Friday, June 30, 2006

The Zorn zone

The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is on!

Last night we took in John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, an event I'd been looking forward to for half a year.

Phenomenal. I don't know how to begin to describe this music. It's deeply familiar, even while it's strange and I encounter parts of Zorn's project for the first time.

It reminds me of... everything.

His sax sounds like ducks and sick cows, and street traffic, hordes of forgotten people, there's a noise he sustains that sounds like a violin when you draw the bow across the strings on the wrong side of the bridge. I sat with my mouth open, watching a trumpet play percussion, and a bass sound like a piano, and drums like an intricate tap dance transforming into butter-leather butterflies and dipping into gritty 1950s movies set in New York. All the while, nostalgic melodies hover.

All this noise so clean and precise, each of the musicians completely in control, creating this energy, stealing it from everyone in the room, a palpable tension that suddenly breathed a collective breath, felt peace and calm, before again the collective soul filled with anger and melancholia and the adrenaline of building something wholly new out of something so very old.

From Wikipedia:
Masada is not so much a band as a musical project that John Zorn embarked upon in the early '90s. It is a collection of more than 200 short tunes that have been written in accordance with a number of rules. These include the maximum number of staves, the modes or scales that are used and the fact that they must be playable by any small group of instruments. Given the historical associations of the project's name (see Masada), the Hebrew titles of the compositions, and the Jewish imagery on the covers of the associated albums, Zorn was clearly exploring his Jewish roots. "The idea with Masada is to produce a sort of radical Jewish music, a new Jewish music which is not the traditional one in a different arrangement, but music for the Jews of today. The idea is to put Ornette Coleman and the Jewish scales together."

As for those historical associations, the Romans breached the wall of the fortress Masada in 73 CE:
When they entered the fortress, however, the Romans discovered that its approximately 1000 defenders had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and committed mass suicide rather than face certain capture or defeat by their enemies (which would probably have led to slavery or execution). Because the Judaism strongly discourages suicide, however, the defenders were reported to have drawn lots and slain each other in turn, down to the last man, who would be the only one to actually take his own life. The storerooms were apparently left standing to show that the defenders retained the ability to live and chose the time of their death.

I'm not sure what any of it means, and frankly for the timebeing I'd rather not consider its political implications — I don't think I'm mature enough to not let it spoil the music for me. The words, the titles are sufficiently vague, and Zorn is silent on any intent other than musical, that I'm comfortable with what meaning this music has for me.

One recommendation for this show recognizes that:
It recalls the collective suicide of the Masada community in biblical Israel, but is more about music that gets to your gut. Zorn's original Masada quartet combines individual prowess in a collective spirit of creative renewal: trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummer Joey Baron and bassist Greg Cohen.

They're tight as a group, with Zorn obviously directing them, raising a leg (camouflage cargo pants) or jerking his head to adust their volumes, shift their tempos. The setting, at Place des Arts, was a bit formal for my liking, but I'm almost scared to consider what energy might be drawn and released elsewhere.

Two encores, refusing a third only, I think, out of sheer exhaustion.

The performance was recorded for Radio-Canada and will be broadcast July 16, 20:00 EST.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Left-brained literature

As defined by Waggish: "books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent." No conclusions drawn, but I think it's an interesting exercise.

The list of authors includes some of my favourites: Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Milorad Pavic, Neal Stephenson. Also, Borges, Perec, DeLillo. (Maybe I'm an engineer at heart after all.)

Not surprisingly, there is some overlap with Alex Kasman's list of mathematical fiction, though I like the Waggish ambition to focus on "literary" fiction.

No women writers are noted. I think AS Byatt might appeal to left-brained readers, but I can't say I've ever seen an engineer reading her books.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Trains and things

Every morning Helena pitter patters to my bedside. Sometimes she gently shakes me awake, usually it takes only her whispered "Mama." There are mornings I'm woken by her presence, her standing there and gazing at me; I'm awake but don't open my eyes, wondering how much longer before she whispers or reaches out her hand, wondering how long has she has been there already, wondering if she stands there all those other mornings too, perhaps her presence alone is not enough to rouse me as often as I think.

