Monday, December 31, 2012

Wussy Riot

To be honest, I don’t like New Year’s Eve at all. I don’t like staying up late. I don’t like drinking alcohol after, say, latest 11 pm. I don’t enjoy toasting and kissing and pretending to be having a good time. By 11.15 I start to feel spiritually sick, not to mention physically exhausted. If I wanted to see all those people, I’d see them at a saner hour. I don’t know why I’m too much of a wuss to bow out, but, you know, people get bent out of shape if you don’t play along. It’s like when married people congratulate you on getting married, or people with children congratulate you on getting pregnant. Break out the champagne and get to work.

I do like starting a new year. It is nice to make an appointment, however contrived, with the optimistic impulse. This year as always I promise to eat more broccoli. I may even join a weight-lifting studio, because when I consider my arms, my abs and my back, I face the fact that I'm a wuss in many departments.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Where I was

By far the literary sensation of this year was David Markson, whose books Vanishing Point and Reader’s Block I adore. I ordered Reader’s Block first and it was sent to my mother’s house, so she read it first and also became an enormous fan. She said he appealed to her because she “spends a lot of time alone.” There is a small leap in the logic of that, but I get it.

In fiction, I loved Wolf Hall, and much enjoyed Plainsong and The Stone Diaries. Little Dorrit was a high point for Charles Dickens, but not, for me, THE high point. And while parts of it were a squishy, salt-water slog, I was glad to read Moby Dick. Two other very good novels were Sacred Hunger and Visitation.

A great experience was reading the non-fiction account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Callum MacDonald, followed by the meta-fiction/non-fiction on the same topic in HHhH

In poetry, I was happy to find the poetry of Lesle Lewis on, whom I’d never read before. I finished her lie down too and started her Landscapes I & II. I write poems similar in form to these, so it was good to experience how she does it, although it wasn’t the most exciting poetry I’ve read this year. 

My expectant forays into horror didn’t pay off, with Eutopia asking too much of me with its unholy hillbillies and The Passage being such a commercial sell-out it made me hate myself for reading it. 

Other disappointments were The Cat’s Table, which I gave up on despite my love for Michael Ondaatje. I thought Room was schlock, but then again I should have known. I also didn’t like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Worst of the year was Caitlan Moran’s How to Be a Woman, which my daughter asked for and I thought I’d skim first. Oh well, Thérèse Raquin also an eye-roller.

1. Barefoot Gen (Jan)
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Jan)
3. Moby Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish (Jan)
4. Thirteen Designer Vaginas by Juliet Cook (Jan)
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (Jan)
6. Vivian Maier: Street Photogapher (Jan)
7. Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Jan)
8. Broken Sonnets by Kathleen Kirk (Feb)
9. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (Feb)
10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Mar)
11. Hokku Notebook by Jack Spicer (Mar)
12. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (Apr)
13. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Apr)
14. Reader’s Block by David Markson (Apr)
15. Eutopia by David Nickle (Apr)
16. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann (Apr)
17. Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress by Carlos Phillips Olmeda (Apr)
18. The Tanners by Robert Walser (Apr)
19. Frank O. Gehry: Outside In by Jan Greenberg (Apr)
20. Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola (Apr)
21. The Garden Going on Without Us by Lorna Crozier (May)
22. The Nervous Filaments by David Dodd Lee (May)
23. Room by Emma Donaghue (May)
24. Selected Poems by Paavo Haavikko (May)
25. Poema by Maurice Kilwein Guevara (May)
26. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (May)
27. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (May)
28. Purr by Mary Ann Samyn (June)
29. Short and Sweet: 101 Very Short Poems (June)
30. Autobiography of a So-and-So by Maurice Kilwein Guevara (Jul)
31. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (july 13)
32. Nocturnes by Kathleen Kirk (July)
33. Vanishing Point by David Markson (July 18)
34. Ice by Anna Kavan (Jul 26)
35. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen (Aug)
36. Foe by JM Coetzee (Aug 7)
37. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Aug 12)
38. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Aug 27)
39. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Sept 12)
40. Wonderful Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek (Sept 19)
41. People are Tiny in Paintings of China by Cynthia Arrieu-King (Sept 22)
42. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (Oct 5)
43. Canada by Richard Ford (Oct 13)
44. Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines (Oct)
45. lie down too by Lesle Lewis (Oct 22)
46. The Killing of SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich by Callum MacDonald (Oct 31) 
47. HHhH by Laurent Binet (Nov 10)
48. Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins (Nov 17)
49. Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Nov 22)
50. The Passage by Justin Cronin (Dec 10)
51. Injecting Dreams into Cows by Jessy Randall (Dec 12)
52. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (Dec 13)
53. Braiding the Storm by Laura E. Davis (Dec 23)
54. Kepler by John Banville (Dec 23)
55. Underwater Dogs by Seth Casteel (Dec 25)
56. Ark Baby by Liz Jensen (Dec 28)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who got which books

We used to do more books at Christmas, then came Amazon gift certificates and hefty charges for overweight bags on most major airlines. Still, some books did change hands.

