Monday, December 31, 2012

I have waited my whole life

Deckles stands, straightens his robe, braces himself, and gives the shelves behind the desk a sharp shove. They swivel smoothly and silently — it's as if they're weightless, drifting in space — and as they draw apart, they reveal a shadowed space beyond, where wide steps curl down into darkness. Deckles stretches an arm to invite us forward. "Festina lente," he says matter-of-factly.

Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.

— from Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Until the end of the world

Some things we plan,
we sit and we invent and we plot and cook up;
others are works of inspiration, of poetry;
and it was this genius hand that pushed me [...]

— from "Until the End of the World," by Nick Cave.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I mused on my mistake

Last week I read The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul.

I saw "lust" where the text said "last." I tried to continue reading, but couldn't. I mused on my mistake, marvelling at the ability to read in the first place. How did the eyes work? And the brain? Just as I wobbled on a bike if I allowed myself to think about balance, my reading became shaky if I wondered about the mechanism of reading. I loved reading and had always thought of it as a refuge. I even read the labels on bottles, if only to keep myself occupied on trains or in restaurants. I read in bed at night. If I lay awake for more than two minutes after switching off the light, I switched it on again to avoid lapsing into thought. To avoid thinking.

And so I read this book, on my commute, in bed at night, without ever caring what it was about. To keep myself occupied. I kept myself occupied a little longer as I walked from the metro to my office, wondering, what is this book about? it's certainly not a muder mystery, and I'm not even sure it's a mystery of any order. It's about, well, just her, maybe her writer's temperament, maybe that annoying way of focusing in or out just when it doesn't quite suit the reader. Most people say it's about grieving, but I've seen many people grieve, and if that's what this book is about, it's not entirely genuine, or at least complete.

For the longest time, and pretty much from the start, I thought it was about her relationship with her estranged daughter, the one she'd essentially abandoned when she left her husband for another man. It seems to me to be the emotional centre of this book anyway.

Mostly it was just boring.

Several of the reviews listed below found this book rich in emotion and character, and even worthy of a second reading. I don't get it. And I doubt I'll be reading it again to try to figure it out.

The review that originally turned me on to this book, which I'm sadly unable to track down now, was, ironically, a fairly negative one. I gambled my tastes against that reviewer's and lost.

I'm all for "literary" and "genre-subverting" and "ambiguity" — even in my murder mysteries — but I'm not convinced this book succeeds on any of these counts (and it's not a murder mystery).

Andrew Blackman
Book Snob
Necessary Fiction
Reading Matters
Tony's Reading List

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sheckley's store of worlds

"But your skin is made of metal," Melisande said. "And metal can't feel."

"Darling Melisande," the Rom said tenderly, "if flesh can stop feeling, can't metal begin to feel? If anything feels, can anything else not feel? Didn't you know that the stars love and hate, that a nova is a passion, and that a dead star is just like a dead human or a dead machine? The trees have their lusts, and I have heard the drunken laughter of buildings, the urgent demands of highways..."

— from "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?," in Store of the Worlds, by Robert Sheckley.

(That story was originally published in Playboy, and yes, the title means what you think it does.)

I've been reading the stories of Robert Sheckley since early summer. This collection, issued by NYRB Classics, has been my go-to book when I needed something short or witty or thoughtful, as a palate cleanser between books, sometimes during other books, or just because.

As I've mentioned before, the stories have a very Twilight Zone-y feel. Some of the details are dated (for example, references to Fuller Brush salesmen), but the ideas themselves are not. Some may call the prose naive, but I find it refreshingly straightforward.

I'm sorry to have finished this collection. I wish only that there might be another to get me through next year.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

We don't notice things change

OK, wow. This is some of the most interesting sci-fi I've ever read.

I first heard about Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a handful of years ago, in the context of it having served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (which I hope to see someday soon). It came up again last spring, as a new translation was being published in English.

The few reviews I saw haled it as a classic, and while it was generally revered as such by sci-fi fans (on various blogs and forums, as well by fans among my personal acquaintance), that seemed to be the result of the book resting on its reputation, not because many people had actually read it.

I picked up a copy this summer, but it's not till a few weeks ago when I heard the news that Boris had died that I was inspired to read it.

I was not prepared for this.

The problem is we don't notice the years pass, he thought. Screw the years — we don't notice things change. We know that things change, we've witnessed things change ourselves many a time, and yet we're still utterly incapable of noticing the moment that change comes — or we search for change in all the wrong places. A new breed of stalker has appeared — armed with technology. The old stalker was a sullen, dirty man, stubborn as a mule, crawling through the Zone inch by inch on his stomach, earning his keep. The new stalker is a tie-wearing dandy, an engineer, somewhere a mile away from the Zone, a cigarette in his teeth, a cocktail by his elbow — sitting and watching the monitors. A salaried gentleman. A very logical picture. So logical that other possibilities don't even occur.

In many ways, this is not a science fiction book at all. It's not exactly a crime novel either, but it circles round a group of scavengers and thugs and the black market economy they've helped build up around alien artefacts.

The Earth has been visited by aliens. The several landing areas are zones of total devastation, now with weird gravitational properties and other physical abnormalities, and littered with alien crap. Stalkers risk their lives to venture out into the zones, to retrieve this junk. Much of it is destined for genuine, institutionalized scientific research, but not without it first passing through the hands of several interested parties and generating some profit along the way. But pretty much nobody has any idea what all this crap is for or what purpose it can be set to.

Oh, right. And reanimated corpses. Corpses buried near the Zone just get up and go home. They move pretty slowly and the stench is overwhelming at first, but you get used to it. Also, a ban on emigrations from the Zone, as weird and unlikely mass disasters seem to follow those people who were inhabitants at the time of the visitation.

Our protagonist, Red Schuhart, is a stalker with a heart of gold. Sure, he wants to promote science, but at the end of the day, he just wants to make an "honest" buck.

Certainly, this is one of the most tension-packed novels I've ever read. The job of stalker is tougher than driving truckloads of nitroglycerin. I'm pretty sure there's an actual reference to nitroglycerin in the text, though of course I'm unable to track it down now. Have you seen that great Yves Montand film, Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), where they drive the nitroglycerin along extremely rough roads, and they might blow up at every bump, every turn? This novel is like that, with the stalkers inching along on their bellies, only they don't know if they'll explode or implode, disintegrate or melt. This edge-of-your-seat tension is what made that movie and this book excellent thrillers, aside from whatever political or social commentary they want to make. I mean, take the aliens out of this book, cast Humphrey Bogart as Red, and you'd still have an excellent story.

The scenes where Red goes into the Zone are unforgettable.

Highly recommended.

Shelf Love
Wuthering Expectations

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Punch in a bowl

Helena's been invited to a Christmas party this weekend, and I've been trying to impart to her the concept of a hostess gift — a nice thing to do despite having been told no presents are required.

Maybe a Christmas ornament, or at the grocery store this evening I suggest fancy chocolates to share with the girls. Helena's look says I'm being lame.

She tells me, "Just so you know, Mom, when I'm a teenager, I'm going to be invited to lots of cool parties. Really cool. Like where they serve punch. In a bowl." I don't see how this precludes a hostess gift, but I suppress a laugh, and for the time being I let it lie.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Books for play

Here are three books on my Christmas shopping list that aren't exactly books; that is, they are books, and just a little bit more — art, games, puzzles, adventures, playthings, exercises in deduction.

