Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Calvino does it again.

A friend lent me her copy of Cosmicomics in a book swap, which is the only reason I decided to break my rule of trying not to read an author twice in a short time period.

I'm very glad I did.

This books premise is unique: Calvino takes little snippets of science of the creation of the world, and in turn pulls out beautiful stories based upon these scientific ideas.  The results are enchanting and often startling.  One never knows exactly what Calvino is going to do when one first reads the italicized "science" portion.  A snippet about gravity, or the moon, or the dinosaurs tells nothing about how Calvino will interpret this for us in his piece.

All the stories are breathtaking and wonderful.  I found myself basking in the inventiveness of them, a little thrill of excitement running through me whenever I hit upon what he was doing.  But some of them I liked more than others.

"The Distance to the Moon" is about how people were once able to climb on top of the moon, be sucked in by its gravity and grab cheese from its crevices.  What was wonderful about this was the fact that he didn't just stop there, but also made it a strange story about unrequited love, with the narrator in love with a woman who was in love with a man who was in love with the moon.  It brought to mind the Chinese folktale of the woman on the moon for me.

"Without Colors" told of a world before the atmosphere filtered colors, and within this world, how one boy could love the change and anticipated colors whereas the girl he loved was frightened of it.  Really beautiful, as it made me think about a world washed gray.

"Games Without End" had children playing with atoms like they were marbles.  Really quirky and playful.

"The Dinosaurs" is about a last living "dinosaur" who goes unrecognized by new forms of life who take him in, and the questions for him that arise about the myth of his species.  Made me actually think a lot about history and legacy and how stories are shaped for the people telling them, and may actually have little reflection of truth.

"The Light-Years" is hard to describe.  Basically it's about someone whose actions are seen from light years away, but because of the time it takes for things to be seen, the protagonist is constantly being worried about how he will be perceived millions of years from now.  It raised some interesting concepts for me about how we think about how we're perceived by others.  What if there were a lag time between when you did something and when you could see what somebody's reaction to that action was?

Overall, this book cements Calvino for me as one of my favorite authors to read.  This book is simply wonderful.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This Greenwich memoir I'm reading.

A friend lent me Kafka Was the Rage, a book I normally probably would never have picked up myself, since I tend to avoid books about the Bohemian life of the artist or like, anything very Beat Generational to it.  Don't ask me why -- it's not that I don't appreciate what those artists in those times must have been living through, but I think it's a little too glorified for my taste, or something.  Plus, I couldn't get through Tropic of Cancer.

But anyway, my friend really likes this book so I'm giving it a try.  I have to say there are parts I like better than others, and it's not really a traditional read for me, although I do find the character of Sherri intriguing.  Anyhow, more importantly, some quotes I liked:

When you look back over your life, the thing that amazes you most is your original capacity to believe. To grow older is to lose this capacity, to stop believing, or to become unable to believe.

I supposed, I said, that love would change me, too, would advance me somehow. Because without that, it's just sex, just mechanics. And while sex is fine - it's wonderful; it can be like flying - it isn't enough. It doesn't explain, doesn't justify the whole business. It can't account for two thousand years of poetry, for all the laughing and crying. There has to be something else, something more. Otherwise, love wouldn't be so famous; we wouldn't be carrying on about it all the time. It wouldn't be worth the trouble.
--[pg. 51]

It might have been the shortest, or the only, way through my defenses, because I had a literature rather than a personality, a set of fictions about myself.
--[pg. 52]

Most people would say that lovemaking is a defense against loneliness, but with Sheri it was an investigation of loneliness, a safari into its furthest reaches.

I thought of Sheri and wondered whether, with all the trouble she gave me, she wasn't better than loneliness. Yet I had been lonely with her too - I saw that now. She wasn't company in the ordinary sense. I was lonely between bouts of desire, between distractions. There was no peace with her. She was like a recurrent temptation to commit a crime.
--[pg. 80]

It takes a while for a betrayal to register. At first you deny it. You say, Don't be silly, or It's not possible. Then there's a dead spot, a silence, a regrouping. After that you go slowly, gradually through the character of the other person. You examine all the evidence against the idea of betrayal and you say, No, it can't be.

We never believe such things until they're over. You need leisure to think about tragedy. Maybe you can face it only in the absence of the person, after the fact. Or you can do it only when you yourself are in despair.
--[pg. 103]

Another thing I've realized, he said, is that it's harder for a Jew to die. Forgive me for falling back on the chosen, but there's a certain truth in the old boast. It's harder for us because we expect more; we need more. How irresponsible, how careless it is to die so soon. IT's such an unintelligent thing to do. We become doctors to prevent death, lawyers to outlaw it, writers to rage against it. But if you're not Jewish, it's different. It may not be quite so bad, so costly. You can die gracefully, athletically, with a thin-lipped smile and a straight nose. A blond death, a swan dive, a cool immersion. You can die without an accent, without dentalizing.


