Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Montessori Madness

Laura Shaw wonders why nobody talks about Montessori when discussing school reform. Money quote:
Why is Montessori so effective? We know there is an indisputable link between movement and cognition, with the former actually enhancing the latter. We know that people of all ages need to feel a sense of control over their lives and that lack of control leads to depression and learned helplessness, which inhibits learning. We know from a huge body of research that extrinsic rewards and punishments don't work and can actually adversely affect intrinsic motivation. Research tells us all of these things, yet students at conventional schools are still confined to their desks, with rigidly scheduled days, receiving grades for every aspect of their learning and behavior. Is it any wonder that the public school district needs therapists?
To expand on this a bit, my kids have been in a Montessori day care/school  for a year now and I'm not only amazed at how they both thrive in that environment but also at how much more self reliant my 2 year old is than my older son was at that age. They both love the school, and I love the emphasis on self-determination and the combination of learning (Hunter's actually already doing fractions at age 5!) and life skills (they prepare food, clean windows, and learn how to take off and put on their own shoes). It's been such a pleasant experience, in fact, that I wish I had the funds to continue them in Montessori schools into the future - Hunter's moving into Kindergarten this fall and i'm wondering how he'll take to the transition.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Burning Painings

As some of you probably know, I've recently given up painting. There are many reasons for this, but the main one was that I was getting frustrated with my talent level, and in order to get any better I was going to need to put in some significant practice that I just don't have. So I've put my painting on hold until I find more leisure time, which probably won't be until my kids get older and more independent.

Anyways, I was cleaning up my art room the other night and decided to get rid of some of my failed paintings. And what better way to do so but through fire?
I got a kick out of the fact that the middle face burned away first. Must have put more of the flammable paint on that one! 

Monday, January 23, 2012

This'll Put You in Your Place

The Dish pointed me to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tries to explaining the problem of dark matter to a young boy:

[E]verything we've ever seen in the universe has gravity--Earth, the moon. And you can tell how much gravity something has by how fast something moves around it. ... Add it all up. We've done this. Add it all up and say that should give me this much gravity. But when you look at how fast things are moving, you get six times as much gravity as the stuff that we know about is generating. It was originally called the missing matter problem. Where is the matter that's making this gravity that we see? Because everything we do count up doesn't get us where we need. We now call this the dark matter problem.
But really we have no idea what's causing it. We so don't know what's causing it that we shouldn't even call it dark matter because that implies we have some understanding that it's matter. We don't know what it is. I could call it Fred. Eighty five percent all the gravity in the universe comes from something about which we know nothing. ...
[Add that to dark energy and] it is ninety six percent of the universe. Everything we know and love--electrons, protons, neutrons, light, black holes, planets, stars, everything we know and understand--occupies four percent of the universe. Dark matter and dark energy is everything else.
The size of the universe really is stunning. It's the most humbling thing I can imagine. Sometimes I ponder the size of things in order to help me fall asleep - it's so hard to keep track of, it's like counting sheep.

5 Packaged Foods You Shouldn't Buy

Grist tells us that there are five packaged foods we should never buy: soup, soup stock, canned beans, hummus and cereal. Noble ideas, but tough to implement in practice. For instance, I love Cheerios, and there's no way that I'm going to be making my own Cheerios. Now, I suspect that this point was made for those people that eat "sugar cereals" and not those with whole grains - the article specifically mentions sugared wheat cereals. On the other hand, I already make my own granola and combine the Cheerios with the granola, so i'm basically already meeting the Gristers halfway.

The other points are intriguing and I may take them up on this challenge. In fact, I bought a bag of beans this weekend rather than canned beans so we'll see how this works - so far, I've been forgetting to soak the beans so there hasn't been any chili on my table for the last few days. It all comes down to planning and priorities, which can be tough to do for two working parents with two children.

What do you think? Any processed foods that you make a point to avoid?

Legos and Gender

boingboing, one of my favorite websites, is obsessed with Legos. Recently, they posted an article about Legos' new effort to attract more girls by creating a "more feminine" line of Legos.

