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Pickle Me This

November 23, 2011

What to expect

“They named me Ruth Frances Beatrice Brennan, and took me home. They days blended together, one into another with no distinctions. The crying, the feeding, the changing, the chafing, the washing, the soothing, the burping, the singing, the sleeping, the waking. As new parents, James and Elspeth were surprised by their fatigue, as well as my dismissal of it. If someone had told them what to expect (and no one had), they hadn’t taken it in, and now, rather than forging ahead, they were rolling and rolling.

Sometimes Elspeth hung over me with smears of purple under her eyes, the skin there loose and fine, like something that would tear easily. She begged me to understand, though she knew she asked too much of me. Just as I asked too much of her, and him, and they of each other. James formed a habit of going to get things before they were needed, because it made him feel helpful and also allowed him to escape, just briefly, what he’d never expected to have to endure.” –Kristen den Hartog, And Me Among Them

November 12, 2011

Time passes for the curators

“As a scholar of a historical science I was accustomed to seeing the events of the past unfold before me like a parade. But I had thought of myself as a bystander, timeless. How ironic for me, the time traveller, to suddenly realize at the edge of a contemporary archeological exacavation that I was simply another event in the parade. And that time passes for curators, as well as for the things they study”. Dr. Peter L. Storck, “Passing into History”, ROM Magazine, Fall 2011 cc. Joan Didion, Blue Nights

September 7, 2011

Upon my word…

“‘…The women one meets– what are they but the books one has already read? You’re a whole library of the unknown, the uncut.” He almost moaned, he ached from the dept of his content. “Upon my word, I’ve a subscription.”‘ –Henry James, The Wings of the Dove

July 23, 2011

"A good democratic system is polyphonic…"

“A good democratic government is polyphonic. It doesn’t speak with a unified voice but contains numerous ones of genuine power and high pitch that aren’t under the sway of a central conductor. The idea of real competition within an elected government is the great development of the parliamentary system.

This sometimes produces ugly dissonance – as we saw in Washington this month as the many competing voices of Congress and the White House nearly disagreed their country into bankruptcy – but it’s crucial to have laws and structures that allow competing claims to power among different groups of elected officials. When I hear people calling for “consistency” in government policies, I worry: The best and least corruptible systems are those that produce the least consistency.”– Doug Saunders, “The Week the Yanks saved the Brits”

July 13, 2011

The world was upside down

“‘I don’t know why you’re laughing,’ said Aunt Irene. ‘I don’t see anything to laugh about. Everything strikes me as rather worrying.’

‘I’ll make a cuppa tea,’ said Mrs. O’Connor. She made terrible tea, very slimy, strong and tooth-stripping, but there was no denying its restorative powers.

‘If it does this to one’s cups,’ said Aunt Irene when Mrs. O’Connor had gone home to make tea for her boys, ‘what must it be doing to the lining of one’s stomach?’ She rubbed at the stained inside of the porcelain teacup. ‘I can’t be too rough,’ she said. ‘All its little gilt flowers will come off. They were designed for China tea. No one ever imagined Mrs. O’Connor would cross their path.’

The world was upside down. On the whole, this pleased Aunt Irene as much as it angered Mrs. Mason. It was more interesting that way, but it was hard on the porcelain.”– from The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

July 8, 2011

She could see that you might consume babies

“‘Why did the nuns expel you?” Kyril asked, venturing a little further, his head bent in an attitude so suggestive that Aunt Irene felt that, if he had been a stranger and addressing her, she would have emptied the orange pekoe over him. Sometimes she was so afraid for him with his reckless offensiveness that she felt sympathy for Focus’ [the cat] mother who, finding that the world had intruded and that strange human adults had fondled her kittens, had eaten the better part of the litter and was starting on Focus when he was rescued by Aunt Irene’s friend and thereafter raised on tinned milk dealt out by an old fountain-pen tube. She could see that you might consume babies when they were sweet enough to eat. At least you would know where they were. She worried about Kyril all the time, going about as he did in a world of fire and water, sudden concussions, cold steel and heights and depths, and taking so little care.” —The 27th Kingdom, Alice Thomas Ellis

July 4, 2011

A story that would not be illuminated

“This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “colour” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a true noche obscura [dark night]. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soliders herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.” –Joan Didion, Salvador

