Friday, September 29, 2006

The Knight of Maison-Rouge

It was the night of the tenth of March, 1793. The bell at Notre-Dame had just struck ten, and each stroke rang out clear and distinct, one after the other, before flying off into the ether like a night bird soaring from some bronze nest, sad, monotonous, and resonant.

Night had descended on Paris. But it was not the usual noisy, stormy Paris night, punctuated by lightning yet cold and misty. Paris itself was not the Paris we know today, dazzling by night with its thousands of lights reflected in its golden mire, the Paris of busy promeneurs, jubilant whisperings, and deliciously sleazy outskirts where fierce feuds and reckless crimes flourish, a wildly roaring furnace. It was a shabby little dive, tremulous, beetling, whose rarely seen inhabitants would run whenever they had to cross a street and scuttle away into their alleyways or under their porte-cochères, the way feral creatures pursued by hunters sink into their burrows.

It was, in a word, the Paris of the tenth of March, 1793, as I think I might have said.




Or laughing, or gasping, or smirking, or raising my eyebrows. Or telling anyone who'll listen, and many who won't, how good this book is. Or reading bits aloud to the others who live in this house (including the cat).

We know early on that Maurice, patriot, would sacrifice duty for a friend. What then would he do for love?! Oh, be careful, Maurice — she's using you.

Am fairly certain that Marie Antoinette will indeed be rescued from the Conciergerie, saved from the guillotine. Fairly certain.


Just wow.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Turning the screw

Well, what with everyone reading or planning to read Henry James's ghostly The Turn of the Screw, I finally pulled it out of my purse, where it has resided for some months now, holding the privileged position of transit reading and being the reason that I'd made next to no headway through it as I've had little oppurtunity to ride public transit in recent times, and I read the damn thing.

Here at present I felt afresh — for I had felt it again and again — how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

It's all perfectly clear to me (if you mean to read it for yourself and don't want me spoiling anything for you, go away, and come again another day). The notes below are not very coherent, rather intended as notes to self so that I can hold a proper conversation on the subject should the opportunity present itself. So.

The governess is a parson's daughter and proper young woman, but perhaps not so proper in accepting this post that many had refused, one reason for doing so being that she's quite taken with the worldly, handsome master. She's horrified by and fascinated with sex.

Not sure why or when it all starts sounding sexual; perhaps the prologue sets the reader's mind on that path with its talk of love. Interesting: Douglas, the keeper of the governess's story identifies her as his sister's governess, about 10 years older than him. He is not Miles, but we readily attribute Douglas's fondness and admiration — indeed, love — for the woman to him.

The ghosts are in the governess's head.

First sighting (Quint) (p15): Governess wills encountering someone charming, handsome.
Second sighting (Quint) (p20): Leaving for church. Guilt.
Third (Jessel) (p28): While watching Flora put a stick in a hole.
Fourth (Quint) (p39): Reading Fielding's Amelia, which includes stories of young women ruined by handsome men and reveals the 'half-innocent meanness, scoundrelism, and vanity' of a young couple.

Subsequent sightings are fed by hysteria, suspicion, guilt. Flora and the housekeeper both deny seeing them. They are never overtly addressed with Miles.

The governess is in love with, or at least longs for some recognition from, the master, who made a favourable impression on her at their only two meeting.

Flora likes a naughty boy (p11). Laughingly suggests Miles might corrupt governess (p12), governess takes to the idea...

"He seems to like us young and pretty!" Is confused over who "he" is (p12). She means the master, but then wonders if the housekeeper does; it occurs to her the housekeeper might mean someone else. That someone else could only be Miles (not yet aware of existence of Quint).

In her questions to the housekeeper about the previous governess, she has a tone like jealousy (p 12).

Miles is "incredibly beautiful" (p13). So angelic, there is no evil in him — it must come from outside.

Governess wants to meet someone, someone handsome — she wills the first apparition (p15).

I don't think the description of the apparition is relevant. Housekeeper dwells on whether or not he appears to be a gentleman and that he's handsome. She does not even acknowledge the other details, as if to dismiss them. She's more than willing corroborate the "horror," knowing the evil Quint already conducted in the household (p23).

Hysteria (p27): "I could succeed where many another girl might have failed." "We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I — well, I had them."