She asks if we can go upstairs, is it time. She assembles her things — usually her pillow and a chosen bear — for me to carry for her. From my own bedside I grab my glasses (to put them on in this half-sleep haze would be too rude an awakening) and the novel du jour.

In recent days, Helena wants to carry my book for me. She has created this job for herself; she holds the book as if it were a holy relic, presenting it to me proudly at the top of the stairs. It is important, and it is something she does for me.

This weekend was a holiday weekend, St-Jean Baptiste day. A visit from Helena's grandmother. A trip to the bookstore. A trip to the playground (le parc jaune, for its yellow slide), a walk through the park to see if we could score balloons or flags. Coming upon an assembled crowd, staying late to watch flamenco dancers. Neighbours having a party; being sung to sleep by their drunken crooning in the wee hours. A trip to another park (le parc boum-boum, for its bumpy slide). Tending the flowers on our balcony. A walk to the video store, another shop. Stopping at the playground on the way home. A tricycle ride to the schoolyard after supper. Back to the park after breakfast. A little drive. Later, a walk to yet a different park, with a wading pool. Splash. A tricycle ride to return a movie. Crepes for breakfast. A visit to our old park, the one we used to live across the street from, to feed the ducks and, of course, enjoy the playground (le parc rouge, for its red slide). A walk to the store for a bottle of wine and cookies. Finally, the rain.

I steal away to read a few pages. Helena finds me on the bench in the courtyard. She asks to look at my book. The only picture is the one on the dustjacket. I make the mistake of telling her the book is about a train. She is too eager now. The bookmark flutters to the ground. Helena opens Iron Council to page one. She's facing me; she props the book up on her knee so as to display all that lies within to her audience. She describes the illustration that only she can see, a bright blue engine; and she "reads" to me about a train called Thomas and the schoolchildren who come to visit him.

(China Miéville's Iron Council is not a light read. Review. The language is rich, heavy; the politics, slow to digest. The making of myth and messiahs. "The uncovering of the 'truth' informs the achievement, but does not destroy it: actions gain their own momentum." Debate.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Lessing's mothers

I didn't mean to read The Grandmothers this week. It's been on my nightstand for ages; other books are queued up to be read first. But in that moment between books I found my hand resting on it, then picking it up and opening it.

I didn't mean to write about it here, either. But.

These aren't nice stories. All 4 stories in this volume by Doris Lessing leave me sad and uncomfortable. Too, the writing isn't... tight. Trails tangential to the main path are followed at whim, then dropped. It sounds at times likes the ramblings and commentary of an old woman. Still interesting and usually relevant, but not always obviously purposeful. Perhaps she's always written this way and I never noticed. Perhaps it's from recently reading her essays with their casual rhythms, and having listened to her that I'm more aware of her pauses and asides, how she strays before coming back.

These stories are about mothers. I didn't figure that out till I was finishing up the third story. You'd think the title of the book would've served me as a clue to the fact that family relationships would figure strongly.

There are fathers too, but they are barely there. They are emotionally then physically absent, absent then intrusive, tyrranical and dead; while the fourth story is told from the father's perspective, he never meets his child.

The mothers. The mothers try so hard to do right by their children, and they fail, often spectacularly. They mean well, they do their best, and sometimes I think I would've done much the same, but they still don't get it exactly right. You can't win; mothers can't win.

The third story, The Reason for It, is my favourite of this lot. It reads like a report from another time and place, though it could be an allegory for some of our current times and places.

