Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book design: the comfort of thingy-ness

TED Talks: Chip Kidd, a page-turning, dog-earring, notes-in-the-margins-taking ink sniffer.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A vulturous boredom

For all of Sylvia Plath's poetry that I've been reading lately, most of it doesn't speak to me. Sure, I appreciate her nice turn of phrase, a clever juxtaposition, but it doesn't rend my heart or my gut the way I think poetry should, the way the best poetry does (for me). It doesn't make me gasp wordless, ngaa-ah. But this poem comes close.

The Hanging Man

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard's eyelid: 

A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.

A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.
If he were I, he would do what I did.

— from Ariel, by Sylvia Plath.

It is literature

With drawings! My edition doesn't have any drawings.

(See "And Now a Word from Our Sponsors.")

Monday, May 27, 2013

An opaque film

Humans multiplied and covered the Earth. Dependent on flesh and time, people began to live by the laws of the brain. They thought that the brain helped them to dominate space and time. In fact, it only enslaved them to disharmonious dependence on the surrounding world. People with well-developed brains were called intelligent. Intelligent people were considered the elite of humankind. They lived by the laws of the mind and taught them to others. People began to live by the mind, enslaving themselves in flesh and time. The developed mind engendered the language of the mind. And humankind began to speak this language. And this language covered the entire visible world in an opaque film. People stopped seeing and feeling things. They began to think them.

— from Bro, first book of Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sylvia — lifting a bell jar

It's been nigh on a month that I hosted a breakfast salon at the 15th Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, in which we discussed Sylvia Plath and her work, and The Bell Jar in particular.

It was an intimate group of people with very different relationships to Plath — from the gentleman with a mental illness who had a broad interest in how authors addressed depression et cetera in their writing, to the woman who'd been a fan of Plath throughout the 1950s and onwards, collecting a file folder of newspaper clippings about her and corresponding with Sylvia's mother after her death.

I'd spent a couple months refamiliarizing myself with The Bell Jar and sifting my way through her published Journals and other related work. (I've quoted this bit before, but:)

Life was not to be sitting in hot amorphic leisure in my backyard idly writing or not-writing, as the spirit moved me. It was, instead, running madly, in a crowded schedule, in a squirrel cage of busy people. Working, living, dancing, dreaming, talking, kissing — singing, laughing, learning. The responsibility, the awful responsibility of managing (profitably) 12 hours a day for 10 weeks is rather overwhelming when there is nothing, noone, to insert an exact routine into the large unfenced acres of time — which it is so easy to let drift by in soporific idling and luxurious relaxing. It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community, and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush, (or rather outrush,) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere — poor little frightened people, flailing impotent arms in the aimless air. That's what it feels like: getting shed of a routine. Even though one had rebelled terribly against it, even then, one feels uncomfortable when jounced out of the repetitive rut. And so with me.

— from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. July 11, Wellesley & Cape Cod, Massachusetts (summer 1952);
Journal July 1950 – July 1953.

Unsurprisingly, on closer inspection The Bell Jar turns out to be much more complicated than the easy, breezy voice of Esther Greenwood might lead you to believe. I mean, even the symbol of the bell jar — stifling, yet protective. Esther/Sylvia reveals mixed feelings toward almost every situation she finds herself in.

Why are mopey teenage girls drawn to Sylvia Plath?
I came to Sylvia Plath relatively late in life. And I'm glad that I did. I can't imagine myself as a teenage properly appreciating something like this:

Once when I visited Buddy I found Mrs Willard braiding a rug out of strips of wool from Mr Willards's old suits. She's spent weeks on that rug, and I had admired the tweedy browns and greens and blues patterning the braid, but after Mrs Willard was through, instead of hanging the rug on the wall the way I would have done, she put it down in place of her kitchen mat, and in a few days it was soiled and dull and indistinguishable from and mat you could buy for under a dollar in the Five and Ten.

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs Willard's kitchen mat.

So what do teenage girls get out of this? A warning? A prophecy? Sylvia was near 30 when she wrote this — with two small children and a troubled marriage (and I put forward that the maturity or experience level of a 30-year-old woman circa 1960 is near that of today's 40-year-old).

It's been said there's essentially no such thing as an innocent reading of The Bell Jar. Everyone knows it to be quasi-autobiographical, and everyone knows the tragic end Sylvia came to. She killed herself mere weeks after the novel was published.