Jessel is called by our first narrator "a most respectable person" (p5). (On the basis of what? The governess's account?) Housekeeper won't tell tales about her (p12). Governess is certain of identity of apparition (because of her own jealusy, suspicions, transference). Housekeeper eventually comes round to confirming Jessel was infamous (p31). Governess's descriptions were not so detailed; identity of apparitions established through jumping to conclusions based on characteristics that weren't really physical at all, more to do with demeanour.

Flora (age 8) knows all about Miles. Likely it's Miles who's made Flora sexually aware, not Jessup and Quint, or Miles had to explain it to her, or even demonstrate. There is something incestuous going on here.

The governess is smitten with Miles, the 10-year-old boy, charmed by him. May even harbour inappropriate thoughts regarding him (transferred from the out-of-reach master and inspired by the stories, or her imaginings, of the goings on of the previous hires).

Miles calls her my dear. Encourages her. Maybe flirts with her or even makes more overt advances.

Chapter 17 sees the governess and Miles alone. Positively brimming with sexuality and innuendo.
"Well, I think also, you know, of this queer business of ours."

I marked the coolness of his firm little hand. "Of what queer business, Miles?"

"Why, the way you bring me up. And all the rest!"

I fairly held my breath a minute, and even from my glimmering taper there was light enough to show how he smiled up at me from his pillow. "What do you mean by all the rest?"

"Oh, you know, you know!"

I could say nothing for a minute, though I felt, as I held his hand and our eyes continued to meet, that my silence had all the air of admitting his charge and that nothing in the whole world of reality was perhaps at that moment so fabulous as our actual relation.

Jessel shows up again, while Flora appears "to read and accuse and judge me" (p70). Flora know what goes on between governess and Miles, and is angry, I think, for having been replaced.

Miles "wanted, I felt, to be with me" (p73).

Housekeeper has heard from Flora shocking horrors! "It's beyond everything, for a young lady; and I can't think wherever she must have picked up — — " (p76). That's not talking about ghosts.

Governess intent on "saving" Miles. All her attempts futher tempt an unnatural relation between them.
We continued silent while the maid was with us — as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. "Well — so we're alone!"

Chapter 23. Well. It's all sex. Sex, sex, sex.

And chapter 24.

Miles was expelled from school, because he "said things," only to people he likes. Obviously sexual propositions.

Not quite sure what's up with the heart stopping. Is it literal? Not much else is. It's quite a frenzied, orgasmic end.

And on and on and on.

Some discussion.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Helena's game

A product of her very own brain. I'll call it Jigsaw Concentration.

For 2 players (though we've never tried to play with more, and Helena refuses to play by herself).

Take one jigsaw puzzle. The game was devised using a none-too-challenging 12-piece puzzle. We usually play with the 20- or 24-piece ones. Play with the 48-piece puzzle was successful, but long. It should be a puzzle that the child is able to complete by themselves easily, or at least without major frustration.

Turn all the pieces face down, so you face a sea of grey cardboard.

The player who goes first — that would be Helena — turns over 2 pieces.

If these 2 pieces don't fit together (and they probably won't), return them to the facedown position. Play passes to the next person, who tries to choose 2 pieces that will fit together. (This is the concentration part of the game; this could take a few tries, taking turns, of course.)

When 2 pieces finally fit together, great! Go again! Turn over another 2 pieces!

If both pieces either fit together or fit to the existing picture, great! Go again.

If only 1 piece or neither piece fits to the existing picture, return the loose pieces to the facedown position. Play passes to the next person.

Whoever places the last piece wins.

The opening is surprisingly difficult, but there comes a point when all the pieces start falling into place, and the "rules" often fly out the window. Helena decides when it's appropriate to start turning over just 1 piece at a time instead of 2. Often the game degenerates into a race. Sometimes it's a contact sport in lunging for the last pieces. Helena always wins, and if she doesn't, she says she wins anyway.

I'm amazed — and proud — that she found a way to give new life to the tired (small) puzzles in our home. Perhaps even more than of books, her love of a puzzle challenge tells me she's mine.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Low expectations

As noted previously, I accepted a review copy of The Expected One, by Kathleen McGowan, as a guilty pleasure, a literary junk-food indulgence for my fascination with secret societies and religious conspiracies a la The DaVinci Code; but the novel surpassed my low expectations.

