Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fairytale, Doctor-style

Recently I read the first instalment of Doctor Who: A Fairy Tale Life, courtesy of the review copy system at NetGalley.

This selection was driven by my curiosity on two fronts:
1. I'm a fan of the Doctor Who TV series, and I wonder about the other aspects of fandom so many others engage in.
2. I wanted to try out the possibility of reading a comic book on my ereader.

It turns out that navigating a comic book on my Sony Reader is entirely possible. Once I opened the file (Adobe PDF format), the ereader presented an interface heretofore unseen by me. I've read novels in PDF and somehow the text is magically reflowed to accommodate my screen settings. In this case, the page dimensions and comic panels are, sensibly, preserved, but I'm able to zoom in and out and scroll up, down and side to side, much like when you read a PDF on your computer screen. The resolution is surprisingly good.

But the navigation quickly becomes tedious, and sadly, my ereader does not support colour, so I found myself flipping from ereader to laptop to appreciate the colour and to make sure I didn't miss any frames and was following them in the right order. So it's not exactly an immersive experience the way other ebooks are, or as is a printed graphic novel in hand.

As for the story, the Doctor and Amy travel to the year 7704 on the planet Caligaris Epsilon Six, a holiday world engineered to look and act exactly like a medieval fantasy. But the tourist industry isn't operating the way one would expect it to, and there are signs of biological contamination. Uh-oh.

Of course now I need to know what happens next. I will be ordering the collected subsequent instalments.

Do you read comic books or graphic novels on your ereader? Any tips for me?

Do you dare confess? Do you read novel or comic book spin-offs of science fiction or other franchises?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The forest of story

How do you say "1Q84"? Do you pronounce all the elements separately — one-Q-eight-four? Or eighty-four? For months I've been wrongly referring to it at IQ-84 (because IQ trips so naturally). Maybe Q-teen eighty-four? (My daughter has taken to reading the cover by column — Japanese style! — as eighteeen Q-ty-four.)

As his doubts increased, Tengo began deliberately to put some distance between himself and the world of mathematics, and instead the forest of story began to exert a stronger pull on his heart. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within.

The older he became, the more Tengo was drawn to this kind of narrative suggestion. Mathematics was a great joy for him even now, as an adult. When he was teaching students at the cram school, the same joy he had felt as a child wold come welling up naturally. To share the joy of that conceptual freedom with someone was a wonderful thing. But Tengo was not longer able to lose himself so unreservedly in a world of numerical expression. For he knew that no amount of searching in that world would give him the solution he was really looking for.

— from 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.

To the end of book one, the worlds in 1Q84 do not appear to be all that different from our own (except for the two moons, but maybe that's not another world after all, maybe that's the book the girl wrote, or the one Tengo is still writing). Certainly there's no hint of a totalitarian state as is suggested by referencing Orwell's 1984. The affinity with 1984 comes in the treatment of memory, and its power to rewrite history.

"Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us — is rewritten — we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

The characters of 1Q84 are beginning to accept that their realities are "an endless battle of contrasting memories."

This novel did not grab me from the start as some other Murakami books have, but still it exerts some magical pull. It moves swiftly, almost without you realizing it, and before long is deeply engrossing. All the Murakami I've read has been dream-like, disorienting, provocative. 1Q84 is no exception, but I find it also touches on some much more serious subject matter: violence against women, but also the morality of vigilante justice (more than one scene put me in mind of Natsuo Kirino's Out).

Having finished book one, I am very grateful at this point that the whole of the story has been published in a single volume. It's not a mindfuck the way The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is, but it definitely comes across as better controlled and more mature than some other Murakami novels I've read. And I want to know more about Chekhov and the Gilyak.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The intellectually offensive union of sickness and stupidity

No, I'm not the least bit offended by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. But it's so easy to mock the patients who people this novel. And Mann does, and I immensely enjoy his doing so.

Part of the magic of the Mountain: I picked it up again the other week after a hiatus of several months, and it's as fresh and engaging as if I'd left off only the day before. (Why did I leave off at all if it's so good, you ask? I don't rightly know. It demands attention, and once the momentum is interrupted and the spell is broken, it's easy to forget how rewarding time with it is.)

No doubt this magic is connected to Mann's treatment of time as one of the major themes.