The romance of the doom and gloom is the attraction to younger readers, I think; the material takes on significance secondarily.

Prose that transports
One salon attendee was particularly taken with one excerpt I'd selected:

I knew I should be grateful to Mrs Guinea, only I couldn't feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn't have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.

"In one sentence she takes you around the world," she said. Unleashed and recaptured, brought still under that bell jar.

Let us not forget that, despite the grim subject matter, The Bell Jar is poetic and funny.

I'm struck by the Sylvia's expressed desire, and it recurs in her Journals, to write fiction, that she found writing fiction harder than writing poetry, because poetry at least had rigid structure to fall back on. Poetry is its own kind of bell jar, I think.

Further reading
A few of the articles et cetera I've been perusing these last few months...

On Sylvia Plath, by Elizabeth Hardwick. New York Review of Books, May 23, 2013.
For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses.

Sylvia Plath's Joy, by Dan Chiasson. The New Yorker, Feb 12, 2013.
The feeling that "Ariel" is a discovery, a revelation, has never really faded.

There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath, The Atlantic, Feb 11, 2013.

"Daddy" Is Mommy, by Katie Roiphe. Slate, Feb 11, 2013.
Feminist critics have always had a soft spot for women driven to madness or suicidal despair by the patriarchy, but the story of Plath’s mental illness resists the simplicity of that or any explanation.

Sylvia Plath: reflections on her legacy. The Guardian, Feb 8, 2013.
"The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair." — Jeanette Winterson.

Sylvia Plath’s secrets are hidden in plain sight, by Jane Shilling. The Telegraph, Feb 2, 2013.
Of course, Plath is not unique in having acquired a dense carapace of romantic myth after her death. The history of literature is littered with wayward geniuses whose talent was prematurely cut off. Yet something sets Plath apart from the melancholy roll-call of Keats, Shelley, Byron, Brooke, Rimbaud, Radiguet, Woolf, Sexton, and latterly the young playwright Sarah Kane. However powerful the myths of their deaths, these writers are still known mainly by their works. In Plath’s case, her writing began, soon after her death, to be relegated to a supporting role in a seductive, but intensely misleading, narrative of victimhood.

Don't judge The Bell Jar by its cover, by Sam Jordison. The Guardian, Feb 1, 2013.
I even quite like the idea of someone mistaking the book for a sexy summer beach read and falling headlong into Esther Greenwood's cruel world.

Out of the ash, Sylvia Plath's legend rises anew, by Emma Garman. Salon, Jan 27, 2013.
What no one can dispute, though, is that Plath would be thrilled to witness the intricacies of her life still drawing fascination 50 years on: More than anything else, she longed to be famous, immortal, celebrated.

Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar still haunts me, by Kirsty Grocott. The Guardian, Jan 11, 2013.
The Bell Jar is so carefully constructed and considered. Despite the messy tangle of subject matter, Plath never rambles; and for all it's flowery and poetic language there is not an unconsidered word in the entire book.

Sylvia, a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, 2003.

Lady Lazarus, a film by Sandra Lahire, 1991.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The woman upstairs — a vertiginous magnificence

I loved Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. It's been a while since a book resonated with me in such a meaningful way.

I've recommended it to bunches of people, mostly women but not exclusively, but in one case I spontaneously advised, "But wait a few years, you're too young." I'm not one to prescribe reading, and certainly not on the basis of age, but I do believe that every book has its time and its place. The fact is: I read The Woman Upstairs now, being of a certain age and having faced certain disappointments, fumbling through some parts of my life and assessing my life in a different way than I did, say, ten years ago. [And! I will never have read Sylvia Plath as a teenager (but more on this in a future post, soon).]

Some call it a feminist novel; in some regards that's true, but mostly it's a human novel, about the anger that comes of betrayal, (and not, that I can see, by the patriarchy that is our society, but) by friends — people turning out not to be the people you thought they were, your mother also turning out not to be the person you thought she was (at least, having facets beyond those shown you), and life generally turning out not the way you thought it would. Doing what you thought was expected, and not only not getting the anticipated payoff, but discovering that you'd misconstrued those expectations from the beginning, or that those expectations of you hadn't ever existed outside your own head (OK, maybe that's more me, and less what's actually in the book). Still, it's not a scenario exclusive to women, though possibly women are more likely to fall victim to it. It's a midlife crisis, plain and simple, isn't it?

