Sunday, January 31, 2010

january reading

The Dud Avocado
by: Elaine Dundy

I found this novel both horribly charming and horribly irritating at once -- charming because Sally Jay, the heroine, is one of those wild, eccentric, unabashedly passionate young people who can't help but charm; and irritating because she is mostly passionate about being passionate, without having any conviction about the object of her enthusiasm. Maybe it's just because I've been wavering lately, casting about for the right direction, whatever that is, and falling down a rabbit hole of flighty bohemianism is too close for comfort.

How To Be Good

by: Nick Hornby

Oddly, this book reminded me, very much of McEwan's Amsterdam, which I read last month. Not because they were similar, at all, on a plot level, but because of the way they beat me to the punch, anticipating all the ungenerous, ungracious feelings that flashed through my mind while I was standing in their characters' shoes. Then they luxuriated in them, blew them up to force examination. These are the thoughts that you would be embarrassed to admit thinking, even to yourself. Hornby and McEwan hold them out to you on a plate and say, "Here you are, now why don't you eat them, slowly, and consider them because, really, they're yours."

What I like about Hornby is that he can be quite stark, but he's not bleak. There is humor everywhere. Some parts of this book are so funny that they warrant reading aloud to whoever is unfortunate enough to be within earshot. It's about divorce and virtue and falling out of love with somebody, and it's terribly, terribly funny.

The Swan Thieves
by: Elizabeth Kostova

The ARC of this book arrived at the bookstore in a shiny, blue chiffon drawstring bag. It looked very much like something that belonged in a lingerie store. It also has a gold spine. Not a golden, sort of metallic, but really not spine. Actual shiny gold that also looks like it might belong in a (rather more exciting perhaps) lingerie store.

Of course I had to read it.

Unfortunately, I didn't like it at all. It ticks off many of my pet obsessions: art (French Impressionism in this case), memory, deception, and a plasticity of time; but I found it incredibly dull. The narrative switches between five main strands, and every time I got to the end of one section, I was relieved to be moving on to something else. People were getting their hearts broken and going mad, having illicit affairs, pursuing art... And I did not care in the least. The entire novel revolves around the obsession one character harbors for another, and it tries to create mystery and suspense around the true nature of that obsession, but when I finally, finally got to the end, the attempt to withold information just felt like a flimsy excuse to string me along. There was no satisfaction to make the long slog (nearly 600 pages) worth it.

The Poison Eaters

by: Holly Black

This is an upcoming short story collection for young adults. It was immense fun, of the creepy and unsettling sort. The stories manage to be at once the kind of smooth, quickly consumed pieces that you read in one sitting, and prickly enough that you keep thinking about them for some time after the book is finished.

My favourites were "Paper Cuts Scissors" and "The Poison Eaters." The first story made me feel happy, giddy, and light. The second one disturbed me and infected me with a faint resignation.

Violent Cases
by: Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

I really enjoyed this. Mr. Punch is still my favourite of Neil's graphic pieces, but this dances to a similar kind of music, sliding between what may have happened and what must have happened and what might have happened, but couldn't. Except maybe it should have.

It was scary and tasted dark.

The Bird Room

by: Chris Killen

Didn't like this one. Except for Corinne. I already complained about it here though.

The Perfect Scent

by: Chandler Burr

My friend, Kat, and I have conversations every now and then about the novel we are going to write together someday. It's going to be about perfume, among other things. This someday novel is my excuse for collecting books about scent and perfume and layman friendly neurology in a desultory way.

I don't have an especially keen sense of smell, but smells fascinate me. It disturbs me when I catch a whiff of something that hits me between the eyes with familiarity, but is somehow unplaceable. It makes me sad when I can't remember the smell of a friend, or of a building where I spent happy hours.

Chandler Burr writes brilliantly about a sense that is difficult to write about (Diane Ackerman says that we have such a limited vocabulary for the description of scent that we are forced to rob the words of other senses just to approximate smell with metaphor). He makes me imagine smells so solidly and precisely that I'm confident the perfume is there in my head, even if my imagined Shalimar is nothing like the real thing.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

faint paranoia, or, delusions of grandeur

Sometimes I feel like the entire world is telling me the same thing. Shouting at me, leering at me, leaning close and murmuring in a confiding tone that, really my dear, you should consider that... It's everywhere, whatever it is, in all the books I pick up, in all the movies I see, in the television, the billboards, the jokes people tell, the maps on walls, the flocking birds, the freeways, my dreams.

