The Red and the Black
Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), 1830
So I had to give up on Stendhal about 200 pages in. Shame, because I was really enjoying it too, but I was reading too slowly and someone recalled it to the library - the bastards! Not an easy book to read when you're tired like I've been lately, but it's rewarding. Or at least the first 200 pages are. Full of wry wit and surprising psychological insight. I'll finish it one day when my attention span is a little longer. Meanwhile, I've got some Chuck Palahniuk lined up (an author I haven't read before - so far it's fast-paced enough for my sugar-and-caffeine-addled mind at least) and I'm considering a run at Huck Finn for the first time in close to a decade. Whatever I read, it'll be posted here.
April 27, 2007
The Red and the Black
April 23, 2007
"The Human Chair"
Edogawa Rampo (Hirai Taro), 1925
So I think this is the best horror story I've ever read. I should mention that I really dislike horror fiction in general, so I've hardly read any. But this is just a fabulous piece of work regardless of genre.
It's written by the Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (if you pronounce that pseudonym with a Japanese accent, it sounds like "Edgar Allan Poe" - cute), who doesn't have a whole lot of work available in English translation, sadly. This one's surely my favorite. There's a clever frame story, but the meat of it is the psychological changes in a man who, yep you guessed it, turns into a chair. Completely ludicrous and chillingly scary at the same time - I'm not sure how much the translation is a factor, but the balancing act of tone is just masterful.
The big idea is Kafka-esque without a doubt, but there are these great added layers: the fetishization of luxury objects (in particular Western-associated ones), the porous boundary between craftsman and object, the creeping hidden eroticism of the everyday. It's just a really nicely-formed story too, the pacing pulling you along and ending just at the right moment.
I'll probably write about some of his other stories here in the future, but I guarantee if you read this one story, you'll want to devour the rest of the collection post haste.
April 17, 2007
Please watch this and tell me that you cringe in utter horror the way I do:
Squirrel Rapping Wordsworth
I think pretty much anyone seeing this believes that it's just wrong wrong wrong wrong. Yes, I understand that it's a publicity stunt more than anything else (and it seems like there's been quite a bit of press, so guess it worked), but what the hell were these people thinking?
The most amazing part of it is imagining that there were multiple minds involved in the planning and execution of this sad project. Or maybe it's the multiple minds that were the problem...
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: We need more visitors to the Lake Country
CONSULTING LIT PROF: Well we've been using Wordsworth as a draw for years, no need to change that. If only we could get the younger (under-75) generation interested in Romantic poetry!
MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: I've noticed that this "youtube" is very popular among the kids today.
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Yes! We'll become an internet overnight success! Brilliant!
CONSULTING LIT PROF: We could upload a video of me reading "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" as I gaze reflectively over the local landscape.
MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: We could do that, but you need some kind of "hook" to get noticed on youtube.
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Hey you know what'd be crazy? Just throwing this out there -- what if while you were reading the poem, you were attacked by giant squirrels? It would be funny and draw attention to our unique squirrel population. We'd have to include a disclaimer that our squirrels aren't actually humongous man-eating monsters, but still I think it would get noticed! Brilliant!
CONSULTING LIT PROF: I don't know if that fits the tone of the poem very well.
MULTIMEDIEA EXPERT: You know what else the kids today like, aside from youtube? rap music. And a lot of people say it's sort of like poetry.
CONSULTING LIT PROF: Oh wouldn't it be just so precious - we could be the first people ever in history to think of someone "rapping" a classic poem! We are just so clever!
MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: I'll start watching BET 24 hours a day to get ideas for filming a rap video. We can replace the scantily-clad women with daffodils or something.
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: I love this idea! We are on the cutting edge here, men! I only see one possible drawback
MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: What's that?
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Well, rappers ... they're usually ... you know ...
CONSULTING LIT PROF: They're what?
TROUIST BUREAU GUY: Um ... well ... of African descent. And there's nothing wrong with that of course, but it's not exactly the image we want tourists to have of the Lake Country, is it?
CONSULTING LIT PROF: Oh no no no.
MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: Good point. How can we solve this?
TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Maybe there's a way to work in the giant squirrel idea somehow...
April 14, 2007
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk, 1998
Well this is a tough book. First and foremost, it's a philisophical novel, and those are always easy to talk about but hard to say anything meaningful about. In addition, the branch philosophy dealt with here is (for the most part) aesthetics, and that's just a really tricky one to make into a narrative. The overall structure puts me in mind of Calvino - though that may just be my limited knowledge talking. Anyhow, getting down to the nitty-gritty, there are quite a few frustratingly dull stretches, and on the other hand there are passages of such pristine beauty that you have to catch your breath and re-read before exhaling seems an option.