1. Color Your Own Graphic Novel: Sherlock Holmes The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by John Green.

The classic detective story is done up comic-book style, and you get to colour it yourself. We're big fans of Sherlock in this household. I suspect Helena would find Arthur Conan Doyle's original text and little daunting at her age, and I hope this abridged text will be a little more accessible. Plus (did I mention?), it's a comic book! And you get to colour it yourself! OMG how perfect is that when you're 10!

2. The Worst-Case Scenario, An Ultimate Adventure: Amazon: You Decide How to Survive!, by Hena Kahn and David Borgenicht, with Ed Stafford, Amazon consultant, illustrated by Yancey Labat.

Helena and I worked through a previous adventure in this series, to Mars. It's a choose-your-own-adventure-type story, but your life depends on it. Not only do you have to identify which choice demonstrates bettter science, but you need to perform risk-benefit analyses and manage some complex relationships. We spent more time talking — discussing our choices and the factors that played into them — than reading. Also, we made the wrong choices, and failed several times.

It's not just about decision making, and it's not just about a fun reading experience, though it is those things. I love that the series is based on real, true-life facts.

This Amazon adventure promises piranhas, tarantulas, mosquitoes, monkeys, and jaguars..

3. Penguin Classics Mad Libs, by Roger Price and Leonard Stern.

I admit: I'm stuffing my own stocking with this one. This collection of Mad Libs borrows the openings of literary classics, and leaves you to fill in the blanks. "It was the best of times, it was the ____ of times." The kid may not appreciate the classics yet, but she enjoys Mad Libs. The rest of my family is tolerant of my enthusiasm for both these things. I'm crossing my fingers that someone will play with me.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Like a locust

Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is big, really big, with a big heart, and a big vocabulary. It starts off as an adventure — gangs of criminals, New York's immigrants and destitute. But before you know it, it's a love story, very possibly a tragic one. Oh, and there's a magic horse. Then suddenly you're jumped forward in time to what appears to be a more contemporary setting, and you're very sad that you won't be spending more time with the characters you came to love in part one. But there's this crazy old lady who keeps a rooster like a cat and whom you need a dictionary to keep up with, and her charming daughter. Some more new characters, and it slips into slapstick. A couple chapters later you're back in New York, and then it's a newspaper novel, you can smell the ink rolling off the presses as the wit rolls off their tongues. But lo, there appears to be a rift in the space-time continuum. And it's mostly very lovely and uplifting, even when people die.

It's all a bit fantastic, in every sense. See, there's this thing with the dead, who've returned, or who just keep on, and the eternal city, and the bridge of pure light that need be built to get there. I don't think anything directly offended my atheist sensibilities, but till the very end I was afraid it might give way to something more overtly religious than the vaguely mystical. I'm pretty open-minded about what I read, I read broadly, and I'm generally happy to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story or an interesting idea; but I was never fully comfortable with where I felt this book was trying to lead me, even though I ended up a little to the side of the destination I'd anticipated. But it is a good story, and very well told.

The love in this novel for New York and for winter, for New York in winter, for language, for life, is immense. I loved reading Winter's Tale a lot, and I feel it deserves to be loved better than I was able to. Which is a pretty powerful thing for a book to inspire. I'm curious about Helprin's other novels, and I'll be happy to read this one again in my old age.

A warning: if you can help it, don't read this as an e-book. The proofreading job on the OCR to digitize this book was atrocious, far past distracting and well into confusing; e.g., "haifa" for "half a", "mat" for "what", "silendy" for "silently", and many others, including some permutations which I abandoned as unsolvable. And the apostrophes are missing.

"A benevolent act is like a locust: it sleeps until it is called."

Friday, November 30, 2012

It came and went

"Go back?" he whispers.

I desperateley shake my head and wave my fist right in his visor — Cut that out. For God's sake! You never know which way to look with these novices — at the Zone or at them... And here my mind goes blank. Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colorful rags and broken glass, drifts a tremor, a vibration, just like the hot air above a tin roof at noon; it floats over the mound and continues, cuts across our path right beside a marker, lingers over the road, waits for half a second — or am I just imagining that? — and slithers into the field, over the bushes, over the rotten fences, toward the old car graveyard.

Damn these eggeheads, a great job they did: ran their road down here amid the junk! And I'm a smart one myself — what on Earth was I thinking while mooning over their stupid map?

"Go on at low speed," I tell Kirill.

"What was that?"

"God knows! It came and went, thank God. And shut up, please. Right now, you aren't a person, got it? Right now, you are a machine, my steering wheel, a lever..."

— from Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A child is rather horribly perfect

Good science fiction movies for kids are hard to find, but The Last Mimzy may qualify.

Helena and I watched The Last Mimzy this weekend, finally, many, many months after the IT guy at my office (since retired) recommended it. (Actually, we'd watched the beginning on Youtube but had been unable to find all the movie's parts; conveniently, a DVD turned up to be included among Helena's birthday presents.)

You may recognize "mimzy" as "mimsy," a word occurring in Lewis Carroll's "Jaberwocky," which served as inspiration for Lewis Padgett's 1943 short story, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves":

How can an immature human understand the complicated system of social relationships? He can't. To him, an exaggeration of natural courtesy is silly. In his functional structure of life-patterns, it is rococo. He is an egotistic little animal, who cannot visualize himself in the position of another, certainly not an adult. A self-contained, almost perfect natural unit, his wants supplied by others, the child is much like a unicellular creature floating in the blood stream, nutriment carried to him, waste products carried away —

From the standpoint of logic, a child is rather horribly perfect. A baby may be even more perfect, but so alien to an adult that only superficial standards of comparison apply. The thought processes of an infant are completely unimaginable. But babies think, even before birth. In the womb they move and sleep, not entirely through instinct. We are conditioned to react rather peculiarly to the idea that a nearly-viable embryo may think. We are surprised, shocked into laughter, and repelled. Nothing human is alien.

But a baby is not human. An embryo is far less human.

The story is rather philosophical (as all the best SF is), and uses a mathematical paradigm to demonstrate its thesis. The film diverges greatly from its source material, and at times comes across as more new-age-y than scientific. But it embodies a similar, even broader, spirit to the story, and it is nonetheless thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Full text of "Mimsy Were the Borogoves."
William Shatner reads "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (in 6 parts).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The subjugation of apparent anarchy

New York had always been a city destined for the rule of dandies, thieves, and men who resembled hardboiled eggs. Those who made its politics were the people who poured gasoline on fires, rubbed salt into wounds, and carried coals to Newcastle. And its government was an absurdity, a concoction of lunacies, a dying man obliged to race up stairs. The reason for this condition was complex rather than accidental, for miracles are not smoothly calculated. Instead, they are the subjugation of apparent anarchy to a coherent design. Just as music must be like a hive of bees, with each note that strains to go its own way gently held to a thriving plan, a great empire depends for its driving force upon the elements that will eventually tear it apart. So with a city, which if it is to make its mark must be spirited, slippery, and ungovernable. A tranquil city of good laws, fine architecture, and clean streets is like a classroom of obedient dullards, or a field of gelded bulls — whereas a city of anarchy is a city of promise.

