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October 2017

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Lately I've started reading Anita Brookner, and the experience was a little like reading Barbara Comyns -- thinking at first that I didn't really like her novels, but then realizing they yielded more as I thought about them -- that they were less like literary gardens, already prepared for my wandering pleasures, and more like those paper seeds you drop into a glass of water, where they unfold slowly into complex blooms.

Impatient reading is dangerous reading.

Brookner's gift is for taking the humiliating social situation, the mismatch of desires between the protagonist and those she loves, and making of it something more profound. The crisis becomes an occasion for insight that rescues these books from simply being torture chambers for the extra-sensitive spirit. I find I usually have to put each book down multiple times during an awkward scene because I don't want to live through the whole agonizing experience -- and she does tell the whole thing through -- but Brookner, I've found, can be trusted, and she always makes something more of these scenes; the protagonist, no matter how unhappy, always gains from the loss.

A Misalliance
shares the arc of many Brookner novels, or at least the ones I've read so far...

Spoilers, but only if you've never read any Anita Brookner novels )


(Cross-posted from Goodreads)

The St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church not only has a beautiful interior, very like the hull of an overturned ship; it has the best bookshop in town, Churchmouse Books. The shop is a side room filled with gently used volumes released (certainly not discarded) by a congregation of serious readers. All books are obtainable by donation. The other weekend they had an open house and larger book sale, with books laid out all along each pew -- it felt sacred and profane all at once -- whence I fished out this small remarkable creature.

Cover )
Title Page (bit blurry, sorry, it tried to escape) )

It appears to be a teleplay by novelist Elizabeth Bowen about Anthony Trollope: Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement (OUP, 1946). As you can see, it's a beautiful little booklet, maybe A6 size, with a marbled cover, presented more like a monograph than a script.

AbeBooks adds this: "A play broadcast by the BBC in 1945." Hmm, BBC.

Adding "BBC" to the search produces The Wireless Past: Anglo-Irish Writers and the BBC, 1931-1968 via Google Books:

This warning against nostalgia and advocacy of the 'now' appears most clearly in Bowen’s final radio feature, "Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement", which was broadcast two days before VE day in May 1945. In this broadcast, Bowen continues the ghost-novelist conceit of her other radio features while also communicating more explicit messages about the relationship between print culture and nostalgia. The later broadcast was evidently popular—Oxford University Press published the script as a pamphlet in 1946. (100)

It strikes me that while this book may have been of the "now" in 1946, it has become an object of almost irresistible print culture nostalgia. Someone surely was thinking of that, even at the time. The deckle edge. The marbling. And printed right after the war, too, when paper might still have been scarce.

...actually, Wireless goes on to discuss the shortage -- apparently these broadcasts were "oriented towards publics that could not access books" (103). I'm not, via skimming, entirely clear why Bowen is anti-nostalgia, but then, she seems like someone who would be.

Any readers of Bowen? I've only read The Death of the Heart for a graduate course on the modernist novel.

There's no indication on the pamphlet itself that it is a screenplay or was ever broadcast or has anything to do with the BBC -- at first thumb-through, I thought it was a monograph in avant-garde format. Which I guess it is, or rather the record thereof.

I was nearly welded today.

Our main building, containing cafeteria, store, offices, classrooms, is under construction. An enormous scaffold surrounds the front doors. Today, exiting with a sustaining bannana in one hand, I heard the burr of welding and then felt a sudden hot-cold shower on the left side of my head, just about the region of the parietal lobe. I put up my hand and plucked a speck of grit from my hair.

As I crossed the quad and mounted the stairs to my building, I began to work out that I'd been sprayed with tiny bits of metal -- little curled chips of aluminum were in my hair and speckled my sweater-vest like glittering lint.

It was not a great cascade of sparks or anything -- just a smattering and a peculiar sensation -- but Jesus. That could have gone into my eye. I spent the whole of my lesson on proper quotation partially convinced that a speckling of tiny holes might newly pepper my skull, like a thought-colander.

The Thought-Colander

After Ted Hughes

I imagine this midday moment's sensation-salad:
Something hot but lifeless
burrows into the occipital
makes a blank page of this field where
newly kindled hallucinations move


Sorry, Here's "The Thought-Fox" to Make Up for That

Actually by Ted Hughes

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

* * * * *

I feel like "midnight moment's forest" must have kinship with Hopkins' "morning morning's minion" from "The Windhover." Discuss.

[Edited to remove my gratuitious and confusing extra 's]

Fine, Here's "The Windhover" As Well

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

* * * * *

Nobody alliterates like our Gerry.