"Life's funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there's still so much of a life to get through."

So Nora's mother told her.

The anger
There's the issue of Nora's anger. The book starts and ends with it. But there's very little of it in between, as she relates the events of five years previous. She talks about the anger that she would develop, but she is a relatively normal — and normally emotional — person. Which makes it all the more mystifying to me why an interviewer would comment that she wouldn't want Nora as a friend.

Nora does have friends who see her through her troubles — they are good friends to her.

Didi is more comfortable in her skin than anybody else I've ever known, and I've always felt that being friends with her makes me closer to the person I imagine myself to be: someone who doesn't care about all the wrong things, like money or fashion or status, but who ferrets out the genuinely interesting.

I'd love to have Nora as a friend. She's smart and feeling and interesting, if troubled.

The story
Basically, not a lot happens. A family comes into Nora's life, a new student of hers (third grade) and his parents — an artist and an academic — and she gets swept up and away by them. They awaken something in her, the possibility of a different kind of life. Nora is inspired and motivated by them, to resume doing her art in a meaningful way, to think of herself and fulfill her own needs while they reignite her interest in the world outside of her daily grind. Nora acts like a woman in love, and she is in love with this exotic family, both as a unit and individually. This may sound a little perverse when stated blankly (and in some summaries of the novel it's made to sound quite unnatural), but I think it's a reasonable way to describe the excitement, the rush, the flurry of activity, emotion, energy, when you make a new friend and are exposed to new things.

I was happy. I was Happy, indeed. I was in love with love and every lucky parking spot or particularly tasty melon or unexpectedly abbreviated staff meeting seemed to me not chance but an inevitable manifestation of the beauty of my life, a beauty that I had, on account of my lack of self-knowledge, been up till now unable to see.

Then there's a betrayal.

The problem of experience
This novel drives homes the point that shared experiences are experienced differently. For example, I recall some experiences from my childhood as greatly important, yet they barely registered with my mother or my siblings, if they remember them at all. And they speak of other events involving me in such a way that I wonder if I was even present. Or like how when you meet someone and it makes an impression on you, but at a subsequent encounter, the other person doesn't remember you at all — the event simply hadn't registered on them in the same way. This novel's all about that. An experience may be in common, but every perception of it is unique — filtered through individual knowledge, emotional makeup, bias. You can never get inside somebody else's head.

The art
Nora's art, previously relegated to the spare bedroom of her apartment, attended to on evenings and weekends, is upgraded to a studio, shared with her new friend Sirena. It strikes me that their art is almost exactly opposite.

Sirena creates installations, "lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse," and videos of people experiencing the installations, of "this revelation that the beautiful world was fake, was made of garbage." Sirena's work requires wild abandon. She is fashioning Wonderland.

Nora envisions a series of dioramas, tiny replicas, of Emily Dickinson's Amherst bedroom, Virginia Woolf at Rodmell, the sanatorium suicide ward of Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick's room in Warhol's Factory. Dollhouses. They require painstaking detail. Yet despite the gloom of these personalities, Nora insists that Joy has a place in their rooms. For example, for Alice Neel, Nora wanted the colors of the future, "in the interstices, outside the windows, high up the walls, like shoots coming up through the earth, the promise of spring."

Of course, Sirena's work has critical and popular acclaim, while Nora's is unseen, unknown, small. And which of these artistic attitudes is the prevailing outlook out in the world?

Possibly Sirena's vision has been corrupted by the business of art. Possibly Nora's art is purer.

You know those moments, at school or college, when suddenly the cosmos seems like one vast plan after all, patterned in such a way that the novel you're reading at bedtime connects to your astronomy lecture, connects to what you heard on NPR, connects to what your friend discusses in the cafeteria at lunch — and then briefly it's as if the lid has come off the world, as if the world were a dollhouse, and you can glimpse what it would be like to see it whole, from above — a vertiginous magnificence. And then the lid falls and you fall and the reign of the ordinary resumes.

This novel's like that.

Lucy Jordan
Messud weaves the theme of the Ballad of Lucy Jordan throughout the novel. Nora associates Lucy Jordan with her mother, with what she knows of her mother, with the person she believed her mother to be. And clearly Nora is experiencing her own Lucy Jordan moment. "At the age of thirty-seven, she realized..."