The story unfolds from the individual perspectives of a dozen or more characters. This conceit really drives things along beautifully, and it's hard to imagine the big themes (the ways aesthetic concerns influence the way we live our lives and vice-versa) could be explored as deeply without the perspective-shifts. There's a mystery(very Chan is Missing), a romance or two, a courtly intrigue, several artist rivalries, a clan feud, a ghost story, teenage angst, historical adventure, divine wrath unleashed. Pretty much everything you'd want from a story set in 16th-century Istanbul, I guess. They all dovetail together quite neatly, without giving short shrift to things like characterization and narrative description. Leitmotifs of various kinds connect distant and diverse parts of the book. On top of all that, I have to say that it's not easy to write prose that really evokes the practice of the visual arts, but Pamuk accomplishes that very successfully. No mean feat.
There are quite a number places where the writing seems to drag, usually recountings of history or the minutiae of painting styles. I tried really hard to take the novel on its own terms, and just take what I could from those sections, but I found it difficult to adjust to the plodding pace for a chapter, then ramp up to the more free-flowing tempo. Still, it's hard to be too unhappy about that when you get to read stuff like this, about a group of artists sitting around reminiscing about artworks they've seen:
"As if they were our own unforgetable and unattainable memories, we wistfully discussed our favorite scenes of love and war, recalling their most magnificent wonders and tear-inducing subtleties. Isolated and mysterious gardens where lovers met on starry nights passed before our eyes: spring trees, fantastic birds, frozen time ... We imagined bloody battles as immediate and alarming as our own nightmares, bodies torn in two, chargers with blood-spattered armor, beautiful men stabbing each other with daggers, the small-mouthed, small-handed, slanted-eye, bowed women watching events from barely open windows ... We recalled pretty boys who were haughty and conceited, and handsome shahs and khans, their power and palaces long lost to history. Just like the women who wept together in the harems of those shahs, we now knew we were passing from life into memory, but were we passing from history into legend as they had?"
There are lots of big ideas here, and all handled with grace and subtlety. Definitely rewarding.
April 12, 2007
April 09, 2007
Zhuangzi: Basic Writings
Zhuangzi, 4th century B.C.E.
So I've been reading through some philosophical texts lately, and rediscovered the Zhuangzi (also transliterated as Chuang-tzu). For me, this is the definitive Taoist text, much more earthbound than the etherial Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), but still with all the wonderfully dizzying questions of authorship and the deep, continually unlocking mysteries.
One of my favorite things about the book is the way I can't read it without constantly changing my "distance" from the text. It draws you in close and pushes you back, and sometimes seems to do both at once, so that you experience several layers of meaning at a time. Or at least that's how it seems to me.
My favorite bit is one of the more famous ones - the parable of Cook Ting. It's a story that finds the Tao in, of all things, the process of butchering an ox. Cook Ting says:
"I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint. ... However, when I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety until - flop! the whole things comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground."
Now that's real philosophy, dude - you just don't find that sort of thing in "Men Are from Neptune" or whatever.
April 06, 2007
"What Am I After All"
from Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman, 1892
One of the untold millions of things that makes Whitman wonderful: you can pretty much always find a quote that reflects what you are thinking about at the time.
What am I after all but a child, pleas'd with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear - it never tires me.
Almost makes it sound important and poetic to indulge one's ego with a blog, don't it?
file under: whit
April 05, 2007
"The House in Turk Street"
collected in The Continental Op
Dashiell Hammett, 1924
Anybody who knows me, knows that I am a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett. My favorite pulp writer to read again and again. I won't get into everything I like about his work, because some of it will become obvious as I talk about this one story.
"The House in Turk Street" is typical Hammett: the prose is terse and rhythmic (though a bit more sensationalistic than in later work), the pace of the story's unfolding is tightly managed, the characters and bright and economically drawn (i.e. exploitative). The detective in this story is one of the great pulp characters of all time, the nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. Really, I can't think of a recurring mystery character who's more enjoyable on so many levels.
This particular story takes place all in a single house, over the course of just a few hours, and the hero spends a lot of it gagged and tied to a chair. There's a real understanding of drama in the way it unfolds - drama as opposed to plot, that is (though there's plenty of plot too). It's about the interactions among characters, the shifting power relationships, more than it's about the linear motion of a protagonist through situations. What's amazing is that Hammett manages to achieve this in a first-person narration, in a paid-by-the-word story for a 1920s pulp magazine.
It's hard to forgive the gender and (especially) ethnic stereotypes here, but if you can set them aside, it's a hell of a lot of fun to read. For me, it's always been easier to grimace and get past that kind of derogation when it's in popular genre fiction (though there are limits of course) than when it's in literature that makes claims to psychological depth.
I'm sure I'll talk about other Hammett work here in time, but this story contains so many of my favorite elements, figured it was a good place to start. The whole Continental Op collection is pretty marvellous, actually. Definitely worth reading, especially if you've never read any so-called "hardboiled" detective fiction.