Sunday, February 27, 2011

A vision of the superior sofa

The sofa was perfect for sleeping, Not too soft, not too hard; even the cushions pillowed my head just right. Doing different tabulation jobs, I've slept on a lot of sofas, and let me tell you, the comfortable ones are few and far between. Typically, they're cheap deadweight. Even the most luxurious-looking sofas are a disappointment when you actually try to sleep on them. I never understand how people can be lax about choosing sofas.

I always say — a prejudice on my part, I'm sure — you can tell a lot about a person's character from his choice of sofa. Sofas constitute a realm inviolate unto themselves. This, however, is something that only those who have grown up sitting on good sofas will appreciate. It's like growing up reading good books of listening to good music. One good sofa breeds another good sofa; one bad sofa breeds another bad sofa. That's how it goes.

There are people who drive luxury cars, but have only second- or third-rate sofas in their homes. I put little trust in such people. An expensive automobile may well be worth its price, but it's only an expensive automobile. If you have the money, you can buy it, anyone can buy it. Procuring a good sofa, on the other hand, requires style and experience and philosophy. It takes money, yes, but you also need a vision of the superior sofa. That sofa among sofas.

— from Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami.

The sofa Murakami's character stretches out on is leather and, I believe, white — a tasteful decorator shade of white. Not exactly my style.

The Sofa must've been one of our first major purchases as a couple some dozen years ago, and it was complicated. It took a lot of time, discussion, and compromise before we settled on the Kalahari model (no, that's not it pictured here), which struck a reasonable balance, within our budget, between style and comfort — comfort coming out slightly ahead.

These days it's formidably cat-scratched and discoloured, so now covered, but still comfortable, if a little too large for our living space, and a little too small to accommodate toute la famille at once. I love it and I hate it and it will someday in the not-too-distant future be replaced. But I will always recall the Kalahari with fondness.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two shocking scenes

It seems I am capable of being the kind of person who reads more than one book at a time (not including the couple books it's taking me years to get through and which I will not consider abandoned).

Even while I promised myself I'd make a concerted effort to move through The Magic Mountain this winter, it turns out that the book I consider myself to be reading (ie, the one I'd name if someone asked, so whatcha readin' these days?) is too cumbersome to carry on my commute as it doesn't slide nicely into either my purse or my lunch bag, and even though I carried it with me a couple times anyway in my hand, basically I've had enough of that shit, I don't like carrying stuff, I can't handle the extra baggage, it doesn't sit well in my psyche, so it's become my at-home book to read, usurping Thomas Mann at bedtime, and I've had to start reading yet another novel but this one chosen specifically for its virtue of travelling well (so it be one of several I've amassed lately in digital format).

So I read for a few minutes this morning, my at-home book, with my coffee while the child breakfasts and I await my turn to shower. I don't remember what I fell asleep to, but the caffeine jolts me into realizing oh my gawd he's dead and decapitated and he's watching his body be torn apart by wolves. And with this thought in my head I start my day — walk the kid to school, head down into the metro, and open my other book.

There's something very zen about my metro book — the long probable-ascent of the silent elevator, the blank office, the idyll of the animals outside the gate, the labyrinth of caves. Time to go to work.

I read again on my way home. "He spreads wide my right eye with his fingers and pushes the knife into my eyeball." Ew. "The knife sinks into my eyeball soft and silent, as if dipping into jelly." This time I say it out loud. Eww. On the metro. People look at me. It's my stop.

I don't know how people can stand the intensity of more than one book at a time, when you don't know what happens next and you can't balance your choices for mood, or attitude, it's too much of a good thing, or at least, too much of a thing, I don't think I can go on like this.

Monday, February 21, 2011


(Proud mommy moment #83,214.)

This weekend was the arondissement pre-qualifying taekwon-do tournament for the 34th annual Jeux de Montréal. It was Helena's first competitive experience, and despite a certain amount of stress, and, yes, even a few tears, Helena came away with two medals: gold for her pattern, and silver in (yikes!) combat.

A slightly strange experience, but mostly a good one. We'll see what the next level holds.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All in a week's work

Shop talk
I know the readership here to be smart and varied, so on the off chance some of you may actually be interested in this sort of thing, I'll mention this really interesting blog post the company I work for is promoting.

"This sort of thing" is business software, and the article addresses why so many enterprise resource planning systems fail; the researcher posits that it may be related to the professional allegiances and practices of the employees who use those systems.

