Dark Angel and Lord Carew's Bride

Oh, there are so many unreviewed books building up in drifts in my library, my office, my bedside table.  I worry that if I don't review them in the first flush of having read them, I won't remember anything of wit or importance I have ever had to say about them.  But when I finish a novel (and particularly the rollicking plot- and character-oriented novels I have mostly been reading this year) I feel a profound, addictive need to get deep into another as quickly as possible.  Hence the drifts of books forming sedentary layers of forgottenness about my house - the deeper they are in the pile, the less I can recall about them.  That's nobody's model of responsible readerly behavior.  It is beginning to resemble the bibliophile's equivalent of an opium den around here.

So let's see whether I can't toss off a few reviews every now and then, shall we?

To start with: the two novels I just finished.  Some of Mary Balogh's early (mid-90s) Regency novels are being re-released* by Dell in two-in-one volumes.  The first is this pairing of Dark Angel and Lord Carew's Bride.  I acquired it on the strength of the reputation of the latter, which I had often heard cited as one of Balogh's strongest.  From the other novels of hers I had read, I found her work to be entertaining and consistently strong, without being extraordinary in any way that would urge me to keep it on my shelves.

In Dark Angel, however, she builds up a cast of characters that might be compelling (or at the very least comfortable) enough to draw on my lasting affection.  Jennifer Winwood and her cousin Samantha are coming to town for their first Season, although Jennifer is already all but engaged to the angelically beautiful Lord Lionel Kersey.  I can't help but feel that when a man is praised for his "angelic" beauty in a romance, that is a clear sign that he has a rotting inner life to rival Dorian Gray's.  Certainly if we are told at the beginning of a romance that the heroine is already in love, you can bet her beloved is a rotter. (Exceptions will be made - I say magnanimously - for childhood loves, which are the basis for many of my favorite plots.)  After all, what will the arc of the plot be if the love is a fait accompli, no longer available to be fallen into?

And sure enough, Lionel Kersey is a toad of a human being.  Samantha (the more beautiful and also the more level-headed of the girls) sees through him from the beginning: he is too cold,** she tells her lovestruck cousin.  And Jennifer, enamored though she is, can't seem to get her fiancé (they make the match rather quickly, to the delight of both families - another sign that all is not well with the romance, familial approval) to express any sort of private affection for her.  Is it too bloody much to ask to be kissed by one's betrothed at the age of twenty?, she wonders daily, in somewhat tamer terms.

But meanwhile she is drawn in by the "dark angel" of the title - Gabriel, the Earl of Thornhill, darkly handsome and obviously quite taken with her.  Stay away from him, warns the angry Lord Kersey, he has a reputation that will ruin you.  When she asks what exactly Thornhill has done, Kersey sneers at the ill-breeding that would produce this kind of curiosity.   (Ultimately she does find out: he is accused of impregnating his own step-mother, and then stealing away with her to the continent while his father dies of a broken heart.  Then he, so the story goes, abandons his step-mother and sibling-child to return to England.) We begin to think that Samantha might have been right about the priggish Kersey.

But even as we think this, Lionel Kersey reacts to the increasing closeness of his bride and Thornhill with a maneuver that can only be described as "lashing out romantically" - he maneuvers Samantha into the garden, makes a play for her sympathy, and then kisses her - ignoring the initial violence of her reaction.  The damage is done: at eighteen, and in receipt of her first kiss, she finds herself madly in love with a man she can barely respect.  How could he betray her cousin like this?  Kersey says that the choice of bride was his father's; his own choice (he looks at her meaningfully) would have been very different.  She, to her very great credit, is thrown into a deep ethical swivet by this revelation.  All the more so when he asks her if there isn't anything she could do to help end his engagement.  It wouldn't be honorable for him to do it, you see....

The next novel (Lord Carew's Bride) takes Samantha's story as its subject: after facing heartbreak with Kersey, she remains steadfastly unattached for the next six years, despite the court of devoted male followers who dog her every move.  She feels distinctly solitary, although she would hesitate to call herself "lonely."  One day, while wandering in the countryside on the borders of a friend's estate, she encounters the disabled Hartley Wade, who introduces himself as a landscape gardener.  He is (prepare for a fairly tortured plot device here) reluctant to reveal his true identity as Lord Carew, the owner of the land she is standing on, for fear that she will feel embarrassed by the trespass.  But he is also drawn in by her easy enjoyment of his company - could he have finally found a woman who will love him for himself, rather than for his title?  There is only one way to find out - extended subterfuge!