We're left to wonder about the tragedy of never having gone to Paris, versus the tragedy of having gone to Paris. But I like to believe there is still Joy in the room.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I collapsed inward

The only thing that vaguely excited me was astronomy. Not exactly astronomy itself but the heavenly bodies, hanging in space. Imagining the Universe, it was as though I lost myself. And my heart would begin to throb.

And later,

Astronomy was studied only in the third year at university. Nevertheless, I began to race from my physics and mathematics classes to attend the lectures of Professor Karlov, a well-known astronomer and specialist on the spectral analysis of planets. Listening to his rather muffled voice talking about the stellar parallax, the satellites of Mars, sunspots, the orbits of comets, and meteorite showers, I closed my eyes and forgot about everything. I collapsed inward and hung in starry space. And this feeling turned out to be stronger than others. It was incredibly pleasurable. I even stopped hearing Karlov himself. And I forgot about astronomy. I simply hung amid the planets and stars.

— from Bro, first book of Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin.

I can't recall in what context I first heard of this trilogy. I'm greatly enjoying the first book(Bro) — I mean, Tunguska event! What's not to like about that? (I have a feeling I may spend the summer with this event, through the eyes of Pynchon, Lem, and others.)

But I came across a review this morning that has me worried for what's in store. Has anybody read this novel? Scandalously unreadable, or just ambitious and unruly?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

So isolate and inadequate

It's the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly, or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they're lying to you, but as often because they're lying to themselves.

— from The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

We're all furies: The amazing first fifteen pages of Claire Messud'sThe Woman Upstairs

Fifteen pages into Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and wow — I am thoroughly wowed. I love this narrator, this angry woman, forty-two years old ("which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one"), single and childless, a grade-school art teacher. She's angry, on fire, and real.

I haven't read Claire Messud before, but I've been meaning to for years, and I had my on this book for months before it was released. I don't go looking for review copies much anymore, as I still seem to get far more than I can reasonably cope with, but when I read the Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messud, I needed to get my hands on a copy as quickly as possible, so I asked the publisher.

The relevant, goat-getting bit of the interview:

I wouldn't want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? [...] If you’re reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn't "is this a potential friend for me?" but "is this character alive?"

The fury of being a woman
What strikes me from the opening pages of the novel is that Nora is genuine. Messud gets her, maybe she is her, certainly she knows women like her. It's like Messud has peered inside my head and extracted bits from the dark corners. I mean dark.

The voice, the character, is shaping up to be uncomfortably honest. In this sense, she reminds me a little of Lionel Shriver's Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin), admitting to thoughts and feelings that women aren't supposed to have.

It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Don't all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We're all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we're brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

The failure of vision
There's this bit about failure, which was truly eye-opening for me. Nora feels like she's failed, and so do I, in the sense that our current situation is measured against some once-imagined situation. Or rather, against several possible variations of a vision. Too many possibilities. Too much imagination.

She (Nora, or Messud) contrasts this with the type of success men are particularly good at.

Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: is is focused only on one thing, whether it's on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It's a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It's myopia. But that's what it takes. You need to see everything else — everyone else — as expendable, as less than yourself.

As if to say, my visions, my ambitions, have too many superfluous details. I must learn to pare them down to their essence.

The standards to which we hold our friends versus our fictions
An article in the Atlantic, Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters?, inspired in part by question put to Messud in the above-noted interview, quotes an essay by Emily St. John Mandel on unlikeable characters:

The point is that these characters aren't real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn't like them very much.

I disagree. On several points.

  • Of course fictional characters aren't actually real, but they are, most of them. They reflect some reality out there in the real world. If they didn't, we would dismiss all reading as purely escapist.
  • The problem is that we do not hold our friends to the same moral and behavioral standards by which we pass judgment on fictional characters. For two reasons:
    1. We lack the moral rectitude to actually call our friends out on their shortcomings. It wouldn't be polite, they might not like us anymore. We are far more willing to forgive real people than fictional characters, not because we are compassionate creatures but because we are morally lazy. On the other hand, it's really easy to judge a book.
    2. We don't know our friends nearly as well as we know fictional characters. Friends share with you only what they want to share. But when you live inside someone's head for a week or two, you discover all sorts of things about them, even unpalatable things they might rather wish the author had never divulged to us. With fictional characters we often have more information, more background, more insight — more evidence by which to condemn them.