If you're familiar with premise of the Code, then nothing in The Expected One will shock you, although McGowan has pursued slightly different lines of enquiry to reach rather different conclusions regarding the bloodlines of Mary Magdelene and the societies and intrigue they fostered. It's much less "thriller" than the blurbs imply. It's altogether gentler, in its ideas and in their delivery. While the prose isn't exactly luminous or clever, it isn't intrusively bad. Certainly the language is smoother and the characters more believable than in Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, or the Code for that matter.

The novel includes excerpts from the gospel of Mary Magdelene. To my ear these are the weakest parts of the book, never managing to capture an appropriate language or attitude. On the other hand, the retelling of the contents of that gospel is fairly simple, and quite poignant. It is, after all, the greatest story ever told, all the better for no fancy literary stylings.

The book's official website includes an image gallery highlighting some of the works featured in the novel — less clues to holy secrets than inspiration to examine history through its artistic interpretations and symbols.


McGowan's claim to be of the holy lineage I find to be, umm, flaky, along with other of her beliefs and interests, and a quick poke around the internet reveals that she has a history of shaky credibility. That aside, the book was a pleasant way to spend a few hours. It ain't high literature, but any book that inspires us to examine the nature of our relationship to religion and to the Church, to answer the what-ifs and consider their implications, whether in our souls or in the world, or simply to help imagine oneself in the south of France is worth something. (But then, I'm an atheist, and I've been to the south of France.)

Wow, that's an awful lot I have to say about a book I didn't think I'd be "reviewing."

It turns out this is Book 1 of a series (of I know not how many). Early in the book, the protagonist cites Marie Antoinette as the clearest example of a victim of historians (...written by the winners, and all that) and over a couple pages paints a sympathetic portrait of her. In the end pages, McGowan teases us that she'll meet us soon in Chartres Cathedral, bring your collected works of Dumas with you. It's fitting that I'm about to begin The Knight of Maison-Rouge.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Job description

I have my eyes open for job opportunities (the regularity of a regular job holds some appeal). Curiosity had me looking at this listing for "Busker" ("mascot" is probably a more accurate title):

Description of qualifications: Suits are conceived for 5 foot persons 7 thumbs in 6 feet 2 pouces. You have to be an honest, energetic, punctual and responsible person. Clothing holding (dress) and well-kept hair. Good compulsory hygiene. Indeed in the head, repectueux. Virgin file.

I'm not sure my hair (or my head) holds to these standards. Perhaps better to keep my freelance lifestyle. I'm still in my pyjamas.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Chasing summer

It's the last days already, and I feel like I've been chasing summer all summer long.

This week at the park Helena was startled by a motion detected in her peripheral vision, the quick drop of a couple leaves. She considers what happens. "Tu sais, Maman? Bientot! Il va faire du neige!"

It's gone by so quickly.

A playground summer. From May, when she grappled her way up the chute instead of climbing the ladder for the slide. The big slide. To recent days, when after much careful study, a few less than successful attempts, skin dragging on sticky warm metal, she slips effortlessly around and down the corkscrew pole. She proudly, patiently demonstrates her skills to younger children, the ones who, like her, prefer to watch before trying, to perfect their theory of the practice.

The young man in the fedora rendezvousing with a lady on a bench. Helena from the top of the slide yells to him, "Cowboy! Cowboy!"

Vanessa, the wild child, who rolls in the sand. She does not care for Helena, but keeps asking me to play with her. After many playground visits, I identify her grandmother. No, her mother, her very tired mother, with a horde of ruffian boys. Vanessa chases pigeons. She catches one and sends it down the slide. I scold her, chase the pigeon off to safety, and make Vanessa wash her hands. Helena does not care for her either.

A summer of scrapes and bandaids. Hopscotch. Months of awkward and strained leaps from one foot to the other. Now Helena can hop on one foot (but while holding something for support, and only once or twice).

A summer of new wading pools and ice cream parlours.

It was the summer of the bicycle.

The summer of Let's Go Fly a Kite, which Helena sings at the top of her lungs most mornings. Nights too. Our dollar-store kite never got much height, as we seemed to be inspired on only non-kite-friendly days. But it doesn't matter. She skips along. You can have your own set of wings...

On June 8, Helena was measured at 102 cm, 40 lbs. She's bigger now.

Helena this summer transitioned for one group at daycare to another, les tournesols, for "big" boys and girls. For the most part it's the same group she's spent the last two years with, but with a new educateur. This week, with our fellow parents we attend a meeting with him. I note how many times he uses the word "cool." For the last month, everything in Helena's world, so she says, is "cool," "tres cool, "super cool."

