Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Read, I Hear, I Watch

Reading the brand spanking new novel by Dan Rhodes, Gold. Rhodes wrote one of my favourite books, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, which is probably the book I give most often as a gift. If I had his talent for making the reader cry with hilarity and then continue crying a few pages later from emotional nausea, I would give up my day job. (That is, of course, if I had a day job.)

Listening to Jarvis Cocker's solo album. With a song title "From Auschwitz to Ipswich" and another song with the catchy refrain "Fat children stole my life" - how could you not love it? And also, thanks to John's best-of-2006-mix, I was introduced to Hello Stranger and their self-titled album is spinning furiously on my ipod.

Watching Friday Night Lights. A show about high school football in Texas, you scoff? I'm telling you - this show is wonderful. Don't believe me? Give 'er a google and see all the critical acclaim for yourself. It reminds me a lot of My So-Called Life: that sort of angst that doesn't seem pretentious because it's layered, and still has humour in its pain, and presses your own buttons. But unlike My So-Called Life, will Friday Night Lights last more than one season? I'd love to see more, but maybe its brilliance would then be lost. Tough one. Watch it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Weekend of Contrast

Sometimes there's nothing better than a night in. Friday night was all about eating soup, drinking tea and watching a week's worth of tv. I got through this week's episodes of The L Word (please, please more Pam Grier on this show), 24, Greys Anatomy, and Friday Night Lights. So I got my dose of smut, suspense, quirky, and high school self-absorption.

Sometimes there's nothing better than a night out. Saturday night was all about tequila. Fun at the time, not so much today. The only known cure for a tequila hangover is a Big Mac so I'm thanking the stars that I don't have a fondness for tequila because a) I don't like McDonalds and b) I probably would be dead of clogged arteries by now.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sontag Love-In

St. Patrick's Day really threw me off. The festivities got off to an early start, so I didn't read that day's Guardian like I usually do on a Saturday afternoon. And then the week remained busy socially so I didn't get around to reading the paper until last night. Thus it was a nice surprise to find an essay by Susan Sontag in the review section that will be published in her posthumous book of essays, At The Same Time, next month.

I've been having a sort of love-in with Sontag recently. On Photography is a crucial work for my PhD thesis and I'm continually re-reading it. And what I adore about Sontag is that the preciseness of her prose is actually deceiving. She layers meaning in her sentences so that every time I go back to her work, it's like a fresh read. When asked what writers ought to do, she replied in part, "Love words, agonize over sentences." I can always feel the intricate pain in the process of her work - which oftentimes is the element of art that I most enjoy: that perfect blend over the border of content and structure.

The essay is about the ethics of fiction writing and how important the novelist is in the age of television. That the function of literature is to tell stories, as opposed to that of television which simply provides information. (Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances - immures us in our own indifference.)

Read the essay. Don't listen to my terrible precis. Though this one line summarizes perfectly what I believe is the entire point of art: A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Explorations in Cairo

Cairo was an overwhelming, astonishing city. While I knew geographically where Cairo was, I didn't expect it to feel so strongly like I was in Northern Africa. I particularly liked how in the midst of the most insane traffic I have seen on any continent I've visited, suddenly a donkey and cart would appear and hold everything up.

I was really looking forward to visiting Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo, as this area of the city dates back to the 6th century BC. The history of the city is contained in this small area - you can still see remains of a fortress that the Romans built when they were present, and then when Christianity spread through Egypt, the most beautiful churches were built here and still stand today. I visited the Church of Abu Serga, the oldest remaining Christian monument in Cairo, which is supposedly where Jesus and his family hid during their flight to Egypt. The Hanging Church (photos of exterior and its gorgeous wall mosaics) is Cairo's most famous church and dates from the 7th century, named because it was built atop of Roman walls and hung over the rest of Coptic Cairo.

But perhaps the most thrilling part of my journey around Old Cairo was a visit to the Ben Ezra Synagogue. The story goes that it was in this very place that Moses was found in the bullrushes. This tributary of the Nile has subsequently dried up, but the keeper of the synagogue took me to this well-type structure behind the building and threw stones down it to show me that there was once water here.

