The World is Full of Monsters

The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The World is Full of Monsters

Trinity River Bottoms, Dallas, Texas

The world is invaded by horrible monsters – monsters that take the form of stories. The world is destroyed and changed over a hundred years and the author, a writer, is taken over by a monstrous story-packet left on the stoop.

I found this bit of fiction as an audio book on Hoopla. Hoopla… if you don’t know about it – it’s a streaming service that is offered through local libraries. You really need to check it out if you have a card from a booklender that offers membership – there’s some good shit in there. And as far as I can tell, none of the stories it offers are invading the earth.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff VanderMeer, the author, of The World is Full of Monsters, for a while now – ever since reading The Dead Astronauts for the Wild Detectives Book Club. I find his mutating, doomed characters distasteful, but in a good way. Borne is greatness. So I saw this on Hoopla, and decided to give it a listen.

It was a tough, long day at work, and I needed a break, so I listened to the audiobook on my phone, sitting at my desk, office door closed, eyes mostly shut. It helped.

Then, I discovered that the story is published by Tor… and there is a copy online here:

This World Is Full of Monsters | Tor.com

Enjoy.

Foucault’s Pendulum

“I love the smell of book ink in the morning.”
― Umberto Eco

Half-Price Books Clearance Sale, Market Hall, Dallas, Texas

It’s that time again, my Difficult Reading Book Club has started to tackle another tome.

It started with Gravity’s Rainbow. I saw this sign, a couple of years ago, at The Wild Detectives bookstore in Bishop Arts. We met there (a bit of a trip for me) every Wednesday evening for several months as we slogged through the difficult, but fantastic, book together.

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

Then came COVID, and a long pause.

But, using Zoom, we started up again virtually, and read The Brother’s Karamazov and then Murakami’s 1Q84 together.

I’m not sure how I think about the whole Zoom meeting thing for book club. I miss the one-on-one, of course. But it is such a long trip to the book store, and there is something interesting about the dynamic of talking to those little heads in boxes. I think everybody being at home, in a place they are comfortable, makes the conversation interesting. Still….

And now we’re doing another. Last night we had our kickoff meeting (no reading yet) for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

I’m stoked. I have never read Eco before – though I bought a copy of The Island of the Day Before and prepared to read it a couple decades ago – never started. There are some familiar faces in the Zoom and some new ones. Some of the folks are particularly interested in Kabbalah – and are reading it for that reason. We discussed conspiracy theories in the opening meeting (as an icebreaker everyone told their favorite conspiracy theory -mine was that Any Kaufman faked his own death).

I mentioned that there is a real Foucault Pendulum in Downtown Dallas, in the lobby of the Hunt building near Klyde Warren Park. A field trip is in order.

We discussed challenging vocabulary and decided that each meeting each person is to bring a word they learned from that week’s assigned reading. We discussed reading translations vs. books written in English.

Now I’m stoked again. I need to go read.

1Q84

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

The moon rising over the Dallas skyline and the pond at Trammell Crow Park. From the October Full Moon Ride.

It started on May 5 and ended a week ago – I read all of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. The book is roughly a thousand pages long and I read it in conjunction with my Difficult Read Book Club. We used to meet every week at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. Since Covid put the kebash on all of that we have met on Zoom for the last two books, Brothers Karamazov and 1Q84.

It’s really a great way to read a long/difficult book. There is a weekly goal of a certain number of pages so the herculean task is split into manageable chunks. There is a group of like minded folk to bounce questions off of and keep you interested. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Was the book good?

Yes, it was very good – I enjoyed it immensely. I is for everyone?

No. It is a very odd book, with an unusual structure. It is amazingly politically incorrect. It makes no sense in a lot of places. No spoilers, but the ending definitely does not tie up all the loose ends.

Here’s a guy that really didn’t like it:

He is looking for a conventional narrative (evidence for this are all the books on the shelf behind him). 1Q84, like I said, is not a conventional narrative. It exists in its own world.