We marvel that, despite our best efforts, all the girls want to be princesses and all the boys play with guns (no guns allowed, but they use doll hairbrushes, or fingers will do, or build phasers from Lego).

We talk about the fact that they're older. Capable of doing things for themselves. Capable of telling stories (relating anecdotes of suspect validity) and making jokes. Capable of discussing, for example, their creative vision regarding their craft project (even when it looks like black scribbles and a gooey mass of glue) — they have a vision.

The other week they went to pick apples. [Insert photo here, the one we gave to J-F's sick grandfather before I had a chance to make a copy.]

Helena wants rollerblades. Every morning she asks if she can have some rollerblades. Every afternoon when she comes home she asks if I bought her some rollerblades.

Most days we still go to the park, before or after supper. Some days, there's nobody else there. Yesterday, Helena wears gloves.

One recent evening, too damp for the park, Helena discovers the chess set. I show her where the pieces go, how some of them move. She much prefers setting them up according to her own private patterns, with particular respect for le cheval.

We sit at the table with a pack of cards. I teach her to play War.

I remind myself that it's cliché for a reason — for the truth in it. It goes by so fast, they grow so fast.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Crystal's English

David Crystal's top 10 books on the English language. (Via Books, Inq.)

Lynne Truss's ever popular book is, not surprisingly, not among them (and thank goodness).

My personal favourite, even though it's not entirely clear on the difference between syllepsis and zeugma, is Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (William Safire says, "Excellent."), though I suppose, technically, it's not on English, it's on American.

Honourable mention goes to Karen Elizabeth Gordon's The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (William Safire says, "A book to sink your fangs into."), for obvious reasons. A taste: agreement is demonstrated with such delicious examples as "An abundance of rumpled dahlias was deposited at death's door," and "The coven has voted to move its sabbath to a grove of olive trees.

Do you have a favourite book on the English language (or am I just weird)?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Review copy etiquette, questions concerning

This year I've received a couple handfuls of books from authors and publishers, ostensibly for review, for the word-of-mouth promotion this blog is capable of (hah!).

I've only accepted those books I have a genuine interest in. I've turned down (or ignored) far more offers than I've accepted.

I have, in fact, reviewed some of those books here.

Others I've chosen not to review, not because the review wouldn't be favourable (I don't think I have qualms about that in principle) but simply because I didn't feel strongly enough about them to squander the energy to string a sentence or two together. Did I do the right thing?

Still others are languishing in the to-be-read pile. Surely, I should read what I want, when I want. Why should I risk my time and patience on an author I've never heard of (after the initial lure of a plot summary, a pretty cover, and, most important, a "free" book) when I have Dumas and Stendhal at the ready? But what about my obligation? Do I have an obligation?

Please advise, fellow bookbloggers.

Do you accept review copies, and if so, what criteria do you apply for choosing which offers to accept?
Have you ever asked for a review copy?
Would you write a negative review of such a book (or have you written one), or would you simply not review it?
Do you feel committed to writing the review? A positive one? Just a mention? Do you hash out your obligations (review length, timeframe) with the contact person?
If you choose not to write a review (or if it would be negative), do you advise the contact person?
If you review a book, do you state that it was a review copy? Do you think it makes a difference?
Are you in it just for the free book? Are you exploiting the publisher for booty, or is the publisher exploiting you as a marketing tool? Do you feel you're doing a public service?

Do you feel targeted? Accurately? Given that Magnificent Octopus is part mommy-blog, part book-blog, maybe it's not surprising that the bulk of offers I receive are for mommy books (running the gamut across mother–daughter relationships, nanny tell-alls, and how to make a cool castle fort out of a cardboard box). But others I wonder about — space station romances? bulimic adventures? Do these people even read this blog? Do they know only 3 people read this blog, and that none of them are likely to take my advice about a book? (Have I just ruined my chances of ever getting another offer?) Most of the books I read and write about have been around for years, many written by dead guys. I don't even review books, not in any formal sense, I've stated often — I respond to them.

And how do I get review copies of the really good books (say, for example, the upcoming Pynchon)? (Have I just breached etiquette by asking this out loud?)

That said, I am grateful for the opportunity to discover new authors. For example, Annette Gilson, who actually read some of this blog before approaching me personally, whose New Light gave me plenty of food for thought.