What is time? A secret — insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time? What a question! Is time a function of space? Or vice versa? Or are the two identical? An even bigger question! Time is active, by nature it is much like a verb, it both "ripens" and "brings forth." And what does it bring forth? Change! Now is not then, here is not there — for in both cases motion lies in between. But since we measure time by a circular motion closed in on itself, we could just as easily say that its motion and change are rest and stagnation — for the then is constantly repeated in the now, the there in the here. Moreover, since, despite our best desperate attempts, we cannot imagine an end to time or a finite border around space, we have decided to "think" of them as eternal and infinite — in the apparent belief that even if we are not totally successful, this marks some improvement. But does not the very positing of eternity and infinity imply the logical, mathematical negation of things limited and finite, their relative reduction to zero? Is a sequence of events possible in eternity, a juxtaposition of objects in infinity? How does our makeshift assumption of eternity and infinity square with concepts like distance, motion, change, or even the very existence of a finite body in space? Now there's a real question for you!

Hans Castorp turned these sorts of questions over and over in his own mind — a mind that, since his arrival up here, had tended to quibble and think indiscreet thoughts of this sort and had perhaps been especially honed and emboldened for grumbling by a naughty, but overwhelming desire, for which he had now paid dearly.

Chapter 6 gets very philosophical. We meet Leo Naphta, Jewish-born Jesuit. His conversations with Herr Settembrini, and others, are intense and also confusing (to Hans as well as myself). Various kinds of dualism, religious and philosophical. Free will, politics (in philosophical sense, never actually discussing the real matters of the day), pragmatism. Art and science. There's a section promoting cremation as a more logical alternative to burial.

Hans is finally arriving at some truths.

At this point Hans Castorp spoke up, breaking into their conversation with the courage of simple souls. He stared into space and declared, "Contemplation, retreat — there's something to it, sounds quite plausible. One could say that we live at a rather high level of retreat from the world up here. At five thousand feet, we recline in our lounge chairs — and remarkably comfortable they are — and look down on the world and its creatures and think things over. To tell the truth, now that I stop and think about it, my bed — and by that I mean my lounge chair, you understand — has proved very beneficial over the last ten months, made me think more about things than I ever did in all my years down in the flatlands, I can't deny that."

And still, it's funny.

The mood of pallid Frau Magnus in particular seemed without a glimmer of hope; she exuded bleakness of spirit the way a cellar exudes damp. And perhaps even more explicitly than Frau Stöhr, she represented the union of sickness and stupidity that Hans Castorp had declared intellectually offensive.

Hans, originally at the sanatorium to see his cousin for a 3-week visit, has been there now for over a year. It's almost 2 years since I started reading The Magic Mountain, and suspected I'd be letting the story unfold in near real time. It still captivates me, and I love it for slowing my mind down.

And yet, I'm setting it aside again to indulge in Murakami's 1Q84. Sometimes it all a bit too much for Hans — he needs to stop and consider his friends' philosophizing in his own time and space, somewhere away from them, as do I. And Hans has another order of thinking to do now that his cousin has left to rejoin the world below.

I return to "the bourgeoisiosity of life."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life, fate

Life and Fate. Sounds big, deep, sprawling. It is.

Life's a mess. Really there's no getting around it. You make plans, they go wrong. You make other plans, they go wrong in a different way. After much consideration I've come to the conclusion that life has a multiplicity of different ways in which things can go wrong. Incidentally, my father's a physicist and is very keen on things like multiplicity, which is how we ended up a million miles from Moscow in Kazan, because he was working on something important for the war. The War. Now there you have a serious example of things going wrong. However, because of it, we socialists had a real chance to show the world what we were made of, which is steel. Ask Comrade Stalin. My mother is not a scientist. She believes in fate. But it seems to me that in the end fate is just as messy and hard to live with as life.
— from Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, a BBC4 dramatization.

So here's a book I had absolutely no interest in reading. I knew a little bit about its history (written in 1959 and banned in the USSR and not published there till nearly 30 years later), and a little about it's subject matter (life — and the lives of some Russian Jews in particular — in Stalinist Russia during World War II). I don't find either point very compelling — I've had my fill.

But then this radio dramatization caught my ear, and I was hooked. As it stars Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, you could say the production is of decent quality. I have trouble with audiobooks and radio plays in general in that they tease me into believing they're conducive to multitasking. But I can't do it. If I'm to get anything out of them, I need to give them my attention, at which point I figure I might as well just read the book. I ended up listening to most parts of this drama twice, to ensure I had the characters and events straight, but I was very glad to do so.

Some of the early great lines include: "How could I talk to a woman who thought Balzac wrote Madame Bovary?" and: "A way to a Russian's heart is through his brain."

