Category Archives: Literature

Urban Renewal

Part of the answer, from Erik Lyle, to the question: What has happened to San Francisco?

selection from Erik Lyle book


What Year is it? Thirty-nine and a Half

The lines from Dan Pagis‘s poem “Europe, Late” seem too close to the mark at the moment. That “it could” is calling out. Here’s the full poem:

Violins float in the sky,
and a straw hat. I beg your pardon,
what year is it?
Thirty-nine and a half, still awfully early,
you can turn off the radio.
I would like to introduce you to:
the sea breeze, the life of the party,
terribly mischievous,
whirling in a bell-skirt, slapping down
the worried newspapers: tango! tango!
And the park hums to itself:
I kiss your dainty hand, madame,
your hand as soft and elegant
as a white suede glove. You’ll see, madame,
that everything will be all right,
just heavenly–you wait and see.
No, it could never happen here,
don’t worry so–you’ll see–it could

photo of Dan Pagis

Marías on the Mark

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a piece about Spain’s Javier Marías. That article sent me to the library to pick up Marías’s Between Eternities. That collection includes an essay entitled “Those Who Are Still Here,” a recollection of his childhood at the movies, among other things. A passage toward the end made me realize that what I had assigned as an idiosyncratic reaction, based on a trip a few years ago back to the neighborhood of my youth, might be a universal experience.

It’s a feeling we’re all familiar with to some extent: nothing is more dismaying than to discover that something — however unimportant — has changed or disappeared from a city we haven’t visited for a while or from the district where we spent our childhood, and our sentiments then are along the lines of an outraged “How dare they!” because we experience any such changes as an attack on our own orderly world and on our own personal memory of the place.


Auribus teneo lupum

photo of book cover Among the Mad

Someone recommended this novel to me as a fine example of a cozy mystery. It’s well done, set in the early 1930s London, and the main character records some lines from her father that I wish were not timeless:

“You know, Maisie, that when you look at one of these politicians, you’re looking at a thief, a liar and a murderer, that’s the way I see it.”

“Come on, Dad, that’s not like you.”

“No, I mean it. Look — they take our money, they lie through their teeth, and then they send our boys off to their deaths, don’t they? And all the time, they’re in clover, never a day’s risk or a day wanting.”


Schrödinger’s Cat in Russia

image of Schroedinger's catYou have probably seen the news that some physicists think they have a new twist on Schrödinger’s cat. In the famous example, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time inside a box. Maxim Osipov has a fully Russian variation in a story called “The Gypsy.” It involves a doctor going to an airport in Sheremetyevo and a conversation the doctoro has with the “security” guys:

Now he’ll hear – for the nth time – their story about an American girl who traveling with a kitty cat –  they put them in special carriers, for the belly of the plane –  and the kitty cat died. The baggage handlers at Sheremetyevo didn’t want any trouble, so they threw the carcass in the trash and replaced it with some cat they caught near the airport. The American girl got into a huff and insisted it wasn’t her kitty –  because her kitty had been dead, and she was taking her home to bury her. She was returning from some town, maybe Chelyabinsk. Last time the story was different: the American with the dead cat had flown in from Philadelphia. Today’s version was more believable, but it was still a lie, of course. The “security” guys call Americans “Americunts” and “Amerifucks” –  ridiculous words, and they’ve never been to America –  but he still laughs every time.

“Good Omens” and the Truth of Temptation

Coincidences sometimes bring illumination. “Good Omens” made it to Netflix at the same time the Pope decided that an old prayer needed to be changed to make God look better. The Pope decided that we couldn’t have a prayer that said God leads people into temptation (“lead us not into temptation”). It’s a familiar picture of God that forgets about the prohibition given to Adam and Even about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, about the flood, about Sodom and Gomorrah, about the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Meanwhile, The Guardian publishes a story about “Good Omens” in which Neil Gaiman tells us that the beauty of “Good Omens” is in the way it doesn’t attempt to depict authorities, including God, as utterly benevolent.

[Gaiman] talks with relish about finding out, on a 2010 visit to mainland China, that his children’s books weren’t available there because, according to his publisher, “you show children being wiser than their parents and you show disrespect to authority and you show children doing bad things and getting away with it”. In response, he decided “to write a book which has all of those things in it”, not least “disrespect for the family unit.”

photo from Netflix series Good Omens

Quotation of the Day

From Ted Chiang’s story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”:

New technology doesn’t always bring out the best in people.

photo of handshake