I know this is because my mind is dwelling in one particular room. The world is not suddenly obeying the rules of fiction. Narrative is not its design.

But, still.

A few nights ago, I dreamed I was in a show in a small theater tucked away on a dark street. Two friends were on the stage with me. We were dressed in ruffled collars, masks with fake noses, and curious hats. I couldn't decided whether we were Punch and Judys or Harlequin and Columbines. We performed sleight of hand under the glaring lights, except that our juggling balls and silk handkerchiefs kept vanishing out of our fingers, and our bowl of goldfish sprouted miniature wings. Nothing would go right because everything that happened was true. I wanted to cry, but I was afraid that the tears would collect under my mask and slip it off my face. Then I remember the end, when we put on white gloves and held each other's hands to take a bow. The audience was as black and empty as only very large theaters allow, and it made me clutch the hand I was holding so hard that the seams of our gloves indented my skin.

There is a man who has been coming to the bookstore who keeps asking me for books of perfect style and unremarkable substance. As long as the style is there, he says, it can have a story that's just ehhh, you know. The strangest part is that he doesn't say this like, I want to read a beautiful book, beauty above all. He says it like he actually does not want to read a good story. I am finding this request boring and perplexing.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I believe in satisfying cravings.

Last week, I was suddenly, intensely ravenous for a project that was out of the ordinary. Out of my ordinary, at least. I wanted something complicated, difficult, and interesting, something to distract me from my bluesy streak. I wanted a Very Large and Quixotic project.

I've been fiddling with the start of it. Here's some of what I did today.

And here's an interview with Christian DeVita, who did storyboards for Fantastic Mr. Fox. It's from the Drawn! website, which waylaid me for a solid hour today.

I am not this book

I just finished a novel that I found absurd, disturbing, and very sad. It's called The Bird Room and I picked it up because it has both a stylish cover and a one-sentence blurb from The Guardian of London that says it "x-rays the souls of young people."

It's a bizarre little book, and I disliked all of the people in it (all except for a minor character named Corinne, who works in a casino and leaves maternal notes for her roommate taped to the television screen). They were so empty. They had no passions, and the only things they thought about were their own inadequacies or sex. That's it. It depressed me. If that's an x-ray of the souls of people my age, I want to take my soul back in for a second opinion.

For a book that puts on the trappings of obsession, that wallows in voyeurism and the need for physical contact, it was weirdly, infuriatingly cold. Most of the book is taken up by characters sleeping with each other, or thinking about sleeping with each other, but they are so filled with worrying about themselves that it blots out all their senses and they might as well be alone. They do cruel things to themselves, cruel things to each other, and I don't care. They're just too flimsy and too hollow and too claustrophobic for me to feel anything except frustration that anyone would dare to say they're a suitable x-ray of a sheet of paper, let alone a soul.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Today, I went to a workshop where we attempted to align ourselves with another person's center (not their geographical center, not their center of gravity; the center we were looking for was an invisible line of something running up through their feet, piercing a certain point behind their breastbone, and escaping through the top of their head). This was a preparatory exercise for improvisation. It was supposed to open us up to the listening required.

My partner stood in front of me and shuffled his feet around. He swayed a bit, staring into my eyes and concentrating hard on something else. Eventually, he stopped. "Is that it?" he asked. "I think I got it. Do you feel that? I definitely feel something."

We were standing about a foot apart. Just standing. I didn't feel anything, except faintly ridiculous. I didn't want to sound like a skeptic, so I asked him what it felt like.

"Kind of a tingling. Like I know we're connected. You know, it's just this feeling."

I tried. I stopped raising my eyebrows. I stood up straight. I tried to imagine tightrope walkers, Siamese twins, kung fu masters. I tried to imagine that this guy, who I had never met before, was (for these five minutes) the only person who mattered in the world. I tried to make my mind a blank.

"Can I be honest?" I said.

"Oh yeah," he said.

"I don't feel anything. Sorry. I really don't." He looked disappointed, and rather sorry for me, as if he had been afraid that I wasn't ready for this, but had been willing to reserve doubt.

