Friday, April 29, 2011

Old heads upon young shoulders

An ancient proverb warns us that we should not expect to find old heads upon young shoulders; to which it may be added that we seldom meet with that unnatural combination, but we feel a strong desire to knock them off; merely from an inherent love we have of seeing things in their right places. It is not improbable that many men, in no wise choleric by nature, felt this impulse rising up within them, when they first made the acquaintance of Mr Jonas; but if they had known him more intimately in his own house, and had sat with him at his own board, it would assuredly have been paramount to all other considerations.

— from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

Mr Jonas, you may gather, is not very likable.

I love how Chuck delivers an insult.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Very swaggering and very slinking

It happened on the fourth evening, that Mr. Pecksniff walking, as usual, into the bar of the Dragon and finding no Mrs. Lupin there, went straight up-stairs; purposing, in the fervour of his affectionate zeal, to apply his ear once more to the keyhole, and quiet his mind by assuring himself that the hard-hearted patient was going on well. It happened that Mr. Pecksniff, coming softly upon the dark passage into which a spiral ray of light usually darted through the same keyhole, was astonished to find no such ray visible; and it happened that Mr. Pecksniff, when he had felt his way to the chamber-door, stooping hurriedly down to ascertain by personal inspection whether the jealousy of the old man had caused this keyhole to be stopped on the inside, brought his head into such violent contact with another head that he could not help uttering in an audible voice the monosyllable "oh!" which was, as it were, sharply unscrewed and jerked out of him by very anguish. It happened then, and lastly, that Mr. Pecksniff found himself immediately collared by something which smelt like several damp umbrellas, a barrel of beer, a cask of warm brandy-and-water, and a small parlour-full of stale tobacco smoke, mixed; and was straightway led down-stairs into the bar from which he had lately come, where he found himself standing opposite to, and in the grasp of, a perfectly strange gentleman of still stranger appearance who, with his disengaged hand, rubbed his own head very hard, and looked at him, Pecksniff, with an evil countenance.

The gentleman was of that order of appearance which is currently termed shabby-genteel, though in respect of his dress he can hardly be said to have been in any extremities, as his fingers were a long way out of his gloves, and the soles of his feet were at an inconvenient distance from the upper leather of his boots. His nether garments were of a bluish grey — violent in its colours once, but sobered now by age and dinginess — and were so stretched and strained in a tough conflict between his braces and his straps, that they appeared every moment in danger of flying asunder at the knees. His coat, in colour blue and of a military cut, was buttoned and frogged up to his chin. His cravat was, in hue and pattern, like one of those mantles which hairdressers are accustomed to wrap about their clients, during the progress of the professional mysteries. His hat had arrived at such a pass that it would have been hard to determine whether it was originally white or black. But he wore a moustache — a shaggy moustache too: nothing in the meek and merciful way, but quite in the fierce and scornful style: the regular Satanic sort of thing — and he wore, besides, a vast quantity of unbrushed hair. He was very dirty and very jaunty; very bold and very mean; very swaggering and very slinking; very much like a man who might have been something better, and unspeakably like a man who deserved to be something worse.

— from Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens.

Once upon a time I vowed to read a Dickens a year. Seeing as they're so long, I think one every two years or so should suffice.

Several commenters on this blog have in the past mentioned Martin Chuzzlewit, for its humor, for its women characters, and for some of the more memorably Dickensian characters going. Not being the least bit familiar with it, and it bearing the distinction of not having been recommended by Oprah, I decided to take it up.

Not much has happened yet. I'm a little daunted that my e-reader calculates this novel at 3167 page turns — I've barely made a dent.

But it is funny, although mostly in attitude, in an almost self-parodying tone. This effect is somewhat exaggerated by the fact that I can't help but hear the text in my head as narrated by Simon Callow, and am reminded of the Doctor's judgment that the American bit (which I've got a way to go before I get to it) is rubbish.

One may read a defense of the American bit — indeed, the novel as a whole — by GK Chesterton, from which I learned that this is a novel about a selfishness, and, despite its humour, this novel is sad.

I have just recently encountered Mark, the barman, who is a jolly fellow, who is looking to find a new situation in the city, a gloomy and difficult one, one in which his jollity might be seen as a credit, for there is no trial of character in being jolly as a barman, surely it be a virtue only when overcoming some adversity, working as a grave-digger or taxman perhaps.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Literary Mad Men

It's taken a while, but finally I've watched all Mad Men episodes to date. From the start of the series, it's been impossible not to notice what these wonderfully culturally literate (it is advertising, after all) characters were reading.

