Desperate Characters

“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one.”
― Paula Fox

Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market Waco, Texas

Ok, so I’m off working on my Reading Plan. On the fiction, novel side the first one up was Desperate Characters by Paula Fox.

It sometimes takes me as much as a month to dig through a big, tough novel. There are all the Zolas – plus with my Difficult Reading Book club there has been Gravity’s Rainbow, 1Q84, Brothers Karamazov… and others – all long, difficult (but worthwhile) slogs.

I read Desperate Characters in two days. Reading the book blind, I didn’t realize it was written in 1970 – assuming it was newer than that. It is set in upper-crust New York (the protagonist is a literary translator – her husband a successful attorney) during the time when New York was being overtaken by crime, racism, and filth (like it might be again – that’s why it felt so contemporary).

Sophie, the translator, opens her terrace to feed a stray cat and the feline attacks and bites her. During the bulk of the story Sophie struggles with the thought she might have rabies.

The novel is set in a small, walled-in world – with walled-in characters. The title comes from Thoreau’s Walden quote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I have been coming across that quote a lot lately… which is unfortunately not surprising.

One thing I want to do while I go through this reading plan is to hand write into my planner passages that resonate with me for one reason or another. I have always used my Kindle to highlight passages, store them digitally, but sitting down with a fountain pen and my precious dwindling supply of Tomoe River paper… gives them more meaning and imprints them on my fading gray matter.

I wrote down two quotes, one long one short. I’ll type them up here:

Desperate Characters, page 54

In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts, once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end of some pleasure. She could not eat and drink the way she once had. Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible. She had only recently realized that one was old for a long time

Page 75

There, she found two messages; one, written in chalk said: Kiss me someone‘ and the other, scratched with a key or a knife, said: Fuck everyone except Linda.

My Reading Plan – Fiction (and dice)

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
― Oscar Wilde

(click to enlarge) Book With Wings, Anselm Kiefer, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

As I said the other day after I finished La Terre I wanted to evaluate my reading – set up a reading plan. I watched some YouTube videos on setting up a Reading Journal and on reading plans – and did some general web searches on the subject.

What I decided to do was to make some lists of books to read in several categories (I decided to stick, for now, to what’s on my Kindle – there are more books there than I could read in the few years still allocated to me) and then go from there. I chose six fiction novels that looked like the next six I wanted to read. I also started on lists for Self-Help (don’t judge) and for Writing categories. Next, I want to do lists of short story collections and general non-fiction. That should be a good start – I plan on having at least one current book from each category and I can pick and choose depending on my mood.

There is a reason I picked six fiction novels. I have been experimenting with dice... and I wanted to choose the order by roll of the die (six is better than eleven, the numbers from two die, because the odds of each number are the same and I didn’t want to mess around with ranking the books… maybe next time). So I went through my Kindle, listed out six that jumped out at me, and started to roll.

And, here we go:

1st book – Desperate Characters – Paula Fox – 152 pages

2nd book – Mobius Dick – Andrew Crummy – 320 pages

3rd book – Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin – 183 pages

4th book – The Debacle (Nineteenth Rogon-Macquart novel) – Emile Zola – 592 pages

5th book – Berg – Ann Quin 168 pages

6th book – Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World – Donald Antrim – 192 pages

You will notice a plethora of short, modern books on this list. I wanted a change from Zola… though The Debacle is on the list (almost done with the series).

And yesterday, I started in on Desperate Characters – reading a third of it in one day. It is a jump from the grand scope (in space and time) of Zola’s naturalistic social prose to the focused crystalline details of the more modern novel. It is so compressed, so focused on seemingly random details and thoughts of the characters. Very modern, very New York.

Fun.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, Warm Weather Icebergs by Bill Chance

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

—-Robert Frost

It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice – there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.

