Monday, June 28, 2010

Peace without quiet

Four-day weekend. Destination: fishing lodge, about 26 km north of the epicentre of the earthquake that rocked our world the day before.

"I'm bringing a novel about a giant squid, one about human clones, and one about a circus geek. Do you think that says something about the kind of person I am?"

"I dunno, but it says something about the kind of fisherman you are."

I caught countless bass (fiesty little fuckers), 2 pike, 3 whitefish, a couple clams (freshwater mussels, I guess — boy, they clamp down hard), and a sunburn.

Peaceful, but not quiet. Blue herons, ducks, loons, turtles (OK, the turtles were quiet). A rock in the lake they call Gull Island, for the hundreds of gulls that perch there, squawking incessantly.

Not seen, but heard: woodpeckers, and ouaouaron frogs (so I'm told), which sound like they're shooting elastic bands or sometimes just twanging them.

A couple deer with a young one lapping at the shore.

A family of beavers, Junior clinging to mommy's back. For some mysterious reason the parents deposited him at water's edge in front of our cottage and swam away. Curiosity got the better of us, and we crept up to sneak a peak at Junior. He splash-swam out of there, but mommy brought him back a short while later, and we left it alone.

I read about half a book this weekend, and I had a wonderful time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Happily his moderate fate was matched by his moderate temperament, so much so that he could not even imagine extreme deprivation or interesting success for himself, and yet, reading newspapers or novels, he could sometimes experience those unpredictable circumstances that shrank or exalted other men.

— from "The Friendly Witness."

I'd never heard of Elizabeth Hardwick until these stories showed up.

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick makes for strange reading. The sentences flow so easily, yet there's something terribly complicated being conveyed, at times difficult to come to terms with.

Clarence felt tricked and uncertain when he recognized the clear tremble of interest that flowed through him as he was presented to Dodo. He had not expected a relative of Henrietta's, an unmarried lady, clearly near his own age of thirty-eight. His mind, always painfully alerted by piercing longings, and his flirtatious heart leaped up to greet the complications and possibilities of the situation. He smiled, carefully measuring his gallantry.

— from "The Classless Society."

The stories are arranged chronologically. There's a gap of 20 years, starting in 1959. And what came after... well, they sound like a depressed old woman, a bit bitter, more resigned, c'est la vie. There's a matter-of-factness that runs through all her stories, but quite suddenly, after 20 years of some kind of life, they lack vitality. According to Hilton Als, "it's in those late pieces especially that Hardwick's unparalleled interest in the pace and brutality and dreams and dramas her beloved Manhattan always seems to provide are best reflected." But I don't see it that way; I feel more detachment from and even resentment for the city than love.

Where am I picking up this mood from? To me it feels like the city's kind of relentless, always there, and she (or the narrator, anyway) feels betrayed by it.

That's not to say these stories aren't worth reading. There's a great deal in them about relations between the sexes and in an inbetween time (when women's role was changing, but also the class structure of society was changing too). A lot can happen is just a couple snips of dialogue: he understands what she said as an ironic slight, whereas she only said it to impress, or to convey an understanding — that sort of thing. The stories really work in that space between how characters see themselves, how they wish to be seen, and how others actually see them.

My hands-down favourite story in this collection is "A Season's Romance," from 1956. Somewhat predictable plotwise, but delightfully bittersweet in the telling.

Elizabeth Hardwick profiled in The New Yorker (Hilton Als, 1998).
About this book.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

La Semaine littéraire

Last week was the last full week of school (today's the last day!), and it was full of bookish things. The school's annual semaine littéraire came a little later this year, but it's a great way to bring months' worth of learning projects into focus and to transition into summer.

It's one thing for me to drag the kid along to events that interest me, but quite another to see Helena excited about the culture of book readings and author signings at her own level, with regard to her books.

Early in the week, the class met Lucie Papineau, she of the Gilda le Girafe books, of which we've enjoyed a few (do you have those in English?).

The day I attended open house, Elise Gravel was promoting her new book, Bienvenue à la monstrerie, in the library. It's a book they've been "studying" to death in class, so Helena opted to purchase another title by this author (Le Catalogue des gaspilleurs). Elise Gravel was gracious enough to personalize it with a monster!

Monday, June 21, 2010


(Or: Proud mommy moment #147,423, or thereabouts.)

The other week we attended the Gala des Gobuk, to which Helena had been invited as a nominee for various taekwondo awards (she had 3 nominations, as a matter of fact).

We were treated to a demonstration of skills by the red and black belts from one of the other community centre programs. This featured very impressive feats of kicking, at great heights and over vast obstacles, many culminating in the splitting of planks with bare feet.

Helena is not (yet) at this level of spectacle, but the very first award of the evening was presented to her for assiduity, which, I'm led to believe, means a little bit more than just showing up (which the other 20 or so nominees in her age group also managed just as well). I am sssoooo proud.

