Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still, at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) -- it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross. -- Julian Barnes, Levels of Life -- Have a great Tuesday! *****
The last two books I've read were both excellent. The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht. Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. I finished the Barnes one just tonight, so while it is fresh on my mind I want to say a few words about it. Firstly -- you should read it. At 128 pages, you can read it in a sitting. It's a slim little thing, but packed with searing relevance. In 2008, his wife died. I say "died" instead of "passed away" because Barnes dislikes the term. What does "passing away" imply? That it will come back, sometime? That the distance between life and death is somehow bridgeable? It isn't. They had been married for thirty years -- and in this book, I learned a new word: Uxorious. I had to look it up. It means "having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness for one's wife." Julian Barnes was very uxorious towards his wife, and this book is a poignant memoir of the grieving and mourning process that he is still -- processing. It is interesting in its structure. Barnes begins with two chapters that seem to be going almost nowhere. Chapters about the history of ballooning, and photography. In the third and final chapter, we begin to see the significance of the metaphors. It begins: You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer to crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible. I encourage you to read Levels of Life. Never is Julian Barnes going nowhere in a book. And in this one, by revealing what he lost when the greatest part of who he is was literally… removed, he takes us everywhere. To the most important word in the universe. Starts with "L" and ends in "e". Just like the book's title. *****
I think a great book -- leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on -- is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths. -- Julian Barnes, The Paris Review, Winter 2000 --
Beyond the occasional half-forgotten act of "the pouring of some water in there"… I know absolutely nothing about horticulture. My percentage of Plant Knowledge would be somewhere into the negative integers, is what I am saying! And yet I have somehow managed to be the owner of a plant that refuses to die. His name is Robert Plant. And no matter the magnitude of ignorance I level at this thing, it continues to thrive -- for years now. I bought this little inches-high plant at a grocery store, like about five years ago -- and the thing continues to not only "live" but it seems to thrive. And climb up the wall. You can't see the current outcropping in this picture, but Robert Plant, after climbing up to the ceiling somehow, is now trailing off and making his way across the top of my fridge. If he ever makes it to the inside of the thing, I am definitely going to gently suggest that he should start helping out with the grocery bill. This plant is crazy. It refuses to die, even though my cat Kennedy, [see him in the background, waiting?] regularly eats any of the leaves that droop low enough for him to reach up and gobble them. The process is called "selective pruning" and/or -- "survival of the fattest"! I've only changed the soil once, years ago. I am a terrible father to this plant, and yet… it lives. I would not at all be surprised if one day I arrive home unexpectedly early from work to the sound of clinking beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays everywhere -- and girl-plants running out the door wrapped in towels! My towels! A naked Robert jumping back into place against the wall whistling the opening to Stairway To Heaven with a guilty look on his leaves. Kennedy will be laid back on the couch yonder, with dilated pupils. Dazed and confused, stoned out of his cat mind on second-hand [or maybe even first-paw] smoke. Many thanks to West Metro Mommy Reads for hosting this Saturday Snapshot meme. *****
Sometimes, when she's out here alone, she can feel the pulse of something bigger, as if all things animate were beating in unison, a glory and a connection that sweeps her out of herself, out of her consciousness, so that nothing has a name, not in Latin, not in English, not in any known language. -- T.C. Boyle, When The Killing's Done --
One thing I really love about living in a fair size city is that there are always a fair amount of author-events. Last night as I left my favorite coffee shop I just happened to notice a stack of pamphlets sitting on a table and I picked one up. It was an ad for this year's Writer's Festival which begins tomorrow. The first thing I saw was a full page describing a Literary Luncheon With Eleanor Catton. Wow, I'd love to go to that -- even though some aspects of her new book sort of eluded me, really. Still, it was a pretty dang good book. Thing is, this event includes FOOD… and stuff. So now it is even more tempting, because I love food! The ad says, "Each ticket includes a tasty meal, good company, great conversation and a copy of The Luminaries to get signed. Better yet, proceeds support our free children's literacy programs." Nice! However, reading through the brochure, I found something that is even more interesting to me. Emma Donoghue, on April 28th, will be discussing her newest book, Frog Music-- a book I have every intention of reading. Emma Donoghue is a fantastic writer, one of my favorite writers, for sure. The downside is that the event starts at 6:30 p.m., and I work until 6 p.m. at a minimum. So I don't think I can leave work early enough to get to the thing. Hmm… unless I think of a really good excuse to skip away early. Maybe a toothache? Brain aneurysm? Sudden onset diarrhea? [Hmmm… hopefully my boss is not reading this blog right now.] *****
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate, and that, when they are gone, we're left with the concept, but not the true memory -- why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? -- Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife --
This is the ninth John Irving novel I've read over the past decade or so. The Water-Method Man is Irving's second book, published way back when I was a mere nine-year old . Am I really that old? Is he? Tthough it is such an ancient thing it reads as if it could have come out this year, well, except for the lack of technology in it. Characters still actually speak on landline phones and write letters by hand! And use typewriters! But for the most part, relationships are still as screwy today as they were back then -- and boy, are they ever screwy in here! In my experience, this seems to be Irving's forte -- illuminating via humor and farce, the unhumorous struggles in human relationships. The protagonist, Bogus Trumper, has a birth defect in his urinary tract and is prescribed a diet of copious amounts of water to try and remedy the problem. Hence, the title. Later on he will have to resort to surgical measures to fix this issue with his [whatever…] penile canal? But in the meantime he is hydrating himself as much as he can, and dealing with a seemingly never-ending line of failures in his life -- mostly in his relationships with women. As a movie-review about him will one day report, he fails "to communicate with women beyond a self-satisfying level..." It's a hilarious story, and yet, serious as hell. Buried deep are feelings that he has failed to impress his father, who alienates Bogus after he [Bogus] impregnates out-of-wedlock the first real love of his life. "You're on your own now, boy!" [My paraphrase]. And he is. Bogus's life's work revolves around his translation of an old Norse myth -- it becomes his Ph.D thesis. And a friend of his begins to make a documentary-style movie of Bogus's life, entitled * * * *ing-Up. I hesitate to spell out the actual title because I know so many young children read my blog! Interestingly enough, it is only when Bogus himself views the film in a theater, years later, that he is propelled onward to make several necessary changes that finally result in a measure of peace and stability. He gets the penis surgery. He discovers that he is the father of a child he knew nothing about, spawn of a subsequent relationship that ultimately seems to be more forgiving of his frailties, and resilient regarding his wrongdoings. I say "seems" -- because in the end we can only hope for him, on the last page. Irving excels, I think, in showing us that love is grand, but it is also mundane. And you gain the former when you accept the latter. Often we speak of great first lines in a book, but in this case I will mention a great last line: Mindful of his scars, his old harpoons and things, Bogus Trumper smiled cautiously at all the good flesh around him. To extrapolate on my already bastardized thoughts from Trumper's ever-distanced father, "You're NOT on your own now, boy!" For God's sake -- don't screw this up again! I rate The Water Method-Man 3.5 Fully Gushing Urinary Tracts out of a Possible 5 Overflowing Toilets. *****
I know that a lot of you out there are cat owners, and so I just want to begin by saying that the question in my blog-title is actually a sincere one. Maybe you can help me. I think my cat Kennedy is maybe a bit mentally retarded. He seems to want to live his life in my bathtub, mainly in the space between the inner and outer shower curtains, the former of which he keeps tearing to shreds, and I have to keep buying new ones all the time. He seems insanely intrigued with the bathtub. He's just always in there, mostly in this inner sanctum place, but other times just sprawled out right in the tub. He's obsessed with it. The weird thing is, my last cat [Jack] was similarly insane -- just not quite to this same degree, and at least he did not shred the inner liner. But Kennedy is hardcore in love with my bathtub. So I honestly am wondering if this is just some kind of common thing with cats? Does your cat do this? Should I seek counseling for this guy? Or just assume that this behavior "goes with the territory" and maybe subscribe to some sort of service that regularly sends me shower curtains in the mail? *****
You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write. -- E. Annie Proulx --
Last night I finished this veritable doorstop of a book, The Luminaries. I don't need to remind any of you that it won The Man Booker Prize in 2013. I always look forward to reading prize-winning books. I honestly think I have to admit that this one was a bit too complex for me, and yet, I am not saying it is a bad book, or not worth reading. It's a rich, compelling story [plot], filled with vivid characters and tense scenes. It is intricate. I think my main issue is with that last word, the intricacy of it. I'm all for intricacy, but found myself too often just a bit lost as to the exact happenings of the book. Even now, having finished it, were I to try and explain all that happened, I know I would be missing significant parts of the storyline, especially as they chronologically unraveled. And that bothers me, because I was really paying attention! Instead of trying to delineate it here, I will direct you to this two-minute video, and perhaps you will get a good sense of the story and its labyrinthian layout:
As for me, again, I really hate to say negative things about this book, I think it is remarkable, in so many senses. I always feel like I require a clear handle [so to say], a mental picture in my head of what is going on -- exactly what is going on, as I read a book. And it is in this sense that ultimately The Luminaries threw me for a loop, too many times. *****
About a week ago I ran across an interesting posting over at Brona's Books. It was about her Top Ten Most Influential Books. Ever since then I have been giving it some thought -- keeping in mind that the word "influential" is different from the word "favourite". As I think of how the question pans out for myself, here is what I have come up with.
