Tiny Poems

December 29, 2008

I’m just back from a lovely Christmas break in Hong Kong at my Dad’s, where much bonding was had and much French was spoken (le sigh). As I am absolutely knackered, I thought printing here tiny poems that I love would be appropriate. I’ve been making R. learn about English-language literature, as these topics somehow tend not to come up in engineering classes, and I though these would be appropriate for the amount of time at his disposal.

First, my favourite. “Fog” by Carl Sandburg. I have early memories of this poem, and used to draw little pictures of a sea of kitties, all engaged in conveying the fog to its proper place.

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches 5
and then moves on.

Then, evoking a similar but entirely disassociated mood, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. (I love the failed WASP-iness of his name.)

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

And that is that. It is late, I have successfully beaten my jet lag. I watched The Holiday while trying to say up. It was, as predicted, mediocre, and I was kind of annoyed that Kate Winslet and Jack Black are considered to be in similar leagues, looks-wise. Regardless, watching it frees up a Netflix spot.

I leave you with the song I’m listening to before bed.

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December 9, 2008

Long, long, painfully long day at work today. It’s hard when I have to work so late (I got home just half an hour ago) because I then become so desperate for a life of my own that I end up staying up even later. It’s a horrible habit, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Clearly, late-night blogging isn’t the answer, but I felt the urge to stop by and check in.

A few things kept me sane today. Firstly, stuck in my head all day was this song:

Which then turned into this as the day wore on, the workload grew more ridiculously impossible, and my coworkers and I started having hysterical manic laughing fits all over the office:

(I love David Byrne’s grandpa shoes and chicken neck in this video. What a stud.)

(As a further side note… this is one of the songs I remember most clearly from my childhood. Obvi the “fa fa-fa fa fa fa” part is fun, but still my knowledge of it as a small child is equal parts vaguely creepy and a testament to my parents having awesome taste in music.)

I also managed, on my subway ride to work and during the FIFTEEN WHOLE MINUTES I grabbed to scarf down a sandwich from Pret a Manger, to finish the book I was reading, Better by Atul Gawande. Among his many, many many other distinctions, Dr. Gawande was almost the surgeon who removed my thyroid. In the end, I opted for his partner, the wonderful Dr. Chip Moore, who proved to be an artist with his scalpel, but Gawande’s name stuck with me, and so I felt compelled to pick up his book when I saw it in the bookstore. I’m also a sucker for books about medicine– my secret childhood dream for aaaaaaages was to be a neurosurgeon. Reaading about decision-making, medical ethics and the path towards medical advances is simply fascinating, particularly in the wake of reading Mountains Beyond Mountains. The two books touch on similar subjects, though one is a biography and the other is a reflection, but I quite enjoyed seeing the questions pulled into the greater dimension of their application to daily goings-on in first world life. The contrast was unexpected, but worked perfectly.

Anyway, those’re all the vague thoughts for the night. It is late, and I must get to sleep. I have big plans for curling up in my bed and starting in on Going After Cacciato. After my foray onto writings about the world of medicine, now I find myself gong into war fiction. I wonder if my reading choices speak of some deep underlying mental process I’m undergoing. The other option considered was Open Letters, political essays. A pretty far cry from my ordinary trashy scifi, hopeless Anglophilia, and love for mysteries. Interesting.

And a superficial note? my hands are so dry and full of papercuts that i feel like a manual laborer. Sigh.

Favourite word (or historical group) today: Merovingian. Swirls around the bottom of mouth delightfuly. Ok, yawning. Bed bed!

Atlas of True Names

December 2, 2008

There is always something impossibly romantic about place names. I love thinking of the evolution of a place, from its existence as a mere geographical feature into something fathomed, something known and possessed, bearing a name and a mythology of its very own. I love imagining how these place names came about. The city I grew up in grew from obscure Paleolithic origins into the Roman “Augusta Taurinorum”, until finally settling on Torino, translated literally as “Little Bull”. The bull prances all over the city in symbol, but the mystery remains as to how this place could be so strongly associated with the animal as to be named after it. Same thing with New York, the city in which I currently reside. New Amsterdam might have been a fitting title– Amsterdam was, after all, a world capital at the time the village was named. Comparing York to modern-day New York is a jarring experience, as one never really stops to think of the connection that exists between the cities. Better to switch place names with New London.

This is all a typically long-winded introduction to this article in the Spiegel about the Atlas of True Names, or rather an etymological atlas of the world. A team of cartographers traced the etymological roots of various place names and compiled the result in something that looks like perfectly normal maps, until you get close enough to read the place names. The end product is like a map out of Tolkien, or of some other imagined world, replete with stories that have been hidden for so long because of linguistic laziness. Do yourselves a favour and click on the slide-show.

