Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"The snows of yesterday"

The war came. My friends fell away, most married and soon were showing their young bodies much swollen in parks, and, later on, were sitting with their fair and dark hairs pinned up, in new cotton Mother Hubbards, playing watch-dog to baby carriages. They looked very youthful, more than I did, and very vapid, as if they had never been to school and never read a book. They looked like themselves at the age of four; and soon — after that — but I'm advancing the clock a bit — they had with them replicas of themselves at the age of four; and by that time had aged, looked careworn, a bit thinner, and were urging me to go back to Mother, get married, think of the older values. They kept asking me if I believed in those ideological salves; if ideology itself was not the soporific of the people and whether women especially ought not to go back to the old race-ways. Later on, this emptiness of head gave them heartaches. They became unhappy with their husbands. If their husbands were away at war, needing something to think about, they became the most serious possible little nuns of the progressive school movement and worried about diet, and should you spank Junior! But where were the lively, smart girls of my adolescence — where are the snows of yesterday?

— from Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead, published in 1946.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Oh, nothing frightens me!"

For the little terrors in your life: The 13 Ghosts of Halloween, written by Robin Muller and illustrated by Patricia Storms.

The story's told in verse and singable to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas, and we do slip into and out of the melody as we go. It's about 10 kids with 3 pets making their way through a haunted house.

Our copy's in French, but Patricia's charming illustrations need no translation.

Helena is particularly fond of the menacing "deux tête ratatinées" (wrinkled heads?), which happens to be very hard to say. While I twist up my tongue, this bilingual family is puzzling out translations for ourselves, a pleasure of a challenge when dealing with a vocabulary that's a little beyond the everyday.

We've been having a lot of fun counting up monsters and subtracting children on every page. The colours are fantastic, the clocks are crazy (we sure know when midnight is), and the creatures are gruesomely entertaining.

The book is also a big hit at Helena's daycare: "Non, je n'ai peur de rien!"

Patricia's blog: BookLust.
The sneak peak and other background.

Thanks, Patricia!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Words and stuff

Or: how I plan to increase my IQ by 10 points in less than 48 hours.

Wednesday night:
Alberto Manguel delivers the 2007 Massey Lectures: The City of Words.
"How can stories lend a whole society an identity...?"

Thursday night:
Steven Pinker presents his book: The Stuff of Thought.
Now, in The Stuff of Thought, Pinker marries two of the subjects he knows best: language and human nature. The result is a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. What does swearing reveal about our emotions? Why does innuendo disclose something about relationships? Pinker reveals how our use of prepositions and tenses taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and how our nouns and verbs speak to our notions of matter. Even the names we give our babies have important things to say about our relations to our children and to society.

So how is it that two seemingly parallel constructions:
The City of Words
The Stuff of Thought
— are in fact not?

The city is made of words.
The stuff makes up the thought.

My brain hurts already.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

"The secret bustle of red blood"

This Lydnam Lodge was a folly and could never pay for itself. "Every egg cost a dollar," said Grandmother Morgan; but the Lodge was a convenient place to quarantine her children as each one reaped a wild oat; and it was a senseless delight, a pleasance which she felt she would allow them. She did not care for it herself. Grandmother Morgan, once she found she could not in any way turn the place into a boarding house, stayed away from it. She missed the clink of china and glass, the endless brushings of brooms, the glimmer of clean windows, the smells of rooms overfurnished with bedspreads, toilet covers, and women. She missed the bottles hidden in boot boxes, the crystal sets, the card games — especially perhaps the big poker game at which she herself was such a hand. She liked the cutting of lawns, the consultations with plumbers and plasterers, the quantities of goods in drawers and cupboards, the bustle of company, the thieving and picking, lashing of competitors, the brawling, the fight for life. Where can you feel it more than in a hotel or in a money game? She never objected even to what went on in the rooms, if these humam frailties were kept out of sight. For that was life to her, like the secret bustle of red blood, a woman who longs and fornicates and a man who thirsts and sucks. What was there out in the country, among the chickens and plants?

— from Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead.

Used books in Montreal

"Walk into a good second-hand book shop, and there's an interesting selection made by a person, not a committee."

"It's the human aspect that's fun," Raymond says, "because the shop takes on the colour of your neighbourhood." Mount Royal Ave., home to a string of used-book shops is "a very human-level street. You wouldn't have that kind of success in, say, Brossard where it's all cars. Used-book shops don't work as drive-throughs. But if there were a couple in each neighbourhood, you'd find a lot of very different shops, and books."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The girl and the cat

It's taken almost 5 years, but she's finally bigger than the cat.

The cat is not particularly enamored of this turn of events, but he's shown more patience this last month — heck, the whole 5 years — than I ever thought possible.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

You know, life

(In which the verb "to feel" is used to excess.)

Aurgh. This happens every so often: so much to say, no time to say it. All these glorious jewels and lumps of coal losing their immediacy, and amounting to nothing much, really.

See, even that paragraph above — I wrote it 4 days ago.


Reading. I've done some. I feel like I'm in a slump. Nothing I pick up quite grabs me, with the notable exception of Michael Ondaatje's Coming through Slaughter, which has sat in a stack for years, a gift I simply had no interest in, but one evening I just picked it up, opened it, and started reading. Very poetic. It took a while to find the rhythm; in typical Ondaatje fashion, it's not entirely chronological, and not always obvious whose story is being told. But find a rhythm I did, and whether I understood what was happening didn't matter much, I was along for the ride, but then the last portion felt like a different book entirely, and then it was over, and again nothing I pick up quite grabs me.

