Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The power of place

Skulk turned right onto the Mile, up for a couple of hundred metres and then left, onto the George IV Bridge above the dark chasm of the Cowgate. At this time tomorrow it would be crowded, rain or no rain, but tonight it was almost empty, Thursday's revellers mostly behind the doors of the clubs. The machine stalked between the two big libraries to the top of Candlemaker Row, into the alley of Greyfriars and up and over the gate into Greyfriars Kirkyard. It paced past the church towards the Flodden Wall, and paused at the corner where the path turned towards the Covenanters' Prison.

Somewhere at the back of the roofless mausoleum of Thomas Potter (Nuper Mercator Edinburgis) a pebble shifted. A long shape lifted itself from the ground.
— from The Night Sessions, by Ken MacLeod.

This may not strike you as a particularly powerful passage, but it chilled me to the bone.

Not hours beforehand I'd walked the same route, stopped for some takeaway, then turned down Candlemaker Row to loop round to my hotel on Cowgate. I lay there in that chasm, recalling the stories our ghoulish tour guide told us of the ghosts in the graveyard.

I am grateful, too, for the history lesson, as Covenanters are deeply relevant to MacLeod's novel.

This turned out to be a most fortuitous choice of reading material while visiting Edinburgh.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

London on fire

From the entry concerning the secrets of St. Bartholomew's the Greater, featuring bad puns and briny floods and heralded as a rare survivor:
Very little of early medieval London remains intact today, because Londoners, like the unwise Little Pig, built houses of wood, and the city burned down in 1077, 1087, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. Almost anything left intact from these was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Maybe you don't think that's very funny; then, to hell with you.

Secret London: An Unusual Guide is as fantastic as the other book in this series I perused before traveling to Venice.

I'll be in London in about two weeks' time, and I know I won't be visiting very many of these "unusual" places (maybe a couple: the traffic light tree? the Monument?), but just knowing they exist — both the secrets and the guidebooks — brings me irrational joy.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Somerset Maugham meets death metal

Juhan was wearing skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a massive black leather jacket with jangly silver zippers, which hung from his shoulders like the wings of a pterodactyl. In appearance, it was as if Somerset Maugham had, in the final years of his life, decided to take up death metal.
— from Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson.

Can you picture it? Might Somerset Maugham ever have taken up death metal? I'd like to think so.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Shitty, shitty rain

Edinburgh rain was like a judgement. It soaked into the bones, into the structures of the buildings, into the memories of the tourists. It lingered for days, splashing up from puddles by the roadside, breaking up marriages, chilling, killing, omnipresent. The typical postcard home from an Edinburgh boarding-house: "Edinburgh is lovely. The people rather reserved. Saw the Castle yesterday, and the Scott Monument. It's a very small city, almost a town really. You could fit it inside New York and never notice it. Weather could be better."

Photo by Steffani Cameron.
Weather could be better. The art of euphemism. Shitty, shitty rain.
— from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

I wasn't really interested in reading a series starring yet another clich├ęd troubled-yet-sensitive, hard-drinking detective. But I'm vacationing in Edinburgh in a few weeks' time, and I was told the city features strongly in Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, like a character in its own right, so it seemed appropriate to read one, to set the mood for my holiday.

There's a lightness to the writing, great humour and wit, that makes it very engaging, despite the grimness of the plot. I was halfway through when I realized the novel hadn't devoted much time at all to the actual mystery of the serial killer. And that's fine — the story certainly didn't bog down in the details of police procedure. I'm curious to see how subsequent Rebus novels play out, now that the groundwork for his character has been established.
Edinburgh slept on, as it had slept for hundreds of years. There were ghosts in the cobble alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements, but they were Enlightenment ghosts, articulate and deferential.
I'm sold on Edinburgh — its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature and rain like judgement.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Does this book make me look fat?

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad, is a breezy read that becomes profoundly sad the instant you step back from it.

The novel consists of 13 stories, each of which could stand independently, chronicling Elizabeth's life, from fat teen to gym-going, food-weighing, unhappy obsessive. She sheds a lot of weight, but loses friends, her mother, and her marriage along the way. She tries on new names along with new bodies, each new identity a new relationship with her body: Lizzie, Elizabeth, Beth, Liz. (And it's her husband's fault when he can't keep up with her preference.)

Many reviews stress how much more this book is about than body image: friendship, loneliness, a girl's relationship with her mother, blah, blah, blah, what it means to be human. Well, no. Everyone of those facets is firmly based in Lizzie's relationship to her body.

Awad doesn't make any overt social commentary; all the criticisms of Lizzie come from within herself, with the occasional boost from her mother. I hate to think that there are women out there who live like she does, but I don't doubt it's true. Also, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for not addressing weight loss more concertedly, and for being relatively happy.

These are tight, well-written stories. Go ahead, read them. No, I don't mean anything by that; you look great.

Globe and Mail
The Rumpus
Washington Post

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Nothing tasted better than a venial sin

Near his flat, he passed a little grocery shop outside which were stacked crates of milk and morning rolls. The owner had complained in private to Rebus about petty and occasional thefts, but would not submit a complaint proper. The shop was as dead as the street, the solitude of the moment disturbed only by the distant rumble of a taxi on cobblestones and the persistence of the dawn chorus. Rebus looked around him, examining the many curtained windows. Then, swiftly, he tore six rolls from a layer and stuffed them into his pockets, walking away a little too briskly. A moment later he hesitated, then walked on tiptoe back to the shop, the criminal returning to the scene of the crime, the dog to its vomit. Rebus had never actually seen dogs doing that, but he had it on the authority of Saint Peter.

Locking round again, he lifted a pint of milk out of its crate and made his getaway, whistling silently to himself.

Nothing in the world tasted as good for breakfast as stolen rolls with some butter and jam and a mug of milky coffee. Nothing tasted better than a venial sin.
—from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.