Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A new era in the aesthetics of the human body

Now before we forget abut it completely or before our continuation of the story renders the fact redundant because it comes too late, we will tell you about the stealthy, almost clandestine visit the lord made to the garden of eden one hot summer night. As usual, adam and eve were sleeping, naked, beside each other, not touching, a deceptively edifying image of the most perfect innocence. They did not wake up, and the lord did not wake them either. He had gone there with the intention of correcting a slight flaw, which, as he had finally realised, seriously marred his creations, and that flaw, can you believe it, was the lack of a navel. The pale skin of his babies, untouched by the gentle sun of paradise, was too naked, too vulnerable, and in a way obscene, if that word existed then. Quickly, in case they should wake up, god reached out and very lightly pressed adams's belly with the tip of his forefinger, making a rapid circling movement, and there was a navel. The same procedure, carried out on eve, produced similar results, with the one important difference that her navel was much better as regards design, shape and the delicacy of its folds. This was the last time that the lord looked upon his work and saw that it was good.

Fifty years and one day after this fortunate surgical interventiuon, which gave rise to a new era in the aesthetics of the human body under the consensual motto that everything about it can always be improved, disaster struck.

— from Cain, by José Saramago.

Friday, June 24, 2011


The wit in Chuzzlewit

It was one of those unaccountable little rooms which are never seen anywhere but in a tavern, and are supposed to have got into taverns by reason of the facilities afforded to the architect for getting drunk while engaged in their construction. It had more corners in it than the brain of an obstinate man...

Hurrah! I finished Martin Chuzzlewit. It's very long, and for some stretches very boring, but also very funny. The breed of humour is much more physical than I recall from other Dickens books — it's slapstick.

It was so amusing, that Tom, with Ruth upon his arm, stood looking down from the wharf, as nearly regardless as it was in the nature of flesh and blood to be, of an elderly lady behind him, who had brought a large umbrella with her, and didn't know what to do with it. This tremendous instrument had a hooked handle; and its vicinity was first made known to him by a painful pressure on the windpipe, consequent upon its having caught him round the throat. Soon after disengaging himself with perfect good humour, he had a sensation of the ferule in his back; immediately afterwards, of the hook entangling his ankles; then of the umbrella generally, wandering about his hat, and flapping at it like a great bird; and, lastly, of a poke or thrust below the ribs, which give him such exceeding anguish, that he could not refrain from turning round to offer a mild remonstrance.

The pacing really picks up in the last few hundred pages. And there's a murder! Nobody told me there was a murder in Chuzzlewit.

I'm not particularly happy with how everything turns out. A couple plot points are left unresolved. And Tom Pinch surely deserves better, and he is certainly the star of this novel.

And while I rooted for Tom, and loved to hate the despicable Jonas, none of the characters really sings, with ugly truth or deep humanity.

I might agree with Chesterton:

Dickens may or may not have loved Pecksniff comically, but he did not love him seriously; he did not respect him [...] But the fact remains. In this book Dickens has not allowed us to love the most absurd people seriously, and absurd people ought to be loved seriously. Pecksniff has to be amusing all the time; the instant he ceases to be laughable he becomes detestable.

I care not at all for Peckniff ("He was a most exemplary man; fuller of virtuous precept than a copy book."), but love this description:

His shoes looked too large; his sleeve looked too long; his hair looked too limp; his features looked too mean; his exposed throat looked as if a halter would have done it good. For a minute or two, in fact, he was hot, and pale, and mean, and shy, and slinking, and consequently not at all Pecksniffian.

Then there's the bit about America, which I neither love nor hate as most readers seem to. I am surprised that Dickens would put his characters through such hell, but I like that America turns out to be not so much the land of opportunity as the land of opportunists.

I don't recommend Chuzzlewit as an entryway to Dickens, but I found plenty in it to make it worthwhile.

I've been reading this on my ereader over several weeks. Chuzzlewit is a free download from Project Gutenberg. I'm somewhat surprised that I didn't abandon this novel when I was overcome by distractions, but I'm pleased to realize that the fact that it's free and digital in no way diminished the commitment I generally feel toward a book once started.

I was reading Chuzzlewit on the metro, and smiling at some passage or other, when a woman leaned over to ask, "What are you reading? You're enjoying it so much. Is it a romance?" I told her, no, Dickens, and she just loves Dickens, which one?, so I told her, but she hadn't read it, and we chatted for a moment about Dickens in general, doesn't matter whether he's being funny or poignant or creepy, the man has a way with words.

