Thursday, August 30, 2012

My ereader is a time machine

I've been in the market for a nice cover for my ereader for some time. Nothing's wrong with the neoprene sleeve that came with the device, but I wanted something more expressive of my personality, my taste. I spied the perfect cover a while ago, but it's only last week that I felt I had justification to make the purchase, as a present to myself.

It's River Song's diary! which looks like the TARDIS!

Available from Etsy.

The cover for the Kindle Touch fits my Sony Touch near perfectly (because of the elastic fitting, I have to crook my finger a certain way to turn the device on or off; no big deal). It's a solid, well-crafted piece, and the lining is oh so soft, though the blue is a little darker than I'd expected. I can't wait for it to start looking worn.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Which books to take?

As for reading matter, now that is another story. To tell the truth, that caused a lot of last-minute problems when I was already ready to go out, with the taxi at the front door and the elevator waiting at my floor. As if, instead of a conference, was going to a desert island for the rest of my life. Novels by Wiener and Walser, to start with. Three masterpieces of the novella — Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman's Life by Stefan Zweig, and Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth — and a good book of short stories to read on the plane, The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, a book with Jewish themes, which I have been reading very slowly for years in a 1972 edition by Barral Editores, and the wonderful Closely Observed Trains by Hrabal, an something by Philip K. Dick, perhaps The Man in the High Castle, and another SF book, a rare pearl, We, by Yevgeny Zamiatin, and The Elephanta Suite, the latest by Paul Theroux, the best storyteller of his kind in the United States, and the latest by Thomas Pynchon, the best storyteller of his kind in the United States, there are many "best storytellers," and of course, A Tale of Love and Darkness, the memoirs of Amos Oz, the contemporary Israeli storyteller, and the work of St John of the Cross, the father of all poets, and Lost Illusions by Balzac, the father of all novelists, and something light, my God, a travel book, yes, that little book by Pierre Loti on the Middle East, where is it? and again the entry phone rang, and the Fascist caretaker cried, signore, if you don't come down now the taxi will leave, hurry up, do you want me to come up for the bags? and I said, no! wait a minute, just a minute, I would never have agreed to that horrendous caretaker coming into my apartment, I know he would like nothing better than to spy on me, to sit down and ask me where I am going and for how long and then tell everybody, exercising his panoptic control over the lives of his tenants, so I took a last glance at my library and still found room in my baggage for a book of interviews with famous writers first published in The Paris Review, and at last I left, double-locking the door, and ran down to the street, regretting that I had not taken anything by Stifter, which would have been ideal for a journey, although I consoled myself with the thought that you never get time to read at conferences anyway. Apart from the heaps of novels you are given by colleagues, you never get to the hotel early enough or sober enough to read.

— from Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa.

Do you think that's enough for an eight-day stay? Is it all name-dropping or does is sound like a legitimate list to you?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Both prize & battlefield

I finished reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas this morning, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. It's a set of six stories nested within each other.

At the centre (I mean this in a very literal sense — this story is in the middle of the book sandwiched by the next story, which is sandwiched by the next. That is, the books starts with half a story, which ends in midsentence and is followed by the first half of another story, and so on. We get the second halves of the stories in reverse order on the way out of the novel.)...

At the centre is post-apocalyptic tale; the society is fairly tribal, technology is near nonexistent, the pockets of humanity are isolated. We have no idea how the world got this way. The presence of a visitor, an outsider, hints that there may be some remnant of a more highly evolved civilization out there somewhere, but the reader isn't given anything to go on. One character has access to an instrument of the visitor's, by which he watches (or experiences) an archival record.

The archive concerns the life of revolutionary. She's a "fabricant," genomically programmed and "born" to serve in a fast-food restaurant. Such fabricants are produced in great numbers to fulfill menial or dangerous jobs. But she attains a level of consciousness and ascends to the outside world. The world is a consumption-oriented corpocracy (there are quotas for how much a citizen must spend in a given month). Our fabricant seems to be an agent of change, but she is also a pawn of the powers that be. One of the experiences she most enjoyed in the outside world was watching a movie.

The story of the movie is that of an author and editor committed against his will to a seniors' residence by a spiteful brother. His outrage is taken for senility and he struggles for some autonomous control over his life. He's been reading a manuscript submitted for publication, which he finds promising.

