Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Cloud of Unknowing

This morning—well, yesterday morning—I read a delightful little piece in the Times metro section while taking the subway to work. It was atypically buoyant, a whimsical tidbit even more effervescent than a Talk of the Town piece. I reproduce it here in full:

An unseen, sweet-smelling cloud drifted through parts of Manhattan last night. Arturo Padilla walked through it and declared that it was awesome.

"It's like maple syrup. With Eggos. Or pancakes," he said. "It's pleasant."

The odor had followed Mr. Padilla and his friend along their walk in Lower Manhattan, from a dormitory on Fulton Street, to Pace University on Spruce Street, and back down again, to where they stood now, near a Dunkin' Donuts. Maybe it was from there, he said. But it wasn't.

Mr. Padilla was not alone. Reports of the syrupy cloud poured in from across Manhattan after 9 p.m. Some feared that it was something sinister.

There were so many calls that the city's Office of Emergency Management coordinated efforts with the Police and Fire Departments, the Coast Guard and the City Department of Environmental Protection to look into it.

By 11 p. m., the search had turned up nothing harmful, according to tests of the air. Reports continued to come in from as far north as 112th Street shortly before midnight. In Lower Manhattan, where the smell had begun to fade, it was back, stronger than before, by 1 a.m.

"We are continuing to sample the air throughout the affected area to make sure there's nothing hazardous," said Jarrod Bernstein, an emergency management spokesman. "What the actual cause of the smell is, we really don't know."

There were conflicting accounts as to its nature. A police officer who had thrown out her French vanilla coffee earlier compared it to that. Two diplomats from the Netherlands disagreed, politely. Rieneke Buisman said it smelled like roasted peanuts. Her friend Joris Geeven said it reminded him of a Dutch cake called peperkoek, though he could not describe that smell.

The abrupt, deadpan ending had me reeling. I looked at the byline...and to my further delight, it was by my friend (and former office colleague) Kareem Fahim!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Turkey—Go or No Go?

Someone needs to write a lipogrammatic novel based on this story ( via Bookslut), about how the Turkish government is fining Kurds for using the letters Q and W on placards. The letters in question don't exist in the Turkish alphabet. Maybe Pamuk could do something extravagant and chilling with this.

Georges Perec is best known for A Void (La Disparition), his e-less novel; more recently, Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea pushed the conceit further by gradually forbidding more and more letters. (In EMP, there's a town with a statue dedicated to the person who came up with that typographical commonplace, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog"—as letters fall off the base of the statue, they become verboten.)

There's also Walter Abish's very cool Alphabetical Africa, in which there's an abecedarian admission of letters—in chapter one, all words begin with a; in chapter two, they begin with either a or b, and so forth. It culminates, of course, a chapter in which all letters can be used—a "normal" chapter. Then the backward progression begins, until a's alone are admissible.

Maybe the least-read lipogrammatic creation of note is Ernest Vincent Wright's 1939 novel Gadsby, which I'm quite fond of. (You can read the entire thing at Spineless Books.)

I don't know why I submitted you to this lecture on the lipogram. I think I'm still mourning the loss of my review of the Oulipo Compendium—written years ago (the crazy '90s) for some online magazine that has disappeared without a trace. Is it possible I no longer have a copy?

Well, disappearing is appropriate, perhaps, given today's topic.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Marabou—Atlantis—Wodehouse—The Uke

A poem from Jane Yeh's fantastic new collection, Marabou, appeared in The Guardian recently—have a look!

* * *

If you enjoyed J.M. Tyree's Believer piece on Ignatius Donnelly, author of Atlantis and dedicated Shakespeare cipherologist, I recommend Wodehouse's "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald," from Mr. Mulliner Speaking. In order to woo Aurelia Cammerleigh, Archibald tries cozying up to her aunt, who's obsessed with proving that Bacon was Shakespeare. The hilarious passage toward the end reminds me of nothing so much as Golescu's display of trivia-spouting ambidexterity in Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis—another book I heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in occult knowledge (and its lampooning).

Scooping him up and bearing him off into the recesses of the west wing, she wedged him into a corner of a settee and begann to tell him all about the remarkable discovery which had been made by applying the Plain Cipher to Milton's well-known Epitaph on Shakespeare [...]

'As in the Plays and Sonnets,' said the aunt, 'we substitute the name equivalents of the figure totals.'

'We do what?'

