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.

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.

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.

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.

Short Story Of the Day, The Red Bow by George Saunders

Don’t like that man, Uncle Matt said as we left the Rectory. Never have and never will.

And I knew that. They had gone to high school together and there had been something about a girl, some last-minute prom-date type of situation that had not gone in Uncle Matt’s favor, and I think some shoving on a ball field, some name-calling, but all of this was years ago, during like say the Kennedy administration.

—-George Saunders, The Red Bow

Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas
Cathey MIller, Cathedonia
(click to enlarge)

As I’ve said before, I’m watching Youtube videos that contain fiction writing tips and such while I ride my spin bike for exercise. Some of my favorite clips are interviews with the writer, George Saunders.

I have written about and linked to George Saunders short stories several times already:

Sticks

Escape From Spiderhead

A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room

Sea Oak

Today’s story is particularly dark, awful to contemplate, and appropriate to the disaster coursing around the world today. How do you respond to a tragedy? Do you respond with a sense of honoring the dead or with preventing it from happening again? Or both? How do you define mercy in uncertain times? Where do you stop? When does the cure become worse than the disease? How do you get through the day when you know it is going to get worse before it gets better? How sure are you that it will get better?

Read it here:

The Red Bow, by George Saunders

From Esquire

Short Story of the Day, Regret, by Kate Chopin

Mamzelle Aurlie certainly did not pretend or aspire to such subtle and far-reaching knowledge on the subject as Aunt Ruby possessed, who had “raised five an’ buried six” in her day. She was glad enough to learn a few little mother-tricks to serve the moment’s need.

—– Kate Chopin, Regret

Kids love the reflecting pool. The water is less than a quarter inch deep.

I, like a lot of people, read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in college. I liked it – and it left a lasting impression – though I obviously wasn’t paying much attention because I thought it took place in Europe – France to be exact. It wasn’t until decades and decades later I realized it was set in New Orleans and Belle Isle – places I have become very familiar with. I guess I wasn’t that far off – it’s sort of France.

At an rate, here’s today’s story – a tale of a very different place and an even more different time than we live in now. But the people are the same, after all.

 

Regret, by Kate Chopin

from American Literature – Short Stories and Classic Literature

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

Short Story (novella) of the day, The Situation by Jeff VanderMeer

My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic,with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage,animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Some-times, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt.

—-Jeff VanderMeer, The Situation

Art Deco mural from Fair Park in Dallas

 

The Situation, by Jeff VanderMeer

from Wired Magazine

About a year ago I started going to book club meetings at The Wild Detectives – a bookstore in Bishop Arts that features beer and coffee… a great place. Even though I don’t have much in common with the other readers and it’s really tough to get across town after work, I like to go. Actually, now that I think about it, the fact I don’t have much in common with the other readers is the best thing about going.

The book we will discuss the first Monday in February is The Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. I’m cranking through the book and haven’t made up my mind yet. It’s very imaginative and well written but exceedingly weird. I like weird – but only if, at the end, there’s a point… some emotional connection. I’m not a big fan of weird for weird’s sake. I have a feeling that I will be a Jeff VanderMeer fan at the end.

I think that’s a good thing. It’s always good to find a new author isn’t it? Even though I have a ways to go on my Zola reading project and enough other books to… well, to fill up my rapidly declining lineup of years left.

Looking at other Jeff VanderMeer works there’s the Southern Reach Trilogy (I’ve seen the interesting movie Annihilation which was adapted from the first book in the trilogy) and I think those books will get added. Also there is the Borne novel which is set in the same insane world as The Dead Astronauts. That’s four more books to read. So little time, so many books.

As I was looking around for info (The Dead Astronauts is difficult enough I’m not worried about spoilers) on The Dead Astronauts and the Borne world I discovered an online short novella called The Situation. It is billed as a proto-Borne story – set in a preliminary version of that universe (are we reading about the origin of the giant bear named Mord?). So I sat down and read it.

And liked it. It is a sort-of comedy about the difficulty of surviving sane inside an evil bureaucracy. Quite a harrowing story. And well-worth the time and effort.

Shit. That means I’ll eventually have to read all those books. So many books, so little time.

The Ladies Paradise

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise

Cover of Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola

I am now a good chunk into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • 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)
  • 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)

The next one up was The Ladies Paradise.

The overall story is a very thin romance between a poor, country girl that comes to Paris and finds work in a new, rapidly expanding department store and the owner of the store. He is Octave Mouret, the relentless womanizer of the book before this one – Pot-Bouille. His desire to possess women has now metastasized into the need to dominate them commercially by creating a retail establishment that they cannot resist – literally a ladies’ paradise.

But the real protagonist of the story is the store itself – the eponymous Ladies Paradise. Large swaths of text are dedicated to detailed dreamy descriptions of the store, its wares, and the elaborate displays set up to show off the goods and lure in the women of Paris and, most importantly, to separate them from their money.

As the book progresses the store grows and grows, taking over building after building, until it dominates the area and all retail commerce. There is a heart-tearing description of the woeful ends of the various small shopkeepers of Paris – trying to scrape out a living selling cloth, shoes, or umbrellas – until they are inevitably ground under the heels of the behemoth growing through the streets – their owners are driven into bankruptcy, poverty, and madness.

The book was written a couple of centuries ago – but it is a story that is still going on today. We have all seen small businessmen destroyed by large corporate chains that offer lower prices, bigger selections, and spectacular shopping experiences. It is a story that could take place in the last couple of decades.

Except today, even those huge conglomerates are being driven out of business by a technology that Zola couldn’t even imagine – online shopping. Though, now that I think about it, The Ladies Paradise puts together a company of horse-drawn delivery vans, with advertisements plastered on the side, that resembles today’s fleet of Amazon-Prime vehicles.

The novel’s fictional department store was modeled after a real place – Le Bon Marché in Paris. The store is still open.

This was an enjoyable tome in the series, though the long, detailed descriptions of ranks upon ranks of goods placed on sale went on too long for my taste – but probably necessary to drive home the point of the plot. It was simultaneously a record of the past, an reverse echo of the present, and a warning of the future.