Closed for vacation.

Haven’t updated in a while. Because I am on vacation.

In Dublin, reading Dubliners.

In literary tourism news, I beheld The Book of the Kells, an ancient & illustrated rendition of the New Testament, which was positively stunning. Modern day has lost the synthesis between content and the shape of text and its accompanying imagery. And it’s a shame. It makes me happy I just picked up the latest Mark Danielski novel.

Scanned transparancies

Scent. Books. Memory.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

You know the way scent interacts with memory? Like you smell something you haven’t smelled in years, say a very specific kind of pie, and instantly you’re reliving Christmas morning when you were eleven, right before you smelled (and ate) that same pie?

Books are like that for me. In the shorter term, I can take a look at the books I read in the past year or two, just flip through random blog pages here, and immediately remember where I was. A bus or a train or plane or a couch. What was happening at the time. Work. Life. There’s deep associations between the life I am living and the book I am reading. Scent plays a factor too. I purposely bought a box set of Lord of the Rings hardcovers years ago because they’re identical to the copies I read when I was a kid; the smell of the pages is a thrilling sensory memory of the excitement I felt when I first laid eyes upon middle earth.

I find myself musing because I am reading the second part of Don Quixote. According to goodreads, I read the first part in September of 2011. It’s been sitting on my shelf — actually on three or four different shelves to match my changing apartments — with the bookmark dead center since. I picked it up when I found myself completely unable to decide what to read next.

And the memory sense kicked in big time. The heft of the book, the jagged-edge pages, the feats of the peerless knight errant himself. It connects me to a self that feels removed. A separate coast, an enormously different life. Life changes of course, but it can be difficult to quantify. The sense and memory shift that can be achieved with something so simple as opening a book helps me grasp that fact.

A Void by Georges Perec

voidI usually know that I won’t finish a book within the first few pages. Unbearable prose or unendurable monotony. Self gratulatory faux-cleverness or narrators throttling me with reprehensible social views. I give it a chance to turn it around but typically I’ve put it down by page thirty five or so. I do not write about these here. I’ve become quite good at selecting books, so it only happens a couple times a year. Rarer still is the book that I get well over halfway into and then quit. Which brings me to A Void.

I really wanted to like this. Perec’s Life a User’s Manual, which had the unlikely constraint of being a list of descriptions of rooms in a Parisian tenement at an exact moment in 1975, was excellent. A Void’s gimmick is that the text is entirely devoid of the letter e, both in its original french and its translated english. I thought this would be fascinating. It is, for a little while, and even though I did not like the book, the feat remains amazing, but the actual book as a novel one would like to read becomes tedious quickly.

The plot can be summed up thus: Anton Vowl is missing; his collection of unlikely and unrememberable friends set off to find him. Wacky hijinx ensue. I don’t care if they ever found him or not. It may have worked as a shorter work, because the beginning is enjoyable enough, but it rapidly becomes clear that english is a stilted, run-on, unfocused mess without the letter e. It is just not pleasant to read. Uncommon words replace commonly known ones with the letter e. What do Jonah and Ahab have in common? Not a whale, a grampus. This is what I was expecting and can range from clever to eye rolling, but is totally secondary to the actual pace and flow the sentences, wrecked by the missing vowel.

In addition, the novel is littered with references and allusions to great works of art. The literary ones I can handle fine but, what I assume to be links to great composers and painters, are unintelligible to me. There’s also plenty of latin, beyond the really obvious sayings that have made their way into english. And parts of the book are in french and not translated for some reason.

A frustrating read.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

witcher 2

Geralt of Rivia is the Witcher, a chemically enhanced warrior/mage/alchemist/mutant trained to hunt through forest and fen for all that goes bump in the night. Or that is what he’s supposed to be doing when he’s not becoming enmeshed in world politics. Geralt is reserved and quiet until he’s ready to drop a one liner or brutal threat upon a ne’erdowell. The Witcher is both a fantasy series written by polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski and a video game series based on the same. I’ve never read the books nor played the game (until now) but the latter has been on my radar for a while. I hear it named as a game with a great storyline and a fantasy series that is a more ‘mature’ alternative to the occasionally twee universe of Dragon Age.

And now the Witcher 3 has come out and received raving, gushing, positively euphoric reviews. This finally pushed me to get into the series (at part 2). Did I get what I was promised in the above paragraph? Mostly. The story was engaging and the world felt alive in a way that only something based on thousands of pages of text can be; This means loads of names and terms and countries and people and wars and arcana that can be easy to lose track of, but are summarily engrossing and immersive. It’s mostly typical medieval fantasy fare of the ‘gritty’ stripe. Life is cheap, prejudice abounds. A major plot point/theme is that elves and dwarves are oppressed and misused by humans and The Witcher pulls this off better than most users of this trope. It gets somewhat close to real oppression by realizing the situation is complicated and difficult to fix; there will never be a point where Geralt frees a bunch of slaves, gives a stirring speech in front of local government, and creates… peace.

