Monday, April 24, 2017

Something secretly crafty about bar-codes

Unpacking after one of Lewis's infrequent shopping expeditions was an adventure. Lewis had a theory that there was something secretly crafty about bar-codes, that They were tracking each bar-coded item and compiling vast lists for a purpose made even more sinister and terrifying by being entirely unknown.

So trips to the supermarket inevitably ended with bags and packets piled on the kitchen table, Lewis bent over them with the scissors, cutting off bar-codes, to be burned later. When Seth first saw him doing this, he had inquired whether his flatmate needed regular medication, but it had turned out that Lewis was a relative rarity: a completely sane man whose world-view was almost entirely irrational. Sometimes, thinking about it, Seth wondered if Lewis might not actually be right.
— from Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson.

I can't recall where I heard about this book. I'm sure it was an end-of-year roundup, that may have mentioned this review at Pechorin's Journal.

I'm finding Europe in Autumn to be immensely enjoyable. A sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future (about twenty years after Scotland separates), I'm still waiting for the more conventionally science-fictional aspects to kick in. But it's a well-imagined world of countless independent polities, and thus borders and bureaucracies and the rebel heroes that run counter to them.

I occasionally get lost in the action, but I'm appreciating Hutchinson's ease and wit.

But of course Lewis is right.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The best of all possible worlds

"So here is the question. Given that the information you have is necessarily imperfect. Given that the history of events is necessarily under-determined. The history that you choose to believe will determine the person that you are. If only in a small way. You will be a person who chose to see the world one way instead of another. And that choice will color the way you see the world, and your future, and your image in a mirror. You will never be able to determine conclusively why she acted as she did. But you can determine what kind of person you want to be.

"I can tell you this. That in the absence of perfect information, I choose to believe in the version of events that would occur in the best of all possible worlds."
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer, is a time-travel story. Only, without much time travel. And don't call it a time machine; the physicists in this story prefer "causality violation device."

This is the story of Rebecca, a customer service rep for an online dating service, and her physicist husband Philip, and all their issues. Set in the near future, Version Control covers marriage, grief, alcoholism, friendship, internet dating, self-driving cars (and the insurance implications thereof), racism, white privilege, male privilege, academia, big data, mass personalization, and secession of the Dakotas.
"If everyone could get on the same page and realize that we live in the future, we wouldn't have to deal with this bullshit."
There's a government conspiracy (possibly several). And some questions regarding free will and predetermination.

This is a future where Ronald Reagan is on the 20 dollar bill. At least some of the time.

I first heard about this novel during the 2017 Tournament of Books, where it was noted that "Version Control feels like 400 pages of realist, suburban minutiae with 100 pages of genuinely engaging science fiction slapped on at the end." The ensuing discussion sold me that Version Control was a must read.

In general, I'd say I like science fiction more than I like suburban minutiae. But I also rather like minutiae (it's the suburban stuff I'm not so keen on). What's interesting here is the effect of something as massive as time travel on the minutiae of an otherwise very ordinary existence.

So I read a few hundred pages sharing Rebecca's sense that something was out of whack, with no evidence of any kind that the time machine actually worked. And it was absolutely engrossing.

Who's to say what the best of all possible worlds is? Though the novel's ending is in some ways troubling, ultimately I find in it a hopeful message urging an acceptance of this world as the best of all possible worlds, as it cannot be proven otherwise.

Discussion of Version Control in the Tournament of Books:
Opening Round (vs My Name Is Lucy Barton)
Quarterfinals (vs The Mothers)
Semifinals (vs The Underground Railroad)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Arrogance

Arrogance: that featured among Philip's colleagues, too, though that was more a matter of mien than anything else. If there was one subject about which they tended to be cavalier, it was the ease of doing anything in life besides physics. They were quick to let you know that, in addition to practicing that best and most worthy of all the sciences, they were, as Philip said about himself, "intrinsically multidisciplinary": they'd casually mention that they'd just cycled their first century, or were doing a show with a local band, or were nearly finished with building a kiln. It was as if the stereotype of the physicist as a bespectacled dweeb was something they felt it was their duty and obligation to strive against. And though they never seemed to be quite as skilled at their extracurricular activities as their pride in them might have indicated, if they were perhaps unlikely to play in professional orchestras or chalk up record-beating times in marathons, then it was even more unlikely that top-level violinists and athletes were doing science on the side, as a hobby. Rebecca was never sure whether there was something about physics as an occupation that made it a magnet for the arrogant, or whether the process of becoming acclimated to the culture of physics involved developing a certain conceit about oneself if one was to succeed, but either way she got the impression that arrogance was often a benefit to physicists, rather than a liability.
— from Version Control, by Dexter Palmer.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reading for school

I'm fairly impressed with my daughter's reading list for school, and it's only natural that she's more excited over some titles than others (and that goes for me too).

