Lanzarote

“Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.”
― Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Striding Figure (RomeI), Thomas Houseago, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

Somehow, I don’t know how, I was introduced to the French writer Michel Houellebecq. He was described as controversial, racist, and pornographic – in addition to being one of the most renowned modern French novelists. So, of course, I had to read him.

I collected a few ebooks and decided to start with something short. I chose a novela (84 odd, odd pages) called Lanzarote. The first person narrator is a man without purpose or hope… it starts out:

MID-WAY THROUGH THE afternoon on 14 December 1999, I realised that my New Year was probably going to be a disaster – as usual. I turned right on to the Avenue Felix-Fauré and walked into the first travel agency I found. The assistant was busy with a customer. She was a brunette wearing some sort of ethnic top; she had had her left nostril pierced; her hair had been hennaed. Feigning a casual air, I began picking up brochures from the displays.

Pretty much by accident he ends up going for holiday to an island called Lanzarote. At first, I thought Houellebecq made the place up – but I realized (and did some research) to discover it is the northernmost of the Canary Islands – in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Lanzarote is pretty much a volcanic wasteland – with a couple of passable beaches. According to the novel, it never rains there.

Somehow, the narrator manages to meet another man, a cop from Belgium, who is even more alienated and hopeless than he is. He also runs into a couple of German women of indeterminate sexuality. And yes, there are some pornographic passages (not too many, luckily).

The narrator pretty much goes with the flow – trying to get through the days as easily as possible while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket all around him. He’s not a bad person, but not really a good one either… though I guess he does his best.

So, did I like it? Yes, I did… though I’m not sure why. Will I read more Houellebecq? Yes, I will. I found a list of recommended novels in order of quality (Titles of the English translations):

7.Whatever

6.H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (a short essay – easily found online)

5.Platform

4.Submission

3.The Map and the Territory

2.The Possibility of an Island

1.The Elementary Particles

Might as well start at the best…. I now have a copy of The Elementary Particles on my Kindle. I think I’ll go to bed and read a little. Tomorrow comes soon enough.

The Pendulum Ran Its Course

“Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called ‘the simple pendulum’.”
― Jean Bernard Léon Foucault

Ice Sculpture

Let me look back… it was October 1 of last year when my Difficult Reads Book Club began plowing through Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. One of the reasons we chose that book was because it was a bit shorter (a mere 642 pages) than the other’s we have tackled (Gravity’s Rainbow – 770 pages, The Brothers Karamazov – only 586) and we planned to be finished well before Christmas. There were some delays… COVID related, death in the family, which delayed the schedule and we didn’t get to the end until the New Year.

It was not an overly popular book and a good number (most) of my fellow readers dropped off before we reached the conclusion. I stuck it out, however… and am glad I did.

The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a thinking-man’s Da Vinci Code – but it turned out to be more of a satire on the genre than a homage. Humberto Eco was asked about the popular book:

INTERVIEWER: Have you read The Da Vinci Code?

ECO: Yes, I am guilty of that too.

INTERVIEWER: That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.

ECO: The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

I like the idea that Dan Brown is a character from the book. It fits (except that Foucault’s Pendulum was written first).

So the book kept surprising me. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot of the center sections – they were a long, long list of various obscure (and not-so-obscure) semi-supernatural groups from history and explanations of the fictional connections between them. I understood the point right at the beginning, but there were hundreds of dense pages to make sure that point was driven home.

All through all of this, I could not imagine how it would all end. And it ended in a way I could never have imagined. There was a climactic scene of insanity and bizarre violence that answered no questions at all. It was fun. Then there was a final section of quiet nostalgic contemplation and an slight sense of almost closure – with plenty of mystery remaining.

It was a thought provoking book – I’m not sure if it was worth the effort – but I haven’t read anything remotely like it before (and doubt I ever will again).

So now we’re taking a break – I’m catching up with some of my other reading – and then we’ll decide on our next project. We are thinking about a selection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels (The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) and one other) – which sounds good to me. I’ve read Left Hand when I was a kid but remember little about it.

So many books, so little time.