"Gobuk," I've since learned, means "turtle" in Korean. The turtle is a symbol of longevity; the mental and physical discipline of taekwondo is a channelling of effort to overcome one's mortality.

Today finishes out this taekwondo session, and we'll take a break from it over the summer. Today my little gobuk achieved her yellow belt. My little girl kicks ass.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

An absurdly massive tentacled sepia event

The book I am most anticipating this summer (cuz I'm that kind of girl) is Kraken, by China Miéville. Cuz, c'mon... KRAKEN!!! and by China Fucking Miéville! How monsterliciously cool is that?!

This was what they came for, that pinkly enormous thing. For all its immobility; the wounds of its slow-motion decay, the scabbing that clouded its solution; despite its eyes being shrivelled and lost; its sick colour; despite the twist in its skein of limbs, as if it were being wrung out. For all that, it was what they were there for.

It would hang, an absurdly massive tentacled sepia event. Architeuthis dux. The giant squid.

This is what I came for!

With any luck, I'll have a copy in time for my romantic-getaway fishing weekend, cuz really, how romantic is fishing? (I can't believe I'm doing this for you, J-F! but I tease! no, really, I can't wait!) And given the choice between a) sitting in a boat all day fishing and not catching any fish and b) sitting in a boat all day reading and not catching any fish — well, I think you know where my heart lies (yes, with you, my love, trapped in a boat). And if I could be trappedlazing in a boat all day (with you!) reading Kraken and being scared out of my pants that some, gasp, creature! may rise out of the deep and rock our idyll... well, that would be awesome.

Review: "epic exercise in cephalopunk eschatology and fundamentalist gang warfare."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A life had been available to me

I keep forgetting how much I like Peter Carey. I've only read a couple of his books; I approach them with trepidation, enjoy them thoroughly, look forward to the fact that there are so many books in his back catalogue for me to get to, promptly forget, and then start all over again.

This new Peter Carey novel, Parrot and Olivier in America — truly delightful!

The story switches between the perspectives of Olivier, French aristocrat still coming to terms with the Revolution, inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, and Parrot, orphaned son of a printer with several talents (engraving among them, all exploited). They sail together to America, Olivier sent by his family, to be out of the way and out of danger, Parrot as his secretary. Olivier starts out with his best friend, and Parrot arranges for his artist mistress and her mother to come along for the ride. Our two title characters really can't stand each other to start, but as you might guess, they get past that.

Both of them have to travel far, be displaced, in order to find themselves.

[I don't know a thing about de Tocqueville, but I have a hard time believing my pleasure in this book would be increased just because I might occasionally nod my head knowingly that Olivier's comment was an obscure reference to something hidden away in the bowels of On Democracy in America. (That is to say, you don't need to know a thing about him to enjoy this book.)]

I like how some events in this book get told twice, once from each perspective, and others don't really get told at all but rather are barely alluded to from both sides. Some readers may wish for more resolution of these subsubplots, but I found this technique effective in both drawing me in and my coming to appreciate the extent of the character's lives beyond the pages.

Plus, Carey writes some magical sentences, expecially when it comes to describing art, and the quality of the light in the art. "In the world of these small canvases no one could be beautiful, and yet each was illuminated by that holy light glowing from beneath their injured skin."

Carey recently spoke at the Sydney Writer's Festival. According to the Telegraph:

"We are getting dumber every day," he said. "We are really, literally, forgetting how to read. We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk is completely destructive of democracy."

He said that society had "forgotten how to be still" and was "intolerant of any news that is not entertaining".

These are very much themes of this new novel. Parrot is looking for stasis. There's a lovely bit holding up the rocking chair as a symbol of America; it's disguised as relaxation but really it enables America's restlessness.

There are some jibes at democracy too. Olivier imagines a future where an idiot might be elected to run the country, which is uncomfortably funny, with Bush not so very far behind us.

I happened across some notes I'd made regarding another book the other day, and they seemed pertinent to this novel, in respect of whether publishing (and this is ultimately what Parrot's enterprise amounts to) is an art or a business. This is not the first book in which Carey points out that a large component of that which we call "art" is business.

Parrot and Olivier are both wonderful characters, but I think my heart lies with Parrot. "What torture to hear that a life had been available to me that I had not been man enough to live." (Tragic!) Olivier fizzles out like the aristocracy he represents; democracy ultimately is shown to triumph in Parrot.

This is one of the finest "new releases" I've read in quite some time.

Q&A with Peter Carey: "Toquevelle was worried about the same things I'm worried about. I'm worried we are swimming in a sea of cultural crap, which we are."

New York times review.
Guradian review (Ursula K LeGuin).
BBC interview.

