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

Judge on Civilization

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

Explosion in a Cathedral

Explosion in a CathedralI’ve now read enough of Carpentier to have a sense of what he is up to in his fiction. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, been impressed by its scope. But I am also much more aware of its limits and repetitions.

Carpentier–more than almost any writer I can think of–has a project and develops it relentlessly. The Kingdom of this World, The Lost Steps and this novel are all very much of the same kind, working in the same way, striking the same tone. This is history compressed and told at a distance. It exists as the context to the four or five acts that together constitute the drama of the protagonist’s life. That life is invariably incidental to the history that frames it but is also hopelessly involved in and buffeted by it. Each of these novels read as an album of exemplary vignettes pulled from the life of that character in order to say something (or provide an occasion for the narrator to say something) about history.

(This description echoes definitions of tragedy, but Carpentier is not a tragic writer. I saw Carlos Fuentes speaking of his own novels at Metropolis Blue. He cited Carpentier and Faulkner as his major influences but specifically credited Faulkner with offering him the tragic sense necessary to write about Latin American history.)

Interestingly, the same pattern holds true in a reduced but telling way in Carpentier’s early novella, The Chase. As it is in the novels, the history is withheld from the character. He isn’t sure what is happening to him or why. But unlike in the novels, the same information is also kept from the reader. In fact, there are clues suggesting that the character may know more than the reader. With this shift in the point-of-view, the reader moves through the story without knowledge of its larger context. The character is buffeted and harassed, but his life–and that harassment–appear senseless. The resulting tone is paranoid as befits life in a police state. The obscurity of it all–and this is related to Kafka surely–seems to encourage an allegorical (i.e. mystifying?) reading of the book.

Perhaps the poles of Carpentier’s fiction are ignorance/paranoia and knowledge/escape.

You need to be interested in Carpentier’s historical-political project to be interested in his novels beyond his development of technique or their influence. For now, I’m not.

N.B. Many people believe Explosion in a Cathedral is Carpentier’s best novel. I prefer The Lost Steps. It’s much more humane and suggestive, much less expository.

June 2011. Hospet, India

The Way of Zen

The Way of ZenA history of Zen Buddhism. The first chapter–a more general history–was a repeat of Conze’s book. There wasn’t much difference between the two, but where there was, Watts strikes me as the less credible.

The Zen practice section gets caught up in the details of minor conflicts about monastic and lay life over the centuries. It’s dull going, but as a whole showed the extent to which Zen focuses on a practice (a very physical one it seems to me) rather than a philosophical one based on mastery of knowledge. To an extent that means it’s forgiving of variation rather than orthodox.

To beat the same drum, I walked away from this book more convinced than ever that Buddhism is not a religion, and that to the extent it appears to be this arises from “skill in means.”

June 2011. Gingee/Pondicherry, India

The Hindus

TheHindusWendyDonigerThe Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger

I read this book slowly over my trip to India, and without it, I’m not sure what I would have made of the things I was seeing.

This book is massive and works through the history of Hindu texts and religious practice from the Indus Valley Civilizations all the way up to practice in the Indian diaspora.

The book made India make sense to me, the temples and art, yes, but also the daily oddities of cultural life in a place run through front to back by religion. It was essential reading and really wonderfully written. In fact, given how alien the material was to me, the fact that I was pulled through it so intensely shows that smart can be engaging and charming.

Card files on this book are coming and there’s stuff to say about, among many other things, the travels of Saint Thomas and the relationship between Hindu mythology and the Gospels.

Great stuff.

June-July, India


Sadhana by Rabindranath TagoreSadhana by Rabindranath Tagore

A collection of lectures about Indian spirituality by India’s first Nobel Laureate. They are interesting but also vague and non-historical. This is one man preaching his personal religion.

While I was in India, The New Yorker did a profile on Tagore. Apparently, Bertrand Russell saw him speak and said he was spouting standard “we are all the Buddha” mumbo-jumbo. If he heard something like this, he’s not far off.

Interesting thing is that Tagore is a Hindu not a Buddhist. How’s that work? Well, he keeps refering to the Upanishads, which Wendy Doniger describes as Hinduism’s response to the Buddhist and Jainist renunciation of Brahmanic ritual, which to me suggests that, if Buddhism is a kind of Hindu Reformation, then the Upanishads are the Brahmins’ counter-reformation. The Buddhist rejection of court religion and ritual in favour of personal quests for enlightenment are rejected but also remake Hinduism expressed in these texts as more personal (though not yet devotional). Tagore is speaking in that vein.