—-Frank Zappa

(click to enlarge) “The Icebergs” by Fredrick Church, Dallas Museum of Art

Warm Weather Icebergs

There was a big ice storm last week which brought the city to a halt. But this is the South and it immediately turned hot. Once the temperature rose above freezing and the sun poked its way out, the ice melted with incredible rapidity. In a couple of days it was warm and dry.

Today, though, Craig was driving down Town East Boulevard wearing shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt and noticed as he went by a big parking lot near the mall that boasted giant still unmelted mounds of ice, pushed into the corners by plows after the ice storm. No streets and few parking lots had been graded (the roads all have these reflective bumps that snowplows will shear off) but this lot contained a big commercial hardware-lumberyard thing, and maybe they intended to be sure and sell a lot of sand and materials to repair the many carports that tumbled under the weight of the ice.

It was odd on a warm, sunny, Texas day to see the huge, angular, filthy icebergs moored along the periphery of the tarmac. They were melting fast – a torrent of water coursed across the lot. Like a glacier leaving a terminal moraine as it retreats, clumps of flotsam and jetsam remained after the ice melted – gravel and trash embedded in the deep layers of sleet and scooped up from the lot.

La Terre

“And then there was pain and blood and tears, all those things that cause suffering and revolt, the killing of Françoise, the killing of Fouan, vice triumphing, and the stinking, bloodthirsty peasants, vermin who disgrace and exploit the earth. But can you really know? Just as the frost that burns the crops, the hail that chops them down, the thunderstorms which batter them are all perhaps necessary, maybe blood and tears are needed to keep the world going. And how important is human misery when weighed against the mighty mechanism of the stars and the sun? What does God care for us? We earn our bread only by dint of a cruel struggle, day in, day out. And only the earth is immortal, the Great Mother from whom we spring and to whom we return, love of whom can drive us to crime and through whom life is perpetually preserved for her own inscrutable ends, in which even our wretched degraded nature has its part to play.”
― Émile Zola, The Earth (La Terre)

Book Cover, Zola’s La Terre (The Earth)

It was September, 2018 when I started reading the twenty novel Rogon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola. Last night, I finished La Terre (The Earth), the eighteenth in the recommended reading order (the fifteenth published).

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

La Terre was a long (500 plus pages) book, but not too difficult – there were fewer characters and their relationships were a lot less complicated than in, say, Nana or Au Bonheur des Dames.

The connection to the rest of the Rougon-Macquart novels is Jean Macquart. He is the  brother of Gervaise from L’Assommoir and Nana’s uncle. Jean is a drifter, an army veteran, who gives up being a carpenter to work as a field laborer in a vast wheat-growing area known as La Beauce. He stays for a decade and becomes part of the territory, although the people there never view him as one of their own. It reminded me of Germinal where a Macquart (Etienne Lantier, Jean’s nephew) show up and in desperation finds work and tries, unsuccessfully to become part of the community.  

Most of the plot revolves around the family of the elderly farmer Fouan who is forced by age to divide his meager lands among his three children. There is a fourth, young daughter, Françoise, who becomes involved with Jean Macquart. The plot is obviously inspired by King Lear where jealousy, greed, and treachery among siblings leads to madness, disaster, and death.

Things do not end well.

And hanging over everyone in the book is the fear of vast quantities of cheap American Wheat starting to flow across the Atlantic and reduce the price of agricultural products so much the French farmers are facing doom. My family comes from wheat farmers in Kansas – to me that was an interesting fear and description of the vast Midwest plains of endless grain and mechanized agriculture.

The book is not as well known as some of Zola’s other work – but it is unquestionably a masterpiece. It took me too long to start and too long to get through, but it was very good, although depressing and not very kind to the idea of man’s ultimate goodness. There are no heroes in the book, not really even Jean himself – though he may be the only character that the reader won’t decry as evil.

So on to the next… only two to go. I do think I’ll take a break from Zola for a bit…. My Kindle is filling up, I need to sit down with pen and paper and work through a reading plan – organize my fiction and non-fiction… I’m be back to you with what I decide.

