Whose book are you?

From The Book Quiz:

You’re Prufrock and Other Observations!
by T.S. Eliot
Though you are very short and often overshadowed, your voice is poetic
and lyrical. Dark and brooding, you see the world as a hopeless effort of people trying
to impress other people. Though you make reference to almost everything, you’ve really
heard enough about Michelangelo. You measure out your life with coffee spoons.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Little grey cells.

I read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express today.

Which made me think about was how implausibility is a shifting concept. If you’re being flippant, it’s pretty easy to read an Agatha Christie mystery today and wonder how these could be renowned as great mystery stories. With ridiculous sounding clues and bizarre assumptions. But we are often reminded by still-rapt critics that we need to remember classic works as “in their time”, when we later look down on fundamental authors/artists/directors in a genre as making content that is pat or boring and predictable. Because it is so easy to forget that much of what was once extraordinary becomes ordinary eventually.

The clues in an Agatha Christie novel aren’t necessarily ridiculous or obvious or implausible, they’re just out of step with where we are now. If you live in a world of affordable international flights and global pop culture and fashion, it might, for instance, seem bizarre to suggest that you wouldn’t recognize someone you hadn’t seen in only a couple of years. But in a time of voyages by sea, a stricter divide between American and European fashions, and more pronounced differences between castes and cultures, it’s much easier to imagine that a person you had known as a girl who since grown into a cultured lady while abroad, might be unrecognizable. Or that using the phrase “long distance phone call” would be unusual. Or that you could derive clues based on the particular duties and stations of servants and aides and governesses.

In the case of Murder on the Orient Express, there are a few plot points which are timelessly implausible, but I think they are also part of their time, just in a different way — in that the genre itself is embedded in when it was written, and the genre was escapist. Not the reality tv stories the modern world expects (where we want every detail to be plausibly “that could happen here” chilling), but slightly fantastical. With the world Poirot inhabits being a recognizable but just a bit more elegant and over-the-top version of our own. Princesses and Counts and embroidered kimonos and a Belgian inspector with a waxed moustache.

In a different direction — I’ve heard people complain about how old-fashioned mystery novels don’t sufficiently allow for audience participation. How Sherlock Holmes stories have an end of book reveal that you as the reader could not possibly have figured out. And now I know that is true of Agatha Christie as well. There were clues which, even if you were intimately familiar with the time and place, you either weren’t told about, or not told enough about. The particular location of a smudge or a thing-out-of-place, the direction someone was walking or the colour of their hair, the shape of their pipe.

This sort of thing used to drive me nuts. I like to solve puzzles, and I felt shortchanged when a book would be solving a puzzle using clues that were kept hidden from me. Like doing a crossword with someone who fails to mention a word in the clue is capitalized, or that there is an abbreviation in brackets after it.

“The body–the cage–is everything of the most respectable–but through the bars, the wild animal looks out.”

But not anymore. Apparently, I’m over it.

Because reading a mystery book, this kind at least, is to me not about solving it. Solving it first, or even catching the subtle but critical clue. That’s a little like solving a math problem over someone’s shoulder. It’s all big talk from the cheap seats. But it is a different part of your brain that can follow-along than can do. If the worker of the equation were to suddenly walk away and ask you to continue solving it, you may suddenly find yourself at a loss. You might be able to pick it up and keep going, but you might also be surprised to find that you had actually been working it out a little bit behind the person holding the pen. Like singing along to a song, thinking you know the lyrics, when it cuts out and you realize abruptly that you don’t.  Likewise with a mystery novel. It might all seem perfectly obvious when you read along as the inspector begins to draw the pieces together. But put the book down and try to work out the exact solution by sorting through the clues you’ve been given, and that’s something entirely different.

I know I’m good with puzzles, and deductive and inductive reasoning. I also know that there are many many people much better at it than I am. And I enjoy watching them work. I don’t particularly want to assist. I enjoy watching Poirot sort through the problem. Like watching any expert work. Watching as his assistants make the assertions and take the steps and ask the questions that I would want to make, ask and take. And then watching him slow us all down and point out all the assumptions that we haven’t even noticed we’re making. It’s relaxing. Someone working through a problem with absolute, unwavering methodicalness. The elegance of the approach, not subject to the skips and jumps that a more biased mind inflicts on the problem. It’s beautiful.

Not to mention that parts of the book are written so beautifully. In what I had patronizingly thought of as pulpy fiction (if classic pulpy fiction), I kept finding description and dialogue that I found so enjoyable that I was grabbing lindor wrappers and bits of envelopes to mark pages. And while the historical parallels with the Lindbergh kidnapping, and a couple of very poorly chosen YouTube clips of the films, have coloured my enjoyment of Murder as pure fiction, I still give it two-thumbs up as an under-a-blanket-cup-of-tea way to pass an in-between holiday day.

Tout de même. I can hardly believe it. It is not dans son caractére, and when you have said that, you have said everything.”

Every man should have a copy of this book.