And this exchange made me smile all the more, because I realized: with the advent of ereaders, as much as I miss seeing people's book covers and knowing what they're reading, it's not a human connection — it's just plain voyeurism. Paper or digital, if you're really interested in what someone's reading, you should talk to them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lumpy and runneled and cracked

They say a picture's worth a thousand words. I supposed it depends on the words, depends on the picture.

The stink of the Lannister host reached Arya well before she could make out the devices on the banners that sprouted along the lakeshore, atop the pavilions of the westermen. From the smell, Arya could tell that Lord Tywin had been here some time. The latrines that ringed the encampment were overflowing and swarming with flies, and she saw faint greenish fuzz on many of the sharpened stakes that protected the perimeters.

Harrenhal's gatehouse, itself as large as Winterfell's Great Keep, was as scarred as it was massive, its stones fissured and discolored. From outside, only the tops of five immense towers could be seen beyond the walls. The shortest of them was half again as tall as the highest tower in Winterfell, but they did not soar the way a proper tower did. Arya thought they looked like some old man's gnarled, knuckly fingers groping after a passing cloud. She remembered Nan telling how the stone had melted and flowed like candlewax down the steps and in the windows, glowing a sullen searing red as it sought out Harren where he hid. Arya could believe every word, each tower was more grotesque and misshapen than the last, lumpy and runneled and cracked.

"I don't want to go there," Hot Pie squeaked as Harrenhal opened its gates to them. "There's ghosts in there."

Chiswyck heard him, but for once he only smiled. "Baker boy, here's your choice. Come join the ghosts, or be one."

— from A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin.

I can't keep away from these books it seems, even though I tell myself I have other things to do, other books to read first, save these for later. But this series — A Song of Fire and Ice — is addictive.

Frankly, I'm hard-pressed to explain why. And I'm incapable of summarizing the story. Not much happens at all at a page-by-page level, yet so much happens. It's somehow magical, that there should be life on the page.

I'm halfway through book two (even while trying to finish Martin Chuzzlewit and keep up with a couple other reading "commitments") and there's but one mention so far of the walking dead that closed out book one.

Anyway, I'm solidly committed now to seeing how far this series will take me. I have given up on the televization for good. It strikes me as remarkably faithful, and on-screen that can be quite boring (the same fault the Harry Potter books suffered, in my view.) Filmically, so many things might be better cut, or altered, or resequenced. But in this case, with legions of fans, it seems more important to be faithful.

Then there are descriptions such as the above, sure to be shortcutted in a few-second glimpse of an extraordinary set — that's what pictures can do, what film is for — but lost is the... I dunno, the immersion, the feeling of scurrying away to read a wholly different world, a whole other world. Not sure how I can justify the assertion that worlds like this are meant to be read (and imagined), not seen. But there you have it.

"Lumpy and runneled and cracked" — those words so much richer than a picture.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

And then there was one

One of the perks of my no-longer-new job is that when the kid comes with me (hey, I guess that's a perk right there), there are some fixtures in this office space that serve as marvelous distractions.

There's the freshwater aquarium. There's the saltwater aquarium. (Although, I don't know which is which. They both have, in addition to fish, similar (but different!) anemone-like creatures and cucumber-like creatures, star-like creatures and shrimp-type creatures.) And there's the aquarium with the leopard eel.

There's the goldfish and turtle pond with the cascading water at the entranceway.

And there's the CEO, who loves to watch the fish, tend to the fish, talk about the fish. He also gets on well with kids. Thanks to him, Helena already knows more about these fish than I ever will. Also, he's good at task-setting — like, "You need to catch 10 goldfish with this small net by x o'clock. I'll get you a bucket to put them in" — thanks to the accomplishment of which challenge Helena was able to witness the feeding of said goldfish to the leopard eel and a few other choice carnivorous creatures.

The first time she came with me to this office (during her Christmas break), there were 8 mini turtles and 1 much larger one, commonly referred to (by the kids who frequent the office) as the mommy turtle, although apparently none of them were actually related.

While I worked(!), Helena set about documenting their characteristics.

It was just a few short weeks later that I heard about the first demise. "Oh, no, which one was it?," I ask a coworker. "I don't know. Do they have names? The one with spots all over." Gasp. Spotty!

The last mini turtle vanished last week. That leaves just mommy turtle, and she doesn't look too happy these days.

