Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Walking: A Novella

Walking: A NovellaWalking: A Novella by Thomas Bernhard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When my daughter asked me what I would like for Christmas this past year, I gave her my annual list, including one of my favorite reads of last year, A Philosophy of Walking. Of course, she likes to extemporize, riffing off the list like a jazz-shopper (I'm the same way), so she ended up getting me Thomas Berhnhard's Walking: A Novella. I had not heard of Bernhard, nor read his work, though I feel like I should have, at some point, possibly in a German literature class I had as an undergraduate. Luckily, this was in translation, since my German is nowhere near as good as it was back in college. But, German or English, this was not at all what I expected.

That's not always a bad thing. I've had some reads that were surprisingly good, ones that I didn't expect anything from and was then stunned by their eloquence, strength of story,, or beautiful characterization. But, honestly, I really was looking for a book about walking and this was . . . not it.

I might be more forgiving if the existentialism here had not slipped into outright nihilism. As it is, though, this is a hopeless book, or a book that will make you feel hopeless. Intellectually stimulating? Mmmm, yeah - if you can get past the repetitive-fugue style. And that is, believe it or not, one of the book's strengths. Bernhard uses subtle tweaks on repeated words and phrases to poke and prod at philosophical propositions to the point of distraction. It's not like, for example, Thomas Ligotti's work, where such repetition is used in a much more restrained way to add a disconcerting element of strangeness to a work. No, this is repetition more, but not entirely, for the sake of repetition. This is pedantic repetition, the sort of rote learning that is meant to drive a concept into your head. And it does that quite well. My problem with it is, after exploring the act of thinking, questioning, walking, and sanity using these techniques, one is so spent that one is almost forced to agree with the characters that there really is no point to anything, not even this book. The work itself drives you to exhaustion (which is, believe it or not, another theme explored herein). So while I see Bernhard's philosophical sophistry (the scaffolding is intentionally left exposed) and admire it, on one hand, it will take some time to recover from the book itself, sort of like the time I broke my rib and that spot in my body was sore for years thereafter. It was cool to say that I had pneumonia that caused me to cough so hard that I broke a rib (and honestly wished I was dead for a day or two), but it still hurt for a long time. And, frankly, I don't know that this work was that cool, insightful, or novel. It's just sort of there, making one ask "what's the point"?

Which might be the point.

Take that thought and this (admittedly very long) quote and see what you think. If you're not intrigued by this segment, you're not going to be intrigued by the book. If it fascinates you, the rest of the book will fascinate you so long as you can avoid the repetition-fatigue I encountered. If it seems hopeless to you, well, it is. Note also, that this is one of the less convoluted sections of the book and is given below in exactly the way it is printed in the book. There are no paragraphs, no quotation marks, just a dizzying assault of italicized words and nested conversations within conversations like some insane literary Russian doll having a conversation between its various layers.

Oh, and by now you're asking what the book is about. Well, it's about talking. And walking. And thinking. And insanity. And suicide. You know, happy stuff.

Here, just take a taste of this:

. . . it is not possible to answer a question like the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? Because we have not asked the question Will Karrer go into Obenaus again? which could be answered simply by yes or no, in the actual case in point by answering no, and would thus cause ourselves no difficulty, but instead we are asking, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? it is automatically a question that cannot be answered, says Oehler. Apart from that, we do, however, answer this question when we call the question that we asked ourselves a so-called question and the answer that we give a so-called answer. While we are again acting within the framework of the concept of the so-called and are thus thinking, it seems to us quite possible to answer the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? But the question, What will Karrer miss if he does not go into Obenaus again? can also be applied to me. I can ask, What will I miss if I do not go into Obenaus again? or you can ask yourself, What will I miss if I do not go into Obenaus again? but at the same time it is most highly probable that one of these days I will indeed go into Obenaus again and you will probably go into Obenaus again to eat or drink something, says Oehler. I can say in my opinion Karrer will not go into Obenaus again, I can even say Kerrer will probably not go into Obenaus again, I can say with certainty or definitely that Karrer will not go into Obenaus again. But I cannot ask, What will Karrer miss by the fact that he will not go into Obenaus again? because I cannot answer the question. But let's simply make the attempt to ask ourselves, What does a person who has often been to Obenaus miss if he suddenly does not go into Obenaus any more (and indeed never again)? says Oehler. Suppose such a person simply never goes among the people who are sitting there, says Oehler. When we ask it in this way, we see that we cannot answer the question because in the meantime we have expanded it by an endless number of other questions. If, nevertheless, we do ask, says Oehler, and we start with the people who are sitting in Obenaus. We first ask, What is or who is sitting in Obenaus? so that we can then ask, Whom does someone who suddenly does not go into Obenaus again (ever again) miss? Then we at once ask ourselves, With which of the people sitting in Obenaus shall I begin? and so on. Look, says Oehler, we can ask any question we like, we cannot answer the question if we really want to answer it, to this extent there is not a single question in the whole conceptual world that can be answered.

