Thursday, August 29, 2013

Its humane manner

Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam includes a marvelous typography note honouring Walbaum, #17 on a list of the 100 best typefaces of all time. I'm wishing Atwood would write an account of the circumstances concerning the great mystery of its designer.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Drinking is orbit."

I felt my soul was dying and I didn't know what to do. Martin said this was called "growing up."

I read Iris Has Free Time, by Iris Smyles, earlier this summer, and I have to admit that I liked it far more than I expected to. I write about it now in time for you to get a copy for your favourite college student before they walk forever out of their life.

Edmund White said of this book:
Iris Smyles has reinvented Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly for the 21st century — with this difference: she inhabits rather than observes her appealing character.

It's this quote that sold me on this novel, inspiring me to accept a review copy. Those are two distinct voices White references that are really tough to top. I'm not sure he's right about inhabiting versus observing (and I'm not even sure it's fair of him to state it given that there are narrators observing Holly and Sally from the outside).

Iris is told by Iris, probably not in her free time but likely as part of actual coursework, or in that part of her life when she commits to being serious about something, but that's the part we have trouble accessing because this about the free time, not the other stuff. Kind of.

Paul La Farge had this to say:
If Hemingway's novels are icebergs, drifting majestically through a chilly sea, Iris Smyles' Iris Has Free Time is a mountain of glitter: iridescent, fabulous, and always changing its shape. It's a monument to the idea of fun, and is itself a delight.

And on the basis of this quote, I am fairly certain I will never choose to read a novel by La Farge. Mostly because I think he's wrong. (But also, really? "Drifting majestically through a chilly sea"? Barf. But maybe this quote was included to be funny?)

There's also a touch of Esther Greenwood and Sally Jay Gorse about Iris. Bridget Jones too, with more alcohol and more hangover.

So while everybody chats about how hilarious this book is on the back cover, I'm wondering if I read the same book, cuz while there were antics and hijinks, I'm left with more of a sad, pathetic, tragic, depressing vibe. Except, of course, for the fact that she gets out it, she kind of grows out of it, but where's the fun in that? Doesn't it just go to prove that her youth was misspent? And if fun were the ideal, we'd prefer her never to grow up.

But yes, there is humour.

And though I enjoyed the show Sex and the City, about a sex columnist like me, I was always mystified by how the four women could have sex with a man and after discard him so easily. My column is much less Sex and the City and much more Tess of the d'Urbervilles in that respect. Tess of the d'Urbervilles minus the rape and murder, but otherwise nearly identical. Tess and the City would be the name of my TV show if I had one, and it would be subtitled The Adventures of a Pure Woman in Manhattan Faithfully Rendered. Because I'm just like Hardy's Tess, a pure woman corrupted by society. Remember that, future husband, when you read my binder full of clippings!

I should say, also, that I really, really, really hate the cover. The tone of it, in both senses of colour and attitude. It would have never enticed me to pick it up. And having it read it, it feels all wrong. I especially hate the tutu. I see Iris in all kinds of crazy get-ups, but not a tutu. But that's just me.

Despite my misgivings, I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple hundred pages of this novel. They breezed along, I wanted to hear more. Tell me what college was like, Iris, and that empty time afterward, because it was like that for me too. Isn't it great we can laugh about it now?

By the 300-page mark it was all feeling a little tedious, particularly since I'd heard some of the stories before. Structurally, I couldn't quite get the hang of this book. The prologue is 50 pages long. Events are out of chronological order, and some are retold in different contexts, with a different memory perception filter.

How fleeting is an afternoon, when compared to its memory? The scary stories have it backwards, I think. It is we the living who are the ghosts of this world, we who haunt the past.

I totally get that, I'm just not convinced the book's structure promotes it.

Take Chapter 9, for example, the drinking games. They're funny. Setting them in a chapter of their own adds, what, a layer of sadness? But we've already read about some of them, in context, so why separate them out? I suspect some weird editorial compromises were struck. A la, "I can't decide which telling I love better, can't we keep them both?"

Anyway, if you've ever drifted along in and out of college, got drunk, and wondered what the hell you were going to do with your life, Iris Has Free Time is worth reading, at least until you get bored of it.

(Was she really so alone? I remember her always with people, drawing people into her web of schemes. The aloneness comes later, in her mind.)

See also the short mockumentary film, At Home with Iris Smyles.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Working, seeing, being

Some of the things I've been reading and thinking about this week...

