Sunday, June 29, 2014

When I'm not here

I MOOC too much.

I'm currently enrolled in only one online class, but the coursework is a little heavy. I'm not even convinced that I'm enjoying Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, but I feel pressured to do the readings and to do the assignments. I tell myself I don't have to do anything I don't want to do — I'm a grownup, the course is free, I can read what I damn well please — and that the grades aren't important, and they aren't, yet they are. But having made the initial commitment, how can I not even try?

So I find myself reading for reasons other than pleasure. I'm not sure I like it.

I enrolled because I wanted to read Ursula K LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. Which is a dumb reason, because I have a copy; look, it's sitting right there, I could read it whenever I want.

Fortunately, I have in fact read a good deal of the material previously. To this point, I can say that Dracula and Frankenstein are justifiably classics and worth (re)reading.

But I'm not sure I've learned anything. The professor has been a little too focused on sexual symbolism (in fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, and Dracula) — he discovers much in what, I believe, isn't there. Some of the lectures have been positively eye-rolling. Also, in his view, all fiction is fantasy, so I'm failing to discover anything I didn't already know about "science fiction" or the "the human mind" (or "our modern world" for that matter).

I'm thinking maybe I was never meant to study literature. I should simply enjoy it.

What I am establishing in taking these courses is some kind of discipline: setting a goal, sticking to schedule, completing the task. The trick now is to carry this ability over to the rest of my life, remove the MOOCs from the equation (wean myself away), but transfer the energy and focus to something else. (But what?)

Part of me really does enjoy the feeling of being in school again and stressing over assignments. And in this course more than the others I've taken, I'm thrilling from writing edgy essays just to see if can get away with it. I feel like I'm pulling one over on my peer reviewers, which from time to time causes me a twinge of shame, but mostly it gives me a high.

I may post some of my assignments here for a laugh. Or some from a previous course that I in fact found valuable.

So if I'm not blogging much this summer, it's because I'm still MOOCing, or gone fishing, or out at jazz festival, or having a nap.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A suitable book

"No one ever talks to anyone in our family, we just exchange brilliances."
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, is a terrific book, with sympathetic characters and set during a fascinating historical period. At about 2000 pages, it took me a little less than six months to read (while life went on, and yes, I've been reading other books during that whole time).
She was used to rereading her letters a dozen times, examining for days from every possible angle some remark that someone had made to someone else about something that someone had though that someone had almost done.

Mostly it's a story about Lata, and her family's attempts to find her a suitable boy to marry. Much of the rest of the time it's about her extended family and their acquaintances. And all these domestic scenes — romantic troubles, and financial worries, and career choices — are interspersed with chronicles of the legal and procedural difficulties of recently independent, post-Partition India.

In this way it's similar in structure to War and Peace. And yes, I did skim through some of the technicalities regarding land ownwership, just as I'd skimmed through some of Tolstoy's battlefield descriptions. Not because they're not interesting. But at some point it's too much, it becomes numbing.

But, never mind. This is a minor quibble. Because mostly, until it's too much, it's very interesting.

The physical and emotional centre of War and Peace, I always felt, is Natasha's dance, where she assumes her Russianness. Also the hunt scene, the connection to the land on which Russia is built. I find it interesting that similar scenes should occur in A Suitable Boy. There is a dance, only it's a tango; Lata throws off some of her Indianness to embrace modernity. Arguably she remains of a traditional mindset, but I think this scenes sees her come into her own, be in herself. The wolf hunt has none of Tolstoy's majesty; it's pathetic, but also significant in terms of the people's relationship to the land.

