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.