And that was the moment I understood. Oh, all kinds of enlightenment came flooding, rather late, but there it was, right in front of me. It was not that he had forgotten. Not that he had deliberately destroyed what was good. He had never known it was good. He had never understood. He had seemed to be part of it all, but he, Destra's son, the graceful and charming and delightgul DeRod, whom we had all admired, had been a blind person among us. From some spirit of emulation he had gone along with it all, as children do, but he had unsderstood nothing at all.

Oh, yes, the scales were indeed falling from my eyes.

I sat there looking back over my long life, and thinking how we, The Twelve, had not seen the first most obvious thing. We had deluded ourselves with all kinds of imaginings and resentments and suspicions: we had seen this man here, DeRod, as a villain, a scheming, ambitious, unscrupulous scoundrel. The truth, had been — he was stupid. That's all. We had never seen it. But clearly, his mother had . . . and that was something I had to think out.

I wonder what kind of mother Doris Lessing was (is). I don't know how much her autobiography will tell me about this; I suspect, not much.

It's Doris Lessing who articulated some of my deepest fears regarding motherhood, years before I even considered entering that state. How much control does a mother have? What if my child is evil? What if my child is stupid? What is my child's nature? How will that nature reveal itself to me, and will it guide me like I need to be guided?

(Doris Lessing is now on MySpace.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The box in my mother's basement

Every time I visit my mother, I make my way to the crawlspace in the basement to retrieve childhood treasures — books, naturally. What was once a 5-box storehouse has now dwindled to 2 cartons, each only half full. Over the years, I've winnowed the contents, releasing some to charity, some to their rightful owners, some to the dump. Quite a few have made their way to my home, finally I have my own home, but I've resisted the logical course of action: packing the boxes into the trunk of the car, moving them in one fell swoop. My trips to the basement are adventures I'm not ready to end.

One of the remaining boxes keeps my Nancy Drew collection. Those books will come home with me someday, but I have no inclination to reread them myself, and my daughter is still too young for them.

The other box still holds mysteries. Old friends wait there too, but there are books I barely recognize. Their illustrations are vaguely familiar, titles ring distant bells — I know them from a past life. Indeed, after some 20 years of weeding and sorting, I know that every book there is there for a reason. But what reason?

On my last visit, I plucked out The City Beyond the Gates, by N Roy Clifton. It's copyrighted 1972, but my edition was printed in 1977. Likely I read it when I was 8 years old.

I read it again. It's a dystopia and an allegory. And it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

It is probably the very first dystopian fiction I read, something I did develop a taste for. My 8-year-old self was looking for a perfect world, knowing it would never be found. My 8-year-old self did not find this book simplistic, naive, obvious; she thought it was cool. My 8-year-old self learned that other people were looking too, and that some things can be found only in literature.

"No one tells me what to do."
"What you mean is," said the Kemarch, gently, "that you are not aware of anyone's telling you."

I cannot confirm the identity of the author. Perhaps he is this man: Quaker and vegetarian, remembered by RH Thompson.

The most unsettling aspect of the book is, in my view, its illustrations, by Tibor Kovalik. I think they speak for themselves.

Indeed, I have found a great treasure in the box in my mother's basement.

The editor's brain

On Ellen Seligman, publisher of fiction and vice-president of McClelland & Stewart, or "Canada's top fiction editor":

When she talks, two brains are at work.

There's her First Response Brain, the one that listens to questions and offers an immediate answer. And then there's her Editor's Brain, the one that considers how the first brain responded and then scrawls in some marginalia.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The books are talking to each other again

Utopian society! Cult?! Cognitive science! Visions?!

When Annette Gilson contacted me about sending me a copy of her novel, New Light, I jumped at the chance to read it. It's a pretty breezy, quick read I consumed in spare moments over about 3 days last week.