I found the cataloguing project Helena had started on (in scintillatingly legible gold-coloured pencil), and I transcribe its text below, to commemorate, in this small way, the contribution these turtles have made to my work life.

Document sur les tortus du travaille

tortu préféré brownie
1. Brownie aime être calme et atantife.

Darwin would be proud.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The smell of secession

The Oregon Experiment, by Keith Scribner, has a couple really interesting things going for it. Namely:

1. A nose. One of the main characters works as a nose.
2. A secessionist movement.

But it turns out that this is a novel with a breast fixation. This book is all about the breasts. Large, or too small, fleshy, pillowy, ample, lactating, infected, hard, soft, sharp, droopy, pointy. We know all about the characters' breasts, and the characters' mothers' breasts, and the characters' lovers' breasts.

On the other gendered hand, we know very little about what the men look like. Apart from one male "milky torso," there is little indication whether the men are fleshy, flabby, sinewy, sculpted.

A little imbalance doesn't usually faze me. But this book is top-heavy to the point of tipping over. It's too much.

And breastfeeding. The pressure to breastfeed. The romance of breastfeeding. The bond that results from breastfeeding. And such issues. Is it OK to be breastfeeding 4-year-old girls? (Boys?) How about grown men?

Not that I'm a prude or anything. But there's a lot in this novel that made me uncomfortable. Maybe that's the point. But I don't have a good (constructive?) feeling about it.

The characters are all pretty messed up, and none of them particularly likable. They're all pretty selfish actually.

There's Scanlon, a poli sci prof specializing in mass movements and radicalism. His wife Naomi is a former professional "nose" (perfuming and such), but she posttraumatically lost her sense of smell some years ago. Baby on the way, they're moving from New York to Oregon for Scanlon's work.

Naomi's sense of smell comes back, and along with it a hormonal flood — resentments and memories and worries about (in)dependence and career fulfillment and striking a family balance and reclaiming one's body, one's self — issues not uncommon to new mothers.

They befriend a local anarchist. Angry young man. And this relationship I don't see as credible. I just don't see what Clay gets out of it, why he would stick around. Whatever. It's kind of essential to the plot that there be an anarchist, and that he be entwined within this family. So there he is.

And the leader of the secessionist movement, Sequoia, is a near-ideal, free-loving, all-giving vegan earth mother goddess. But I can't really like a character who's chosen to call herself Sequoia. Plus, in complete contrast to her usual policy of openness, she lets her past drive a wedge between her and her daughter.

Scanlon needs both these locals for his work. He tries to convince himself that he's not a bourgeois slumming it for the sake of his research, he tries to walk the talk, but really, who's he kidding?

And it all ends very badly, making me think much the worse of all the characters.

Somewhere in its heart this book is about leaving a life behind, running away from your past, it catching you up even while you yearn for it, ambling toward a life you think you're supposed to be living. Maybe outrunning your past, or just forgetting it.

Somewhere toward the end, the book purports to be about love, the bonds of family, and betrayals thereof. But there's very little real love here. Maybe that's the point. But I can't shake the feeling that this book was written by a man with a superficial grasp of what love is, who just plain doesn't understand women. It makes me angry, and sad. Maybe that's the point.

I'm reminded a little of Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, for the street-level view of a movement, the day-to-day practicalities that weigh the lofty ideals back down to earth. Also, Annette Gilson's New Light, for it's Americanness, for putting the commune back in community.

It's also a very olfactory book, though it's neither Proust nor Süskind; only when the smells of fear and danger crop up, I'm afraid the nose has some rehabilitation to go before her alleged genius specificity fully returns.

So, there's some pretty heady stuff in here, but it didn't come together for me. I may or may not pick up Keith Scribner's next novel, depending on its subject matter. I'm sure he'll be fine; his wife must have quite the rack.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Physical and metaphysical at one and the same time

OK. Wow. This is an amazing little book.

Martin Chuzzlewit is finally almost leaving America. And during his very long (boring) illness in that new land I was distracted (sorry, Charlie) by, appropriately, a little Europeana.

From the first sentence I was drawn along.