But when he finally wins her, can he really trust her?  Is she just fleeing the painful love that has scarred her for the last six years?

I will start with two shocking revelations:

First, I know Lionel Kersey is a villain beloved by many, but for me he was the weak point of these books.  He needed to be more ambiguously evil to be truly effective.  We are sure for the whole of both books that he is a turd of a human being, but the heroines are continually lulled into questioning whether he has turned over a new leaf.  Because we are more sure of his villainy than they are, the unevenness of our knowledge causes us to despise them and their naiveté a little bit.   But in fact theirs is the more narratively fascinating belief: being in doubt about the truth of his feelings and intentions would and should have produced an infinitely more complex story than simply fearing what havoc he would wreak next out of pure and motiveless evil.

I am borrowing freely from Coleridge in that last phrase, of course.  The great Romantic poet, in talking about Iago, speaks of the "motive-hunting of motiveless malignity."  It isn't so much that Iago lacks reasons for his villainous actions: you can find them in abundance throughout Othello.  But they all seem either insufficient or excessive to account for his behavior: an over-determination of his disgruntlement (over-determination, in this case, being Academickese for a stance that multiple, perhaps even too many, causes) or a response that could only be classified as over-reaction.  He is motive-hunting: assigning causes to an evil that exceeds and precedes logic.

And this is what the plotting that surrounds Lionel Kersey feels like, albeit with a character whose motiveless evil is distinctly less grand and complex than Iago's.  The reasons for his actions are always muddy, even if you can ultimately tease them into some sort of sense. For instance: if he wanted to break off the engagement by hook (encouraging Samantha to speak to her cousin about their love) or by crook (throwing Jennifer together with Thornhill until her reputation is in tatters), then why does he warn his fiancé to stay away from his scandalous nemesis at the beginning?  Why exactly is he so eager to get rid of her, anyway?  God knows he had no intention of letting his social life be hampered by marriage - everything would have continued (with his at-least-two mistresses, briefly mentioned) much as before.  What is his goal in the game that he and Thornhill (and later, he and Carew) are engaged in?  What is at stake for him?

Admission number two: I liked Dark Angel better than Lord Carew's Bride.  The writing seemed more complex, and the situation slightly more compelling.  And this despite the fact that Dark Angel's premise is infinitely more conventional than LCB's: we are talking the common garden satanic-rake-who-isn't-as-dishonorable-as-everyone-believes vs. the rather unusual unhandsome-recluse-with-serious-physical-disabilities-who-wins-the-heart-of-the-most-beautiful-woman-in-London (why? because they both love sitting in gardens in silence.  How could that have failed to be brilliant and revolutionary?? Seriously!).  Perhaps DA manages to be more compelling because the resolution of the conflict in LCB is fairly swift: one moment there is no trust, and the next there is.  All they really needed, it turned out, was a relaxing hand massage.  Hmm.

But there were also some lovely moments in Dark Angel.   If you live in fear of spoilers, it might be best to stop here because this comes from fairly late in the novel.   The one that struck me most strongly was from the crucial Regency scene - the wedding night.  It is always intriguing to see how authors will communicate this experience which is somehow the essence of alienation from one's own body.  It is complicated for Jennifer by the fact that she is, in fact, forced into marriage with the hero, while still feeling herself to be in love with the villain:

Oh, the reality of it had hit her at that moment.  She was naked on the bed, spread wide, and her body was being used by someone who was not herself.  It belonged to him, to be used for the rest of their lives whenever and however he chose to use it.  She was no longer in possession of her own body or of her own person.  She had felt in that moment all the total and permanent loss of privacy.  Even the inside of her body - there - no longer belonged to her.
In both novels, Balogh repeatedly comes back to the uncomfortable idea that marriage is a matter of bodily ownership - like slavery.  But that is not even the most interesting aspect of this passage for me: I am struck in particular by the idea that the loss of privacy is total and it is permanent - it cannot go by half-measures and it cannot be recovered.  The cynicism and the violation of this scene - which she also enjoyed - is complex and realistic and wrenching.  Both hero and heroine end up crying on their wedding night. And for a romance to grapple with that successfully is quite a feat.

Dark Angel / Lord Carew's Bride
Mary Balogh (Canada, 1994)
*** and **1/2

(Janine of Dear Author has an interesting review up of Dark Angel - she calls Balogh's writing "like my first taste of sushi [...] something unusual, intense, and raw, to which my palate was unaccustomed.")