Gilson's website gives this synopsis:
Beth Martin wakes up one day feeling that she has wasted her life. She goes to Saint Louis to visit her college roommate and take some time to get her bearings. But at a party she experiences what she can only call a vision, which she finds isconcerting, but also strangely compelling. Also compelling is her seeming chance meeting with a neuroscientist who is researching vision phenomena. Beth accompanies him to New Light, a visionary commune in the Missouri Mountains where she meets its charismatic leader and is befriended by some of its members. Their conception of American life challenges the mainstream in a number of ways, most notably in their openness to sexual and emotional experimentation. Beth is intrigued by the sense of possibility she finds at New Light, but is also disturbed by the enormous power its leader wields over the members' lives. In the end she must address questions of faith and responsibility, loyalty and desire, jealousy and tolerance.

New Light was reviewed favourably by Alan Cheuse, though I take issue with his calling it a romance.

I don't really know where to start in talking about this book — I seem unable to maintain, let alone articulate, any coherent thought lately. But the book certainly had me thinking about a great deal of very interesting ideas — a good thing.

I wasn't enthralled by the tone of the first chapter (I'm not a fan of first-person narrative; I think it's really hard to pull off well), but the ideas were compelling enough; it did the job of making me want to read on. One review discusses the writing style (among all else). The rhythm does in fact suit the narrator rather well as we come to know her.

The dialogue I found to be natural and completely believable, reminding me of parties I went to in my university days; the interesting parties, anyway. So I find myself remembering: people I had brief but intense connections with, conversations about the nature of perception.

The book tells the story of one week in Beth's life. A lot can happen in a week. And I remember: one group of people I fell in with, or another, for a few days, or a summer; I remember the feeling that all eternity, and the meaning of everything, if coded, was contained in a handful of moments — intimate friendships with strangers. The briefest of exchanges were immensely meaningful.

While not exactly a trip down memory lane (I've never lived on a commune; I've never had visions), the novel awakened lingering questions: how have I processed my reality? what happened to the others? what happened to all our big ideas? do they remember things the way I do? how can such little moments have such profound effects? what the fuck happened?

I'm not trying to be cryptic, but I don't want to tell all my little stories either. But I'm trying to explain those moments — I think we all have them, don't we? It doesn't happen often anymore (is biological age, or lifestyle, a factor?). How to explain those moments: when there's a connection, intellectual, spiritual, or, yes, sexual; with a stranger, an old friend in a new light, the universe; that defies sense or definition. Is it a kind of altered state? I don't mean odd events. I mean those otherwise very ordinary days: Those 3 "ordinary" days of shopping, ice cream, and gin & tonics with my girlfriends, days rife with spontaneity and coincidence, but somehow they were different than all the other times, somehow for that one span of time everything was in tune, in sync, magical, and I was in the moment and imbued with a sense of omnipotence. A confluence of circumstance over a chunk (small, dense) of time that taps an essence.

And while a week on a commune is bit of an extreme example of a social situation, I think Gilson has tapped into a common "problem" of experience.


New Light is having conversations with other books on my shelves. With Beyond Black, about the idea of a stage persona taken on by a "mystic." With Labyrinth, about the nature of visions — genetic? biochemical? mystical? With War and Peace (which, no, I haven't started reading, but I've been reading a bit about it), about the nature of history.

New Light's neuroscientist posits that spiritual movements throughout history, and the effects on social and political radicals, are a manifestation of chaotic patterning. "It's the chaotic effect. It doesn't matter if spiritualism itself is a sham, just like it doesn't matter that you solve for the chaos pattern in imaginary space. Both map out patterns in the real world." Meanwhile, Tolstoy:
And if history has for its object the study of the movement of the nations and of humanity and not the narration of episodes in the lives of individuals, it too, setting aside the conception of cause, should seek the laws common to all the inseparably interconnected infinitesimal elements of free will.

The loudest conversation in the room, nearly drowning out all the others, is with A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman. They're still talking. I thought I was quite done with Byatt, but it seems I'm only now beginning to hear some of what that book had to say. Spiritual communities figure in both, as does investigation into the cognitive processes in play. A heroine grappling with identity issues and romantic difficulties. The imagery of bird-women. Byatt cuts across a much broader swath of life, but remains coldly, academically detached; Gilson's world is smaller but warmer. My, they have a lot to say to each other.

