The Pencil

Found myself thinking about pencils, looked them up, and they are more interesting than I imagined. Who knew they took so long to invent or that England had a monopoly on production until the mid-17th century…nearly 100 years? Unless I’m reading wrong, the leads are also ceramic: a compound of fired clay and graphite. So making pencils is a genuine, chemical transformation of raw materials into a brilliant tool. Old tech is awesome. The Pencil

The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, other sons.

–the judge, Blood Meridian

Feast of Souls

Feast of SoulsI read most of Friedman’s novels years ago and thought she was a stand out with genuine talent. (Her early sci-fi-fantasy mash-up, The Madness Season, remains part of my mental landscape years later.) So encouraged by my luck with The Name of the Wind, I ignored the god-awfullest cover I’d seen in years and read the first of her new series. It had a rocky start and was far from groan-free, but once it got going, it was a good read.

Friedman has a skill for building complexity in layers, scene by scene. It’s astonishing how much she gets (and keeps) in the air by the book’s end.

July 2011


PriestI saw it, so I log it…

The movie thinks it’s a prequel. Good visual sense but clumsy, non-dramatic, and laborious set-up. When everything’s good to go, the thing just ends.

According to the IMDB, the director, Scott Stewart, made a short film called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I haven’t seen it but it must be based on the Carver story. Except, the tag line is: “Love can be a terrible, wonderful thing.”

If this is any indication of where this guy’s coming from, then I’m guessing he doesn’t have much of a sense of story.

Card File: You Are Not A Gadget

You Are Not a Gadget“You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

I read this book right after it came out. Its argument that software and hardware design require thinking in terms of individuals and their humanity is very compelling. I also liked his suggestion that people thinking of posting something to the internet should post something it took 100 times longer to create than it takes to watch.

The card file contains the segments I highlighted on my kindle (may it melt in the sun and die) and that I have now pulled off the amazon web site. For now they don’t really make a lot of sense.

Find the card file here.

**Update** The blog apocalypse of a couple years ago deleted all my linked card files. So this link is dead end. Naturally, my notes and highlights appear to be gone on Amazon too. So there’s no getting them back.

The Museum of Innocence

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan PamukA huge novel that is carefully written and that I often enjoyed. But it’s not easy going: partly because of the length, partly because of the pacing (“carefully written” often reads “slow”). But partly too because it was hard not to side with the protagonists’ critical friends while also disliking them intensely. There’s not obvious place to stand in this story, and I frequently felt uncomfortable reading this book.

There was a lot to like here…and I’m going to read another book by Pamuk in the coming months because I’m curious now. But hesitant too.

N.B.–The references to Proust and Montaigne at the end make sense of a lot of what came before. This is an intensely intellectual book hiding in the sentimental novel it pretends to be. Aside from a brief moment (one paragraph) in the engagement party (an incredible, long chapter, pure tour-de-force) the novel’s intellectual project is withheld to the very final pages, where (as in Proust) the status of what you have been reading is revealed. Making sense of that will take rereading and I’ve not done it. So for now, my judgment is “interesting,” “enjoyable if frustrating” and “I’m curious.”

July 2011. Mysore/Chennai, India and Montreal

The Life and Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael KThis novel reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both are about a man stripped down to basics by apocalypse. The apocalypse forces a renunciation of what we think of as ordinary life and raises the question of what we really need to be true to ourselves or perhaps good or maybe (?) happy or content. There are big differences between the two but this core similarity remains.

My sense of the book’s stance: mankind is unable to let go of what destroys him and what makes him miserable. So he is destroyed and must learn to live without anything. The life he finds appears meagre and horrific. (A point-of-view switch in the second part makes that clear brilliantly. It also suggests how little do-gooderism is worth when fundamentals are wrong.) But that horrific life is at least his and seems…

Well, it’s hard to say, because I read from the position of the do-gooder in the second section. I can’t make myself write “his horrific life satisfies him” or that “it is sufficient” or whatever. In fact, the book makes it difficult to make any judgement about the protagonist or his state. He moves through the tale, a cypher, who shows the world and people around him for what they are, good or bad. What he is, I’m not sure. I do know that he doesn’t want or expect to die though. He’s alive at the novel’s close and the last word of the book is the verb “live.”

