Monday, August 29, 2011

Why, James Bond, Why?

So, the other day I read my first James Bond novel. I'd been wanting to try one for ages, as I like the movie version of Bond (sometimes, and with reservations), particularly the Daniel Craig and Connery interpretations, and for years I'd heard good things about the original Ian Fleming novels. And so, this:

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And Fleming can write. He has some pretty sharp lines, though there were a few clunky easy-way-out lines as well.

But that wasn't really the problem.

And the problem wasn't even the somewhat silly approach to women. I mean, it's a Bond novel, and I sort of entered the experience with the idea I'd have to forgive Fleming on this count.

And it wasn't even the novel's more problematic implications in terms of race (I mean, the endless use of animal descriptives for black people? The overbearing condescension even when trying to say something nice? And the fact that the beautiful female lead from Haiti, who has second sight and is rooted in Haitian culture and mysticism, is, of course, seemingly white?). It couldn't have been entirely easy for a British writer, in that time period (50s, I think), to write about African American characters in a realistic way (and some of the dialogue from the black characters was, um, not good). Now, that's not necessarily an excuse, but considering the cultural context of the writer does make it easier to forgive.

What I couldn't get over was that James Bond was sort of stupid.

So, the bad guys know who Bond is, what he looks like, and that he's after them.

So, Bond knows that they know.

So, he and his American partner, Felix, decide to go looking for Mr. Big, the greatest black crime boss in Harlem (and the world), who's Bad Guy #1.

So, they take a cab into Harlem.

So, they blithely go around from black club to black club, where there basically aren't any other white people, having a bunch of drinks. (And after watching black people drink and dance for a couple hours, Bond decides that he knows everything there is to know about the culture, everything that he might need to understand and take down Mr. Big and his crime ring. Apparently they were very informative dances. And cocktails.)

So, they sort of stand out in these locales.

So, their big plan for finding this all-powerful and secretive Mr. Big is to randomly stop waiters at clubs and ask "Hey, do you know where we can find Harlem's biggest crime boss?"

So, surprisingly, this plan doesn't work too well.

So, they go to Mr. Big's own club (he won't pick out the white folk there!).

So, then they get caught, like, really easily.

So, they're really surprised they got caught (how could it have happened?).

So, Mr. Big has his men bash Bond around, break a finger (this was actually well done), etc.

So, Mr. Big figures his warning has been heard and decides not to kill Bond and let him go, and tells one of his men to escort Bond out and drop him off somewhere.

So, as the man is walking Bond out to release him, this is when Bond decides it's a good time to risk his life and attempt escape, which is followed by violent derring do, gun battles, and chases.

So, okay, yeah. While he was being released. Like a convict being walked to the gate of San Quentin, to be released after twenty years of hard time, only to suddenly attack and kill the guards, and then scale the wall as the sirens go off.

James, James, James... is this really the best you can do with your superslick and superdeadly 007 spy skills?

"Do you want to point me in the direction of Harlem's most dangerous crime lord? What? What do you mean? Don't all waiters know this stuff?"

Friday, August 26, 2011

Whither This Way or That

The feet whisper this way or that, but only the bees know the way, and only the birds are smart enough not to care. The prison is pretty and green and full of flowers, but the thorns are like cruel shepherds at the end of the day; home, home to the fences, dear feet. Tomorrow you can dream of wide green fields...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette

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This is an odd, disturbing little book, a noirish crime novel that hunts out small and bitter truths. It's written in a sparse, cold style, but one that hides a lot of heat. Aimee (or so she calls herself in this town, at least) is a killer, and, when she arrives in town, the sins and ambitions of the wealthy seem to bubble to the surface and leak down the walls. All so that Aimee can be paid for what she does best...

And yet what I liked best about this book was that the twists were not what I expected, not just in terms of plot, but in terms of what this story is, and what it's trying to do. With every twist, the story became a different kind of story than I expected. The mystery, here, is not in the plot, but in the thematic construction of the novel.

A strange and worthy little novel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gluttony and the New York Review of Books

It's funny, as writers and readers, that we don't talk about publishers more, at least in terms of the books we like. We might wail on the SOBs a lot, but we don't talk about publishers much in terms of our favourites, in terms of the books we love to read. Maybe this is because most publishers don't have much of a throughline of taste, and the selection is sometimes haphazard.

But there are publishers I like. Maybe it's the former bookstore owner in me, but I'm always curious about who publishes a book. And there are always publishers who seem to publish interesting books. The Dalkey Archive, Vintage International, etc. One of my favourites, though, is the New York Review of Books. They tend to publish great works of fiction and non-fiction, and they tend to publish either books in translation or great books that weren't recognized the way they should have been when they were first published (or, at least, have since been forgotten).

Looking through the nyrb lists is a little like going on a literary excavation, finding the voices that I should have heard, but never did.

And, as it happens, I have recently picked up a bushel of books by the nyrb, and I'm going to splurge on them. A massive reading fest! I have 12 in my little pile as we speak (though this could always rise, due to compulsive purchasing). They are beautiful books, and that's one reason I like the nyrb - they make fine books, in the sense of books as objects. I like the covers, the series design, the paper, the softe matte finish. Paper junkie heaven.

Okay, so here they are! I may not get through all of them in a row. In fact, the chance of failure is like 99.93578%. But I shall have a wonderful splurge, regardless.

The Road, Vasily Grossman

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Troubles, J.G. Farrell

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Warlock, Oakley Hall

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Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household

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Chess Story, Stefan Zweig

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Clandestine in Chile, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Fatale, Jean-Patrick Manchette

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Butcher's Crossing, John Williams

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Unforgiving Years, Victor Serge

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The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A. Symons

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Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, Daniel Paul Schreber

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A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne

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What about you? Do you pay attention to publishers? Do you have favourites? Does it mean more to have certain publishers on the spine?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Secret Garden

I'd have this in my backyard, if I could.