Downdates (What an Update Isn't)

I skipped the monthly reading post for August because, well, there was so little to discuss. I have trouble directing sustained attention under conditions of anxiety (such as term prep). Combining with September will give the list a more respectable heft.

At least I'm transparent in my machinations.

Likewise I think if I'm writing a report on how the term is going -- which is an idea I like a lot as a way to chronicle the development of this course I love -- it'll have to be a biweekly report at best.

A propos of some (very positive) recent events -- I wish I didn't feel so terrible when happy things breathe themselves across the membrane.1

Something wonderful takes place and afterwards it feels like a crisis -- I can't be happy because I'm so convinced that it was secretly a disaster or I am about to make it one.

Too much jouissance. Not enough swimming laps and meditation.


1. Isn't transpire a great word? All those spire words are a gift basket from Latin: conspire (to breathe together); inspire (to breathe in); aspire (to breathe on); expire (to breathe out) -- my library card is about to breathe its last -- what else? What others? I love them.

2. Actually, if I weren't so tired I might write though the whole of "The Thought-Fox" just for the exercise.


Sep. 16th, 2017 04:32 am
radiantfracture: (Signifier)
In the dream I am writing a story while trying not to plagiarize another story (both of course actually products of my one or multiple mind, which is always a relief to remember when I wake up, having offended or missed an exam not for my best friend or deity but only a module of myself).

In the story a modern (or possibly post-some-gently-apocalyptic-moment) city, like this city, is full of flags. Each office building, condominium, medical centre, and so forth, flies a flag on a topmost pole by which the building signals messages about its status -- this could be open/closed, but you could also flag more complex concepts, like a still semaphore.

Just now this seems like an eminently useful thing. It is 4:30 am, though, so my judgement may not be at its best.

Why don't we do this? A sort of citywide intranet of flags.

I suppose you'd have to be well above the city to really get a picture of what's going on, so we'd probably fall back on looking up a photo of the flags on the Internet anyway.

This has been a test of the emergency dream broadcast system. (Also of my new data entry system. I may or may not have acquired a certain hipster typewriting device.)

The music festival has started at the ballfield. It's about ten minutes' walk away, but the sound is like... like a live band encased in a plastic dome playing at full amplification about fifty feet from the house. It had a kind of fuzzed-out Pixies quality earlier. Now it sounds sort of like 80s retro rock.

I attended this music festival for one day some years ago and I had a terrific time, so obviously I've never been back, because who seeks happiness? Not me.

The festival tends to have quite a good and various lineup of pop and pop-adjacent acts, but I recognized very little of the list this year, so I haven't bought tickets to anything. I'm going to be helping to stain inlandsea's deck tomorrow, and this is festival enough for me.

This band, the band currently playing in a pit lined with faux fur in the middle of the front garden, is apparently called July Talk. I do not think I have heard of them. According to Wikipedia, they have a "reputation for explosive live shows."



ETA: I should say I don't dislike the sound, though its not being optional is an odd feeling.
Often I don't like that genre of poems like glosa, where poets take a line or lines from another poet and develop them -- often I don't like it because in the end the original line seems better than the new poem and I wish the poet had just left the lines where they lay.

I do like the idea of poem as gloss, as commentary, response, unhelpful Pale Fire-esque footnotery. Just not the way they usually turn out.

This, however, I quite liked. It is Canadian poet P.K. Page's glosa on the poem I posted yesterday, Rilke's "Autumn Day."


P.K. Page

Whoever has no house now will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening
And wander on the boulevards, up and down...

Autumn Day                       Rainer Maria Rilke

Its stain is everywhere.
The sharpening air
of late afternoon
is now the colour of tea.
Once-glycerined green leaves
burned by a summer sun
are brittle and ochre.
Night enters day like a thief.
And children fear that the beautiful daylight has gone.
Whoever has no house now will never have one.

It is the best and the worst time.
Around a fire, everyone laughing,
brocaded curtains drawn,
nowhere-anywhere-is more safe than here.
The whole world is a cup
one could hold in one's hand like a stone
warmed by that same summer sun.
But the dead or the near dead
are now all knucklebone.
Whoever is alone will stay alone.

Nothing to do. Nothing to really do.
Toast and tea are nothing.
Kettle boils dry.
Shut the night out or let it in,
it is a cat on the wrong side of the door
whichever side it is on. A black thing
with its implacable face.
To avoid it you
will tell yourself you are something,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening.