Here’s one of the many, many folks that liked the novel:

I like his take – and I like the drink he made.

Our Difficult Reads Book Club will have a party soon at the Wild Detectives to celebrate in person reading 1Q84 and Brothers Karamazov – which we read earlier. At the party we will find out what our next book will be – it will be a shorter work so we can finish before Christmas. I’m excited, can’t wait.

Kinokuniya

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Pomodoro
My Pomodoro timer, Moleskine, and Ivory Pilot Prera fountain pen.

We’re a couple weeks into the Difficult Reads Book Club devouring of Haurki Murakami’s long novvel 1Q84. Tonight, we had our Zoom meeting to discuss chapters 8 through 14.

One cool thing, for me, was when one of the two point-of-view protagonists, Tengo, went into a Tokyo bookstore, Kinokuniya. I liked that because there is a Kinokuniya bookstore in Plano, Texas, not very far from where I live, and it’s one of my favorite places.

I stumbled across the bookstore online and knew I wold love the place. It’s not so much the books… it’s the other stuff. The place is a cornucopia of pens, fountain pens, art supplies, notebooks, paper… all that sort of stuff.

I had a tough time finding it the first time I went up there. It’s actually a big room off of the food court of a big Asian grocery store at Highway 75 and Legacy Drive. It’s packed with cool stuff. I’ve bought a couple pens there, some ink, and, especially, a few packs of fountain pen friendly paper (Tomoe River ).

The place is crowded… chock-a-block with cool stuff. I could look for hours. So what I do is set goals for myself and start setting a little bit of money aside. When I reach my goal, I’ll drive down to Kinokuniya and treat myself to something with the cash I’ve accumulated.

This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

DRBC

“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Recycled Books Denton, Texas

In January through March of 2019 (that feels like a different age) I went every Wednesday after work clear across town to a bookstore called The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. I had stumbled into a reading group there that tackled long, difficult books called The Difficult Reading Book Club. We finished our book, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, then had a celebration. For various reasons I skipped the next book (a set of three tomes by Virginia Woolf – though I wasn’t afraid – who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf) and then COVID hit.

For a year we didn’t do any reading, but finally momentum built and for a couple months we did a weekly Zoom meeting read of The Brother’s Karamazov. I actually liked not having to make the long trip after work and a reading group is particularly suited for remote computerized interaction.

And today we had our kickoff meeting for our latest difficult (and long) challenge – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been avoiding spoilers for the novel, but did learn some useful facts from this meeting.

Murakami is known for including music in his works – and there is, of course, a Spotify Playlist associated with the book (actually a handful of them).

an interesting article:

A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, With Murakami Himself

I’m excited – another journey, a challenge, and an opportunity to learn something.

Time to read a bit before I go to bed.

Germinal

“This sounded the death knell of small family businesses, soon to be followed by the disappearance of the individual entrepreneur, gobbled up one by one by the increasingly hungry ogre of capitalism, and drowned by the rising tide of large companies.”
― Émile Zola, Germinal

“Working in a Coal Mine” – illustration from Emile Zola’s Germinal.

For three years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

For all of 2021 I’ve been reading Germinal – reading too slow – I haven’t been reading enough. Over the last few days, however, I took a few days of vacation with the family in Hot Springs Arkansas, and that gave me the time to finish the book.

Germinal is generally considered Zola’s masterpiece and is the most popular of all the volumes in Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It is the story of the terrible conditions in the coal mines of France during the Second Empire (set in the 1860s). It’s protagonist is Étienne Lantier, the son of Gervaise from L’Assommoir and the brother of Jacques Lantier from La Bête Humaine and Claude Lantier from L’Œuvre. Étienne suffers from the family malady of drunkenness and fits of violent madness, but balances that with a sharp mind and a truly caring spirit.

Suffering from a business slump the owners of the mines keep reducing the pay of the colliers in the pits until they can barely feed themselves. There is a strike, which does not go well for anybody.