Currently I'm gorging on some literary junk food — a review copy of a book I had low expectations of. But it's a guilty pleasure — secret societies and religious conspiracies. My expectations were greatly lowered when I learned the author believes she is a descendant of Mary Magdelene. Comparisons of The Expected One to The DaVinci Code (which I admit to enjoying) are obvious and inevitable. But I am about 80 pages and eating it up (it's certainly better than Labyrinth).

It's really hard to resist the offer of a free book, but nothing's really free, is it?

The big questions

Tim Adams sets out to understand and compare new books by scientist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), cosmologist Paul Davies (The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life), and playwright Michael Frayn (The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe). But it's Douglas Adams who sums it up best:
There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The validity of the evidence

One cad with a bullet in his chest. Eight women's stories, collected by lawyer Marie-Martine Lepage (her own story is included). She says of another of the women, the film actress, "Her delivery would have put a sub-machine-gun to shame."

Sebastien Japrisot's delivery of Women in Evidence is a little more careful than that, leaving barely any bodies in its wake, but for all his control, causing a lot of confusion. Days after finishing reading it, I'm still trying to fit the pieces together.

A prologue gives us a scene with Christophe — or Vincent, or Tony, Francis, Frédéric, or Maurice — we are relatively certain they are the same man — seemingly dying on a beach. Some of the women's stories begin with a fugitive and end with shots fired, so I was a few stories in before I was confident that the dying figure was in fact the end of the story.

The testimonies are quite a marvel, each having a very distinct voice (prostitute, schoolteacher, Japanese student, etc). Each woman tells what she knows of Christophe, most of the women meeting him just as the previous one leaves off, though there is some overlap, and plenty of contradictions.

I was drawn along, not caring who ultimately drops him at death's door so much as trying to determine the truth of the testimony and to piece together Christophe's past. He's allegedly on the run after escaping from prison, having been wrongly convicted — but if he didn't rape and murder that girl, then who? He's also an army deserter (the events occur during World War II). His adventures take him around the world and strain credibility. Just who is this guy really?

All the women believe he is innocent, but they're also in love with him. Beyond whether you can trust a woman in love is the question of a verifiable reality versus what she herself believes to be true. How much of the evidence is projected fantasy? Christophe's "Javert-like accuser" pops up from time to time to remind the reader of the issues at stake.

The novel is somewhat erotic, the woman enjoying many sexual escapades with our (anti)hero. I was also entranced by him, rooting for him, but in hindsight I wonder why. We know him to be good-looking, but his charm and charisma are never fully in evidence, only their effects. I was entranced by the women's entrancements. The sexual interludes read rather more like a man's idea of what women's sexual fantasies of him might be.

The epilogue somewhat surreally addresses this and explains away the contradictions in the evidence, but it's also something of a cheap trick. I'd've much preferred the epilogue be left out, leaving me to sort out the ambiguities for myself rather than nipping my line of questioning just when I thought I was making headway. Still, it's the journey and all that, the book is a wonderful concept, and I can understand Japrisot's inclusion on the list of Great Underappreciated Authors, and I will definitely look out for more of his work.

Women in Evidence, along with Japrisot's other novels, has been called "atmospheric" — I'm not sure what that means, but I agree.

French Wikipedia offers some interesting biographical details: The pseudonym Sebastien Japrisot is an anagram of his real name (Jean-Baptiste Rossi). One of his earliest literary endeavours was the translation into French of The Catcher in the Rye (for publication, 1953). He's written as many (or more) screenplays (including The Story of O) as he has novels.

Women in Evidence was originally published in English as The Passion of Women.