The first link in that article details not only the amazing amount of time, effort, and money that Lego is spending on "feminizing" it's toys, but also the insidious, creepy nature of modern advertising. I mean, as this NYTimes article states, there are quite obviously some ingrained gender differences in kids. I saw this first hand with my  boys who, despite my not caring less about vehicles, both became sterotypically obsessed with cars and construction machinery. On the flip side, they both also like to walk around wearing  mommy's shoes, and one of Hunter's favorite toys is a hot pink "princess" phone he insisted we buy him. My point is that while there are differences between boys and girls, each kid is also unique and as such is open to anything.

Initiatives like Legos' are merely trying to take advantage of - and thus reinforce - early gender differences just so they can make a buck. Sure, given the way our society reinforces gender roles, a girl might initially be more attracted to a pastel beauty salon than a Garbage Truck, but doesn't this just reinforce the stereotype? As the article puts it: "How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?" Who says that a girl might not have been drawn towards a Garbage Truck but just in pink? I mean, just look at the popularity of Pink and Powder Blue NFL jerseys and baseball hats (like the Red Sox "pink hat brigade"). Given the power that Legos hold over many young ones, it would have been nice if they tried to point to a new way. It's hard enough when society already pushes boys towards Legos and car/military vehicles and girls to "American Girl". (And do we honestly really need more toys teaching small girls to wear miniskirts? Or am I just getting old?)

Good questions, but there's not much I can do about it on a large scale. My thinking is that I subvert the dominant paradigm by letting my kids play with whatever they damned well please. So Hunter occasional walks around the house in my wife's red pumps while Trey talks on a princess phone. They're still all boy, but at least their not being limited by any societal guidelines.

Unless they try to wear Patriots gear, of course. A dad's got to draw the line somewhere.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What I Hate I Love

“I hate and love.
Ignorant fish, who even
wants the fly while writhing.”

Frank Bidart, "Catullus: Odi et amo” from The Sacrifice

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Nexus of Choice and Persuasion

“Every time a message seems to grab us, and we think, "I just might try it," we are at the nexus of choice and persuasion that is advertising.”

Andrew Hacker

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Seriousness in Fiction

"When we speak of "seriousness" in fiction ultimately we are talking abut an attitude toward death–how characters may act in its presence, for example, or how they handle it when it isn't so immediate. Everybody knows this, but the subject is hardly ever brought up with younger writers, possibly because given to anyone at the appropriate age, such advice is widely felt to be effort wasted."

- Thomas Pynchon, from his introduction to Slow Learner

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Online Protest Day

"Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good. The word has ceased to have meaning."
- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, page 548
While I would never deny my three or four readers my website by going dark in protest, you should pay attention to the horrible bills working their way through the US Congress: PIPA and SOPA. As Barry Ritholz eloquently puts it:
It would greatly damage the linking structure of the internet, allowing companies to close down websites on flimsiest of premises. It would criminalize even pointing to any site that itself points to a site where there is a Copyright violation.
Over the years, the copyright cartel — this includes Disney and other major content companies — have bought themselves a Congress. They prevented works that were scheduled to enter the public domain, as envisioned in the US Constitution, from doing so.
SOPA is the latest attempt to censor the public’s access to independent information and manipulate copyright laws. The new law works to their own benefit and the public’s detriment.
Don't passively accept Pynchon's warnings about the dominance of technology, because IMO the battle is not yet over. Work to keep information free by killing off this poorly written legislation by signing the petition and contacting your representatives today.

Update: For a more detailed look at why the bills are so bad, check out Mashable's reporting on SOPA.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Revenge of the Tab Dump

As always, interesting articles that I indended to write about, but never found the time.

1. I spend most of my professional life working in PowerPoint. Slide:ology helped me to learn how to design better slides. It could help you too.

2. Justin E.H. Smith argues the, to me, obvious point that marriage is work:
One might suppose rather that love and work—or at least a distinctly modern, capitalist conception of work—are two sides of the same coin: both emerge together at the same moment in history, and both carry with them the ungrounded belief that each of us has our destiny in our own hands, that our happiness is entirely a consequence of our life choices, and our misery a surefire sign that we are doing something wrong. In this connection the contemporary use of "passion" serves as a revealing misnomer. For how many can recall that, originally… to undergo a passion was to suffer an affliction over which one had no control? … in the modern world, in both work and love… we are expected to treat the things that happen to us, that cannot but happen to us, as a result of the way our society is structured, as if they were the result of our own sundry projects of self-creation.
He’s a bit too cynical and determinist for my tastes, but there’s some truth in there: many, many people do not hold their destiny in their hands, for one reason or another.