I've tried to keep a list of those books that were directly discussed or in the hands of readers. In chronological occurrence of their mention:

  • Lawrence, DH: Lady Chatterley's Lover (S01e03)
  • Jaffe, Rona: The Best of Everything (S01e06)
  • Uris, Leon: Exodus (S01e06)
  • Rand, Ayn: Atlas Shrugged (S01e08, but with several mentions)
  • O'Hara, Frank: Meditations in an Emergency (S02e01)
  • Fitzgerald, F Scott: Babylon Revisited and Other Stories (S02e04)
  • Forester, CS: Horatio Hornblower (S02e08)
  • Porter, Katherine Anne: Ship of Fools (S02e09)
  • Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (S02e11)
  • Gibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (S03e03)
  • Ogilvy, David: Confessions of an Advertising Man (S03e06)
  • Twain, Mark: Tom Sawyer (S03e06)
  • Hilton, Conrad: Be My Guest, Autobiography of Conrad Hilton (S03e07)
  • McCarthy, Mary: The Group (S03e10)
  • Benedict, Ruth: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (S04e05)
  • Keene, Carolyn: The Clue of the Black Keys (S04e09)
  • Berne, Eric: Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships (S04e10)
  • Le Carré, John: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (S04e13)

Of course, there have been countless literary allusions throughout the series. TS Eliot's The Hollow Men was recited. A reference to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Sloan Wilson) is as much a cultural touchstone as it has to do with any novel. Moby Dick. I can't help but think of The Bell Jar when you mention the summer the Rosenbergs were executed, but very likely that's the sort of reference that wasn't necessarily intended.

I've read only a few of those listed, some of them many years ago, but on watching some episodes, I have been inspired to directly seek out some titles, particularly since they are not merely props but have direct bearing on the plot or characters at issue. I know I'm not the only one to be reading up. Frank O'Hara's rediscovery has been widely noted.

Similarly, according to NPR, "Interest in Rand and her philosophy is on the upswing. Since the 2008 presidential election, according to Brook, the novel Atlas Shrugged has sold more than 1 million copies, far more than in any similar period in the book's 54-year history." While this is linked to the rising popularity of the Tea Party, no doubt sales for this particular novel were boosted by its exposure on Mad Men.

But I think my favourite book sighting, late in season 4, is the Nancy Drew mystery in Sally Draper's hands. We've seen the books in the house she grew up in; it should come as no surprise that Sally too should find escape in a good book. Reminds me a little of my own young self, visiting my dad's office and being told to sit quietly — I'd read. Though I can't recall it specifically, I'm sure I read The Clue of the Black Keys — I read them all. I'll be sure to dig this one out of the box in my mom's basement as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Have you been reading along with the Mad Men?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A quick note

Not my usual fare, but I accepted a copy of Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell, because I am fascinated by email relationships.

I don't feel particularly good about admitting that I've read a book written by someone named Rainbow. But everything about this book will be sold to people who wouldn't mind that fact. Ironically, it's exactly this sort of thing that it'd be likely the two female leads would kvetch over.

So the plot: the new IT security guy is charged with monitoring company email (it's a newspaper office), and surprise, he gets caught up in their story.

Being that I work in an office where it's widely known that the email is monitored, and it's surmised that the CEO spends his day doing little else but reading it, I was interested to see how this might play out in fiction.

While people who work together do share news and laughs via email, they still talk. My experience is that when there's real news to dish, we go for coffee. So while Rowell's email exchanges are necessary (this is the whole premise, after all), liberty is taken with them to the point where they no longer ring true — they're too long, too conveniently structured, and not all of them meet the criteria for being flagged by Web security.

I love the copy-desk setting. When Lincoln starts befriending his coworkers, he realizes that the copy-desk crowd is much like his D&D gang, only without the D&D. Weirdly, it's only Lincoln who knows all the words to Auld Lang Syne, which is exactly the sort of thing a bunch of copyeditors would know.