Wish me luck.

What I learned this week, August 12, 2022

The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Could learning algebra in my 60s make me smarter?

New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson struggled with maths at school, finding inspiration in literature instead. But aged 65, in the hope of unlocking a new part of his brain, he decided to put the limits of his intelligence to the test


Clarence Street Art Collective, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Stretching: 5 back and chest stretches that treat and prevent neck pain

For a while – I had a lot of neck pain riding my bike. These stretches help.


At each end of the main drag were large stages. This guy was drawing a band – though they had already finished.

How to start drawing

I have always dreamed of learning to draw. Is it too late?


Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway and Texas Instruments Boulevard, Dallas, Texas

Why Doing Good Makes It Easier to Be Bad

Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish essayist and playwright, had a gift, among other things, for counterintuitive aphorisms. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an 1891 article, he wrote, “Charity creates a multitude of sins.”


Paths (detail), by Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, Arts District, Dallas, Texas

The Simple Idea Behind Einstein’s Greatest Discoveries

Lurking behind Einstein’s theory of gravity and our modern understanding of particle physics is the deceptively simple idea of symmetry. But physicists are beginning to question whether focusing on symmetry is still as productive as it once was.


The best Tex-Mex feast ever photographed. From the gatefold of the ZZ Top, Tres Hombres album

Woke food lovers have lost their minds over ‘cultural appropriation’

Once upon a time, it was permissible to make light-hearted fun of cuisines that were unfamiliar or exotic to film audiences.

But in today’s unforgiving and witless world of Indigenous-Cuisine Purity, good-natured jokes are strictly verboten. Worse, just about any dish not from Western Europe that isn’t cooked by a native-born chef is either a fake version of the  cuisine or a wicked ripoff of it — or both.


Autumn grasses, Courthouse Square, McKinney, Texas

The Grasshopper Elite and Its Enemy

Unfortunately, those loud and troublesome pests, though few, control almost all the levers of political and state police power.


Bicycling at Dawn

“Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

My vintage Cannondale touring bike at Trammell Crow Park in the Trinity River Bottoms, Dallas, Texas

Candy had a flight to California to visit some friends and I took her to the airport early – at about 5:45 in the morning. Since I retired I have not driven more than a couple miles – except for taking folks to and from the airport – I have been using my bike for transportation. Since I was driving to Love Field to drop Candy off before dawn, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I loaded my bike and cycling stuff into the car and drove from Love Field down to Trammell Crow Park in the river bottoms (not very far at all) and waited for the sun to come up behind the crystal towers of downtown.

An HDR photo I tooke years ago of the Cow sculptures in Trammell Crow Park – (click to enlarge)

I have been to this odd park by the river many times over the decades. It’s surprisingly isolated – plus more than a little sketchy at night. At this time of the morning there was only one other car – a guy was out letting his black Labrador retriever run in the vast open space of the floodplain (you can see him and his dog in the photo with my bike above) – but nobody else.

There is a relatively new trail that runs from the park (there has been a trail from downtown to the park for years) all the way west to a new bridge over the river and then connects to the South Campion trail in Irving. This is park of the connecting piece that, when finished, will connect Dallas and Fort Worth with cycling trails.

I have ridden the Irving trails but was very interested in riding the new connector in the river bottoms. Once the sun was above the horizon, I clipped in, rode one lap around where the little park lake used to be (it has dried up completely during the current drought) and then branched out to the west. I was a little nervous about leaving the car unattended in the isolated park – it is an area where bad things could happen – but not too many hoodlums are up and about at six in the morning

It was a blast. The concrete of the trail is smooth and wide and the area is wide open. There is a vast space between the levees on each side – which is full of water during flood stage – but was very dry right now. To the south, about a mile away, giant construction machines roared away moving huge mounds of earth – in a project to build up the levees along the Trinity river.

