Archive for Books

Take Me Home

I first came across Toni Morrison a few years ago when I read Beloved, a book that positively blew me away. Although I haven’t read anything else by her since, picking up Home when I noticed it on sale was a no-brainer. I didn’t realize my copy of the book came out of the printer’s cut crooked, but I think it adds to the experience.

This book definitely succeeded in shocking me, someone who considers themselves a fairly well-informed European Americanophile. While I’ve read non-fiction literature like the maddeningly complacent Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washinton as well as Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, it still failed to register with me just how persistent such attitudes were across the entire country. Segregation was not just a southern thing. This isn’t something I grasped from, say, Pynchon’s V., which I’d argue draws attention away from the racial and social problems in order to focus on some kind of crisis of modernity. I bring this up because the PTSD-suffering protagonist sees “black flames shooting out of the V” of the logo of a Chevron station. Morrison clearly isn’t Pynchon, but when your nose is singing from being pushed into flamey V-related imagery you can’t help but make a connection.

The interaction between the global narrator and the Frank narrator is interesting, but I shouldn’t spoil it. If you’ve read Beloved you kind of know the shtick, but it’s different enough not to feel like repetition. In brief, Home is a story of broken people jerkily healing themselves, overcoming not only their shattered selves but also the malfunctioning society that made them. Recommended.

Toni Morrison (2012), Home.

★★★★

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Bespreking: Pallieter

Soms snuffel je eens in je eigen boekenkast rond om te zien wat voor leuke dingen daar zoal te vinden zijn. Op die manier kwam ik een vijfde editie van Pallieter tegen. Het boek is niet alleen geregeld te vinden op de lijst van 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, maar de marketing was indertijd subliem. In 1920 door de kerk verboden, en aangeprezen met amusante verwijzingen naar het comme il faut: “Vlaamsche boeken zijn in de kringen waar men op gehalte en letterkundig fatsoen gesteld is a priori verdacht, want men vreest als men ze openslaat een ranzig pallieterluchtje op te snuiven, hetgeen men niet zonder goede gronden schuwt gelijk den droes” (Jan Greshof, Forum, jaargang 1, 1932). Zo’n ranzig pallieterluchtje klinkt behoorlijk interessant, nietwaar?

Al die lof ten spijt is het verhaal geen havik die niet-aflatend op wolkenhoogte blijft rondzweven. Bedenk immers, dat ook een havik zo nu en dan verrekte hard omlaag moet duiken om zijn prooi te vangen. Niet Pallieter. Lijk het blije varken van Socrates blundert hij gelukzalig door het leven. Zijn karakter wordt uitstekend getypeerd tijdens het snoeien van een perenboom. Daardoor ziet hij “een rondeken jong spekvleesch van den [perelaar]. En Pallieter, die dat zag, lachte luid den gelukkigen lach van een kind.” Ook is het een wonder — pardon, een mirakel — dat dit overgroeide biggetje het geld heeft om al zijn extravagante uitspattingen te bekostigen. Zijn appeltje voor de dorst heeft hij ten slotte thuis al opgegeten.

In pakweg het eerste derde deel van het boek verlekkerde ik me aan het taalgebruik, maar de aardigheid nam na enige gewenning vrij snel af. Pallieter wordt omschreven als een streekroman, maar het heeft niets van doen met een Merijntje Gijzens of Bartje. Pallieter is een Adam in zijn Hof van Eden, of liever gezegd zijn Netheland — neen, toch liever het luilekkerland Arcadia. Het enige dat hij ooit geschreven heeft is carpe diem, zij het in het Nederlands: “Melk den dag!” Een vertelling vibreert gewoonlijk ietwat omhoog en omlaag, zij het emotioneel, zij het qua actie, maar Pallieter blijft als een storm zonder oog de lezer ranselen. Bijgevolg ervoer ik met name gedurende de laatste vijftig bladzijden een lineaire afname van het leesgenot, want de niet aflatende leutigheid en feeststemming zijn uiteindelijk bovenal vermoeiend.