From Carlo I got Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, the book Fernando Pessoa considered his constant companion. “One of my life’s greatest tragedies is to have already read The Pickwick Papers,” he wrote. This tragedy awaits me.

From my mother I got Best American Short Stories 2012, and read Edith Pearlman’s “Honeydew” right off under the Christmas tree, a story about an anorexic girl that tied up unexpectedly tightly. Here's the first page

Luisa got an Ernest Hemingway book called Fiesta in the German translation. When she asked for it, I was concerned she'd picked some obscure, disdained Hemingway that would turn her off to him forever (which may be inevitable anyway), but in fact is The Sun Also Rises. Searching for an image, I found Fiesta is also the Czech title. 

Luisa also got The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder, best known for his book Sophie’s World, which she’s gone cultish on. She also asked for and received Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, because that’s the way she rolls.

Luisa got Miles the Hugo-winner Ender’s Game. He also got the crazy adorable book of photographs Underwater Dogs

For my mother I got Pete Dexter’s Deadwood and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me for no other reason than I am in line to inherit them. 

And Carlo got a book from the Städel called Alte Meister, or Old Masters, featuring the museum’s rich collection of very old paintings. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Every night the reindeer gaping 
in the basement window. Slenderly. 
Legs flash past the lights, antlers hung 
like candelabra, a matter of faith. 
Their hooves move like spoons. 
Mouthful of mud. Mouthful of Armagnac. 
The sleigh is the absolute rhapsody, the last word in lunging, 
an epée plunging from a white glove.
The reindeer confuse weeping for wind, acorns for bells. 
Since they came, I mourn no more for my horselessness. 
They believe in the least of us. 
They nose unpretentiously through the nativity 
while I unscrew the base of the snow globe. 
They’ve been so patient. 
Now we go in.

Friday, December 21, 2012

the real article

Germany entered a linguistic and religious convulsion after the Family Minister yesterday said it doesn't matter which grammatical article you use for God, in German "der Gott." In an interview she was asked how she would explain to a young girl why people pray to "der Gott," with the masculine article, rather than "die Gott," with the feminine. She said it doesn't matter; we might as well say "das Gott," with the neutral article, or whatever.

First off I'd like to say I didn't learn all the articles for nothing. Do me a favor and stick with a system. I feel like I did when I learned Chinese characters before simplification became popular.

Second, in fact, if we're talking about New Testament Christianity, God is considered the father of Jesus, so even in a politically correct universe it's going to be hard to emasculate Him. If we're talking about some other concept of God, fine, but we'll still need to decide on an article if we're going to discuss that concept in German.

Third, although there sometimes seems to be a correlation between articles and gender identity, it's not consistent. A little girl is "das Mädchen," and a nursing infant is "der Säugling" (literally, "the sucker"). More often word endings determine which article a word gets, like most words ending in -ung are feminine. Or sometimes it’s a question of efficiency, like most rivers outside Europe just go wholesale masculine.

There are a slew of words that defy a non-German's preconceptions of what their articles should be. The moon, for example, is masculine in German, while the sun is feminine. The blackbird is feminine, so is a tin can, hell is feminine, so is a jacket, the air, and physics. Who knows why?

And now we come to my pet peeve among the German article assignments: cutlery. The fork, the knife and the spoon each get one of the three articles, but they are all wrong, starting with the spoon, which is "der Löffel," despite being curvy, beautiful and womblike. The macho, phallic knife is neutral. And then the thorny fork, neither here nor there, gets to be "die Gabel."

Monday, December 17, 2012


It snows. It has snown. It snew.

Yesterday we put up the tree, and went easy on the ornaments. This morning my mother arrived from NJ. We spent an hour or so waiting for her to emerge, and passed the time watching other families/friends reunite for the holidays. Exiting the baggage area, the passengers from Miami mixed with those from Rome. They were mostly dark and bejeweled, and it was hard to tell who hailed from where, until they opened their mouths. 

