery store wine. I don't feel drunk. The kid was late getting to bed, and, oh, shh, I think she's actually asleep now. J-F's watching hockey. So that leaves me here, in front of the computer, writing, but with nothing to write about. And damn, I think the game's over. Maybe he can run out for wine or something. And damn, the kid's calling me now.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

What are you doing this Saturday night?

It's NaDruWriNi!

Reading, etc

1. I finished reading Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude. I don't have any more to say than what I've already said. I recommend it highly, if you don't mind bleak and claustrophobic. The writing is exquisite and the observations sharp.

2. I ducked into a used books shop earlier this week, and there was Patrick Hamilton's Craven House, just waiting for me. It's his first novel, published when he was 21 years old(!). Like Slaves it centres on a boarding house and its motley inhabitants, but it's evident from the first few pages that Hamilton did not yet have the mastery of language and character that showed itself some 20 years later in Slaves. In the introduction to the 1940-something reissue of Craven House, Hamilton admits to it being flawed, unpolished: sentimental, wordy, and perhaps needlessly dating itself; but also that "if it can still find readers, I should still like it to be read." So read it I shall.

3. I'm about to place an order for books: something for Helena for her birthday, some Christmas considerations for others, and a little birthday treat for myself. I'm treating myself to Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Do you detect a new obsession?

4. I've been slogging through Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, when I'm not being distracted. It started off promising enough; I'm nearing the end and I do want to know how things are resolved; but the middle? The middle 200 pages were mostly boring and gratuitous, and I have the distinct impression Eco is shitting on his readers, but more on this later, when I've actually finished reading it.

5. We've been watching Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace. This of course has me going back to the novel, checking the scenes and checking over characters' words, but more importantly going over it again in my mind. Reading the book I picked bits of it apart; watching the movie is helping me put it back together again, reintegrate all the pieces. The movie's war bits are spectacular, the peace bits are rather harder to decipher (which is opposite to my reading experience). It's all very beautiful. We're about halfway; I'll say more when we finish.

6. I've been poking around the internet looking for some background material on Stendhal and the writing of The Red and the Black, and coming up short. Its plot is based on a real-life incident, and to share any details of it seems to give away the book's ending. So I've got nothing — I'll have to wait until Monday to talk about the actual text.

7. Do you think I should write a novel? I've been thinking about writing a novel. I suppose actually I've thought about it for many years, but never said it out loud, because that would signify some sort of commitment on my part. So I guess this is me saying it out loud. I'm ready.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The ghost in the crowd

My sweet little ghost in the end looked a rather scary little ghost. It was confirmed, rather late in the game, that masks were not in fact allowed, so my hooded mask masterpiece was set aside and a little last-minute improvisation was called for. Helena insisted on doing her own makeup.

But oh, she was happy, and into the spirit of the thing. I took her to daycare in the morning. She costumed up in the vestibule and made an entrance on her already assembled group with all sorts of arm-waving and oooohh noises.

I left her to meet up with J-F; with other parents we watched our disguised monsters parade about and gave them treats, and saw them off on their tour of the office building.

Helena came home beaming and with a backpack full of candy. I still don't know whether our neighbourhood embraces the trick-or-treat tradition. I'd intended that we stroll about in the evening — candy not being the objective of it, but simply to spread a little ghostly cheer — but as it was cold and rainy, and Helena'd already had hours of excitement, we simply called it a day.

I'm insanely proud of my little ghost, for her spirit, for following through on her slightly off-beat vision, for not following the store-bought princess crowd.

Monday, October 30, 2006

How to watch The Wizard of Oz with a not-quite-4-year-old

I undertook the watching of The Wizard of Oz with my not-quite-4-year-old spontaneously, as it happened to be on television just when television-viewing seemed like an appropriate thing to be doing, but I recommend against it; indeed, this activity calls for careful preparation, and to that end, I give you a sort of study guide, a list of questions you may wish to consider and devise potential answers for before embarking on the experience. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a little preparation may enhance your viewing pleasure. Be sure to be fully rested when you do choose to engage in this activity; it can be exhausting.