I rode about six miles across the bridge into Irving and down the Campion trail a bit – then turned around and headed back. On my return trip, I started to see more and more cyclists coming the other way, and a couple that actually passed me (I am the world’s slowest cyclist, after all).

When I made it back to the park, I was surprised to see the parking lot – and a second, overflow lot – completely filled with cars. There were a lot of folks out on the trail – most with bikes but a few dog walkers. Plus there were two spirited games of cricket going on in the flat space of the river bottom.

I guess I didn’t have to worry about the car sitting out there by itself.

It was so much fun. As my health improves and fitness increases I want to go back and ride farther. And farther. And farther.

Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, Terror From the Sky by Bill Chance

“Certainly in the topsy turvy world of rock and roll, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is quite often useful.”

― Ian Faith, Spinal Tap

Toad Corners, Dallas Arboretum

Terror From the Sky

Without any warning the night sky opens up. A huge black rectangle, taking up fully a third of the heavens, swings upwards. The world shivers in terror. Quickly a giant human hand and arm plunges down out of the black sky. You and your friends scatter.

The hand gropes with hideous speed. No hiding place is free from its flashing, powerful probes. First one of your compatriots is grabbed from behind a rock and lifted into the air. Then your other friend is caught behind a tree and he too disappears skyward. You crouch shivering in the pond but the giant hand returns and inexorably traps you in a corner. You try to leap to safety but are trapped against the cold, smooth walls. The hand closes in on one ankle and you are pulled into space through the hole in the sky itself, jiggling, dangling, upside down, held by one thin leg with irresistible force.

What has caused this horror? Where are you going? What awful fate lies beyond the top of the very world. You seem to remember it happening before, but everything is so hazy now.

This morning Craig was rushing around the house looking for his keys and he noticed that the water in the toad’s terrarium was almost dried up. There was only a thin damp layer left in the little double blue plastic dish that they kept for them to swim in. He should have at least stopped to pour a little distilled into their pond, but he was late for work… as always.

“Sorry, guys, I’ve got to run. Get through the day and I’ll take care of you when I get home.”

All day Craig felt guilty for not giving up the few seconds it would have taken to give them some water. He knew there was enough dampness left for them to survive, but still, they depended on him taking care of them. So he resolved to clean out their world when he came home from work. They were always happy with a clean cage.

So that evening, Craig went through the drill. The hardest part was catching the three toads and putting them in the portable cage so he could wash the aquarium. They didn’t like getting caught so he had to chase them around and grab them, they were pretty fast, they could jump, and once he had them, they were very squirmy and hard to hold.

Eventually (well, actually pretty quickly, Craig was getting better at catching them faster than they were getting better at getting away) K’nex, Mortimer (pronounced More-Timer), and Runaway had been grabbed and hauled over to the little portable cage with the white gravel and the lid firmly locked down.

Craig’s son helped clean the thing out. While Craig scrubbed the water dish, the three rocks, the flowerpot, and the two plastic plants, his son filled the aquarium with water from the hose. He skimmed a couple of live crickets off the water and put them in the little cage so the three toads could have a quick snack while they waited. Then Craig poured the water out and rinsed the gravel to get rid of all the toad shit and cricket carcasses.

Out went the chlorinated hose-water; in went the little bowl with distilled water along with the furniture (rocks, flowerpot, etc.). Craig made completely sure the lid was locked down tight (it has suction cups) before he put the three guys back in (Craig never could figure out how that one got out that one time, let alone how he survived unseen in the kitchen for a week).

And now the three toads were happy as larks. They hopped around, looking for crickets, or floated lazily in their little dish-pond as relaxed as can be.

It all worked out in the end. The terror is over.

Until next week.

What I learned this week, August 6, 2022

Unicycle, Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge, Dallas, Texas

The Quiet Glory of Aging into Athleticism

I wasn’t ready to be an athlete, in any capacity, as a adolescent or young adult. I am now.