'Substitute the name equivalents of the figure totals.'

'The which?'

'The figure totals.'

'All right,' said Archibald. 'Let it go. I daresay you know best.'

The aunt inflated her lungs.

'These figure totals,' she said, 'are always taken out in the Plain Cipher, A equalling one to Z equals twenty-four. The names are counted in the same way. A capital lettter with the figures indicates an occasional variation in the Name Count. For instance, A equals twenty-seven, B twenty-eight, until K equals ten is reached, when K, instead of ten, becomes one, and T instead of nineteen, is one, and R or Reverse, and so on, until A equals twenty-four is reached. The short or single Digit is not used here. Reading the Epitaph in the light of the Cipher, it becomes: "What need Verulam for Shakespeare? Francis Bacon England's King be hid under a W. Shakespeare? William Shakespeare. Fame, what needst Francis Tudor, King of England? Francis. Francis W. Shakespeare. For Francis thy William Shakespeare hath England's King took W. Shakespeare. Then thou our W. Shakespeare Francis Tudor bereaving Francis Bacon Francis Tudor such a tomb William Shakespeare." '

The speech to which he had been listening was unusually lucid and simple for a Baconian, yet Archibald, his eye catching a battle-axe that hung on the wall, could not but stifle a wistful sigh.

* * *

Speaking of Atlantis, I'm not convinced there wasn't an Atlantis, or a Lemuria, or in general island continents that have since been lost to the sea. The tsunami and the multitude of hurricanes this year make disappearance by water seem perfectly possible. Then again, a couple months ago I was entertaining doubts about evolution, so maybe just bear with me for a bit. (N.B.: I do not subscribe to intelligent design!)

* * *

Speaking of Mr. Mulliner Speaking: In "The Man Who Gave Up Smoking," our narrator gives us one Ignatius (!!) Mulliner, an artist whose daily schedule involves painting, proposing to a woman named Hermione, and playing his ukulele.

Coincidentally—this morning Dizzyhead Euge sent over a link in which the wizardly Jake Shimubukuro performs "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on the uke. Jaw-dropping and very lovely. It's also muy conceptual—a song about a guitar, played on an instrument other than a guitar!

Apparently he was on Conan earlier this month, and he's supposed to play in New York again this Thursday.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Batting average

The Dizzies went on vacation, grabbing a pile of CDs for the trip. On our last jaunt, we exhausted the three albums we brought (which we now possibly never have to listen to again), and so the selection was perhaps overambitious this time around. With apologies to Nick Hornby's "What I've Been Reading," here's the playlist for last week (augmented by frequent tunings-in to WEQX in Vermont):

Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense
Pulp, Different Class
Death Cab for Cutie, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes
Guided by Voices, Bee Thousand
Death Cab for Cutie, Plans (x2)
Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (x2)
New Order, (the best of) New Order
Garden State soundtrack*
Beck, Sea Change*
Belle & Sebastian, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (disc one)

*These were on at a low volume, as we were trying to figure out the right road back.

Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks: Spouse ejected this one after first verse of "Tangled Up in Blue."
P.G. Wodehouse (read by Jonathan Cecil), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (on five CDs): Listened for about three minutes while waiting for spouse to check out of hotel.

Beck, Guero
Cat Power, Moon Pix
The Clash, London Calling
Clientele (various)
Marvin Gaye, What's Going On
Two mixes
Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece
Ron Sexsmith, Other Songs
Frank Sinatra, A Swingin' Affair
Susie Suh (self-titled debut)

* * *

Readingwise, I told myself I'd only pack two books, which somehow became four. These were:

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Adolescent
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
P.G. Wodehouse, Mr. Mulliner Speaks

I made decent headway in all but the Dostoyevsky, which I don't think I actually opened on the trip. So far, so good with Frost, Beauty, and Mulliner—I think I'll finish them.

My favorite bit of reading, though, was from the Hill County Observer: "Home sweet hibernaculum: Bats swarm at a Vermont cave as winter draws near," by Caitlin Esch. I leaned that "a mere 50 bats a year will consume 30 million insects." The focus of the piece was Mount Aeolus, near Manchester, Vermont: "A cave on the mountain is the hibernaculum where more than 23,000 bats spend the winter."

There's too much fascinating stuff here to quote, so I'll restrict myself to this passage:

Deep within the cave is a stone bowl that's often referred to as "the sink." The sink is filled with the undissolved bones of bats who met their maker within the walls of the cave.

