Sunday, January 27, 2008


I had it in my mind for some time to post a discussion topic on a Doctor Who forum (a couple of which I follow). Finally I muster the courage (nerds can be so intimidating), but in doing a little background check for my write-up, I find my topic is a nonstarter.

Doctor Who was created with the intention of teaching kids a little something about science and history. I'm not so sure about the science bits: Much of it is beyond theoretical — purely fictional. Other science is of the sort I take for granted but Helena cannot yet fully grasp the implications of or get excited about (for example, cooling systems).

History on the other hand, is an unexpected source of delight for me and education for Helena. My 5-year-old daughter reveres Madame de Pompadour, l'amoureuse of the king of France, as a smart cookie. We've talked about Shakespeare and the story of Macbeth, Dickens and A Christmas Carol. I'm thrilled that she should have this interest in literature, as something not forced on her by her mother but as she herself has extracted it from pop culture and cool.

Trying to tempt Martha to stay on at the end of last season, the Doctor exclaims, "Agatha Christie! I'd love to meet Agatha Christie!"

And this is what I wanted to speculate about. Would this season's literary episode feature Agatha Christie?

You don't need to be very internet savvy to find the answer to this question, so I won't tell you. (I'm finding I miss the days of uncertainty and having to wait.)

So here's the remaining question I may yet post to one of those forums:

What literary meeting would you like to see the Doctor undertake?

Some answers are all too obvious to yield very surprising television: HG Wells, Jules Verne.

But here are some meetings of minds and circumstance I'd like to witness:
Sir Thomas More (Utopia!)
Leo Tolstoy
Jorge Luis Borges
Dr Seuss
(And I'd love to see something a little thousand-and-one-nights.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Change your mind

Something to think about for the rest of the year...

The Edge Annual Question — 2008:

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

I won't pretend to have read all the responses; I've skimmed them at random. There's enough there to keep you reading for days, and thinking for weeks.

Kevin Kelly, editor at Wired, has this to say:

Everything I knew about the structure of information convinced me that knowledge would not spontaneously emerge from data, without a lot of energy and intelligence deliberately directed to transforming it. All the attempts at headless collective writing I had been involved with in the past only generated forgettable trash. Why would anything online be any different?

The success of Wikipedia has changed his mind.

Things other thinkers have changed their mind about: Nuclear energy — these days it's much easier to see that the benefits outweigh the risks. There are some rambling entries regarding God. The nature of the differences between the sexes. How dinosaurs came to be extinct (asteroid!). Brian Eno changed his mind about Maoism.

For Alison Gopnik, imagination is real, and I'm citing her response in full because I think it's super interesting, and I see the evidence surrounding me every day to bear this out:

Recently, I've had to change my mind about the very nature of knowledge because of an obvious, but extremely weird fact about children — they pretend all the time. Walk into any preschool and you'll be surrounded by small princesses and superheroes in overalls — three-year-olds literally spend more waking hours in imaginary worlds than in the real one. Why? Learning about the real world has obvious evolutionary advantages and kids do it better than anyone else. But why spend so much time thinking about wildly, flagrantly unreal worlds? The mystery about pretend play is connected to a mystery about adult humans — especially vivid for an English professor's daughter like me. Why do we love obviously false plays and novels and movies?

The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There's a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I've always thought that science, and children's learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them — a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds.

But fiction doesn't fit that picture — its easy to see why we want the truth but why do we work so hard telling lies? I thought that kids' pretend play, and grown-up fiction, must be a sort of spandrel, a side-effect of some other more functional ability. I said as much in a review in Science and got floods of e-mail back from distinguished novel-reading scientists. They were all sure fiction was a Good Thing — me too, of course, — but didn't seem any closer than I was to figuring out why.

So the anomaly of pretend play has been bugging me all this time. But finally, trying to figure it out has made me change my mind about the very nature of cognition itself.

I still think that we're designed to find out about the world, but that's not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you're sitting in. Every object in that room — the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone's mind. And that's even more true of people — all the things I am, a scientist, a philosopher, an atheist, a feminist, all those kinds of people started out as imaginary ideas too. I'm not making some relativist post-modern point here, right now the computer and the cup and the scientist and the feminist are as real as anything can be. But that's just what our human minds do best — take the imaginary and make it real. I think now that cognition is also a way we impose our minds on the world.