Felix Timmermans (1916), Pallieter.

★★½

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Bespreking: Regenland, wo ai ni

Deze collectie van aansluitende miniverhaaltjes, of misschien is het toch eerder een novelle, laat op humoristische wijze zien hoe een gastvrij land een vreemdeling kan doen ontspruiten. De kunstig geïllustreerde, geestige situaties komen voort uit de voortdurend ondermijnde culturele verwachtingen van de Chinese ikverteller, oftewel die situaties laten zien hoe vreemd sommige zaken die we als vanzelfsprekend beschouwen eigenlijk zijn. Wat mij betreft is het hoogtepunt van het boek het bezoek aan de supermarkt en de daarmee samenhangende uiteenzettingen over melk in China en Nederland. Gelukkig lijkt mijn buik niet op een hangmat met inhoud!

Lulu Wang (2012), Regenland, wo ai ni.

★★★½

P.S. Er is hier ook nog een goed uitgevoerde korte film te bezichtigen, gebaseerd op een episode uit het boek. Het is eigenlijk bedoeld om na te genieten, maar als hors d’oeuvre misstaat het zeker niet.

P.P.S. Regenland, wo ai ni (regenland, ik hou van jou) is de Belgische titel; in Nederland heet het Nederland, wo ai ni.

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My Mini Dutch Literary Canon, or Just a Few Book Recommendations

When you have acquired a degree in Dutch and English literature and linguistics, you almost automatically become a kind of cultural ambassador. It’s a bit of an odd position to be in at times, because you could say I adore the foreign. I married it, and I live in it. I can’t even remember the last Dutch book I read. I think the last book I read in Dutch was Dien het volk, but that’s a translation from Chinese. Actually not too long before that I (finally!) read Karakter, so I do remember. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’m currently reading Pallieter, so it’s not all bad. In any case, I mostly read in English, and lately also a fair bit in French. To balance it out, I’ve also taken care to include some German because it was feeling left out. On a whim I picked up an anthology of Heinrich Heine for €1 and I’m absolutely loving Ideen. Das Buch Le Grand. But we don’t care about foreign literature in this blog post, even though Dutch literature obviously doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. No doubt, throughout the centuries it has been most strongly influenced by the cultural spaces of the very languages I myself still read. My basic interest in foreign literature probably makes me quite fundamentally Dutch.

My goal here is not to give an extensive overview of Dutch literature through the centuries, nor is my exclusion of works meant to imply that I don’t like them, for I probably do. Above all, my goal here is to make a selection that I consider enjoyable. If you want more, I recommend you to look at the literary canon from a Flemish perspective, the DBNL basic library, and the DBNL questionnaire among experts.

  1. Van den vos Reynaerde (13th century). Available in English translation as Of Reynaert the Fox, full PDF here. This work is rightfully considered a masterpiece. Inspired by a French original using the basic format of the Arthurian romance, it shows the whole world to be corrupt and egotistical. Its cleverness, its dark humor, its cruelty and its mix of genres make this the seminal text in the international Reynard tradition.
  2. Conscience, Hendrik (1838), De leeuw van Vlaenderen (The Lion of Flanders). Derided in the Netherlands by contemporaries who were writing Literature with a capital L, which has no place for silly nationalist works. Even Flemish people tend to barely consider him readable, but it’s not even half as bad as it’s cracked up to be. And besides, how many novels can claim to have had the same kind of cultural impact? Flanders probably wouldn’t exist in its present form if it weren’t for this book.
  3. Multatuli (1860), Max Havelaar. One of the best novels of the 19th century in any language, provided you can get past the first chapter or two. Even though Multatuli is clearly mocking the kind of then prevalent preachy, moralistic, long-winded narrator, it’s the kind of parody that is almost indistinguishable from what is being mocked, at least for a contemporary reader. I have previously quoted what I considered to be a particularly poignant passage.
  4. Elschot, Willem (1946), Het Dwaallicht (Will o’ the Wisp). Sex, religion, Biblical references… this novella has it all. In Elschot’s work, even failure is glorious.
  5. Maria Dermoût (1955), De tienduizend dingen (The Ten Thousand Things). This book lives and breathes the eastern, taoist world view. I suppose you could compare it to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, although it’s nothing like it. This is a fully engrossing, almost mythical world.
  6. Hermans, Willem Frederik (1958, 1966), Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep, 1966) and De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958). Hermans wrote several other very worthwhile books, but those two are definitely the big ones. All of his work is very dark and not everybody likes it, but I call it Dutch postmodernism at its best.
  7. Michiels, Ivo (1963), Het boek Alfa. I have some doubts about including this book on this list, but it’s the closest equivalent I can think of to something by Joyce or The Sound and the Fury. Just like Finnegans Wake it isn’t necessarily about something but rather embodies it, but it isn’t even half as incomprehensible. This is an important book in Dutch literature for sure, but I prefer The Sound and the Fury.