— from Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nothing under my skin but light

It was Helena's birthday yesterday, and just like every year, my birthday came 24 hours later. The thing is, she turned 10, and that fact is hitting me much harder than my turning forty-something again. It hits me with amazement and dread and inspires a rash of pinprick emotions.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light —
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

— Billy Collins

She's not a kid anymore. She's real.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A thousand white cats

Hugh Close, The Sun's rewrite editor, had the boundless energy of a hound, and was always perched upright, like a Labrador waiting for a stick to be thrown into a cool lake. He had a red mustache, and red hair that was sculpted to his head like clay. He could see puns in everything, and one could not speak to him without suffering an embarrassing disinterment of double entendres. His suits were gray; his shirts had collars with bars; he could read a thousand words a minute upside down and backward (the words, that is, not him); he knew all the Romance languages (including Romanian), Hindi, Chuvash, Japanese, Arabic, Gullah, Turqwatle, and Dutch; he could speak any of these languages in the accent of the other; he generated new words at a mile a minute; he was the world's foremost grammarian and a maser of syntax; and he drove everyone mad. But The Sun was unmatched in style and linguistic precision. Words were all he knew; they possessed and overwhelmed him, as if they were a thousand white cats with whom he shared a one-room apartment. (In fact, he did not like cats, because they could not talk and would not listen.)

— from Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Seven things

Claire has tagged me with seven bookish questions. (See other answers by Mee, BIP, Nicola, ds, Vasilly, and Lu.)

1. What propelled your love affair with books — any particular title or a moment?
Not a title or a particular moment, but the situation of new motherhood. I'd always been a reader, but under this challenging circumstance my mindset shifted. I read while breastfeeding, 35 hours a day it felt like. I read to stave off boredom, to escape, to step out of my self, to stay awake, to bring myself to stillness and sleep, to consider other lives, to exercise my vocabulary, to stretch my imagination, to engage with the world. I guess that was always the case, but now I gave it more focus and intensity, and a habit was formed.

2. Which fictional character would you like to be friends with and why?
Larry Darrell, from The Razor's Edge, by W Somerset Maugham. We could loaf together.

3. Do you write your name on your books or use bookplates?
No. I used to, as a child and teenager; I don't know why I stopped. These days I try to give books away; I guess I don't feel I own them enough to label them mine. I still write my name in reference books, as these get passed around the office and I want them to come back to me.

4. What was your favourite book read this year?
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Jesuit philosophy, anthropological linguistics, first contact with alien cultures. My favourite things! I'll be revisiting this book in the years to come.

5. If you could read in another language, which language would you choose?
Arabic. I suspect there's a treasure trove of literature that's never been translated, that the West has never heard of. But more compelling than that, it's linguistically interesting. I've taken classes twice but failed to retain much.

6. Name a book that made you both laugh and cry.
The book I'm reading now — Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin — I don't cry easily at books. And I'm laughing too, not just a chuckle at a witty turn of phrase, but heartily and out loud, and often unexpectedly at the sudden slapstick of a situation. And I'm only halfway.

7. Share with us your favourite poem?
"anyone lived in pretty how town," by e.e. cummings.

The Liebster Award, helping others discover other blogs. I'd like to ask Ana, Cipriano, Dwight, Melwyk, Mental Multivitamin, Sara, Tom, and anyone else:

1. What book (a classic?) do you hate?
2. To what extent do you judge people by what they read?
3. What television series would you recommend as the literariest?
4. Describe your ideal home library.
5. Books or sex?
6. How do you decide what to read next?
7. How much do you talk about books in real life (outside of the blogging community)?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A kick like a mule

The shelf was filled with books that were hard to read, that could devastate and remake one's soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.

— from Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Expression itself held down and stilled

They walked along the line of machinery until they were discovered by a workman who was emerging from one of the long passages inside. He said nothing as he approached. But in his expressionless face and jewel-like eyes he was expression itself held down and stilled. Peter Lake had heard Beverly say that the greater the stillness, the farther you could travel, until, in absolute immobility, you achieved absolute speed. If you could hold your breath, batten yourself down, and stop every atom from its agitation within you, she had said, you could vault past infinity. All this was beyond his comprehension.

— from Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The colour of infinity

— No-one's trying to kill him at all. He's just paranoid, isn't he? Nora says irritably. He's just a red herring. And the old people — I bet they're just paranoid as well.

"Ah, yes, but that doesn't mean that someone's not out to get them."

— You'll never make a crime writer.

"This isn't a crime story. This is a comic novel."

Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson, is a weird novel. There's a story within a story, and it took quite some time for me to figure that was the case (and not that we were simply jumping forward or backward to another time period). And it took me a while longer to determine which story was inside which. Further, throughout the inner story — Effie's college life — we are treated to excerpts of a few more manuscripts (one of them more prominently). So structurally it's a bit weird, but fun.

It does not hold together as crime story, or mystery, but then it's not one (see above) — despite the mysterious goings on, the dog, the woman, and other red herrings. So if you're familiar only with Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie stories (as I was), check your expectations at the door.

The language is often breathtaking. At times it veers off toward becoming a parody of itself, but even this is somewhat fitting as the protagonist of the inner story is struggling to complete her creative writing assignment, and even though I had to look up a lot of words (a lot of them being very Scottish), the language is always light.

From the framing story, generally more serious and (intentionally, I think, maybe even mockingly) capital-L Literary in tone:
I have my mother's temperamental hair — hair that usually exists only in the imagination of artists and can be disturbing to see on the head of a real woman. On Nora it is the colour of nuclear sunsets and of over-spiced gingerbread, but on me, unfortunately, the same corkscrewing curls are more clownish and inclined to be carroty.

From the inner story — the college novel — that story intended to be "comic":
The old woman had skin that was the texture and colour of white marshmallows and in a poor light (which was always) you might have mistaken her hair for a cloud of slightly rotten candyfloss. Although fast asleep, she was still clutching a pair of knitting needles on which hung a strange shapeless thing, like a web woven by a spider on drugs.

New York Times

These and other reviews can't fully agree on what Emotionally Weird is all about.

One of Effie's assignments is an essay on Middlemarch, and the criticism Henry James levels against it: "Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole." Henry James was wrong, of course. And I get the feeling that this entire novel is intended as a response to James, an exercise in Eliot's realism, a defense of it, but in its execution at once proof that ultra-realism is no longer suited to narrating today's realities.

Emotionally Weird is very realistic: a lot of nothing happens. There are many conversations — some interesting, some boring — with too many people. A lot of what happpens, as in life, has nothing to with anything else. It shows just how difficult it is to tease the narrative thread out of real life.

Emotionally Weird also has some wonderful details, especially to do with colour, and clothing, and how academics talk, but, despite how the Doctor Who references made me smile, it — and not Middlemarch — leaves me indifferent.

I wouldn't recommend this book to most readers I know, except to some who've had a particular kind of college experience.

"Today the Tay was the colour of infinity and made me feel suddenly depressed."

Friday, November 09, 2012

Impossibly pale, lucid, and silver

His eyes were like razors and white diamonds. They were impossibly pale, lucid, and silver. People said, "When Pearly Soames opens his eyes, its electric lights." He had a scar that went from the corner of his mouth to his ear. To look at it made the beholder feel a knife on his own skin, cutting deep and sharp, because Pearly Soames' scar was like a white trough reticulated with painful filaments of cold ivory. It had been with him since the age of four, a gift from his father, who had tried and failed to cut his son's throat.