More Things I learned this week, December 28, 2021

Outside the Mojo Lounge, New Orleans, Louisiana

How to know what you really want

From career choices to new purchases, use René Girard’s mimetic theory to resist the herd and forge your own path in life


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

Burdened by Books

With the quickening cascade of political, social, and natural crises in our country, the faith in progress—the belief that good will and steady work leads to a better world—is a difficult faith to maintain. There have been times when the arc of history seemed to bend toward justice. But lately it’s snapped back the other way. It’s as if we’ve heaved a great boulder toward the mountain top, and we’re now watching it, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, as it careens back to the ground below. It feels that there is something absurd, in fact literally Sisyphean, to our predicament.  


Strains—not species—of gut microbes hold key to health and disease

Every day, the billions of bacteria that inhabit your digestive system change; the food you eat, medications you take, and germs you’re exposed to make some bacteria flourish more than others. Scientists know that this ever-shifting balance of gut microbes is linked to your health and disease, but have struggled to pin down what makes one microbial balance better than another.


Running of the bulls, New Orleans, Louisiana

It Turns Out That Everything We Know About The Runner’s High Could Be Wrong

Many people have experienced reductions in stress, pain, and anxiety, and sometimes even euphoria after exercise. What’s behind this so-called ‘runner’s high’? New research on the neuroscience of exercise may surprise you.


Smoke, steam, and sulfur dioxide coming out of the volcano, Masaya, Nicaragua.

Why Does This Indonesian Volcano Burn Bright Blue?

Olivier Grunewald’s dramatic photos showcase blue flames—not blue lava—that result from burning sulfur


The Race to Find ‘Green’ Helium

Helium is a critical—and finite—resource. The future of our most indispensable technologies depends on a new supply.


The Problem with “Distemper”

Perhaps it is the word distemper that causes the most confusion. Few are aware that this is a generic term encompassing several different coatings. There really is only one type that is of relevance to historical buildings – or any building for that matter.

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.

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

What I learned this week, March 26, 2021

Running of the bulls, New Orleans, Louisiana

What’s the Minimum Dose of Training to Stay Fit?

A new review assesses what it takes to maintain endurance and strength when circumstances interfere with your usual training


Paths, Steinunn Thorarinsdottir, Arts District, Dallas, Texas

Why We Procrastinate

We think of our future selves as strangers.


Dallas Skyline at Night

Reasons People Are Moving From Los Angeles to Dallas

More Important Than Escaping Higher Taxes


Future Generations, by William Zorach, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

The Ultimate Guide to Bizarre Lies Your Mom Told You

Turns out mothers all over the world are telling a lot of the same outrageous fibs.


Monumental Head of Jean d’Aire (from The Burghers of Calais), Auguste Rodin, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

How Our Brains Work: A Reading List for Non-Scientists

Your brain is more complex than you probably realize. Let neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett expand your mind.


Dallas Arboretum

The fence is uncomfortable, but it affords the best view

To be human … means constantly to be in the grip of opposing emotions, to have daily to reconcile apparently conflicting tensions.
– Stephen Fry, Bafta Lecture, 2010


A Kansas Bookshop’s Fight with Amazon Is About More Than the Price of Books

The owner of the Raven bookstore, in Lawrence, wants to tell you about all the ways that the e-commerce giant is hurting American downtowns.

What I learned this week, March 12, 2021

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

7 Fiction Books That Change The Way You Think


TV

Why Channel 37 Doesn’t Exist (And What It Has to Do With Aliens)


23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert

I took the test. I’m not. Not even close.


Graffiti in Deep Ellum. This warrior is nothing if not well-muscled… plus he is carrying off his prize of war.

Resistance training: here’s why it’s so effective for weight loss

Weight lifting, also known as resistance training, has been practised for centuries as a way of building muscular strength. Research shows that resistance training, whether done via body weight, resistance bands or machines, dumbbells or free weights, not only helps us build strength, but also improves muscle size and can help counteract age-related muscle loss.

More recently it’s become popular among those looking to lose weight. While exercises such as running and cycling are indeed effective for reducing body fat, these activities can simultaneously decrease muscle size, leading to weaker muscles and greater perceived weight loss, as muscle is more dense than fat. But unlike endurance exercises, evidence shows resistance training not only has beneficial effects on reducing body fat, it also increases muscle size and strength.