Hopefully I’ve managed to spark some interest in these works. Enjoy your summer reading!

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Only Literary Discourse?

[I]n matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse. […] The situation is aggravated by the tremor that breaks into discourse on race. It is further complicated by the fact that ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture.

Toni Morrison, Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. 1992. Harvard University: Cambridge. p. 14.

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Preparing a PDF in Sections for Binding

For PostScript, Debian has a nice collection of tools in the psutils package, including psbooks and psnup. But since I do most stuff in PDF, I figured I’d skip a step and look for something similar for PDFs: PDFjam is just the thing.

In Debian Squeeze you have to install the pdfjam package separately, but in newer versions of Debian and Ubuntu it comes as part of the texlive-extra-utils package.

By default it turns the whole file into one big booklet. If you want multiple sections for binding, you’ll have to disable that behavior. The --signature option allows you to specify a multiple of four for the size of the sections.

pdfbook --booklet false --signature 16 your-file.pdf

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Shapes for sounds (cowhouse): not perfect, but very good looking

I picked this book up on a whim at the Boekenfestijn for relatively little. It turned out to be a decent find.

First of all, this book looks rather nice, occasionally even stunning. It presents a lot of information in an easily accessible, visual manner. I like how the right-side lines of the text are jagged rather than the omnipresent justified, and I quickly grew fond of the phoneme head that shows how we articulate sounds. It’s a pity that this feature wasn’t extended to include a few more phonemes of the English language in one of the many appendixes.

Page 17 has some strange things going on regarding phonetics: w and y are initially incorrectly listed as fricatives, but a few lines down also correctly as approximants (also known as glides)—assuming we’re actually talking about /w/ and /j/. This section on phonetics is at the very least lacking in clarity, even if my copy of An Introduction to Language could’ve benefited from some of its typographical prowess.

In the next paragraph, h is listed as a letter that takes its name from placing a short vowel sound, usually e, before it. However, /eɪtʃ/ does not fit that bill. Aitch doesn’t even contain /h/. It was actually mentioned as “aitch” earlier in the text and listed not much later alongside “h, j, k, q, w, y” as late inclusions to the language. Since the author is a typographer by trade and the true focus of the book was the visual charts, I hope similar small mistakes didn’t sneak into those parts of the book, because I don’t have enough prior knowledge to tell. There are also numerous comma splices throughout the text. Once again, this distracts from the overall very polished feel of the book.

Appendix №6 shows the evolution of writing very neatly, but unfortunately the interrobang (‽) seems to have accidentally been turned into a regular question mark (?). I know, I’m picking nits, but it was specifically mentioning and showing the interrobang after all.

Finally, the book has a bibliography that can aid you if you want to know more. Always a good thing.

Don’t let my nitpicking give you the wrong impression: I quite thoroughly enjoyed this gorgeous, fun, informative book.

PS For some color illustrations of the charts and appendixes, see the brain pickings review.


This review was cross-posted on LibraryThing.

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