Of course, it's bad to be a criminal. Everyone knows that, and can swear that its true. Criminals mess up the world. But they are, as well, retainers of fluidity. In fact, one might make the case that New York would not have shone without its legions of contrary devils polishing the lights of goodness with their inexplicable opposition and resistance. It might even be said that criminals are a necessary component of the balanced equation which steadily and beautifully eats up all the time that is thrown upon its steely back. They are the sugar and alcohol of a city, a red flash in the mosaic, lightning on a hot night. So was Pearly.

— from Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.

I'm looking forward to the weekend and maybe (please?) some days off where I can immerse myself in this book. I'm finding it hard to give myself over to it when I have only 10-minute spurts of congested reading time on the metro (both it and my head being congested). But there are such flashes of gorgeous. Pearly gorgeous.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

An advertisement, an experience, a souvenir

"What the Book" is an interactive exhibit designed by Barbara deWilde. Visitors choose to agree or disagree with seven statements that relate to the function of physical books and ebooks.

A video on deWilde's blog explains how it works. Much of the text of the video is reproduced on the AIGA website.

Devising the statements was the most challenging part of the design:

The content had to touch upon physicality and its effect on functionality within James Bridle's temporal model of the book. In his model, the book is first an advertisement, next a reading experience and finally a souvenir. Printed books work well at all points along the timeline. Ebooks, however, make lousy advertisements, so-so reading experiences and terrible souvenirs.

(Actually, I'm not sure I agree.)

I believe it is no longer on display at the AIGA National Design Center, but the online version of the poll is still active.

Do you agree or disagree?:
  • I silently judge people by their bookshelves.
  • I would love to be picked up in a bookstore.
  • A book has made me so angry I've thrown it against the wall.
  • I would never give an ebook as a gift.
  • Decorating with books is perverse.
  • The Internet is as important as sex.
  • I want to own nothing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Our slouch towards commitment

What if I didn't leave Bob? What if our slouch towards commitment ended at the altar? What would it be like if I occupied the wife-shaped space next to Bob? My life as a wife. In a Barratt's starter-home, with an avocado bathroom and a three-piece suite in leather. If we ever had a child (a curious idea) I thought we should call it Inertia. Although our occasional dull missionary encounters didn't seem passionate enough to produce anything as real and lasting as a child, even one called Inertia, and Bob (more likely to consult Mr Spock than Dr Spock) wasn't fit to be in charge of a push-and-pull lawnmower let alone a baby in a pram.

I did so hope that Bob was a dress rehearsal, a kind of mock-relationship, like a mock-exam, to prepare me for the real thing, because if I tried to imagine Bob in a grown-up life I could only visualize him slumped on the leather sofa, watching Jackanory with a huge joint in his hand.

— from Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

It turns on detail

There's an interesting piece by Mark Lawson in The Guardian about the long and popular tradition of European crime fiction and introducing his new radio series:

Retracing these journeys, I have made a 15-part series for BBC Radio 4, Foreign Bodies, which uses celebrated fictional detectives — from Christie's Poirot to Nesbø's Harry Hole — to explore the history of modern Europe. Cop novels are a useful tool for such a survey because the police procedural turns on detail. Novelists working in crime-free narratives have no need (and often no wish) to specify a character's job, clothes, income or family background. But because observation and evidence are crucial to the investigation of a crime – the motive for which will often rest on who someone was or what they possessed or desired – crime writers routinely provide a mass of social detail: menus, train timetables, fashion labels, shops, newspaper stories. As a result, good crime novels become a case-file of their times. The introduction of the welfare system and unemployment benefit, for example, can be traced through the comments of posh employers in Christie's mysteries. And reporters preparing to cover the impending referendum on Scottish independence would be well advised to read Ian Rankin's DCI Rebus books, which systematically depict the country's re-examination of its identity over the last 25 years.

I think this goes some way to explaining the mass appeal of crime novels. Some say we read in order to live other lives. Reading crime novels then, with their finer level of detail, may be a more immersive experience (whether for the purpose of education, entertainment, or escape).

(Certainly the attraction to my latest criminal addiction — Marek Krajewski — has less to do with the police case at hand than it does with the minutiae of 1930s Poland: the meals, the bars, the beer and the vodka, office life, marriage bureaus, tenements. All reliably filtered through an investigator who, though he often breaches ethics and good taste, has the mental discipline of a chess enthusiast and a Latin scholar.)

While Sherlock Holmes remains the detective archetype, Lawson identifies Georges Simenon (and his creation, Maigret) as the greatest influence on European crime fiction:

In Rome, Andrea Camilleri — creator of the Sicilian policeman Inspector Montalbano — pointed out to me the complete set of Maigret books on his shelves. In Berlin, one of the leading German crime-writers, Jakob Arjouni, also kept a complete Simenon close to his desk. PD James cites Simenon as a master as well, confirming a literary afterlife that perhaps validates the view of André Gide that the Belgian writer should have won the Nobel prize for literature.

Perhaps because Simenon expresses more temperament, and Maigret acts on instinct — the approach to crime is more believable than that taken by Doyle, more "human" than Holmes. My fascination with Simenon's books is by now well documented, and continually being validated.

Monday, October 29, 2012

In case of emergency

This weekend I was sucked into the vortex that is eBay, a world I haven't visited this past decade and which I'd almost forgotten existed.

The world is full of beautiful and mysterious things, I learned, and there is a treasure trove of obscure editions of Simenon titles in New South Wales, Australia.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This was what he missed

Mock got up from his chair and cast his eye over the assembled men. This was what he had been missing for the past three years. Briefings, focus, pertinent questions, suggestions exchanged and spiced with political discussions. One could not discuss politics in Breslau any more. Only one set of values was permitted, and only the Austrian Corporal honoured. Mock breathed a sigh of relief. How he missed this smoke-filled world of meetings and swearing, and the quest for corpses! In distant Lwów he had found what he had longed for back in his sterile office, where he analysed information and wrote endless reports and statements.


The room was filled with the sound of chairs scraping against the floor, pages turning and cigarettes hissing as they were extinguished in the damp ashtray. Mock filled his lungs with air. This was what he missed. For the first time in his life he thought with gratitude about Kraus, who had wanted to banish him but instead had awoken in him something nobody would ever be able to eradicate: the happy excitement of an investigator who could display on his the standard the slogan investigo, ergo sum — "I detect, therefore I am."

— from The Minotaur's Head, by Marek Krajewski.

This is what I've been missing. I finally got my hands on a copy of this, the fourth Eberhard Mock investigation to be available in English, though it seems there are two more books in the series that predate this one but have yet to be translated.

It shouldn't matter if they're read out of order, as each books covers a different period of Mock's life and career, seemingly in no particular order. The Minotaur's Head features the most mature incarnation of Mock yet. It starts in 1939, though most of the story occurs in 1937, so you can be assured a backdrop of heightened pre-war German–Polish tensions.

Less grisly than the other books — maybe I've gotten used to it, or maybe I just haven't gotten to that part yet. Oh, except for the opening chapter — that was pretty gruesome.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grandmother had never had a tail

John Turturro reads Italo Calvino's short fairy tale, "The False Grandmother."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hidden in the murk

The Other, by Thomas Tryon, is a great, creepy story.