Friday, September 15, 2006


...I have been, the last 7 days having included, but not being limited to, receiving guest from Iowa, groceries, receiving guests from Japan, and a surprise visit from a friend of theirs, unknown to us, from Albany; wandering around Old Montreal in the rain, a museum, with multimedia historical presentation, lunch with a bored and cranky child, more wandering, passing on more museum activities in attempt to assuage child's crankiness, whirlwind shopping excursion to find birthday gift for child's friend, barbecue, discussion of War and Peace and war and peace, scenic drive, stop at lookout to admire view of city, stop at other lookout, not nearly enough coffee, visit to botanical gardens, passing on tour of Olympic stadium and finding other means by which to entertain cranky child, contending with traffic jams and reroutes the likes of which I've never seen, due to marathon, birthday party in outer reaches of city for daycare friend of cranky child at community gym and with trampolines, which cranky child wanted no part of, but the cake was good, childcare arrangements for evening, dinner out, adults only, thank goodness, with conversation ranging across Japanese ceramics, Kansas school boards, and Polish cuisine, though I was alone in indulging in zubrowka ("It smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it's so soft on the palate and so comfortable; it's like listening to music by moonlight." – W Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge), wandering in the old town, wandering downtown, one church, another church, a clock, and a bank for its architectural interest, breakfasts, lunches, and coffees and chocolates, and shopping, more shopping, then J-F in the wee hours driving guests to the airport for an early morning flight; some laundry, one guest remaining in town and will stay with us a night, bribing Helena to give up her bed by letting her sleep in a tent in our room, assembling said tent, some semblance of normality returning (ignoring for the moment the tent in my bedroom), visits to parks, and more laundry (where did it all come from?), burgers for supper, movie rental (Why the boys chose a chick flick — Shopgirl — is beyond me. Verdict: sweet, even poignant, but lacking the novella's wit.) with popcorn, and sleep interrupted to move cars, and may as well say goodbye, at 5 in the morning, as the neighbourhood is cordoned off for the filming of "Nitro" (Keywords: transplant, race car, action hero. "Max leads a well-ordered life. He has a seven-year-old son, Théo, and a girlfriend, Alice, who lies in a hospital bed waiting for a new heart that never arrives. He gathers together all the money he has and contacts a gang of criminals, shady characters from his troubled past." Really.), though amid running errands the only shooting I see is the one I see on tv, our visitors will have something to talk about, we drove past the site in preceding days, and I think to myself the book I'm reading was purchased across the street, and phonecalls from my mother intended as a shared reaction to tragedy sound less like concern and more like blame for choosing this life, my life, in a godforsaken city so far from "home," and sleep, more laundry, more sleep; I think I'm coming down with something.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Alatriste in pictures

Swordplay! Assassination plots! Corrupt church officials! Raised eyebrows and twirling mustaches! The mosqueteros! The code of swordsmen! The glory of Spain! More swordplay!

The story of Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, takes place just a couple years before Dumas's saga of The Three Musketeers begins. The plot turns around the matrimonial negotiations between Charles I of England and Infanta Maria of Spain (sister of King Philip IV). Charles is accompanied on his voyage to Spain to meet his potential bride by none other than the Duke of Buckingham. (Negotiations will fail, and England will declare war on Spain, but that is beyond the timeline of this novel.) But it's not really about them — just as d'Artagnan and his musketeers upstage all the political figures that drive them to action, so Captain Diego Alatriste is the hero battling for the heart and soul of Spain, along with his life.

The Captain's adventures are recounted by his 13-year-old charge, Inigo Balboa, son of a fallen comrade.

They say that Diego Alatriste and he were very good friends, almost like brothers, and it must be true, because later, on the bulwarks of Julich, where my father was killed by a ball from a harquebus — which was why Diego Velazquez did not include him in his painting of the Surrender of Breda, as he did his friend and fellow Diego, Alatriste, who is indeed there, behind the horse — he swore that he would look after me when I grew out of childhood.

There he is!

One of my favourite lines:
It was also the year in which I fell in love like a bawling calf, then and forever, with Angélica de Alquézar, who was as perverse and wicked as only Evil in the form of a blonde eleven- or ­twelve-­year-­old girl can be. But we will tell everything in its time.

This passage comes in the opening pages, and we encounter Angélica only a few times, with no hard evidence of her evil, but the novel breaks off with the promise of more, much more, to come.

Everything about this novel — story, characters, dialogue — drips with cliché, but we like it that way. Pérez-Reverte pays (another) homage to Dumas, but putting Spain in the forefront of that turbulent era.

What Golden Age, eh? The truth is that those of us who lived and suffered through it saw little gold and barely enough silver. Sterile sacrifice, glorious defeats, corruption, rogues, misery, and shame, that we had up to the eyebrows. But then when one goes and looks at a painting by Diego Velazquez, listens to verses by Lope or Calderon, reads a sonnet by Franciso de Quevedo, one says to oneself that perhaps it was all worthwhile.