In fact, I think now that the two abilities — finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds — are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true — they tell us what's possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don't think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

I have changed my mind about relatively little, but then that's mostly because I've always been so slow to make up my mind one way or the other at all. That's something motherhood changed about me: suddenly, I had opinions, dammit! but least of all regarding the rearing of my child. Suddenly, I saw the relevance of the price of tea in China, and it mattered that I took a stance. In this way I have changed my mind: better to know something, believe something, however fleetingly, and change one's mind as new data become available, then to withhold opinions while waiting for a perfect analysis.

What have you changed your mind about?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Please, sir. I want some more.

Some months ago, amid casual small-talk at the office, a coworker piped up, "Hey, does anyone want my copy of Oliver Twist? I just can't get into it."

While it's not the Dickens I had in mind to read next — and I am determined to read many more; say, one a year or so — it is one of his better known works and a popular favourite. And it's hard to turn down a free book besides. So I took R up on his offer.

It languished in my desk drawer for some time; then the day came that I was ready for it — I turned it over in my hands, examined the illustration on the cover, checked for introductory notes (none), read the blurbs only to discover: it's abridged!

R was the brunt of some jokes for this, and the book stayed in my desk drawer. Till the day I faced a metro ride home with no reading material (having been driven in the morning and preferring not to lug my current, 1000-page epic read with me). An abridged book is better than no book at all, right? I'm not so sure.

Something about it felt off from the start. How much of that is owing to the fact of my awareness of it being abridged is impossible to gauge. But I felt an obligation — to both the book and my coworker — to read it.

Have you ever read an abridgement? Have ever read both an abridged novel and its version in full? How did they compare?

I'd like to know at what level, in general, abridging takes place: Are sentences shortened and vocabulary simplified? Are whole paragraphs and chapters cut out?

Let's find out, shall we:

In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentlemen of that class. The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so, they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually, was to send him to sea without delay

(I'm sure it comes as no surprise that Oliver is not, in fact, sent to sea.)

According to a quick consultation with an online version, the paragraph that immediately precedes this one in my copy occurs some 9 pages beforehand in a previous chapter, omitting entirely an encounter with a Mr Gamfield and his donkey.

My copy has 346 pages, the online version indicates 509; 39 chapters versus 53. Mine was "specially abridged for Puffin Classics," which fact also leads me to assume somewhat greater care was taken than it might in other publishing houses.

I'm mere pages away from the end and not particularly compelled to find out how it turns out. The story is certainly melodramatic, and the bad guys are bad in full Dickensian nefariousness, but I'm not fully drawn in. The book feels choppy. That may be in part due to my personal reading circumstances; Dickens's writing may not have been at it's best here (?); but mostly I blame reckless abridgement.

More than once I had to backtrack and in a couple specific instances wondered how some characters had entered upon the scene. It's clear to me that neither vocabulary nor complex sentences were simplified. But I feel shortchanged on explanations. If the context of the above excerpt is any indication, I expect many colourful anecdotes were omitted and subplots considerably pared down.

Why does anyone read Dickens? For the crazy plots! While his descriptions add colour, they could stand some paring down; cut back on plot, on the other hand, and the whole book starts to unravel. Crazy coincidences without those meticulous interconnections start looking far-fetched to the point that I'm no longer willing to suspend disbelief.

So I wonder what is the point of abridging Dickens? If to appeal to younger children, I'd've taken another tack: "translate" to modern day language (yes, of course, the language is beautiful and ought to impart all sorts of educational benefits, but I'd leave that for kids already keen on reading Dickens, or at least reading), but leave the story alone. This abridgement failed to entice me, and it confused me; I don't see that it would be any more successful with younger readers. I don't plan on reading Oliver Twist in full, and I will ensure I steer clear of abridged novels in the future.

All thoughts on Dickens in general, Oliver Twist in particular, and the idea and practice of abridgement welcome.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I marveled to the limits of marveling

I don't know why I like this story so much:

The emperor said: "O Amar! You speak verily, and your words are to our liking! The gates of the city are two farsangs from here. Both of you take an arrow and remove yourself thither. Whoever shall return first after handing his arrow to the guard on gate, shall win precedence over the other!"

The two acquiesced, and at the emperor's orders they were each given an arrow. Both arrayed themselves and set off like lightning, running shoulder to shoulder, flying like sparks, like arrows shot from a well-strung bow. They had gone some distance from the royal procession when Amar purposely lagged behind, and Aatish managed to put half-a-league's distance between them.