"The bones are anywhere from a few years to a thousands of years old," Corradino said. "There's nothing to break down the bones in the cave. They could be up to 10,000 years old—as old as the last ice age."

* * *

We stopped by MASS MoCA on the way back—a great space, which currently has two exhibits well worth catching: Cai Guo-Qiang's Inopportune (featuring nine white Fords, most of them suspended in the air with sprays of light pouring out of them like fireworks) and "Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom" (pièce de résistance: Mark Dion's enormous walk-in birdcage—in which real, very cute birds interact, or don't, with heaps of books, all of which have an animal/nature theme).

* * *

In other news: Thanks to Chrita Marri, proprietor of the comics-centric (and Veronica Mars-besotted) blog Crisis/Boring Change, for helping out with the "Links" section in the margin.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Notre musique

"I shall say another word for the most select ears: what I really want from music. That it is cheerful and profound, like an afternoon in October. That it is indivdual, wanton, tender, a little sweet woman of lowness and charm..."
—Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

Thursday, October 13, 2005

"Here's Where the Strings Come in" b/w "My October Symphony"

Grandiose title for a very minor post — but we've been wondering:

What's it called when the music in a song mirrors what's happening in the lyric?


When Elvis Costello, on "God Give Me Strength" or one of those songs on that Bacharach collaboration (just checked: "Such Unlikely Lovers"), sings "I'm not saying that there will be violins/But don't be surprised if they appear" — and then you hear some violins?

When James Taylor, on "How Sweet It Is," sings, "I just want to stop/and thank you, baby," and the music cuts out for a beat right at "stop"?

Any other examples come to mind, Dizzyheads? (Does it happen in ABC's "When Smoky Sings"—"I hear violins"—?)

Sometimes I think it's fine, other times I think it's a bit much. Maybe the first time it happens it works, and then on subsequent listenings, it gets oppressive...?

Now my new thing is to find songs in which one would think the artist would put in a bit of easy musical mirroring . . . but then withholds it. (Admirably restrained? Or eventually equally annoying?)

I do like: Norah Jones, "Don't Know Why," where she "feels as empty as a drum"—and you don't hear any overt increase in percussion. Very nice. Not annoying!

* * *

This is all a distraction—I should really be posting about the Paul McCartney and Sufjan Stevens shows I saw last week. (No, they were not performing together!)

"I should really be posting..." = delusions of grandeur.

* * *

Any Julian Jaynes enthusiasts out there?

* * *

New favorite author?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The wheel world

Jessica Winter—cogent movie critic and . . . scooter enthusiast?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

My new thing

Instant oatmeal.

Just finished:
Thomas Berger, The Houseguest
Benjamin Tammuz, The Minotaur

What if:
I only read books with titles
formatted The ________.

This is sort of a tribute to:

Citizen Truth is possibly:
The new Nietzsche?

Must end post because:
Microwave has finished cooking the oatmeal.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Chest, removal of things off

Sometimes it seems I'm the only one who likes a certain movie. This was the case with Eyes Wide Shut.

Other times, I feel alone in rejecting a critical darling. This is the case with Junebug.

I can't tell you not to see Junebug, because everyone I know has liked it, or at least proclaimed it quite watchable. Cinephiles whose taste I respect. You know who you are.

But I have to say (I hate to say), I was squirming for about 90 percent of this. Nearly everything about Junebug seemed wrong: the acting, the casting, the story, the writing, the situations/set pieces, the conclusions. The tone seemed off, irregular. It looked quite bad. (These eyes haven't seen a worse-looking movie since Sling Blade.) Is this really supposed to help blue staters understand the red states or whatever (as ads and reviews suggest)? Oh please.

The one glimmer of hope is the outsider artist character, the most vividly imagined person here—but he's squandered. (As an o.a. fiction film, it ranks higher than the disappointing The Next Big Thing, but it's no Henry Fool.)

There was also a brief scene at the brother's workplace (the brother is played by the Ryan guy from The O.C.*) that pointed to a way out of the claustrophobia—just coworkers bantering as they went about their business. It was refreshing and lasted for all of two minutes. The camera kept zooming in on their nametags, so you'd think that this would be an ongoing part of the story. But no—we never see them again!

OK. That's all for now.


*I've watched The O.C. fairly regularly for the past two seasons; I haven't watched a single episode of the new season—is it because of Junebug?

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