Monday, April 20, 2009

Ha. Another One

Some of you may recall that in the summer, inspired by Carbon Trace, I began to hunt (cyberly) Academics Who Bike. Got another today, by the usual method, aka, not looking. I was looking for information on Toronto and biking, and, lo ! Stylocycle came into view. She explains herself in this post. I'm adding her to my special category sidebar.
On another note, I've finished The Glister. Hmmm... still pondering.

Add to list of books not to forget about reading:
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Telegraph Days; Reread Lonesome Dove
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Jeanette Winterson, Weight
Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

I'm behind as far as The Road goes, I know. A lot going on these past few years.

The 2009 Pulitzers are out, but I am very underwhelmed at the moment. I hadn't been paying much attention, but in the fiction and poetry category at least, even the finalists seem weak. Not undeserving at all, but perhaps safe or too mainstream/ establishment (?). Elizabeth Strout's "novel in short stories," Olive Kitteridge won for fiction, and WS Merwin for poetry (The Shadow of Sirius). Worse, Drew Gilpin Faust's brilliant book on the civil war, This Republic of Suffering, was pitted against Annette Gordon Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello, to which it lost. Tough call. Both are extremely important works, and both so extremely deserving. I presume Pulitzers cannot "tie," but I haven't looked into this. Faust's is really the better book, though: better written, beautifully researched, intellectually captivating. I must be in a very contrarian mood, sitting here arguing with the Pulitzer committee in my head. 'Nite.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Steph, in a meme of some sort, posted a list on her site: a three year reading list of books that she wants to read, should read, never got to. Here's her explanation of the whole project and where she found it:
Project Fill-in-the-Gaps was created by Moonrat on her blog Editorial Ass: fill in the gaps in your reading lists of classics and contemporary fiction. Make a list of 100 titles, give yourself 5 years to complete reading the list, and give yourself 25% "accident forgiveness" - consider the task accomplished if you achieve 75 titles in the time span. I found this via some blog or other..."
I'm not big on those group lists like "the best 100 books" or projects like "the big read" --- not a communal reader, I'd guess, or not a book club sort. So my reaction to the project, understandably, was no reaction. Without getting into the specifics of my education, I've done my time with multi-year reading lists of inordinate length. Appeal of repeating this experience: zero. I do carry around lists like this in my head, but they change or emerge by happenstance, say, when I come across a title consciously forgotten but now on view in a bookstore or library, and then I remember that I've wanted to read it. And so I usually buy it/check it out on the spot. But I think we all have similar lists, of symphonies unheard, recipes untried, places to visit, etc. Will the naught decade be the decade of lists ? I blame that book, which seems still very popular among, hmm, I'll stretch it and say the 32 and under crowd, but I've mostly heard it mentioned by people in their twenties: One Hundred Things To Do Before You Die. It seems to have spurred a whole movement of "life lists," (or "Bucket Lists," based on the movie). The worst ? The writer of the original book, a travel book, died at the age of 47, list unfinished, not eaten by crocodiles or anything exotic, but from a head injury suffered in a fall at home. Enough to put one off the idea entirely. But it hasn't. The idea spawned (I mean this in the demonic sense) an entire industry ---and maybe a generation--- of people who see life as a hop from one bullet point to another (was this inevitable after Power Point ?). I wonder if their lives will pass them by while they are busy checking off events and experiences... On the other hand, like titles that I suddenly reapprehend as desirable reads, perhaps the lists are a way of holding up our true self(ves) to the mind's eye, so that it doesn't get lost in the daily routine that keeps offering up the "someday" that will be different. All of this is getting philosophical and far from my original purpose for my entry, which is not a three year reading list, but one formed in the now of the latest NYTimes Book Review today. The first three are not in it; it is that when I read the review, I remember them. Every week, I tuck it aside and later in the week, I recycle it, and only if I am very organized have glanced through it again to remind myself of what I might like to read. Dear Reader(s ?), though I mention this newspaper quite a bit, it is not my only source. I also feel, for example, that I need to listen to the Wrens, but this impulse did not come from the Times. Aside from any other books I may have mentioned, which I may or may not have read by now, these are the books on my mind:
  • Current Read: A Meaningful Life, LJ Davis finished, 4/13
  • Keep Forgetting, But Really Want to Read: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  • The Age of Shiva, Manil Suri
  • More Jonathan Lethem (I loved Motherless Brooklyn)
In the Book Review this week (children's books caught my eye this time around, mostly, I notice):
  • Amiri and Odette, Walter Dean Myers, illustr. Javaka Steptoe : "the legend of Swan Lake moves into the projects."
  • The Yggyssey, Daniel Pinkwater, illustr. Caleb Brown (why hadn't I heard of Pinkwater before this ?). The main character is a girl named Yggdrasil Birnbaum, presumably after the great ash tree stretching from beneath the earth to the heavens in Norse mythology. I wonder how accidental the last name is: it means "pear tree" in German.
  • The Graveyard Book, Blueberry Girl and Coraline, all by Neil Gaiman
  • It would also be hard to pass on CAT, "written by Matthew van Fleet and photographed by Brian Stanton. All kinds of cats, in motion and rhyme." Why should the "2 and up" crowd have all the good cat books ?
  • The Glister, John Burnside. (finished, 4/19) Scottish fiction, teenage boys vanish in the woods for years until another teenage boy begins to realize what is going on. Read the review. My potboiler plot description does not capture what intrigues me about it. The review does.
Well, off to listen to the Wrens, finally, via the link I created here. Happy Easter, for those of you who are celebrating today.