I summed up this book previously, and rather than run the risk of telling spoilers, I'll stick to the jacket copy here:

Holland and Niles Perry are identical thirteen-year-old twins. They are close, close enough, almost, to read each other's thoughts, but they couldn't be more different. Holland is bold and mischievous, a bad influence, while Niles is kind and eager to please, the sort of boy who makes parents proud. The Perrys live in the bucolic New England town their family settled centuries ago, and as it happens, the extended clan has gathered at its ancestral farm this summer to mourn the death of the twins' father in a most unfortunate accident. Mrs. Perry still hasn't recovered from the shock of her husband's gruesome end and stays sequestered in her room, leaving her sons to roam free. As the summer goes on, though, and Holland's pranks become increasingly sinister, Niles finds he can no longer make excuses for his brother's actions.

The setting is bucolic, idyllic; the summer is hot, lazy; the telling is lyric, lulling you, not into a sense of security, but into a passive but uncomfortable state where you know things couldn't possibly be secure, things aren't what they seem, there are things people don't know.

From a review in The Brooklyn Rail: "That these questions [re feeling, becoming, sensing] could become the niggling knife in plain scenes of familial conversation, beauty parlor gossip, and kitchen cooking is the quiet brilliance of Tryon’s novel."

A hint of something lurking beneath.

With a goodly harvest, almost more than he could manage, he footed his way back along the mud shelf to the loading platform. He dropped the cattails in a heap and lay on his belly beside them, head hanging over the platform edge, eyes staring meditatively down at the water. It was pleasant there in the shadows. It smelled of coolness, like a fern garden; like the well once had before they sealed it up. From upside down, one piling, gloved with green algae and slime, and larger than the rest, seemed to rear back as though resisting the gray mud that mired it. He squinted, looked hard, saw: primordial ooze, spawning strange being down below, a race of quasi-lunged, half-legged creatures dragging themselves along the bottom; a world sunless, gloomy, nocturnal, where sunken logs lay, sodden and heavy, poor dead drowned things, and with them, hidden in the murk, savage bloated creatures, mouths wide as shovels, thick lips nuzzling threads of water-whitened ganglia, picking clean of flesh skeletons through whose empty eye-sockets coldly glowing eels would like night trains, while overhead, through the ruined roof, pterodactyls soared the vacant sky.

He drifted, dreamed; and dreamed some more.

I was describing this book to my sister — she said it sounded familiar and was trying to place it, and when she asked the author's name it fell into place. Thomas Tryon. Everyone read Thomas Tryon in the 70s. She'd gone through a phase herself as a teenager gobbling up everything he'd written.

Dan Chaon (who falls smack between me and my sister in terms of generation) is similarly enthusiastic in reminiscing in the book's afterword about discovering The Other. He explains:

The novel is really about the moment when the weapons of childhood are revealed to be no more than a box of tricks. It's a parable of the terror many us come to around age twelve or thirteen, a deeply disturbing epiphany.

The twins' Russian grandmother knows all about it. "We sometimes reach a point in our lives where we can't ever go back again, we have to go on from there. All that was before is past now."

I really look forward to rediscovering this book on my shelf some dark and stormy night years from now, or my daughter finding it and regaling me with the details of the mysterious psychological tricks, by which time I will surely have forgotten the twists, and who suffered from them.

The Other is a box of tricks: magic tricks, tricks of the light, dirty tricks, tricks of mind, literary tricks. Trick or treat, I loved this book.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

A storytelling code of solidarity

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon, is a kind of road trip — physically through Eastern Europe, but also through the narrator's immigrant experience and his marriage, with the ultimate destination being Chicago a hundred years ago, where Lazarus — Moldovan Jew, survivor of pogroms, alleged anarchist — was shot dead upon entering the home of the chief of police. Only past and present slowly get all mixed up and collide and disintegrate before we're ever fully there.

I think this novel knows that it can't bring the past to life as richly as it deserves, that that's not its strength, so it stops trying after a few chapters. Instead it becomes a novel about trying to write that novel.

I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them. In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it — Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners' attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausibility. There was a storytelling code of solidarity — you did not sabotage someone else's narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.

Just as Hemon is both American and something else, this novel is something of a hybrid — over-the-top storytelling with injections of reality, or vice versa. Only sometimes you can't tell which parts are which; that's one of the problems when your particular reality includes things like pogroms or war.

The book also includes photos, which, ironically, while they are a permanent record of reality, seem entirely disconnected from the reality portrayed in the book; they have to be storytold into the narrative, since they are not able to speak for themselves.

This book appealled to my intellect many times over — in fact, I read this novel relatively slowly, pausing to think about what I'd read. Every day a new passage would leap out that demanded to be chewed over, shared with others. However, I never really connected with this novel, despite it bearing all the marks of being something I would love. I admire it greatly, but it turns out I don't care for it much.

The Lazaraus Project online
See also: The Paris Review
Bookslut: An interview with Aleksandar Hemon

The Guardian
The Independant
London Review of Books (subscription required)
New York Times
The Telegraph

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The distance of the moon

A month of days and lunar nights stretched uninterrupted before us... An animated adaptation of Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," found in Cosmicomics.

(via io9)

I thought only of the Earth. It was the Earth that caused each of us to be that someone he was rather than someone else; up there, wrested from the Earth, it was as if I were no longer that I, nor she that She, for me. I was eager to return to the Earth, and I trembled at the fear of having lost it. The fulfillment of my dream of love had lasted only that instant when we had been united, spinning between Earth and Moon; torn from its earthly soil, my love now knew only the heart-rending nostalgia for what it lacked: a where, a surrounding, a before, an after.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

This was no comfort food

I was having a Big Mac, large fries, and a large Coke. Rora got McEggs and a milk shake. We sat outside and ate quickly, greedily. This was no comfort food; it was food that implied that there had never been and would never be any need for comfort.

— from The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

I've been turning to a great deal of comfort food these last weeks, a need brought on by work stress and migraine. A lot of my comfort food consists of (what some would consider to be weird) Polish things, like beet soup (even if it is instant) and cottage cheese mixed with radishes. But I derive genuine comfort from these and other foods, by their association with comforting times, often childhood and being cared for.

But I suppose there are other foods (potato chips come to my mind) that are perhaps similar to the kind of food Hemon alludes to in the above passage. Something that implies abundance and normalcy, possibly waste and the unnecessary; the everyday, like everybody. Which is still a kind of comfort I suppose. Hemon has made me realize that there are different qualities of comfort imbuing my foods.

Are your comfort foods truly comforting, or are they like Hemon's Mc-non-comfort?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Rainy Sunday

Helena and I spent the afternoon assembling a jigsaw puzzle depicting more than 50 famous scientists. Along with each portrait is a brief description of the scientist's accomplishments.

We talked about Louis Pasteur and Nikola Tesla, Einstein and Oppenheimer, and we looked stuff up, and it was fabulously fun.

Today we managed all the pictures and words; we left blank brown spaces to be filled in later in the week.

I am somewhat peeved that Marie Curie is listed as French (and not French-Polish), annoyed by the inconsistencies in punctuation, and galled by the unnecessary apostrophe ("it's" for "its"). But the benefits of this puzzle, this day, more than compensate.

(And we'll take a red pen to it once all the pieces are in place.)

Henceforth, Ernest Rutherford shall be forever known as the scientist with the mustache.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What I can see is what I am not

Rora put his black Canon down in his lap, then under the table. He snapped a picture of the graces' legs, covering the click with a false cough.

Why did you take that picture?

That's a stupid question, Rora said. I take pictures.

Why do you take pictures?

I take pictures because I like to look at the pictures I take.