*There is something shudder-inducingly awful about the double-"re" structure of this verb, and its re-redundancy.
 ** See here the entire cinematic history of painfully beautiful blond men who are cast as villains.  Poor blonds. So misunderstood.

Sunday Salon: Balmy Heat and Equinoctial Skies

Now spring restores the balmy heat,
now Zephyr's sweet breezes calm the rage of the equinoctial skies.


It's springtime in Nova Scotia, a season I had been led to believe did not exist.  When it finally stops raining in June, everyone told me, it will be summer.  But we have had an unseasonable dry and warm March.  Yesterday I was heading off to the gym when I realized how gorgeous it was, and made a detour to Point Pleasant Park, on the southernmost tip of the Halifax peninsula, to walk along the ocean and soak up the sunshine.  Stunning.

Here's hoping it lasts and lasts, and we never get that next wave of snow that I have been hearing murmurs about.

What have I been up to this week?  It has been a fairly normal week of teaching (we have moved been doing Michael Frayn's excellent play about nuclear physics and ethics - Copenhagen - in one of my classes, and the Spanish Golden Age of Drama in my other), grading, reading, and, of course, a wee bit of blogging:
What are my plans for this fine Sunday?

In addition to preparing for the teaching week ahead, I need to prepare for a paper I will be giving at a conference on Thursday.  I'd like to finish Lord Carew's Bride, the second in a series of Regency novels by Mary Balogh, about a beautiful woman who believes she will never want to marry after her heart is broken at age eighteen by a callow, handsome, charmer of a villain.  Now she is falling softly in love with a man she believes to be a good friend and (for that matter) a landscape gardener.  In fact, he is the Marquis of Carew (of course!), and he is reluctant to reveal his true identity because he wants her to love him for himself.  Why is he insecure about the allure his rank and fortune will hold for her? Because, apart from being not terribly good-looking,  he was permanently injured in a childhood accident, and is used to families pushing their unwilling daughters (unnerved by his twisted hand and obvious limp) on him in hopes of a good dynastic match.

I am also midway through the excellent medieval mystery Mistress of the Art of Death, and my basketball season reading of When March Went Mad: The Game that Changed Basketball.  I'd like to get a start on Rose Tremain's The Colour, from the 1001 Books list.  And I'd love to watch more of Satyajit Ray's Aparajito, the second film in his Apu trilogy, which I started on Friday.

Happy springtime, saloners!

They just followed me home, I swear... but can I keep them?

[A post begun last night, and finished this afternoon...]

The lovely spring weather continues apace here - so much so that I walked to my salon appointment (a little over four miles round trip) and wished I hadn't worn a heavy sweater.  The walk is quite beautiful - it takes me past Halifax's Armory and Common (where people camped in tents after the 1917 Explosion destroyed their homes, and where they were hit by the brutal blizzard that followed that calamity) before leading me across the highest point in town, the star-shaped Citadel fortress (the most visited historic site in Canada), and along the border of the Public Gardens.

But I awoke this morning feeling an exhaustion disproportionate to the amount of sleep I had gotten.  I wouldn't swear to it, but it may also be possible that a family of elephants had taken up squishy residence in my sinuses in the early hours of the morning.  By the time I was about an hour into my time in foils at the salon, I had a screeching headache.  And now, come evening, I am running a low fever and feeling utterly discombobulated.

So there is nothing to do to soothe my fevered brow but to contemplate the books that followed me home this week (via mail, or having hopped into my hands at the bookstore):

I have been coveting this collection since participating in a reading to mark its launch.  It is a beautiful, tactile volume - heavy, velvety paper filled with odd little sketches by Reaney himself.  But the true oddity is in the vivid poems.  Consider the beginning and end of "The Antiquary": 
Within these jars and casks 
I keep French and German moonlight [...] 
Here in these flasks 
Lie the coughs of Emily Brontë, 
The urine of John Donne, 
And Jane Austen's caul. 
Here is Queen Anne's seventh child  
Pickled in liquor...  

Did you know that the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was founded by Anna Leonowens, whose writings about her time in Siam inspired The King and I?  Neither did I, until quite recently.  That's why I need this book.  