Why is it so windy?
Where does wind come from?
Is she dead?
Where's the farm?
Why does the house fall on the witch?
Where's the witch? You said there'd be a witch?
Why are you singing, Mommy?
Where's the witch?
Is that the witch?
Is that the witch there?
Is she a witch?
Why does the witch look like a princess?
Why is the (other) witch's face green?
Where'd the witch go?
Why are you singing again, Mommy?
Is that a witch?
What's a scarecrow?
Where's the witch?
(Note that talking trees do not elicit any questions from your not-quite-4-year-old.)
Is that a robot?
Do robots have hearts?
Why don't robots have hearts?
Why is the lion walking on two legs?
Where's the witch?
Why are they falling asleep?
C'est quoi "poppy" en français?
Why isn't the scarecrow falling asleep?
Are they dead?
How does the princess make it snow?
Why is everything green?
What's a wizard? Is that the wizard?
Why is there so much fire in the wizard's room?
Is Dorothy going home? Why can't she go home?
Why does she want to go home?
Where's the witch?
Why do the monkeys have wings?
Why does the witch have monkeys? Can we have a monkey?
Can I have a monkey if I'm a witch?
Why are the monkey's taking the little dog?
Where are they taking Dorothy?
Where's the witch?
Why don't the monkeys take the lion? Don't monkeys like lions?
Why is the witch mean?
Why does she want the shoes?
Where'd the witch go?
Why does the witch set the scarecrow on fire?
Why did Dorothy throw water on the witch?
Why is the witch melting?
Why does water make the witch melt?
Will I melt if you throw water on me? Why not?
Do I have to take a bath?

The climactic witch-melting scene will be essentially the end of your viewing experience, as the television-watching activity must now be replaced with scene reenactment.

The scene can be reenacted with two people (Dorothy and the witch), but ideally a third will play the scarecrow. Imagination is ok, but props are better: something to serve as a broom (like a broom) and something to serve as a water receptacle (we used a hat, but a pail will do nicely). It's important to take turns so that your not-quite-4-year-old can experience the thrill of each of these important elements: 1. being set on fire, 2. throwing water, 3. melting. Repeatedly.

Be prepared for follow-up questions and clarifications in the ensuing days.

All usual pretend-play scenarios will be suspended indefinitely as witch-melting scene reenactment is perfected. Scene reenactment can be incorporated into bathtime, but script improvisations should be avoided till their (psycho)logical implications have been tested in a dry and nonvolatile environment.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The crouching monster

Yesterday being a most miserable day, a mix of uncooperative people and failing technologies (of many kinds and in multiple physical locations), I was looking forward to stopping by the library (Sergei Bondarchuk's film adaptation of War & Peace finally came in!), but alas, my journey by public transportation was marked by shortcomings both human and mechanical.

I arrived remarkably without having sworn at anyone (out loud), stepped on anyone's feet (deliberately), or pushed anyone down. What better place to compose oneself than in a library, I thought. So rather than simply pick up my film, I thought I'd see what Dumas offerings there were to be had (in English, though the French section turned out to fare little better), and there were scant three offerings: two I'd read, and the third I don't feel a pressing urge for. And at this, my spirits sank, further. So I reached deep into the recesses of my mind for the list I store there of books and/or authors I'm continually on the lookout for; one author name found therein is Patrick Hamilton. Have you heard of Patrick Hamilton? Have you read him?

It's been well over a year that Patrick Hamilton was added to that list (for Doris Lessing's mention of him), the particular title to watch for being Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, which in my book is one of the best titles ever (and I say that still, without having read it, knowing barely anything about it). I'd never heard of him, for some reason assumed he was contemporary, and only very recently discovered that he wrote in the interwar period and is dead. Knowing this aided my search technique a little, the name rising to the top of the list in my browsing of certain shops and falling off the list entirely when in others, but I haven't yet come across a book of his.

And so it was that I scanned the library shelves for his name, and felt like I'd found treasure when amid Janes and Ruths and others I espied two volumes by Patrick, though the bindings were ratty with titles difficult to make out. I passed over, for now, Hangover Square (his masterpiece, bigger, darker, and sounding more political than I'd expected) and alighted on the slimmer The Slaves of Solitude.

It begins thus:

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

The men and women imagine they are going into London and coming out again more or less of their own free will, but the crouching monster sees all and knows better.

Reading this helped my own soul to breathe, lifting it a little above the jostling crowds of my Friday gone wrong.

So this was the treasure I took home with me, and I am wowed like I do not remember having ever been previously wowed, every page being quotable, and clever almost funny (in a dark way); I'm finding it achingly bleak and beautiful, somehow true. But achingly. So sad, these slaves.

(The Slaves of Solitude is set in 1943. It was published in 1947. My library copy was borrowed once in each of 1959, 1977, and 1993, according to the stamps. I expect I'm the only borrower since. And that's a crying shame.)