The photograph above is taken inside the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, which was just gorgeous. (My photos of the mosque exterior and courtyard.)

One last highlight was the Khan el-Khalili souq - a bustling, dirty, aromatic market in the heart of the city. I adore places like this and spent a lot of time standing to the side just soaking up everything that was going on around me. The photograph below is of a man pushing this huge cart with a blazing fire inside of it, roasting sweet potatoes as he wandered through the souq. The smell was incredible and I love this shot - it sums up the Khan el-Khalili, and Cairo, perfectly.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Egypt Photographs

The photographs I took in Egypt are up on Flickr. I think this one is my favourite.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sphinxes and Thinxes

Back from Cairo - an astonishing city. (And blog title completely stolen from a cute email from John.) More on Cairo itself later, but first, a wee account of pyramid hunting in Giza and Saqqara.

Saqqara is a huge ancient burial ground where the world's oldest step pyramid sits. The pyramid was built as the tomb for the pharaoh Djoser and dates from 2667-2648 BC. The photo below shows this pyramid as well as a remaining section of wall adorned with cobras that protected the burial grounds. Amazingly, our guide was this Indiana Jones type character - a real Egyptologist - who knew everyone guarding these monuments and was able to show us things the general public is forbidden to visit. I actually crawled into this tomb and down a ladder to see the mummy of Neffer, who was Djoser's singer. This tomb was discovered in 1965 and is one of the only tombs on the burial ground that still contains the original mummy.

When I visited Giza to see the three pyramids and the Great Sphinx, the private viewing miraculously continued. I was the only person standing next to the Spinx (photo above) and actually touched it (and made a wish). It was very difficult to get my head around the fact that I was in the middle of Egypt touching the Sphinx as the pyramids loomed over me - these larger than life wonders that I have seen in photographs for my entire life. And also unbelievable was seeing the hieroglyphics etched into stone, and wall paintings still holding brilliant pigment, that have survived for almost 5000 years. It was a sandy, dirty, exhilarating day.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Shakespeare and Company

When I was nineteen and on the requisite European backpacking trip, I was most excited about visiting Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Where Hemingway, Pound and Gertrude Stein hung out in the early days of the store when Sylvia Beach owned it and was the only person who would publish Joyce's Ulysses. The store closed in 1941 due to Nazi occupation of Paris, and the story goes that it was forced to shut after Beach refused to give her last copy of Finnegan's Wake to a German officer.

When it was reopened by George Whitman, it again became the focal point of leading edge writers such as Ginsberg and Burroughs. (It is informally a sister store to City Lights in San Francisco, which I visited at the end of 2005.) And the best part of the whole history of the store is that you could bunk there in exchange for working in the store a couple of hours a day. My nineteen year old self envisioned sleeping under towering shelves of books, the smell of old paper and dust, and waking up to ghosts of literary greats.

Check out some other great photographs of Shakespeare and Company - the interior shots give a fabulous sense of the store.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

George V

I will be the first to admit that I'm jaded when it comes to hotels. It just comes with the territory of growing up in them - but I continue to adore hotels and the individual qualities and idiosyncrasies of each one. I also love hotel flower arrangements, and the ones in the George V in Paris, from where I just returned, were wonderful.

It was also a step back in time in some ways. In the very French hotel restaurant Le Cinq, the gentlemen were presented with menus that displayed prices while the ladies' menus were price absent. I hadn't seen this in years and this is how I ordered a cup (cup, not bowl) of soup that cost $240 Cdn. Seriously. (I was also taken on a tour of Le Cinq's wine cellar, which really is in a cellar deep in the bowels of the hotel. Jagged chunks of rock formed the walls and I learnt that it was this exact site from which the rock composing the Arc de Triomphe was excavated.)

Hotel service is always lovely and welcome, but I rarely see anything particularly original anymore. In Dubai a few months ago, everytime we left things out in the room we returned to find them on doilies. And all of our bathroom products were also placed on doilies, but in height ascending order. Cute. But at the George V, I experienced something I had never seen before. When I crawled into bed and opened my book, which I had left on the night table, I discovered that the page I had dog-eared was repaired to its usual smooth position and a bookmark now reserving my place. Brilliant.