If you have ever experienced (or indeed, been the victim of) the disruption of a company-wide implementation of the sort of system that's supposed to make you more productive, I encourage you also to participate in the survey that's discussed in the article.

Cat chat
I'm not a fan of Justin Bieber, but my daughter is, and I've come to terms with this — she will develop her own tastes; hopefully she will grow out of it (and someday soon!).

Now Justin Bieber reads The Cat in the Hat (via Dewey Divas). But not very well. He sounds dumb and bored.

While I can appreciate the attempt to promote literacy, or reading as cool, or the glory of pizza, I think this may backfire. This puzzling PR attempt brings him down another notch in my estimation. If the point is to sound like a (below?) average student being forced to read a text, well,... Is the point for millions of young girls to realize they read better than him? To realize that reading, for some people, is really pretty lame after all? He certainly doesn't bring a performer's verve to his reading. Does he even know what this story is about?

(Note: I couldn't actually watch it to the end. Maybe I'm missing Justin's spectacular finale?)

Life redux
For those who missed out on last year's group read of Life A User's Manual, by Georges Perec, and those of you eager to relive Life, a read-along is being hosted at Conversational Reading, starting mid-March and throughout April.

I'll follow the discussion, and as much as I still think about what an awesome wiki project it would be to annotate Life (and I do hope to dostart it someday), I expect I'll be occupied at about that time reading a Perec work never before translated, the soon-to-be-released The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


The Sun Dogs were two well-built Brits or Scands in torn cashmere, and their gear consisted only of an electric cello, plugged into a compressed-air auxetophone amplifier that looked like a threatening tuba, and a Frying Pan amplified to the point of distortion. As soon as the room started to vibrate, and as a dark, ominous drone started to coil around the walls, it became palpably clear that this music directly linked one's eardrum to one's intestines and that it was, beyond good or bad, to be digested rather than listened to. It also had at times, under the murk, the repetitive, trance-like quality of Eskimo chant. This indeed was not without its effect upon intoxicated listeners, who swayed back and forth with the ebb and flow of the gravelly sound waves. The Sun Dogs' best song was called Hyperborean, and if Gabriel understood it correctly, it was a cryptic paean to snowcaine.

— from Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Valtat.

It's kind of fun to be reading something with this setting when it's still so bitter cold outside. "April may be the cruellest month, but in North Wasteland, February was a tough bitch in her own right." The language is exuberant. I get the feeling he's trying to be more a China Miéville, but he's coming off like a Susanna Clarke. I don't mean for the comparison to be entirely discreditable, but there is a sense of being carried away by the language without there always being the substance to ground it. But that's OK; I like being carried away.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

With a bare bodkin

Everything my daughter knows about Shakespeare she learned from watching Doctor Who. (And she's known it for a couple years already, since first that Shakespeare episode aired.)

She knows "To be or not to be," that he wrote comedies and tragedies, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," about the Globe Theatre, that he had a son Hamnet, who died, and that he wrote about witches. That may not sound like a lot, but it's enough to surprise grown-ups at brunch, and it's more than I knew at the age of 8 (it wasn't till grade 7 that I played the role of Polonius; although, there was that story we read in grade 2, about the girl who loved her father as much as meat loves salt, which sentiment was reason enough to disown her — oh, I loved that story). (Helena can also tell you about Charles Dickens, Vincent van Gogh, the destruction of Pompeii, and Madame de Pompadour, thank you, Doctor.)

This to say: I'm all for using popular culture as a vehicle to the classics. There's nothing so sacred about Shakespeare that a divide should be drawn to keep him unsullied. Let his blood mingle with the rest of our entertainments — let him be popular culture.

So I was thrilled to receive a copy of Kill Shakespeare, graphic novel, created and written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Cor, and drawn by Andy Belanger.

Think Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next world, only less tongue in cheek and populated exclusively by Shakespearean characters. The politics are of a more vicious time, and the characters' awareness that they are literary creations has a more metaphysically somber tone.

Kill Shakespeare, as you might divine by the title, involves a plot to kill Shakespeare.

As summed up in the foreword by Darwyn Cooke, "All of Shakespeare's 'creations' live in a kingdom ruled by their deity: the Bard himself. The good and evil forces within this kingdom are in a race to possess the Bard's mythical quill — the source of all power and life."