Here at year-end I am cleaning out the stubborn gunk of recent reading experiences with John Banville's Kepler, the mathematician astronomer. Banville's prose works like a tonic, despite the book's being set in muddy, moldy middle Europe. 

* *
Tycho stirred and dealt his moustaches a downward thrust of forefinger and thumb. Kepler with plaintive gaze stooped lower in his chair, as if the yoke of that finger and thumb had descended upon his thin neck. 
“What is your philosophy, sir?” the Dane asked. 
Italian oranges throbbed in a pewter bowl on the table between them. Kepler had not seen oranges before. Blazoned, big with ripeness, they were uncanny in their tense inexorable thereness.
from Kepler
* *

Thanks to Colette Copeland for this linen collage.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Word Thursday

Well I have today off, which gives me plenty of time to think about the word ‘loincloth,’ which came up I don't know how.  

This word weds the filthy with the innocent. Since when has so much illicitness been paired off with such wholesome, well-washed stuff? 

Loins love company and thus ‘loin’ is usually pluralized, as in “the fruit of his loins.” I had a great time looking it up: “The front part of the hindquarters.” Oh.

We lose our puritan shame about ‘loins’ when it comes to sirloin and tenderloin. 

Cloth on the other hand was squeaky clean. Until this word happened.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Some elevators assign the underground floors an identifying letter. Some designate those floors with negative numbers, as if going underground were a kind of subtraction.

Yet elevators do more than elevate. 

In my dreams the elevator also travels horizontally, taking me not only to the floor I want but also to the right area of the building. 

In the car, the most confusing buttons are those meant to show ‘door open’ and ‘door close.’ These glyphs require focus, and it’s a trick figuring them out in time. 

And yet don’t you hate those people who saunter to the elevator, texting or scanning their phones, while you’re holding the door for them, as if their priorities took precedence over all others? 

Even if time is not money, it is like money. After investing more than a minute waiting for the elevator, it’s like throwing it away to opt for the stairs.

People stopped complaining about elevator music when it morphed into elevator advertising. 

This person: he rushes to the elevator as the doors are closing, then holds them open so his straggler friends can wander in. 

The walls of my office’s elevator car are mirrored, and the lighting reveals every wiry grey hair, every facial hair, every wrinkle, dry patch and blemish. It makes for an interesting trip. 

Some decades ago as the world began to go gaga for sensor technology, elevators were summoned with buttons activated by the warmth of the finger. This proved a disaster when a fire broke out, and the heat of the flames delivered the elevator passengers right to the danger. 

In case of fire, fire rides the elevator. 

This person: the physically fit young man who takes the elevator from the lobby up one floor. 

In Germany, it is proper etiquette to say goodbye to the other passengers when you exit the elevator, and to reply in kind to their goodbyes if they exit first. 

When the elevator arrives with no one inside, it’s like a gift.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Overnight, when the supermarket is closed, a few lights are left on inside. One hangs above the produce, where the all-night mist machine keeps the deep greens and cabbage damp. The mist rolls thin for its scheduled minute, then the machine shuts off, and moisture flutes along the leaves. 

Because the mister is timed, the observer, like the produce, is caught in a cycle of predictable suspense. And it’s a question of time before everything loses its bloom, though it’s long been assumed that lassitude and apathy can be reanimated by ardor. 

Maybe that’s why there’s comfort in this contraption of great care, its airy irrigation, the bulb burning in an automatic Florida. The mist suffuses. The leaves respond with a sheen that fades a little with each suspended sigh. 

In the middle of winter one can’t help but stop to watch the fine mist fume and fall on the vegetables that have stopped growing, lined up in their last, noble poses.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Another reason I might not make it through this book

"The grenade went off, taking out the front of the Chalet, but Richards heard this only vaguely - the noise receding, fading to some impossible distance - as he experienced the sensation, utterly new to him, of being torn in half." The Passage, p. 241

I don't know, but is anybody else having a "vague" problem with this sentence? Is it odd that the feeling of being torn in half might be "new" to most people, not just "to him?" And not just new but "utterly new," as in, gee, I've never even come close to being torn into two pieces before. I mean, for it not to be new, you'd have to have survived being ripped in half once, right? Show me such a person, and I will give this sentence my blessing.

Song of the day: (the name of this song is) New Feeling (and that's what it's about)
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