As you might guess from the book's title, there's a great deal of philosophizing going on.

Identity's one of the major themes. There's a passage I went back to — it turns out it was just a short sentence, but in my head it had expanded into something unwieldy. I can't recall the original phrasing, but its sense was that the woman hadn't ever really thought of herself as Jewish; she went to Russian school, had Russian friends, played Russian games, read Russian books — of course she was Russian. (This is something I actually spend a lot of time thinking about, albeit with regard to identities other than Jewish and Russian.)

There's some similar musing about science. That there's no such thing as Stalinist science, or Jewish science, etc, it's just science, that's all, but of course not everyone sees the world this way. Isn't that mind-boggling? That someone could dispute your science because it wasn't Soviet enough?

Then there's love.

I wanted to tell him everything, and I told him nothing at all. I wanted to ask him everything, and I asked him about eating black bread. Is it possible to lose everything because we don't speak when we must? I was an idiot...

[Oh, I have been an idiot. Listening to this production is an emotional double-whammy these days, for what it is and for the real life it reminds me of.]

It's quite a drama. There are funny bits, and poignant bits, and clever bits, and bits that made me cry. There's a lot about doing the right thing, and a lot of "if we only knew," and of course we never do, which makes it all the harder.

Some people see it as a counterpart to Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think there's more war, and less peace, in Life and Fate. Maybe only it seems more brutal because these historical events are closer in time. But the comparison captures the right sprawl, and there's a similar quality of introspection.

The radio drama leaves some plot points unresolved. Perhaps they are treated this way in the book as well. I'm tempted to find out.

The BBC4 Life and Fate page has a couple video clips featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, on the story but also on the nature of radio drama, as well as some other background material. Apparently the podcasts are no longer available for download, but if you ever come across the opportunity to give them a listen, take it.

The Economist
The Times Literary Supplement

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cover charge

Which cover do you like better?

Would you pay a premium (of, say, 50% more) to have the book with your preferred cover? Have you ever insisted on a particular edition of a book (and paid for it)?

Friday, October 14, 2011

only the snow can begin to explain

E.E. Cummings was born this day in 1894. "anyone lived in a pretty how town" is the first of cummings' poems I ever experienced (in high school, no less). I knew anyhow town — I lived there. It is my favourite of his poems to this day. Some days, to hear it, makes me immeasurably sad.

Long coveted and newly acquired: E.E. Cummings Complete Poems 1904-1962.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I'm going to bed

To read!

(Inner Sanctum, 1948.)

I think she's flirting. I can't decide if it's sexy, creepy, or ridiculous.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The indigestion of an unfulfilled duty

Eberhard Mock, Criminal Councillor investigating the serial killings that occur in The End of the World in Breslau (by Marek Krajewski), adheres to the maxim, primum edere deinde philossophari ("eat first, then philosophize").

I'm glad that he does. Apart from the detail that helps the historical setting of 1925 Breslau come alive, whenever Mock sits down to a meal, it gives the reader, as well as Mock himself, the time to consider and digest the investigation, not to mention the opportunity to reflect on events related to his personal life.

The troubled barman of Petruske's tavern placed a plate of thick, fried bacon slices in front of Mock. When Mock pointed to his empty tankard, the barman assumed an expression of someone greatly put upon. Mock decided to torment him even further by ordering some bread and horseradish. An existential agony swept across the barman's features.

Mock observed the effects of alcohol and anger in the eyes of the wretchedly dressed drunks crowding the tables and walls. The most genial person in the place seemed to be the blind accordionist playing a sentimental tune. Had he not been blind, he would been glaring at Mock just as amicably as the builders, carters, cabbies and bandits crammed into the bar.

Mock tore his eyes away from his brothers in alcoholic misery, and set about his food. First he decorated the slices of bacon with mounds of horseradish, then, using a knife, pressed it into a hot mush after which, with a faint sigh, he devoured the smoked and roasted meat followed by slices of dark, wholemeal bread. He washed down the strong taste of meat and horseradish with Haas beer.

Scanning the bar with bloodshot eyes, he listened to the swearing and cursing. Foremost in this were unemployed workers, embittered at the whole world. All of a sudden a butcher joined in their laments to complain about capitalist exploiters who undervalued his rare ability to decapitate a cow with one blow.

Mock had a revelation: the supper had not been unpalatable because it consisted of foul and badly prepared food, but because his mouth was acidic with the indigestion of an unfulfilled duty.