Turgenev’s Toadstool

February 26, 2008

My mother and I have noticed a worrisome trend emerging over the past few years. Books with names of famous authors, musicians, or just plain thinkers prominently displayed in their titles, as though some of the magic would rub off through contact with great thought. Flaubert’s Parrot and Foucault’s Pendulum are early examples of this, permissible because Julian Barnes and Umberto Eco are pretty great in their own right. Also, apparently, because F’s P. is a fun way to abbreviate things. Recently, though, this phenomenon has reached critical levels. Even The Da Vinci Code fits into this category, which should be reason enough to understand why this trend is… troublesome, to say the least. The current offender is Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story. In it, as far as I can tell from the back cover, our dashing heroine strives to disprove Tolstoy’s saying about happy families. Does that make anyone else’s stomach turn just the tiniest bit?

The worst offenders, though, have all been found in the group of books published by people who have read Jane Austen (wish I could find a way to pronounce her name with the proper reverence) and are so very inspired by her genius and her understanding of the human SOUL and her true, compelling descriptions of the TRIALS and TRIBULATIONS of finding ONE’S TRUE LOVE (aiiiiiiiiii… beat chest, tear hair) that they simply feel compelled to either continue the stories, or reinterpret them, or just blatantly write Darcy-p0rn. It wasn’t so bad when it was just modern re-imaginings, or people who plagiarised endlessly from her storylines. The storylines were charming, and lent themselves easily to the reinterpretation. Also, don’t get me wrong– I spent countless hours curled up in various fat armchairs clutching tattered copies of Persuasion and Mansfield Park. I forced the books on my little cousin, and had endless dreamy thoughts about what it would be like to grow up in England at the time, with such a succession of unsuitable bachelors, and such monetary considerations to make, and so many sisters to contend with. And, being a red-blooded heterosexual female, I have also swooned many times over all six hours of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (although, I must confess that the fountain scene never really did much for me), and wished my hair would curl as charmingly as Lizzie’s. Many hours were devoted to pondering why it was that Jane reminded me of a horse. I think it’s the neck, combined with the nose. It gives her a distressingly equine appearance.

My irritation is more with the scores of people who have felt the need to try to sell their books on the merit of the inclusion of relevant words in the title. To wit: The Jane Austen Book Club. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. Me and Mr. Darcy. Austenland. Drive and Determination. Pemberly by the Sea. I would go on, but I’m afraid to know just how many of these books there are. The number of straight-up sequels are also terrifying.

The point is, people, invent your own love stories! Or if you must have a “Darcy-like” character in your writing, have the grace to disguise him, instead of splashing the fact all over the blurb! Have the decency to have the lead female character NOT be reading Jane Austen at the same time that this aloof, despicable, but oh-so-alluring character is around. Helen Fielding had Bridget Jones obsess over the aforementioned Pride and Prejudice BBC version, but she didn’t call the book “Bridget Jones’s Diary: Dreaming of Darcy” or anything like that. Or… just start reading OTHER books! Other writers wrote things too! Why haven’t I seen any “Heathcliffe’s Hoydens” or things along those lines?

Ach. I’ve run out of steam. Or rather, I’ve been distracted by the fact that my little brother is now on facebook, and has joined a number of groups that I judge to he HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE for his tender age. Harrumph. Something else to shake my stick at.

I spend the day devoting a lot of thought to samizdat. In a nutshell, samizdat is the word used to describe the grassroots publication process that occurred during Soviet times. The term itself literally means “self-published”. People would pass around manuscripts that did not conform to Soviet standards of writing (such as The Master and Margarita… gee.) As far as I know, printing presses were far and between, and these operations were highly illegal, so these manuscripts were all basically a few copied typed out on typewriters, or mimeographed, or even handwritten. People receiving these were asked to make more copies and continue the distribution.

This subject came to mind during my Central European Lit class today, where it was explained that the book we were reading (The Questionnaire, by Jiri Grusa– a really fabulous Czech book) had initially been published entirely as samizdat. While the term was being explained to the members of the class who do not study matters Slavic, I started thinking about the changes this must have made to the way the recipients of these manuscripts viewed books as physical objects. As far as I can gather, in the most extreme form, these would be printed on extremely flimsy paper, bound with a paperclip or in some other haphazard way. You would get the book for a couple of days and then have to pass it on to your buddy Ivan or Andrei… all keeping this very much on the down-low, of course. If you could make extra copies, that would be great, but vast risks would also be incurred.

It’s interesting to think, coming from an utterly different perspective, how this would have affected your relationship with the book itself. We’re so used to thinking of writing either in terms of bound books, which are solid and dependable, or in terms of things you find on the Internet, which aren’t nearly as tangible, but still instantly accessible. Here, the object itself is so ephemeral, but also it seems that being so rare, and having this whiff of danger about it, these manuscripts would have had a much higher symbolic meaning to the people who managed to get their hands on copies. There’s no real way to replicate this to the fullest today– what with the lack of living under a totalitarian regime, and all that, but I’d love to see an art project designed along these lines, just to see how people would interact with works printed on something this fleeting.

Hmmm…..

(The title is a famous quote from Master and Margarita. I found it circumstantially fitting.)