And this is to me one of the more interesting, and highly effective, aspects of this novel: Pérez-Reverte often invokes Velazquez and quotes the poets regularly, as if to say, "I'm not making this up. Look at the strength of character, or pain, or humour, conveyed in the tilt of that head. Velazquez saw it. Listen to the hiss of swords and the honour of men already told by great literary figures. It is the heart and soul of Spain that other men have already borne witness to. It really happened this way."

Some of the images that add colour:

The fact is that a wedding between the young heretic and our infanta — who was no Venus but was not all that bad, if you go by how Diego Velazquez painted her a little later, young and blonde, a lady . . . with that very Hapsburg lip, of course — would peacefully open the ports of commerce in the West Indies to England, resolving the burning problem of the Palatinate in favor of the British. That is a story I do not choose to go into here, because that is what history tomes are for.

My lord and king, the fourth Philip, was known to be an elegant horseman and a fine shot, an aficionado of the hunt and of horses — once, in a single day, killing three wild boars by his own hand but losing a fine mount in the process. His sporting skills were immortalized in the paintings of don Diego Velazquez, as well as in poems by many authors and poets such as Lope de Vega or Franciso de Quevedo.

But no one paid much attention to him. Despite his friend Fonseca's recommendations, don Francisco de Quevedo had not forgotten that the minute the young artist reached Madrid, he had painted a portrait of Luis de Gongora, and although he had no reason not to like the youth, he meant to purge that capital sin by ignoring him for a few days. Although the truth is that don Francisco and the young Sevillian were soon as thick as thieves, and the best portrait we have of the poet is precisely the one that the same young man later painted. Over time, he also became a very good friend to Diego Alatriste and to me, but that was when he was better known by his mother's family name: Velazquez.

At the time of my story, Angélica de Alquézar must have been around eleven or twelve years old, and she was already a promise of the splendid beauty she would become, beauty of which Velazquez himself would give a good account in the famous portrait she posed for sometime around 1635.

I cannot pinpoint a painting of a woman that meets the clues in the text. A Young Lady was painted in 1635; Portrait of a Lady to my eye is a better example of "splendid beauty" though it was painted a couple years earlier; neither subject has the golden curls and blue eyes of our Angélica. Perhaps the next book in the series will paint a clearer portrait.

The second Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, was released early this year. Three more will become available in English over the next 3 years. I can't wait!


The movie, Alatriste, is compiled from all 5 books (trailer).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Au claire de la lune

The moon was slung low in the sky, clouds veiling its full and ghastly yellow face. Extraordinarily big. (Why are there days it looks so big?) Helena's usual suggestion to hoist a ladder — we can climb up to visit Pierrot! — seems almost workable.

I turn her to face southeast. She lifts her gaze to just over the rooftops and gasps. "C'est pas la lune — c'est une planete!" (Poor Pluto, I think to myself.)

She thinks about it for a while, then hollers out, "Pierrot!" just in case. But it seems we always call him during bathtime.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cherchez la femme

The Black Dahlia, the movie, is to be released next week. It's based on James Ellroy's novel, which in turn is based on the true-life murder mystery of Elizabeth Short. I read it about a decade ago. The incisive psychological portrayal of a cop's grim obsession with the Dahlia is undoubtedly informed by events in Ellroy's life, the rape and murder of his own mother.

James Ellroy on his mother and the Dahlia:
It was a salutary ode to Elizabeth Short and a self-serving and perfunctory embrace of my mother. I acknowledged the Jean–Betty confluence in media appearances and exploited it to sell books. My performances were commanding at first glance and glib upon reappraisal. I cut my mother down to sound-bite size and packaged her wholesale. I determined the cause of my ruthlessness years later.

She owned me. Her claim rankled. I wanted to portray myself as a man above all Oedipal constraints. I had created a fictional Elizabeth Short to usurp my mother’s claim and upstage her. It worked in the novel. It sold a great many books. It left Jean Hilliker still dead on that roadside, unblessed with love.

Cherchez la femme.

A little bit about Kevin

It feels like ages since I read this book, but I had wanted from the gitgo to say a little something about it here. Even now, I'm unable to fully articulate my response to this book in any objective, level-headed way. My only hope is to inspire someone else to pick it up. This is by far the most intense reading experience I've had in recent years.

We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, is a powerful and highly emotional novel; that is, it evoked in me a deep emotional response without ever straying into gimmicky sentimentality. The narrator might even be described as cold.

It's the story of a boy who as a teenager goes on a killing spree at his school (when America was still reeling from Columbine) as relayed by his mother in a series of letters to the absent (and not responding) father.