Even though there is bounty, a full harvest
that sharp sweetness in the tea-stained air
is reserved for those who have made a straw
fine as a hair to suck it through-
fine as a golden hair.
Wearing a smile or a frown
God's face is always there.
It is up to you
if you take your wintry restlessness into the town
and wander on the boulevards, up and down.

Source here

* * * * * * * *

Some T.S. Eliot in there, too, I think.

As you know, Steve, a glosa is a four-stanza poem in which each of the four lines from the old poem becomes the final line of a stanza in the new poem (Source here). The stanzas are ten lines long, and the six and ninth line rhyme with the tenth line. It is, my source says, a 15th-century Spanish form. Page's deployment of the form primarily signals to me that sometimes (maybe often) poets need a good hard kick start.

I liked these bits best:

night enters day like a thief


Even though there is bounty, a full harvest
that sharp sweetness in the tea-stained air
is reserved for those who have made a straw
fine as a hair to suck it through-
fine as a golden hair.

I'd have done without some of the repetition, though I like "Nothing to do. Nothing to really do." I know those days.


A Tradition

Sep. 2nd, 2017 06:45 pm
radiantfracture: (Default)

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander along the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

- Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
Attending the SCFWA has become a family tradition, accruing people and equipment over the 13 years since my mother first attended (12 for my dad (?); 11 for me (here is my first attendance), 8ish (?) for others. Well, and exactly twice for my newer nephew, since he's only been alive that long).

My first year, 2007, I saw Wayson Choy and Richard Van Camp (with whom I ended up reading, once, years later). I also discovered Michael Crummey -- and a chunk of the history of Newfoundland -- that year. The truism since has been that the best readings are the ones you knew nothing about going in.1

This year, the revelations were definitely Robert Moor, delivering an erudite, circuitous lecture about his book On Trails, and David A. Robertson.

Robertson's book When We Were Alone is the first picture book about Canadian residential schools written for young children. There's nothing in it to terrify or traumatize a young child; it just very simply lays out the deprivations of the schools -- suppression of language, of cultural practices, of personal pride, of family bonds, of individuality -- and then answers each one with the children's acts of resistance, creativity, and love. It is beautiful. He read the whole book to us, projecting the images. I will never forget it.

Other years also coalesce around one or two figures, though if I poke at the memory it unfans its tail a little. In 2008, Chantal Hébert gave a barn-burner of a talk. Its brilliance was only slightly dimmed for me when none of her predictions came true. I saw Michael Ondaatje, reading from Divisadero. Later he nodded to me in passing. I was so chuffed. I think this is also the year I discovered spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan.

Wayson Choy is a favorite of the festival, and I got to see him again in 2009, along with Shane Koyczan and Richard Wagamese. 2010 included Brian Brett, Lawrence Hill, Shani Mootoo, Denise Chong, Gregory Scofield, and Jack Whyte. Ivan Coyote performed at 2011, whomto I tried and signally failed to say hello.

Some year in there my tastes began to specify and my joints to age; I started skipping out on the famous mystery and suspense writers (though the rest of the family loves them, and they're often terrific speakers) and going for walks on the beach instead. All that language, all those ideas -- I needed to digest it as well as take it in.

I also started to augment the experience of watching the speakers with attempts to draw their portraits. Since we always sit in the uppermost row, the images are usually somewhat simplified, and since the postures and positions of most speakers are similar for the duration of the talk, I have now a large collection of sketches of heads, hands, and podiums.

For example (cut for images) )


1. Recent brain research seems to at least partially confirm that surprise events are more emotionally intense -- positive or negative -- than expected counterparts.
Four days with the family at the SCFWA was gorgeous, and there was an eclipse, of course, and I hope to make reports on all of that, especially the writers I saw and heard and (haltingly) spoke to.

But I'm very tired: possibly going directly from one conference to another conference wasn't living my best life, but I didn't want to miss either one. Conference. Not life.

Therefore, I am just going to report the discovery of a new directional vortex in a hitherto-untested-by-me region of the city.

Wednesday was designated for working on the painfully late book review, so obviously I spent the morning dithering and the afternoon trying to become lost. There's no feeling quite as light as not quite knowing where I am or what time it is, provided I also feel I will eventually work out how to find home.

I chose a neighborhood northeast of the university. I found a promisingly irregular green polygon on the map, half-hidden greenspace I half-remembered, and approached it up a street overhung with high branches. I went haltingly because R. Knee does not like it when I carry heavy luggage, or even luggage of a moderate weight, for any distance, and I'd taken an ambitious number of books with me to the conference.

