A marker to measure drift

A Marker to Measure Drift [cover]

A Marker to Measure Drift [cover]



A yacht in full
sail, white as the moon, cuts
across the bay.

(Alexander Maksik, in A Marker to Measure Drift [p47])

My summer reading – such as it has been – has included Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, which “recounts a season of homeless exile in the life of a 24-year-old Liberian woman fleeing an episode of gruesome violence incidental to the overthrow of the tyrant Charles Ghankay Taylor, in 2003.” (Norman Rush, in a New York Times review dated 23 August 2013)

In describing the writing as hypnotic, I find I am not alone: the GoodReads review also calls it spellbinding. Which helps brings me back to the point of this post: in the seventy days since starting NaNoWriMo, my commitment to this blog and its twin has tended to drift. Rather than attempt to return them to their original headings, I am now actively looking for “new angles” – as I did in fact signal on |A Twisted Pair| on Christmas Eve.

I have been missing the haiku I had been in the habit of publishing – and likewise the states of mind and everyday routines within which such haiku so easily composed themselves. The fourteen syllables that begin this post were not written as a haiku; they are simply a sentence that appears on page 47 of Alexander Maksik’s beautifully written book. But when I read them, they leapt out at me … and have stayed with me. And they serve as a marker against which I now measure my own drift.


Maksik, Alexander. 2013. A Marker to Measure Drift. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Link here to Alexander Maksik web-site.

The architects for trees

Mateship with Birds (cover)

Mateship with Birds (cover)

It seems plausible to consider
that birds were the architects for trees.
A hollow,
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle;
a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted,
like women to the shops.

(Carrie Tiffany, in Mateship with Birds)

“Mateship with Birds takes its name from the book of bird notes written by the Australian naturalist and journalist Alec Chisholm in 1922. While it’s hard not to suspect that Tiffany has given to Harry, as he scribbles in an old milk ledger, a little too much of Chisholm’s own instinct for a well-turned literary phrase, he is also a character who might well come up with such poetry as he records the behaviour of the kookaburras that roost in his trees.” (Belinda McKeon, in The Guardian, Friday 29 June 2012)

It’s best if I lose myself

The Spaces Between (cover, featuring 'The Painted Bird' by Shane Cotton)

The Spaces Between (cover, featuring ‘The Painted Bird’ by Shane Cotton)




‘I’m a ceramic artist,’ the German woman said.

‘Do you have to think when you’re making a pot?’ Kraik drew an invisible circle on the table top. ‘Imagine its shape?’

‘It’s best if I lose myself,’ the woman said …

(Russell Haley, in The Spaces Between [p184])


Haley, Russell. 2012. The spaces between. Auckland: Adastra

Cantillation signs – “black-limbed curlicues”

example of biblical Hebrew trope

example of biblical Hebrew trope (from Wikipedia article on “Cantillation”)

“In the holy tongue, cantillation signs are called taamin, which also means flavors. These little flourishes above and below the letters not only score the melody of the text, they bring out its essence. In time, you, too, will savor the holy verses.” (Zalman, in Anouk Markovits’s novel, I am Forbidden [p54])

… In Josef’s sleep, the black-limbed curlicues scuffled and spun threads he could not unravel, Zalman stories within Christ stories amid which Josef searched for a last letter, a first letter, that spelled a lost word. (I am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits [p54])

“Cantillation signs guide the reader in applying a chant to Biblical readings. This chant is technically regarded as a ritualized form of speech intonation rather than as a musical exercise like the singing of metrical hymns: for this reason Jews always speak of saying or reading a passage rather than of singing it.” (from Wikipedia)

Anouk Markovits has such a remarkable power to weave words. “But the wonder of this elegant, enthralling novel,” as Susannah Meadows so aptly puts it in her review for The New York Times, “is the beauty Ms Markovits unearths in the Hasidic community she takes us into. She remains largely nonjudgmental about the most difficult-to-grasp practices of the Satmar sect, while showing how even the most fervent believers struggle with the letter-of-the-law faith.”


Markovits, Anouk. 2012. I am forbidden. London: Hogarth

For links to reviews and related material, see The taste of clouds, (07 Nov 2012)

The taste of clouds

"I am Forbidden" – cover

“I am Forbidden” – cover

On the crest of the Pont des Arts, they leaned over the bridge’s railing and turned up their palms for the first drops of rain. The sky unleashed itself and they whirled as they had as children, arms stretched wide as their tongues searched their lips for the taste of clouds. (Anouk Markovits, in I am Forbidden [p138]) 

As I read I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits – pen and paper always at the ready – the text drew me, deeper and deeper, into a profound experience. There is much to share … but not all at once.

