24 January 2008

Original Thinking

This morning I managed to leave the house at least six or seven minutes earlier than usual, and so instead of swinging my legs as fast as they would go, I bounced along in a springy fashion that slowed my progression, and looked at the pink streaky sky, and chirped to myself enthusiastically. "Tonight," said I to myself, "I will go straight home after work, and I will eat leftovers, and read! That will be lovely, reading!" said I to myself.

I grinned widely and bounced even higher, and felt ever so smug over my brilliant idea.

By afternoon, when I had disposed of various suspicions about the computer's behavior and set myself methodically to confirming that it was really doing what it was supposed to do and not trying sneakily to take people's money away from them, my thoughts wandered back to my plans for the evening. It was then that it struck me: there's no very great brilliance in resolving to do exactly the same thing that one does, after all, always do.

But I shall enjoy myself anyway. So there.

21 January 2008

Shopaholic Ties the Knot. Sophie Kinsella.

There is what I considered to be quite an amusing incident involving a shopper held hostage in a dressing room by a shop assistant who knows her boyfriend's ex-wife. But this was another book whose plot hinged on the protagonist telling wholly unnecessary lies, and I didn't think it worth finding the rest of the series.

Julia Quinn: the Bridgertons.

"So, what's in the bag?" SH asked me.

It was a Barnes & Noble bag. Green. It was a Friday evening in October. One bar had become too loud for our taste (SH, LB, JD, and me) and we were on our way to another.

"I think I won't tell you," said I to SH.

But a few minutes later, we'd found our way to a booth in the second bar, and there had fallen a silence all too profound. I changed my mind.

"So," I said to SH, "this is what's in the bag," drawing out To Sir Phillip, with Love.

"Smut?" said LB, intrigued.

"Well . . ."

"Smut!" she declared, with confidence.

"It does have too many sex scenes," I acknowledged, "but really it's quite amusing . . ."

"Don't you like sex?" JD inquired.

"Well, of course, but I don't like to read about it, especially in something that's supposed to be light and entertaining! But you see there are eight siblings, and there's a book about each one, and I thought I could get away with just reading one, but then . . ."

"OCD," someone diagnosed.

I suppose so.

'Twas AL who lured me in to the insidiously compelling story of Violet Bridgerton and her eight chestnut-haired, alphabetically named offspring. I was visiting her in her village outside Linz, and I'd finished my Mo on the train. "Do you have any books you don't want anymore?" I asked. "I'm all out of everything, and I still have the train ride back to Frankfurt, and then the plane."

I've been taking AL's book suggestions since we were both 16; no one do I trust more, even if she is a Bronte person.

She started pulling things from the shelf in the hall. "Well, there are all these depressing Australians . . . I definitely don't need to keep those, but maybe you might like them." She looked dubious. "Or there's Zadie Smith, there's something kind of irritating about her, but . . . or Julia Quinn!"

She sprang into the bedroom. "MR lent me these, but this one I bought myself, and you could have it," she said, with a certain enthusiasm, getting Romancing Mr Bridgerton down from the privileged shelf over the bed. "But they're addictive," she warned me. "You see a scene in one book, and then it'll show up in another one, from somebody else's point of view . . ."

I decided to take my chances.

At first it looked like I was going to pull through. I read the book, it was mildly amusing, and I did not look for more. In Vienna, we visited both branches of the British Bookshop, but I came away with my virtue unstained. (AL emerged with On the Way to the Wedding. "That was €12," her brother pointed out to her. She made excuses.) In Frankfurt, I bought Haruki Murakami. In Toronto, I thought about Sherman Alexie. In Seattle, I slept a lot and ate satay.

But then there was Juneau, rain and the hospital and Julia Quinn at the Salvation Army for 25 cents.

And then Juneau again, bad adobo, more rain, the mall bookshop, and hours to kill before my flight even left.

And then I'd read three, and once you've read three you're in for it.

Between the first and the second, 13 days.

Between the second and third, 11.

I got off the plane in Seattle and bought the fourth. A couple of days later, the fifth, on the way to meet LB's new SH. And then caved altogether--sixth, seventh, eighth, all purchased with a single transaction ("Find everything okay?" asked the shop clerk) and finished before the week was out.

And how were they? Not bad. Crammed with joyous insult and riotous high farce, the stories somehow manage to endow each sibling of the eight with a discernible individual character, sustained from book to book, so that by the time you embark upon the eighth it's like going home for the holidays.

Even so. I'm willing to tolerate a high level of historical inaccuracy or I would not be reading Regencies in the first place, but some of Quinn's usages are really quite jarring. When a character says, "I can see it now!" and quotes a hypothetical newspaper headline, I start to wonder just when that idiom arose, but to use "mean" for "unkind" rather than "stingy," or "smart" to indicate "intelligent" rather than "stylish," is just so far off I can't even pretend to be reading about the early nineteenth century.