Those who witnessed this said, "To no purpose Amar lost all his prestige and distinction by making such a perilous wager with Aatish, who finally outpaced Amar!" Aatish was about to reach the gates of the city and show the soles of his feet to Amar, when Amar leapt into the air realizing that people would be throwing ridicule at him. The Father of Racers and Tumblers of the World turned a somersault alongside Aatish, delivered him a kick in flight, and bit him hard and so strangled his neck that Aatish fell flat on his back, all his speed and quickness having fled him; the taste of agony alone remained in his mouth. As a stone struck Aatish's head during his fall, it splintered his skull, and he lay all bathed in a rivulet of blood. Thus shocked and confounded he fell unconscious.

Amar then took Aatish's headdress of an ayyar and, handing his arrow to the guard, said to him, "Mark me well! I am Amar Ayyar! The renown of my ayyari has reached the lands and kingdoms of far and near! In me the deceiver finds no refuge for his device, and I give the liar the lie! Beware, lest you be prevailed upon through bribery to bear false witness and state that it was Aatish who first handed you the shaft, and that Amar arrived and delivered his later! Woe betide you, O lad, should you lie! Beware and be warned, and let not greed be your undoing! Speak verily before the emperor, and do not dissemble or speak false!"

The guard was much bewildered at these words, and marveled to the limits of marveling at their import and at the calamity that had thus visited him uninvited. Amar retraced his steps, and took himself to the emperor's presence. After kissing his stirrup, Amar produced Aatish's headdress to him, at which the emperor broke out laughing at Amar's roguery. Then all the flash and flourish of Aatish became things of the past, and he was so embarrassed that he never again showed his face in the court.

— From The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalive Lahnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Pamuk's Other Colors

I missed Claire Berlinski's review of Pamuk's Other Colors when it first appeared in The Globe and Mail, which is just as well seeing as I was just then having a tough time of getting through the final pages and, by the sounds of it, this review would've reinforced my sense of its paralyzingly depressing nature, but the ongoing reactions (1, 2, 3) to that review are asking me to reexamine my own response to Pamuk's essays.

I agree with Berlinski's characterization of Pamuk as a "melancholic egomaniac." It did indeed become quite tiresome to be repeatedly told 1. how much he loves books and 2. how depressed he is. But she misses the boat in not acknowledging him as a significant novelist.

This week Keith Gerebian comes to Pamuk's defence.

Pamuk reveals why writing begins for him with disquietude and produces more of the same if it does not go well. [...] His ruminations on disparate things [...] show a major novelist in a minor, lighter key, but one whose sense of enchantment is fuelled by a mordant comic irony (the essay on Istanbul earthquakes) as well as a fascination with phenomenology.

[...] Filled with arabesques, pleasantries and nimble wit, Pamuk's essays on literature, politics, art, architecture and autobiography show us a writer who wisely refuses to have his sense of national identity manipulated by anyone - including Americans and Turks - while he continues to find a different style to suit different subjects.

He is conversational and playful in the essay Meaning, just as he is profoundly aesthetic in Bellini and the East or keenly satiric in My First Encounters with Americans. He is a shrewd, subtle literary critic on Sterne, Gide, Dostoevsky, Rushdie et al., and, despite Berlinski's outrageous misrepresentation of his perspective on Nabokov's Lolita (has she really read this essay?), he reveals himself as a man who can be amazed by his world and the dream of being a storyteller.

The book is depressing, but in my own defense as a reader I can recognize that while I don't like the way the book made me feel, and though it made me roll my eyes more than once, it also made me consider some aspects I hadn't before regarding what goes into the construction of Pamuk's novels (I do have to wonder if Berlinski has read any) — what makes Pamuk a writer.

Suffice it to say: I far prefer Pamuk the novelist to Pamuk the essayist, but Other Colors is not to be dismissed out of hand.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Big books

A challenge to sink my teeth into: Chunkster Challenge 2008.

I wasn't able to meet my own self-designed standards last year, but I better know my limitations for it, and I'm willing to play by more relaxed rules this time: 4 books of >450 pages, read between January 1 and December 20. (Hosted by So Many Books, So Little Time. Sign up before March 1!)

Ahem. My candidates:

1. Currently reading: The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami (948 pages, including notes). This is the first book I started reading this year; I'm on page 162.

2. Up soon: The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon, by Alexandre Dumas (751 pages, including appendix), received recently. I've read a bit of the introduction, and it's hard not to find the existence of this manuscript a little suspicious. Of course, this increases my enthusiasm for reading it — I'm determined to prove it's a fake.

3. The book I couldn't finish last year: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1079 pages, including footnotes). I'll try again. Really. I left off at page 85. I may or may not revisit those first bits.