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, Strike! Magazine:
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the '60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Learning How to Live, Jenny Diski, New Statesman:
An unquenchable passion for work might be a panic-stricken way of concealing the fear of a lack of passion for life itself.


Children are always being told to stop doing "nothing" when they're reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the "nothing" is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn't boring.

Teach Your Kids That What's Good For Them Is Bad, by Sophia Dembling, Psychology Today:
I have heard frequently from parents whose children's teachers have expressed concern about a child's tendency to play alone or lack of a large social circle. Learning to play together nicely is part of the lesson plan, learning to happily play alone is not. Daydreamers are chastised. School campuses have few spaces that facilitate solitude; school schedules rarely accommodate quiet time.

The Art of Looking: What 11 Experts Teach Us about Seeing Our Familiar City Block with New Eyes, by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings [a review of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz]:
Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call "expertise," acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us.


And so we return to the straitjackets of our perception, that disconnect between seeing and knowing what to look for, filtered through the uncompromising sieve of our attention.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

He could not endure in it

Everything you've heard about John Williams' Stoner is true. (Bryan Appleyard's review lists out many of the responses to this novel.)

It is remarkable for the clarity of its prose and its force. I have already quoted on this blog examples of the sharp portraits Williams renders.

It is the story of William Stoner, a very ordinary man who grew up on a farm and rather accidentally, fatalistically, becomes a professor of English. He makes his bed, he lies in it (although, "make" here is far too aggressive a verb to describe the passive flow of Stoner's life). Family drama and the politics at the university punctuate his otherwise very ordinary life. He tries to do right, he sometimes fails. Sometimes he tries to be a good teacher and succeeds, but he lapses into indifference easily. He is wronged several times over. He endures.

There's such plainness in the telling that the reader aches from its brutal sincerity.

If the novel has a shortcoming it's in its depiction of the three key women in Stoner's life: the wife, the daughter, and the lover. They are never explicated, but to be fair, the book isn't about them. (I for one would love to read the novels that tell their tales.) The wife is clearly a villain, but surely she is as ordinary as Stoner, only more disappointed, more unfulfilled. The daughter is deep well of still waters, the offspring of both her parents, that graces Stoner's life periodically, only as much as his wife allows. The lover verges on not quite believable — "My God, how I used to lust after you" (after Stoner!, reserved and stooped) has a streak of male fantasy about it. But the women are expertly drawn to the extent that the aim it to ensure that Stoner is cast as the hero of his own life.

Stoner reflects on the death of his mentor, Archer Sloane:
The coroner announced heart failure as the cause of death, but William Stoner always felt that in a moment of anger and despair Sloane had willed his heart to cease, as if in a last mute gesture of love and contempt for a world that had betrayed him so profoundly that he could not endure in it.
Stoner's death might be similarly perceived.

Clear, compelling, thoughtful, sometimes surprising, and a quick read. Recommended.

Monday, August 19, 2013

One of the greatest playwrights you've never heard of

Maybe I'm not quite dead now because I can feel how boring all this is.
Sławomir Mrożek died last week.

Some 19 years ago I spent a summer in Poland. In theory I was studying language and literature and getting credit for it. In practice, this study program was merely an easy way to spend the summer in Poland — i.e., room and board for several weeks, and the university residence in Krakow would serve as a convenient home base for several weeks afterward.

I skipped most of the grammar sessions, but to my own surprise I religiously attended the seminar on 20th-century Polish literature, which started with Wyspiański, who had the audacity to depict God in a stained glass window. And for a few months, everything I hadn't known about my Polish cultural heritage made sense to me. All the Tradition and Literature that had been paraded before me, snippets of poetry and film versions of great dramas, suddenly had context. Influenced by Viennese Secessionism and French Impressionism and driven by a unique set of historical and political circumstances, Polish Arts were grand, but also subversive and often secret — those works that were hidden from authorities were in effect being hidden from the rest of the world too; those that were disguised may not have been recognized for what they were on the outside; and another class of art was produced by émigrés/defectors, the likes of Gombrowicz, Miłosz, and Mrożek, often politically difficult work that couldn't be entirely owned by either side.

I would translate this work, I decided. This was my mission. To act as an ambassador of Polish literature. See what greatness had been hidden away for so long!

But, you know, life. And so.