And then there are the verbs of saying. A lot of whispering and murmuring, querying and barking, are distracting but on the whole forgivable. But why, oh why, must Quinn's characters perpetually be grinding things out? The Viscount Who Loved Me is by no means atypical, but shall serve as an example: on pages 46, 52, 73, 81, 149, 153, 178, 286, and 336, a total of five different mouths "ground out" things instead of saying them. On pages 73, 213, 217, 315, and 322, they "bit off" their utterances. Their words were "choked out" on pages 140, 241, 323, and 346, and "bit out" on pages 70 and 325.

I ask you.

20 January 2008

An Insular Possession. Timothy Mo.

There is a character in An Insular Possession, a stocky man in a rusty black cassock, who shifts, for amusement and exercise, massive boulders from one position to another on the beach. Through the sustained application of carefully placed pressure he can coax a seemingly immovable mass to turn over, and over again, exposing the inevitability of its original position as mere illusion.

This, I am tempted to say, is what Timothy Mo does with Hong Kong itself, another weighty object rather difficult to envision otherwise placed. Or at least, he is clearly up to some sort of monumental exercise.

On the front end of the narrative you have a grand description of the Pearl River and its delta, elaborate meditations on enislement, the slow erosion of what is stationary by what flows quickly past. At the end of the book, this frame is closed with a sequence of notes on the characters' later lives, illustrating the shifting certainties of individual character and human relationships as abraded by the rapid flow of historical development.

And then there is all the play with painting and photography. There is a watercolorist with his easel, caught in a sudden unexpected shower, who later looks at the unfinished painting and sees in it unmistakable signs of rain that he nevertheless failed to act on even as he captured them on paper. There is a photographer (the same character, some ways on) whose attempt to define the character of a group of sitters is destabilized by the servant flourishing a chamber pot off to the side.

What all this adds up to I am too lazy to work out, but clearly it has to do with time, contingency, historical accident, how some things inevitably follow others--when a big wind blows up a black cloud, there is going to be rain--and yet things that seem stable (a person's adamant opposition to profiting from the opium trade) may nevertheless move.

Mo's title encourages the notion of Hong Kong as his subject, but by the time his narrative finally reaches that location, nearing the end of the book, he has contrived to make it surprising that he has got there at all, or even that it has got there at all--that settlement, on that island.

But of course it should be surprising, a European settlement on the south coast of China. I don't know what should have led me to regard it as a boulder in the first place.

And so I beat a hasty retreat from this subject.

17 January 2008

Convergent Agendas

I stood staring blankly at the empty spot on the shelf where the Alamos malbec should be until the smiley gray-haired man came along and I stepped out of his way and into action, grabbing the frighteningly cheap Big Fat Llama cabernet and striding briskly off to the chocolate section. There I fell into another reverie, wishing I were in Metropolitan Market where they have the Dolfin dark chocolate with cardamom and white pepper, or maybe in Germany where they have Lindt with jalapeno and passion fruit filling, only to be woken again by the same man, smiling this time yet more broadly, darting in at knee level after his Toblerone.

Not invariably am I out of sync with the rest of mankind.

13 January 2008

And . . . We Have A Winner!

Slow, unsteady, nay, to all appearances veritably stationary, the sole entrant in the toilet-cleaning race can't help totter, in the end, over the finish line.

11 January 2008

Particulate Matter

Just back from a meeting in a conference room that looks out on LAX from a 23d floor just south of there.

We were there just overnight, and stayed in a hotel yet nearer to the airport than the conference room was. On the way back to the airport, we circled round to the north to visit In-N-Out Burger.

At this point, there was only about a 23 degree wedge missing from our airport pie, and I felt unfulfilled. If we'd been in an amphibious vehicle like they use for the Ride the Ducks tours in Seattle, we could have gone out upon the water to complete our circuit of the airport and investigate the purported fog.

"I forgot to look at a map before I came," I'd told the project manager as we waited for the smokers to come back from downstairs. "What part of the city is the airport in? What direction am I looking?"

"That's west," someone said, crooking a finger to our left.

"So that should be the ocean, right there. I guess it looks like the land stops, but I can't quite tell because of the smog."

It was not smog, I was informed. It was fog, for if it were smog it would be brown and I wouldn't be able to see the mountains.

It was brown.

I couldn't see the mountains, though there might possibly have been something-or-other looming over there, hard to tell.

I suppose maybe sometimes it is yet browner, and not even the vaguest hint of a mountain. And yet . . .

Oh, well, let them call it fog, I'm back in Seattle now anyway.

02 January 2008

Winter Holidays

I thought I saw, one day last week, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in a new Beetle, great hulking dark-haired man hunched up into the driver's side ceiling, and on the other side a plain, cheerful-looking woman with medium-light hair, debating with spurious acrimony while halted at a light. The sort of moment that doesn't make it into historical record--certainly not for a Plath kind of a poet--and is later tidied out of memory. They might drive on from there to Whole Foods, it looked like, and then go home and bake a holiday cake, in amiable if fleeting content.