I found an entrance almost immediately, satisfyingly unmarked and ragged, but since my psyche is composed 98% of deferral (2% procrastination), I went 'round by the road to see if I could find a second way in. I did, eventually, through an empty lot. The entry was marked by this official signage:

(Yes, those do appear to be pieces of cut-up Styrofoam tray.)

As promised, the blue survey ribbons did indeed go straight up the hill to my right; hence so did I -- directly up the face of a steep incline, in the exact opposite direction of the sea. Further Styrofoam trays gave updates:

Trail restoration would imply that there was a trail.

Then all trails stopped together. I rested on some rocks with this view, beautiful though unbeachy:

Fortunately, even without blue ribbons, there seemed a fairly clear trail continuing up the hill, presumably to some lookout point with tidy stairs down to the water.

I pressed on. I came to some uncomfortably cultivated-looking ground cover, and I realized that I was going to have to climb up through what looked very much like someone's back hedge. Still, this sort of merging of trail and yard is not unprecedented in my experience, so I breasted the hill, crunching through the leaves.

With dawning horror, I found I had illicitly entered an enormous gated community.

It was proper gated. Very gated. So gated I could not get out.

I wandered haplessly into dead end after dead end. I found a sign marked Exit. It took me to a locked gate with a sign (not Styrofoam) depicting a body arced backwards, receiving a violent electric shock. I hunted around its edges, but I would have had to do something gymnastic and arboreal to escape that way, and R. Knee argued firmly against this. I backtracked and followed a second road -- to another unbreachable gate.

Obviously, I could have crossed back through the yard and the hedge, climbed back down the hill and tried to find the blue ribbons again. Others had clearly gone before me. By great good fortune, though, it happened to be five-thirty, and the gainfully employed began to arrive home. I waited until one of the electric gates swung open and the car had cleared it, dodged through, and gained the outside world again, without being crushed or electrocuted.

And here I am to tell the tale, etc.

I found a meme I like. It's just an equation on a plain background:


A friend posted it from the author Amy Stewart's Facebook page. I like the meme because it worked on me exactly the way it was supposed to work – my eye skimmed over it (ah, one of those name memes), stopped on “Nazi-fighting”, then went back to scan the first line and register the joke.

I like, too, the implication of adequacy here – no need to take on another identity or a new name. Your name is enough as it is. You're already ready.

And look at the cleverness of that line break: "+ YOUR LAST / NAME" – expecting some quirky interpolation of randomness (possibly designed to help hack password recovery questions) – last food eaten, last book read – we find instead just what we already possess.

(The text was probably just centred in a box of fixed size, but that doesn't make me wrong. It just makes me an English major.)

Silliness aside, I like the simplicity of this call to arms.

This makes sense, of course, when you consider that arrowroot is just a starch, like cornstarch, but I had not considered that. This property makes the batter difficult to cut and to transport from surface to tray. It is, however, soothing to watch the cut batter flow together again. Repairs are rapid and flawless. All sins are forgiven.

  • I averaged several online recipes and then cut the amounts to 1/3 to match the amount of arrowroot I had, so my proportions may be a bit off. [ETA: 1 c arrowroot flour; 1/3 c maple syrup; 1/3 c almond/coconut milk; 1 tsp melted butter; 1/3 egg yolk]
  • My end result is a bit chewy in the middle and therefore not quite arrowroot-biscuit-like.
  • The edges are fairly close to proper crunchiness.
  • The top of each cookie is a bit powdery.
  • I suspect I could have had these in the oven for longer, possibly at a lower temperature. [ETA: I started with 10 min at 325 F.]
  • Visually the cookies resemble very flat meringues more than anything.

When I reported the batter properties, a friend suggested that I fill the cookies with fruit to make Fig Non-Newtons. I might have to do that just to say I've done that.

In progress / housekeeping

Early in July, I was most of a week at my parents' house, ostensibly to help out my mom post-surgery. Ultimately, the visit became more of a family party.

During the visit, I read half of Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing all the Way to the Mosque, but I left the book there. I'll probably finish it when I visit in August for the Writer's Festival. Nawaz spoke (hilariously) at last year's festival.

Conversely, I forgot Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places at home, so although I listed it as a June book, I really finished it in July.

Unsurprisingly, I did not make as much progress with work- and review-related reading in July as I'd hoped. I am reading two books for review, one of which is also useful for prep. So far, that one is fantastic: Learn, Teach, Challenge: Approaching Indigenous Literatures, edited by Deanna Reader and Linda M. Morra.

