Wednesday, August 30, 2006

BOOKS | Fast Food Nation and French Fries

Fast Food Nation

From my trusty Bag of Books:

Fast Food Nation:
The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

By Eric Schlosser

I'm in the middle of Fast Food Nation (brought it to work today) and I came across something that has convinced me NEVER to touch the fries at MacDonald's EVER AGAIN:

For decades, McDonald's cooked its french fries in a mixture of about 7 percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mix gave the fries their unique flavor - and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald's hamburger.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

COMICS | Wonder Woman: Paradise Lost

Wonder Woman: Paradise LostI've been on a Wonder Woman reading spree - all thanks to the graphic novel section at the library@orchard. The selection is half-decent, and I've managed to pick up a few Batman and Wonder Woman trade paperback.

Last night I was halfway through Wonder Woman: Paradise Lost. After a bloody civil war between the rivaling factions of Amazons, Queen Hippolyta (mother of Diana aka Wonder Woman) abolished the matriarchy of Themyscira. This effectively removes Diana from her position as Princess of the Amazons. This marks a change in status for Wonder Woman, and also sets up a potential rift in mother-daughter relationship between Hippolyta and Diana in the future.

For me, Wonder Woman is forever represented by Lynda Carter's warm and elegant portrait. I have a poster of Wonder Woman in my room, by the artist Alex Ross (the portrait looks uncannily like a water-colour rendition of Lynda Carter.) But what I noticed in the comic presentation (from what I've read so far) is that the character suffered when her writers who don't know what to do with her. Wonder Woman is one of the Trinity of the Justice League America (JLA) - but it's sad when she is often made to feel more like a supporting character.

What I found annoying about Paradise Lost was when Wonder Woman ask a handsome Trevor Barnes out for a date - only to have him turn her down. The device is of course to humanise Wonder Woman: Look - even Wonder Woman faces romantic rejection. She's just like us. Awwww! Poor Wonder Woman My response: *roll eyes* Please! I find it obvious and unconvincing. The relationship, or rather Wonder Woman's crush on Trevor Barnes suffers from the lack of build-up - like Wonder Woman herself, a failure of sufficient development. I think the character deserves better. Also, how typical (here I may be accused of being feminist) to go for the "girls need to be boy-crazy to be normal" shortcut.

A major missed opportunity for character exploration is Wonder Woman's semi-exile from Themyscira. She relinquished her title as Princess of Themyscira for the sake of her motherland, and yet at the end was told her presence on the island was disruptive to the new order. This was only briefly mentioned, and sneaked in during a bitchfest with Lois Lane (over, of all things - Superman). I would think a better writer would explore this pain of exile and fall-from-grace in greater depth.

It is easy to attribute it to the poor comprehension of male writers of strong female superheroes. But Joss Whedon has done splendidly fleshing out Buffy the Vampire Slayer - so men can write kickass female superheroes without sacrificing their femininity. I'm gratified that Joss Whedon will be doing the script for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie.

The best writer for the Wonder Woman comic so far seems to be Greg Rucka, who brings out the mythic element in her. This is Wonder Woman afterall - she is gifted with the speed, strength, beauty and wisdom of the Greek gods. The challenge to Wonder Woman writers is how they can balance the ultimate paradox - the god-like heroine who also embodies the best of humanity? She is the bearer of Truth. She cannot lie - that is the burden, symbolised by the Lasso of Truth that she wields. How do you retain the iconic status of this character without reducing them to a two-dimensional caricature?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Brooks on Camus's The Fall

Since Bush is reading Camus, more Camus commentary has been unearthed. Here is Peter Brooks's article on Camus's The Fall and the idea of torture.

What Albert Camus and the "little-ease" say about U.S. torture policies.
By Peter Brooks
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006, at 4:01 PM ET
Camus wrote The Fall during the Algerian War, when France was beginning to face a crisis of conscience over torture similar to what the United States faces now. Indeed, clear parallels exist between the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Iraq: Like the war on terror, much of the French effort to pacify and retain Algeria was waged against a nearly invisible enemy that tended to melt into the landscape. Intelligence-gathering was crucial—and that led to torture.

See full Slate article. Link via Literary Saloon.

Friday, August 18, 2006

D'OH | Bush Reads Camus

The world is talking about George W. Bush reading Camus's L'Estranger. Now, I have been bitching about this to my colleague for the past few days.

Firstly: Just because he quotes from the book (probably written by someone else for him) doesn't mean the President has actually read the book personally.

Secondly: If he really did pick it up, it's probably because he thought L'Estranger is a nice short book. Easy to read.

But maybe it's just the gripping storyline that caught Bush's attention.