Chapter 1 (I wasn't swept away by the opening, but it gets so much better).
Brief excerpt.
Peter Carey.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Who ever thought a warm neck would become an armrest, or legs eager for flight and joy could stiffen into four simple stilts? Armchairs were once noble flower-eating creatures. However, they allowed themselves too easily to be domesticated and today they are the most wretched species of quadrupeds. They have lost all their stubbornness and courage. They are only meek. They haven't trampled anyone or galloped off with anyone. They are, for certain, conscious of a wasted life.

The despair of armchairs is revealed in their creaking.

— "Armchairs," by Zbigniew Herbert, in The Collected Poems 1956–1998.

For some 10 years I've been envisioning the ideal armchair, a noble creature indeed, to be my very own special reading spot. I've even gone so far as to clear a space for it. I would feed it flowers, but I feel bad now for even considering contributing to the repression of this downtrodden species. I guess I'll read in bed...

Killer kitty

It continues to astound me how perfect the cat is.

She hears us coming up the street and jumps onto the windowsill as we approach. She mrowrs on the other side of the glass. Seconds later Rosie's at the door to greet us.

She likes to be near us. On top of the fridge when I'm making coffee or supper. On her own chair when we're at the table. On the arm of the sofa if we're watching tv.

Morning and evening she stages stealth attacks, hiding around corners or behind a bag till someone goes by and she pounces.

Most touchingly, when it's time for Helena to get ready for bed, she follows us round the bend in the stairs, pawing at us through the banister, and secures the perimeters of the bathroom and bedroom areas. When Helena is finally settled into bed, Rosie hops up and makes herself comfortable. She stays there an hour or two — to make sure the kid is sound asleep — before joining J-F and me.

She's the perfect blend of affectionate, playful, protective, independent.

[Insert gratuitous cat photo here.]

So it came as a surprise to me to find that she is less than gentle with others of her species.

We've been letting her wander out onto the balcony, and I'm willing to let her explore the courtyard. She seemed shocked to discover a cat on the balcony just up from us, and another staring out the window of the unit to the left.

She was standoffish for a day or two after that. Her expression told me she felt betrayed: "Why didn't you tell me there were others of my kind, and so close?!"

Henri is the cat upstairs. Rosie has it in for him. Henri's leash lets him come down the fire escape to our balcony. That's too far for Rosie's liking. A couple times she's chased him up, swatted him across the nose. Usually, a hiss from her through the screen door is enough to send him home.

Last week she chased him, into his apartment, his own kitchen — Henri cowering in his own territory. Rosie puffed up, with the upper paw, and a quick one-two. Henri's owner could only stand back and wait for it to be over. Rosie owns that kitchen now. Henri took advantage of the distraction of J-F's entrance to make a break for it, under the bed. A gash across the eyebrow. He wasn't seen for days.

Who knew Rosie had a viscious killer inside her? Secretly, of course, we're all a little bit proud.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Not accustomed to seeing great things

My companions, he said, I wrote, are nothing if not charming but it is already clear that the Americans carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discernment and with an aggressveness that is disagreeable to strangers and shows but little intelligence. In general it seems to me that they magnify objects in the way of people who are not accustomed to seeing great things. And these, you understand, are the travelers, the superior classes in this democracy.

— from Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey.

What do you think? Is it (a little bit) true? Is it (a little bit) funny? I happen to think it's a little bit of both, and if not exactly true, then a fairly true representation of how Americans are often perceived. Was it true circa 1830? Maybe I chuckle because I'm not American. Do Americans find this funny? Or will they run Peter Carey out of town?

It's a charming novel, breezes right along. I'm almost halfway; Parrot and Olivier have finally landed in America.

That night I dined as the Americans dined, that is, I had a vast amount of ham. There was no wine at all and no one seemed to think there should be.

I've supped, with wine, and am settling in to read...

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The manuscript

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki, is a weird slice of literature, and I'm pleased that it has not fallen into complete obscurity.

The narrator, a Walloon officer on his way to Madrid, recounts the 66 days of his journey. While he does share the actual events he experiences, most of the book consists of the stories told by the people he encounters along the way, and the stories of the characters within those stories.

The novel is about 200 pages too long for my liking. At just past halfway, I found myself sympathizing with the geometer:

As soon as he left, Velásquez spoke and said, "I have tried in vain to concentrate all my attention on the gypsy chief's words but I am unable to discover any coherence whatsoever in them. I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marqués de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gyspy chief, who in turn is repeating it to us. It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables."

The tales are labyrinthine; some intersect, others lead nowhere. The book as a whole strikes me as experimental. Potocki is playing with the form of his stories within stories, and quite consciously and deliberately, to mess with the readers' expectations regarding chronology and the conventions of traditional narrative.

Potocki experiments with style as much as with form. The stories are by turns picaresque and gothic, some historical, other faintly erotic. Most have to do with a sense of honour in the pursuit of romance and fortune.