Part 1: Alphabetical Listing

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book Two. I'm still really enjoying this series. It's like an essay on power in the form of a comic book. My favorite character is probably the conflicted academic radical of a previous generation (natch). He has a smaller role in this volume, but an interesting confrontation with the anti-monarchists and himself.

Coates is setting up a stimulating resistance between the story he's telling and the story-world as it existed before his own series. The central character as originally conceived is defined (narratively, archetypally) by being a king. The story's sympathies (while complex) are clearly on the side of rebellion. Will T'Challa be destroyed by the paradox? We shall see.

Like the first trade paperback, this collection included reprints of earlier Black Panther stories – I am not well-'versed enough to identify authors, artists, and styles, but I enjoyed the slightly scraggly 70s/80s art.

Han Kang. The Vegetarian. Now, this was a book. A book book. A work of strange and agonizing quiet. In three acts, a woman's transformation, seen three different ways, by three different external viewers, all who know her well and also not at all.

Not precisely spoilers but sort of spoilers )

Hanff, Helene. 84, Charing Cross Road. I re-read this little book of letters between book-buyer and bookseller, and then I listened to various audiobook incarnations as I washed the dishes, and it was all just lovely. This is another comfort read, of course. I can't read this book without thinking furiously at Hanff's younger self: Go to England! Just go! JUST GO. Every time.

Hayes, Bill. Insomniac City. I'd been waiting for this to come in at the library for some time. As I've noted elsewhere, this is a memoir by Bill Hayes, Oliver Sacks' partner. Hayes is an attentive diarist, attuned to small details and interactions. He seems like a remarkable person in himself – profoundly giving to his partners. Nothing really happens in the memoir, except lots of dinners, walks, talks with strangers in New York, drinking red wine right from the bottle, and smoking pot. The picture of Sacks -- brilliant, infinitely curious, delighted by every discovery, from kissing to chemistry -- is endearing. Though Insomniac City is not all about Sacks. A reader who had never heard of him could read this book as a gentle memoir of New York. I am a latent fan of Sacks' books (that is, I loved them once but haven't picked them up in a few years), and I mourned his death in 2015, so this visit with him was sweet.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. This was an enjoyable essay that made a fair point — we expect poetry to live up to the abstract ideal of itself as a kind of trigger for ecstatic/transcendent aesthetic experience, and we resent the inevitable failure of any actual poem to become The Poem. Readers of Leaving the Atocha Station will find this a familiar theme.

I would have liked this essay better as part of a collection. As a standalone monograph, it was enjoyable but not quite substantial enough.

Also – maybe I'm projecting plenitude into the past, as (I think) Lacan would insist, but I'm pretty sure I've had many at least momentarily transcendent experiences of poetry (and other art, and music, and ritual, and nature, and sex, and so forth). Lerner seems to regard this as a myth (or at least he likes to take that pose).

This kind of romantic expectation/analysis obviously does not really include poetry like L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. poetry, which aims to disrupt/resist the ideal of the lyric and beautiful and expressive poem. However, I am always reading that poetry all wrong anyway, since disruption can also create ecstasy/catharsis. I, too, pretty much read all poetry for ecstatic experience, and maybe – as Helene Hanff's friend said of London – if you look for it, you find it.

Taylor, Elizabeth. A Wreath of Roses. I liked this for its accuracy about the transformations of friendship that happen over time and changed circumstances, and for the simple domestic tyrannies and complicities, and for the atmosphere. The ending I almost liked. It is certainly unnerving. It reminded me of a Muriel Spark, but not quite as ruthless and therefore not quite as successful.

My favourite Taylors are probably still Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A View of the Harbour, but she’s just so reliable. Her prose and her attention are like no one else's – unflashy, yet devastating.

Part 2: Women Suffering Hilariously

Ephron, Nora. Heartburn.

Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.

I'm going to put these three books together. )

There was TV in there, too, and I also watched the Monroe / Russell film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was disappointing, though I'm sure someone has written a clever article about the differences between the tightly regulated sexuality of the film (Monroe's Lorelai never really strays from her fiancé) and the anarchic self-interest of the novel.


Smoke report

Aug. 2nd, 2017 06:28 pm
radiantfracture: and i know which way the wind is blowing (barometer)
A bright orange sun this morning, so damped down by the smoke that I could look directly at it without pain and without printing dazzled shapes on my eye. The shadows are blue-green -- the whole world seems luridly and childishly painted in orange and turquoise.

I can't imagine what it's like where the fires are. Well, I can go look at pictures. That would help me imagine. (Goes and looks at pictures.) Jesus.