On an aside: Harry Potter is more well-known than Tony Blair in a survey on Americans. This, the nation that voted George W. Bush, Camus-reader, for 2 Presidential terms.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comedy by Swann’s Way

I'm going back to the parts of the Proustian Epic that made me laugh.

Legrandin is an acquaintance of the narrator’s family, who happens to be a social-climbing snob who couldn’t quite admit to his snobbery. The narrator relates that his "Mama was infinitely amused each time she caught Legrandin in flagrante delicto in the sin that he would not confess, that he continued to call the sin without forgiveness, snobbishness." His obsession is with hob-nobbing with those he considers the upper-class. So concerned with the social glamour of his associations, he often pretends not to recognise the narrator’s family, so that it will not reflect poorly on him.

One of the funniest scenes in Swann’s Way takes place when the narrator and his grandmother were planning a holiday to Balbec. Legrandin has a sister living only a mile from the place. The narrator’s father thought of asking Legrandin for the sister’s address, just in case:

…my father, curious, irritated, and cruel, said again:

"You know Balbec so well—do you have friends in the area?"

In a last desperate effort, Legrandin’s smiling gaze reached its highest degree of tenderness, vagueness, sincerity, and distraction, but, no doubt thinking there was nothing else he could do but answer, he said to us:

"I have friends whever there are companies of trees, wounded but not vanquished, which huddle together with touching obstinacy to implore an inclement and pitiless sky."

"That was not what I meant," interrupted my father, as obstinate as the trees and as pitiless as the sky. "In case something should happen to my mother-in-law and she needed to feel she was not at all alone in an out-of-the-way place, I was asking if you knew anyone there?"

"There as everywhere, I know everyone and I know no one," answered Legrandin, who was not going to give in so quickly; "I know a great deal about things and very little about people. But in that place the very things themselves seem to be people, rare people, delicate in their very essence, disappointed by life. Sometimes it is a manor house that you encounter on a cliff, by the side of a road, where it has stopped to point its sorrow toward the still pink evening where the golden moon rises while the returning boats, fluting the dappled water, hoist the flame of evening on their masts and carry its colors; sometimes it is a simple solitary house, rather ugly, its expression shy but romantic, which conceals from all eyes some imperishable secret of happiness and disenchantment. That land which is so lacking in truth," he added with a Machiavellian delicacy, "that land of pure fiction makes poor reading for a child, and is certainly not what I would choose and recommend for my little friend, already so inclined to sadness, for his heart, already so predisposed. Climates of amorous confessions and vain regrets may suit a disillusioned old man like me, but they are unhealthy for one whose temperament is not yet formed. Please believe me," he went on insistently, "the waters of that bay, already half Breton, may act as a seedative, though a questionable one, on a heart like mine that is no longer undamaged, on a heart for whose wounds there is no longer any compensation. They are contraindicated at your age, my boy. Good night, neighbors," he added, leaving us with that evasive abruptness which was his habit and, turning back toward us with a doctor’s raised finger, he summed up his advice: "No Balbec before the age of fifty, and even then it must depend on the state of the heart," he called to us.

Although my father talked to him about this again in our subsequent encounters, torturing him with questions, it was a useless effort … M. Legrandin, had we insisted further, would have ended by constructing a whole system of landscape ethics and a celestial geography of Lower Normandy, sooner than admit to us that his own sister lived a mile from Balbec …

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bookstore Speed Dating

Jessa Crispin, the Bookslut goes speed-dating in a bookstore. What will they think of next? The whole enterprise is a punchline waiting to happen.

But then, it gives a dim view of straight men and their reading habits. Maybe only gay men can go cruising in bookstores these days.

Who knew that six minutes could last so very, very long?

I truly thought going into the event that the attendees would be the bookstore’s customers. Not so. Evidently, this speed-dating event happens every week, most of the time taking place at a bar. Many of the men had come to these before. I asked each speed dater, "Have you been to this bookstore before?" Not a single one had.

During the break, I wandered by the line for the bathroom, and the women looked shell-shocked. "How’s it going?" I asked. Women nearly crumpled into piles on the floor. "Who are these people?" one woman holding an Alex Kotlowitz book asked me. Joanne had been quizzing the men about what their favorite books were, and the responses were interesting. "One said his favorite author is Donald Trump," she told me. I guessed that had been a certain balding accountant, and I was right. "But he’s not even like a real accountant," Joanne said, gripping my arm. "He’s in payroll."

The second half of the evening went no better. There were two men who barely spoke English. Another guy in a Cubs t-shirt. One guy was really into Philip K. Dick, and I started to perk up a bit, but then he said he was a bouncer at a generic local version of Hooters.