Image from "Amiri and Odette" lifted from NYTimes Book Review website.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"Call it a field..."

I've finished Dogs of Babel. While I write, I'm making a version of a recipe I saw in the newspaper today, a kind of breakfast-for-dinner meal, poached eggs atop peas. The peas should be sprinkled with bacon, but I don't have any in the house, so mine will be plainer: I have some cornbread, I'm thinking about sprinkling it with Parmesan cheese. I'm sure it's not supposed to be a full meal either, but eggs, peas, and cornbread sound fine to me.
Parkhurst's novel is written in stunningly beautiful prose, the tale of a man, told by that man, the husband of a woman who is found dead at the foot of an apple tree in their backyard, their Rhodesian Ridgeback nosing the body and yelping out the cries to neighbors, one of whom finally looks over the fence. In the UK, the book was more precisely titled Lorelei's Secret, since the dog, Lorelei, was the only witness to what happened. The words "elegiac" and "parable" have been frequently applied to this novel, and when it sustains that tone, which is most of the time, the novel shines, the prose is a glimmering field of love and grief, the ineffable and the unknowable. "Babel" is a reference to the husband's profession as a linguist, and his growing obsession, which he pursues in the name of research, of teaching the dog to talk, or at least to communicate, because he is convinced that Lorelie can make sense of what happened: why was his wife, Lexy (there are elements of allegory here), climbing a thirty foot tree in the first place ? Police forensics determine quickly that Lexy did not jump, but, Paul wonders, did she "let herself" fall ? [Fall. From an apple tree. Reference to Babel. Are these allusions clear enough ? Apparently the apple tree and the fall were not enough for the publishers who changed the title: the story of Babel is not mentioned in the book.] The novel retells the story of how Paul and Lexy, who owned Lorelei before she met Paul, met and married. Lexy is a mask maker, an artistry that takes a macabre turn when she is commissioned to make a modern day death mask of a teenage girl who has died of cancer. Contrary to what Paul expects, the mask, while limning the girl's features, is full of life: "She had painted the face white, a stark white background, with a field of bright flowers that stretched from cheek to cheek. The colors were vibrant --- no soft pastels, no pinks and baby blues. There were stems and leaves in bright, vivid greens, topped with blossoms of read and purple and yellow and teal, their petals touched with gold like a glint of sunglow. There were not the kind of flowers that would have been sent to the girl's funeral... These were wildflowers, windblown and growing every which way." It is one of several crucial moments in the novel where Paul is taken by surprise by Lexy's work, both by its nature and execution, and his inability to fully comprehend the artist in her and the mercurial emotions that reside behind her own mask of everyday self burn away, like a purifying flame, the glinting, sunlit elegy of his narrative of their romance. But there is no purifying flame: as do many in grief, Paul eats out of cereal boxes, lets the laundry and dirty dishes pile up, and pursues his project with Lorelei. In this world, which is like our own but is not, there is a "famous case" of a French talking dog from the sixteenth century, followed by another famous case, in Paul's own time, of a criminal who altered the anatomy of dogs until he succeeded, we're told, in getting it to talk. It is a criminal case, with the mad doctor now jailed, the dog having testified in his own words. When Paul finally does encounter the dog, we will find that it is not clear at all that the dog can talk, putting the idea that "everybody heard it" back into proper context. As his sane department chair and colleague remarks, "whole courtrooms in Salem were convinced they'd seen witchcraft performed." It is this off the cuff remark that leads to the oddest and least successful aspect of the book, a shame, I think, because the author uses it to create a very plotted climax that feels out of place. (For those of you as sensitive as I, nothing that horrendous happens to Lorelei.) Paul meets up with the followers of the criminal who altered jaw after jaw of dogs, cruelly, to create his talking marvel. Paul has contacted the man in prison, and is properly horrified by the sketches the man sends him, yet goes, when invited, to what might be termed a hell's den of hobbyists, all of whom are pursuing the same gruesome practices, and who have kidnapped the famous talking dog, Dog J[ob ? he started with "a" we're told, and had worked his way through eight other dogs, "A" through "I", hacking