It starts off with a touch of Rosencrantz, a bit of Guildenstern (á la Tom Stoppard), and pirates! Then Hamlet's Act IV takes a different turn.

Before you know it, Hamlet agrees to do the bidding of Richard III, on the promise that his father be returned to life.

Oh, and, as the witches tell it, there's a prophecy about the Shadow King:
The father's gated shall open swing,
A welcome to the Shadow King.
The two shall clash and blood will pour,
And things that were shall be no more.

Soon enough, we encounter Falstaff (about which all I know is from the post-apocalyptic Mad Maxified version of Henry IV, part something, I saw staged, one high school field trip), and Juliet and Othello and Lady MacBeth, among others.

There's enough action, threats, blood, and double-crossing to equal any of Shakespeare's histories.

The artwork is expressive, but dark, almost unrelentingly so, like the pace, that I wish Hamlet might've dallied more with characters from the comedies. I suppose Shrewsbury is meant to reference Katherine, and there's a lovely Adriana, but if there were any further invocation of the Bard's lighter works meant to give respite, it was lost on me. (Also, I did have trouble keeping a couple of the characters straight, but then, I'm not a particularly practiced reader of comic books — or graphic novels, or whatever the preferred sensitive yet serious-while-unpretentious term of choice is these days.)

I'm not convinced the characters are true to the natures Shakespeare devised for them. I have to agree with Cooke in his encapsulation of Hamlet as "emo douche," and I'm not sure he'd really want his father back. And while Shakespeare's Juliet does show a great deal of strength and courage, I'm sceptical that she has it in her to rally the people behind her to rise up. (When I heard the people calling for Lady Capulet, I was sure they meant her mother.)

Also, I'm not entirely sure what the rules are: If you die in Act II or earlier, well, you're really dead, in this world too it seems. But if you don't die till the final scenes these new creators are OK with pretending those pages were never written. I mean: at what point are Shakespeare's characters plucked to populate this world? And what about Ophelia? But I guess Hamlet, at sea with R&G, beset by pirates, doesn't know about her yet.

So it may sound like I have a lot of little gripes with this work, but it's been a gripey kind of week, and I wouldn't take me too seriously on these points. The fact is: I ate it up, and I'm on the lookout for subsequent volumes.

It's original, and gives new life, and liveliness, to a set of dusty old names that not many people other than dead academics pay much attention to.

I can't wait till my daughter discovers this book on my shelf.

Official Kill Shakespeare website.

The creators of Kill Shakespeare are at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC on February 15. (Really, Ivonna, you should go.)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Objects were quieter than people

"But why did you push the boy off the tower?"

He did something bad, Chuck began, the crossed it out. He tore something of mine apart and hurt its feelings.
"But only people have feelings," Dr. Finkelstein said, "not objects."

This was the most ridiculous thing Chuck had ever heard. Objects were quieter than people, maybe, but no less sensitive. The one big difference was that objects could not move. They weren't able to fake their feelings or hide them. It was people who could lie, people who could pretend. People could laugh like friends and then beat you up. People could say they were your dad and hit you. Sometimes the faces of people seemed unreal to Chuck, inhuman. They were like masks they wore over their real faces. Masks to show how old or how young they were. Masks to show how healthy or how sick they were. People could cry out of sadness or happiness or anger. But then they could smile for the exact same reasons. The strangeness of people went on an on and on. Objects, on the other hand, were mostly simple and good. Chuck was always kind to them — it was a rule. They needed his help to make it in the world. They had no one else to to look out for them. That was why he was so upset about the book. He had tried fixing it and had let it down. It gave off more light now than it had before. Why, then, had he taken it at all, he wondered? He was no more than thief and kidnapper. The book would be better off with anyone but him. He might as well give it away to a stranger.

— from The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier.

I'm at about two-thirds, and even though the stories are progressively looser, weaker, and despite the alimony thing, and also the health care system as described in the novel (maybe this is one of those US–Canada differences, but I know someone who lost a section of finger — granted, not a thumb, as in the book — and after rushing to the emergency room and some swift medical attention he was sent back home, so when she spends days, nights, in hospital, I wonder what kind of insurance plan she might have as a photo editor or archivist or whatever, it's never made entirely clear but it seems a decent-enough living, unless it's something the alimony checks after 4 years of childless marriage afford her, and physio — really? — why am I letting myself get worked up over these details? honestly, so often, stuff like this passes me by...), it's proving to be a sweet (but not saccharine), thoughtful read.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Its syntax pure

The busker in the metro tunnels this morning was strumming out Satie's Gymnopédies, and it made the walk from the station to work feel like some misty confusion.