Summer reading

Slate celebrates the beginning of summer reading season in pictures, and I mention it only because it makes me angry: the photo series is called "Hitting the Books," yet books are featured in only half the photos (the rest show newspapers and magazines), and some of those books aren't even being hit. No, Slate, your titles are not very clever at all.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Le rouge et le noir

Acquired today, because I happened to be passing by a bookstore, and it was there. This edition chosen for its striking cover (yes, Picasso) and slightly atypical dimensions. It includes a brief biography, introductory notes, a historical timeline. The text itself is interspersed with articles concerning the major themes and suggested thesis topics. In French.

The section I quoted previously reads as follows:
Mais, cent pas plus haut, si celui-ci continue sa promenade, il aperçoit une maison d'assez belle apparence, et à travers une grille de fer attenante à la maison, des jardins magnifiques. Au-delà, c'est une ligne d'horizon formée par les collines de la Bourgogne; et qui semble faite à souhait pour le plaisir des yeux. Cette vue fait oublier au voyageur l'atmosphère empestée des petits intérêts d'argent dont il commence à être asphyxié.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?

Has anyone had any success in reading, for pleasure, in a language other than their native one?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How can we bear the weight of the world without robots?

I open the door and Helena collapses against my leg. I look up at J-F; he shrugs. Must've been a rough day at daycare.

She makes no move to make herself at home. Her shoes and sweater stay on. She stays put. I crouch beside her.

Her little body leans into mine, heavy with the weight of the world.

We stay like this for more than 10 minutes. I've dropped to my knees by now, my fingertips still on the doorframe for balance. She isn't exactly hugging me, more like trying to sink back inside me.

Do you want to talk about it? She shakes her head. A deep sigh escapes her, and I think to myself, My god, what have they done to you, what cruelties has the world shown you to age you like this, for you to know already the dark truths of our life, you, so young, is this how it happens, at age 3, you've stared into the abyss.

I'm not sure how the spell was broken, but soon after, we're sitting on the sofa side by side eating raisins. Almost normal.

There's still some sadness in her voice. She tells me — and I don't know if this is the reason for her existential spleen or simply something that happened earlier in the day — A. keeps telling C. that she's not my friend anymore. A.'s not my friend anymore. Because of our house, the things at our house. A. won't be my friend anymore because we don't have any robots.

Monday, June 12, 2006

What I've been reading

Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel
It starts off kind of odd; toward the end it gets weird. I did not love this book.

After hearing Mantel in interview some years ago and deciding I really didn't like her (tho' I'd quite enjoyed The Giant, O'Brien) — the self-absorption, the self-aggrandizement, the flakiness — this story sounded just too interesting to pass up. It had great reviews and Maud Newton's endorsement as one of the top books she'd read in 2005.

(What do you do when a friend loves a book you hate, or vice versa? Or a blog acquaintance, or someone you respect. I turns my world upside down. That Maud Newton liked Beyond Black I can accept, respect, appreciate. That Mimi Smartypants is loving Percival Everett's Glyph, a book I abhorred, is driving me fucking insane. Every time I click over, I'm reminded of this, and all her words are then filtered through this tiny piece of my consciousness and the pleasure is lost. Another piece of my consciousness is meanwhile reconsidering my assessment of the book: did my book-reading capacity fail me? what am I missing? is it me, it must be me? Or else, Mimi Smartypants is full of shit, and then, where does that leave me?)

While the characters of Beyond Black are wholly believable, they're not likeable. Which is fine.

It turns out that the themes I expected to be explored weren't so much. Which is fine. Seeing the psychics at first through Colette's eyes, I expected more of a struggle between her skepticism and her desire to believe. Maybe the ending speaks to this a little bit — the tie between the "real" ghosts and the ghosts of Alison's past. I can't decide if it's too ambiguous or not ambiguous enough to satisfy me. Either way, this isn't a major theme, which is a problem for no one but me and my readerly expectations.