We're hundreds of kilometers away, but I can taste ash today, and the air is syrupy, yet full of prickly heat. S. said "I feel like I'm walking in the location of an indoor heated pool," and I suggested it was like wading through warm custard. I'll amend. Warm custard full of pins. I had plans to go to yoga and the community market, but this clammy needling heat defeats me.

I'm told (by [personal profile] minim_calibre, for one) that the smoke has drifted as far as Seattle.

This is -- you know -- really something.

Here's A CBC article with this cheerful subhead: "Kamloops, B.C., saw an air quality health risk rating of 18 — on a scale that normally stops at 10." But (the article continues) it was worse in Williams Lake, where it got up to 36/10 a couple of weeks ago.

(We're going to need a bigger scale.)

The air quality is sitting at a paltry 6 here, so I had better stop being so dramatic.

For weeks now I've been thinking I smelled smoke.

Since no one else seemed to notice it, I've been wondering if the smell was some sort of guilt-induced hallucination, a reminder to pay more attention to the wildfires.

I say guilt because the worst burns are in an area I know well, but have lived far away from for decades. I have lately thought much more about American politics than about great tracts of my own province being on fire, until it struck me that this, a fire in my home landscape, ought to be something that affected me; that this indifference or numbness was not a strength but a failing. I started to try to make myself think about it, and somewhere in there I began to smell smoke.

We were promised a heat wave. Instead, today the sky filled up with a deep haze -- not the dull surface of overcast, but a translucent zone, illuminated but empty, with no visible other side of blue.

This morning, as I sat at the counter with my cold coffee, I could put my hand into the patterning of orangey light and strong shadow that dropped from the window -- as I might put my fingers into a pool to see the shadows at play. I've seen this light before, I thought. Once when the sun turned red at midday, and I was spooked and entranced; and two years ago, when the wildfires were burning up-island.

(I looked up the name for the patterns of light in water and found that they are called caustics, meaning burning.)

Two years ago last month it was Pride, and the wildfires -- on the island, but not close to us -- turned the sky a dingy orange for days. It became oppressive, like the atmosphere of an alien planet. The Pride march was big and noisy, but everything felt stifled by the sky.

You may have heard that the fires are huge this year. The biggest fires are in the Interior, on the mainland, in an area called the Cariboo (not to be confused with caribou), just south of Prince George, the city where I grew up.

The full population of Williams Lake, a city of about 11,000 people three hours south of Prince George, had to be evacuated, and thousands of other people in the area.

The other day on a ramble in the park, I ran into an old university friend and some pals of his. One of the friends had been working up in Prince George. He said that most of the evacuees ended up there. It's a bigger city, and its usual population sits at about 74,000, so that's a population increase of about 15%.

The park was matted with dry golden grasses as usual for July, and looked like perfect tinder. They walked on and I sat on my rocky outcrop to sketch the trees.

There have been air quality warnings as far south as Vancouver, but none here so far that I know of. Until today, if you lived here and had no news access, you wouldn't have known anything about a fire, except for that maybe-smell maybe-hallucination.

Today the air feels dry and scratchy. The sky is not tinted, as it was in the year when the fires were closer, but the light that falls has a sunset quality. It's as though it's a different time on the ground than it is in the sky -- one o'clock of a grey afternoon up there, and late on a sunny summer evening down here, only it's evening all day long. The shadows are strong, and the dyed light turns them bright blue, like watery inkstains.

That other year I brought some articles about the wildfires and forest management into class for discussion (though I made rather a ratty job of it, I'm afraid.) This year there hasn't really been an opportunity to respond that way.

The first seventeen years of my life were given form in a place that by now has changed a great deal, what with beetle invasions and fires. My family doesn't live there any more, and any remaining friends there I've lost touch with. It isn't home, yet it's never quite not home, simply because it was the first place. This season is like a fire at the beginning of the world, or that's how I think it should feel: like a burning-out of my memory. Maybe that's the smell of smoke.

Good day:

Today I received a package from [Bookseller] which I believe was in fulfillment of the order indicated above.

However, when I opened the envelope, it turned out to contain, not Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson, but A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin.

This is a wonderful novel, but not the book I ordered. Unless someone else ordered it for me as a gift?

Haunts of the Black Masseur is (by reputation -- I haven't read it) one of those books that is a kind of sport, a genre unto itself: an art historian's surreal history of swimming. A Wizard of Earthsea is, of course, a terrific young adult fantasy novel in the young-wizard-goes-to-school genre, though it's also more than that -- an exploration of what magic might be, of connection to land, of failure and redemption. I know because I own the compact illustrated Puffin edition (1980) and therefore have no immediate need for this second copy.