Seth's writing is simply lovely.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra was confirmed in her opinion that Meenakshi was extremely odd. To steel yourself against mangoes showed a degree of iciness that was almost inhuman.
It's funny and emotional. There's music and Shakespeare, love and death, shoe factories and Hindu festivals.
It's as if he didn't exist, thought Maan — as if he's in purdah. I've heard of him but I've never seen Him — like the women of the family. I suppose they exist as well. Or perhaps they don't. Perhaps all women are just a rumour.
Jo Walton wrote a great review on, and made this interesting observation:
Seth is writing for an anglophone audience but he doesn't hold your hand and explain everything. Nor does he throw you in at the deep end to sink. There's a very well done structure of explanation that will feel very familiar to a science fiction reader. He sometimes explains things, but he doesn't keep on doing it, and he sometimes just gives enough context that you can work it out. The whole way he uses exposition and incluing is very smooth and very much like what we're used to in genre. India in 1950 isn't as unfamiliar a world as Arrakis or Annares, except where it's weirder and even less familiar.

Also cricket and literature ("He's just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature."). And tragedy, personal and national. The political campaign trail. Family secrets. Near-murder.

It has a lot.
Along one wall of the bus, the following message was painted in a murderous scarlet" Do not travel when drunk or with a loaded gun. But it said nothing about goats, and there were several in the bus.
Several actual historical events are woven into the narrative, for example, the 1954 Kumbh Mela stampede as well as religious riots and various political goings-on.
Mahesh Kapoor did not know either the Hindi or the English names of the birds and flowers that surrounded him, but perhaps in his present state of mind he enjoyed the garden more truly for that. It was his only refuge, and a nameless, wordless one, with birdsong its only sound — and it was dominated, when he closed his eyes, by the least intellectualizable sense — that of scent.
I'm glad to have read it. Yet, I couldn't help wishing it was a little bit shorter. (I might've preferred to read in one intensely immersive burst, rather than pace it over an extended period for the sake of a readalong with others.) Still, I miss it, and I'll be looking for the sequel. Publication of A Suitable Girl is currently slated for 2016.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Guilty of corrupting minds

It wasn't long ago that the Arkanarian court was one of the most educated in the empire. There had been scientists at court, most of whom were, of course, charlatans, but there had also been some like Bagheer of Kissen, who had discovered the sphericity of the planet; the healer Tata, who had made the brilliant conjecture that epidemics come from tiny invisible worms, spread by wind and water; and the alchemist Sinda, who like all alchemists had been in search of a way to transform clay into gold but instead had discovered the law conservation of matter. The Arkanarian court had also had poets, mostly foot lickers and sycophants, but some like Pepin the Glorious, the author of the historical tragedy The March to the North; Zuren the Truthful, who had composed more than five hundred ballads and sonnets that had been set to music by the people; and also Gur the Storyteller, who had written the first secular novel in the history of the empire — the sad story of a prince who had fallen in love with a beautiful barbarian. The court also used to have marvelous actors, dancers, and singes. Wonderful artists had covered the wall with unfading frescoes; fabulous sculptors had decorated the palace parks with their creations. You couldn't say that the Arkanarian kings had been enthusiastic supporters of education or connoisseurs of the arts. It had simply been considered the decent thing to do, like the ceremony of dressing in the morning or the presence of splendid guards by the main entrance.

Aristocratic tolerance would occasionally go so far as to allow scientists and poets to become visible cogs in the state apparatus. Thus, only half a century ago, the highly learned alchemist Botsa had occupied the now-abolished-as-unneeded position of Minister of Mineral Resources, founded a number of mine, and made Arkanar famous for its amazing alloys, the secret of which had been lost after his death. And Pepin the Glorious had been in charge of public education until very recently, when the Ministry of History and Literature, which he had headed, had been discovered to be harmful and guilty of corrupting minds.

— from Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How does a word get into the dictionary?

Have you ever "perused" the dictionary?
pe·ruse /pəˈro͞oz/ verb: formal read (something), typically in a thorough or careful way.

Anne Curzan, English professor, sits on the usage panel for the American Heritage dictionary. On what makes a word "real":

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Everything is magic

And it was the landscape that formed us, that made us who we were as we grew in it, that affected everything. We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the elves and giants had left us, taking the fairies' possession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.
Among Others, by Jo Walton, was not what I expected it to be. And it's completely wonderful.