"Well, you know, I thought you were pretty hard to read," he said. "Some people just are."


Friday, January 15, 2010

safety in the cinema

A little while ago, we had David Thomson visit the bookstore to talk about his new book, The Moment of Psycho (complete with unsettling subtitle: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder). I didn't actually hear very much of his talk because I was busy with various bookstore things, but I heard him begin by presenting the idea of "safety in the cinema."

Are we safe when we go to the cinema? Are we safe when we settle down into those plush folding seats and lean back in climate-controlled darkness? Are we safe when the screen lights up and the music begins and we are transported to somewhere definitively not where we started out?

No, David Thomson says.

No! I say.

And then several days went by and several things happened and I was very sad. I kept thinking, am I safe? And then I thought about it some more, and I had to ask myself, would I want to be? When I am sad, do I want to see things, hear things, read things, think things that only comfort me? Will having my world flattened out, simplified, and filtered make me feel any better? No, it won't. I tried it recently. It makes me feel like I'm playing with paper dolls, or a garden made out of spun sugar. None of it lasts, and if it rains, everything is going to collapse into mush and melt away, leaving you with nothing but pale and dirty water.

The thing about art (and when I say art, I mean it as a clumsy stand in for telling stories, listening to music, dancing in the rain, looking at a painting in a museum, taking photographs, going to the cinema... all of that, on both sides) is that it puts extra folds into my life. When I was very young, I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. There's an illustration in there that tries to explain how you could fold together space and time to travel long distances through both in a moment. An ant crawls along a length of fabric stretched between two hands. The hands fold the fabric together and the ant steps from one finger to the next, skipping all the fabric in between.

Art does the opposite. It makes folds and pleats in my life, but they aren't shortcuts. They're richly textured, absurdly embroidered, swags of knotted and tangled and snarled and dirty things. They give me the luxury of time outside of my mundane routine to examine things I don't quite understand. They rip off the confines of all those silly excuses I make up for myself to stay inside where everything is safe.

I don't want everything to be safe, not in art at least. Otherwise there's no point to it. Otherwise it's just stuff, this comforting, safe stuff that says nothing, that gives nothing, that has absolutely nothing in it at all.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Some time ago, the army built a tower in the middle of a spread of wild hills. The tower looked out to the sea, and when the army had finished with it, they filled its hollow innards with a gun.

Thirteen men were sent to look after the gun. They examined its parts and counted its pieces in case any went missing during the night. They signed their names on its dance card with chalk, and once they even fired it, with much pomp and gleaming ceremony, though it was only a test and the ammunition sunk into the sea.

Mostly, they waited. They imagined what it might look like to see a ship lumber over the horizon, how it would feel launch something through the air and be unable to stop it from crashing through metal and glass and the crisp bones of men. They listened to the radio and heard reports of a war so far away that they sounded like stories that someone had made up about a place that didn't exist. They polished. They cleaned. They counted the pieces of the gun.

If it weren't for the men, the gun would have been invaded by dust. Its innards would have clogged and rodents would have taken it for a home. It would have sunken to obscurity, been fractured and abandoned. Instead, it was riddled with time. Slow time, bored time, the kind of minutes that stretch out so long and so thin that they manage to hold nothing in them. It flaked off the men while they drooped in the sunlight, made drifts and piles that collected in corners and shored up walls. It accumulated like dirt while the men waited for something that would never happen and that gave them nightmares of guilt when they dreamed that it had.

Eventually, the men left and the army took away the gun.

The tower stayed and the hole where the gun used to be was flooded by rain. Water weeds and algae took up residence. A family of newts lived and died and left behind enough eggs for several generations. Time sank to the bottom of the newly made pond where newts swallowed it absentmindedly and grew into exotic specimens with plumed tails and delicate fingers instead of feet.

The newts are so still that they might be dead or sleeping. It's the time that makes them sluggish. They only remember to move when an unfamiliar shadow mars the reflections above them. Then they jerk their absurdly long and complicated tails and propel themselves until they forget where they were going.

If you watch them long enough, you may see them eating time. It's an uncomfortable sensation, to witness their flat mouths and triangular tongues closing around another person's minutes and hours. They seem to be unaware that they are even doing it, and the lack of expression on their amphibious faces seems to indicate that the flavor is unremarkable.