If this was a case of mistaken identities, I feel a bit sad for the perplexed young person who ordered LeGuin and got my Sprawson. (Then again, maybe it will be a revelation.)

Can you clear up this confusion? Apart from being the wrong book, the order is otherwise entirely satisfactory.

Thank you,

R. Fracture

Note: This letter has been slightly expanded for my own amusement.
Wednesday after work LB and I hiked in to the lake. We took a more strenuous route than usual, over rough ground, but nothing requiring high endurance -- or so I would have thought. The moment I got home, however, I lay down on the couch and did not rise until night.

The last few days have been like days of recovery from illness -- not soreness or fatigue so much as a sort of muzzy-headedness I dislike much more than pain.

Therefore, I have not done much writing or reading.

I did manage to read Insomniac City, Bill Hayes' memoir of his relationship with Oliver Sacks. It's a lovely, gentle book, a kind of idyll of daily life in New York -- lots of drinking wine on rooftops and talking to strangers in the park. Hayes invokes the sensory detail of their life together with the attention you'd expect of someone who could properly appreciate Oliver Sacks.

I'd read Hayes' description of a piece of music -- Beethoven's Op. 133, say (The Great Big Fugue) -- then cue it up on YouTube and listen -- or look up a meal they ate or an artist Hayes admired. In this way, the book became a delightful multi-sensory experience.

Reading or writing for work and other projects, though, did not seem to be on.

When writing is too difficult, I draw. One of my comfort activities is attempting loose copies of the exquisitely strange radial creatures from Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature. Listening to Beethoven' bright, angular notes, I thought -- why not try to draw this as well?1

Under the cut are a few creatures drawn out of the music, though they are not perfect synaesthetic renderings of these pieces or anything -- more a fusion of what I was looking at, what I was hearing, and what I could actually draw.

Musical Drawings )


1. I do see a little colour to music, but it's a very limited palette, shading from blue-white through golden brown to dark brown, and probably has more to do with the colour of the piano whereon I failed to learn to play music as a child, rather than any intricacy of brain connections.
Yesterday I learnt, through observation, that it is better not to paraglide when the wind is blowing away from the sea.

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Saturday was a bright, fine, windy day. All down the long hill of Moss Street, from the art gallery to the ocean, artists had set up display stalls. On the lawns behind and the driveways between, entrepreneurial children set up lemonade stands while their parents sold pottery. This is the Moss Street Paint-in, almost certainly the best-attended event of the local calendar.

There are a few elements I always look forward to -- artists whose work I've been following for decades, a vintage garage sale halfway down the hill -- but you must be prepared for dense (if friendly) crowds and a certain uniformity, or at least consistency, of subject and technique. (When I first attended, this meant oversized portraits of flowers in watercolour; now it often means glint-eyed ravens in encaustic.)

Yesterday, once I'd braved the art gauntlet, I sat down on the grass at Clover Point and, diffusely inspired, tried to sketch, but the flat lines of clifftop, sea, horizon, did not yield much to my lazy pencil.

Below me, nearer the cliffs, a paraglider was busying himself folding and unfolding billows of red and white fabric, so I tried to sketch him instead. For a long time I couldn't tell if he was packing up or setting out.

Finally he harnessed himself and hopped briskly up into the air. Immediately, the wind lifted him and set him down deeper into the grass, rather than swinging him out over the sea. Think of how you might move a small child or a kitten away from danger.

I thought, hmm, that doesn't seem right, but I suppose he knows what he's doing.

Soon I no longer supposed this. The next hop took him higher, but also directly out over the traffic on Dallas Road. This traffic was not insubstantial, but at least it was sightseeing-slow. A double-decker tour bus braked for him, and he went out of my sight for a moment. When the bus pulled away, I could see his chute woven into the telephone wires.

It occurred to me that I ought to go and see if he was all right.

He seemed to be. He was standing, unharnessed, talking with surprising ease to one of the traffic officers from the Paint-in.

I sat down on the fence to observe the chute extrication. A fire engine arrived, and then an ambulance. After long consultation, someone went into the back of the truck and meticulously set out two orange traffic cones. After this came a long lacuna, and eventually I left, so I can't say how it all turned out.

Anyway, here is a small pictorial tribute both to a day of public art and to the perverse human urge towards flight:

Twice now I’ve been to Finishing Class at a terrific little workspace called Good, started up by a wonderful arts organizer and her partner, who recently moved back to town.