. . . *

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever by Bill Gifford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Always intriguing, often fascinating, at times frustrating.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was 96 and enjoyed good health until her last year. My maternal grandfather lived 79 years and passed away rather suddenly. My mother, who has been an insulin-dependent diabetic since I was four years old and who had a heart attack and double bypass a few years ago, should, statistically speaking, have been dead a long time ago. Decades, really. But Mom presses on. I'm an optimist when it comes to my health, so I like to think that I'll live as long as my grandmother did. If that's the case, then I have not yet hit middle age . . . though, technically, I have.

The wildcard in all of this is my paternal side. My father was adopted, and I know next to nothing about my biological grandparents or my family medical history on that side of the chain. Dad is in his mid-70s and seems to be in pretty darned good health, overall.

This past week, I was speaking with my dad on the phone, making arrangements for a trip me, my wife and most of our kids will be taking out west. We'll spend a few days in California as part of the trip, visiting my parents. My dad said he wanted me to go with him to the Air Force base (he is a veteran, having served 26 years) and . . . figure out what needs to be done about funeral arrangements for him and my Mom, when that time should come.

Perfect timing for me to be reading this book, huh?

I think my interest in this subject has been with me for a long time. I had this notion when I was younger that I was going to die at 36 years old. Not sure why, but it's what I thought. 36 has come and gone, and I am still here, but I am also keenly aware of my own mortality. Also, I like to think of myself as "young at heart" - I keep telling my kids that my thoughts are still those of a 16 year old - but some signs of aging are becoming more and more obvious. I've had gray hair for a long time, something I inherited from Dad, whose hair started to go gray after an appendectomy when he was in his early 30's, then quickly went to white. I have to work triply hard to keep my gut down. My back mishap and surgery a couple of years ago added a painful exclamation point to the story of my life, emphasizing my age, though my recovery has been very good, startling even to me! So, yes, I'm getting older. But I don't really feel that old. Not in my mind, at least. And I don't even feel that old in body, just a touch slower and more hesitant, but that would have been the case even if I had my back mishap in my teens or twenties. Important safety tip: Be careful with that back!

I heard about this book, as has happened before, through an interview with the author on NPR's "Fresh Air". Since I was (and am still) approaching middle age, I thought I'd give it a read.

Spring Chicken covers the gamut of aging research and, as of it's release, is very up-to-date on the latest developments in the science of aging. What's amazing is how much we don't know. Scientists are still puzzling over what it is that drives aging. It was once thought that cells were pre-programmed to die, but it appears, more and more, that this is not the case. I'll avoid all the spoilers, but let's just say that your body is built to keep going and going and going . . . and that might be part of the problem. This was one of the more fascinating things about the book, that aging isn't necessarily inevitable. I know, crazy talk, right? That's what I thought at first, but Gifford and a supporting cast of scientists make some pretty compelling arguments. If you really want to understand the arguments, though, you're going to need some basic understanding of cellular mechanics, which I'm not going to go over here, but which you can read about elsewhere. Gifford does a decent job of outlining the basics, but I found myself tapping into the old brain for deeper understanding.

Maybe that's just because I'm getting old.