June 26, 2011

Words can't bring me down

“YOU, FEMALE LIVING PERSON, ARE RESPONSIBLE… for your self-esteem, and this means not listening to self-esteem pop or anyone who says you’re perfect. Do you hear Jay-fucking-Z rapping to dudes about how they’re perfect just the way they be? Ever heard a Stroke talk about how he’s a beautiful burst of true-coloured fireworks that makes stars pale in comparison and the sky feel blessed by God? No, right? That’s ’cause guys (super-loosely speaking, straight guys) are sanguine enough in their guyness to not require number-one anthems of hyperbolic over-consolation. Nor do they read self-help books about how to “celebrate” their “flaws.” Nor, in my not-limited experience, do wannabe-men talk about “just being themselves,” because, duh. You were born this way. Now strive to be (and I’m saying be, not look) better. Ain’t but one thing that’s gonna hold you down, and that’s the airbrushed, slicked-on attitude that you’re a precious gem of beinghood that doesn’t ever need to change. Changing is, quite obviously, the only way you get to be a better person. Anyone who tells you not to change is someone who doesn’t care if you lose at life. Girl, it’s just human sense. Just like you’re not inferior, you’re also nowhere close to being “perfect,” you’re not even consistently amazing, you definitely need to fix like six things about yourself, and you can stop singing total bullshit into your hairbrush, like, now.” –Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Women’s Responsibilties” (emphasis mine, because I love that final sentence madly)

May 22, 2011

A prose that is altogether alive

“But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written”. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of prose which is no more alive than that of a competant newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.” –T.S. Eliot, in an introduction to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, which I love for the honesty of a paragraph beginning, “When I first read the book I found the opening movement rather slow and dragging…”

May 1, 2011

The Common Reader

I really enjoyed the essay Narcissus Regards a Novel, about how readers read to be entertained, about how there is no longer cultural authority, media doesn’t shape taste but simply reflects it, good is what makes us feel good, what affirms our ideas about who we are. I particularly liked the last half of the essay, which posits that perhaps there still exists some readers in possession of that “strange mixture of humility and confidence” that allows the invitation of influence, the possibility of second thoughts. (I believe this was called “flip-flopping” in the 2004 American presidential election.) Irresoluteness is not commonly regarded as a virtue in our society, though I actually find it kind of attractive. Mark Edmundson, the essay’s author, thinks so too, and he thinks we’re all out there waiting for the right works to deliver us from our Narcissism:  “… the truly common reader—this impossible, possible man or woman who is both confident and humble, both ready to change and skeptical of all easy remedies”.

And this is not a yes, but. If anything it’s a yes yes yes yes yes!, but, because I love the idea of the moveable reader, and of reading as the antidote to a society of prescriptive consumerism, but the beginning of the essay still rankles me. Because while our reluctance to judge the value of artistic works has certainly lowered the cultural tone, the alternative is even more disgusting (and I think of Parley Burns in Elizabeth Hay’s new novel: “What a ranking, comparing, depressing mind he had.”) I think of literary critic William Arthur Deacon who was also obsessed with determining what was great and what wasn’t, and how history has determined he was wrong, wrong, wrong. (I hope he knew it too, somewhere in his heart, before he died a painful, lonely death. He was a horrid man.) Who gets to be the decider? I’m not saying that everything I love is brilliant, but some of it is, and critics would still leave it out of the canon.

The beginning of the essay also gets me, because I wonder about anyone to tell me how I read, why I read, let alone how I should read. I do desire to be Edmundson’s elusive common reader, but so what if I didn’t? Who is he to tell me how I should be? Or what literature should do, as though books ever only do just one thing (and if they do, please don’t let it be to “be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.” I hate the violence of that image, and my sea isn’t even frozen).

I was thinking about this even before I read this essay, as I rode the subway on Tuesday evening and watched the woman across the train from me reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She was coming home from a job that required her to wear attire that didn’t suit her, which I knew because her casual/sporty jacket did not go with her skirt and nylons. Over her nylons, she was wearing socks and running shoes, which meant her daytime footwear didn’t suit her physical needs either. It was 6:45, which is late to be commuting downtown, and I thought, “Wow, you can have your book. You don’t get to pick your own clothes, or your schedule, so surely I’ll grant you your book.” I thought, “Office lady in the running shoes. You read whatever you damn well please.”

I am lucky that I can afford to be elitist, because I don’t want to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and because I once tried to read The Da Vinci Code, but I thought it seemed long and more than a bit boring. I am also lucky because I get to spend a lot of my life doing creative, fulfilling things, but I think that kind of life can put one more than a bit out of touch with reality. And so I do like to check my snobbery from time to time, and stay irresolute about most things, such as what’s great and what isn’t, and who’s allowed to tell who to read what and what for.

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