The story is truly heartbreaking, both in the terrible conditions in the mine and associated villages – plus the inevitable doom as they all go on strike.

One overarching theme is the philosophical battle between capitalism and socialism (in several various flavors). Zola spills a lot of ink contrasting the struggles of the mine workers with the lavish lifestyle of the bourgeoisie living off their investments in the mines. It is well done and absolutely heartbreaking.

It is interesting to read a book about socialist and communist ideals written in 1885 – long before Stalin, Mao, or Castro. Despite the terrible horrors of the strike there is still a youthful optimism about the struggles that were to come.

Zola ends the novel on a note of hope:

Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.

One other point that I have learned reading the entire Zola cycle is the importance of a good, modern translation. When I started I thought I’d read the free, Project Gutenberg ebook editions. However, those are contemporary and highly bowdlerized translations. I actually read Germinal… maybe forty years ago, in one of those versions and barely remember it. This time I bought the Oxford’s World Classic edition, translated by Peter Collier – and it is an amazing, modern, memorable translation. I highly recommend it (though there are probably other modern translations as good).

I also see that there are several film editions of Germinal. A fairly recent French version is available to stream and I’ll see if I can set aside some time in the next few days to watch it.

Otherwise, it’s on to the next book, Nana. This is about the half-sister of Étienne Lantier and her decent through the underbelly of sexual exploitation in Paris. It’s another one that I read a long, long, time ago and am looking to revisiting a better translation.

It’ll be slow, though. My Difficult Reads Book Club is about to embark on Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – which will be a good bit of work.

So many book, so little time.

A good article on the book:

Rereading Zola’s Germinal

Brothers Karamazov

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Reading Dostoevsky in New Orleans

We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.

I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.

The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.

First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.

It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.

Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.

Plus, I learned a new word… nadryv, And wrote about it here.

La Bête humaine

“Don’t go looking at me like that because you’ll wear your eyes out.”
― Emile Zola, La Bête humaine

Three generations. The smoking diesel pulling the steam Big Boy, while the electric DART train zooms by overhead.

It’s been awhile… since September, 2018, to be exact. For two and a half years I have been working my way through the 20 novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. So far:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard) and the movie Gervaise
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

Looking at this list, I realize I read L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece) this summer and never wrote a blog entry about it. Sorry. It was good, not the best of the series, but an interesting take on the artistic life and the madness behind it. I’ll write it up in the next few days, once I think about it and take a look at the text again.

I have been neglecting Zola lately, mostly because I’ve been participating in a Zoom group that is reading Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov (which I have been enjoying immensely). We took a bit of a break over the holidays and I used the time to devour La Bête humaine.

I had read a paperback copy of La Bête humaine years and years ago – but I remembered very little about it other than it had trains and murders.

WOW. This is one hell of a book. One surprising thing about the 20 books in the Rougon-Marquart universe is how wildly diverse they are. They range from frilly romance to gritty poverty to hopeless alcoholism to rampant greed. And now, we have this.

La Bête humaine is a book of murder(s). By the end of the story pretty much every major character is a killer, a victim, or both. All these murders sans one stem from the same cause – jealous rage. The one other example is a chilling description of a compulsive killer, consumed by powerful, mysterious violent urges of madness, insanity, and desire. The wheels of justice don’t help much – they turn slowly, then grind to a stop. The only innocent character is eventually blamed and convicted.

It is a novel of the railroad. Specifically, the nineteenth century steam engines that ran between Paris and the coast at Le Havre. Zola’s prodigious powers of description are used to paint portraits of the stations, the line, and especially the powerful engine “La Lison” which becomes practically a living character imbued with almost sexual powers.

Finally, it is a novel of arresting and amazing set pieces. The entire chapter where a wagon containing two huge hunks of rock is pushed into the path of “La Lison” is one of the most sensational and electrifying chunks of text I have ever read. There are horrifying killings, terrifying betrayals, and moments of sexual tension surprising for a classic novel. The final scene, especially, is chilling and horrific, even though it ends before the inevitable apocalypse.