So I didn't love it. Yet, more than any book I've read in recent memory, I'm dying to know how it came about — which part of the story came first, what was the kernel. The novel didn't speak to me, but I have a lot of appreciation for the way the characters were unfolded and how the story was told.

by Kate Mosse
I was only mildly interested in reading this one, but knowing it was the next Reading Matters book club book and coming across a copy bearing a $5 sticker on a fine day conducive to impulse purchases, I started in.

The blurb on the cover ("Eat your heart out, Dan Brown, this is the real thing.") is just plain crass. Although it's clear from the historical detail that research for this book must've been well underway before Brown's Code ever hit the shelves, Labyrinth was obviously rushed through its final stages so as to cash in as early as possible. (I stumbled across a lot of errors that should've been caught at proofreading.)

The writing's bad. The mechanism tying present to past is clunky. There's a fantasy element — our modern-day heroine "remembers" the past in her blood (an idea that bears a certain amount of poetry, I think) — that comes across as quite stupid; the book can't decide between being a fantasy or historical novel, and the attempt to blend these elements fails. It lacks focus and finesse.

Still, I read through to the end. My brain needed a little rest and certainly couldn't handle the decision to abandon it and choose to pick up something else. I can't recommend it to anyone though. I liked The DaVinci Code better.

The Gambler
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This is the book I've had in my purse the last few months. Reading opportunities away from the house are few, but I'd been riding public transportation a lot last week (because), so I finally got past the introductory scenes and finished it. It stands out from the other reading for its passion. It's short, witty, full of astute observations, just passionate, about women, gambling, everything. Any old idea spouted from any character's mouth is so alive.

"If," replied Astley, "you do not care to hear their names coupled together, may I ask you what you mean by the expressions 'this Frenchman,' 'this Russian lady,' and 'there being anything between them'? Why do you call them so particularly a 'Frenchman' and a 'Russian lady'?"

"Ah, I see you are interested, Mr. Astley. But it is a long, long story, and calls for a lengthy preface. At the same time, the question is an important one, however ridiculous it may seem at the first glance. A Frenchman, Mr. Astley, is merely a fine figure of a man. With this you, as a Britisher, may not agree. With it I also, as a Russian, may not agree — out of envy. Yet possibly our good ladies are of another opinion. For instance, one may look upon Racine as a broken-down, hobbledehoy, perfumed individual — one may even be unable to read him; and I too may think him the same, as well as, in some respects, a subject for ridicule. Yet about him, Mr. Astley, there is a certain charm, and, above all things, he is a great poet — though one might like to deny it. Yes, the Frenchman, the Parisian, as a national figure, was in process of developing into a figure of elegance before we Russians had even ceased to be bears. The Revolution bequeathed to the French nobility its heritage, and now every whippersnapper of a Parisian may possess manners, methods of expression, and even thoughts that are above reproach in form, while all the time he himself may share in that form neither in initiative nor in intellect nor in soul — his manners, and the rest, having come to him through inheritance. Yes, taken by himself, the Frenchman is frequently a fool of fools and a villain of villains. Per contra, there is no one in the world more worthy of confidence and respect than this young Russian lady. De Griers might so mask his face and play a part as easily to overcome her heart, for he has an imposing figure, Mr. Astley, and this young lady might easily take that figure for his real self — for the natural form of his heart and soul — instead of the mere cloak with which heredity has dowered him. And even though it may offend you, I feel bound to say that the majority also of English people are uncouth and unrefined, whereas we Russian folk can recognise beauty wherever we see it, and are always eager to cultivate the same. But to distinguish beauty of soul and personal originality there is needed far more independence and freedom than is possessed by our women, especially by our younger ladies. At all events, they need more EXPERIENCE.