Those days, a few thousand złoty (a couple bucks) would gain you admission to see a play being staged any night of the week in several venues, usually medieval stone cellars converted into cabaret-type bars. I saw a lot of theatre that summer.

When I saw Mrożek was being staged at the Teatr Stary, I asked around. You don't know Mrożek? But he's our greatest contemporary playwright! He's like Ionesco, only very, very Polish. Everyone knows Ionesco, why don't they know Mrożek? Rhinoceros, elephant, same kind of thing.

Stuck with the label of absurdist, perhaps ironic is a better fit — subtler, gentler, more traditional than absurd. But possibly less forgiving (that is, theatre of the absurd can get away with a lot more shit); irony endures the difficulty of not always being construed as such.

I forked out big money (relatively speaking) to see Milość na Krymie (Love in the Crimea). I don't remember much by way of plot, but the staging and acting of it was spellbinding.

The program for that event (which I dug out on hearing of his death) includes Mrożek's essay, Teatr a Rzeczywistość. It would take me forever and a day to translate it, but you can read about that essay here. (It's actually a pretty interesting artifact as a program, because it contains so much stuff.)

Puppeturgy: The Ends of Theatre & the Postmodern Stage, an essay that addresses Mrożek's lecture on Theatre versus Reality:
The limits of a stage are clear and well defined: one can be either on a stage or off a stage, but never in between, because such an intermediate zone simply cannot exist. With reality it is entirely different. Although it is obvious that reality begins where the stage ends, nobody really knows where are its limits. It is not even clear whether it has limits at all.

(It serves well to be reminded of this as I'm set to read Bulgakov's Black Snow soon. Which calls to mind also Pamuk's Snow.)

Arni Ibsen, Icelandic playwright, interviews Sławomir Mrożek: No one believes plays.

Read "The Elephant," a short story by Mrożek, online.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mrs. Bostwick

Mrs. Bostwick spoke less frequently and less directly of herself, but Stoner quickly had an understanding of her. She was a Southern lady of a certain type. Of an old and discreetly impoverished family, she had grown up with the presumption that the circumstances of need under which the family existed were inappropriate to its quality. She had been taught to look forward to some betterment of the condition, but the betterment had never been very precisely specified. She had gone into her marriage to Horace Bostwick with that dissatisfaction so habitual within her that it was a part of her person; and as the years went on, the dissatisfaction and bitterness increased, so general and pervasive that no specific remedy might assuage them. Her voice was thin and high, and it held a note of hopelessness that gave a special value to every word she said.
— from Stoner, by John Williams.

Things I haven't read this summer

Books I fully intended to read this summer but haven't, in addition to a few other books I generously allowed myself to acquire more recently in anticipation of depleting the summer stock, hah!, while finishing the two massive gazillion-page novels I swore to finish this summer (only I'm really reading only just the one of them and deciding that the other shall be set aside after all, given that it's a trilogy and I can rather easily justify putting off its other parts for later), not to mention (not) writing a little about a couple small books that snuck in along the way, but honestly because I just had to have them — don't you just love the Melville House Bulgakov covers? — and perhaps Stoner doesn't belong in this pile, as I'd never really intended to read it (well, I thought I might get around to it someday) but then it came my way and I've been sneaking peeks at it, and now I'm almost finished, it's that compelling, and I'm slightly horrified that Stone upon Stone is so massive, and I think I bought Asterios Polyp by accident thinking it was something else, and this doesn't include the ebooks I've downloaded. Really I'd just like some light reading. Summer.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Archer Sloane

The instructor was a man of middle age, in his early fifties; his name was Archer Sloane, and he came to his task of teaching with a seeming disdain and contempt, as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it. He was feared and disliked by most of his students, and he responded with detached, ironic amusement. He was a man of middle height, with a long, deeply lined face, cleanly shaven; he had an impatient gesture of running his fingers through the shock of his gray curling hair. His voice was flat and dry, and it came through barely moving lips without expression of intonation; but his long thin fingers moved with grace and persuasion, as if giving to the words a shape that his voice could not.

— from Stoner, by John Williams.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Time-slip, gubble, gubble

I can see what lies ahead for me if I continue to lose, step by step, to this completely psychotic boy. Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world, especially the objects which matter: the warmhearted people there. And what takes their place? A dreadful preoccupation with — the endless ebb and flow of one's own self. The changes emanating from within which affect only the inside world. It is a splitting apart of the two worlds, inner and outer, so that neither registers on the other. Both still exist, but each goes its own way.