When she told me a few months ago that they were reading The Giver (Lois Lowry) in English class, I wanted to read along. I should read everything on the curriculum!

Sadly, I dropped the ball before I'd even picked it up. They finished The Giver eons ago. Although in a way, I feel I didn't miss a thing; Helena shared her experience of reading it with me in excruciating detail. That said, it's her clear favourite of the required reading this year (so far), and I would like to see it close up. It's finally available at the library — I plan on digging in this week.

Meanwhile in French class, it was Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) (in French). (She's in grade 8 in the French school board, everything's in French [except for English class].) I started near the time she was wrapping up. We came to pretty much the same conclusions: interesting concept but on the whole boring. (We both like the rap though.) But I appreciate the teaching opportunities in it, and I'm glad I read it. What impresses me is the skill of the translation that ensured Helena had an equivalent experience reading the opening chapters (grammatically awkward and spelled phonetically, kind of) in French as I did in English.

The other novels covered in French class, both Scholastic publications, one a time-travel story, the other a mystery, don't particularly interest me. I don't want to read them so I'm not going to. (Why are the books for this class translated from English?)

English class has moved onto The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton). How is it that I never read The Outsiders in my youth? Wow, what a crazy book. It's melodramatic, to be sure, but it's so sincere! I cried. The kid still has a couple chapters to go before we can compare notes, though she tells me it doesn't feel at all dated.

In Latin, they've been reading The Iliad. In Latin. I'm skipping this one. For now.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Art is the shortest distance between two feelings

I headed to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal after work last night, eager to see an exhibit before it closes at the end of the month. It's small (and beautiful), so while there I took a quick look at the other ongoing exhibits, to see if they're worth coming back for. They are.

I was pleased to note that they all have a quasi-literary connection.

Picture for an Exhibition
"For time is the longest distance between two places." This line from Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie serves as the premise for this first iteration of a series of exhibitions of works drawn from the museum's collection. Even before I placed the line, it gripped my heart. It's why I had to see this.

"Beyond Chaos, No. 7," 1998. Betty Goodwin,
What struck me when I walked into the exhibition space is that there are no labels on the walls; no titles or artist names, no lists of materials, no descriptions or concepts (these are available in a handout, but they're notintrusive). The art just is. And everything in this space works, it feels right together, it makes sense. Recurring symbols and structures, images of successive phases of motion. It made me feel freeze-framed, time-stopped.

The standout piece is undoubtedly "Measuring Stick," by Sarah Sze. It looks like the messy desk of some future anthropologist with some bizarre theory of everything (it feels very Terry Gilliam). "Measuring Stick" whirrs and flutters and flickers and trickles. It fascinates. A glimpse onto a working model of something much bigger than this life that I know.

On the other hand, it's Betty Goodwin's "Beyond Chaos, No. 7" that I kept returning to. It made me feel... elevated.

Teresa Margolles: Mundos
In sharp contrast to the previous exhibition, Margolles' works hit home only after reading the labels. But they manage to affect at a subconscious level too.

One piece in particular has a room to itself, and when I walked into it, I felt my soul being sucked out of me. And then I read about it, and I wanted to run the hell out of there. Every few minutes, bubbles fall from the ceiling, made with water used to wash dead bodies who were victims of violence.

These artworks are grim, and they are political.

The literary connection is a tenuous one, but nevertheless: some of the works are connected to Ciudad Juárez, once deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. It's immortalized for me as such in Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Teresa Margolles' work evokes in me the same visceral response that 2666 caused me.

Another piece looks like barbed wire strung across a room, but it's remnants of sutures to sew up victims of violent death after autopsy.

I was so disturbed after my walkthrough, I returned to "the longest distance between two places" — to interrupt myself, to remove myself, to restart myself.

Emanuel Licha: Now Have a Look at This Machine
What do Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, and Franz Kafka have in common? Their books are used as props in the environment of the installation, supporting the context for Licha's creative documentary film. The film has set times for English and French screenings; I'll go back another day for this experience.

The machine is that otherwise known as war.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

"Boredom is the mind's scar tissue."

"I don't actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all." Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. "I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that's always going to depend on who you're dealing with."

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, is delightful. I can easily see it being quite a few people's favourite new book, and I've recommended it to some friends as such.

I was a little wary because I'm wary of magic. I just am. Don't mess with magic. Maybe because I don't believe in magic (apart from the magic principles my microwave, for example, and airplanes and the internet operate on), I think it's very difficult to write well — that is, believably.

