Wednesday, June 14, 2017

London on fire

From the entry concerning the secrets of St. Bartholomew's the Greater, featuring bad puns and briny floods and heralded as a rare survivor:
Very little of early medieval London remains intact today, because Londoners, like the unwise Little Pig, built houses of wood, and the city burned down in 1077, 1087, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220 and 1227. Almost anything left intact from these was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.
Maybe you don't think that's very funny; then, to hell with you.

Secret London: An Unusual Guide is as fantastic as the other book in this series I perused before traveling to Venice.

I'll be in London in about two weeks' time, and I know I won't be visiting very many of these "unusual" places (maybe a couple: the traffic light tree? the Monument?), but just knowing they exist — both the secrets and the guidebooks — brings me irrational joy.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Somerset Maugham meets death metal

Juhan was wearing skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a massive black leather jacket with jangly silver zippers, which hung from his shoulders like the wings of a pterodactyl. In appearance, it was as if Somerset Maugham had, in the final years of his life, decided to take up death metal.
— from Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson.

Can you picture it? Might Somerset Maugham ever have taken up death metal? I'd like to think so.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Shitty, shitty rain

Edinburgh rain was like a judgement. It soaked into the bones, into the structures of the buildings, into the memories of the tourists. It lingered for days, splashing up from puddles by the roadside, breaking up marriages, chilling, killing, omnipresent. The typical postcard home from an Edinburgh boarding-house: "Edinburgh is lovely. The people rather reserved. Saw the Castle yesterday, and the Scott Monument. It's a very small city, almost a town really. You could fit it inside New York and never notice it. Weather could be better."

Photo by Steffani Cameron.
Weather could be better. The art of euphemism. Shitty, shitty rain.
— from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

I wasn't really interested in reading a series starring yet another clichéd troubled-yet-sensitive, hard-drinking detective. But I'm vacationing in Edinburgh in a few weeks' time, and I was told the city features strongly in Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, like a character in its own right, so it seemed appropriate to read one, to set the mood for my holiday.

There's a lightness to the writing, great humour and wit, that makes it vey engaging, despite the grimness of the plot. I was halfway through when I realized that novel hadn't devoted much time at all to the actual mystery of the serial killer. And that's fine — the story certainly didn't bog down in the details of police procedure. I'm curious to see how subsequent Rebus novels play out, now that the groundwork for his character has been established.
Edinburgh slept on, as it had slept for hundreds of years. There were ghosts in the cobble alleys and on the twisting stairways of the Old Town tenements, but they were Enlightenment ghosts, articulate and deferential.
I'm sold on Edinburgh — its Jekyll-and-Hyde nature and rain like judgement.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Does this book make me look fat?

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad, is a breezy read that becomes profoundly sad the instant you step back from it.

The novel consists of 13 stories, each of which could stand independently, chronicling Elizabeth's life, from fat teen to gym-going, food-weighing, unhappy obsessive. She sheds a lot of weight, but loses friends, her mother, and her marriage along the way. She tries on new names along with new bodies, each new identity a new relationship with her body: Lizzie, Elizabeth, Beth, Liz. (And it's her husband's fault when he can't keep up with her preference.)

Many reviews stress how much more this book is about than body image: friendship, loneliness, a girl's relationship with her mother, blah, blah, blah, what it means to be human. Well, no. Everyone of those facets is firmly based in Lizzie's relationship to her body.

Awad doesn't make any overt social commentary; all the criticisms of Lizzie come from within herself, with the occasional boost from her mother. I hate to think that there are women out there who live like she does, but I don't doubt it's true. Also, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt for not addressing weight loss more concertedly, and for being relatively happy.

These are tight, well-written stories. Go ahead, read them. No, I don't mean anything by that; you look great.

Globe and Mail
The Rumpus
Washington Post

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Nothing tasted better than a venial sin

Near his flat, he passed a little grocery shop outside which were stacked crates of milk and morning rolls. The owner had complained in private to Rebus about petty and occasional thefts, but would not submit a complaint proper. The shop was as dead as the street, the solitude of the moment disturbed only by the distant rumble of a taxi on cobblestones and the persistence of the dawn chorus. Rebus looked around him, examining the many curtained windows. Then, swiftly, he tore six rolls from a layer and stuffed them into his pockets, walking away a little too briskly. A moment later he hesitated, then walked on tiptoe back to the shop, the criminal returning to the scene of the crime, the dog to its vomit. Rebus had never actually seen dogs doing that, but he had it on the authority of Saint Peter.

Locking round again, he lifted a pint of milk out of its crate and made his getaway, whistling silently to himself.

Nothing in the world tasted as good for breakfast as stolen rolls with some butter and jam and a mug of milky coffee. Nothing tasted better than a venial sin.
—from Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reading local

This was the year Beyoncé wore a dress made entirely from the sounds of thunder and lightning. The Painter watched from the couch with his daughter and his wife as the three of them stared at the beautiful woman on the television screen accept a Grammy award.

"I want to be her," said his daughter.

"You want to be a singer?" asked his wife.

"No," she said, "I want to cease to exist. I wish that my life had never begun and my soul could occupy that body instead of my own. I wish this," she pinched the skin of her tiny arm, "wasn't even real. And I lived in there." She pointed towards the television: all of the beautiful, shiny people.