Every once in a long while, a newt will look up from its meal. Its entire body spasms and it streaks around the pond like something possessed, unable to stop itself until it runs into exhaustion and sinks to the bottom, too tired to lift itself to the surface to breathe. Sometimes it drowns.

It's difficult to say whether the newts understand the things they feel when they consume these more dangerous flavors of time. Do they savor the taste of memory (which is easily mistaken for time, but much harder to discard)? Is it, perhaps, a matter of honor, a dare? Maybe they select carefully, down beneath the stagnant water. They pick up pieces and discard them, searching for something that is different and beautiful and terribly, horribly fine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

from a bluff overlooking a beach

He decided it was the flatness that he missed the most. When he looked at a picture of the ocean, he had it all there in front of him, and he could appreciate how nice everything was without having to worry about all the empty water that would be happy to drown him, and all the empty air that tugged on his poor, flimsy skin so he felt naked, naked, naked, even with his clothes still on him.

"Start small," Dr. Limic had told him. "Five minutes a day. Two minutes, even. Your unusual tolerance has been a lifesaver for us, literally, but it isn't normal and you have to face the possibility that it may, eventually, run out." The doctor would lean against the outside of whatever compartment or container or "future habitation environment" they were testing him against and tap the smooth walls appreciatively. "I don't know how you do it, Jack. You have no signs of stress, and you're not hiding them either. For all our machines know, you might as well be lounging next to a pool in Monte Carlo."

Jack had never been to Monte Carlo. He had never really thought about it either. The name had always sounded like something you'd call a brand of aftershave. It made him think of clean, shiny people who went around smiling all the time, and didn't do honest work for a living. Someone like himself, for instance. He pushed his nose into the folds of his smoothly shaved arms, but he didn't smell like anything now, not even soap.

"Better for the electrical readings," Dr. Limic had explained when he pasted on the sensors and receivers for the first time.

They brought him in with a few of his coworkers and some other people from the sanitation firm across town. Individuals who were used to small spaces, they said. People who have mastered the natural tendency to panic, when the luxury of space is taken away.

Jack supposed that made sense. They had spent more time than not climbing through pipes and tunnels and shafts. He couldn't remember if he had ever been troubled by the sensation of space pressed thin between himself and the inside of a maintenance tunnel. If he had, it had been a long time ago, and this was easy work. Lollipops from a blind kid.

Jack waited for the panic to catch up with him. He sat in rooms that got smaller and smaller, and then in specialized containers that looked like progressively more alien versions of a cheap sleeper car, or a single seat portion of an airplane.

"I heard they have hotels like this in Japan," one of the other subjects said. "A bed that slides out in a drawer, and a tv that sits between your feet. I heard that, sometimes, people have sex in them, but mostly it's just for sleeping. Too uncomfortable for anything else, I guess."

Jack waited patiently. He wondered if there was something wrong with him because the panic was taking so long to reappear. His fellow subjects left, one by one, most of them looking relieved, although a few of them looked ashamed about the despairing looks the scientists threw after them.

"I can't be sure this is going to work," Dr. Limic said. "We need it to work. This could be the most important scientific project that I will ever have the honor of being a part of. We're only a small element of the whole, of course, but you never know which piece will take the brunt of history when the whole structure is exposed to the world."

They put Jack in a sleek, cream-colored pod. The walls curled around him, and perfectly molded cushions held him so gently that he almost didn't feel them at all. Tubes fed him and cleaned him, and when he got tired of the sleepy warmth, he pressed a button for beautiful pictures to flash an inch in front of his face, or for music to hum straight into his ear, and he enjoyed them until he drifted off again.

"I feel like a baby," he said when he woke up long enough to remember the whole sentence.

"I'm sorry," Dr. Limic said. "It's an unavoidable side effect, I'm afraid."

"No, no. It's not like that." Jack tried to explain about the way his mind was emptying out and the wonder that kept tickling him when he thought about how much room he was going to have in there, but he kept falling asleep before he could find the right words to share the irony of the situation.

"Thank you, Jack. We're finished." Dr. Limic seemed to be having trouble holding onto his pen. It slipped and skittered off his notes and out of his hand. "We've got everything we need, thanks to you, and -- I shouldn't be telling you this because it's supposed to be confidential, but I don't see any harm in a little celebration -- we got it right, finally. We're sending the plans off to manufacturing now. In a month, they'll be ready for the ship."