Okay I just finished the book actually. I found a lot of the thoughts therein very interesting to ponder, and especially the last chapter on sex during those times is really interesting. To view how sex itself was exciting because of how secret it was in a lot of ways.

The book ended up abruptly, so I was glad to read the postscript, which explained that he'd died before he could complete his memoir. Sad. But the postscript was very poignantly written by his wife.

Overall, I liked a lot of the ideas and thoughts being presented here. Anatole Broyard seems to me the kind of character I write about often -- on the outskirts of something, trying to tap in, but never quite succeeding. While I didn't love this book, I felt it was a worthwhile read.

Friday, August 6, 2010

So I guess I'm a craft nazi

David Nicholls' One Day is marketed towards me.  It's plot is the kind of sappy maddening romantic drama that girls like me enjoy - boy meets girl, boy and girl spend one night together, boy and girl have poor timing, boy and girl become good friends, boy and girl love each other through the years but somehow never get it together.  The concept is interesting in that it follows these two through the time span of two decades - but with snippets of what their lives are like on the same day each year - July 15.

I really wanted to like this book, if not in some great intellectual high brow literature kind of way, then in the entertaining beach read kind of way.  I picked it up on my little sister's suggestion, and having recently finished Calvino, I was looking for a lighter read.  I had read Love Rosie awhile back which is sort of a similar concept, and you know, for someone whose favorite movie is When Harry Met Sally, kinda seemed like it would be my sort of thing.

The thing is, I didn't dislike the book.  There were parts I liked, very much.  But I found myself bristling often with a lot of the craft elements of the book, and so although part of me very much wanted to know what happened to these two in terms of the plot, I found myself really distracted by other things that made it sometimes difficult to push myself through the book.

For instance, he has this thing where he sometimes uses past tense and sometimes uses present tense.  Within the same chapter.  With only a section break.  Despite it being one linear narrative.  I hate that, so so so much.  And also, while he almost got away with his constant flitting of points of view, the voice never felt completely omniscient for it to not be distracting to me when POVs switched within a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes I felt certain sections to be a bit gimmicky.  And, while I know this was intentional, sometimes Dexter was so unlikable that he bordered on being completely unsympathetic, which is really a problem when you're trying to, I don't know, root for the guy to get the girl.  The cat and mouse chase of their relationship therefore was maddening, and not in a good way all the time.

Ultimately though, because I'm a sucker, when I got to the end, I was a bit touched, and saddened.  It didn't leave me unaffected, so I still thought it was somewhat entertaining, but I did find all of those craft elements so maddening at times that it wasn't always easy to read.  The prose itself is solid, and probably better than your average beach read type novel, though not super literary or anything, so in that sense it was fine, but seriously.  Those POV and tense things were grating on my nerves.

In fact, I feel the strong need to medicate by reading something uber literary next.  My final assessment: overall, not a bad read, good if you're less particular about elements of craft and are looking for something easy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living a life of freedom

A friend of mine lent me David Foster Wallace's This is Water, a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  It's a short little volume, but as with all good commencement speeches, it poses some interesting thoughts, about the nature of how we choose to live.  The idea that the way we control the thoughts in our heads to live better lives, more compassionate lives, more important lives.  To step out of our own self-absorption or our thirst for things that can take over our lives so that we live a life worth something greater than ourselves.  And hopefully in the process save ourselves from being complacent, from madness, and whatever else threatens us in the world.

I don't know, I think I need to read it again to process it, but right now, just want to get these things down:

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.
--[pg. 112]

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, everyday. That is real freedom.
--[pg. 119-121]

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" -- the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
--[pg. 123]

I probably could wax on this a little more, but I'll leave it here for now. I would recommend everyone to pick it up though. I think I have to read it again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A little backlogged

I finished Invisible Cities several weeks ago.  It was beautiful and dazzling up until the end.  I think this is one of those books that need to be revisited, or perhaps just certain cities revisited.  The very concept of some of these cities - the city that you are always leaving for one, or the one where life is not good (even though it is) for another, or the cities built on stilts, or the city mirrored, or the city that has another city for the dead -- these are little vignettes that I think are worthwhile to pick up every once in a blue moon, to ponder over, to savor.  Little beauties to sit on your tongue and let soak into your brain.  I'm excited to read some of Calvino's other works.  This was really a beautiful and very gratifying read.