Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Looking for Jake

I expect this will be the last China MiƩville book i read for a while, because i think i've read everything published to-date.

Waiting for Jake is a collection of short stories, one of which was the germ of my entire interest in MiƩville. Months and months ago, Waiting for Jake was lying around the coffee-table as Mykle and Kai read it, and i picked it up one day and read the story Certain Events in London, which has to be one of the finest science fiction short-stories of all time. I leafed thru a few of the other stories but didn't really find them very engaging except Details.

Four or five months and as many full-length novels later, i read Waiting for Jake front-to-back with barely a word or two skipped here and there and enjoyed every bit.

Certain Events in London remains for me the stellar piece: it presents the idea that there exist certain autonomous streets which phase in and out of existence, living complex and mysterious lives of their own, and even having ramances and violent fueds amongst their alley selves. "The Via Ferrae", i believe they're called.
The story is presented in meticulous Lovecraftian style, with the primary narrative being more or less journal entries which spend most of their time relating hints and clues from other accidentally-found documents. Very indirect, tantalizing, and convincing.

You know how sometimes a cloud looks like something or more specifically how there will be a face in the shag carpet or in the cracks and marks in the ceiling ? Details posits that it doesn't just *look* like a face; it actually is a face, a real presence, which is only manifest in rare just-so circumstances. It goes further to tell the story of one poor person who becomes adept at seeing the faces in seemingly random patterns, and unfortunately can't stop seeing a particular face and being, which forms in the noise of clouds, leaves, bricks, stucco, etc, and more or less hunts our hero down.

The rest of the stories are good as well.

If you like them i really recommend checking out Thomas Liggoti, as i think by and large he's still got a leg up on China in the existential-horror department.

So Much is Burning

I more or less can't bear poetry. I love that it exists, and sometimes if i have like a surplus of energy it's allright to read, but it's pretty much never allright to listen to. Unless it's Bill Taylor. Bill's poems get a lot of praise, so i'm not going to replicate that praise except to say that it's all justified and more. He's hands-down my favorite poet.

So Much is Burning is a forty-four page book of poems and photographs by Bill mostly on the topic of living in San Francisco's gritty Tenderknob district. They're all excellent. Most of them are depressing.

At the Corner

It is mid afternoon
and I am already tired of the day
just another thing wasted
another sad mistake
and at the corner of Geary
and Leavenworth
the sky is a perfect blue
above the bus stop
where the strung out
red-haired prostitute waits
her crazed eyes almost
but not quite

Friday, April 28, 2006

exaltation of larks

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.

It's pretty much common knowledge now or at least amongst those who have interest in both grammar and Nick Cave, that just as one refers to a "school" of fish or a "pride" of lions, that one can refer to a "murder" of crows. Published in 1968, Lipton's book argues that in fact it's not merely that one *can* refer to a murder of crows, but that to refer to an anything-else of crows is downright grammatically incorrect. He unfortunately doesn't quite make it clear what he means by this, but it's tantalizing. I can't believe, for example, that the sentence "I was mocked by a council of crows" is incorrect. I just can't. You could have a council made up of crows. End of story. What about the more generic "a group of crows" ? - It's certainly more correct to say "a school of fish" than "a group of fish", but is "group" actually incorrect ? I don't know.

None the less, he argues very convincingly that the following terms are 100% squarely in the grammatical canon, and that it is always at least more correct to use these words than the generic "group".

Apparently the history of these words goes back to at least works printed in 1320, with the authoritative text being The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486. Apparently these words were way more important back then because hunting was way more important as a courtly sport. The idea being that if you were an up-and-coming courtier and said that you'd "spotted a fabulous group of lions" today, you'd have shamed your family name for all history. As such, The Book of St. Albans was a courtier's primer, more or less, and contained a relatively large chapter listing some one hundred sixty four various names of groups of huntable animals and other presumably non-huntable things like doctors and maidens.

Before getting to the good stuff, i should add two things: If you manage to get hold of a copy (thanks to Sarah for mine), be sure to actually read the introduction because it's quite well-written and really sensitizes the palette for the stuff to come. Second, Lipton points out that there is in fact no name for these types of words. He proposes the term "Venereal Words", because apparently venereal is archaicly associated with the hunt. I think it's a horrible word euphonically and associatively and am not using it. Third, there's a chapter in which Lipton proposes a bunch of new terms such as "a trip of hippies" and "a dilation of pupils" (published in 1968, recall) which i more or less skipped, and none of the words below are from that section.

Reminder: these are all 100% grammatically correct.
In fact more correct than just "a group of blah".

An exaltation of larks.

A murder of crows.

An unkindness of ravens.

A skulk of foxes.

A business of ferrets.

An ostentation of peacocks.

A tidings of magpies. (!)

A boquet of pheasants.
- so gorgeous!

A host of sparrows.
- akin to a host of angels, meaning an army.

A clowder of cats.

A smack of jellyfish.

A pencil of lines.
- let's hear it for the abstract !

and now into the people.
be warned that most of these are pretty anglo/masculo/affluo-centric.

A sentence of judges.

An impatience of wives.

A dilligence of messengers.

A proud showing of tailors.

A boast of soldiers.

An impertinence of peddlers.

A poverty of pipers,
and A neverthriving of jugglers.
(serves 'em right)

A rage of maidens
(this apparently comes from an archaic meaning of "rage" which was not "anger" but "wantonness")

An incredulity of cuckolds.

A foresight of housekeepers.

An illusion of painters.

A goring of butchers.

A drunkenness of cobblers.

and finally a comment on the popularity of the catholic church in england circa 1400:

A superfluity of nuns,
and An abominable sight of monks.