Sunday Salon: Kilts in the Sunshine, Reading in the Rain

We are back, alas, from our month in London, carrying great piles of books and programmes and painstaking notes for blog entries on my (somewhat backlogged) London journal:

Approaching this from another angle, though, we are back (thank the volcano gods) at home in Halifax, reveling in a mix of stunningly sunny and gloomily maritime weather:

  To be honest, I love the gloomy weather as much as the sunny (which make me a good candidate for Nova Scotia residency, eh?).  It fits the gothic landscape of the Maritimes like a glove.  But when we headed off to visit the Halifax citadel yesterday, its star-shaped fortress replete with bagpipers (as you can see) and Scottish guardsmen, I was glad of the toasty sunshine.

Today I am glad of the wintry damp that has settled over us: after a delicious brunch with friends at Jane's on the Common (Nova Scotian Salmon Benedict on Sweet Potato Biscuits), it gives us an excuse to loll about indoors all day, reading and blogging and (in D's case) playing the Wii.  In fact, I find myself scowling a bit at the rays of sunshine that are peeking through the window right now - it will be a lot harder to justify the lolling if the day becomes as beautiful as yesterday.

So what am I reading?

I am in the final, all-consuming throes of Patrick Ness's YA thriller The Knife of Never Letting Go. It takes place in a world suffused with Noise - a virus has made men's thoughts audible, an alteration which changes everything we know about deception and privacy.  For each of the last two nights, just as I was drifting off to sleep with the book in my hand, two separate, profoundly awful things occurred in the plot, leaving me feeling so grotesquely bad that I had to keep reading in order to avoid being haunted by these events in my sleep.  So I feel a bit ... captive to the book.  It is an intriguing world (and one which it would be far too difficult to spoil, hence my cagey vagueness in describing it), a world in which compelling characters are put in difficult and thought-provoking situations, but it can also be a deeply unpleasant one, as perhaps all books about war and violence should be.  I am just coming to the point, at the end of this first installment in the Chaos Walking trilogy, where some of the great mysteries of the book are being explained.  Sadly, as with LOST (the last few episodes of which we gulped down as soon as we arrived back on these shores), the explanations have a diminishing effect on the narrative: they are considerably less interesting than the mysteries.  Don't get me wrong, though: I have already ordered the next two installments in the series.  It has me firmly in its clutches.

Next up is Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which I started in London, where I was charmed by the alternative-world depiction of an Oxford college.  It is, interestingly enough, on my "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die" list.  As compared with The Hitchhiker's Guide series, I knew nothing about this one.

Two more that I would like to get into today, if I can: a play by the Roman comedian Plautus (famous as the inspiration for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and as the namesake for the turtle in Stoppard's Arcadia - Plautus the Tau-toise), and George Eliot Clarke's Blue (another book started in London but perhaps best finished in Halifax).

Clarke is one of the great poets of Nova Scotia, and a fervent "witness" (to use his description of the poetic act) of the black Nova Scotian experience.  I am giddily, searingly in love with his words, which are themselves brutally and playfully enraptured with language.  His is a poetry that makes the most of the possibilities and impossibility of wordplay and punning - words that aim at difference in sameness, that multiply in meanings, and that blaze through these meanings, destroying as they illuminate.  Look at what he does, for instance, by playing - playing - with an unspeakable word in the opening poem, "Negation":
Le nègre negated, meagre, c'est moi:
Denigrated, negative [...]
                                        Her Majesty's
Nasty, Nofaskoshan Negro, I mean
To go out shining instead of tarnished,
To take apart Poetry like a heart.
    So my black face must preface your finish,
Deface your religion - unerringly,
Niggardly, like some film noir blackguard's.
I count six discrete plays here on the unspeakable word nègre alone (notice how he defers the utterance of the English word by giving us the French first, and how this use of italics - both for a foreign phrase and for an allusion [the negated speaker is also the state, the royal centre] - prefigures the play with italics later in the poem).  And this doesn't even encompass the brilliant punning of the final phrase - "film noir blackguard" - two uses of blackness that (putatively) have nothing to do with race.  What is a blackguard, in this context?  A ne'er-do-well, or a guardian?  A guardian who is black, or one who defends blackness?

All of this reminds me of another Canadian poet, Christian Bok, whose Eunoia (an experiment in using only a single vowel in each of five sections) I recommend to you in the strongest possible terms:

But Clarke's linguistic experiments feel more overtly political, more aggressive, than what I have read of Bök so far.  The book opens with this instruction to the reader: "Break the spine of this book, paralyze/Its malingering, belligerent words,/Even Love...."  Is that last word a verb, an instruction to us, an assertion that readerly love for a text is a relationship frought with violence (Break the spine of this book, even love [it]?)?  Or is it arguing that "love" is the last malingerer, most belligerent of all, like the pernicious hope left at the bottom of Pandora's box? 

He calls this a "poetics of arson": "These poems," he says, "are black, profane, surly, American. Their bitterness came honestly. US-torched, I wept these lyrics twixt 1994 and 1999.  The Great Republic's fiery liberty set me blazing.  An incendiary deréglement charred my brain black. [...] Cooling happens, glacially. I am the child of napalm."

Many of the poems have this Janus quality: they feel (as I, an American reading this from Nova Scotia did) as if you have just received an compliment that turned out to be at least equally an insult, or a criticism that hid within itself an unexpected token of respect.

OK: off to read before the growing sunshine guilts me into some sort of dratted outdoor activity.  But first, a question for you: does the place you are reading, your reading environment, make a different to what you read, or how?  Do you try to read books in situ - in the place they are set - when you are traveling?  Do certain environments lend themselves to certain types of reading, certain types of books?

4 Responses so far.

  1. that's a fantastic shot of the London Eye!

    Anyway, I heard you mention the 1001 books list. I guess as you know about the list, you're aware of the 1001 Books spreadsheet and have a copy of the new v4 edition, right?

    If not, head over to the spreadsheet page on Arukiyomi.

  2. What a thoughtful assessment of a poem. We need you in our book group!

  3. Thanks, Arukiyomi! That is the "standing directly under the Eye with a boyfriend who is paralyzed by his phobia of Ferris wheels" shot.

    Meanwhile - how exciting that there is a new spreadsheet! I am going over to download it right now. I haven't seen any editions since the first one....

  4. I am so glad you liked it, readerbuzz! I have been looking for a new book group here in Halifax, but haven't found one yet....

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