I'd had no interest in reading this book, assuming it'd be thinly veiling a handful of social, political, moral discussions I could do without — something like "the effects of modern culture on America's youth and how it contributes to the rise in violence and, gawd, wasn't Columbine horrible, we must raise our children right so it never happens again."

What I found instead was a very intimate and "honest" portrayal of Eva, a mother grappling, for years, with motherhood, in all its emotional and logistical aspects, who is judged for her son's actions.

I put "honest" in quotation marks because I don't know how to gauge that quality. It's written in such a way to make it feel honest, and I relate to it very closely — I assume many mothers would, but maybe I'm a freak, and by some freak coincidence Shriver has tapped into my psyche, maybe shared by a few others. These feelings, and discussion of them, are still pretty taboo; how can we know if they're normal? Many readers find Eva unlikeable — heartless and selfish; I do like her — she's introspective and human, that bit of being human that gets pushed aside, that's ignored or denied, or sometimes just forgotten, when you become, and aspire to embody all it means to be, a mother.

(I would note also that the narrator is emotionally "honest," but not necessarily factually reliable.)

Lionel Shriver on Kevin:
I think Kevin has attracted an audience because my narrator, Eva, allows herself to say all those things that mothers are not supposed to say. She experiences pregnancy as an invasion. When her newborn son is first set on her breast, she is not overwhelmed with unconditional love; to her own horror, she feels nothing. She imputes to her perpetually screaming infant a devious intention to divide and conquer her marriage. Eva finds caring for a toddler dull, and is less than entranced by drilling the unnervingly affectless, obstreperous boy with the ABC song. Worst of all, Eva detects in Kevin a malign streak that moves her to dislike him. Her misgivings seem well founded when, at the age of 15, he murders nine people at his high school. Whether Kevin was innately twisted or was mangled by his mother's coldness is a question with which the novel struggles, but which it ultimately fails to answer. That verdict is the reader's job.

We also witness a relationship change when a child comes into the picture and new dynamics and power struggles emerge.

And that pesky nature–nurture question:
How we came to conceive of children as passive objects upon which adults act is beyond me. From my earliest years, I remember being a conscious agent. I knew when I was not supposed to do something, and sometimes I did it anyway.

Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child had a lasting impression on me, as it expressed many of my own fears regarding motherhood — what if a child is born evil, or bad, or "off" some way; what control and responsibility do parents have over the condition and its outcome? I skimmed through it again after reading Kevin. The sons are different kinds of "monsters," Lessing's novella is much sparer, almost as if to examine these issues in the abstract, but the similarity of themes in the two books is striking.

Both books also consider the state of pregnancy. While the effects of diet, for example, are scientifically proven, and effects of say, music, are surmised, there remains something mysterious about the effect of a mother's thoughts and the general mood that surrounds her. Are they transmitted to a fetus in utero too? I think about that mystical state often, and about how lucky I am, that good vibes and hopes are more responsible for my wondrous offspring than any single action I took (or didn't take).

(I read a novel years ago in which the child simply didn't want out into the nasty world — the mother, a musician I think, stayed pregnant for years. Does that ring any bells with anyone? At least I think it was a book; it could've been a coworker's dream or something.)

No, Shriver does not give us any answers, and it's an uncomfortable read, but curiously, I think all her characters find redemption.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A present

In Helena's world, every day is somebody's birthday, which is of course in one sense true in the real world, but the real world does not usually celebrate the same individual's birthday — mine, or the cat's, or the Teletubbies' — every 3 days or so.

The only essential ingredient to the birthday party (and if it's your birthday, there must be a party) is the song — Helena must sing "Bonne Fete" — but the event is often accentuated with hats, "tea" (with or without juice, and these days usually featuring special imaginary cappuccino for me), play-doh cake with popsicle-stick candles, and, my favourite, des cadeaux.

Here is a recent present, plucked by Helena from the table by the door and lovingly personalized. (Fortunately, I've already read that page.)

By far the biggest present of this last weekend was the weekend itself, being relatively child-free so that J-F and I could revisit the scene of our first date 10 years ago, and other familiar places, and old friends.

Also, I've been enjoying not reading War and Peace and the thrill of finishing a book after only a couple hundred pages, namely, Isabel's Bed, by Elinor Lipman, and Little Children, by Tom Perrotta, both very funny and excellent light reading.