Tess of The D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. One end of semester when I was in college, several millennia ago, I had some time between final exams and my trip back home. I had always been a "reader" of fiction, but fairly sporadic. With some free time on my hands I found myself at a certain mall in Peterborough, and picked up a copy of Tess. Went back to my dorm room and immersed myself in Hardy's fatalism. The book drew me in so thoroughly that I found myself glued to it. And what it accomplished was that it renewed my love of fiction. Since that time I have been an insatiable reader. Tess put an end to the sporadic nature of my former reading regimen. I have since re-read the book, as well as almost everything else the author has written. Tess remains a favourite, as well as being profoundly influential, for me.
Blindness, by Jose Saramago. In May of 2002, I read my first Saramago novel. Blindness. For those of you who have not discovered Jose Saramago, reading him is like… learning to read all over again. He has his own rules of punctuation, a style that could be copyrighted it is so unique. He is like no other author, ever. He stands alone. He hears a different drum. Blindness is not only an incredibly fascinating read, but, in my opinion, it is the perfect entry point into the world of Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author who passed away in June of 2010. I recall exactly where I was when I heard of his death. I stared into space for maybe a solid hour, and just tried to picture a world without him in it. I felt profound grief. Again, I went on from Blindness to read all of his works, and sadly miss him. My signed copy of Blindness is one of my treasures. I briefly met him, shortly before his death. Whereas Thomas Hardy taught me to love literature, I think Saramago made me realize the limitless nature of it.
Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis. I think it would be fair to say I have read almost everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, but when I first read Till We Have Faces I was shaken to the very core. It is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In Lewis's book these are two sisters, named Orual and Psyche, and the extremely fanciful story is set in a world where gods exist. It is, at one and the same time, a study in beauty and horror. A meditation on the deep effects of jealousy. The main theme is love, one love that is possessive and horrible; the other being pure, sincere, liberating, and well… lovely. The reader is forced to come to terms with where they themselves fit into that picture -- at least this is the way I have read it. And I've done so four or five times, and plan to do so again. I am somewhat of a collector, owning six different copies of it, one a first edition I stumbled across at an antiquarian bookfair and paid an outrageous amount for. Why is it so influential to me? Because it nails the most important topic in the world -- love.
The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck. This was the first book by M. Scott Peck I ever read, and it signaled for me the importance of non-fiction, in one's reading diet. It is perhaps the one book I would pick, were I told I had to choose one for the entire world to read. The subtitle is "A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth". It is so practical, so useful, so relevant. And it begins with my favourite first sentence of all time: "Life is difficult." Peck knows that it is. His own was. Again, when I heard that he passed away in 2005 -- I just stared at nothing for a long while with a big huge "What?" in my mind. Disbelief. It is influential to me because Peck taught me that when one is bewildered at the state of things, the first place to look is within. At yourself. Never mind everyone else. Think of how much shit is wrong with you. I've read pretty much everything this man went on to write, and The Road Less Traveled is the perfect starter. The world is less without him in it.