It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once the person becomes psychotic, nothing ever happens to him again.

Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick, is a gem of a novel.

For some reason, it's taken me ages to read this slim book (220 pages). Everything moves along nicely (though some sci-fi fans call it slow), the English is easy, you want to know what happens next — it's not exactly demanding, but I think it deserves to be processed, not to be rushed.

It's set on Mars, but it's not a distant shiny high-tech future — it's a wild west–type frontier, with land claim stakes, the maltreatment of aboriginal people (Bleekmen), travelling salesmen, and Union politics.

Earth is overpopulated. Mental illness afflicts one in three. Earth has established other colonies, but Mars is a near-forgotten outpost — humans have never managed to irrigate the land sufficiently (or understand the ways of the Bleekmen) to support large numbers. Jack Bohlen emigrated to Mars to ease his schizophrenia, by living a simpler life. Jack's wife regularly pops pills to stave off mental illness, and this it portrayed as a commonplace practice.

Jack encounters Arnie Kott, a tycoon of sorts with his own psychological problems. Arnie's son is in a facility for children with, as we say these days, special needs — he's autistic, as is the Manfred, the son of Jack's neighbour. Manfred's dad early on commits suicide, the ultimate manifestation of his depression.

One doctor has a theory regarding mental illness: that if life is a movie, for the mentally ill it plays at too many frames a second for them to comprehend. To establish communication with those who are closed off by or trapped inside their illness, life must be replayed for them in slow motion. Arnie commissions Jack to build such a mechanism.

Dick conflates schizophrenia with autism, and with depression too. Whether the basis for this comes from the medical literature of the period or from Dick's own experience I do not know, but for an open-minded reader this conflation shouldn't upset the exploration of how time is perceived and processed.

Because of this time-processing distortion, it's believed that Manfred can see the future. Indeed, Jack and others appear to have flashes of what is to come, but Arnie, while ostensibly seeking to help his own son, is interested in tapping knowledge of the future as evidenced in the most disturbed individuals for personal gain. But then, everyone has an agenda.

The novel starts getting a little trippy about halfway through. There's a brilliant and disturbing sequence where the same scene is replayed, including from Manfred's perspective (gubble, gubble) — it's an overlay of potential outcomes. Add to Manfred's visions the Bleekmen's shamanistic-like practices, and Arnie believes he's found a way to travel through time and better manipulate his business dealings. But, fate and all that.

Martian Time-Slip has political intrigue and personal drama. And Immanuel Kant. And as a time-travel novel, it is remarkably complex and subtle.

Written in 1964, it is slightly dated in its portrayal of women and its understanding of mental illness, both of which I believe are forgivable as a product of its time.

Brian Aldiss:
ANY DISCUSSION OF DICK'S WORK makes it sound a grim and appalling world. So, on the surface, it may be; yet it must also be said that Dick is amazingly funny. The terror and the humor are fused. It is this rare quality which marks Dick out. This is why critics, in seeking to convey his essential flavour, bring forth the names of Dickens and Kafka, earlier masters of ghastly comedy.

Bill Sherman, Blogcritics: "But his core ideas and characterization remain transcendent; even if some of the jargon employed to explain the psychological ideas seem a bit dated."

Jason K., "It's avoidance of unbelievable and fantastic futuristic adventures works in its favor. The characters are faced with very recognizable and realistic dilemmas."

Read Martian Time-Slip online.

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Eléazard is not only reviewing a manuscript concerning Athanasius Kircher. He keeps a notebook:
Minor Chinese Officials:
Official in charge of the Confines
Official in charge of insignia made of feathers
Inspector of medicine taters
Commissioner in charge of demanding submission from rebels
Head Clerk of the office for receiving subjugated regels
Grand Master of reprimands
Officer of the tracks
Official in charge of the Entrance and the Inside
Grand Rear Secretary of the Grand Rear Secretariat Official charged with embellishing translations
Official charged with showing and observing
Observer of draughts
Sub-director of the multitudes
Superintendent of frogs
Condemned man of noon
Official charged with keeping his eye glued to the cupboard keyholes
Official charged with preserving and clarifying
Official charged with making good the emperor's oversights
Leader of the blind
Minister of winter
Shaker of hands
Superintendent of leather boots
Regulator of female tones
Participant in deliberations on advantages and disadvantages
Official charged with speeding up delayed dispatches
Musician for secular occasions on a short tour of duty Grand supervisor of fish
Fisher of rorquals
— from Where Tigers Are at Home, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès.