There are some wonderful philosophical digressions, for example, on what is to be human and on the nature of faith. Indeed, religion plays a fairly significant role: we encounter the Inquisition and a secret Muslim society; the fellow travellers include a cabbalist and the Wandering Jew; many of the tales demonstrate resistance to conversion to another faith, even while characters at times struggle with their faith and confront the supernatural. It seems to me that Potocki regarded all religions as equal, and readily incorporated mystical elements into his understanding of God.

One character sets about expanding the academic work he'd previously assembled in The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, together with the Science of Infinite Dimensions. He proceeds then to classify all human knowledge in 100 volumes, and Potocki enumerates all 100 fields. The hundredth volume is devoted to analysis, "which, according to Hervas, was the science of sciences and marked the extreme limit of human knowledge." It's a bizarre exercise that does nothing to move the story forward but in itself is delightful food for thought.

The novel was filmed by Wojciech Has in 1965 (the whole of which can be seen on Youtube — I haven't watched more than a fragment, but it looks promising).

I can't recall how I came to learn of this book. It's a bit esoteric and slow-going at times; it's definitely not for everyone. The tales make for good bedtime reading, but it's really easy to lose sight of the whole of this book, so I can't really say if it amounts to more than the sum of its parts. However, the parts taken individually are both entertaining and provocative, and the structure and style give this 200-year-old novel the unique flavour of being ancient and modern at the same time.

"The Mystical Count," in The Fortean Times.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Trying to read

(Not to be confused with trying to blog, which is an altogether different, but perhaps related, sort of problem.)

Somehow, and I think this is out character for me, I've been reading myself into a hole.

Book I'm desperately trying to finish:
The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, Jan Potocki.

It's big! I didn't realize just how big, because I'm reading it as an ebook, but the print version comes with 656 pages. You kind of lose sight of your progress through a book when it's electronic. Yes, there are page numbers (which I haven't entirely figured out — numbers corresponding to, I believe, the print edition's page numbering appear in the right margin (522 now), but there's another set of numbers at the bottom showing that I am currently at 544-545 of 654, which numbering must include, I'm guessing, the print edition's table of contents, introduction, etc), but your progress isn't tangible in the way your finger measures what's been read versus what's yet to be read when it holds your place as you carry your book from one reading spot to another. This really does bring a new dimension to losing oneself in a book.

Books I'm also reading, but no, not really; I stopped reading them so I could finish Potocki:
Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey, which I was really quite enjoying.
Granta: Sex, which I was also enjoying in rather a different way (I'll be writing more about this).

Book I bought (in eformat) because I couldn't help myself, fully intending to devour it straight away, but which is sitting patiently awaiting Potocki's completion:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson.

Books I've "temporarily" set aside:
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. I love this book! I just need time to read it. I think I'm about halfway. I've been reading it in spurts, and that mostly seems to be working, if you think dropping it for 2 months at a time is OK (which I'm not sure I do).
Memories of the Future, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I loved the first story, but I broke off during the last, longish story when I realized I was reading the words but none of them were making any impression on me. This book deserves better from me.

Books I'm considering reading in the near future, like starting tomorrow:
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson, which is fucking huge. I've had these books forever, and they've been propping up my tenuously attached bedside shelf, but now Girl Detective is reading them, and while I can't really get excited about them, I kind of feel like this is the right thing to do, to take advantage of a group reading (and thereby morale-boosting) opportunity — it's now or never. Is anyone else reading along? Has anyone previously read this trilogy? Advice, strategies, warnings are welcome.

Books that I am allegedly still reading; no, I could never abandon them!
The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, Ghalive Lahnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. I started reading this in January 2008. And I think it's amazing. And the flavour of the Saragossa manuscript puts me in mind of it.
The Collected Poems, 1956–1998, Zbigniew Herbert. Well, poetry. I'm just not trying hard enough.
The Last Supper, Paweł Huelle. I'm in the wrong headspace for it, but I don't know what the right headspace might be, nor where I could find it.
A Perfect Vacuum, Stanisław Lem. I couldn't help but dip into it once I'd finished Imaginary Magnitudes, but then I restrained myself, thinking that, as an anthology of reviews of nonexistent books, it would make a great companion read to Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (also sitting on my shelf for well over a year now), if only I could clear sufficient mental room to tackle them both in tandem.

That's not to mention the other various books lying round the house that I have not started and which I fully intend to get read this year (including, for example, the dauntingly large Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and JG Farrell's Singapore Grip).

Five of these books are Polish, in one way or another. Krzhizhanovsky wrote in Russian but is considered ethnically Polish (a typically Polish surname rendered in Cyrillic and then into English); Potocki, a Polish nobleman, wrote the Manuscript in French. (The three others are Herbert, Huelle, and Lem, in case you're wondering.)

Book that I'm craving:
Something small and light and finite.