I'm not quite a third of the way through the novel. To this point the story focuses on Miss Roach, a 39-year-old secretary who lives in a boarding house in Thames Lockdon, having been bombed out of London.

Here, for two hours or more every evening, the guests of the Rosamund Tea Rooms sat in each other's company until they were giddy — giddy with the heat, the stillness, the desultory conversation, the silent noises — the rattling of re-read newpapers, the page-turning of the book-reader, the clicking of the knitter, the puffing of the pipe-smoker, the indefatigable scratching of the letter-writer, the sounds of breathing, of restless shifting, of yawning — as the chromium-plated clock ticked out the tardy minutes. Finally they went to their bedrooms in a state of almost complete stupefaction, of gas-fire drunkenness — reeling, as it were, after an orgy of ennui.

Hamilton is a keen observer of human behaviour: the dialogue is spare and often interrupted — character interactions are very brief — but heavily laden with petty power games, ambitions, motivations, and second-guessing. It's a very rich picture of empty lives.

(I learn this evening that Patrick Hamilton wrote the plays Rope and Gaslight, the film adaptations of which I am familiar with (the former being one of my very favourite of Hitchcock's).)

I'm off to bed, to spend my extra clock hour with Mr Hamilton's Miss Roach (sympathetic, yet perhaps no better than any other character we may pass), her American lieutenant (a love interest, if she decides to think about love, and he stops behaving as if everything were inconsequent), her vulgar German friend (potentially a rival? "Her English accent was curiously in keeping with her cigarette smoking — a little too excellently polished, a little too much at ease, and conscious of being so. Her skill here, however, was remarkable, and could only have been acquired by one who had spent, as she had, the greater part of her adult years in England. It was, when first meeting her, only in the consciousness that she was speaking English extraordinarily well that the listener realised that she was not English."), and her rooming-house nemesis, Mr Thwaites.

(I think I'm in love with Mr. Hamilton.)

This is the part I'm at now:

Gloomy as both these enforced excursions were, Mrs. Barratt's soul was saddened less by the cemetery than by the Park. The Park, in fact, was the cemetery — the burial-ground, to those elderly ones who came slowly limping along its asphalt paths to sit down and stare, of hope, vivacity, enthusiasm, animation — of life, in the positive sense of the word, itself. Where the cemetery spoke greenly and gracefully of death and antiquity, the Park spoke leaflessly and hideously of life-in-death, or death-in-life, amidst immature municipal surroundings. Though of small, almost miniature dimensions, and bearing the singular characteristic of running by the side of a river, Thames Lockdon Park closely resembled other parks of its kind all over the country. Dominated by a small red-brick building, which was seemingly deserted all the year save by the gardener, and devoid of all furniture save the gardener's brooms, machines, and tools, Thames Lockdon Park, within its small acreage, contained and enclosed with neat hedges a green bowling-green, a green putting-green, a brown hard tennis-court, a sandy enclosure with swings for children, and a small recreation-ground for games of all sorts.

Threaded through these were the asphalt paths, bordered in places with grass verges and flower-beds, and ornamented here and there with brand-new trees about ten feet in height. Though much was thus offered to the public, little, even in the summer, was taken advantage of, and more was forbidden — Cycling, Spitting, walking on the grass, picking flowers, defacing the Corporation's property, removing its chairs, using the bowling-green, putting-green, or tennis-court without asking its permission, etc., etc. — these ordinances being proclaimed in white lettering on green boards here, there, and everywhere, and a reward of forty shillings being in some cases offered to amateur detectives of culprits.

Backed and tolerably comfortable seats, each accommodating five or six persons, were placed at intervals facing the river, and to these Mrs. Barratt — oblivious of putting, bowls, and tennis, or of the temptation to Cycle, remove or deface — went to sit. Nor was Mrs. Barratt, this morning, alone in the pursuit of this object, the unexpectedly fine and warm day having brought out several other people of a similar mind, age, and constitution from the boarding-houses of Thames Lockdon, of which there were many.

Nor was this weak, semi-tottering parade of death-in-life in the winter sun taking place in Thames Lockdon alone. Though happening so quietly, and as it were clandestinely: though utterly unknown to and unsuspected by the busy world of train-takers, office-goers, and workers, it was as much a feature of the English social scene generally as train-taking, office-going, and working. At eleven o'clock each morning, far and wide over the land — in Parks, in Gardens, on Sea-fronts — in shelters, on seats, in crazy-paved nooks; beneath walls, behind hedges, facing flower-beds, these inert and silent sessions were in progress, out of the wind and forgotten by the world.