Another symptom of getting old is getting cranky. Maybe it's because you realize you don't have time to waste on frivolous stuff that you aren't intentionally seeking. I'm all about making down-time, time to just stare at a wall for a while. But when others make it for me, I'm not always the happiest camper. This is where my annoyance with Gifford comes into play. This was a great book, but time and time again, Gifford got in the way of his story. At times his self-effacing humor was cute, even funny. But a lot of the time, it was just plain unnecessary and took away from the power of the narrative. I'm not sure if this was all him or if his editor thought it would make the book more entertaining, but, either way, the sheer volume of silliness was, well, rather silly, and not in a good way.

But that should not spoil your view of the book. I strongly recommend it, if you're interested at all in the science of aging. Also, if you're tempted to take any potential shortcuts to extend your life (am I the only one to see the irony there?), give Spring Chicken a read first, so that you have at least a basic understanding of the potential pitfalls. A lot of previous "know how" about aging has turned out to be patently false, and you probably don't want to ignorantly shorten your life while ostensibly trying to lengthen it.

One other thing to keep in mind: Just because you can extend your life, doesn't mean you should. Consider your health. There are a few "shortcut" drugs that have proven to extend life . . . in exchange for diabetes and other potential killers. It's your call - I'm not going to tell you what to do. But do consider whether you'd rather live a quality life for a little shorter time or live with persistent bad health for a few years longer. Like I said, your call.

I'll carefully pursue some of the options Gifford outlines, but ultimately, the existentialist in me has to agree with this dead man:

You know I'm born to lose
And gambling's made for fools
But that's the way I like it, baby
I don't wanna live forever

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Update: I just found this interesting article on slowing aging. More progress in this field!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Experimental Film

Experimental FilmExperimental Film by Gemma Files
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've known Gemma File's work for a while now. In fact, we were "TOC Mates" in A Clockwork Phoenix #2. I believe that her outstanding story in that volume, "each thing i show you is a piece of my death" served as a springboard to Experimental Film. Both are dark tales dealing with cinema, a subject on which Files is, obviously, an expert.

Truth be told, this is the first book I have ever pre-ordered before the book was even finished. Yes, it took me a while to get around to reading it (go look at my TBR list to find out why - and, yes, I intend on reading all of those and reviewing the vast majority of them - not to mention other projects of my own I've been working on), so while I was an early adapter, the rest of the reading world passed me by. No problem. It was worth the wait!

Experimental film is about exactly what the title says. The narrator, Lois Cairns, a lapsed teacher of film at a local (sham) school and sometimes film-critic, discovers the work of one Mrs. Whitcomb, possibly Canada's first film-maker, who vanished from a train after making a series of films about . . . well, I'm not going to give it away so easily.

Nor does File's give it away easily. This is a multi-layered work, really a melange of literary techniques and styles, each used for a specific purpose; not for the conceit of the method itself, but as a means to an end. Yes, the book is, appropriately, "experimental," at least intermittently. But the use of what otherwise would be charlatan's tricks to cover up bad writing are actually carefully, purposefully crafted pieces that weave into the fabric of the story. The method, here, matters - much like it does in cinema itself.

But these methods are used sparingly. The book breathes with its own literary life, and, as usual, Gemma File's voice is beautiful and brilliant. Take, for instance, this passage:

You think that being blind is darkness, and sometime's that's true, yes. Mostly. Not always, though.

When I woke up back in St. Mike's, Mrs. Whitcomb's ghost voice in my ear and her bony hand in mine, the world around me had all gone hot and stark, consumed by the idea of brightness without any of its effects. Reduced to a vague tint of red, polluting an otherwise unbroken absence. And what I found was that this would wax and wane as time went on, with no apparent consideration for what time of day it was
supposed to be, outside my own head - that 'round midnight I often seemed to orbit a weird, unblinking light, pitiless as some supermax prison cell's single bulb, while at noon things became still and quiet, colourless, nothing but gloom on gloom.