Nora Eldridge is alive, and more real than some of my friends sometimes appear to be! The first 15 pages of this novel are fantastic! I'll let you know how the rest of it holds up.


Friday, May 10, 2013

A crocheted toilet-paper-cover doll

I finished Wolf Haas's The Bone Man the other night, and I enjoyed it, but I also have some mixed feelings about it that I'll try to talk out here.

The narration is pretty wonderful, most of the time, except when it isn't. And that's not because the narration changes, no, not at all, it's because, you know, life. You as a reader change chapter to chapter, from your morning commute to waiting for the timer to go off indicating supper's ready. Mostly there's something really compulsive about it, it's lively, it chatters, it hooks you, but occasionally it grates, because, I dunno, just shut up already, like when you're cornered into a conversation with someone who is in fact charming and interesting, but at some point it's just too much, I have other people to talk to, things to do, books to read, but the other party fails to acknowledge this. It can be pretty exhausting. I'm not saying the novel trapped me in any real way, except maybe it did with its wily wiles. It's not like I felt I had to be polite about it and read through to the end. But it addicted me and sometimes I resented that. It's complicated.

So sometimes the chattiness grates, or starts to, anyway. I apologize for subjecting you to it here, but it seems I'm unable to help myself in this matter, I'm hopelessly stuck in the groove of mimicry.

This is the second novel featuring Austrian private eye Simon Brenner to be made available in English, thanks to Melville House Publishing, but the events of The Bone Man are much earlier in Brenner's timeline than what transpires in Brenner and God.

The narrator has all these verbal tics, needless to say, part of his charm. And we don't know who this narrator is, although what he relates is pretty much from Brenner's perspective, with a running commentary, so we associate the narrator very closely with Brenner, and then suddenly we recognize those verbal tics, trademark phrasings, coming out of another character's mouth. And that's a bit, you know, jarring.

And at this point I should probably insert a spoiler warning, because I want to quote a passage, and it was really difficult to choose a passage because the thing about this book — the style, the story, the humour — is that everything builds on everything else, and it won't do to tell you the punchline, it needs, I mean really needs, the long, drawn-out set-up. So to quote a passage, I have to give you context, and really, it shouldn't spoil the book for you (and don't you let it), by the time you get round to reading it you will have forgotten the details of what I write here.

But you need to know that an artist has gone missing, only he hasn't really gone missing at all, he simply decided to live as a woman, so that's what he's been doing, quite openly, working as a waitress (a really ugly waitress we're often reminded) and enjoying (if what's heard through the paper-thin walls is to be believed) a very exuberant sex life.

The Ford was full of the kind of crap that certain people have in their cars, a CD was dangling from the rearview mirror, a crocheted toilet-paper-cover doll was standing on the rear shelf, and a "Get Home Safe" picture frame was glued next to the glove box. But the yellowing photo of the man in the frame must have been circa Elvis Presley, because the kiss curl — a catastrophe.

It didn't come as a particular surprise to Brenner that today's man can decide: I'd rather be a woman. And there are even operations, and he understood all that. And that an artist might think, I'd like to be an ordinary person again, he understood, too. But that someone would go so far in his transformation as to have a crocheted toilet-paper-cover doll in his car — that was something Brenner couldn't comprehend. And was thinking to himself now, maybe that's the reason why the waitress made such a racket every night. Maybe it wasn't purely lust. Maybe there was also some twinge of a desire to be caught, i.e. "liberate me from my toilet-paper doll."

I'm not even sure that's funny anymore. But somewhat interesting, no? A crocheted toilet-paper-cover doll!

Oh, right, the story, there's an actual story. Story feels pretty secondary to style here, but it still does pretty well. I got confused a few times about who was who, but ultimately it all hung together.

Yes, I'll read more Haas.

Thursday, May 09, 2013


The POP Montreal International Music Festival and Matrix Magazine are again joining forces to, ahem, rock your literary world. Announcing Canada's most innovative and exciting literary competition:

We are looking for writing that really pops. So if you can bring the noise with poetry and/or short fiction, it's time to smash some bottles and trash some hotels (but not really though). If you have what it takes, you will get your work published in Matrix, and get free travel to POP Montreal for a night in your honour.