The manuscript is a thriller. Set in the 70s, a journalist comes across information that a report calling into question the safety of a nuclear power plant has been suppressed. There's plenty of corruption, and murder. She comes into a packet of letters one of her sources has carried with him for decades — they entrall her.

The letters are from a young English musician, who in the 20s worked in Belgium as an amanuensis for a renowned composer. He'd fled England, disinherited, to flee his debts but he accrues more along the way. Shady dealings and sexual adventures serve as balm, financial and otherwise. He's working on a composition — the Cloud Atlas Sextet — and reading a journal to distract him from his difficulties.

The journal is that of an American notary returning home from somewhere in the vicinity of New Zealand. He's seen Maori and Moriori tribes, and he has some mysterious illness, but most of the diary describes his time at sea.

The only thing obviously connecting these stories is a comet-shaped birthmark near the shoulder blade — a character in each of the stories has one. Are they reincarnations of the same individual? I have a feeling the movie version will play this angle up, but I hope not. While it contributes to a sense of connectedness, I think this one little image is flimsy.

A thematic connection is hard to find. Most of the stories touch on how some segment of society has been wronged or oppressed, but it doesn't hold up for the musician's segment. Maybe betrayal? I can come up with a couple themes, but I can't find one overarching theme that fits all the narratives.

Some people love this novel, and I can easily see how most readers could latch onto some aspect. There's something for everyone. I loved parts of the books — I could easily have read hundreds more pages about the future corpocracy and the cause of the fabricants, or the musician's attempts to stay ahead of his debtors. But as a rule I hate seafaring adventures, so I struggled with the journal of the South Pacific, which unfortunately for me opens and closes the novel. I didn't much like the first half of the tale of the publisher in the senior's residence (the style too pretentious), but I warmed to the second half (more human and lively). Your mileage may vary.

While the notary's tale didn't affect me, I'll leave you with some of his closing words. In my view, reading these words make for an easier in to these stories. I'd hate to think that some readers might drop off from Cloud Atlas midway and miss them.

My thoughts flow thus. Scholars discern motions in history & formulate these motions into rules that govern the rises & falls of civilizations. My belief runs contrary, however. To wit: history admits no rules; only outcomes.

What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

What precipitates act? Belief.

Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind's mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, explitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being, & history's Horroxes, Boerhaaves & Gooses shall prevail. You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of it if our sconsciences itch? Why undermine the dominance of our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy Why fight the "natural" (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, sefishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the entropy written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Tortuous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president's pen or a vainglorious general's sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stop a mind scratching itself raw

Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book. Well, Mumsy, no, not really. Your beloved large-print sagas of rags, riches and heartbreak were no camouflage against the miseries trained on you by the tennis-ball launcher of life, were they? But, yes, Mum, there again, you have a point. Books don't offer real escape but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.

— from Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Historical inevitabilities

All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.

— from Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Recently acquired: Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

  1. Alleged by many to be the best Russian sci-fi ever.
  2. The basis of Tarkovsky's Stalker, by which swear several film enthusiasts I know.
  3. Two words: The. Zone.
  4. Abounding with alien artefacts.
  5. New translation.
  6. Foreword by Ursula K Leguin.
Have you read it? Or seen Stalker? Maybe you've played the video game? Is it everything they say it is?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Why keep genre separated?

I've had my copy of Cloud Atlas lying around for months, but it's only last week that I started reading it in earnest.

But, visually rich though it may be, it's not the recently released trailer for the film adaptation that me spurred me to read it (in particular I find the music to be overly manipulative). Rather, it's the directors' commentary, and their genuine enthusiasm for the source material:

So far: Adventure! Cannibals! A lost tribe of Moriori! Weird rituals! Sea-faring! Mysterious illness! Strange dreams! Music! Eluding debtors! Elaborate schemes! Romance! Treachery! Stolen manuscripts! Investigative jounalism! Nuclear power plants! Social activism! Corporate spin! Mysterious deaths! Clandestine meetings! And a sad little boy next door.