When people stopped believing in God, they started to seek ways of expressing that the world is absurd, and they invented Futurism and Expressionism and Dadaism and Surrealism and Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. And the Dadaists wanted to do away with art and they made art out of things that were not used before, such as wires and matches and slogans and newspaper titles and the telephone directory, etc., and they said it was new and absolute art. The Futurists wrote verse with lots of interjections such as KARAZUK ZUK ZUK DUM DUM DUM, and they promoted expressive typography, and the Expressionists and the Dadaists wrote verse in new, unknown languages to show that all languages are equal, both comprehensible and incomprehensible ones, such as BAMBLA O FALI BAMBLA, and the Surrealists, on the other hand, promoted automatic writing and unusual metaphors, and they wrote for instance MY CORK BATH IS LIKE YOUR WORM EYE, and they explained that the meaning of this verse spurted out of it automatically and that was physical and metaphysical at one and the same time. The Existentialists said that metaphysics was decadent and everything was subjective, but that objectivity existed nevertheless and that we were going about it the wrong way, because the most important thing was intersubjectivity. And the main thing was for everything to be authentic and that history and the course of history were the result of the philosophical question whether people could communicate authentically and, if they could, then history could be more meaningful than previously, so long as transcendental authorities were restored. And linguists said that communication was only a question of the manner of deconstruction and that there were several ways to deconstruct. And old people said that communication was in a sorry state because people were not capable of looking each other in the eye anymore and they averted their gaze immediately they caught someone's eye and that nowadays people only looked blind people in the eye.

— from Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, by Patrik Ouředník.

Europeana is not a novel. So far as I can tell, it's mostly fact. But not entirely. (I would love to see this book annotated. There are some wonderfully intimate, human "facts" included, which may or may not have a basis in historically verifiable anecdotes; either way, they're beautiful.)

The language is so simple, simplistic, naive, it's as if a child had written it. Or a poet.

It pretends to be objective, but it's not. The facts by themselves are cold. The book's power is in how they're juxtaposed. It made me cry.

It does, in fact, in its brief 120 pages cover many events of the 20th century, from a European perspective, and several times. It touches on the invention of tanks and dishwashers, Esperanto and the Enigma machine. Barbie, Scientology, the Y2K bug, and psychoanalyis.

It's main focus, however, is war — both the world wars — cuz let's face it, war pretty much defined the century, framed by fascism and communism and democracy.

The text is repetitive and recursive. It runs over the same territory several times, but from different angles, with different emphasis. This neatly parallels my own theory that time, history, our cultural evolution is not quite cyclical, but spiral, that each time we go over the same old ground, our experience of it is — metaphorically speaking — a little broader, a little higher.

It's the forest and the trees at once. Europeana is an exquisite thing.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Polish monsters

I so wanted to love A Polish Book of Monsters — I'd placed an order for it within minutes of having been alerted to its existence — but I found it to be a huge disappointment. Subtitled "Five Dark Tales from Contemporary Poland," it more accurately should've been labeled simply as an SF sampler.

  • Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo, by Marek S Huberath. This is a futuristic, postapocalyptic, dystopian tale. Nothing particularly original, but I did find it to be the most emotionally wrenching of the stories included here. As one might guess by the title, much of the story is written in "dialect" — personally I find this more distracting than clever or colourful. Part 1 is online.
  • Spellmaker, by Andrzej Sapkowski. This one's a fairly straightforward fairytale, distinguishable from standard bedtime fare only by the hero's rather boastful arsenal of augments. In addition to there being a traditional monster, however, one might view the protagonist as also being somewhat monstrous. The concept here spawned a series of stories, film and television adaptations, and a videogame. Translated variously as The Witcher and The Hexer.
  • Key of Passage, by Tomasz Kołodziejczak. This story read like typical fantasy, and it bored me. Excerpt.
  • A Cage Full of Angels, by Andrezej Zimniak. To my mind, this is the most original of the stories included in this volume. Not that I'm especially well read in SF, but I've never come across an idea anything like this one. I like this one also because it has an urban and "contemporary" feel, even though it's evident that things work not quite as they do in our known world.
  • The Iron General, by Jacek Dukaj. This story has something of an epic space opera about it. As the title might suggest, it is militaristic and political. In the context of this story, the term "monster" is used to depict (moral) character. Excerpt.

Sadly, I didn't find any of these monsters to be particularly monstrous.

Having read The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy, and being familiar with Stefan Grabiński, and aware of China Miéville's admiration for Eastern European imaginative fiction, I had hoped for something better. I didn't find these monsters to be anything special. I'd like to think there are better Polish monsters out there, that it will only take a better editor to collect them.