It's full of atmosphere and attitude; it has tremendous period verisimilitude, a smattering of Latin, and wit (you might call it a running gag that one of Mock's subordinates is chided for not knowing Latin — Krajewski himself is a classics scholar), which make this novel highly engrossing, despite the severe brutality.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second in Krajewski's series of Eberhard Mock investigations, but its events take place in 1925, well before those in Death in Breslau, which is set primarily in 1933. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Nazi elements of the first book, and the added level of intrigue with regard to the bureacracy and administration of a police investigation, I preferred this second novel with its "simpler" storylines.

There are the bizarre serial killings, the scenes of which always include a calendar page indicating the date of death. And then there's Mock's marriage — his wife feels mistreated and so sets out on her own sexual adventures and develops an association with the Monistic Community of Breslau (a kind of secret society — fictitious). The pacing is brilliant — Krajewski sticks with one storyline at a time, till just about the point where you're close to forgetting the other existed before he switches tracks.

Meanwhile, there's an end-of-the-world cult gaining popularity in Breslau. Oh, and there's some trouble with Mock's nephew, who is neglecting his studies and getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. Do you think all these elements might be connected?

Mock is fairly unlikeable, though he does have a strong sense of justice. The fact of his moral ambiguity means you never know what he's going to do next.

I'm ordering up the third book of the series straight away. And I'm delighted to learn that there are even more Breslau books, although they are not yet translated.

[I read this book as part of RIP VI. As a noir crime novel, it falls into a subcategory of mystery, but I think the end-of-world cult aspect gives it a nice, Halloween-y edge.]

Friday, October 07, 2011

Truth, beauty, genius

Erasmus Valentine had a fondness for women of a certain age, and that age was at least sixty. He loved their soft, stretched flesh, hanging off their arms like wings, and the look of surprise in their eyes when he made love to them. He loved their stiff gray hairs, which stuck straight out from their scalp and were often dyed a strange false shade of lavender or orange, and he loved their long beaklike noses. If he was particularly lucky, their cries of passion would even sound like squawks.

He was often successful in his amorous quests. Though sometime surprised, or confused, Valentine had loved many, many women of London, none younger than fifty-seven — and that one looked quited ancient for her age. But one bird had escaped his net, and it was the bird he wanted to catch more than any other: Ada Byron, the Countess of Lovelace herself. She was a different sort of bird. Ada had been famous for being wild and brilliant in her youth, and age hadn't tempered her with caution — as it often did — but with confidence. She still smoked cigars, gambled, and wrote tracts on the future of analytical engines with just as much fervor as — if not more than — she had when she was in her twenties. When her husband died thirty years ago in an accident involving the steam presses he made to shape wooden ceilings into cathedral-like patterns, she hadn't sought a new husband. Not out of grieving, but because she didn't see the need for one. She was independent. She laughed at bawdy jokes, and drank with the men after supper. And she had rejected all of Valentine's advances. But she was coming to Illyria today, and Valentine was determined to persevere.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace contributed to Charles Babbage's analytical engine. She is widely held to have been the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace also appears in All Men of Genius, first novel by Lev AC Rosen. But as should be clear from the excerpt above, it is not quite the same Ada Lovelace. This one is sixty-seven, a widow who smokes cigars and wins at poker.

But she is but a bit player in All Men of Genius.

This is steampunk. (And it's steampunk week at Victorian London, horseless carriages that run on different principles than our own, mechanical prostheses, gears, a lot of clockwork, a kind of science that may resemble magic more than what has been borne out in our history.

Violet, age 17, wants to study science at Illyria College, but the school is (as the schools are in her day and age) male only. She applies under the name of her twin brother and gains entry. Now she has to go about in disguise.

All Men of Genius is said to be inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) and Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest. I read Twelfth Night for grade 13 English — I remember I made some clever comment about "Illyria" sounding like "delirium" — so I can attest to there being commonalities. Clearly, character names and plot devices have been liberally borrowed. I have not read Earnest — but, oh look, there it is on my shelf, can it be that I really haven't read it? — but an Internet review of the synopsis makes the similarities to this play clear as well.

This is a charming novel, about science, about girls doing science, and about beauty.

"What's so funny?"

"That all you should see in flowers is scientific principles," he said, "even when a man tried to show you their beauty."