A walled plateau maze garden at El Escorial, outside Madrid. Photo by me.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Secret Doors

I'm listening to Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic The Secret Garden on audiobook with my daughter right now, a book I've wanted to read for a while. And one of the things I realize that I'm fascinated with (much like many with my bent of thinking, I'd guess) is secret places. I have a love of secret doors, secrete passageways, secret gardens - secret worlds.

It's a large reason why I have this picture as my avatar pic:

This is one of my photographs, something I took on my honeymoon. It's from the gardens of the Alhambra palace, outside Granada, Spain. A secret door in a secret garden...

My love of photography and my love of writing are connected, I think, through this idea - secrets. A secret way to view something, a new way to see it, a twisted angle - a secret window on something new.

I think a lot of people have a strong urge in this regard. Portal fantasies are a sort of symbol of this, a representation of the desire to see through the mundane to the secret mysteries beyond, to peel back the plain and find the strange, the wondrous, the surreal.

This crops up in my stories, I think, and it definitely crops up in my photos. I'm hoping to show a few of these in the next while. A chance to step through a wardrobe or fall down a rabbit hole...

Friday, August 12, 2011

I'll be back. Okay, I already am.

Back from vacation! Apparently the Internet didn't even notice I was gone. Not so monogamous, is the ol' Internet. Anyway, I took the family to Niagara Falls for watery fun on the Maid of the Mist and in Marine Land. No pictures, as I forgot my digital camera. Which is maybe good; I tend to get overly focused on pursuing interesting angles for interesting pictures and, you know, lose all my children.

"Oh, you know, it's not that big a city. I'm sure we'll find them. I mean, they're on foot. I'm sure they couldn't have made it more than three or four miles."

So! We all returned alive! And I survived almost a week entirely unplugged! I didn't have a cellphone! No computer or laptop or other multi-brained electronic devices! This was sort of nice. Now, I wouldn't want to do it forever, as I'd miss my online friends. But for a little while?

There's something nice about avoiding the digital world, about not having to check something all the time, get constant updates. There may have to be more of this in the future.

What say you? Do you like the unplugging? Or, if the Apocalypse comes, is a world without iPhones a strong inducement for suicide?

Yes, this just could be what the world is like after the Apocalypse and the ruin of technology...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


There are times when the very air seems to tingle with fear. A denseness, an emotional humidity - a hot sense of weight, a feeling of smothering.

A moment of existential dread that permeates the air.

This isn't an acute fear: Oh no, a rabid dog! This is a subtler feeling, worse for its invisibility.

I've never been much prone to it, but I feel it more now as a parent. It's easier to handle the risks of the world for yourself, but for small children?

The news, lately, has been full of triggers. Anders Behring Breivik. A man sets off a bomb, and then, as if killing a bunch of people with a bomb wasn't enough, he walked into a camp of young people, mostly teens, and started a massacre. What struck me about this (aside from the fact that, when online, Mr. Breivik used emoticons - :P - after making jokes about exterminating people, which, if nothing else, is a flashing sign of the coming Internet Apocalypse) was just the faces of the victims. It's interesting to see pictures. A brief news account will have numbers, with whole lives lost between digits. How many memories might be hiding between 7 and 6?

Most of them were very young. One was 14, just a boy. They went off to camp, full of excitement. They walked out their front doors, same as always, and yet they would never come back. Their parents will be waiting forever.

The parents hadn't done anything wrong. And there was nothing they could do. Helpless hands; part of their lives stripped away.


And then there's the Berry story, about a family in a car accident. There's a beautiful part to this story, with the internet campaign that suddenly flashed everywhere to raise money for support of the children (Internet Redemption). But this was only needed because of the sheer suddenness of an accident. A car, an impact, and the parents were dead. The girl, the youngest of the three children, had a number of broken bones. The two boys were both paralyzed. Paralyzed and orphaned.


The parents have left, though not by choice. And yet there's a terrible fear in this for me. That somehow, just when my kids need me most, I won't be there for them. So strange. As a child, I probably had moments of fear: What if I become lost? What if Mommy and Daddy leave? But now I fear that somehow I will be the one to leave, I will be the one who's not there, swallowed by life or death.


My littlest is eighteen months. He's also a handful. Oh, he's a jolly, friendly little guy. But he's hell on wheels, running and climbing everywhere. I call him Evel Knievel for his escape tendencies. And the other day, while heads were briefly turned, he climbed into our car after a door was left open. He happily sat and played while a search went on around him.

But there is, in that moment, a dread. The looming up of the unknown, of chance, of the simple unknowingness of life. With my son it was nothing. Little Evel playing a trick, unknowing himself of what that trick might mean. But life can turn on a moment. The sudden impact of a car; a man walking onto an island with a rifle.

Random and merciless events of the indecipherable present.

And yet we have no choice but to live, to face that unknowingness. There's no way to hide. You need to gather yourself, to tell yourself a story of faith--to convince yourself. We hold to something: a faith in God, a faith in fate, a faith in ourselves, or a faith in the simple probability of hope. We hold to something. A faith in the mathematics of life, that hope divided by despair and dread will somehow equal a positive number.

Little Evel is climbing everywhere these days. I found him the other day, sitting calmly in the middle of the kitchen table, playing, having monkeyed his way up there (rappeling gear, perhaps?). You worry about a fall, you stay alert, you do everything you can - yet sometimes you simply have to trust in their balance.