I finished Ian McEwan's Amsterdam last night. Very enjoyable. And funny. Especially the bits in the editorial offices.

"On this paper 'hopefully' is not a sentence adverb, nor will it ever be, specially in a leader for Godsakes. And none..." He trailed away for dramatic effect, while pretending to scan the piece. "'None' usually takes a singular verb. Can we get these two things generally understood?"

Vernon was aware of the approval round the table. This was the kind of thing the grammarians liked to hear. Together they would see the paper into the grave with its syntax pure.

I've never worked on a newspaper, but I know these battles well, and I'm no stranger to the struggle to balance editorial integrity with profit, which theme is central to one of the plots.

Both the main characters are fairly despicable, for different reasons, and they deserve what they get. So it seems McEwan is hit or miss with me, and Amsterdam's a hit.

(Though, if we're talking editorial, The Imperfectionists was a far more engrossing read.)

I received a copy of The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier, last week, and the review in Salon had me eager to read it next. Even though already it makes me sad. (Not in a maudlin way, in a good way. ["'What's good about sad?' It's happy, for deep people.'"] But it seems Brockmeier's world is a little less illuminated in this respect: Divorced young women without children but with decent jobs collect alimony. Really? Still? The dust jacket buckles a little because it got snowed on. Sometimes I care about these things, sometimes I don't.

I've spent much of my day thinking I may never write anything like a novel, because, after an evening, yesterday, of his pouting and my not being able to say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing, I know such a novel would be full of the wrong things, to be taken personally.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Dervishes and elephants

A prophecy. Hoopoes, harem gardens, and spies, oh my! The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas. I llllooovved this book! I ate it up in a day, and that's even after I slowed down at about the halfway mark trying to make it last.

This was an electronic review copy (and one of the cleanest — read: typo-free — proofs I've seen in a long time), but I'm set on acquiring a hard copy to place on the shelf so that my daughter might someday stumble upon it.

It's simply magical! The kind of book that wraps you up and keeps you warm and sends your soul aflutter. Maybe I'm predisposed to liking it. It's set in Stamboul, after all, to my mind one of the most romantic settings on Earth (I must go there one day!), and I seem to be surrounded by talk of Turkey these days. Also, it's about a very charming and clever 8-year-old girl, and as I have one of my own, I happen to think they make for fascinating subjects. It reads like a fairy tale.

The author in his essay "Oskar and Eleonora" explains how this novel is a meditation on the nature of history:

I was most taken, however, by those writers whose work falls into the subgenre I like to call historical fabulism — José Saramago, Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, and Italo Calvino — storytellers of the old school who add a pinch of magic to the stew of history. I was particularly moved by Saramago's novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which a bored proofreader literally rewrites the history of Lisbon, and by Grass's The Tin Drum, in which a clairvoyant young German boy named Oskar Matzerath disrupts the traditional narrative of World War II by beating on a tin drum. How wonderful, I thought, this idea that a single act, a single person, might change the course of history.

Eleonora is born in inauspicious circumstances. Her mother dies in childbirth while her village is ravaged by the 3rd Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry. Her childhood is mostly a decent one, even though her stepmother doesn't believe in educating her too much (Ruxandra's no ogress, but she has her ideas about how things ought to work). Elenora's good-natured about it though, and sticks to her monthly reading allotment of only one novel (gasp!). At the age of 8, she makes her way to Istanbul (I won't tell you how), where she has a taste of a more privileged lifestyle. But tragedy — and adventure — befalls her again.

It's not exactly a coming-of-age story, although Eleonora does have some growing up to do. The book's a little bit Dickens, a little bit Roald Dahl, every bit enchanting. And the ending is, in my view, perfect.

Late in the novel we meet Fredrick, a journalist, who latches on to Eleonora's story: "This is exactly what the readers want. They want dervishes and elephants. Just look at Kinglake. Look at the Arabian Nights. People want Oriental color."

I suppose that's not true for all people. But it works for me.

I'm curious to see to whom this book is going to be marketed, and what audience for it will finally emerge. It has about it everything of a children's classic: orphaned child confronted with adversity, a special gift, and a prophecy to fulfill. (And the magical tone reminds me specifically of one of my favourites: Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.)