The Beginning of Wisdom, by Leon R. Kass. The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur. I am linking these two books together because each of them are like defibrillator jolts to anyone struggling with the intellectual problems that can accrue from a disconnect between fundamentalist ideas of the Bible/Christianity, and… reality. These books literally changed my life in the sense that they, in tandem, were the catalyst for me in my coming to terms with how I interpret the Bible. Kass's book, sub-titled "Reading Genesis" is a commentary on that first book of the Bible -- every verse of it. I was entranced. I ate it like manna. For the first time ever -- as in, after achieving a degree in Theology, I, for the first time, began to ask questions that would have seemed forbidden, prior to the reading of this book. In fact, of all the hitherto mentioned influential books, this one should really be listed at the top, before Tess. But in a completely different realm, and for such a different reason. Leon Kass brought to life the stories of the Bible -- made me, for the first time, interact with the people found therein, as people. Not legendary heroes, but real people. And in doing so, he made me realize that so many of them are legends, in the mythical sense. Then I followed up with reading The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur. Is he the most eloquent author ever? No. He can be crass and somewhat unprincipled, even. Thing is, again -- this book revolutionized my thinking about Christianity. The subtitle is "Recovering The Lost Light". Harpur's premise is that a lot of what has ended up in the Bible is borrowed from other cultures, most notably the Egyptians -- and is therefore not as "original" as it may, at first, appear to be. Reading The Pagan Christ was tantamount to unscrewing the top of my head and pouring cocaine inside there, directly on the most fact-hungry lobes. I wanted to learn more and more. And I did. I went to see the author speak at events, twice. Again, is this a "favourite" book? No. I've read far better ones, since. [Like those of John Shelby Spong]. But it was profoundly influential. When one finally realizes that the Bible does not necessarily have to be read as a "literal" document, it is like the difference between a bird in a cage, and a bird in the trees. Any tree. I am now the latter, thanks to these two guys.
Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins. This was the first book of Billy Collins's poetry I read, and it revolutionized my own approach to poetry. It was sent to me as a gift from a dear friend, and I am ever grateful. Ever since then, I have been unleashed in the freedom of writing poetry that is not concerned with being "good" or "bad", but more concerned with being "existent". Rhyme shmyme! Whatever you are thinking about, write it out. Break it up. Explore it. Am I suggesting this is what Billy Collins does? No. He's better than I am, at it. But he allowed me to do it. From an influential perspective, my hat [which I do not even wear, and hey -- there is a poem in there somewhere] is off to him. Billy Collins writes about what he feels, and he taught me that this is the most important thing about poetry. If you feel it, it is worth words. If no one likes it, the importanter thing is, you do. *****
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. -- Friedrich Nietzsche --
Picture utter emptiness, a.k.a., the void. Never mind the fact that there is no Earth yet, there isn't even a universe. Were you an observer, you would be observing -- nothing. Or rather, nothingness. And if you tried to picture wind or stars or water, you could not give form or texture to your emotions. [[p.3] Unbeknownst to you [especially because you do not exist yet] there is something here though. Mr.g. And he wants to create the universe. You turn the page, and read the following: Almost immediately, it seemed, my aunt Penelope asked me why I would want to do such a thing. You have entered the speculative non-world of Alan Lightman's Mr. g. In this pre-universe void, the creator has an aunt and uncle, the latter of which we meet in the next few sentences. Naturally, this presupposes parents, too. Has anyone ever existed, that had an aunt and uncle, but no parents? Lightman does this, I believe, to immediately relieve us of the idea that any of this is real. Yet, what follows in the book is about everything that we know to be real. Mr. g follows through with his desire, and creates the universe -- but he's new at this, even making a few blunders in his first tries. He's tired of The Void, and his aunt and uncle and their constant bickering. He settles on a few "organizational principles." First, symmetry of position and moment. In other words, "time" -- which has not previously existed. Secondly, there would be no absolutes, only relatives. Principles of motion, tying time and space together. "A particular period of time would signify a particular distance in space, with the proportionality between the two being a fundamental speed of the universe." Thirdly, the principle that every event should be necessarily caused by a previous event without which it would not have happened. Causality. He sets these things in motion, and sort of, lets them be, adding a touch here and there to certain aesthetic proportions etc., and giving shape and order to matter. What Mr. g discovers is that a flurry of unpredicted things happen as a result of these laws being put in motion -- things that evolve without his further intervention. Not everywhere, but on advantageously positioned planets in his universe, life evolves -- followed by consciousness. Thinking. Religions -- none of which are ever able to correctly find their way back to the First Cause. Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva urge him to make himself known to the self-conscious beings, that he may be properly admired for his work. But Mr. g never concedes to this wish, although he is often tempted to do so. He feels compassion for the created beings, but is aware that they will never be able to fully understand anything that is beyond the universe they find themselves to be a part of. Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist as well as a novel-writer, and while the facts presented do correspond to what we currently understand about the origin of the universe, the book is a novel, and meant to be read as such. It is a wonderful, often amusing speculation, and entertaining. I enjoyed it. I bet even Mr. g himself would say… "Well done!" *****
All day long at work, I've been singing various Tragically Hip songs in my head, and sometimes out loud. They are one of my favourite musical groups, and good ol' Ontario boys, to boot. I find their lyrics so nutty and compelling, even though half the time they do not make a lot of sense. But after all, Gordon Downie, the lead singer featured in the video clip below, is a well-recognized and thoroughly published poet. And we all know that poets are always a bit nutty! [Note: He is not the polar bear, he's the other guy.] For sure, they are a band I never tire of listening to. I think I fell for The Tragically Hip when they performed for the Queen of England in one of the Olympic ceremonies, and forgive me, I forget the exact year. But there she was, the QUEEN…… like of ENGLAND, and Gordon Downie did not change his style one bit for Her Majesty. He was certifiably… insane! Every so often the camera would cut to Queen Elizabeth, and you could tell she was thinking…. "Is this what our Commonwealth has come to?" and/or "Is there any way we can remove Canada from it?" It was awesome. I've been a fan ever since. I say all of this to say, you know -- I already own all of their music, so if you've been wondering what to get me for my birthday, or for Christmas or whatever, you could always click on the three words of the title, and get me his book of poetry called Coke Machine Glow.
We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened. -- Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn --
Speaking of "silence" -- please forgive my lack of blogging lately. I blame old age decrepitude, general laziness [coupled with specific laziness], and lack of initiative due to tiredness. Early-Onset Lassitude might sum it up! But I have been doing some good reading. Five books in the month of March. The last one I finished was just terrific, so I want to mention it. The Silent Wife is the debut novel by A.S.A. Harrison -- who passed away in 2013 in the midst of working on her next thriller. Jodi and Todd are forty-somethings who live together in their beautiful downtown Chicago condo. They've never been officially "married", and have no children. Todd is a Porsche-driving successful real estate developer, and Jodi is a psychologist. To all appearances they are the perfect couple, and after two decades together, everyone thinks of them as happily married. Everything is not quite as idyllic as it seems, however, especially as Todd has fallen for his best friend's 22-year old daughter, Natasha. Jodi, aware of what is happening, opts for an attitude of silence. For a while, Todd thinks he is [for lack of a better term] "getting away with it". That is, until a baby is on the way -- and it's not Jodi's baby. This ups the ante, considerably. Todd shacks up with Natasha, and Jodi faces eviction. Dean [Natasha's father and Todd's former best-friend] is livid -- as one might imagine. Todd's world narrows -- his finances and business begin to fail him. The world of multiple concubinage is, among other things -- grossly expensive! The toll on the conscience even costlier. The tale is told in alternating chapters entitled "Him" and "Her" -- and we get the inner perspective of what each is thinking along this descending spiral of relationship. The reader is struck with the depths of loss that can come from wrong decisions made. Terrible decisions, on Todd's part. But some equally uncharacteristic decisions, on Jodi's part. I found it difficult to put the book down for any great length of time -- which is to say I devoured it. There was never a boring moment -- and one thing is quite clear at the end -- Todd is not alive any more. That is not a spoiler though, because four pages in we are told that Jodi's "notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." The author tells us right up front, that this is going to get crazy, fast! And just when I was thinking "This book ought to be a movie" I found out that it is indeed, in the works. And it will be starring none other than a former [expensive as hell] girlfriend of mine: Nicole Kidman. Get this book. There is no other way to read it than at full speed. It's damn good. *****