Beautiful (although I prefer the Garnett translation I have in hand)! Takes my breath away! Read it!

Also, it leads perfectly to my next reads, via the roulette wheel (red and black) and Russian sensibilities (war and peace).

The Red and the Black
by Stendhal
Why, why, why am I so desperate to read this book? I've read the introduction, historical notes, essays, etc. I've read only the first few pages, and I am in love. I've deliberately held back though, hoping it might be chosen as the next book for discussion at Reading Middlemarch. Alas, it did not seem likely.

But if the traveler keeps on walking, no more than another hundred paces up the hill he will see a distinguished-looking house and, if he looks through an adjoining wrought-iron gate, a very fine garden. Beyond that, he will see a horizon shaped by Burgundian hills, which seems to have been put there expressly for the purpose of pleasing the eye. This view will help the traveler forget the foul smell of petty financial transactions, which had begun to asphyxiate him.

Quite stupidly as I was falling in love with the first 4 pages, I mused aloud that I ought to try reading it in French, it's so good, it must be so much better in French, and really I ought to challenge myself more. It's as good as a vow, as I said it out loud and someone heard me. So I need to get myself a copy in French before proceeding.

Also, it strikes me as a lovely companion piece to the actual Reading Middlemarch selection. My Napoleonic summer!

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
The people have spoken! War and Peace is the next book under discussion by the Reading Middlemarch reading group. (Stupid short-sighted blog name!) I'm less enthusiastic about this choice than I was about some of the other options (having a taste of both Dostoyevsky and Stendhal in my mouth), but hey, "greatest novel ever written" and all that, so whatever.

I don't have a copy yet. I spent a couple hours in bookstores yesterday afternoon comparing translations. I'm leaning toward the 1968 Dunnigan, which apart from satisfying my readability criterion is declared superior by various internet authorities, although an argument is made for Briggs. What do I know?

by me
To read Stendhal in French.

To post here more regularly in more manageable bite-sized chunks, to prevent staleness and bloating. I keep forgetting lately that blogging is good for me. I feel so unexercised (and unexorcised).

That is all for now.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Today I bought art from a cigarette machine

(or: "Is this blog entry worth $2.00?")

I was reading about Conundrum Press last week, and as one link led to another I discovered their Distroboto imprint:
Conundrum Press was invited to contribute mini-books to an artist's distribution project. Distroboto is a converted cigarette machine, located in the trendy bar/café Casa del Popolo, which dispenses art and chapbooks. It was featured in The New York Times Magazine's "Ideas" issue. Everything in the machine sells for $2 and must fit into a cigarette case.

Well, it happens that we were passing by Casa del Popolo this morning. I'd taken Helena to the doctor to see about her leaky eye. Our day was pretty much free, so we dropped in on our walk home. A handful of student types were having coffee. It seems to be a comfortable space. I noticed a box in the corner collecting books for prisoners. Cool tunes. If I'd been on my own I would've lingered, but Helena had some other ideas about how to be spending our time. So I conducted my business with the machine as efficiently as possible.

I deposited my coins and made my selection. I slipped the cellophane-wrapped cigarette-sized package into my bag with barely a glance. I would examine it closely later.

I'd chosen How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome, based on title, a thumbnail graphic, and, hoping for something booklike, elimination of those things labelled as CDs, photos (I think there was something labelled photos), etc. Inside the packing material, a business-card-sized envelope contained my prize.

JR Carpenter, who has a number of works available in various machines around the city (well, neighbourhood), explains Broken Things; it's not clear to me but I assume that this pamphlet is a byproduct of the web project.

I love this idea. I'm imagining it as the perfect spontaneous romantic gesture: your date comes back to the table with your drinks and drops a small package in your lap, "Thought you might like some art."

I wouldn't mind clearer labelling regarding the form my art might take, but I suppose, at $2, "vending machine surprise" is enough of an attraction to enough people.