It seems to me that when people take a picture of something, they instantly forget about it.

So what?

So nothing, I shrugged.

They can look at the picture and remind themselves.

But what do you see when you look at a picture you took?

I see the picture, Rora said. What's with these questions?

When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer. I think: What I can see is what I am not.

Drink more coffee, Brik, Rora said. It will pick you up.

The waitress came by with our coffees, so I drank more of it.

— from The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

There's something about taking pictures that removes you from the moment, yet it's often all that remains of the moment once it has passed. When I look at pictures I've taken, no matter how poorly framed, how badly lit, I see idealized moments, not real ones. What do you see when you look at a picture you took?

Monday, October 08, 2012

Going out with your hair wet commonly results in lethal brain inflammation

Americans, we are bound to agree, go out after they wash their hair, with their hair still wet — even in the winter! We concede that no sane Bosnian mother would ever allow her child to do that, as everybody knows that going out with your hair wet commonly results in lethal brain inflammation. At this point I usually attest that my American wife, even though she is a neurosurgeon — a brain doctor, mind you — does the same thing. Everybody around the table shakes their head, concerned not only about her health and welfare but about the dubious prospects of my intercultural marriage as well. Someone is likely to mention the baffling absences of draft in the United States: Americans keep all of their windows open, and they don't care if they are exposed to draft, although it is well known that being exposed to severe airflow might cause brain inflammation. In my country, we are suspicious of free-flowing air.

— from The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

I go out with wet hair, but I usually tuck it into a beret — my head feels cold otherwise. I let my daughter out with wet hair all the time, and I feel like a negligent mother for it, not just because it's wet, but because we're so disorganized and rushed for time to have to even consider that as an option in the first place. No brain inflammation yet, but it could happen any day. Do you go out with wet hair?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The drunker they get, the more mystical they get

It's a trick, isn't it?

"Yas, I think so, but if a trick, it is a Russian one." As if that explained it all.

But how? How?

"Well, Russians if you can see it, feel more than do most people. Deep down. Russians, I suspect, have a sixth or seventh sense that God didn't give to most other people. They have a lot more of what do you call it — " Thinking a moment. "Insight. They are mystical folk, Russians, and," she added jokingly, "the drunker they get, the more mystical they get. Worse than the Irish, Russians."

New York Review Books has just released The Other, by Thomas Tryon. Originally published in 1971, it became an instant classic of psychological horror. I'd never heard of it.

It starts off with someone reminiscing about earlier times, and before you know it, you're right there in the 1930s, some small New England town, a lazy, idyllic summer. It's about 13-year-old twins, Niles and Holland, and you know things are never quite right with twins, and one of them seems to have an ever-widening streak of evil. There's the game, and the Thing, and the twins' Russian grandmother; there are mishaps, and secrets, and the carnival passes through town with its requisite assortment of freaks; there's a creepy lamp, tangled marionettes, and a baby on the way. And nothing feels right, but you can't really tell what's wrong.

I'm not quite halfway. I expect to be up most of the night.

The Other was made into a movie in 1972. The trailer is full of creepy whispering and hysterical screaming, scarier by far than most recent horror movies.

Monday, October 01, 2012

A hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair

Roberto Bolaño can be wildly exuberant, and thus exhausting, and I have learned my lesson with him, as with some other authors — not to read too much of him at a go. But, it is deeply satisfying to return to Bolaño after a lengthy hiatus.

The Skating Rink is Bolaño's first novel, but I didn't find it noticeably more flawed or less mature than his other books. According to a review in the Guardian:

It has conspicuous, classical flaws in technique and is undeniably frustrating on its own terms. The interesting thing is that many of those flaws are exactly the things which Bolaño expanded, developed, and turned into virtues of the highest originality.

It's set near Barcelona and concerns an Olympic figure skater and how she touches on the lives of our three narrators: a small businessman whose only immediate concern seems to be his own satisfaction; a Mexican poet working as a campground night watchman; a fat, corrupt city official.

The jacket copy tells you it's a crime novel, and the crime is heavily foreshadowed. Page one hints at murder, in fact; it's laden in fog and talk of Jack the Ripper. Which is entirely beside the point. It's one of Bolaño's tricks.

For example, this passage struck me as excessively creepy:

After faltering repeatedly, the second match went out, but this time there was no interval of darkness; she lit another straight away and, as if succumbing to an attack of vertigo, stepped back suddenly, away from the edge of the rink. The third match soon went out, and its death was accompanied by a sigh. Only once have I ever heard anyone sigh like that: a hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair, and the mere memory of it made me feel ill.

Bolaño never tells us about that other time, and it's not relevant, yet he borrows the mood of that other, distant event and transfers it to the present.

It's no surprise that a body will eventually show up. And one does, but not till two-thirds of the way through the book. However, it's not the body I was expecting at all.

The review at the Quarterly Conversation nicely sums up the nature of the mystery in this novel:

That is all to say The Skating Rink is detective fiction only in a very nominal sense, perhaps only insofar as it needs to be in order to subvert the genre’s conventions. The solution of the crime isn't the thing in The Skating Rink, the novel doesn't rationally tick off the competing explanations until only one remains. Logic and answers have nothing to do with it. Rather, The Skating Rink is concerned with the search, a search for something difficult to name and not discoverable purely by deduction. The book is, to borrow the words of one character, "a labyrinth with a frozen center."

It's a short book, and well-paced. The prose is not poetically breathless (the way I think of much of Bolaño's work) — it's even relatively affectless. But it excels in creating a mood that's sinister, an aura of nefariousness. Typical of Bolaño, not all the story strands are pulled together, or followed through (for example, the incident of fecal desecration); in this way his work sprawls, or creeps. One can draw a straight line between this early novel and Bolaño's masterpiece, 2666.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

3 nonbook but bookish things

(Or, a birthday wishlist.)

For my legs: Love text, tights by Zohara.

For my walls: 100 book covers to fight illiteracy.

100 artists from 28 countries designed a poster-sized cover for a book from The Observer's "The 100 Greatest Novels of All Times." (Set aside the anglocentricity of the list and any debate over which great novels were overloooked.) Many striking designs arose from the challenge, but I find many of the artist explanations weak.

Some concepts I admire: Nostromo, Charlotte's Web, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. But the one I can picture on my wall is the one pictured here.

For each poster sold, 5 euro is donated to UNESCO projects fighting illiteracy in Africa.

For my laptop: Typewriter sleeve.

Friday, September 28, 2012

It ain't like that

I am a very recent convert to and addict of The Wire. Finishing up season 1 this weekend.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The world of adults

At the time Lola was twenty-two, and she was strong-willed and smart, up to a point, of course, because if she'd been really smart, she wouldn't have gotten involved with me. She was fun, but responsible too, and she had an amazing gift for happiness. I don't think we were too bad for each other. We got on well, we started going out, and after a few months we got married. We had a child, and when the boy was two years old, we got divorced. She introduced me to the world of adults, although I only realized that after we split up. With Lola, I was an adult, living among adults; I had adult problems and desires, and reacted like an adult; even the reasons for our separation were unambiguously adult. The aftermath was long and sometimes painful, but the upside was that is brought a degree of uncertainty back into my life, which what I had really been missing.

— from The Skating Rink, by Roberto Bolaño.

Monday, September 24, 2012

This is a secret

[I am writing this after the household has fallen asleep.]