(Hah! Anyone else remember Mr. Shake Hands Man?)

Monday, August 05, 2013


"I read your book," said Gamache to Ruth as the two of them sat in front of the cheery fire while Peter puttered in the kitchen and Clara browsed her bookshelves for something to read.

Ruth looked as though she'd rather be sitting in scalding oil than next to a compliment. She decided to ignore him and took a long gulp of her Scotch.

"But my wife has a question."

"You have a wife? Someone agreed to marry you?"

"She did and she was only a little drunk. She wants to know what FINE means in your title."

"I'm not surprised your wife has no idea what fine means. Probably doesn't know what happy or sane means either."

"She's a librarian and she was saying in her experience when people use capital letters it's because the letters stand for something. Your title is I'm FINE with the FINE in capitals."

"She has brains, your wife. She's the first to notice that, or at least to ask. FINE stands for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical. I'm FINE."

"You certainly are," agreed Gamache.

Dead Cold (alternately known as A Fatal Grace), by Louise Penny, was a terrific vacation read — swift-moving, not very demanding, but also charming and thoughtful. (The vacation was drizzly, foggy, and at sea, calling for just this sort of thing.)

This is the second in the series of novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the second that I've read (though I'm reading them out of order).

Penny's latest novel, to be released later this month, is How the Light Gets In, which title comes from a line in a Leonard Cohen song: "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

This line crops up in Dead Cold also, and it's clearly a recurring theme of Penny's — the flaws, often fatal (given that these are mystery novels), in characters and in their constructs — the ideas they hold and the lives they build. But the flaws are not wholly negative; they make space for all sorts of wonderful things like love, for illumination and insight, only tragically sometimes (but not always) too late.

Two dead women start off the story, one rich bitch whom nobody liked, the other homeless. Of course they're connected, and more death follows in their wake. Part police procedural, part "cozy," with philosophizing, humour, and lightness.

Set in the fictional village of Three Pines (somewhere in the Eastern Townships), it's populated by artists and poets and book lovers who quote Atwood and Yeats. The sense of place is marvelous; Penny treats Montreal and its environs lovingly. She gets the Ogilvy Christmas window just right. And the cold — as you might guess from the title, there's a lot of cold in this novel; winter in these parts is just like that. Also she deftly incorporates some of the peculiarities of French-English coexistence.

These books satisfy my definition of a comfort read. I'll be reading more from Louise Penny as the nights get chillier.


Sunday, August 04, 2013


My family's been in town the last few days, and one of the highlights for me was checking out the Fantasia International Film Festival with my brother.

We saw L'Autre Monde, a film that documents some of the goings on in the mystical region of Rennes-le-Château, Montségur, and Bugarach and the stunningly weird personalities that inhabit the place — namely Uranie Teillaud, who obsessively applies compass to map to triangulate meaning, and Jaap Rameijer, who photographs spirit orbs, among others.

It touches on the history of the region with regard to Holy Grail legends, Mary Magdalene, and the Cathar genocide, but it focuses on a couple residents who deeply believe in the power of the place. While the filmmaker, Richard Stanley, himself is a believer, he lets his subjects talk themselves into positions that are simply ridiculous. It's just short of cruel, but Stanley rather surprisingly manages to generate sympathy for these characters, who are quite obviously, he admitted in the Q&A that followed the screening, nuts.

As a bonus for me, just outside the cinema was an exhibit of Polish posters:
Barbara "Basia" Baranowska — best known in North America for her poster for Andrzej Zulawski's Possesion — is the unsung hero of Polish poster art. Whereas the likes of Jan Lenica developed a distinct, often instantly recognizable style, Barbara Baranowska was a chameleon (as reflected in her alternating use of "Basia," "Basha" and "Bacha" as her professional name). She donned a variety of graphic personae — from the sometimes brutal cut-outs of her early Polish book jackets to voluptuous, almost psychedelic surrealism of her French film posters. While she may not be the most prolific artist of her generation, the works she produced in Poland during the 1960s and France in the 1970s are unforgettable.

The poster exhibit ends today, but the film festival runs for a few more days.