It's described as a story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood. Well, yes, but that makes it sound like the kind of book I'm not at all interested in reading. Mori is a messed-up teenager, in a mostly normal and self-aware kind of way. We don't relive her childhood with her — we see only fragments, are told a few memories — but it's mostly basic stuff: single mom with control issues, twin sister with whom Mori created or discovered a secret world. Yes, there's a tragic accident, but "troubled childhood" sounds like abuses and traumas that it's not. So, teenage girl, can't stand her mom, bad leg after the accident, sent to a boarding school, depressed maybe, lonely, a bit of a nerd, trying to make friends.

The book description also says she's sent to "a place all but devoid of true magic," which made me think the novel was set in some alternate fantasy land. But no, it's very firmly set in our actual world, 1980.

Mori is an utterly charming bookworm. She loves science fiction, but she reads mysteries and Thomas Hardy and Plato too. This is what makes the book for me, how she talks about the books she's excited to read, what she ordered at the library, what she unearthed at the bookstore, there's so much joy in it; but she really talks about the books, the ideas, she's developing tastes and reading attentively, and synthesizing what she's read, connecting the books, and considering alternate worlds, gender politics, social structures. She's totally growing up through these books. And then she joins the book club at the library and it's marvelous.
It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.
Here's a list of all the books Mori references. I've read barely a handful of them — makes me wonder what the heck I was reading at that age. (Douglas Adams, Thomas Hardy, Michael Moorcock, Ayn Rand, Joephine Tey, Dalton Trumbo, Margaret Atwood, Orwell, Huxley, Calvino, Somerset Maugham, Heinlein; Piers Anthony and Katherine Kurtz came later; Asimov and Lem and Doris Lessing much later still.)

(I must read Alan Garner's Red Shift.)

One thing that puzzles me is that Mori reads sci-fi, but the world she lives in has fairies, magic, witches. And that seems even odder to me if you consider the possibility that this world may be a psychological construct.

Check out the Q&A on Jo Walton's website, where there are links aplenty to great reviews.

See also the review at Is it magic or is it mimetic?
I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world, the sun streams down magic and people and animals and plants grow from sunlight and the world turns and everything is magic.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I would like to write something

I sat on the bench by the willows and ate my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it's true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn't all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I'd like to write like Delany or Heinlein or le Guin.
— from Among Others, by Jo Walton.

Jo Walton may have achieved her character's wish.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Helena develops highly elaborate scenarios in her play. This has been true forever. For example, she keeps a notebook of all her Playmobil characters — their names, traits, family relationships, back stories. She develops multifamily camping trips, schoolyard gossip, sibling rivalry, flu epidemics, crime scenes.

It's no wonder then that (for several years already) she enjoys playing The Sims. She spends more time building her characters and their homes, though, than she does "playing" the game, i.e., letting her characters "live." (Arguably the set-up is as much playing as is running the simulation.) Certainly I played in a similar way, and most intensely, those months I was pregnant with her. Practice for parenthood, I rationalized. Trying to create some semblance of control.

So this weekend, she showed me her new Sims family: a single dad who's a doctor, a supergenius, and he's rich, with two kids, also supercreative geniuses, and well-behaved and neatly dressed too. So the dad has met a woman (also a mom) whom he's going to marry, only she's not a genius; "she's just normal, like you."

I am torn apart, flung down, crushed. Just weeks ago I would hear, "Mommy knows everything." Suddenly, I'm normal.

We have achieved normality. And I'm not sure I like it.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Hard to be a god, on film

I just started reading Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, freshly available in a new English translation.

Written in 1964, it's considered a science fiction novel. But the opening pages have the feel of medieval feudalism about them, a scenario more typical of the fantasy genre. I'm not big on labels, but let's just say I find the problem of the distinction between science fiction and fantasy interesting, and it's on my mind because I just finished reading Among Others, by Jo Walton, which blends those two genres in an entirely different way (and more on this later) and fitting that I should be considering the issue now as I've just embarked on another MOOC, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.