I am on record as adoring Gabrielle Calvocoressi's previous book of poems, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, both for its title cycle, and for the long poem that treats the Hartford Circus Fire.   In that first work, she was a prodigy of perspective, getting at the experience of historical catastrophes by giving us the vivid points of view of various bystanders and participants, all laid out with imagery that circles back on itself and back and back, building in complexity with every return.  This new collection, from what I can tell so far, circles round the dual themes of desire and boxing.  Consider the power of these lines from the first of two poems called "A Love Supreme" (paying particular attention to how she uses the line-breaks to create double meanings):
You beautiful, broke-
back horse of my heart.  Proud,
debonair, not quite there

in the head. You current
with no river in sight.

There are lines I want to tell you about in the poems I have read so far, but I am reluctant to share them, since they seem to me to be spoilers.  That's right - these are poems so playful and surprising and urgent that I am fearful of spoilers.  And can we also agree that Calvocoressi has quite the gift for titling her books?  There is a wonderful onomatopoeia to Apocalyptic Swing....

Ruined by Lynn Nottage
One of the most acclaimed plays of 2009 (it swept up the Pulitzer, the Obie, and the NY Drama Critics' Circle Award, among others), it tells the tale of a brothel in the wartorn Congo, and is based on interviews Nottage did with women fleeing the sexual violence of the civil conflict there.

I can't quite remember how this came to be on my BookMooch wishlist, but I am glad that it is.  It is a set of tales of otherworldly horror by an early-twentieth-century director of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum.  I am enthralled by the prospects promised by this description on the back cover: "In a style as neat as a croquet lawn he penetrates to the heart of Hell and beyond."

I do know, however, how this volume (about the arrival of a wealthy stranger in a remote Brazilian[?] village) came to be on my wishlist: it is one of the 1001 books I must read before I die.  

And speaking of that project, I recently returned to the spreadsheet that tells me how many books I must read a year in order to read the whole list before I die, based on my age and gender.  And it was a sobering memento mori.  Despite the fact that I have devoted my entire adult life and a solid portion of my childhood to the study of literature, I have only read about 17% of the list.  This means I must read 16 books from the list a year for the rest of my existence to complete the list.  How many did I read in the last year?  One.  So this calls for a serious shuffling of Mt TBR.  What are some of the works I might start with?
  • Ovid's Metamorphoses
  • Rose Tremain's The Colour (which Wendy recently brought back to my attention)
  • Ian McEwan's Saturday
  • Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (which I should have finished back in college - sorry, spirit of the late Professor K.  I think of you every time I see it on my shelf.)
  •  The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Borges's Labyrinths
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt
  • Mario Puzo's The Godfather 
Any favorites from this list?

    One day you're a prisoner... the next you're a prince

    One year you're national champions, the next you are having this conversation:

    Yesterday, my students said to me, "Is your team even in the tournament this year?".  (I may have been regaling them with the Carolina basketball psychodrama all term.)

    "Thanks," I replied, scowling at them, "I appreciate your concern." 

    They went on, cruelly: "Duke's in first place! What happened to you guys?". 

    I looked down at my lesson plan, and felt a violent blush rising up my neck, all the way past my cheeks to my hairline. The whole vivid wave of shame took about twenty seconds to complete its journey.  I couldn't even look up and meet my students' eyes.  I had thought I was at peace with our enfeebled basketball season, I really did.*   I was wrong.

    And then we went back to discussing Life is a Dream. Which seemed apt.

    ¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
    ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
    una sombra, una ficción,
    y el mayor bien es pequeño:
    que toda la vida es sueño,
    y los sueños, sueños son.


    *I had even told my Intro to Drama students in a previous class that I had come to terms with it by viewing it as a sort of memento mori: this way goes all earthly glory, Everyman.  Think on't, Faustus.  Fortune's privates we.

    Our Suspicions about Altruism

    The existence of true altruism has become popular subject for debate in recent years: does anyone do good things out of purely selfless motives?  Even in the absence of material rewards, don't "altruists" get a rush of satisfaction or virtuous good feeling (in other words, an emotional reward) from their benevolent deeds?

    There is a corollary, and a sad one, to this interesting debate: a widespread distrust of good deeds.  When someone we don't know tries to do something nice for us, our minds automatically skip to the catch.  What is in it for them?

    Now of course, this skepticism is healthy when we apply it to, for instance, to promises of politicians and salesman.  But as the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy found out, it makes it awfully hard to do a nice thing. 

    The premise of the society is this: give micro-grants of $100 to a group of people, asking them only to do something nice for total strangers with it. 