Another gentleman said he was reading Catcher in the Rye at the moment. "Oh, that’s a good book," I told him. "Have you read it before?"

"I heard the guy that shot Ronald Reagan was carrying it on him and had to check it out!" says he. "It's a crazy book!"

I thought it was the guy who shot John Lennon that had Catcher in the Rye?

Friday, August 11, 2006


How do I feel about the new translations? Obviously it depends on the translator. Translation at the end is about rendering the original/foreign understandable to us, the modern reader. I do not agree that a 19th century translation is necessarily the best translation of a 19th century novel, though some have argued for it. The simple fact is that I am not a 19th century reader.

Constance Garnett (December 19, 1861 - December 17, 1946) is the earliest translator of Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. She is responsible for introducing the Russian masters to the English-reading public. Her life’s work made all subsequent English translations of Russian literature a little easier, I believe.

Constance Garnett's translations of Russian classics were highly acclaimed in her time and many established literary criticisms use the Garnett version for reference. Yet for the contemporary readers, the Garnett translations now feel outdated. Also, while she kept close to the syntax and vocabulary of the original, she occasionally excised certain portions liberally, as in her translations of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was ahead of his time, and Constance Garnett’s Edwardian sentiments and language stifled his style.

But I admit there are some idiosyncrasies I am partial to. I once came across a contemporary translation of the Christian Bible which has the Ten Commandments going "Do Not Steal" etc.

I want my "Thou Shalt Not …" thank you very much. The Bible is evergreen and should not be updated.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Translations

I came across this article entitled "Flood of re-translated classics hits shelves" by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg.

Lots of classics are getting new translations. No surprise.

Robert Fagles will have a new translation out later this year: The Aeneid. I have his renditions of The Iliad and The Odyssesy, so I'll definitely pick up The Aeneid to complete the collection.

But probably only in the Penguin Deluxe paperback.

As for the Russian masters:
In January, Viking released a version of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," the first new English translation in nearly 40 years of the sprawling Russian saga about the Napoleonic Wars. A blurb on the back jacket of the 1,412-page volume, translated by Anthony Briggs, calls it "the best translation so far of Tolstoy's masterpiece into English."

In fall 2007, Everyman's Library is coming out with its own "War and Peace," translated by husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. "It will be our most important new translation of the year," says LuAnn Walther, the imprint's editorial director.

I have the Anthony Briggs translation, which I'm reading in bite-size right now. But if I knew then that the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation will be out in 2007, I would have gladly waited. Their treatment of Dostoevsky gave me confidence in their Russian translations. It brought the energy and passion back into his language that earlier versions lack. Dostoevsky was not a stiff-upper lipped Victorian gentleman and translations that made him sound British missed the point entirely. The Dostoevskian soul is closer to a manic-depressive. At least that's how I see it.

One of the crtics against new translations is Andre Aciman - not that he is against them, but he pointed out that not all new translations necessarily improves on the original. Sometimes, the new translation is just plain jack-assed. Of course, he phrased more politely:
He specifically criticizes the decision by Viking Penguin to change the title of the second volume of Marcel Proust's novel "A la recherche du temps perdu" in a 2004 translation, from Within a Budding Grove to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. He describes the new title as "monstrous." "Do you know what that means, because I don't," he says.

Andre Aciman also edited the compilation, The Proust Project - which has different writers writing about their favourite passages from "The Proustian Epic." I am going to just call it "The Proustian Epic" because to call it either "Remembrance of Things Past" or "In Search of Lost Time" is getting my hands dirty on choice of translators.

On a personal note: I like the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way. Granted I have read no other translations to make a comparison, but Lydia Davis's effort rendered the sinuous prose intimate and endearing.

I've just started on James Grieve's translation, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

Already, I feel the difference. Sorely.

Full article.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Too Many Books

From The New York Times, Joe Queenan writes on the problem we share: we are the kind of readers that start on too many books.

I'm a promiscious reader, really. A philandering reader that flirts from book to book. Now if only my love life is just as excited and varied. But then again, better not. ;p

Currently I'm reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and a few other books. I do feel that it reflects badly on my sense of focus.

Still, I like the cashier at the end:
A few weeks ago I visited the superb postage-stamp-size bookstore in Grand Central Station, where I bought Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal. Since I had only just started Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome the night before, this was hardly an essential purchase. But for whatever reason, I had to take a crack at that book. Some people go into bookstores and are seduced by classics they absolutely must own; I go into bookstores and am seduced by classics I absolutely must start.

"I’m already reading 25 other books, so why am I buying this one?" I asked a friend. "Do you think this is a disease?"

"Yes," interjected the cashier. "But it’s a good disease to have."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What Have Sonny Got to Do with Proust?