Poking around the internet this morning, I was delighted to discover that this "classic" (which no one has ever heard of) has been adapted for film, twice. (This information would have been known to me earlier had I actually read the back cover of my edition.)

Aleksey German's version premiered just half a year ago and its North American release is highly anticipated. Trailer:

And here's another atmospheric look.

The 1989 film, Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, a German-Soviet coproduction, can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, although I'm somewhat turned off by the cheesiness of the title song, as well as by the fact that the Strugatsky brothers abandoned working on the project and criticized the final result.

If anyone has read the novel or seen either movie, I'd love to hear from you about it.

Saturday, June 07, 2014


We went down the hill to the bookshop, sort of automatically, as if that's the way all our feet wanted to turn. I said that to them.

"Bibliotropic," Hugh said. "Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop."
— from Among Others, by Jo Walton.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The saddest book I've ever read

Alphonse leaned in and kissed me. It was a huge kiss that covered my whole mouth. I didn't know that kissing could make you feel so afraid. I closed my mouth very tight while he kissed me. It felt as if I was suffocating, as if her were holding my head down in the bathtub under water. I thought about that old wives' tale about how cats get on top of you and then swallow your breath. They must creep up while you are sleeping and kiss you passionately.

Although I had kissed a lot of other people, that kiss was really my fist. For instance, I had friend named Clare who begged me and begged me to kiss her toe. I'd done it, but that hadn't been my first kiss. A boy named Daniel and I had blindfolded ourselves with sweaters and had tried to kiss. I'd accidentally kissed him on the nose, but that hadn't been my first kiss. I had kissed a boy after losing a coin toss, and even though I had wanted that to be my first kiss, it hadn't been really. The real first kiss is the one that tells you what it feels like to be an adult and doesn't let you be a child anymore. The first kiss is the one that you suffer the consequences of. It was as if I had playing Russian roulette and finally got the cylinder with the bullet in it.
Goddamit, yes, you suffer its consequences, but you know it's not supposed to feel like that. She's only twelve!

Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill, is the saddest book I've ever read. It bears the unique distinction of being a book I almost didn't finish reading (and I finish almost every book I start), not because it wasn't compelling, but because it was almost too impossibly sad to bear, and I almost couldn't stand to know Baby's fate.

So, coming-of-age story blah blah heroin-addict father blah foster home and juvenile detention blah Montreal's seedy underbelly blah blah blah. What no synopsis quite captures is O'Neill's voice. It's naïve and so very not naïve at the same time.

I've managed to put off writing about this book, because life. Also, as I previously mentioned, my daughter's almost the age of the novel's narrator, and that makes it hard, cuz it's a bittersweet age — a little emotionally treacherous — and it's not even like we're anywhere close to living on the street and we her parents aren't junkies or anything even if sometimes we're not as responsible as we should be the way suburbanites are, and I don't see her to be growing up to be that kind of girl. But conscience niggles always, that I should do right by her, be better than I am.

This book is an accusation, also, of our foster care system, our mental health care system, juvenile detention care, how we sideline our impoverished. That is, I'm not saying the novel is a social commentary; but it's accusing me personally in my apathy for having so little social conscience.

I walk through some of Baby's places. I used to be charmed by carré Saint-Louis on my first visits to Montreal. Last week, driving somewhere, stopped at a light alongside the square, I locked the doors.

This novel has terrific sentences. Like, "The street was filled with pages of misspelled words that had fallen out of binders along with the autumn leaves." And, "When two people are thinking the same thing, it sends a charge through your whole body. My veins were telephone lines with people laughing and screaming through them." And, "She was one of those blonde girls who looked as if they'd just been rained on."

Despite her surroundings, Baby has the unflinching gaze of a child — accepting and in awe. Her days are filled with a kind of beauty most people overlook.