From the Distroboto website:
The mandate of the Distroboto project is to provide an opportunity to emerging artists of all disciplines — visual arts, film, animation, music, literature and poetry, crafts etc. — to gain wider exposure by making examples of their work easily accessible to the public.

The low price of the work sold through the Distroboto machines, currently set at two dollars, as well as the original way in which it is sold, encourages the public to discover a whole world of local art that they might not have otherwise encountered.

The fact that the project is administered by a non-profit arts organization allows nearly all sales revenues to go directly to the artists, who are responsible for the cost of producing the work sold.

Since the first Distroboto machine was launched in January, 2001, more than 300 local artists have sold more than 20 000 items through these machines. A major expansion of the project is currently being planned for fall 2006.

The Art-o-mat has been around since 1997. Find one near you.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The neighbourhood bar

(by which I mean crawling distance)

The other residents of this condominium do not like having a bar next door, though it predates this building by decades. It did not stop them from purchasing a unit, but condo meetings often devolve into plotting how to have it closed down. We must protect our investment, after all — think of the resale value! They call the fire department about "cracks" in the wall. They call the police on the grounds of noise disturbance if two people should leave the establishment and head down the street in our direction.

It doesn't bother me. The bar patrons are mostly old farts who keep to themselves. Our street doesn't really go anywhere; few people have reason to pass our home.

We've been inside twice, shortly after we moved here. The only thing offensive about it is the hush that falls over the room when an outsider crosses the threshold. Of course, it wouldn't do now to be seen by the neighbours to be giving the bar our custom.

La Presse yesterday paid tribute to some of the independant bars in the area that are not swayed by trends, that hum of a bygone era.

I think it's fitting that of our own little watering hole it's said:
En plein quartier résidentiel . . . cette remise transformée en bar semble tout droit sortie d'un film de David Lynch.

Monday, June 05, 2006

All crêped out

It started about 3 weeks ago. At first it was a procrastinating ploy, more appealing than work. Then as a window of pleasure between freelance jobs, then a reward. Over the last week, I've engaged in much household drudgery, determined to set our home straight after a couple weeks' neglect, but still I've channelled more energy into this task than to all the chores combined.

I've been making a lot of crêpes. In a handful of separate sessions, I've produced dozens. At first I rolled them up with jam, served some up plain to be topped with syrup (of which I myself am not a fan). Then Polish-style, folded up with cinnamon cottage cheese. As my experimentation drew out toward lunch, bacon and cheese, and ham and asparagus.

Not so much because I, or anyone else in this household, wants to eat the final product, but because I feel an overwhelming need — need — to perfect the recipe and technique. The fact that Helena devours my mom's crêpes and seems to care not at all for mine is something of a driving force.

To be clear: not pancakes. I've always thought them too... cakey. Doughy. I want paper-thin, plate-sized crêpes. Like the ones you buy on street corners in Paris for a quick, cheap lunch or an evening snack. Yes, we have them in Montreal, too. Some little stands appear during festival season, and a few permanent food counter windows offer them up, but I find they lack that Parisian je ne sais quoi.

My mother's recipe always served its purpose for quick breakfasts, but it never fully satisfied. Years ago she'd instructed me over the phone. My notes indicate "some" flour, about a tablespoon for every crêpe, which is even less precise than you might think, given that my mother has never owned or used measuring cups or spoons; I know the tablespoons in her kitchen drawer — they all seem so much less substantial than the ones I have, but heaped they're sure to hold more than my accurate half-sphere measure. Just add more water till you have the right consistency. Alas, my concept of "right" has never been quite right.

I came to a turning point this weekend when I looked up recipes in the cookbooks on my shelf. Actual recipes, at my fingertips, which I'd ignored.

They're not perfect yet, but getting there. Perhaps I'll invest in a dedicated crêpe pan, see what other kitchen tools are available to assist me. But I'm full for now, and grateful that festival season is underway and crêpe stands are popping up along the city routes I'm likely to travel this summer.