This book is digging for an image of the life that is real life, trying to figure out what it might be, but most clearly it shows that people dying in a dead system of violence and war can (and will) look at real life and mistake it for dying. Seems complicated and it is. But a very good book.

Foolish question: I know so little of modern South African history that I can’t tell if the historical events framing this story are imagined à The Road or history presented obliquely with the assumption that the reader can supply the decoder key.

June 2011. Panjim India

The Bachelor of Arts

The Bachelor of ArtsIn the small bookstore in Hampi Bazaar (there were probably less than 100 books), I found a pile of Malgudi novels in Indian editions. I bought two of them, not knowing the author’s name at all. But a writer from and writing about Tamil Nadu that is clearly well-known in the west seemed perfect travel reading.

But The B.A. didn’t move me much at first. I even wondered at the end if I had an imperfect edition: the action simply stops on the last page: were chapters (or the last chapter’s end) missing? In the following weeks though, the novel has grown on me, and I’ve come to think it’s a lot better than I first believed.

This is writing that follows a significant story and lays out its contours clearly and honestly. But it’s also sparse. Commentary on the action comes mostly from statements of characters’ thoughts. Symbols and other ostentatious literary effects have been peeled away leaving only a bare presentation of events. The novel, oddly enough, seems not to exist in this report of events. What was this story thinking about? I couldn’t say.

But with time, what seemed sparse begin to settle, to take root and to reveal its form and proportion: a youth loves recklessly then lives as a renunciant wandering about, alone and eating what he can beg, living as a holy man without knowing it for eight months and then comes back home, an adult ready to work and find new love. The flatness of the presentation leaves the significance of the events implicit, but I’ve decided there is depth here. Coming of age, personal awakening, the nature of love, parenting, tradition, friendship, art and work. The B.A. speaks to them all without contempt or cynicism. I’m not sure I’m interested enough to try to plumb those depths though.

I think students might like this book.

June 2011. Panjim, India

The God of Small Things

The God of Small ThingsThis book kept me up all night the evening I finished it. My mind was racing. I couldn’t sleep. With the whole thing in my head, I was struck and overwhelmed by what it accomplished, what it aimed for and achieved. I had to go back through it, skimming it backwards and forwards, trying to see how it was put together, how it did the things that it did.

It’s a beautiful, tender, affecting novel that is bigger in the end than it seems moment-by-moment (and it seems exhaustingly ambitious in nearly every moment). It is about apocalyptic versus cyclical time, about east and west, about class and race, about rules and tolerance and social evils.

It is also a very Hindu book about a Christian family that traces out how both groups are trapped in boxes. It is anti-orthodoxy: the most Christian of the Christians comes off worse than anyone. After destroying everything and everyone around her, she’s worried not that she shits but that others will see the shit she leaves. Literally. Although he’s less hateful than the former nun, it is one of the most orthodox (if unwillingly so) of the Hindus who reveals the secret that initiates the novel’s central tragedy.

And then the finale…. Death is conquered by a Karma Sutra. In a sex scene that is unreal and encyclopaedic but also genuine and restorative, the world and the central characters are brought back to life in a mythic non-myth, in an eternal now. Two conceptions of the universe are brought to focus in an intensely pathetic moment: one conception is linear, progressive and apocalyptic, the other circular, resolutely physical and preoccupied with the present. The linear apocalypse loses.

The whole things is extraordinary and difficult and beautiful. And I’ve not yet said a word about the ways Roy shows she’s read Faulkner.

This is a major book and one to come back to.

June, Pondicherry, India