And I'm barely into the third of the six nested stories comprising this novel.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? Have you seen the trailer? How do you feel about this book being translated to screen?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Her box of confidences

When one unlocks a woman's body, her box of confidences also spills. (You should try 'em yourself one time, women I mean.) Might this be connected to their hopelessness at cards? After the Act, I am happier just lying still, but Jocasta talked, impulsively, as if to bury our big black secret under littler grey ones. Learnt Ayrs contracted his syphilis at a bordello in Copenhagen in 1915 during an extended separation and has not pleasured his wife since that year; after Eva's birth, the doctor told Jocasta she could never conceive another child. She is v. selective about her occasional affairs, but unapologetic about her right to conduct same. She insisted that she still loves Ayrs. I grunted, dubiously. That love loves fidelity, she riposted, is a myth woven by men from their insecurities.

— from Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

Monday, August 13, 2012


It's the review that I read in Shelf Awareness that put this book — Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa — on my radar, but even so I'm not sure what the draw is — the title, the cover, the cast of characters ("including a muscular, tattooed ex-convict pastor of a cult religion, an Italian porn actress, a brave and honorable hotel switchboard operator, an imprisoned 70-year-old priest who knows where a treasure is hidden and a pretty journalist from Iceland with a penchant for shedding her clothes")?

I don't know why, but I had to have it, and I began scouring local bookshops. I could've ordered it online immediately, but no, I needed to find this book in physical space, hold it, weigh it. I did find it finally last week, not locally, but between trains in another city.

Now that I have it, I'm saving it for sometime soon.

Review at Full Stop:
There are a lot of stories to tell, and so Necropolis is a big book, not just physically, but also in what it contains: all the contrast of darkness and light; all the sex; all the death. All the violence and pride. All the tenderness and love. The day-to-day banality of existence beside the coursing adrenaline. While much contemporary experimental fiction concentrates on the failures of human communication — the liminal spaces — Gamboa seems more interested in how we finally succeed in sharing with each other.

Interview (May 3, 2011):
Here in the US I was just told that 2% of what they publish is translations. Two books in one hundred from all the languages in the world are translations, and the percentage of what is translated from Spanish language is even smaller, perhaps 0.4%, so there is place left for the very famous as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Bolaño and then a few others. But you don't write for that. Those are editorial issues. Literature is really something else, the text, the reader and that very strange relation.

Article "Secret Histories: On the creation of a Colombian national identity through crime fiction":
Yes, writing is an individualistic art — a writer relates experiences that are distinctive to him. But in a larger perspective, his observations and experiences are one part of a comprehensive social mosaic. And once transformed into a narrative, they form part of a common patrimony, available to anyone in the culture.

The importance of fiction stems from the defining power of the art form. A real novel is neither simply entertainment nor a passive experience. From the moment of reading, a novel enters a reader's life. So a book we have read deeply belongs to our biography as much as our bibliography. One life is a little life, but literature, through the silent pact that it establishes between writer and reader, multiplies the intense sensation that is living.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

God, death, and atheism

Brenner and God
I read Brenner and God, by Wolf Haas, earlier this summer and thoroughly enjoyed the story and the fresh manner of its telling (see my review).

A Q&A with the book's translator on the publisher's website offers some insight into the author's style:

What constitutes good style has been drummed into us to such an extent that, as good readers, we still bristle when a writer upsets those ingrained ideas. And what I see Wolf Haas doing is prying open this chasm between, on the one hand, how language behaves, and on the other, how language is enforced — and then letting his reader fall right in.


Death in Breslau
I don't recall how I first came across the series of Eberhard Mock investigations by Marek Krajewski, but they're among the most curious mysteries I've ever read.

Melville House Publishing is set to release the first novel, Death in Breslau, in September.

The first three books in this series were previously released by Quercus Publishing — and I've written a bit about them here (Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, Phantoms in Breslau) — but I'm pleased that Melville House will be making (at least) the first book available to a whole new audience, even while I'm trying to get my hands on the fourth: The Minotaur's Head.

Set in interwar Breslau (now Wrocław), these books offer a weird view on a society that is a historical and cultural mix of German, Polish, and Jewish. Nostalgic for the past, that society is shown to be perverted and corrupted and completely hypocritical in its drive to be modern and free-thinking. I enjoyed the first book particularly for how the police investigation was shown to be conducted amid inquiries regarding internal affairs and with a hovering Gestapo presence. Dark and original.


Shoes for atheists
At long last, atheists have their own shoes — atheists have soles too!