"But that is their beauty," Violet said, pursing her lips. "Really, I don't know what it is with your gender, that they must divide science and beauty into separate fields. As if the stars and planets themselves are lovely, but to map the way they turn takes that away from them. In my opinion, the way a planet spins only adds to its beauty."

And it's about love, too. Love is bound to gum up the works.

Cross-dressing, mistaken identities, killer automata, invisible cats. The pacing is perfect. All Men of Genius is sweet and funny and full of joy.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Books not to be seen reading in public

Standing room only again in the metro the other morning. I'm used to it. I pull out my novel.

I feel someone's eyes on me. A middle-aged man, balding, bespectacled, seated in front of me.

He's not staring at me so much as he's leering at my book. Still, unpleasant.

I'm reading The End of the World in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski. (Excerpt.)

The spectacular cover art gracing the English translations of the Eberhard Mock investigations, from Quercus Publishing, is by Andrzej Klimowski.

Here. Take a good, close look.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Horrified, yet still strangely enthralled

A book.

An old book actually. Yellowed pages. The dry, musty smell of old parchment. A weathered cover of leatherlike material with more than its fair share of cracks. When I reached out to trace it with the tip of my finger, something strange happened.

The book shifted beneath my touch, as if trying to escape.

I yanked my hand back in surprise.

I stared at the book in a kind of sick fascination, the way one stared at a bad traffic accident, disgust and horror mingling with a deep-seated need to see, to understand, to know just how bad it was.

Tentatively, I reach out again.

This time the cover yielded slightly to my touch but didn't pull away. Maybe I'd just imagined it. Something still didn't feel right, though. The book was warm, pliable, like a living thing rather than an inanimate object.

I half expected to hear it breathing.

Horrified, yet still strangely enthralled, I gently pushed the cover open.

Eyes to See, by Joseph Nassise, is a bit weird. I can't say I've read anything quite like it before. It's broadly classified as "fantasy" (according to the promo notes) but pulls elements together from various (sub)genres. There are ghosts, a witch (who performs magic), a berserker, a demonic ritual, an old manuscript, serial killings. And Jeremiah Hunt, a near-blind man who sees ghosts.

Jeremiah gained this special sight in his efforts to track down his daughter, who was abducted from his home. Years later, the police have stopped looking. His wife left a long time ago. He makes a living as a ghostbuster, relying on seeing and interacting with ghosts, tactically possessing and/or being possessed by them. Oh, and, the dead can see emotions. Occasionally, the cops call on him for help, although they don't know the precise nature of how Hunt comes to his "intuitions" about their criminal situations.

On this particular police case, a couple seemingly ritualistic murders, his background as a classics professor even comes into play.

Drawing on all these different traditions, the book had potential, I thought — a crazy energy. But ultimately, the world-building was weak, falling into the trap of telling not showing (including a completely irrelevant explanation by Jeremiah of the different classes of ghost — apparitions, spectres, poltergeists, etc — which is doubly ridiculous once we learn how ignorant he is of the supernatural world), and trying to be too many things for its own good.

The tone, especially the dialogue, in trying for a clipped noir-ish feel sounds laughably repetitive and predictable. Also, the narration's switching in perspective is needlessly disorienting, and there are continuity errors.

The plot was engaging enough that I had to see how the story ended, but I don't see myself picking up Jeremiah Hunt's further chronicles.


[I read this book as part of RIP VI. While this novel fits all the criteria to be the perfect creepy lead-up read to Halloween, the writing is more horrific than the story, and its quality makes it the most disappointing book I've read all year.]

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Rainy afternoon

It's rainy and cold.

Before surrendering to a lazy day, I thought I'd give it one last shot to get the kid active, even though I didn't much feel like it myself.

"How about we go shopping for a skirt, like you wanted?" "No!" "What if we hang out at the bookstore?" "Yes!"

She never ceases to surprise me.

So we went to the bookstore.

I thought about buying a copy of The Train (Simenon) for myself, seeing as how my electronic review copy is set to expire in a few days and I have to have this book on my shelf. But more than that, I wanted to browse, to discover something.

I opened a copy of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, started reading it, and, three pages in, determined it was crap, or, at least, not for me, not today.

Here's what we bought:

The Project's for me, of course, and I must say its first three pages were vastly more compelling than anything else in the store. Today anyway. It's been on that list in the back of my mind of books to watch for for some time, and it puts me in mind of that Doctor Who Episode, The Lazarus Experiment — I'm sure they have nothing to do with each other, but it's as valid a reason as any to choose one book over another.

Happy, rainy reading.