And the ultimate showdown between magic and science, as this novel was being made out to be, just sounds simplistically grandiose.

But then the Tournament of Books happened, and there was so much love for this book, and dismay when it was knocked out of the running, and hope when it looked it might return as a crowd favourite. So I rushed to my library, and yay.

It turns out it's not really about magic or science. It's a love story. It's about misfit schoolmates Patricia and Laurence and the bonds that develop between them. Patricia is eventually whisked off to magic school, and Laurence becomes the genius scientist we always knew he would be. As adults, their lives collide. A scientist would control nature, but a witch must serve it.

It's light — that is, there's a lightness to it, lightness of touch, lightness of heart. It made me feel happy — but not because of the story, almost in spite of the story. Happy to be immersed in this kind of book. This is a book I wanted to stay up all night with. I loved the experience of this book more than the book itself.

I read it over a cold and still snowy weekend just over a week ago, and I've mostly forgotten the story. I do, however, remember the feeling of reading this story, which is sometimes more important.
Patricia had to crouch down to talk to a confused marmalade cat, who needed help finding his way home. (He remembered what his house looked like on the inside, but not on the outside.)
While it's a lovely book, I don't understand what's so original or genre-bending about this book. It seems to have cast its own spell on its readership. It's sweet and funny, with some great turns of phrase (though, I'm still puzzling over what exactly "Boredom is the mind's scar tissue." actually means).

As for the Tournament, All the Birds in the Sky won over Han Kang's The Vegetarian:
Perhaps because, political situations being what they are, I wanted to know that I was in the hands of a writer who wouldn't be falsely optimistic, but could still bring me joy.
But then it lost to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad:
Anders’s prose — pretty, joyous, and inventive — felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s. Perhaps that feeling came from my own headspace, which is currently dark and stormy. But The Underground Railroad called to me more urgently than All the Birds in the Sky. I suspect in any other year, alongside any other book, the latter would win, in a landslide. But here we are. Happy 2017.
One judge liked its hope, the other opted for a strong dose of reality (despite the liberties taken in expressing that reality).

Had it been up to me to choose between All the Birds in the Sky and The Vegetarian (the only two books of the tournament I've read), I would have talked about trees. Treeness figures in both stories: In The Vegetarian Yeong-hye wants to become a tree — plant matter is persistent, if mute. In All the Birds in the Sky, the Tree is all-knowing; nature ultimately merges with science. The oneness the tree represents is in one case internal, in the other external. Though I read it months ago, The Vegetarian took root in me, and I vastly prefer the feeling of being deeply unsettled over the fleeting flush of All the Birds.
After Laurence and Serafina drifted away, Patricia told Kevin, "I didn't really save his life. He was exaggerating."

Kevin shrugged, causing his watch chain to jangle. "It's his life. One tends to privilege personal insights in such matters."

Saturday, April 01, 2017

A tendency to form inconvenient alliances

This week I read something by Anne Tyler — The Accidental Tourist — because there it was on my reader and I was looking for something non-demanding to read, I must've picked it up for a dollar or so, thinking I should see what Anne Tyler's all about, because lots of readers seem to like her, and I recall a ringing endorsement from Nigella Lawson (even if not for this novel in particular).

If I were a different kind of person, I would've set the book down after a dozen or so pages. Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.
Back home, Macon had kept a stack of index cards giving detailed directions to the houses of his friends — even friends he'd known for decades. And it used to be that whenever Ethan met a new boy, Macon's first anxious question was, "Where exactly does he live, do you know?" Ethan had had a tendency to form inconvenient alliances. He couldn't just hang out with the boy next door; oh, no, it had to be someone who lived way beyond the Beltway. What did Ethan care? He had no trouble navigating. This was because he'd lived all his life in one house, was Macon's theory; while a person who'd been moved around a great deal never acquired a fixed point of reference but wandered forever in a fog — adrift upon the planet, helpless, praying that just by luck he might stumble across his destination.
I'm not even sure why I didn't like it. None of the characters are particularly likeable or admirable, but that's never stopped me from liking a book before. None of them exhibits much growth or acquires much awareness either. I simply didn't care what happened.

I found myself reading for the sake of reading — not that there's anything wrong with that. Maybe in fact it was just the thing to ease me through a tedious workweek. I mean, the story is sweet enough; the book is not offensively terrible in any way. Just... sweet. Maybe I would not have fared any differently with any other book this week.

But I think I can conclude that if this novel is at all representative — is it? — then Anne Tyler is not for me.