Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Halifax: Fish City

I'm back from Halifax, where I just spent a great week in the company of Queenie, whose hospitality during a very stressful time was just heroic. The undisputed highlight of the week was the whale watching. Queenie drove us down to Long Island where a friend of hers runs a zodiac tour. I so want to own a zodiac now that I've been in one. It's basically a rubber dinghy with a huge outboard motor so you go flying over the waves: bompa-bompa-bomp. First we went to the seal island, where the seals looked at us and we looked back.

Bompa-bompa-bompa. We came across a pod of 7/8 humpbacked whales, including a mother and calf. Because a zodiac is only about a foot and a half above the water, the whales were unstressed. They rolled around waving their fins in the air, slapped their tails to get rid of barnacles, dived and blew from their spouts. The latter was something of a mixed blessing since it looked impressive, but reeked of sulphur and rotten fish. The calf was extremely curious and swam around us again and again, diving beneath the zodiac and surfacing right next to us so that we found ourselves staring into its melon-sized eye. "It's ugly", whined one of the irritating girls on the tour with us. "Why is it so ugly?"
"It thinks you're ugly too", I said.

After well over 90 minutes of hanging out with the whales we were on our way - bompa-bompa-bompa - while a pod of dolphins, complete with a baby dolphine kept pace beside us. It was just a magical experience. And I would have had spectacular photos except that my camera died on me during the tour which is why you are looking at a photo of a shoe.

But look at these shoes. I got them on my first day in Halifax. Are these not a superlative pair of 'do not fuck with me, buddy' stilettos? It gets better. When I got them back to Queenie's place and look at the box I see that it says 'Carlos by Carlos Santana'. Yes, Santana has gone from guitar hero to shoe designer. I guess you get more babes that way.

These were my wild holiday purchase. Most of the rest of my shopping was confined to long, leisurely trawls through Halifax's secondhand book stores which are well stocked with interesting material (the joys of a town with multiple universities). Combining this with my books, Queenie's own books and a glorious lack of pressing commitments I read my way through:

Madame Chiang Kaishek and her China edited by Samuel C. Chu
A selection of essays, some better than others.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Eternal First Lady by Laura Tyson Li
I have not yet finished this, but I recommend it as a gripping tale of power, sex and politics. And all true.

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson
I skipped over the bits that had to do with people. It's the lobsters who are the stars here: aggressive, randy beasts. They communicate by peeing at each others heads.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
I first read this in 1989 after The Handmaid's Tale and found it disturbingly remote and somehow incomprehensible. Now that I live near Toronto, I have a clearer understanding of the cultural/gender baggage that Atwood was writing about. I still like The Edible Woman best.

Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood
I'd never heard of this one and reading it, I could see why. It's a bit of a mess and lacks an identifiable center. If I had my critical hat on I could talk about Atwood's interest in sparagmos and the dissolution of identity but I didn't like it, so I won't.

The Years with Ross by James Thurber
I *heart* Thurber, whose My Life and Hard Times never fails to cheer me up, reminding me as it does of conversations with my grandmother. Thurber's account of the early days of the New Yorker: the drunks, lech's, neurotics and geniuses who wrote for it are bound together by the promethian figure of Harold "God, how I pity me" Ross. If you haven't read it yet, give it a try. It's a gem.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
For some reason I have never read any of Gaiman's novels. I think I was put off by the difference in quality between his work on Sandman and Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett). I guess 'co-authored' was the problem since Neverwhere is a highly entertaining romp through Faerie (aka th London Underground).

Bankgok Haunts by James Burdett
More murders for Sonchai Jitpleecheep to solve. If you've read Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo you'll know what to expect: beautiful prostitutes, crystal meth, state corruption, transexuals, clash between eastern and western mindsets and Buddhism. This one adds hotel porn, a succubus and elephants. Proper holiday reading, and full of black humour.

So there we are. One much needed vacation. Thank you Queenie!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Nullity

Things I have not done since my last post:
1) Watched the Olympics
2) Re-read 'Lavinia' for reviewing
3) Bought a new swimsuit

Things I have done:
1) Worked on manuscript
2) Worked on conference abstract
2) Worked on organising conference

My work/life balance is 3-0 really. And with term starting in 2 weeks it's just going to get worse.