Sleep
Sleep

The seven types of rest: I spent a week trying them all. Could they help end my exhaustion?

When we feel fatigued most of us focus on sleep problems. But proper relaxation takes many forms. I spent a week exploring what really works


Braindead Brewing, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

How to Wake Up Smiling: 5 Daily Habits That Made Me a More Positive Person

I’m usually a pretty happy person, but about a year ago—perhaps due to a lack of social connections and laughter—I experienced a few dark months. During those months, I spent most of my waking hours (and probably nights as well) consumed with negative thoughts.


Woman writing in a Moleskine Notebook, Wichita, Kansas

Two Writing Tips That Instantly Improve Your Everyday Writing

Do you see yourself as a writer? If not, it’s time to change that perception. Because you are a writer. In fact, everyone is. And here are two writing tips that will make your writing more effective.


Movie Poster for First Spaceship on Venus (Silent Star) – I remember the excitement of seeing this poster, even though I was probably six years old at the time.

TVs Are Too Good Now
Why does Home Alone look better than the latest Marvel fare on the most advanced displays?

I am really burned out on the overuse of CGI – this explains one reason.


They have been talking about bringing this amazing grand old hotel back for decades. I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Hotel-Spirit

Bringing back a grand American institution could transform society. What’s stopping us?


Persuation, from Twenty Heads

2 words that can help check your assumptions about people

Asking “so what?” can bring out your hidden beliefs and ideas, says career strategist Gail Tolstoi-Miller.


A New Ink

“She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar.”
― Janet Fitch, White Oleander

I try to avoid buying stuff that isn’t necessary. I try to avoid impulse purchases. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

For a long time I’ve been looking for a certain color of fountain pen ink. Years ago, A friend gave me a sample once of Caran d’Ache Caribbean Sea. It was the color I was looking for, as close as I had seen. It’s the greenish turquoise color that a shallow, clear, tropical sea can get, from a certain angle. Here’s a photo that shows the color I was looking for:

Greenish Turquoise

Unfortunately, before I could buy a whole bottle, Caran d’Ache discontinued the ink. That was several years ago and since that time I have been looking for a replacement – and have tried a few. There are a lot of turquoise inks out there – but most tend toward the blue end of the spectrum. The closest so far were a couple of Diamine inks… Marine and Steel Blue.

The other day, I was surfing the net, looking at inks, when I discovered the Pilot had come out with three new colors of their Iroshizuku ink line. Iroshizuku inks are wonderful, and come in an amazing bottle – but are pretty damn pricey. But one of the three new inks was a greenish turquoise… that looked like exactly what I was looking for… and I couldn’t resist. A few clicks on the internet and a bottle of sui-gyoku iroshizuku ink was on the way to my house.

I like it. It’s the greenish turquoise I’ve been looking for. It still doesn’t quite have the luminosity of a tropical ocean… but I don’t think that’s possible in a dye mix that designed to be spread on paper. So I guess my quest for that-certain-color has been slaked for a little while.

I keep an ink journal with swatches and writing samples (done with a dip pen) of the inks I have in my inventory. Here’s a photo of the page with the sui-gyoku.

Iroshizuku sui-gyoku ink from my ink journal.

It Does Taste Better in a Pulp Fiction Cup

“Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?” — Mia, Pulp Fiction

My Morning Coffee

I woke up looking forward to my morning coffee even more than I usually do (If that is possible – does a heroin addict look forward to certain fixes more?) because I would drink it in my swag Pulp Fiction coffee cup.

Most mornings I make a double strength coffee in my Aeropress , dilute it with hot water, and put it in a vacuum container (either a thermos or, as today, in a Contigo insulated cup that fits in my bicycle water bottle holder). I like that because I can pour it into a real cup a bit at a time and control the drinking temperature.

So, the question is, did it taste better in the swag cup?

Sure did, I mean this is some serious gourmet shit.