    The idea, says the founder, is to spark new thinking and dialogue about philanthropy and altruism:

    "One hundred dollars is not going to change anyone's life," Martin said. "It's a small thing. The money is just a framework for people to use their imagination. It's like a kick in the ass."
    What did people do with the money?  Many gave away umbrellas or dollar bills on the street.  Their attempts met with almost universal reluctance and rejection.  I think we can blame this on the cynical way "free gifts" are used in sales and proselytizing: we, like the Trojans after the horse, don't believe a gift is ever "free."

    One of my favorite ideas was this:
    Clark Kellogg deposited his $100 in a bank account and left written instructions for his great-granddaughter to withdraw the accumulated total in 100 years and give it away. With compound interest, he said, the total will be $2.1 million, which is enough for a lot of free umbrellas in the rainstorms of 2110. "I don't think I'll be around then," he said.
    Perhaps I like it so much because it reminds me (utterly unreligious soul that I am) of the parable of the talents.

    But of course this gets me thinking - what would I do?  How could I do the most good with $100?   

    Sunday Salon: Literary Lighthouses

    A couple of nights ago  I went to hear the renowned Cape Breton writer Alistair MacLeod do a reading in Halifax.  I have his book, Island: The Complete Stories, on my shelf, as of yet unread, but I was unprepared for the quasi-religious devotion with which crowds flocked to see him.  In fact, the auditorium was so full a half-hour before the reading was set to begin that scores of new chairs were produced to fill every nook and cranny of the room.  Twenty minutes into MacLeod's reading, two fire marshalls arrived, in full gear, and stood behind him, muttering ominously.  The reading was interrupted (at a particularly apropos moment: he was describing how alienated the people of the story felt from the RCMP - the Mounties - of their town, all of whom were "from away"): we were over capacity.  The aisles were filled with devoted MacLeodites: we would have to do a total reshuffling of the room.

    MacLeod read a lyrical story about a Cape Breton miner, a man who chooses to fulfill the potential of his body through highly skilled labor over the pursuit of a university education in literature, and then urges his children to pursue the path not taken - urges, in a sense, his own obsolescence, the break in the chain of generations following one another into the family craft.  His hero is philosophical, nostalgic, longing, selfconcious, and yet sure of his own choices, which seem to us to be good ones.

    After the reading, people all over the room could be heard murmuring to each other and to MacLeod of the deep satisfactions of his work: "They remind me of my father," twenty-something university students kept saying, over and over, with an emotional charge that said loudly that they understood the break they were making with the past.  Understood it, mourned it, made it consciously, undertook it with regret.

    In the question and answer period, MacLeod talked about his curiosity about the way in which people are called to fulfill the promise of their bodies, and the assumption that those who work with their bodies are unthoughtful or unreflective.  He talked about hearing sports journalists ask athletes to verbalize their craft: "What are you thinking as you go up to the basket?  What is the strategy?".  "Look," says the player, "I just put the ball in the basket."  The clash of verbal and kinesthetic worlds.

    During the discussion period, a member of the audience asked a question that is equally excellent and ubiquitous in this sort of event: "I am interesting in the pragmatics of writing.  What do you do when you sit down and write?  What is your process?"

    MacLeod responded with an ambiguous murmur, a verbal shrug.  ("Look," I thought sympathetically, "I just put the ball in the basket.")

    Eventually he did say this, however: "When I am halfway though [a story], I write the last line.  That becomes a sort of lighthouse for me."

    Lovely, in this land of lighthouses.

    *     *     *

    What have I been up to this week?

    I missed the last Sunday Salon because I was (I can barely report it, so exciting it was) at the curling.  The Wimbledon of curling (the Brier, the Canadian men's championship) is in Halifax, and, as I had friends visiting from Chicago, I whisked them off to see this quintessence of Canadianness. It was sublime.   We were sitting in the second row, among (it turned out) the friends and families of the various curlers, and the air was filled with the distinctive thwacking sound of large pieces of granite sliding into one another.  There is not time to do justice to it here: a later post might very well be called for.