She was only twelve, but times had been tough.
Montreal can boast of being home to countless writers, whether it's writers who were born here and moved on or writers from elsewhere that chose to settle here. Historical giants include the likes of Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler, but you may be more familiar with contemporary names: Heather O'Neill, Steven Pinker, Louise Penny, Jo Walton.

(I don't think these writers share any Montreal-specific quality in their styles per se, but I do love when Montreal itself features as a character in the writing.)

While the "big" city may attract talent, Montreal is not much of a publishing centre, at least not for anglophones since separatism became a thing (see The plight of the angry anglo writer in Montreal). So young aspiring writers face many of the same challenges as those from nowhere towns. Slowly, the anglo marginalization may be changing (see Young writers drive Montreal's literary scene).

Browsing a local bookstore, I realized that Montreal is these days producing some great literature, and I should explore it and give it whatever small platform I can.

An Indoor Kind of Girl
Enter An Indoor Kind of Girl, by Frankie Barnet. It's a slim volume of five stories, packaged with a gorgeous 30s aesthetic, bold white type on forest green. It's a very holdable book with nice wide margins, produced by small press Metatron.

These stories are a slice of life, if your life is twenty-something and has a drifter hipster vibe, viewed through a surreal, but still relateable, lens. I mean, who hasn't worked in an office where the policy was to say you were operating out of New York City, sat by the ocean and caught up with the baby that was the fetus you long ago aborted, or lived in a an apartment that was victim to a turtle (or butterfly) infestation?

An Indoor Kind of Girl is packed with imaginative scenarios tightly woven around characters that are slightly detached, as if they were alien trying to pass for human. There's also a strong feminist undercurrent running through these stories, with some serious subjects, like abuse, abortion, and sexual agency, but they are saved from tragedy through the whimsy of the storytelling (poor capybara!).

Montreal-specific quality? One character nips down to the dep for a bottle of wine. (That's dépanneur to the uninitiated.)

Definitely Frankie Barnet is a writer to watch.

Stories from An Indoor Kind of Girl
"Gay for Her" via Metatron
"It Is Often the Beautiful Ones You Have to Watch Out For"via Matrix Magazine
"A Plot of Ocean" via Peach Mag

And a story that's not in An Indoor Kind of Girl:
"Brewster's Century What?" via Joyland

Interview with Frankie Barnet at Maudlin House.

Friday, May 26, 2017

All Russia's honest men drank like fish

So, where did all this start? Well, it all started when Tikhonov nailed his fourteen propositions to the door of the Yeliseiko village soviet. Or rather, he didn't nail them to the door, he chalked them up on the fence, and they were words, really, not propositions, very clear and succinct, and there weren't fourteen of them, just two. Well, anyway, that's where it all started.
You can see how we might be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. But sincere. He exaggerates, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much in the end, does it? The spirit is true.

I was tempted to dismiss Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerofeev, as drunken, if poetic, ramblings, lovely ramblings — one man's journey by train to a Moscow suburb. But amid searching for a drink, tales of past drunken escapades, and cocktail recipes (including the likes of White Lilac toilet water and brake fluid), there's a very sober grappling with Kant, free will vs predetermination, the meaning of life, and the angelic orders. And love and death.

And it's quite funny. (In a Bulgakov kind of way.)

Also, it includes graphs, detailing the productivity of his coworkers as plotted against their alcohol consumption.
"What's that got to do with the Social Democrats and Khovanshchina?"

"Plenty! That's where the whole thing started, when they switched from Veuve Cliquot to rotgut. Middle-class intellectuals, rowdyism, Khovanshchina! All these Uspenskys, all these Pomyalovskys — they couldn't write a line without a drink. I've read them, I know! All Russia's honest men drank like fish, yes. And why did they drink? They drank out of sheer desperation. They drank because they were honest! Because they weren't able to relieve the people's suffering. The people were suffocating in poverty and ignorance, you just read Pisarev! This is what Pisarev says: 'The people can't afford beef, but vodka's cheaper than beef, so the Russian peasant drinks, he drinks out of poverty! And he can't buy books, because there's no Gogol or Belinsky in the market, only vodka — yes, there's plenty of vodka, any sort you like, draught or bottled. And that's why he drinks, he drinks out of ignorance!'

"You see? No wonder they were miserable, no wonder they wrote about the peasants, and tried to save them, and no wonder they started drinking out of sheer desperation. The Social Democrats wrote and drank, they drank while they wrote. But the peasants couldn't read and drink both, they just drank! So Uspensky ups and hangs himself, Pomyalovsky lies down under a bar counter and snuffs it, and Garshin flings himself off a bridge, pig-drunk!"
So it's a book about drinking, but it's also about drinking, in all its political, religious, metaphysical glory.

Clearly this book describes much more than a trip to the suburbs. It's a Dante-esque exploration. The ending devastated me. I'm still reeling.

Truly this is a lost classic.

Yerofeev, or Erofeev or Yerofeyev, wrote this prose poem — variously titled Moscow Stations, Moscow-Petushki, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Circles — in 1969, but it was not published in the USSR till 20 years later. Yerofeev cut a tragic figure, and little of his work was ever published.

See also: Venedikt Erofeev: The Lost Genius of Soviet Literature