3. I’d Rather Be Writing ponders a good question for all writers.
I was talking with my wife’s uncle last week about writing strategies for fiction, and whether it’s better to outline everything ahead of time, or figure it out as you go. The former is apparently called a “plotter” method and the latter a “pantser” method (called pantser because you fly by the seat of your pants).
He said there’s no right way, but if you’re planning to figure it out as you go, it’s still a good idea to write your last chapter ahead of time. This way you know generally where you want to end up. If you don’t know how your novel is going to end, he said, you often wander around and eventually end your novel in fanciful/unbelievable way. Further, pantsers often lose motivation because they don’t know the point or meaning of their story.
He goes on to connect this to his life as a Technical Writer. I always enjoy his posts; he’s a thoughtful writer who has some great insights in the details of technical communication.

4. AGNI interviews Johnathan Lethem about sampling and creation. I love how Lethem thinks. Some samples:
  • On using quotations in his work: “Girl in Landscape is relatively free of cultural reference. The voice is in the third person omniscient and stays relatively close to a thirteen year old girl who’s not a voracious reader or music listener, who lives in the future, and on this other planet. Yet I know there was at least one moment when some descriptive passage of the desert landscape under the sky slipped into a tiny bit of a Joni Mitchell lyric. It was irresistible, it was like a throb in the voice that just felt right, and there’s no reason in the world why I wanted to resist that. There might have been five words of quotation, but direct quotation, and I just let it be. But that’s notable because it’s so exceptional inside that project."
  • On Dylan and his sources: “This whole question of quotation and theft in Dylan tends to be looked at in arguments in favor for or against his unique genius, as though he himself were introducing the very problem that undermines his own claim. In a way it’s giving him too much credit to call him an original thief. He’s a typical thief. So can we now please just leave that question behind? When an ideology exists, no one is free of it. He’s spent a lot of time defending himself or obfuscating about sources because he has absorbed the same frameworks that people are using to judge the work."

Ultimately, if art is working then it’s done something and you only need to become interested in sources if they interest you. Nothing more needs to be said. When art succeeds it’s its own law, it’s its own reason for being.” I know that the few “original” things that I write almost always spin off of something else that I’ve read, either consciously or subconsciously, and certain phrases that I use have been used in that way before. If this should be called “sampling” so be it – I believe that the modern world is better off for it.

5. The world's smallest known vertebrate. I miss having frogs in the house.

6. Gotta say, a movie called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace sounds fascinating: Adam Curtis, the director, describes it as "...This is a story about the rise of the machines/and how they made us believe/we could create a stable world/that would last forever."

7. In her essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood splits hairs and describes her Science Fiction - The Handsmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood - as "speculative fiction" rather than scifi.

8. One of my favorite albums is the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, and probably the most rocking tune off this understated album is the majestic "Big Sky." Adam Fieled overthinks the songs implications.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Romney's Bane

I didn't realize exactly the kind of business Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's company, conducted. Here's some details from the New York Post:
Romney's private equity firm, Bain Capital, bought companies and often increased short-term earnings so those businesses could then borrow enormous amounts of money. That borrowed money was used to pay Bain dividends. Then those businesses needed to maintain that high level of earnings to pay their debts...
  • Bain in 1988 put $5 million down to buy Stage Stores, and in the mid-'90s took it public, collecting $100 million from stock offerings. Stage filed for bankruptcy in 2000.
  • Bain in 1992 bought American Pad & Paper (AMPAD), investing $5 million, and collected $100 million from dividends. The business filed for bankruptcy in 2000.
  • Bain in 1993 invested $60 million when buying GS Industries, and received $65 million from dividends. GS filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
  • Bain in 1997 invested $46 million when buying Details, and made $93 million from stock offerings. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
Romney's Bain invested 22 percent of the money it raised from 1987-95 in these five businesses, making a $578 million profit.
This is exactly the kind of shenanigans that give Wall Street a bad name. I don't see any job creation in this - I just see the conscious looting and destruction of companies for the sole purpose of building shareholder wealth.

Hat Tip: The Daily Dish

First Lines of "The Night Circus"

"The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence is the theater office, but this is the first time envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl."

- Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What's Not For Dinner?