    It is cold but spring-like here in Nova Scotia, and the classes continue apace.  I have been doing a bit of blogging as I get back into the swing of the semester:
    • In Desert Island Books, I reflect on the literary and LOST.
    • I joined the Book Blogger Hop.
    • On the Web Comic - in which I ponder why I haven't become immersed in this serial genre before.  Do you have a favorite web comic?
    • Eccentric Ell, eh? - in which I lay out the highlights of my own personal Los Angeles.  Head over and give me your advice for favorite eccentric activities in SoCal.
    What have I read?
    • David Edgar's drama of globalization Pentecost 
    • Joan Wolf's A London Season (which I had heard nothing but raves about, but - after great efforts to get my hands on a cursedly out-of-print copy - I found underwhelming)
    • Sabriel by Garth Nix - a slow start for me, but a satisfying conclusion.  I was eager to take up the next volume, only to discover that I own the first and third volumes, but not the centrepiece of the triptych.  Sigh.
    • A Gypsy at Almack's by Chloe Cheshire.  This debut novel had one of the most delightful final pages of any love story I have read in quite some time.
    • And, yesterday, What I Saw And How I Lied, which I devoured in a single day and very nearly a single sitting.
    This sets me a-thinkin' about what I will get up to this fine Sunday.  Here are my goals:
    • Go to the gym for the first time all semester.  It's time. Let's seize a-hold of our future before I drift any further into Jabba the Hutt territory.
    • Finish Betty Sharpe's novella Like a Thief in the Night, about futuristic super-assassins.  And, of course, their amour. Is it possible to have super-assassins without desire?
    • Watch Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn so that I can return it to Zip.ca before it crumbles away to dust from having sat on my shelf for so many months.
    • Finish rereading Fuenteovejuna and Copenhagen for classes this week.
    • Continue to scale Mt. Grademore.
    • Traipse about in my Google Reader, catching up with everyone.
    • Get further into Mistress of the Art of Death - I have only read about a chapter and a half of this novel about a medieval murder investigation.  It has put me in a Chaucerian sort of mood. And that is one of my favorite moods to be in.
    • Start a new novel.  I am thinking of Eva Ibbotson's A Countess Below Stairs; I am trying to catch up on my YA challenge.
    Happy Saloning, everyone.

      Eccentric Ell, eh?

      My friend J is heading off to LA at the beginning of next week, and that has set me a-ponderin'.  What would I recommend, from my years of visiting that city (where D has been living while working behind-the-scenes on a variety of TV shows), to a visitor who doesn't want to do the typical touristy rounds?

      It has to be said that LA does resist the "typical tourism"  that can envelop cities like NY and DC - largely because it is not a city in which one sets out to "do" things in any sort of strict, culture-vulturey way.  Instead it is a city of peregrination* and of consumption. In LA, one eats, one shops**, one wanders.  It is (with some notable exceptions, like the Hollywood sign) a city of experiences rather than of sights.

      So what I recommend below are my favorite LA experiences, hoping to err neither on the side of the hopelessly touristy and mainstream, nor on the side of the truly avant-garde and hipster.  So here you have it, not the Miracle Mile, but the Eccentric Ell:

      • Traipse through the canals of Venice (left).  The beach community of Venice, CA - before it became the home of Muscle Beach, cutting-edge skateboarding, and experimental art galleries - was laid out as a miniature version of its Mediterranean namesake.  All the houses faced not roads but canals, and you could paddle to your neighbor's house to borrow a cup of sugar.  Many of the canals have, I believe, been filled in now, but the watery blocks that remain are some of the most coveted property in the city.  Some maintain their original small, beachy flavor; other plots have been bought by artists and architects and renovated in innovative and distinctive ways.
      • While you are in Venice, nip over to Abbot Kinney (named after the visionary who created the original "Venice of America") for some intensely Californian window shopping.  Sit at Jin Patisserie and partake in painfully exquisite tea and cakes.
      • Blow your mind at The Museum of Jurassic Technology - I am reluctant to say too much about this experience, which will either thrust you into a state of the most profound rage or leave you with a feeling of quasi-religious mental displacement.  Suffice it to say that 1) no, there is no such thing as Jurassic Technology, and 2) this shrine to eccentricity won its creator the MacArthur "Genius" Award.  OK, that will not quite suffice, so let me say this: when you emerge out of the Cavalcade of Oddities that are the exhibits, and the Exercise in Productive (?) Bafflement that is the movie screening, and you move zombie-like into the Russian Tea-Room of Awkward Conversation, there to drink tea from the samovar and eat dry biscuits with your shell-shocked fellow travelers (er, museum-goers), you will finally understand, as my friend DD said in a swivet of ill-contained fury, that you are the primary exhibit in the MJT.  If you must know more about this zen koan of an experience, visit this link or this one.
      • Eat huge feasts incorporating many kinds of tiny foods for shockingly affordable prices.  All my favorite foodstuffs in LA come in this form: dim sum, tapas, rijsttaffel.  One type of feast is the exception to the affordability rule, but still well worth the attempt: Korean barbecue.  Yum.
      • See a film at Grauman's Chinese Theatre - If you choose one stereotypical tourist activity to engage in, I would make it this one.  The one time I went to Grauman's Chinese, it was to see the execrable  Be Cool, in which the characters lurk about Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Oh, the meta-piphany that was.  See, Grauman's can make even Be Cool delightful.  Almost. [The one alternative I would suggest for "stereotypical tourist activity" is one I have never myself experienced - a trip to the Observatory in Griffith Park to reenact Rebel without a Cause.  It was closed for renovations the last time I was in the neighborhood.]
      • Have the caprese at Pizzeria Mozza.  Yes, that's a picture of it on the front page of the website: the most flavorful, on-the-vine tomatoes you have ever tasted, placed on top of a mozzarella burrata that can only be described as epiphanic. Try to ignore the twenty-something guys with expense accounts at the table next to you, ordering dozens of pizzas, taking a piece of each, and then leaving the rest to be thrown away.  There is a special place in Dante's hell waiting for them.  Its theme is the completion of tasks begun and the proper appreciation of good food.  It is populated by grotesque creatures whose eyes are exactly the size of their enormous stomachs.
      • See a show or a workshop at the Kirk Douglas. The most active (although by no means the only - this is a show business town, after all) theatre organization in LA is the Center Theatre Group, which runs the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, and the Kirk Douglas.  Its shows and its ambiance can definitely tend toward the corporate, but its smallest theatre, the Kirk Douglas, is both the most cutting edge and the most romantic (it has renovated an old-fashioned marquis cinema in the middle of the charmingly pedestrian-friendly old Hollywood studio town of Culver City).  You are most likely to see new work here, even work that is in the midst of being workshopped, giving you the opportunity to give playwrights, actors and directors your feedback.  You can also catch established avant-garde theatre groups here (as paradoxical as that description may seem).  It is our favorite of the LA theatre companies that D and I have sampled so far, and not just because it is a lovely evening walk from D's house.
      • Drop by the Huntington in Pasadena.  After strolling about in the gardens (stunning - there is nothing like seeing hummingbirds feed in the Shakespearean Garden in January), nip into the Library proper to see the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, complete with illuminated portraits of each of the pilgrims (including Geoffrey himself).
       Ah, I have made myself nostalgic (and hungry.  Very hungry.) just by writing this list.  Luckily I am going to SoCal week after next for my regular burrata fix.  (Oh, and also to see D.  That's right.)

      So I put it to you: does anyone have other LA eccentricities to recommend?

      * See how I did that: from vultures to falcons?  That's right: I work with words for a living. (Although, strictly speaking, peregrination implies pedestrian movement, while LA is - in Reyner Banham's words - an autopia. You can see his brilliantly English lovesick ode to LA below.)

      ** And LA shopping doesn't necessarily have the grimly corporate, acquisitive tinge that I generally associate with the activity, in part because - although it is a city entirely composed of strip malls - these strip malls are filled with independent businesses, unique boutiques, mom-and-pop endeavors, and restaurants offering up obscure national cuisines.  There is more individuality in an LA strip-mall than I have encountered most other places.

        On the Web Comic

        Given my love both for graphic novels (and memoirs and journalism and histories and essays) and for the serial form in all media, you would think I would be better versed in web comics than I actually am.  In fact, there has never been a web comic that I followed with any consistency.  I didn't even really know where to start.

        But now I think I may have found the first: a Persian-Arab serial comic by the pseudonymous Amil and Khalil that clearly builds on the mainstream print success of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis to talk about contemporary (current, even) events in Iran.  It is called Zahra's Paradise, and you can read it from the first episode here.

        So here is the question that I put to you, o ye who are more knowledgeable in the ways of web comics than I: what else in this genre should I be reading?

        Book-Blogger Hop

        Crazy-for-Books is holding a Book-Blogger Hop to forge new connections in the blogging community.  This made me reflect on the extent to which my blog can still be called a "book blog," since it covers so many other subjects (film, theatre, ice dancing...).

        But what can I say, I defy categorization.  It is a book blog, among other things. So on go the bobby socks and off I go to the Hop.

        Here's what Crazy-for-Books has to say about the Hop:

        Hey book bloggers!  Every day I seem to find another book blog that I start following.  In the spirit of the Friday Follow, I thought it would be cool to do a Book Blog Hop to give us all bookies a chance to connect and find new blogs that we may be missing out on!