"That's it?" Jack asked. He thought that nobody had heard him because they were so busy taking the pod apart from around him. When enough pieces had been marked and noted and carefully boxed away, they disconnected his tubes and lifted him into a cold wheelchair. The walls seemed a dizzying distance away. His legs went cold and weak just from looking at that endless stretch of space.

"Of course not," said Dr. Limic. "You've been an indispensable part of my work. I've arranged a nice send off for you."

Dr. Limic's idea of a nice send off was a small house that overlooked the beach. It wasn't Monte Carlo, the doctor said, but I'm sure you'll find it almost as nice. He prescribed time outdoors, gentle observation that led up to unflinching study of the far horizon. You'll feel better for it, he said. It's a matter of health.

Jack set his watch before he opened the door. He dutifully stood ten feet away from his door and looked at the line that made up the difference between the sky and the ocean. He tried to ignore the way a muscle beneath his eye twitched sometimes. He allowed himself to hunch up his shoulders, but he didn't let himself turn around, or cheat by closing his eyes for longer than he would normally blink. Once, he saw a furious light dash straight into the sky, and when he listened to the radio later, he heard Dr. Limic accepting the congratulations of a crowd.

When he had finished his time, Jack would go back inside and shut the door. He had moved a chair into a closet and lined the walls with postcards, and he liked to sit there, holding a small lamp in his lap, until the shaking faded and he could stop thinking about how it felt to have his walls taken away.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

helpful hints for bookstore customers, part 9

O best beloved bookstore customers,

If you are going to engage me in conversation about my choice of outfit or Glenn Gould's nimble fingers, it is much more efficient (if less entertaining) to use standard conversational gambits. Things like sentences may be boring, but unless you inform me that you have actually instigated a game of charades, or a performance-art-rebus combining mime and monosyllabic noises, then I may just look at you in confusion and disbelief.

You certainly astonished me, and you added a friendly bit of strange to an otherwise ordinary day.

It was nice of you to bring a translator though.

(Fluttering hands from throat to waist.)
Ni, ni, ni.
(Moves one hand into a scallop, to indicate a wave.)
New. Old. New. Old. Young. Ma. Mi. Old. Young.

Oh, she means she remembers her mother wearing something like that when she was young. Fashions always come back, you know how it is. Up and down, like always.

(Tapping ear.)
Mi, mi, mi, mi. Ha.

She plays piano herself, of course. She's a great musician. Beautiful voice, really beautiful.

(Sighing. Tapping fingers in the air.)
Ooooohhhhh. Vue. Li-lah, li-lah, leeeee.

Ever since she was little. She knows all the music by heart. I bet she knows all the music you play here, even.

And so on, and so forth. I'm afraid I was so absorbed by the feeling that I had stepped into either a farce or an alternate world, that I have absolutely no memory of what books you ended up taking home. It was knocked out of my head by the way you said, "thank you," and "have a good evening," so that your translator almost translated for me before she realized she didn't have to.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

november and december (reading)

These two months were mostly full of fragments. I started a great many books, got bored, distracted, or otherwise engaged, and put them down. Some of them I intend to finish, but some of them were so forgettable, that I would have to start them over from the beginning, and then it probably wouldn't be worth the trouble.

So the only book that I read straight through, from page one to the end, was Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. It's a slim, tidy novel, definitely a thriller, and one of those stories that relies on the easily visible twist at the end to close itself off with uncomfortable smoothness and a sort of cruel wink. You see the end bearing down on the characters, and you know that it's going to flip their expectations inside out in the exact worse way. The thrill comes not from wanting to see what happens, but from the particulars of how the characters react. It's like "The Gift of the Magi," only not nice at all.

I couldn't sleep the night after I finished it. There were just so many awful people in the story, and they were such a weird mixture of believable and unbelievable, with the believable parts being all their selfish, inhumane, angry, jealous, delusional thoughts. The kind of thoughts that flicker on the edge of mine, sometimes. The kind of thoughts that would make you feel like a bad person if you ever grabbed onto them and actually thought them with purpose instead of flinging them away. The unbelievable (and fascinating) part was the way the characters luxuriated and wallowed in them, taking them to ridiculous heights that were almost funny except that you could see how they got there.