There are free public domain versions of the novel available (from Project Gutenberg and other places) but I am glad I bought the excellent Roger Pearson translation from Oxford World Classics. It is written in a modern style, which fits this story very well.

So this was an enjoyable, if horrific, read. And now, on to Germinal, arguably the best in the series. I’ve already bought a good translation and am ready to go. However, I will wait until the end of January, have to finish The Brothers Karamazov first.

So little time, so many books.

The Grand Inquisitor

“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

Reading Dostoevsky in the French Quarter, New Orleans

For the last month or so my Wild Detectives Difficult Reads Book Club (DRBC) has been digging through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of the year, with a weekly meeting at the book store – but was cancelled due to the quarantine. Finally, we started back up with Zoom meetings every Wednesday evening, instead of meeting in person. It actually works pretty well.

I made sure I could call into the Zoom meeting from my son’s apartment when I was on my New Orleans trip last week. He is working remotely and is something of a gamer – he had dedicated panel lights and an expensive headset with fancy microphone and the meeting worked really well from his place – I need to up my Zoom game from home now. In particular, everyone said my voice was very clear.

“You sound like a DJ, and you look like one too,” one woman said.

“Look like a DJ?” I replied, “Everyone has always said I have a face for radio.”

But before the meeting I had to get my weekly chunk of reading done (we are about a third of the way through). We had made it up to The Grand Inquisitor chapter (which sort of stands on its own) – the heart of the book and arguably is one of the most famous and influential works of literature ever written. It is also a dense and difficult read.

It was a beautiful day. I took my Kindle, walked down through the French Quarter and picked out a bench along the Mississippi to sit down and work my way through the (e-ink) pages.

The French Quarter is known for a lot of things – but it isn’t really known for a place to hang out and read Russian Literature (though a lot of literature has been written there). For me, however, it was perfect.

And I don’t care what you think… the bars are closed for Covid anyway.

Nadryv

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Conjoined, Roxy Paine

My “difficult book club” read Book 4 (7 chapters) of The Brothers Karamazov this week and are meeting to discuss the section on ZOOM tonight. I am really enjoying the book – reading a long/and or difficult book in a group is definitely the way to do it. Plus the weekly schedule (not too bad – a couple hours of reading at most) breaks the chore up into palatable pieces. Looking at 800 pages is really daunting, but looking at 70 pages a week is easy peasy.

The chapter headings for this week’s section feature the word “Strain” – as in  “Strain in the Drawing Room” or “Strain in the Cottage.” The word “Strain” occurs in the text a lot also. This word seemed odd in context and more than a little out of place.   We are reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of the book. Other translations use the word “Laceration” instead of “Strain.”

It didn’t take much research to discover that the original Russian word used by Dostoyevsky was the word NADYR (pronounced nud-RIF) – which shows up in various lists of Russian words that do not have an English equivalent.

Its surface meaning is “tear” or “rip” but it has a deeper significance as a strong emotional experience. Or something like that. Looking online – everyone in English is dancing around some meaning there – it obviously was very important to Dostoyevsky and critical to the meaning of this novel.

I found this little Youtube Video that seems to make the most sense.

So, at least in her interpretation Nadyr is the emotional state of intentionally inflicting pain on oneself – putatively for the purpose of being able to feel something. In the context of the events of the chapter, that makes perfect sense. Several characters make heartbreaking choices that extinguish the hope of happiness for themselves and others, for seemingly trivial reasons – pride, mostly… maybe tradition, maybe the idea of simply giving in to fate. It’s terrifying. Especially when you think about it – you realize how often people do this. The Russians are lucky I guess, they have a word.

The rest of us are still flailing around in the dark.

I read Dostoyevsky when I was young – I didn’t pay much attention and didn’t get much out of it. That was a mistake.