Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holding the universe together

The most beautiful sentences...
She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.
— from "A Girl I Knew," by J.D. Salinger.

That used to be me, I was that girl. But my universe has crumbled apart. Someone else holds his universe together now.

Monday, December 29, 2014

That showy dark crack running down the middle of a life

I spent some hours at the bookstore this afternoon, wanting something but not finding anything that satisfied. I picked up Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but then I put I put it back down again. It starts this way:
Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does.
Me too. I didn't think it existed. But now I do.

The narrator believes his flaw to be "a morbid longing for the picturesque." I think that's fairly benign.

I'm not convinced how showy the crack is, but sadly, I have little trouble identifying flaws — gaping voids — in others. I have much less insight into my own shortcomings.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Much-needed stillness these days...
The amount of data humanity will collect while you're reading this book is five times greater than the amount that exists in the Library of Congress. Anyone reading this book will take in as much information today as Shakespeare took in over a lifetime. Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we're never caught up with our lives.
— from The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, by Pico Iyer.

"Finding what feels like real life, that changeless and inarguable something behind all our shifting thoughts, is less a discovery than a recollection."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Where are they going?

Back in November I read Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai, and I'll even write about it someday. My challenge these days is to find an 8-hour block of time so that I can watch Bela Tarr's film adaptation of it, uninterrupted.

While trying to find my way into novel, I found some clips of the film. Nothing much happens, in any of them. Yet the clips are oddly compelling. I need to see how the nothingness resolves. I need to watch the full movie.

Where are they going? They look like they're going somewhere. That's quite the wind. Do they have far to go? They look like they're in a hurry. They must be in a hurry to get to wherever they're going. But the street's not passing fast enough beneath their feet. Where is everybody anyway? Maybe they're just leaving this place. But, no, they're going somewhere. Will they get there? Is that where everybody is?

So where is she going? And why is she carrying a dead cat? (Is it a real dead cat?) Will the rain ever let up? Oh, thank gawd, the rain is letting up. And it's daylight too. That's a lot of walking. The landscape has changed; she's making progress. But what's wrong with her? Why is the cat dead? Does she even know where she's going? Will she ever get there? She must be tired. Doesn't anybody care that she's been out all night? Where is everybody? Is she going someplace, or just leaving someplace behind? Where?

It's so much nothing. But something's going to happen, isn't it?

Where are they going?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A presentiment of indistinct terrors

"Yesterday their childhood came to an end." Yesterday, their mother dismissed their governess, pregnant with their cousin's child. The governess was so happy in love, but lately she's been sad. The girls overheard that there was a baby; they think that's why she's sad — the governess in another life somewhere had to leave behind her baby to come work for them. Well, not quite. And then the governess is gone, and the circumstances of her departure are a little ambiguous even, but this is not her story.
That afternoon they grow many years older. And only when they are alone in the darkness of their room in the evening do childish fears surface in them, the fear of loneliness, of images of dead people, as well as a presentiment of indistinct terrors. [...] They still dare not talk feely. But now the younger girl at last burst into tears, and her elder sister joins her, sobbing wildly. They weep, closely entwined, warm tears rolling down their faces hesitantly at first, then falling faster, hugging one another breast to breast, shaking as they share their sobs. They are united in pain, a single weeping body in the darkness. They are not crying for the governess now, or for the parents who are lost to them; they are shaken by a sudden horror and fear of the unknown world lying ahead of them, after the first terrifying glimpse that they had of it today. They are afraid of the life ahead of them into which they will now pass, dark and menacing like a gloomy forest though which they must go. Their confused fears become dimmer, almost dreamlike, their sobbing is softer and softer. Their breath mingles gently now, as their tears mingled before. And so at last they fall asleep.
— from "The Governess," in The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, by Stefan Zweig.

Do you remember crying yourself to sleep? Was it like that, puberty? Some inkling of the mysteries of love, a sexual awakening of a sort. The dark and menacing forest of fairy tales.

I rather think it must be like that. In a phenomenon like childbirth, the memory of the pain of it disintegrates over time as it yields to a greater thing. But Zweig and the intensity of my daughter's emotions these days (she is 12; the girls in the story, 12 and 13) convince me of its reality.

Zweig writes love well — the blooming of it, the tragedy of it, the awareness and secrecy of it. In one story ("A Summer Novella"), one character suggests to another that he is telling "a story like your German novelists, that's to say with lyrical fancies, broad, sentimental, tedious," and it is taken as a criticism. Indeed, I am seeing Zweig falter when he paints broader landscapes, whole villages in historical context. But when Zweig writes of the personal and intimate, I think he is "German" (without the tedium), and he is magnificent.

About the stories.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Colouring mandalas

Here's an unusual book I received for review: Coloring Animal Mandalas, by Wendy Piersall. Yes, it's a colouring book. How does one review a colouring book?

Colouring is one of my favourite things these days. Sit down at the kitchen table, throw some Netflix up on the laptop, lay out my materials in front of me, empty my mind.

I use felt tips and pencils, sometimes both within the same picture. I think I prefer pencils; I like the idea of felt tips, but I'm better with pencils. The fish at left, that's pencils.

This book smartly presents images on one side of the page as ink can and will leak through. I tend to insert a loose leaf behind whatever I'm working on as a safeguard anyway (plus, scrap paper for testing colours). If your ink is wet enough, or your pencil aggressive enough, the ink from the printed lines may smudge into your colour a bit (get to know your materials to avoid messes).

Mandalas are fantastic for colouring, it turns out; the repetition makes for a very calming experience. The animal theme keeps it interesting. Check out this time-lapse promo for the book.

Colouring as a pastime for adults is gaining respect. Now we call it anti-stress art therapy. I'm here to tell you it works. And a nice book with a set of fancy pens or pencils makes an excellent Christmas gift!


Monday, December 08, 2014

The book bears witness

"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists . . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, was a terrific palate cleanser of a book. A book lover's book. About book lovers. And one book in particular.
Why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?
The story concerns a book conservationist who's called in to work on a famous manuscript, the Sarajeveo Haggadah — an actual artifact, the history surrounding which inspired Brooks' novelization. It gets a bit meta, with the rare book expert explaining in an article about the conservation project:
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.
Because of course, that's exactly how the novel is structured. We follow a trail of forensic clues into the imagined past lives of the book.

This short PBS video summarizes the haggadah's history, including the forensic evidence that helps decipher its past, showcases the gorgeous illuminations, and features commentary from Geraldine Brooks.

The novel offers up a few other interesting things:
  • A line from a poem — "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," by Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Whát I dó is me: for that I came." I'll be mulling over this poem for days to come.
  • Some discussion of the nature of art, and the sinfulness of figurative depictions.
  • The coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though sadly usually fraught with tensions, and worse.
This to say it was a gently thought-provoking read, not too mentally taxing, thoroughly entertaining.