And by writing that pops — or popping writing, or popped writing, or pooped writing, or pop writing, or poems about poppies — (maybe even pope writing) — they simply mean: anything goes. This year's judges are Eileen Myles (poetry) and Sheila Heti (fiction). Residents of Canada and the United States can submit entries till June 30. See Matrix Magazine for submission guidelines and other details.

POP Montreal 2013 takes place September 25–29, but Montreal hosts all variations of POP all summer long. It's a truly multidisciplinary cultural event, and it makes me giddy to see music and literature combined in this way. Consider participating.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why I don't like dogs

The two Rottweilers, very well behaved now — they obey that wisp of a woman, heel, incredible. And you see, that's why I don't like dogs, one minute they're practically tearing your head off, and the next they're pandering to you — if that's what you're looking for, you might as well just stick with people.

— from The Bone Man, by Wolf Haas.

I really enjoyed the narrator first time out in Brenner and God. But this time, you know, starting to grate. So I gave it a rest for a couple days, let the stress dissipate — not the stress of the book, I was more or less enjoying that, but the stresses of life and such I mean — drank it away, really. And now I'm in love with the narrator all over again. Also, craving fried chicken and a beer.

Monday, May 06, 2013

These and other things I would have liked to say

"Guido, how well you look! Have you been going to the gym over the winter? Are you alone or with a girlfriend?" Here she winked, as if to say: You can tell me all right, I'll confine myself to putting a notice in the paper and pasting up a few hundred posters around the town.

"Yes, you bitch, I'm alone and I want to stay that way. However, since you've turned up to get on my tits I've got something to say to you, so lend an ear. Your dinners were always a torture and, most of all, the food was vomit-worthy. I know they all said you were a great cook, but that will always remain a mystery to me. Your husband is, if possible, worse than you are. And your friends are, if possible, worse than him. One time they even suggested I join the Rotary Club. I want to tell you that I'm a Communist. That at so many dinners for so many years you were entertaining a Communist. Got that?"

These and other things I would have liked to say. But obviously I replied with nauseating courtesy.

Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio, was the perfect palate cleanser of a book for me last week — matters of truth and justice, characters of substance, yet light of touch.

Guido Guerrieri, defense counsel and narrator of the story, is now inextricably intertwined with the impression of the author I developed when I saw him in person. And that's not a bad thing. In fact it makes for a charming read.

Having never read a John Grisham novel, I do not what the standard is for "courtroom drama" or "legal thriller." This book is not a criminal investigation, and the truth about the crime is never fully resolved. This novel has courtroom scenes and some legal minutiae, but this aspect to me feels incidental. I almost care less about the outcome of the case than I do about how Guido gets on with his day to day, how he comes to grips with being separated, how his interior monologue unfolds.

(In this regard it reminds me a little of Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity and it is a legal thriller to a similar extent — all that life getting in the way of the story. The plot, if one can so call the main legal proceeding, is interrupted by neighbours, pop music, and philosophical meanderings.)

I'm quite certain I'll be picking up another Carofiglio, but it won't be for the puzzle to solve, or the suspense of the proceedings, or throwing myself in with the defendant's lot. It'll be for Guido alone.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The world will come to an end amid general applause

The Happy Conflagration
What happens to those who try to warn the present age?

It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was just a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning, they shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke.

"A" in Either/Or, I, p. 30 (SV II 30)

— from The Parables of Kierkegaard, edited by Thomas C Oden.

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Søren Kierkegaard:
Kierkegaard 2013: The program includes art and literary exhibitions in Berlin and Paris, University conferences in Europe and South America, a newly written rock-cabaret about Kierkegaard in Shanghai, and international authors discussing Kierkegaard on stage at The Royal Library in Copenhagen.
The Original Kierkegaard, an exhibition at The Royal Library, National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Subterranean reading

Underground New York Public Library
Local newspaper La Presse has built a profile of readers on each of Montreal's metro lines: Orange Line marathon readers, Blue Line students, etc.

Books sighted span the gamut — Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, Stephen King and George RR Martin, Umberto Eco and Stefan Zweig. Also poetry and nonfiction. The larger point is that metro riders are reading real books, as opposed to, I guess, more disposable material.

It should be noted that Montreal's main metro hub is situated beneath the Grande Bibliothèque.

Books that have made people miss their stop: The Hunger Games (poll winner by a wide margin), The Count of Monte Cristo, Life of Pi. You?

See also Underground New York Public Library.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Wednesday, May 01, 2013