and sawing in his apartment until he "succeeded"]. It is in this underground den of the Cerberus Society that Paul realizes his friend may be right. To add angst and horror to the tale, it turns out that Lorelei, who had turned up at Lexy's door as a puppy, bleeding from the neck, had escaped from this society's kennels, and after a predictable police raid, Paul returns home to find Lorelei gone. So the reader must wait as the plot moves toward Paul's discovery of the truth, incomplete, until Lorelei is found, not outwardly maimed, but with her voice box removed ---an unnecessary bit of horror and overdetermined symbolism--- a truth it will not require Lorelei's "voice" to solve, merely and instead, Paul's simple recognition of the nature of a loyal animal. The weakness is not that the book shifts its mythologies from biblical to Greco-Roman (that trick has been easily managed in many a book), but that this section's desire to drive home the monstrousness of the project, the crime against nature, if you will, of physically altering the dogs, does not really reflect anything in Paul's yearning or his methods (he imitates sounds, tried to get Lorelei to nose at picture cards, has a symbolic computer keyboard built), and except for the fact that every epic journey requires the hero to descend to the underworld (and Parkhurst has this in mind. Paul narrates toward the beginning: If I could, I would begin the way poets used to do.... I sing of a woman with ink on her hands and pictures hidden beneath her hair. I sing of a dog with a skin like velvet pushed the wrong way."), these moments in the basement and the authorial decision to maim Lorelei, feel contrived, are contrived, as is the odd scene where Lexy climbs atop Paul in bed wearing the one death mask that parents of a deceased child had rejected: a cherubically happy face painted atop the outlines of her actual features in death. You want to hold up a hand and say, we know, we know. No need to harm the dog, to set the mask scene in New Orleans: the grotesque and its surreal quality don't heel well [thought about it: sorry, "heel" is the right word here] to elegy and the clean lines of parable, it doesn't make it more complex; it pulls the plot too far in an unnecessary direction. It is part of a parallel in the narrative where both Paul and Lexy (Paul after Lexy's death) have engaged in different kinds of magical thinking, a thinking of which each is disabused by the intrusion of reality (if Paul's trip to Hell can be termed that), but taking the knife to Lorelei's throat [the surgery is not described, O Dog Lovers], only grinds away at an awareness that has already permeated the whole text, and by this point in the narrative, Paul's conscious and intellectual self as well. I wondered, half aloud while reading, if Parkhurst had become nervous about momentum, and hence, a last minute, toward-the-end-of-novel dognapping. The novel recovers well enough at the end: we see that we, along with Paul, were staring right at some clues we could have deciphered, and the one remaining mystery to Paul (why Lexy fed Lorelei a whole steak on the day she fell) is, I'd guess, already clear to the reader. The story of how we never really know each other, innocent before the Edenic Fall (when, a philosopher named Vasil ---who exists only in the novel--- supposed animals lost their ability to speak), and how we do, self consciously, carnally, and imperfectly after, how the climb up the apple tree mirrors the attempt to restore that perfection by building a tower to heaven, is all beautifully and subtly drawn. The dogs of Babel, to follow out the metaphor, are at as much of a loss as their tower-building masters. It is only when Paul is able to think like a dog, outside of speech, that he is able to solve the final piece of the puzzle by understanding ---and experiencing--- the instincts of Lorelei. It is a beautifully and originally imagined piece of work, one I hope no one passes up because of its flaws. Billy Collins once wrote these lines to describe poetry:
Call it a field where the animals
who were forgotten by the ark
come to graze under the evening clouds.
In the end, the novel is Lorelei's field, her space under the apple tree; she, forgotten by the human arks that were supposed to keep her safe while they, if only for a moment, but with irrevocable consequences, pursued their own rescues. Lorelei, the silent dog in the evening of her life, who, as instinct would allow and demand, ate a tempting morsel, oblivious to the loss that would follow, but finally, in the end, by sheer force of life and that same instinct, by being only a dog, and not Eve, keeps her master from falling too, and returns him to himself, to her, once again on solid ground.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Steampunk in Progress