4. Something else. Maybe The Brothers Karamazov. Or maybe this is Pynchon's year. Maybe.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Happy Birthday, Ivonna!
(With regrets that we didn't manage to see it together this year.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Colours and follies

Weeks ago, I dipped into Orhan Pamuk's Other Colors: Essays and a Story, as I said I would. I start in the middle and find myself driven forward, wondering what happens next, and finally it occurs to me to ask what came before.

Sampling these essays at random, it turns out, is not the best approach. The preface holds the key. (Sadly I was not forced to read the preface when first I opened the book.) Pamuk has arranged these ideas and fragments deliberately, into a continuous narrative.

I have always believed there to be a greedy and almost implacable graphomaniac inside me — a creature who can never write enough, who is forever setting life in words — and that to make him happy I need to keep writing. But when I was putting this book together, I discovered that the graphomaniac would be much happier, and less pained by his writing illness, if he worked with an editor who gave his writing a center, a frame, and a meaning. I would like the sensitive reader to pay as much attention to my creative editing as to the effort I put into the writing itself.

So I start again from the beginning. And there is a story to be told here.

I don't remember why I turned over the corner of this page in "On My Name Is Red." Maybe for some realization regarding Pamuk's relationship to painting — he grew up wanting to be a painter. Or maybe for this: "My fragility, my filth, my depravity, and my shortcomings — they are not in the fabric of the book, in its language or its structure, but they can be made out in the characters' lives and stories."

I've come to like Pamuk less than I like his novels. He refers often to going through rough times, loneliness, depression. His taking refuge in books quickly loses the sheen of romanticization; his escape into books feels quite desperate. But then I think: this too, this whole book, is contrived to manipulate me. There are essays on and insights into Istanbul, a childhood lived therein, earthquakes, Nabokov, literature in general, and more. They are if sincere, as first I thought, depressing; if not sincere, then a little more awesome for the force of their combined structure, but disillusioning. I'm not sure which state I prefer.


If ever again I turn to freelancing and work from home, I might follow Pamuk's example in establishing routine and discipline: dress and prepare in the morning as if for the office, leave the house, walk round the block, re-enter one's house-as-office, and then at the end of the day pack up and leave to walk back to the same space this time home.


Just before Christmas I picked up Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies. My expectations were low, as most reviews, both published and personal, were lukewarm about it.

As it turns out, it was, for me, the perfect book at the perfect time, lifting me out of the noise of Christmas, and out of the depressing funk Pamuk had cast, to float just beyond the reach of stress.

For all their outlandish behaviour, grand gestures, and bold words, there was something so perfectly ordinary and believable and interesting about all the characters, which I suspect I may not perceive in this way at any other time of year. I'm losing the details of the story already, but certain observations and characterizations (what kind of man where's a white shirt and tie around the house in the afternoon?) have left a mark.

What lucky fools we all are.


Christmastime is the time of the annual jigsaw puzzle. This year I would initiate Helena into the family tradition — where by family, in this case I mean me and my sister, and it was never really planned so much as it just worked out that way, that we would one or the other of us receive a puzzle at Christmas and have to start it straight away, hunching over the dining room table, squinting, for one, maybe two, near-sleepless nights, our mother pleading with us can we move the puzzle please, where are we going to eat, it's so dusty, but we did this for years, every year, I don't remember how it started, now we have to plan a little because we are less likely to spend sufficiently long periods of time together under the same roof.

I'm surprised at how geeky the whole puzzle endeavour is this year. That I should build up the significance and the fun of the puzzle is one thing, but I was compelled to plan, to consider the initiation — that Helena is capable of 100 pieces on her own but I would not want her to feel daunted at the sight of, say, 3000 pieces each the size of one of her fingers, not her whole hand, that I lit on the perfect enticement: a Doctor Who theme, bearing a geek factor all its own, which I researched and special-ordered, settling on a product not dated by a specific Doctor's face nor that of a specific companion, and a modest piece count, well in advance, and wrapped and put under the tree.

I keep thinking of The Gold Bug Variations: she watches the 2 men puzzle together at the cabin, one of them searching the board to find a fit for the piece in his hand, the other searching the table to find the piece that fits a chosen spot.

For years, forever, I was of the first type. I'm shocked by the realization that I am now the latter. I'm certain that the attitude must reflect one's philosophical approach to life, but I struggle with what exactly that might mean.


Thursday, Helena (age 5), after years(!) of denying her father's teasing suggestions that she has a daycare amoureux — Poilly is the only one, she insists (they do sleep together after all) — announces that Emile est son prince, and they're going to marry — Emile is her amoureux, and today they kissed on the mouth!