There's nothing very original about this novel — it's fairly predictable, with very ordinary characters — but it does have a modern moral bent in terms of email privacy. It was a nice way to spend a Saturday morning blanketed in bed, and I admit, I raced toward the end to see how things panned out for everybody. I'm not much for romantic comedies when it comes to movies either, but every now and then it makes for a nice change of pace.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


With no trace of irony, she clinks her glass against his. He would rather not know what they are drinking to. To his leaving? To the peacefulness of their breakup? To Scotland's mild summer? Silently, he drinks to l'Amour, and everything he knows about it. Its 2,700 miles, from its source in the Argun region to its mouth on the Tatar Strait, opposite Sakhalin. He keeps his bad joke about the River Amour to himself. A pity he doesn't realize that the river's English name, Armur, is closer to the word "armor" than to "love," and — worse — that armur means "muddy" in Buriat.

Our hero takes a sip from this dark, bitter beer that he does not like, which is precisely why he chose it. He had to give the whole debacle a degree of harmony.

— from The Intervention of a Good Man, by Hervé Le Tellier.

Slight, but a mostly pleasant read. It continues to astound me that 20- and 30-year-old women would want to associate with or attach themselves to 50-year-old men, but that's not a problem of the novella, that's life. The story gives a nice play-by-play of the thought processes of one party to a such relationship as it disintegrates.

I hate the title. En français, c'est Je m'attache très facilement — much better. I suppose it's an intervention of sorts, but I think "intervention" is semantically loaded with things not present here. And I don't think he's a particularly good man. We have only his word for it, and his carrying on an affair with an as-good-as-married younger woman in a very insecure and needy way doesn't exactly speak to his goodness. The Slight Disturbance of Some Pathetic Chump, more like.

And there's that thing with the Polish girl who works at the hotel. Do you really have to bring up Nazi concentration camps just because she's Polish? That was weird and out of place.

Although Le Tellier is an Oulipo member, I didn't recognize any of the qualities related to that group in this novella. However, I did very much enjoy his Enough about Love, and I see the Oulipo in it in retrospect, and I look forward to reading more by him.

Read Le Tellier on what exactly is French love...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Suspended in a mystic delirium

Here are some of the questions I have. How content should I aim to be? How discontent? What is the proper balance and how is it to be managed?

How aggressive should I be in seeking out new experiences? In challenging myself? How much should I hope to accomplish?

How fragile should I strive to be? How efficient, how dreamy, how routine? What depth of engagement with others should I hope to achieve? Why have friendships become so difficult?

What is life's richest possible template, and how bad should I feel if it doesn't suit me? Assuming that everyone has their own richest possible template, how do I go about finding my own?

If you could only get to the center of all questions, then the questions themselves would vanish and you'd be left hanging there, suspended in a mystic delirium.

The Saint: The True Story of How One Man's Search for Virtue Led to the Brink of Madness, by Oliver Broudy, raises these questions and many, many more. And it's as much the author's meditation on these issues, his dissatisfaction with the statusphere of New York City, as it is the story of a crazy man, a rich man with good intentions, who collects Gandhi memorabilia. With a bit about Gandhi thrown in for good measure.

I connected with this memoir right from the epigraph, which comes from one of my very favourite books (The Razor's Edge, W Somerset Maugham), a passage beginning thusly: "You're not altogether stupid. As a matter of fact, you sound like a very religious man who doesn't believe in God."

Lots of questions. Really good questions.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Polish noir

Marek Krajewski was a wonderful discovery and Death in Breslau is full of, in my opinion, fantastic story elements. I won't repeat myself on those points, but I can add now to that list: a lost manuscript, a Kurdish sect, a centuries-old prophecy, and a retelling of an Oedipal tragedy. One would expect no less from an author who's a Classics scholar.

Oh, and! Our detective! Eberhard Mock likes to combine his enthusiasms for chess and brothels. He gets away with as much shit as he does only because he has dirt on everyone.

Also, I would clarify that this novel definitely falls on the side of entertainment(!) — not that there's anything wrong with that — and doesn't have the philosophical depth of Simenon's romans durs. Nor does it have the kind of reflection and wit I so like in Fred Vargas's novels — not that there should be any similarity between these authors beyond that of broad crime genre label. I bring these names up only because I know and like their work, so they're a kind of benchmark against which I can position new discoveries.

Krajewski is straight up: sex and violence and Nazis, and never knowing for sure who's on whose side.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Krajewski's Breslau novels.

The Independent
Where the Long Tail Ends