Anouk Markovits was raised a Hasidic Jew in France, but at 19 she fled her community to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to get a master’s degree in architecture and a PhD in romance studies. “I Am Forbidden,” her first novel in English, centers on two Hasidic sisters: one who leaves, and one who stays, shunning modernity. (from a review published in The New York Times (15 May 2012)

There’s a succinct synopsis on GoodReads, and a review with links to related material on The Telegraph.


Markovits, Anouk. 2012. I am forbidden. London: Hogarth

The power of the tongue

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. (Proverbs 18:21, English Standard Version) 

cover of Michael Crummey's novel, "Galore"

cover of Michael Crummey’s novel, “Galore”

There’s a well-known proverb: “Talk is cheap.” And here’s another: “Actions speak louder than words.”

But God spoke and the heavens and the earth came into being.

The “power of the tongue” citation turns up near the end of Michael Crummey’s wonderful novel, Galore (Other Press, 2011) – which is where I rediscovered it a couple of days ago.

There’s a nice review by Lisa Peet (which I’ve linked to the cover illustration here), and another (written for The Guardian) by Liz Jensen.


PS: “The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” (Voltaire)

The line of beauty – almost unbelievably well drawn

But for Nick, to listen to music, to great music, which was all necessity, and here in the house, where the floor trembled to the sudden resolve of the Allegro, and the piano shook on its locked brass wheels — well, it was a startling experience. He felt shaken and reassured all at once — the music expressed life and explained it and left you having to ask again. (Alan Hollinghurst, in The Line of Beauty)

book cover

A copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s “almost unbelievably well written” novel, The Line of Beauty, has been sitting on the shelf beside my bed for more than a year … and it seems to be taking me nearly as long to read as it took its author to write.

But maybe the latest turn of events will see that change: last evening, my already ailing computer (to which I devote most of every evening) went into a coma from which I’m afraid it may never recover. Let’s see how it is when I get home this evening.

Hollinghurst, Alan. 2004. The line of beauty. London: Picador

The description, “almost unbelievably well written”, comes from Sebastian Smee, reviewing for The Spectator.

Do I astonish more than they?

Do you think of an angel as something that could fit on the head of a pin? (Padgett Powell, in The Interrogative Mood : a novel?)

Padgett Powell‘s fifth novel “poses question after question — mad, peculiar, and often very thought-provoking,” as Troy Jollimore put it in his review for The Guardian. “Unlikely though it sounds, it’s a work of real charm.”

This short work of fiction was not, to my way of thinking, unputdownable. In fact, I did put it down three or four times during the course of my reading, asking myself: Do I really want to keep on with this? or should I simply return it?

But I persevered. And, borrowing the words of Celia Green, “Astonishment is the only realistic emotion.”

Incidentally, that’s a most appropriate word, given the quotation with which Powell prefaces his book:

Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart
…..twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?”

(Walt Whitman, in Song of Myself)

The New York Times review — by Josh Emmons, author of Prescription for a Superior Existence — credits it with “echoes of the Tao Te ­Ching, ‘My Funny Valentine,’ Pascal’s ‘Pensées’, ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, Annie Dillard’s ‘This Is the Life’ and countless other quests for conviction that secretly understand and depend on the futility of such quests …” and warns that “it is wondrous strange.”

“Powell, with his outsize romanticism and urge only to connect, shows that it is through questions rather than answers that truth can, however fleetingly, be glimpsed,” Emmons adds.

The Village Voice called it “a kind of stylistic Hail Mary, reminiscent of David Markson or … well, nobody really, but with better rhythm and jokes where the Wittgenstein references would otherwise go. Not that it doesn’t have those too.”

Powell, Padgett. 2010. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? New York: Ecco (HarperCollins).


“If he flees westward, he finds the fire. If he turns southward, he finds the fire. If he turns northward, the seething fire meets him again. Nor does he find a way to the east to be saved, for he did not find it in his days of incarnation, nor will he find it in the day of judgment.” The Book of Thomas the Contender — Thomas the Humorless, Fabrikant had thought when he was forced to memorize the verses in secondary school. Doom at every compass point. Fabrikant wondered if he had become the hands of Thomas, manufacturing the vehicle of that ultimate flame. (Robert Charles Wilson, in Mysterium)

Wilson, Robert Charles. [Copyright 1994 by Robert Charles Wilson. Boston: Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.] 2010. Mysterium. New York: An Orb Book published by Tom Douherty Associates LLC [p125]

Review by James Schellenberg, on Challenging Destiny 

Review by Thomas M Wagner, on SF Reviews

See also The Book of Thomas the Contender, translated by John D Turner, in The Nag Hammadi Library