Clare: This is a secret: sometimes I am glad when Henry is gone. Sometimes I enjoy being alone. Sometimes I walk through the house late at night and I shiver with the pleasure of not talking, not touching, just walking, or sitting, or taking a bath. Sometimes I lie on the living room floor and Listen to Fleetwood Mac, the Bangles, the B-53's, the Eagles, bands Henry can't stand. Sometimes I go for long walks with Alba and I don't leave a note saying where I am. Sometimes I meet Celia for coffee, and we talk about Henry, and Ingrid, and whoever Celia's seeing that week. Sometimes I hang out with Charisse and Gomez, and we don't talk abut Henry, and we manage to enjoy ourselves. Once I went to Michigan and when I came back Henry was still gone and I never told him I had been anywhere. Sometimes I get a baby-sitter and I go to the movies or I ride may my bicycle after dark along the bike path by Montrose beach with no lights; it's like flying.

Sometimes I am glad when Henry's gone, but I'm always glad when he comes back.

I must be the last person on the planet to have read Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. A friend had been pressing it on me, loaned me her copy, and I've kept it on standby for months. Being that I'd just read a story that featured a time-traveler's knowledge of the future in all its free-will-versus-determinism glory, now seemed like the right time.

Best book ever? I'll have to tell my friend, No. But very charming, and worth reading. I'm a little puzzled actually, because this friend loves science fiction and disdains romance; this novel, however, has just a hint of sf in its premise, which is mostly incidental to a first-class love story.

It does remind of a few books that I do love, namely, The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers (for the tone, the character interaction) and What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (for what it says about absence being fully present). Also, the several quotes from A.S. Byatt's Possession has me thinking about rereading that book.

Part of me simply wants to find flaws in this book that seems to be everybody's darling. Clare's too perfect (her loving The Eagles, a definite flaw, seems out of character). The amount of sex this couple has is unrealistic. The lottery didn't seem fair. Some passages tried too hard to be poetic. But who am I kidding? I was late for work one day last week cuz I just had to read to the end of the chapter, and I spent a good chunk of Saturday teary-eyed as I finished it off.

Henry: [...] Running is many things to me: survival, calmness, euphoria, solitude. It is proof of my corporeal existence, my ability to contol my movement through space if not time and the obedience, however temporary, of my body to my will. As I run I dispace air, and things come and go around me, and the path moves like a filmstrip beneath my feet. I remember, as a child, long before video games and the Web, threading filmstrips into the dinky projector in the school library and peering into them, turning the knob that advanced the frame at the sound of a beep. I don't remember anymore what they looked like, what they were about, but I remember the smell of the library, and the way the beep made me jump every time. I'm flying now, that golden feeling, as if I could run right into the air, and I'm invincible, nothing can stop me, nothing can stop me, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing — .

This same friend who loaned me The Time Traveler's Wife wonders if I've read other books that jump around in the chronology, books with a nonlinear narrative structure. Of course I have, I thought, but titles fail me, and my bookshelves are staring me down. Possibly The English Patient, but I don't have a copy on hand to check. Can you think of others?

Friday, September 21, 2012

The last day of summer

This songworm crawls into my ear every year at this time. Kirsty MacColl, The Last Day of Summer.

I think I dropped my guard that time
I was flesh and blood and grit and slime
And I think I may have lost my mind
On the last day of summer
I think I fell in love back there
It was tooth and nail it was bones and hair
And you'll never never know how much I cared
On the last day of summer

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The systematic encouragement of subversiveness

Other people have already reviewed Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age better than I could.

While I love big ideas and big words — and Stephenson uses both, in spades — that sort of book demands a certain attention, a time and a place, to be appreciated. I had a rocky start with the novel, but it won me over finally. Some plottings, sadly, get glossed over, or are plain forgotten, and the ending's a bit crap, but I loved it all the same.

Here are some bits that I took note of, for their humour or insight.

On children:
Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would be called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness.

On cultural differences:
Finkle-McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possible be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultured thrived and expanded while other failed It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

On transcendence:
Hackworth had made efforts to learn a few Chinese characters and to acquaint himself with some basics of their intellectual system, but in general, he liked his transcendence out in plain sight were he could keep an eye on it — say, in a nice stained-glass window — not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.

On the collapse of nation-states:
The media net was designed from the ground up to provide privacy and security, so that people could use it to transfer money That's one reason the nation-states collapsed — as soon as the media grid was up and running, financial transactions could no longer be monitored by governments, and the tax collections systems got fubared. So if the old IRS, for example, wasn't able to trace these messages, then there's no way that you'll be able to track down Princess Nell."

On subversiveness:
"It wouldn't work," Finkle-McGraw said. "I've been thinking about this for years. I had the same idea: Set up a sort of young artistic bohemian theme park, sprinkled around in all the major cities, where young New Atlantans who were so inclined could congregate and be subversive when they were in the mood. The whole idea was self-contradictory. Mr. Hollywood, I have devoted much effort, during the last decade or so, to the systematic encouragement of subversiveness."

On stories:
"We change the script a little," Madame Ping said, "to allow for cultural differences. But the story never changes. There are many people and many tribes, but only so many stories."

On diplomacy, or something:
"Yo! Aren't you going to invite the King of the Reptiles?"

They looked at me like I was crazy.

"Reptiles are obsolete," said the King of the Shrews.

"Reptiles are just retarded birds," said the King of the Birds, "and so I am your King, thank you very much."

"There's only zero of you," said the Queen of the Ants. In ant arithmetic, there are only two numbers: Zero, which means anything less than a million, and Some. "You can't cooperate, so even if you were King, the title would be meaningless."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

That least predictable of entities

When his ship finally settled it was an hour before dawn, the safe hour, the time when most creatures, no matter what planet spawned them, are least alert. Or so his father had told him before he left Earth. Invading before dawn was part of the lore of Earth, hard-won knowledge directed solely toward survival on alien planets.

"But all this knowledge is fallible," his father had reminded him. "For it deals with that least predictable of entities, intelligent life." The old man had nodded sententiously as he made that statement.

"Remember, my boy," the old man went on, "you can outwit a meteor, predict an ice age, outguess a nova. But what, truthfully, can you know about those baffling and constantly changing entities who are possessed of intelligence?"

— from "Dawn Invader," in Store of the Worlds, by Robert Sheckley.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hope in hopelessness

Maybe because I don't care for Mahler.

The Lost Prince, by Selden Edwards, has a romantic and time-travelly premise, but I never fully engaged with it. It is the sequel to The Little Book, which I haven't read and don't feel compelled to.

The Lost Prince starts in Boston, in 1898. Eleanor Putnam has returned from Vienna with lovely reminiscences and remarkable knowledge. She brings a manuscript she has written about Vienna's musical life; a jewel that will serve her in making her fortune; and a journal that outlines her future. Eleanor in essence leads a secret life, putting in motion events she knows must come to pass.

Spanning 20 years, the book is peopled by William James, Gustav Mahler, JP Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung. Eleanor sings Mahler's praises, so early in the reading of this novel I was inspired to put some on. And I was reminded that I don't really care for Mahler. Too watery. Too florid.

The narration mostly has the tone of a biographical account. There is detachment, but also a sense that the narrator is judging characters in light of how the narrator knows the story to turn out. It's an interesting angle that mirrors how the characters are burdened with their own foreknowledge, but it's to the detriment of forming trust with and extracting sympathy from the reader.