Raw notes instead of a post. From a 2008 New York Times article:
"...steampunk, a subculture that is the aesthetic expression of a time-traveling fantasy world, one that embraces music, film, design and now fashion, all inspired by the extravagantly inventive age of dirigibles and steam locomotives, brass diving bells and jar-shaped protosubmarines."
Steampunk Cat pictured here, is sold by Citrus Tree on Etsy. What's funny is that, in general, in its literary manifestation and in all of those blog sites where young men are wearing bowler hats and vests, steampunk is not an aesthetic that appeals to me ---though I like the cat a lot--- and I'd guess that if I had to name the quality that limits its appeal, it would be weightiness: the encumbering gravity of the diving helmet, the Victorian petticoat and boots, the frocks (not all steampunk aficionados are into the dress up end of this). In the article, Jake von Slatt, the proprietor of something called The SteamPunk Workshop, says that steampunk "is the intersection of technology and romance," but this doesn't quite do it, because the Romantic aesthetic and the steampunk mise-en-scène do not quite coincide. But the connection to the victorian era is obvious: HG Wells, Verne, the steam engine, in short, the age of industrial marvels, beasts of machines that snorted, clanged, and and changed the view of the landscape forever (dirigibles, trains, and the diving bell all had profound effects on how one could experience the landscape, and so, one's sense of existence). There is an old book, part of a PBS series, Shock of the New (now revised), that talks about this, but it is about modernism, the antithesis (at least on the surface) of the aesthetic of steampunk. Not to overstate the obvious, but steam is the crucial element here, bespeaking all manner of archetypes of the elemental (fire and water), the transformational (the evaporation of water into hot steam), breath made visibile (and so, the life force of human and machine is linked), obscurity and loss/being lost (fogged mirrors, engine rooms, factory floors, all full of steam pouring out everywhere, mmm... Toni Morrison would have a field day with this, given what she wrote in her Nobel Lecture on whiteness and the literary imagination. Note to self: think about this, seems very fruitful). And of course, the beasts, black against their white breath, the iron horses of the rails, grey dirgibles with flame in their bellies. Most of the reading I've done seems to claim that steampunk rests on one contrafactual: the internal combustion engine is never invented; everything else, though, is fair game. (But does this really mean that we'd all still be in hobnail boots ? What of the women of steampunk ? Back to the corset and bustle ?) The answer, over at a blog I found while pursuing these musings, Daily Steampunk , is, to my despair, yes, if you take the corset pictured here to be typical, as also the unfortunate term "steampunkettes." So I need to do some serious research, that is, for any of you twenty-somethings and below reading, from real databases not found via Google, sources from vetted journals and articles, and see what's being written on this. To my mind, "steampunkettes" not withstanding, this seems to be a very male place to play, very rigid, very heavy. Maybe this is not being fair to the second half of the compound, the "punk," which is often an autopilot signal for subversive or counter-cultural, but it seems there is a lot of reinscribing of norms here. This is not polished thinking at all; writing late again, too late to read the book I bought when I thought I'd have time to read (sigh). Finally reading The Dogs of Babel. Seven pages in.
PS I like the cat because it is not Victorian. In fact, it has the feel of Newark, NJ, when you fly in over all those flaming and smoking oil refineries at twilight. It has that feel, a different one, to my mind, than corsets and pocketwatches. Is anyone still with me ?