I fear I didn't give this book, these stories, a fair shake. Particularly offputting to me was the introduction, by editor and translator Michael Kandel, probably best known as the preeminent translator of Stanisław Lem. But the background material Kandel presents was poorly written (it can't have been copyedited) and simplistic, with no clear logic drawing it forward, making me question his abilities as a translator. The blurbs extolling the "virtuoso translations" etc seem to me to be somewhat excessive — after having read the book, they strike me as overly defensive. Despite the variety of the material, there is an overwhelming sameness of tone — a blandness — throughout the stories, a tone that I also associate with Lem (which books I've read were translated by Kandel). In the case of Lem, I'd accepted the detached tone as being part of Lem's philosophical style, but I'm concerned now that it might originate in, or be exaggerated in, the translation (I'm very curious now to read some non–Kandel-translated Lem for the sake of comparison).

Kandel seems to conclude that Polish monsters are generally internal ones, but the stories here do not completely bear this out; nor is that a uniquely Polish stance. I can't say what point he's trying to make, or what he means to demonstrate by setting these stories on the English-speaking world (other than that Poland produces a great deal of competent and diverse creative output).

So. I'm glad I read this sampling for a taste of what's out there in Poland. But here's hoping there are bigger, better, weirder, scarier monsters lurking in the corners of Poland's darker minds.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

"Lift me like an olive branch"

Leonard Cohen was this week conferred the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, reminding me that I left Beautiful Losers half read on my nightstand last summer (and that I should finish it), but putting his songs in my head.

"The passing of time, sentimental relationships, the mystical traditions of the East and the West and life sung as an unending ballad make up a body of work associated with certain moments of decisive change at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century."

Listen to my favourite cover version of one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs: Dance Me to the End of Love.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The many books I thought I'd've read by now but haven't

So many I thought I'd be over and done with. So many I had planned. But there just isn't enough time.

Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens. I was distracted, first by something shiny, something new, then by something relatively short, which I needed in order to feel I'd actually accomplished something. It's so bloody long. Even though some scenes do drag on, it is really quite funny. I picked it up again today, determined to stay focused, to finish it. I'm still a bit disoriented trying to remember who's who and what last happened, but confident it'll come together.

The Doll, Bolesław Prus. Purchased directly upon its release in February. This was going to be my end-of-winter read. Something richly Slavic, to remind me where I come from. But I was daunted by its size (~700 pages).

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace. This was going to be my big spring read. In fact, my other half (himself an enforcer of the Income Tax Act) and I were going to read it together (and we almost never do anything together — sigh). I haven't even purchased this yet.

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Simenon. In January it was apparent I was suffering from a surfeit of Simenon, but I bought another to keep on standby. And for a couple weeks already I've been feeling ready. There's just no time. (And there's Mr Chuzzlewitt to lay to rest first.)

The End of the World in Breslau, Marek Krajewski. Because I liked the first book of his so much, I invested in more.

Europeana, Patrik Ouředník. On my wish list for several years already, I finally ordered it along with something or other.

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa. I actually had to tear myself away from this one, because it didn't feel right — not fair to me or the book — to be embarking on a fourth or fifth concurrent read.

The Fragile Mistress, Leora Skolkin Smith. This is a review copy. Because the backdrop — 1960s Israel/Palestine — fascinates me. Plus another of hers.

X'ed Out, Charles Burns. I picked this graphic novel up for J-F at Christmas, because then I'd get to read it too. He was finished with it in 2010. I started to look at it, but didn't feel like I had the solid, uninterrupted couple hours it deserved, so I put it down.

The Elephant's Journey, José Saramago. I treated myself to this book for my birthday more than half a year ago. What am I waiting for? Almost an imperative now that I have a review copy of Cain on my e-shelf, also for which I am awaiting a perfect, quiet time.

I should've had time for all this.

This is not a catalog of the unread books lying around the house (there are so many more). These are but the ones I seriously, reasonably expected to have made my way through before summer took hold (which it hasn't quite yet).

I have not yet finished The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. I've forgotten which Bolaño it is I have sitting on the shelf. I want the new Fred Vargas novel. I vow still to someday finish The Adventures of Amir Hamza. A coworker brought me the 2nd and 3rd books following A Game of Thrones. I'd thought this might be the summer of Pynchon (in particular, Against the Day); now I'm thinking rather not.

This week I shall see Chuzzlewitt through. I will write about A Polish Book of Monsters. I will write about The Oregon Experiment. I will make sense of Humankind.

And then I will read some more.