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 AndrĂ© 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.