        Now, I follow a lot of blogs and I haven't seen this feature yet, so if someone else is doing a Book Blog Hop, please let me know!!  I don't want to step on any toes or anything!

        So, if you'd like to participate, just repost this, sign MckLinky below, and check out other blogs in MckLinky!  Let's connect and make new book bloggy friends!!

        Follow this link to join.

        Desert Island Books

        Back from Los Angeles am I, and into the frantic (and not blogging friendly) swing of teaching.  So just a quick note to say this:

        I adore LOST.  It is, in fact, a major source of discontent in my relationship: D, who started out as a LOST fan, has utterly lost faith.  He finds the set of conventions that the show has established and now mercilessly, endlessly exploits to be cheesy, manipulative and tiresome, and (worse yet) he thinks the writers are making everything up as they go along.

        I, on the other hand, think that they have had a rough outline of the whole show all along, a foundation from which they have improvised a complex and enthralling moral universe.

        We had a similar "difference of opinion" about the last season of Battlestar Galactica, which vaguely pleased him while it made me increasingly enraged.  Eventually we had to agree not to discuss it at all.  Otherwise our every conversation went something like this:

        D:     "So... did you see the episode last night?"
        SP:    "Mm."
        D:     "And?"
        SP:    "I don't know.  I didn't love it.  What ever happened to character consistency? I mean..."
        Come to think of it, most of our worst arguments have been about television.  Don't even get me started on the time we fought for hours at the top of our lungs about the definition of the word "procedural." Tensions run high around the small screen in our homes.

        All this is just to introduce this brilliant list of the Books of Lost.  It is a show that wears its bibliophilia on its sleeve.  I like that.

        So much so that I am going to fire up the Tivo and watch it right now.

        Sunday Salon: Two Views from the Watchtower

        This week: a pair of bookend images from the inside of a colonial Puerto Rican guard tower.  The one above looks in one verdant direction; the one that ends this post shows the view when you turn your head 180 degrees to the right.  You can imagine what it must have been like to be the lone sentry in this tiny, fairy-tale tower of an outlook.

        This week was "Winter Break" at my Nova Scotian university (the second semester is called "Winter Term," because - strictly speaking - Spring never occurs during the January to April months), so I was in Los Angeles catching up on movies, doing some reading, watching endless Olympics coverage, and soaking up some warm(er) weather.  In fact, it has hardly been the sunny beach weather I had hoped for: it has been more humid here this week than it was in Nova Scotia for months before. 

        Not a lot of reading got done today, since it is my last day in California with my beloved.  I am in the midst of Sabriel by Garth Nix and The Slightest Provocation by Pam Rosenthal, neither of which has really grabbed me yet.  In both cases I feel ... I am not sure ... unengaged by the core characters.  What so you, ye who have read either of these books?  Do they become more gripping as they progress?  Am I just coming to them at a somewhat distracted time?

        We spent much of today at the IMAX, seeing Avatar in 3D.  Now, after Titanic, which I found irritating in the extreme on its initial release, I swore I would never see another James Cameron film.  And I wasn't really intrigued by the whispers and tidbits I heard about this one.  But D and I finally decided that if we were going to see it at all, we should really see it in all its big-screen, bells-and-whistles, special-effects glory.  And the truth is that it was making enough noise for its innovations that we were going to want to see it eventually.

        So off we went, and to be perfectly honest ... I didn't hate it.  I really, really expected to hate it.  It comes down to this: the plot was ham-handed and creakily simplistic, the villains were too wooden and obvious to be satisfyingly villainous, and some of the performances were disappointingly weak.  But the special effects were not among these weaknesses.  The Na'vi (the lanky, enormous, Disney-eyed and cobalt-skinned indigenous peoples of Pandora, the film's colonized world) are so beautifully rendered that it is almost a disappointment for us (like the hero of the film) to return to human society.  This is largely because of the incredibly expressive eyes of the Na'vi; some of their limbs are still rather awkward in slower motions.   As for the 3D - it was an intriguing first experience, but I could honestly do without it.  It had a tendency to slip in and out of focus whenever I changed the angle of my head slightly or turned my gaze to look directly at the extreme corners of the screen.  And I would rather have true depth of field and precision of focus than ferns that reach out to grab me from the screen.

        While in LA, I also caught up on some of my blogging.  I will leave you with a list of the week's posts.  Happy March, everyone! Here's hoping that my return to Canada tomorrow is uneventful....