It's unsentimental and honest, and that makes it hard. (Like raising a daughter in the city.) Worth every step.

Quill & Quire
Reading Matters

When she spoke, her breath smelled like cigarettes and dead things. There was something inhuman about her, suddenly, as if when she opened her mouth and tipped it backward you would see mechanical inner workings, like a dumb weight instead of a tonsil. If she coughed and you looked in her Kleenex, you would see nails and screws. That's probably why she was missing a finger. She had probably just fallen and it had broken off. I felt so lonely all of a sudden, as if I were the only human left in the world.

Monday, June 02, 2014


This has been a most puzzling book. Sentence by sentence it's absolutely gorgeous, but I have trouble making sense of it.

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass, is about the colour blue, and about blueness, but mostly it's about sex. Kind of.

The thing is: it's breathtakingly beautiful. Just loll-your-tongue-around-it gorgeous. But it didn't make any sense. I get how blue refers to sex, but really? Random sex passages throughout all literature are blue? Random passages throughout all literature are really about sex? Everything is blue? Really?
So a random set of meanings has softly gathered around the word the way lint collects. The mind does that.
Then I read a couple of reviews, was reassured that I wasn't alone in being somewhat mystified, and gave myself over to it.
Then there are the blues we'd love to have loom large and linger long around us like deep sofas, accommodating women, and rich friends.
It's a great book for skimming, and there are sentences and long breathless passages that beg to be read aloud.
"For our blues," Hoogstraten says, "we have English, German, and Haarlem ashes, smalts, blue lakes, indigo, and the invaluable ultramarine." It is of course the skiy. It is the sky's pale deep endlessness, sometimes so intense at noon the brightness flakes like a fresco. Then at dusk, it is the way the color sinks among us, not like dew but settling dust or poisonous exhaust from all the life burned up while we were busy being other than ourselves. For our blues we have those named for nations, cities, regions: French blue, which is an artificial ultramarine, Italian, Prussian, Swiss and Brunswick blues, Chinese blue, a pigment which has a peculiar reddish-bronze cast when in lump-form and dry, in contrast to China blue which is a simple soluble dye; we have Indian blue, an indigo, Hungarian, a cobalt, the blues of Parma and Saxony, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden, those of Bremen and Antwerp, the ancient blues of Armenia and Alexandria, the latter made of copper and lime and sometimes called Egyptian, the blue of the Nile, the blue of the blue sand potters use. Are there so many states of mind and shades of feeling?
The Guardian:
One difference is that much, or most, of Gass's self-conscious experiment is going on at the level of the sentence, its style and especially its sound, rather than look-at-me games with plot or character. This is partly a matter of poetic influence – Stevens and Rilke have been constant references – but the presiding example is probably Gertrude Stein, about whom he has written several essays. Stein is nowhere to be seen in On Being Blue, but the book is surely in thrall to her Tender Buttons and its incantatory way with the rhythms and phonics of everyday American speech.
Although, I wonder if that review merely skimmed the book, as Gass does directly reference Stein, including specifically Tender Buttons. And the review contains other factual errors.

In many ways, On Being Blue is less a book to read than an experience to be had. It's essentially a rant, a riff, poetry, music, art, all of that. But it isn't apologetics. There's no scientific argument, no clear-cut hypothesis to be found. It's not a treatise on the nature of man and his place in the universe. Gass is more interested in getting across a passion for language, and the way the words look and sound on the page.

On Being Blue was the subject of a book club I attended last week, and it turned out to be less inspiring of discussion than had been hoped. Without a clear thesis, it's difficult to argue against anything Gass brings to the table. While it's mostly internal to Gass — the connections he makes between colour, science, philosophy, sex, language — it's also weirdly impersonal. The thing to do is just read it, let it wash over you, accept it, and think about blue.
(curses without a curse, they contain only archery and cleverness like a purse full of chocolates and needles)