Thankfully, I'm going on holiday next Monday. Viva Halifax!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Blood and Fire

If you haven't read Njal's Saga you really should. For one, it's an excellent yarn, full of fighting, feuding, marrying, piracy, war, witchcraft and courtroom drama. Though it's a long book, the chapters are very short and written in the clear, limpid prose of Grimm's märchen. Don't worry about the cast of hundreds, the numerous genealogies and almost complete absence of plot; most of the characters are bit-parts so there are only about a dozen you have to keep track of, you can skip the genealogies (although for my part some of the best stuff was in those footnotes), and the lack of coherent plot is actually one of its advantages. Basically it's a tale about how one tiny event escalates into the murder of an entire family (Njal and his sons). A man lies to his lover that he doesn't have a bride waiting for him at home. She knows he's lying (does he take her for a fool?). This small moment, like the proverbial butterfly's wing, sets in motion a chain of events that has hideous consequences for a family in no way connected with the original fib.

What makes Njal's Saga so gripping is that events are driven as much by a desire for glory and the redemption of honour, as they are by pettiness, spite, tale-bearing and envy. And yet there are no clear villains, just people getting in each other's way, taking umbrage, sulking and killing for no real defined goals. It's a story of the human condition, eat your heart out Sinclair Lewis.

There are also some interesting historical aspects. If you read between the lines, you get an inkling of the environmental crisis that was gradually looming on the horizon (see Jared Diamond's Collapse for more detail on why Iceland's colonies survived where Greenland's failed). And while you would think that the Vikings' favourite activity was raiding and fighting - and don't get me wrong, there is plenty of that - it turns out that what the Vikings most enjoyed was summoning each other to court. Yes, Vikings were the original bastard lawyers: tripping each other up with proceedural errors, declaring mistrials, transferring cases to courts where they would get a more favourable hearing, the Vikings wrote the book on that (except they didn't because it was all oral tradition, but you get my meaning). In fact, considering the ingrained tendency towards violence in the society, one has the suspicion that the legal code was deliberately geared towards encouraged these kind of proceedural tangles to absorb the murderous impulses of the protagonists. Given that the Viking althing forms the basis of Anglo-Saxon law that explains a lot. It makes me wish my grandfather was still alive; the distinction between Anglo-Saxon and Roman system of constitutional law was one of his pet subjects, I bet he would have something to say about the self-sustaining pattern of suit and counter-suit that makes up the last section of Njal's Saga.

And now, some of my favourite bits:

1) Hallgerd
Beautiful, seductive, proud, maddening, spiteful and lethal, Hallgerd ranks among the great femme fatales of literature. Like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, Hallgerd has the same solution for all her problems: the death of the perpetrator. Watching Hallgerd despatch yet another thrall to do some killing, her mother-in-law exclaims in exasperation "Housewives around here have managed well enough without resorting to manslaughter". Hallgerd responds as generations of women have to their MIL's criticism by ignoring her.

Here's another classic Hallgerd moment with her husband Gunnar:

"Gunnar rode to the Althing. Before he left home, he said to Hallgerd, 'Behave yourself while I am away, and don't try any mischief on my friends.'
'The trolls take your friends', she replied."

I believe I have heard my mother say much the same words to my father.

2) Sam the Dog
In the Platonic perfection of forms, the concept 'Dog' must be represented by the Irish wolfhound Sam. Intelligent, noble, courageous, the death of Sam is a tragic moment, heralding the even more tragic death of his master...

3) The death of Gunnar
The peerless hero of the Saga, Gunnar's siege and death is a terrific fight, marked with the laconic humour that characterises much of the Saga's dialogue, such as this exchange between two of the beseigers:

"Gizur looked up at Thorgrim and asked 'Is Gunnar at home?'
'That's for you to find out,' replied Thorgrim. 'But I know that his halberd certainly is.'
And with that he fell dead."

Gunnar is eventually overcome by his enemies when his bow-string breaks and Hallgerd refuses to give him her hair to restring the bow because she is in a mood. Have I mentioned that Hallgerd is seriously bad news to all her husbands?

4) Thangbrand converts Iceland to Christianity: Viking-Stylee

By all accounts Iceland converted to Christianity with alacrity, possibly encouraged by the thought that Christianity's dim view of murder might break the cycle of vengeance-killings (it didn't, at least not immediately). Nevertheless there was some opposition, but nothing could withstand the missionary zeal of Bishop Thangbrand. Thangbrand's most impressive public relations coup involved beating up a beserker with his crucifix.

5) The Battle of Clontarf
Super battle, but actually what struck me most about this is that I'm sure the Valkyrie hymn was quoted in an issue of 2000 AD's Slaine. This got me to thinking about the glory days when Pat Mills was actually a good writer.

So there we are. Next: Lavinia.