These shoes started off as a Kickstarter project. They look well-crafted and divinely comfortable. And they have a sense of humour — a black hole for a logo and a sole stamped with a message.

I haven't decided which colour I want, but I love the write-up for the literarily inspired "Nabokov cream":

Is there anything more beautiful in life than the pure, sweet, wondrous innocence of an unblemished, open and untainted soul?

Yes... the delightful process of getting that sole so fucking filthily dirty, and soiling its purity with so much titiliating sin and hedonistic whoredom that it can scarcely remember what colour it was to begin with.

This creamy, ivory, blank canvas of a shoeling is resplendent in her off-white milky maidenhood... but not for long, the little nymph, for you will introduce her to the real world... blemishing and sullying her with every step you take.

You're about to make a grown-up of this shoe.

The website as a whole is a cheeky bit of atheism-awareness, which maybe the world could use a little bit more of. And I could use some new shoes.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The difference between stupid and intelligent people...

"Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people — and this is true whether or not they are well-educated — is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations — in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward."

— from The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson.

While the above snippet may not be exactly subtle, and Stephenson himself lacks somewhat in subtlety, at least insofar as world-building goes (the concepts may be nuanced but their literary execution is not. Compare, for example, Miéville, who immerses you in a world with no explanation, it is a given; Stephenson explains everything for you — at least there is no danger of misreading his world.), I am beginning to wish the primer were real so that I might bestow one on my daughter. The primer is fast becoming my favourite imaginary book.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

His favorite town

Still on and on they pass, till voices call:
Behold the distant towers of Montreal!
The Royal Mountain throned upon the plain,
looks proudly down on all his wide domain.
Upon his brow he wears a forest crown,
And at his footstool sits his favorite Town;
Trade's potent Queen, who holds the balance true,
And weighs the wealth of nations passing through.

— from The U.E.: A Tale of Upper Canada (1846), by William Kirby.

We spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, and my sister spotted a plaque marking William Kirby's home.

Who's William Kirby, you ask? Historian, novelist, poet, and editor of the Niagara Mail.

I confess, I have not waded through the entirety of the above-cited narrative poem — it's a little florid for my liking, and from all I've learned about Kirby in the last 24 hours, I suspect the political sentiments behind the poem aren't entirely to my liking either. But I couldn't help but pick up on the Montreal reference — I can't wait to behold its distant towers again myself.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Maigret and Hannelore Headley

I'm at my mother's this week and not reading much at all, but I did manage to duck out of a downtown shopping-for-home-decor boutique visit to check out the used bookstore down the street.

Even though I've only ever been there a couple dozen time in my lifetime, I think of Hannelore Headley's as an institution. Most of those times were 25 years ago, in my last days of high school. Conveniently located a 10-minute walk from the school I went to and beside the park, I recall stopping there while cutting calculus and on my way out for coffee. Definitely I spent more time at Hannelore's than I did money.

It's hard to describe just how jam-packed this shop is with books. Floor to ceiling, but then you start scanning a shelf, step up on a stool, and reach for something and you realize the books are shelved two, sometimes three, deep. And then you shift your foot and knock over the 3-foot-high stack that sits on the floor in front of the shelves at the end of the aisle. Those at the ends and around corners are really the only ones in danger of toppling; the rest are so tightly packed, they prop each other up. You shuffle along sideways and bump into some boxes stacked two or three high, all crammed full of more books — fresh hauls waiting to be "shelved."

I'd given up all hope of finding anything I'd had in mind when I went in — books are organized by genre and arranged vaguely alphabetically, but I believe it uses a slightly different alpahbet than the standard English, with some of the letters swapping places and a couple extra letters thrown in — when a stack fell away to reveal the stack behind it, and three Simenon novels fell into my hands, which led me to explore the shelf beside and the boxes in front, and I found three more. My haul:

The Accomplices (1955)
Maigret Goes Home (1931)
Maigret at the Crossroads (1931)
Maigreat and the Hundred Gibbets (1931)
Maigret at the Coroner's (1952)
Maigret in Vichy (1968)

I'm most excited about The Accomplices, the only non-Maigret novel of the lot, but I love the look of Maigret Goes Home. Also, it's interesting to note that three of these books were originally published in French in 1931. Three books in the same year! And that's probably not all Simenon did that year.