A lot of information is divulged only as its required, as if the narrator suddenly remembered that it might be useful for the reader to know something even though it occurred 14 years previously and there's been no mention of it till now. And as often occurs in biographies, when the "story" shifts to cover another aspect or character, some information is repeated, either to remind the reader or to reconsider it in a new light.

The title was a bit of a mystery to me. It's about halfway through the novel that it becomes clear to whom the title is referring, and only near the end that the title is explained (and it's not relevant at all). I feel the story lacks focus and takes a long time to decide what it wants to be about.

A good chunk of the ssecond half of the novel covers the devastation of the first World War, in the form of letters from the front and later in Eleanor's search of the hospitals and wards that house the unfortunates, unknown and unclaimed.

"There is a great deal of hope within the hopelessness of your mission. There are thousands of unidentified and unaccounted-for soldiers in the aftermath of this horrible war. The odds are on your side."

This novel is about 200 pages too long. The war sections contribute little to the plot; while the repetition of the horrors might work to great literary effect when used by some writers, here it's at cross-purposes with the biographical tone, and so it managed only to bore me. The text is very repetitive, to the point that I felt no guilt in skimming for several pages at a time.

Yet. The Lost Prince has a great number of interesting threads to pull on. The exercise of free will in order to attain that which is predestined. How the present, and even the future, informs our past. Jung's collective unconscious, and how our dreams can inform our waking life.

I know little of William James, and what I know of Freud and Jung is mostly learned from popular culture. I'd be curious to know how well their ideas are represented by Edwards. I wish Edwards had spent more energy on these men and their ideas than on the eponymous subject.

Monday, September 10, 2012

To be someone else

And why would you start writing again?

There are things we do without any reason of for the most trivial of reasons, I said: going out and walking along the road during the rush hour and looking at people in their cars; showing up in midafternoon at the box office of a movie theater or browsing in bookshops or sitting on a balcony watching people on their way home, and repeating to yourself in you mind, why am I doing all this? why today did I walk to a bookshop or go to a movie theater and just as I got to the door decide not to go in? We do thing that have no meaning or only acquire meaning over time, perhaps because deep down we want to change our lives at the last moment, when everything appears fixed, like those roulette players who one second before the close of bets nervously shift a tower of chips, from one number to another, and then bite their fingers; because we're searching for some kind of intense experience, or because we want to be someone else, yes, to be someone else, there you have your answer: I write to be someone else.

I think that's the passage that made me love this book, Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa. At least, it's one that made me understand that I already did, and why. Maybe these questions are obvious to most people, but I find comfort and reassurance in hearing them voiced. It's why we write, but it's why we read too.

[Y]ou know, there's a sentence in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, which says: "Man is a fickle creature of doubtful reputation, and perhaps, like a chess player, he is more interested in the process of reaching his objective than in the the objective itself," I don't know if you remember it . . . I shook my head and Supervielle continued: that's what we were discussing, my friend, that simple yet profound way of reading experience, what drives a person to make one decision and not another at a specific moment? to get off a train, get on a boat, cross the street? What there is at the end of a life is irrelevant, it isn't the result that makes a life exceptional, but the path trodden, am I being excessively obscure? There are great lives that don't get anywhere, but what does it matter? That's not a paradox.

These are the questions that Simenon asks and which his characters answer in unconventional and often unacceptable ways — it's what draws me to him. Gamboa asks them in a context that's more intellectual and emotionally safer. Our narrator is attending the International Conference on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem.

Part 1 concerns the narrator's invitation to the conference, his journey there, and some of the goings on in and around the conference setting over its first days. This is interspersed with portions of one lengthy presentation at said conference, the story of Walter de la Salle, an evangelical pastor and founder of the Ministry of Mercy, told by José Maturana, ex-con and disciple, who is found dead in his hotel room a few hours after his presentation.

Part 2 gives us 3 more of the conference presentations: The story of two brilliant but "unambitious" chess players. The tale of a Colombian man hard done by and the revenge he exacts, this story bearing more than a little resemblance to The Count of Monte Cristo. And the porn actress's reminiscences.

Part 3 kind of disintegrates. There are story fragments, including a piece presented by the narrator as part of a roundtable discussion. But these stories are not fleshed out and we are distracted by the war raging through this city, the bombs that dirupt the conference proceedings. As one character puts it, "there are times when literature has to take a back seat."

There's something unsatisfying about the structure of this book. I found all of the stories and fragments compelling but felt real disappointment that they weren't given equal weight, that these stories were treated unfairly. (As opposed to say, Cloud Atlas, where the stories balance each other, at least by page count, although I didn't care for a couple of them at all.) There's no thread tying all the disparate stories together, apart perhaps from a tunnel motif (if you stretch some metaphors) and an appreciation for chicken sandwiches.

It's part of the point of the book, I think, that things unravel — the stories, the conference, life itself. Because while the stories may be fascinating, outside is real life. All the biographical accounts are embellished or borrowed or misremembered; distilled into a narrative, they are no longer real. And as in real life, some stories make headlines, and others do not get the attention they merit.

[I]t has happened too many times in the history of thought and culture that the genius of exceptional people is unrecognized because of the stupidity and limited vision of their contemporaries, but what can we do if we live surrounded idiots and simpletons?

It's not a conventional novel, but there's a lot for bibliophiles (of the sort who pack Zweig and Schulz on holiday) to latch onto.

Friday, September 07, 2012

An insane tree

Lucretia and the Kroons, by Victor Lavalle, is short (I read it over two evenings), intense, scary, sad, weird, and more than a little surprising.

[I'm not sure how I came to be reading this novella — I think I had the author mixed up with someone else. It turns out: I had not read anything by Victor Lavalle previously. But I will be sure to look up more of his books now.]

The story starts on Loochie's 12th birthday, and her best friend can't make the party because she's dying of cancer. (Had I known about this, I probably would not have picked up this book.) When Sunny gets out of the hospital, the girls plan a crazy afternoon to make up for lost time.

She was trembling again. She was used to climbing fire escapes, but hadn't ever scaled a tree. It didn't help that this was an insane tree in an insane woods in an insane park that had appeared — insanely — in this apartment.

These trees weren't at all like the ones she'd seen on trips to the Queens Botanical Garden or Flushing Meadows Park. These trees were like their demented cousins. They were so tall they seemed to run as high as her entire apartment building. Sixty feet straight up, that big. Their trunks were misshapen, bubbling out here and there in thick knots, and their outer barks gray and ashen, as if burned. In places the bark showed great tears and the inner bark was sickly white, the color of bones. She didn't want to climb this tree. She didn't even want to touch it. But then she heard the calls out in the meadow once again and she had no choice. She reached for the lowest branch of the nearest tree and climbed.

It's amazing what a person can do when her life depends on it.

That afternoon is a rollercoaster of a metaphor that veers off into unforeseen directions. Yes, Lucretia must come to terms with losing her best friend. But there's no maudlin sentimentality here. This is a horror story, with creatures lurking in shadows and worlds turned upside down. And then there's the ending, which churns everything over again.

I might compare it to Henry James's Turn of the Screw insofar as it's not clear whether events are occuring in an objective reality or inside someone's head, but Lucretia is decidedly modern and urban in feel. Also it's a little like Neil Gaiman's Coraline. At least, I felt a similar frisson reading Lucretia.

Your sense of creepiness may vary, but I highly recommend this story.