“White linen looks and feels cool, and it conjures 1940s films of elegant spies in Istanbul, of Panama hats and cigars.  You think, hey, if this loose white linen shirt looks cool, then the addition of loose white linen trousers will look doubly cool, right?  I can look dressy and relaxed at the same time, I will look… Mediterranean.  Well, the men who do this successfully are, in fact, Mediterranean.  If you are Mediterranean, or you own a restaurant, or if you have just won the Euro Cup, or you just don’t shave very much, you may look convincingly macho in this getup.  But there is a downside to the all-white ensemble.  For onething, the overall looseness is asexual.  Many linen trousers have drawstring waists.  Combine this with the flowing shirt, and what you have is jammies.  Make it all white, and you have a particularly virginal set of jammies.  You are going to look neither Mediterranean nor macho:  what you are going to look is sleepy.”

~ Russell Smith, Men’s Style (Casual chapter).

Big city Canadian drivers celebrating diversity.

“…un aspect positif [of being a pedestrian in Montreal]: l’agressivité des conducteurs étant prévisible, le piéton sait toujours quelle attitude adopter dans la rue. Vancouver, Calgary et Toronto offrent un dangeruex mélange de courtoisie britannique à l’ancienne, d’agressivité de style nouveau riche et de confusion néo-canadienne. Impossible de prévoir quelle voiture s’immobilisera complètement quand vous sortirez de la courbe, laquelle vous ignorera, laquelle vous écrasera comme un insecte.”

~ from Sacré Blues

Too much mortality for a 4:30 post?

Raised vaguely Catholic, and exposed to all the “biggie” religions, I am now definitely a believer in non-belief.

I think this is it. I think you get this life, however long it lasts, and then it is over. Breathe in, breathe out, until you don’t anymore, because you’re wormfood. Which is good, because then the worms feed the birds and the birds feed other larger, more talon-y birds, and those birds get eaten by pumas and hippos and…

Yes, yes, too many nature documentaries recently (more on that at some point).

But being a devout non-believer doesn’t mean that I lack space for the magical and mysterious and the Bigger Than Us. Quite the opposite. I am chock full of wide-eyed wonder. It just means that instead of being awed and distracted by the Sky Bully, I am floored by the stars, and the volcanoes, and the cicadas that live for 24 crazy hours after 13 years underground.

I don’t put stock in the idea that any part of us persists after we’re gone. It would be nice, of course, to go to an ethereal cottage in the sky with my love and spend a comfy eternity curled up, sipping hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, and shooting the breeze. But I don’t believe that is what happens. And for all the protests to the contrary, I believe that believing in an afterlife gives us tacit permission to doze through the time we have here — because we get a cloud and harp do-over when we’re gone.

So I appreciate people who can articulate what it means and how it feels when we come to an end, without cushioning it with a “better place” chaser. Such as the concise, beautiful and poignant sentence I recently read, which prompted this whole spiel (yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have finally arrived at The Point):

“The lights went out in his eyes for absolutely the very last time ever.”

~from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (snagged from Neil Gaiman’s “Don’t Panic” biography on Douglas Adams)

Judging a book by its couverture.

Well now.

When you’re buying a book titled “Sacre Blues”, attention to detail is very important. It is important, for instance, to note whether the copy you’re buying is called: “Sacre Blues” or “Sacré blues”. It is important not to be distracted by little details like “how pretty the book is”, and instead to focus on bigger picture concerns like “whether it’s written in a language in which you are fluent”.

When you’re buying a book with an ambiguously franglais wordplay title, about “an unsentimental journey through Québec”, by a bilingual author who lives in Montreal, it should not surprise you when you sit down with a latte, and notice that the subtitle of /your/ book is “un portrait iconoclaste du Québec”.

And it should not surprise you that the first lines on the back cover read “Sacré blues propose un voyage irrévérencieux au <<pays de la poutine>>…”. So by the time you are reading “Chapitre Premier”, you really should have noticed the small font under the title which reads “traduit par Hélène Rioux”.

Because if you buy “Sacré blues” through amazon.ca, the accent egu* in the written description is going to be your only real clue that you are buying the french translation of the english book /about/ french culture.

Smrt. Or rather, fté.

And I really did only buy this version because I could not resist the bright blue and black cover with a sheep wearing a crown. I know. I’m a sucker for layout.

Come on! The sheep is wearing a crown! He thinks he’s people.

In my defence, the cover of the english version is hella lame. I mean, look at this:

I don’t especially want to carry around a book that reminds me of Grade 11 religion class, thank you kindly.

So, what have we learned here? I can think of two important lessons: 1) apparently I have francophone taste in cover design; and 2) apparently, my french is sufficient to read, understand and enjoy the first 4 pages of a french novel.

But can it hold up for 440 pages? Je pense que non, but it may be an excellent demon-facing challenge for myself.

Alright sheepie, it’s on.

*not a moron disclaimer: “egu” is intentionally spelled incorrectly for my amusement (based on a historical french class moment). Duh.