I am reading Proust in the pretty Penguin USA Deluxe edition - the one with the deckled edge and the french flap. Yes, affectations, but I like these pretty stuff on my bookshelf. But right now, only the first 4 books of the Proustian epic is available in this edition. it drives me nuts.

Did I mention my Sodom and Gomorrah is in the Penguin UK black hardcover edition? I got it for free so, no excuse.

According to this article:
Only the first four volumes of the new translation—from Swann's Way through Sodom and Gomorrah — are available here. For this we have Sonny Bono to blame. Just before he died in 1998, the congressman sponsored a bill to extend the term of copyright by 20 years: According to the Sonny Bono Copyright Act, passed later that year, rights would expire 95, rather than 75, years after an artist's death. Since Proust died in 1922, only those four volumes first published during his lifetime had passed into the American public domain by the time the Bono Act became law. It will therefore be at least 2018 before readers in the United States can find the final three installments of the new translation (The Prisoner and The Fugitive, and Time Regained) in their local bookstores.

So American readers are screwed because late congressman Sonny Bono (the male and dead half of the duo, Sonny & Cher) decided to intervene and extend the copyright period. This stupid law benefits nobody but parasitic family members of the dead authors.

This is what happens when celebrity goes into politics.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

PROUST | Fall In Love By Swann's Way

He told himself that, in associating the thought of Odette with his dreams of happiness, he had not been resigning himself to a second best as imperfect as he had believed until now, since she satisfied his most refined artistic tastes. He forgot that this did not make Odette any more the sort of woman he desied, since in fact his desire had always been oriented in a direction opposite to his aesthetic tastes. The words “Florentine painting” did Swann a great service. They allowed him, like a title, to bring the image of Odette into a world of dreams to which it had not had accesss until now and where it was steeped in nobility. And, while the simple view he had had of this woman in the flesh, by perpetually renewing his doubts about the quality of her face, her body, her whole beauty, had weakened his love, these doubts were vanquished, that love confirmed when he had instead, for a foundation, the principles of an unquestionable aesthetic, while the kiss and the possession that would seem natural and ordinary if they had been granted him by damaged flesh, coming as they did to crown the adoration of a museum piece appeared to him necessarily supernatural and delicious.

~ Swann’s Way, pp 232~233

Proust makes it clear that to appreciate art is an active endeavour, to work at and to cultivate. Gentlemen, like M. Swann set out to work on studying the masters, like Vemeer. Ironically, love by Swann’s way is similarly an active endeavour. One categorizes, classify and then learn to love, like M. Swann who learns to love Odette after he learns to identify and admire her beauty as a Florentine painting.

And this is the part that bites me about the world of the Proustian epic – even love itself is an artifice. One does not just fall in love, but love is itself an imagination, a performance, a study.

Why am I reading this?! The world they live it goes against everything I stand for!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

PROUST | Swann In Love

Swann's Way
Update: 1st August 2006

I'm now into the second chapter of Swann's Way, the first book of the Proustian epic. That's only about 280 pages. Long way to go. Heh.

I had not expected to like Proust quite so much.I enjoyed how he captured the comedic side of the neurotic but snobbish middle-class. Even his narrative meandering is fun (much, much more than Umberto Eco's meandering).

In the "Combray" chapter of Swann's Way we are introduced to M. Swann as a neighbour, somewhat fallen from favour with the narrator's family due to Swann's marriage to a lady of dubious repute. "Swann In Love" elaborates on the story of his unfortunate romance with the shady but manipulative demimondain, Odette de Crecy, who will later be his wife.

CAMUS | The Plague to Despair

James Heffernan from The Huffington Post suggests Albert Camus's The Plague as antidote to the current Israel-Lebanon conflict.

It was written during the Second World War, when-not satisfied with the ten million deaths achieved by the first one-the most powerful nations of the world were doing their best to kill even more. Camus had a different agenda. Published in June, 1947, barely two years after the war ended in Europe, his novel says nothing directly about the war, but in telling the story of what a Bubonic plague does to the coastal Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s, it symbolically represents what war did to Europe in the same period. At one point, in fact, the narrator of the novel openly compares plagues to wars. Both, he writes, take us equally by surprise, and both commonly last longer than we expect them to. Also, neither one is ever wholly defeated. Like the plague, war will always come again.

But this is only a part of the final message of the book, which is narrated by a doctor who tells his own story: a doctor who sees his patients dying all around him and yet who never stops trying to save and comfort them, and never stops inspiring others to do likewise. In the end, he says, this tale records what had to be done and what must be "done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts." If those words seem uncannily prophetic, consider what he says about how the fight against terror should be waged. "Despite their personal afflictions," he says, it must be waged "by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers."

Full write-up.