Finishing Class is a monthly event wherein you show up to sit down at a long hand-made table with other people who want to Finish Something. Once greetings are given and tea is made, together you each set to work on your Something, and try to get it or some stage or draft or piece of it Finished by the end of two hours (but this is not strictly enforced).

At the end of Finishing Class, you get a gold star. At the break, you get a home-baked treat made by the proprietor herself. Last time it was a perfect brownie. This time it was a maple butter tart.

Even though the process is more than half a game, the focus and the title and the deadline function, underground in the mind, to make you want to Finish your Something.

Last time I had no idea what I was going to work on, and felt a bit nervous about that, and then my brain very kindly offered me the use of a short story idea. Without the class I don't think I'd have written it at all. Last time, I drafted the story to the end, and tonight I second-drafted it and patched the ending together a bit. And by posting it here, I finish my Finishing for tonight.

I like that it arrived, I'm glad that it stayed, but I don't know what it amounts to. Not that it has to amount to anything. It was a happy thing just to make it.

Anyway, here it is.

The New Sea )


Oh, and we have a new government! The Liberals lost the non-confidence vote, so the Lieutenant Governor has asked the NDP (with the support of the Greens) to form the government.

A positive change from business as usual. I hardly know how to account for it.

This was a busy month at work, without much time for pleasure reading. The rest of the summer is less officially busy, but contains plenty of requirement for self-motivation in the direction of reading things and also understanding them.

I've got two academic reviews to write. Both books tie directly into my courses for the fall, so this also counts as prep. And there is much prep. My reading may of necessity become less haphazard in July and August, or at least that is the plan, so I've enjoyed letting it take hazard for June.


Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (1972), because it is a sure pleasure. I had remembered the simplicity of the prose and a few of the incidents — the water tank, the rich man’s house — but I had forgotten its complexity, or else not registered its intricacy fully in that first reading.

What strikes me this time is the celebration of the grandmother's perspective — her intuition about how to be with and of the land. There's an obvious connection to the North American ecological and Indigenous writing that I've read.

Books of the Moment

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). I liked this, though not the ending, which seemed interminable and unnecessary. However, my reading was rushed because I was about to get on a helicopter, so I can't say I gave it the ideal level of contemplative attention.

Quietly Uncanny British Novels

This is the genre closest to my slowly thumping heart: ordinary events told with such clarity and intensity that they seem irreal. Two more Barbara Comyns — The Skin Chairs (1985) and Our Spoons Came from Woolworth's (1982). I think Comyns has joined Penelope Fitzgerald and the Other Elizabeth Taylor among my favorite novelists. I liked both of these novels better than The Vet's Daughter, and maybe Woolworth's best because it is about Bohemian Life in the 1930s.


Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve (2016). This is data-driven literary criticism/journalism. I believe it is a collection of pieces from It reads like that: a series of short statistical studies of various literary works and genres.

Blatt's conclusions are generally thoughtful and generous. I wanted a bit more critical complexity on both the literary and the data side -- for example, he analyzes the use of -ly adverbs and finds that, indeed, prose broadly considered as having higher quality does use fewer such adverbs. However, I don't recall his drilling down on the precise use that is most often objected to — describing how people say things. It seems to me there's a distinct literary difference between over-description of speech attitudes and modifying action in general — but maybe I speak inaccurately.

Blatt uses a lot of fanfiction for his analysis, which I liked — as a paraliterary genre, it often doesn't get that kind of attention, and yet it's an enormous galactic body of collective imaginings. He also scrupulously points out interesting exceptions to the rules, even the -ly one, which leaves room for hope.

Some of the pieces I found illuminating, and some dull. I'd recommend reading the bits of this that look interesting to you and skipping out the ones that don't.

I think of myself as a reader of Serious Nonfiction, or maybe a Serious Reader of nonfiction, but GoodReads tells me otherwise: this was my first nonfiction book of the year.

The Enchanted Places (1974). This is Christopher Milne's account of his childhood and youth as A.A. Milne's son and as the inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh books. I'm just finishing it. It's very English. Quiet, melancholy, celebratory of the countryside.

I like it. I knew some of it contents as literary rumour before reading it. And once I saw a Fringe play in which Christopher Robin goes off to the War and betrays Pooh to the Germans. "Das ist Ihr Schwein?" they keep shouting at him.


Anansi Boys. (2006) I think that ends my Neil Gaiman revisit. I liked the mythworld in the novel very much. I found the main storyline rather flat. It also has some problems with the narrative's portrayal of consent, which I suppose can be explained by a) its having been written before the latest iteration of that conversation, and b) its being about gods, who aren't very good on that sort of thing where mortals are concerned.