Of course, you'll gather from these paragraphs that Experimental Film is a horror novel, and you'd be right. However, this work is so much more than that. File's ability to portray the frustrations of being the parent of an autistic child is truly amazing. And this is not just a side issue, it is dealt with front and center, as a vital part of the plot with all the love and frustration, all the impatience and longing that one would expect from the mother of an autistic son. Lois Cairns is no saint, but she is human. She is flawed and real. I believed in her. Watching Lois negotiate between the relationships she has with her son, her awkward mother, her loving husband, and another powerful, vengeful member of the cinemaliteratti (yes, I just made that word up - get over it) is a treat in-and-of itself, without the supernatural horror elements. This book is not really about ghosts, it's about relationships . . . which might happen to include some ghosts.

But if you're not predisposed to reading "Horror" books, don't worry. This work is more grey than black, more subtly creepy than startlingly scary. Think Twilight Zone, not The Exorcist. Dark? Yes. Weird? Definitely. Pee your pants scary? Nope. It is ethereal and fascinating, while being solidly grounded in the day-to-day struggle of just getting on and getting along.

Still, the work itself is a sort of cinematic piece, with all the grit and character that implies. It's not an action movie in full color. It is an old black and white. A slightly surreal piece, something not nearly as bizarre as The Brother's Quay, but maybe Ingmar Bergman strange, in places. One can almost see the scenes glowing unevenly and hear the "tick-tick-tick" of a projector in the back of one's mind while reading. And the climactic scenes are like a hot bulb burning through the black film, moving from utter darkness, spreading into irregular sepia splotches, to gold pinpoints that eat away the obfuscation, to reveal that which you had hoped would remain hidden, in blinding brilliance.

Brilliant. Yes, that's the word for it. Brilliant!

Strongly, strongly recommended. Read it alone at night by the light of a single projector bulb. I dare you.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Baby Bjornstrand

Baby BjornstrandBaby Bjornstrand by Renée French
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want to make your goth girlfriend swoon? Give her this for her birthday. Equal parts dark, ethereal, surreal, cute, optimistic, and existential - the most important descriptor for this work is "evocative," used in it's most banal definition of "that which evokes". There are very few words in Baby Bjornstrand, and the words that do appear are only signposts to a road of hidden dialogue and churning thoughts that are invisible to the reader, but absolutely there; not in the same way as Matthew Forsythe's (outstanding) Ojingogo, as French's work lacks the same innocence of Forsythe's tale, but in a somewhat sinister, yet undeniably adorable manner. The art is simple, but has a graininess that lends it character, giving the book a noir-ish feel, again implying hidden movement in the shadows and spaces between, but with a playful tinge, almost like French is making light (pun intended) of her own darkness.

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Your Treasures are Stupid and You Should Be Ashamed to Distribute Them

There, I said it. You, yes YOU, gamemasterrefereejudgekeeperDM! You know you're guilty - you've been hoarding gold and silver under your dragon's belly all this time. Maybe a few gems here and there, or a fancy ring or two. But, seriously? Gold pieces and silver pieces were medieval cash. Common cash. Picture your dragon sitting atop a pile of $20 bills interspersed with a few wedding rings. That's essentially what an adventurer in a quasi-medieval setting would see.

But you're better than that, aren't you? I think you're the kind of gamemasterrefereejudgekeeperDM who wants to be different, wants to bring a touch of class to your campaign, maybe even a little of "the weird".

Well, here you go. I present to you five absolutely free PDFs from the Getty Museum which can inform the distribution (and hoarding) of wealth in your campaign. Sure, your adventurers are going to have a tougher time smuggling delicate, exquisite porcelains past dungeon guardians, and there's a slight chance that the bejeweled crystal marten head attached to that fur might become animated and choke you to death, but getting the treasure home should be part of the adventure. Amiright?

These are some real treasures, from the real world. And they are so much cooler, intriguing, and seem so much more valuable than the mere pile of cash in that treasure chest or the change in a troll's pocket. I use these sorts of things in my own games, when the situation warrants it, when it seems appropriate. After all, a demon might have a hard time being dainty with a finely-painted Italian ceramic vase. But then again . . . dainty demons . . . hmm. There's a thought.

Ancient Gems and Finger Rings

Decorative Arts of the Getty Museum

Masterpieces of the Getty Museum

Italian Ceramics

and my favorite (which I reviewed here):

Luxury Arts of the Renaissance

PS: Also look here for tempting riches that will sucker in adventurers every time!