Mural
Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

What Is Space?

It’s not what you think.


Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas

Phone call anxiety: why so many of us have it, and how to get over it

I hate talking on the phone… always have. I thought I was the only one.


Sailboats on White Rock Lake, Dallas, TX

Goblin Death Cult Practices Dark Arts on Shores of White Rock Lake

Short Story Of the Day – Empty Bottles (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
― Oscar Wilde

The end of a game of giant Jenga – Community Beer Company, Dallas, Texas


 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#64) More than half way there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Empty Bottles

 

Amber was drunk again when Darien came home from work. Darien was tired, he was always tired. Sick and tired. Darien worked late every night now. The sad truth is that he was afraid to come home. He was working later and later week by week on purpose.

While Darien was at the law office Amber would sleep until noon. She would watch television until three and then head down to the Rusty Duck – a dark bar full of unemployed plumbers and valet parking attendants getting a buzz on before work. He knew this is what Amber did all day because that’s what she told him.

Darien wasn’t sure when it had all gone bad but he knew it didn’t take very long. It felt like it had happened overnight.

Today there was a galvanized bucket with 3 inches of ice melt water in it on the floor in the living room and empty Budweiser bottles scattered around the couch.

“You have to give me a ride down to the Rusty Duck” Amber said “I left the Suburban there.”

“How did you get home?”

“Oh, Terry and some of the boys gave me a ride.”

“I see they stayed a while. I see you all had a nice little party while I was at work.”

“Now if you’re going to be working until after dark we’ll have the party without you. What do you expect me to do? Now don’t you go leaving me home all alone like you been doing.”

“Somebody has to make a buck around this place. You’re sure not bringing anything home.”

“Oh keep it up buddy and I’ll be bringing plenty home. Just you watch.”


The next time, Amber wasn’t even home when Darien came back from work. She had been there – the Suburban was parked crookedly in front of the house. The backyard was scattered with beer bottles, though they had remembered to take their bucket with them this time.

Darien didn’t know what to do. He grabbed a trash bag, turned the porch lights on, and walked around the back yard picking up bottles.

He could not figure out how it had come to this.

A memory came back, against his will. There was a time when they both were young. When he first met Amber he always had a book with him. He read constantly, voraciously, always had, all his life. He carried the current dog-eared paperback the way most people carried a wallet. He didn’t think twice about it and couldn’t imagine anyone else even noticing.

One evening, when Amber showed up, she had a book with her. She carried it awkwardly, like she didn’t know exactly what to do with the thing. Darien took a look at the thing – it was a cheap junk paperback thriller, with a lurid cover featuring a woman in a torn dress and a man firing a pistol from a speeding sports car.

“Oh, you don’t want to read this,” Darren said to Amber. “Tomorrow, I’ll bring you a real book.”

The next day he dug around in the old suitcase he always brought with him, his portable library. After some consideration, he dug out a slim volume – “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin, and brought it down to the pool. It was the only paperback he had that he figured she would be able to get through. He handed it to Amber down at the pool that evening. She looked at it with suspicion, but took it anyway.

Darien realized that he had never, not in his long, awkward, desperate courtship of Amber, or in their years of marriage, asked her if she had ever read it. He knew she still had the book, she kept the same copy in her makeup drawer, but he never felt like he could talk about it. He had never seen her read another book.

He had finished gathering the bottles, so he sat down in a wooden chair in the back corner of the yard, and began to weep. He knew Amber would come home, eventually, but what was he to do then?

He was startled by the sudden loud rhythmic croaking of a single frog, somewhere in the groundcover under the tree by the fence. He looked, but couldn’t figure out where the frog was at. The sound was constant and seemed to come from several directions at once.

Listening to the lonely sound, Darien realized that he would do nothing – that there was nothing he could do. He was being mistreated terribly, but he needed this. He needed this. He had fallen that evening years ago when Amber had driven up on her little motorcycle and the cavern had become deeper and the walls steeper every day since then.

He abandoned the call of the solitary frog and went back into the house. He dialed his office and left a message that he would not be in to work the next day. He unlocked the front door and then stretched out on the sofa, trying to get a little restless sleep, waiting there for Amber to come home.