June, 2011. Chennai/Mamallapuram India

Buddhism: A Short History

Buddhism- A Short History by Edward ConzeBuddhism: A Short History by Edward Conze

A useful, concise history of Buddhism. Divides the history into three waves that helped make sense of odd comments I’d read in other books. The first wave is largely monastic, a renunciation of early Vedic Hinduism. The second moves outside the monasteries and invents a lay Buddhism. The third incorporates Tantric and mystical thought into Buddhist philosophy (seriously or not, I’m not sure). The book also places the various branches of Buddhism historically: regional differences are historical traces.

The second-wave notion of a Bodhisattva with “skill in means”–a teacher who speaks in terms a lay person can understand in order to help them increase their understanding bit-by-bit–feeds my sense that Buddhism is not a religion but is instead a philosophy and phenomenology of the mind crusted over with religious trappings. (I mean, a Buddhist god makes absolutely no sense to me. None at all.) “Skill in means” offers a reason for taking those religious trappings as translations of Buddhist insights into metaphorical terms non-monks can understand. (I think of Kierkegaard telling the story of Abraham in various ways or inventing stories to frame the stories that play out his thinking as drama.)

This a book-along-the-way that I imagine I will remember as being important.

June 2011. Mamallapuram, India

A Voyage Long and Strange

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony HorowitzA Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horowitz

A history of early American exploration organized around Horowitz’s travels to the places where the explorers set foot to ground. The history is interesting and lightly done. I enjoyed these parts. But the personal narratives were unbearable. The long central chapters focus on Columbus’s voyages, and Horowitz frames them with stories about his travels in the Dominican Republic. He hates the place for reasons that seem patronizing and chauvinistic. It’s just hard to buy into an American tourist lost in worlds different from his own who blames others for his difficulties. Annoying.

April 2011

Chant d’Amour

I showed Jean Genet‘s Chant d’Amour to Big D and The Beav. Twenty-five minutes of experimental queer cinema, and they watched without being bored for a second. And when the film was over they had questions:  When was this made? Who are these actors? Listening, I wondered how many films are ever that successful?

I hadn’t seen the film in over five years. So watching it on the spur-of-the-moment, I was caught off guard by how beautiful and how shocking it is. Big D kept saying that the film was ahead of its time and couldn’t be shown today. My sense is that he’s right, and it’s because it’s erotic rather than pornographic. Which makes it much more difficult to dismiss.

A happy rediscovery.


An American Childhood

An American Childhood by Annie DillardAt which point in your memoir does common decency require you hint that your awesomeness—or at least the opportunity to cultivate it—might be a product of your WASPy, very upperclass childhood? I ask because I stopped reading Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood at page 120 in a stew of class resentment. If there’s a turnaround, I needed to know because I was killed by smug.

April 2011

A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo LeopoldA Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

I was sent to this book by a blog a friend linked to, and I’m glad I found it. Most of the nature writing I find is preservationist or even worshipful. Nothing necessarily wrong with that but it does tend to romanticize an already romantic approach to the natural world. It’s easy to wind up with an “isn’t it great I’m so sensitive to the world around me” pudding: tons of details and careful observation that together seem more about the author than the place.

This book is interesting because it’s conservationist, a middle-ground voice that I don’t seem to hear very much today. I think it’s probably been killed by double-speak: to many public figures hiding nefarious plans inside their opponents’ language, maybe on purpose, maybe because they’re being used and are too out-of-touch to realize it. Whatever the case, conservationist language just seems like a lie nowadays. Talk reasonably and nobody will trust you.

The Almanac is old enough so that the conservationist voice still rings sincere. In these pages, there is man and there is nature together. Not man in awe of nature. Not man afraid to touch nature. Here he moves gently through the world, touching and being touched. I loved Leopold’s talk about trees, especially the pines that are his favourite and the way the bugs that attack them attack only the new growth that sits in the sun. The closing section on banding birds is glorious. No other word for it. And the essay on leisure time and hobbies is excellent.

This is a book I’d like to teach someday.

April 2011