She interrupts our occasional stolen moments, in the car, at the grocery: "Why are you doing that? Why are you doing what Emile and I do?"


Friday at lunch I gather myself up to go the post office and discover I must've lost my sister's birthday present on my way into work. This distresses me to tears. The website of the metro's lost and found advises it can take 48 hours for an object to reach the central office; they're closed on the weekend; my sister's present will never reach her in time — and these revised timelines rely on the fact that there is kindness in strangers, to turn in a small plastic bag containing a box and a scrap of wrapping paper sized to cover it, but untaped because we ran out of tape at home. I let myself cry over this, because I can't be seen to be phased by the $5000 mistake I made at work, which was uncovered earlier this week, for which my stomach is in knots, over which I've lost sleep. I spend the afternoon obsessing over what I might give my sister instead, though still late, and fixing other people's faulty graphs and references so they might obtain FDA approval. My way home I scour the ground — the corners of the metro station, and outdoors, the shapes of fresh snow mounds — for that small white plastic bag. I console myself, that this is the cosmos taking a little something back for all the free books and door prizes I've received lately, that someone else may benefit by this.

My sister's birthday present is sitting on the shelf inside my front door.


For the umpteenth time we watch the Doctor Who episode "Utopia," and this umpteenth time it occurs to Helena to ask me, "What does 'utopia' I mean?" I summarize the concept as best as I can, but before I get round to explaining how Thomas More coined the term, she is laughing. "Me-topia, Me-topia, Me-topia!"

I record this here not as an instance of the cute things the child says, per se, but because I marvel at how her brain works.


Saturday we stop for gas. As J-F is pulling back out onto the service road, he asks me for his gloves. "I don't have them." "Where are my gloves?" I make a joke, but as soon as I say it, I know it to be true: "You probably left them on the roof of the car." The car has turned, it's too late to stop, and dangerous now to slow down. We watch in the rearview mirror as one glove flops onto the road. We're halfway into the curve of the exit ramp when the wind lifts glove number two and throws it into a snowbank. I laugh, or else I would cry. The gloves I gave him for Christmas.

We track back through the parking lot that's on the other side of the ditch, only it's winter and the ditch is a 20-foot high pile of snow, the length of... I don't know how to measure length in the suburbs, but it must be about 4 city blocks. J-F stops the car and goes over the top.

Just as I start imagining what terrible accident might've transpired on the other side of that white wall, I notice the dark speck ahead running toward us, waving one black leather glove overhead.

We drive forward, just outside the gas station we'd started from. Repeat.

My unoriginal gift. His gallant grand gesture.

(I think he's lost them since.)


The snow had been falling like oobleck. I take respite in thinking that Montreal that night bore a striking resemblance to a magical Persia of centuries ago.

"The following night it suddenly snowed so hard and became so bitingly cold that tongues froze inside people's mouths." (From The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

On The Adventures of Amir Hamza

Let us not forget its glorious subtitle: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction (which has to be the very best subtitle ever!).

From The Washington Post:

The Adventures of Amir Hamza represents a marvelous dovetailing of fantasy, history and religion. This book demonstrates the ways that colorful storytelling can be an important part of both religious texts and adventure yarns, and the way a charismatic figure may become something very like public property, capturing the popular imagination and giving storytellers a vessel for their ideas.

From The New York Times:

Even in translation, "The Adventures of Amir Hamza" is a wonder and a revelation — a classic of epic literature in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it. The story line itself is endlessly diverting and inventive, and the prose of the translation is beautifully rendered.

Moreover, the book gives a unique insight into a lost Indo-Islamic courtly world. For although "The Adventures of Amir Hamza" was originally a Persian production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the story was reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many years of subcontinental retelling. Though the original Mesopotamian place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic Iraq, but of 18th-century late Mughal India, with its love of gardens, its obsession with poetic wordplay and its extreme refinement in food, dress and manners. Many of the characters have Hindi names; they make oaths like "as Ram is my witness"; and they ride on elephants with jeweled howdahs. To read "The Adventures of Amir Hamza" is to come as close as is now possible to the world of the Mughal campfire — those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians and hangers-on that one sees illustrated in Mughal miniatures, a storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers of the blaze glow red and the eager faces crowd around.

First chapter.

See also the translator's blog.

I received a copy some weeks ago, but it wasn't till a few days ago that I decided to commit to it, breaking in the new year with this new book.

I'm on page 53 and I've yet to meet Amir Hamza, but every page thus far has been laden with riches. Truly marvelous.