The plot is literally the title — a super powered assassin is murdering kings. It’s somewhat ridiculous in summary but engaging in practice. Geralt is framed for the latest king’s death and sets out to clear his name. Three chapters take him to three different villages/cities. The choices he makes in each greatly change the following events. The end of chapter one either takes him (you) to fight for a non-human revolution or instead into the camp on the opposing side (I did the former and thus have little detail on the latter). Geralt himself is a solid protagonist and a contrast to many other western RPGs that allow you to create your own hero, something that lets you insert the persona you want but naturally disallows the history and character that can be imparted upon a singular creation.

Geralt comes equipped with a few different iconic Witcher abilities — he can throw fireballs, become invulnerable, fire off a shockwave to knock foes down, set magical traps, and force enemies to fight for him. It’s a small, focused ability set with silly names (‘I need to use Quen now so I can trap those enemies with Yrden and light them up with Igni!!’). The Witcher also comes equipped with both a steel sword and a silver sword slung across his back — the lore ties into older legends that spoke of using silver to fight certain creatures (think: werewolves and silver bullets). You switch swords depending on the foe. It’s a small thing that gives the world immense character.

The Witcher is far from flawless. It’s buggy, dialogue and cinematic transitions are janky, movement and looting items doesn’t always work as you’d expect and most strikingly: The game has a distinct problem with its portrayal of women. The game revels in the male gaze. In other words: women are throwing their clothes off on screen, which isn’t a problem necessarily in and of itself, but they are doing this so the camera can zoom in on them in ways that don’t even make sense in the context of the scene/plot/Geralt’s point of view. It’s just a show for the player, which is assumed to be a man. At one point, Geralt walks in on a woman inexplicably spanking another (and when he sees the spankee in the following chapter, he flashbacks to the scene again). All three characters just sort of look at each other and grin, before the scene continues on as if nothing happened. It’s a not a game that maturely acknowledges sex or bondage. It’s a game that throws women on the screen for men to treat like objects!

The Cave by Jose Saramago

thecaveCipriano’s plan could not have been simpler. He would go down a service elevator as far as floor zero five and then abandon himself to fate and to chance.

Starting this book, especially after reading the back cover blurb, you’d think this a dystopia story — a 1984-esque warning against materialism. You’re immediately introduced to The Center, the shadowy bureaucracy / super mall that rules the novel’s world. Police and security are everywhere. Oppression of common folk confined to shantytowns, vegetables grown in malevolent greenhouses.

But it’s not, not really. It’s a story about family (and pottery). An old man, his daughter, her husband, and their dog. Cipriano Algor, a 60ish potter whose father was a potter and whose grandfather was a potter and whose great-grandfather was probably a potter, suddenly finds his pottery business in great danger. People don’t buy handmade pottery anymore. They can buy plastic at the store and it’s cheaper and less likely to break. Cipriano hatches innovative pottery plans with his daughter Marta to reinvigorate the business while his son-in-law, Marcal, works as a security guard at The Center, a gigantic mall that has everything you could possibly want to buy or experience but is decidedly sinister to both Cipriano and the reader.

This is the plot for 250 of the novel’s 300 pages. The dangers of small business pottery. The love of family. The philosophical musings of Saramago’s working man protagonist as well as the very active presence of Saramago himself, in the form of an omniscient narrator who occasionally deems to speak directly to the reader. There’s meditations on class and love and the relationship between humans and dogs. It’s sentimental without being cloying and if the tone ever starts getting a little syrupy, you don’t even notice because by that point you’ve already become so attached to this small family.

This paragraph is dedicated to a dog. His name is Found (I bet this sounds like a better dog name in Saramago’s native portuguese) and he is the best written dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about. The novel will swap to Found’s point of view as he ponders the incomprehensible workings of human activity. Or such serious dog-level concerns as: who to comfort first if two of the family are both sad and need a dog’s love? As Found becomes confused by his masters’ actions while showing them nothing but absolute love, you come to the conclusion that the absolute worst case scenario that could happen in this story is for Found to be separated from his family.

Saramago has a unique, streaming form or prose. Paragraph breaks barely exist and periods are rare. Phrases are strung along like locomotives, commas acting as railway couplings between them as they snake between hills. There are no quotation marks or pauses for dialogue; a capital letter signals that a different character is talking and the reader has to intuit who. Sometimes you lose track. It’s a perfect, dreamy style for this story and these characters who are continuously dreaming and pondering their lives whilst living in a nameless world steeped in metaphor.

Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.