Mark Bittman in the New York Times provides a staggering statistic: “Americans eat more meat than any other population in the world; about one-sixth of the total, though we’re less than one-twentieth of the population.”

I wasn't aware of this, but over the last year I've been doing my part to reduce this figure. For a number of reasons, I've been cutting back on the animal flesh, including:
  • Reading Michael Pollian’s In Defense of Food. This book taught me not only just how bad too much meat is for you but also how resource intensive it is to produce meat. For example, The Telegraph points to a study that concluded that “Producing 2.2lb of beef generates as much greenhouse gas as driving a car non-stop for three hours." Damn. And don't get me started on the U.S.'s damaging addiction to corn subsidies.
  • Acid reflux. Eating less meat results in less intense reflux, an unexpected but very welcome side effect.
  • CSA meat. For a year or so, I was getting all my meat from a CSA which taught me just how much better locally-produced, organic meat tastes than the mass-produced stuff you buy in the supermarket. Seriously, if you haven't tried a good steak from a local farm, you don't know what you're missing.
It's not that I dislike meat: quite the contrary. I just don't eat as much of it any more. And it turns out that i'm not alone. In the same article, Bittman  writes that
The Values Institute at DGWB Advertising and Communications just named the rise of “flexitarianism” — an eating style that reduces the amount of meat without “going vegetarian” — as one of its top five consumer health trends for 2012. In an Allrecipes.com survey of 1,400 members, more than one-third of home cooks said they ate less meat in 2011 than in 2010. Back in June, a survey found that 50 percent of American adults said they were aware of the Meatless Monday campaign, with 27 percent of those aware reporting that they were actively reducing their meat consumption.
Nice to be on the cutting edge of a trend for a change!

Quote of the Day

You cannot run away from a weakness. You must sometimes fight it out or perish; and if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?

- Robert Louis Stephenson

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Where Art Thou, Organic Bourbon?

Grist points out that not only is organic burbon whiskey hard to find, there’s a reason for that:
Bourbon gives us an interesting window into GMO grain, because the spirit must by definition be made with at least 51 percent corn. Consider the fact that 85 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is now genetically engineered, and you can guess why organic bourbon won't be appearing in a liquor store near you any time soon.
Supply and demand. The only consistent demand for  bourbon without GMO corn are the overseas markets. Domestically, the consumer apparently doesn't care (to be honest with you, I look for this stuff and whiskey just slipped through the cracks). In addition, the GMO corn is cheaper, mainly due (I suspect) to government subsidies, making the end product more inexpensive as well.

The end result? Most of the suppliers of non-GMO corn are fading away. And those that are holding on may not be around for much longer; as Jim Rutledge, the 45-year veteran distiller at Four Roses, says, “due to cross-pollination, even the farmers not using GMO corn will end up with it eventually.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Murakami's 1Q84

“…pure solitude and tranquility. That was the best thing the moon could give a person.” – 1Q84, p 528.

It's been a while since I’ve finished 1Q84. I've sat down a number of times to write my reactions, and I’m finding it difficult to do. Partly because the book was such a monster - at 925 pages, it took me almost a full month to read - and because my dislike of the ending colored the rest of the book. I wanted to be careful.

Murakami’s 1Q84 starts with a bang, or more specifically, a song and a vivid description of Aomame - a sharp dressed woman - escaping from a freeway parking jam by climbing down a multiple story fire-escape ladder – a tale that would have made a good short story in and of itself. It gets even better when we find out that Aomame is an assassin – one trained at a unique, untraceable form of killing at that! – and we’re off to the races. The novel alternates chapters between Aomame and Tengo, another of Murakami’s passive males, who gets pulled into a ghostwriting scheme. The two stories leisurely percolate along, both very entertaining in their own right; both of the characters are well fleshed out, and they both find themselves in bizarre circumstances that, like the best of Murakami's novels, could go in any direction. My only quibble is that I found Aomame to be the most masculine female character I’ve seen in a major novel - even her sexual escapades – and there are many of them, surprisingly - read like what a male would imagine (fantasize?) a female wanting. I didn't find her believable as a woman, but despite this, Aomame’s toughness and mystery made her my favorite character in the book, at least until part three.