I found the prose to be fresh and lively:
  • "Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church."
  • "drinks in every hand and in every drink a piece of ice reflecting the sun."
  • "a small flight of cormorants swept over the water like marionettes"
  • "As the morning insinuated itself into her room, Eleonora lay curled around herself like a dried tea leaf..."
  • "...he had the aspect of a well-fed rodent and eyes the color of unripe grapes."

A number of reviews are critical of the book's slow pace, that nothing happens, but I don't understand them. I was completely entranced.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

Succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs

I don't know how long I slept, because when I awoke in my solitary cell, of the many things I did not see, most conspicuously absent was a digital-clock radio. Go tell the time, in a sunless room, from shadows on the wall. For all I knew, I was Rudolf Hess rising and shining in Spandau, because if he's as crazy and subject to persecution manias as his attorneys purport, what worse thing could he wish on himself than to wake up as me? I lay in my narrow, lumpy bed, calmly aware that the thin, tufted mattress had crippled me for life. A dancer could have an airtight damage suit, but a non-professional such as myself, who simply preferred a healthy spinal column for personal reasons, had no case. I couldn't find the energy to turn my head. Had anyone, I wondered, ever been this tired? There was a recent collection of pictures in my head, vivid and meaningless. Claude throwing my bags into the rear of Charles's car. A hotel lobby ugly with paintings, hanging metal objects, and fluorescent light fixtures. A skinny, balding night clerk ignoring me and handing Claude a key. Claude unlocking a door and dumping my worldly goods on a green, blue, and yellow linoleum floor worn brown in spots.

All through the room, cracks and burns exposed an underlayer of barren brown that was spreading as though blight had struck the skimpy surfaces. A yellowish lampshade next to the bed had succumbed to a half century of forty-watt bulbs and displayed its diseased patches of brown. There was no question in my mind that whatever had afflicted the room was contagious and would get to me next.

— from After Claude, by Iris Owens.

I first heard of this book a few months ago during NYRB Reading Week. (You can read reviews at Bibiliographing, Shelf Love, and The Dewey Divas.)

It starts off with wit and self-assurance ("I left Claude, the French rat.). The Bell Jar, The Dud Avocado, Fear of Flying — it has a voice in this class of books. Feminist spirit. Self-examination.

But it didn't take long — just a few pages — to find that I didn't like Harriet the narrator) all that much. She's deluded and downright mean-spirited.

This makes for a fascinating train wreck of a read, but I have to admit I had trouble getting past my distaste for her character. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was supposed to be enjoying this, in a jaw-dropping OMG-how-can-she-do/say/think-that kind of way, and stop getting worked up over Harriet's poor decisions. (This book is pretty much dismissed by the Guardian, where, curiously enough, it's reviewed by a man, and I can't help but feel that's a factor in their low opinion.)

Midway, the novel takes a turn for the weird and becomes a very different novel from the one it started out to be.

While the first section is spent mostly in Claude's apartment, warlike and reliving the past inside her head, the second section takes place in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, where it's all peace and love, and Harriet actually looks outside herself and finds her saviour, man. These two sections almost don't belong together.

I'm ambivalent about After Claude for lots of reasons. If you've read and enjoyed the novels of Plath, Dundy, Jong, then Owens may entertain you and will bring a 1973 complement to the lives of women depicted therein. If you've not read those other books, go read them first.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Montreal, London, Amsterdam

He watched his own vaporised breath float off into the grey air. The temperature in central London was said to be minus eleven today. Minus eleven. There was something seriously wrong with the world for which neither God nor his absence could be blamed.

— from Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan.

It was a little bit colder than all that in Montreal this morning, but as of this writing we're at exactly that — minus eleven — the projected high for the day.

I wasn't sure what book to be reading next. Wasn't sure I'd made the right choice when I left the house this morning. But the signs point to "yes." The coincidence of the settings is serendipitous.

With the first sentence the story starts, "with their backs to the February chill."

I like when the boundary between my reality and the fictitious one in my hand is blurred.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


While I wait for Embassytown to make its appearance, China Miéville is publishing a web comic on his blog: London Intrusion.

Minimalist in terms of narrative, rather realistic as far as the images go, it's actually even scary. Hauntingly beautiful.

(Discovered via Biblioklept.)