The Post-Birthday World (Lionel Shriver) I read weeks ago. While I expected it to devastate me, it didn't. It was compelling enough, but kind of ugly. The language, the characters. If you haven't already heard, basically it follows two trajectories from a critical decision point (a kiss!) in the protagonist's life. Great concept for a novel, but none of the characters apart from Irina felt real, which maybe isn't a flaw, the point being made that we really are the heroes of our own lives, all the others merely bit players. I felt distanced (deliberately?) And of course, it's kind of the point that neither path has an entirely satisfactory conclusion, but it was more depressing than that — just ugly. It made me feel dirty even, to dare to consider the "what if," which I'm not sure was the point or has to be the case. I feel scolded for considering that things, banal things, could be any different than they are. Or maybe that ugliness isn't really there in the book — I'm juxtaposing it from some other part of my life (but where?) onto what I read, or expected to read. There's a different kind of discomfort with this book than with Kevin, and I can't put my finger on it. Maybe identifying that discomfort is the point.

I'm trying to read The Railway, by Hamid Ismailov, but I'm getting nowhere.

I'm trying to read The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I'd had it in the back of my mind to get to this someday, and one day there it was in front of me, a used copy with a dark, sketchy cover and great illustrations within. It felt like a sign, finding it that day, when I was at loose ends for what to read. But. Maybe I'd appreciate it better in the dead of winter.

Yikes. Is that all I've read (been trying to read) lately?

I've picked up Danielewski's Only Revolutions off the stack countless times, but I get hung up over which end to start reading from first, and that's just too hard for now.

I read, a month ago already, Patrick Hamilton's Unknown Assailant, being the last part of the Gorse Trilogy (the first two bits of which I read about a year ago, and this third having been not previously available). I had things to say about it, I think, and I'm stunned to discover I didn't document those thoughts here. It's decidedly weaker than Hamilton's other books, but still there was insight into character, less Gorse's than that of his victims (and I think that's a strength).

I'm starting to worry that this slump, this mood, might colour whatever book I choose to pick up next, that the next book if read at any other time might be the greatest novel ever, but in current conditions might go unrecognized by me.

So there you have it. Blah.

Work is a bit trying these days, for various reasons but a major one being the office just moved to a new location. And while it thrills most of my coworkers, it bothers me that we're now on top of a shopping centre with its massive food court giving the illusion of choice and I have to walk through the mall to and from the metro, threading my way between glassy-eyed shoppers who don't know the rules of escalator usage, and I've yet to settle on a coffee spot, and when I do, I'll still have months of training the barista to know to start my espresso, allongé 3/4, as soon as he sees me coming. All of which makes me feel angry.

The long drive to see my mother for Thanksgiving, and the long drive home, with near intolerable sleeping arrangements in between.

And I feel sick. My head won't stop hurting, partly for inadequate sleep, partly for the noises and fumes of the final renovations of the new office space and the fact that the temperature is not yet balanced (ie, it's fucking cold). And now I'm just whining. How pathetic.

I'm just not altogether here.

The girl, though, through all this is fabulous. And I feel remiss for not documenting her full fabulosity. I will try harder.

And my cat is amazing.

I did find a book this week. By accident. I'd never heard of it. I brought home Letty Fox: Her Luck, by Christina Stead. From the opening page, it feels perfect. (Does it qualify as chick lit, I wonder.) I feel a little bad for leaving other books unfinished (it's out of character, besides), but I think I'm going to go read it now.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Fourth-rate science fiction"

Doris Lessing is a favourite of mine, and today she won the Nobel prize for literature.

The veteran US literary critic Harold Bloom has so far provided the only voice of dissent. Describing the academy's decision as "pure political correctness", he said to the Associated Press today that "although Ms Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction."

I was introduced to the work of Doris Lessing almost 20 years ago, in a class on dystopian literature: we studied The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five.

The Fifth Child made me dread having children. I think of this book often; when I look at my child and think how lucky I am, I am choked by the realization — the sense Lessing imparted in that slim novel — of how little control I have over who my child is.

I happened to be reading The Good Terrorist in the early part of September 2001. It's the banality of the protagonist's life that stunned me.

Mara and Dann is, for its fairy-tale quality, my favourite, from which I learned to play the game: What Did You See?

All of these affected me quite profoundly.

And there were others in between.

I read The Golden Notebook just a couple years ago. I haven't yet managed to write about it. The best books are the hardest to write about. Even the preface had me crying out, "Yes."

From "Problems, Myths and Stories," in Time Bites:
...when you belong to a reading generation, there is a whole web or map of references, information, knowledge that you have taken for granted; you realise that reading has been a parallel education, filling and extending what education you in fact did have. With contemporaries you talk from inside this web, or net, or reference,...

From "A Reissue of The Golden Notebook," in Time Bites:
I have to conclude that fiction is better at "the truth" than a factual record.

I quite agree.

Give me fourth-rate science fiction any day.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"Humanity entered a new space age"

"I say without hesitation and without excuse that this is a turning point in history. Never has the threat of Soviet Communism been so great, or the need for countries to organize themselves against it."

— British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, November 1957.

Sputnik, launched 50 years ago today.

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