And that’s the rub. Part three of 1Q84 was not good.  The first two sections were sprawling, obscure, with dead-end subplots and thousands of hints of something deeper beneath it all – and it was fascinating! Little by little we learn that Tengo’s ghostwriting story might not be fiction after all, but instead describe a mysterious race of “little people” that permeate and control the world - and, oh yea, it might not be our world after all, but an alternate reality of some kind, one with two moons in the sky and enough subtle changes to throw everything askew. In short, it's a riveting tale, and one beautifully written in Murakami’s singular prose. But like a poorly paced runner, Murakami runs out of gas in part three. While it may be unfair to judge the three sections as a complete whole – apparently he had finished and published parts one and two and only later decided to put out another 300 pages - I don’t understand what he was hoping to accomplish with his ending. Part three rides an unsatisfying middle road: it didn't resolve any of the important plots that kept me riveted  (who exactly are the little people anyways? What are they trying to accomplish?) or it spelled out situations in too much detail (I personally didn’t need to see Aomame and Tengo get together). This problem is exasperated by two major flaws in part three – Murakami’s continual repeating of themes and phrases  to the point of annoyance (mainly around Aomame’s taking care of “the little one”) and introducing the point-of-view of the repugnant Ushikawa whose purpose here I don’t comprehend.  The failure of part three, while not ruining the book, definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. It didn't tell me anything that parts one and two hadn’t already told me, nor did it present any new “wow” moments.

In the end, though, a flawed Murakami book is still better than 99% of the books out there. I still remember the feeling of anticipation I held onto all day long as I waited to get back to the book at night. 1Q84 holds a place of honor on my bookshelf, because I'll definitely be reading this book again – only this time, I’ll stop after section two.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox

The Indelible Mark of Reality

"There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards, you can remove all trace of reality. There’s no danger then... because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark."
- Pablo Picasso

I would add that unless you have a highly trained eye, most observers are looking for the reality behind the abstraction. While part of the beauty of abstract art are the different interpretations that different people bring to the table (art as audience participation!), without a solid grounding in something to grasp onto, folks will just make up their own reality for the piece. And perhaps that's what the artist wants! But I like my abstraction with just enough foundation in ...something... to make the mystery elusive but yet within grasp.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Insomnia Mind

"She tried to will herself to sleep but realized she was listening intently, listening to the room. She lay in a kind of timeless drift, a mindwork spiral, carried on half-formed thoughts. She passed into a false sleep and then was listening again. She opened her eyes. The clock read four-thirty."
- Don Delillo, from "The Ivory Acrobat"

It's a feeling with which I'm intimately familiar. Never associated it with Delillo-style paranoia before, but it makes perfect sense.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Football Hindsight

So Jabari Greer had two playoff interceptions for the Saints last night. Why can't the Bills get players like tha... Oh. Wait. Never mind. I forgot that the Bills have become a farm team for the rest of the league.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

This is Your Mind on Books

Nicholas Carr notes how our brains function when reading:
In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or clicking on a link at a website. But when we open a book, our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. Because we understand that "we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions," we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence are able to "disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions." ... It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s transformative emotional power.
This explains that wonderful feeling of losing yourself in a book: you just don't feel the need to control things. Relinquishing that power can be a sweet freedom.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Distrust that Particular Flavor

I'm excited to pick up Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson's debut essay collection. You can read more about it at Boing Boing.

While I can't say that Gibson's my favorite author, he's a writer that I love to read: he's always very interesting, and the erudition on display in his interviews and essays are intimidating in his breath of knowledge and analysis. For example, take this from this Art of Fiction interview from the Paris Review:
I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing technoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.
But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry. But there were relatively few voices like Dickens then. Most people thought the progress of industry was all very exciting. Only a few were saying, Hang on, we think the birds are dying.
Actually wants to make me pick up Dickens!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Making Money from Money, not Work

Brian Beutler at TPM explains why Romney is so reticent to provide his tax returns to the public: he suspects that it will not only let people know just how stinking rich he is (hint: he's probably in the 1%), but also drive home that money fund managers make a lot of investment profit that is not taxed at the normal tax rates:
In private equity, fund managers are typically compensated with both a fee (two percent of assets) and substantial share (20 percent) of the fund’s profits. Those profits are called “carried interest” and they’re classified as long-term capital gains, which are taxed at 15 percent — much lower than wage income, on which the top marginal rate is 35 percent. But unlike the fund’s main investors, the manager typically doesn’t put up more than a nominal share of the fund’s actual capital. In other words, this so-called “carried interest loophole” allows private equity fund managers to treat the money they make in exchange for their labor as if it was a return on an investment — even though they haven’t made such an investment at all.
This kind of information is not really common knowledge. To me, these types of rules are so byzantine, and so unused by regular folks, that exposing them is a good thing, even if it might not be politically expedient to Mitt Romney.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama

Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama is a beautifully-written novel that combines steampunk, revolutionary and authoritarianism politics, druggy subcultures, and anthropology together in an extremely entertaining brew. It takes place sometime in the not-so-distant past in the Arctic city of New Venice, a metropolis filled with wondrous Victorian-era inventions, including machinery that sustains life so close to the North Pole. The story focuses on two heroes: Brentford is the greenhouse administrator in charge of growing the city’s food. He’s part of the city’s nobility but dreams of reviving the city from its corrupt government by democratically integrating New Venice with the surrounding native cultures. He makes up half of an odd couple with Gabriel, a dissolute dandy musician who staggers through the book under the influence of a wide variety of drugs (a commonplace New Venetian pastime for combating the boredom of the short winter days). They both struggle in their own ways – high and low – against the authoritarianism creeping through the city, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the book is how convincingly Valtat depicts the creeping reach of the government, the dread of those subject to it, and the diverse and subtle ways that different subcultures combat it.

Aurorarama feels like a steampunk novel, but Valtat rarely allows the conventions of that genre to become stilted, partly as a result of his inventive wordplay drawn from English, his native French, the Nordic languages, and the Intuit, the latter from which he references wondrously bizarre arctic mythologies (the Kiggertarpok, or the Intuit “polar kangaroo,” plays a major role.) His Pynchon-lite sentences snake around their meaning, never afraid to take a digression into a fascinating detail or fun description before working its way back to the main point. The effect is relentlessly inventive, as when he writes: “Snow redesigned the streets with hints of another architecture, even more magnificent, more fanciful than it already was, all spires and pinnacles on pale palaces of pearl and opal. All that new Venice should have been reappeared through its partial disappearance. It was as if the city were dreaming about itself and crystallizing both that dream and the ethereal unreality of it.”

Despite all of its strengths, the book’s tone oscillates wildly as the action leaves New Venice to wander around the arctic wastes. For instance, a well-scripted horror scene featuring a group of undead explorers dubbed the “Phantom Patrol” awkwardly gives way to a utopian society living in a giant emerald embedded in the arctic permafrost. These tone changes take their toll on the main story, although the refreshingly revolutionary ending picks up the pace again, despite what I thought were sub-plots that were tied up a little too neatly (it read like a pale imitation of one of Neil Stephenson’s apocalyptic endings (The Diamond Age being the best example)).

But don’t let these quibbles disparage a novel that’s a hell of a ride. Valtat’s a great storyteller, and his bizarre and wonderful world has continued to linger in my mind in the weeks since I’ve read it.

Cross Posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

First Lines of The Angel Esmeralda

"It was an hour's drive, much of it a climb through smoky rain. I kept my window open several inches, hoping to catch a fragrance, some savor of aromatic shrubs."

- Don Delillo, from "Creation," the first story in the The Angel Esmeralda

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In Honor of Yesterday's Quick Snowstorm

green leaves or fallen leaves
become one--
in the fallen snow


Monday, January 2, 2012

For the Winter

The blizzard seemed to be dying down, and it was now possible to enjoy the sight of the buildings and embankments and bridges smothered in the diamond-dusted whiteness. There's always something soothing in the snow, thought Gabriel, a promise of happiness and absolution, of a new start on a clean sheet. Snow redesigned the streets with hints of another architecture, even more magnificent, more fanciful than it already was, all spires and pinnacles on pale palaces of pearl and opal. All that new Venice should have been reappeared through its partial disappearance. It was as if the city were dreaming about itself and crystallizing both that dream and the ethereal unreality of it. He wallowed in the impression, badly needing it right now, knowing it would not last...
- Jean-Christophe Valtat, p. 201 of Aurorarama

Moscow in Timelapse

Москва'2011(Moscow/Russia) from zweizwei |motion timelapse| on Vimeo.

I love old Russian architecture. Would love to see St. Basil's Cathedral in person some day.