Saturday, May 14, 2016

Small bombs, large impacts, no simple explanations (Books - The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan)

In Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), three boys set out on an errand one afternoon in Delhi. Only one of them returns.  Tushar and Nakul, brothers, are hindu. They are killed by a terrorist's bomb. Their friend, Mansoor, is muslim. He survives, but with physical and emotional scars.  Mahajan writes of the origins and the consequences of such "small" acts of devastation.  They are perpetuated by just one or two individuals. The bombs are built with easily found materials and fit neatly in backpacks. The political perspective of the perpetrator and the pain of the survivors are similar in their intense myopia, but, as Mahajan writes:
The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later.  A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult.  A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling cars and sloping beggars...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

People are more than objects in space (Books - A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin)

Ethan Canin was already one of my favorite authors for having written For Kings and Planets, and I have frequently recommended his The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air.  With A Doubter's Almanac (Random House, 2016) Canin has written a "great" book, in the sense of giving expression to profound experiences, and also, I believe, in creating something whose meaning extends beyond its exemplars - the concerns of these specific characters, the obsessions of the period in which it was written - and has the potential to be enduring. Time will tell on that second point.

In some ways, Canin is writing about the same things he has always written - fathers and sons, success and failure, gut-smarts and brains - all within the scopes of the grandest of considerations: time and space.  Time as it is experienced on a human scale, through one generation of a family experiencing another.  Three generations of the Andret family are the focus of this novel.  Space as it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, which studies the interrelation of things, though not on the level they are visible in nature, on a hypothetical level of multiple dimensions. This is the focus of the work of Canin's protagonist, Milo Andret, who may be a genius in using math to describe such relationships but is profoundly disabled in forming a typical human bonds and severely limited even in insight into himself.  In one scene, Canin describes Milo as having to touch his own face to understand that he was smiling.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The hyperfocus of life during illness, and the book as immersive technology (Books - Scarred Hearts by Max Blecher)

Scarred Hearts (Old Street Publishing) by Max Blecher was first published in Romanian in 1937, but did not reach English readers until 2008. The novel is set in a sanatorium in France, describing life there for tuberculosis patients.  Although written in the third-person, Emanuel is clearly a stand-in for Blecher himself, who was diagnosed with Pott's Disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, at age 19.  Treatment for this condition at that time immobilized patients in body-casts.  They lay on their backs in special carriages which could be wheeled around in by people or horses, adding infantilization to their list of indignities.  What is striking in this novel is that, in the face of death on a daily basis, most of Blecher's vividly drawn characters are still focused squarely on the banalities of daily living.  Blecher writes in an adolescently effusive tone of Emanuel's lust, jealousy, urge to relieve the itching under his body cast, or his embarrassment at the smell of his body, given his limited ability to wash. That is not to say that he ignored pain, loss of function, or mortality, but the narrative style focuses less on the moment-to-moment shame of it than it does on the absurdity.  When 19-year-old Emanuel learns of his diagnosis he writes:
So many horrific things had occurred, so sententiously and so calmly, during the last hour; so much catastrophe had taken place, that, exhausted as he was by the day's excitement, for a delirious, irrational moment Emanuel felt like laughing. 
As he rides the train with his father to Berck Sanatorium, Emanuel meets an old lady whose son is a long-time patient.  She asks if he has an abscess? 
'Yes, I do,' Emanuel replied with a certain brusqueness. 'What's it to you?'

This time the old lady said nothing. In the calligraphy of  wrinkles on her face there was a clear sign of some great sadness.  In a half-voice she ventured to ask if the abscess had been fistulised...

'It's a good thing the abscess is not fistulised,' muttered the old lady.

'And if it were?' replied Emanuel absently.

'Ah well, then it's another matter...' and leaning into his ear she whispered breathlessly: 'The word at Berck is that an open abscess is an open gateway to death.'
Blecher's narrative pulls us inside the hyperfocus of a life commanded by illness.  Today we celebrate technologies like virtual reality that are supposedly unique for immersing viewers in a full sensory experience of, say, sitting in the cockpit of a plane or walking across a battlefield, but Blecher's writing reminds one that books can be equally effective at enveloping the reader in the sensations of an experience that are not actually occurring to them.

In this book, context is all. Blecher immerses us first in the immediate urgency of a young man's crippling illness, once that is achieved, the impact of this brief novel succeeds because we know two things, only one of which was known to Blecher.  One is the tragedy that the author would die at 29 years-of-age, something we are aware of as his character worries about his appearance before meeting a girl he is infatuated with.  Don't waste time, I wanted to scream as I read, but he struggles any young lover would, despite being tied to a carriage and immobilized in a body cast.  The second is the absurdity, that, given the year of Blecher's death (1938), he would never see the war which would focus the entire world myopically on an infection of its own and that, if he hadn't died of tuberculosis, as a Romanian jew, he would likely not have lived but a few more years.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Innocence rescued in a modern literary fantasy (Books - The Children's Home by Charles Lambert)

I am a great admirer of Charles Lambert's books, having enjoyed his thriller-like works Any Human Face and The View from the Tower, his debut novel Little Monsters, and With a Zero at its Heart, a recent volume of brief poem-like episodes of memory, surprising to me for how they departed in style from his other published work. Never short on surprises, Lambert's latest is again a departure - I'd call The Children's Home (Scribner, 2016) equal parts dystopian fantasy, gothic tale, and parable. Reading across Lambert's work, I have observed a theme of betrayed innocence, which has been expressed in a story of disenfranchised children. Unlucky orphans have made their way into stories from Dickens to J. K. Rowling.  I think that perhaps one appeal in tales like these is that, as a reader, I take on the perspective of that child.  I can project my own not-knowing, my isolation, and sense of danger onto theirs - feel the risk, but safely, as this is art - and then later can defeat the adversity, feeling accomplished, knowledgeable, and secure. 

In The Children's Home, though, Lambert has turned the form on its ear (not surprisingly).  Here the protagonist, Morgan Fletcher, is a grown man - but perhaps not fully grown - and this is part of the point.  He has been the victim of his mother's cruelty and has quite literally lost his face (read his sense of self).  In the course of this story, it is a child, or band of children really, who help him grow up. The tale makes nods to literary predecessors - Orwell and Kafka - with a nameless Ministry that sates itself by devouring children - H.G. Wells and Ralph Ellison - with a protagonist whose interior and exterior faces are very much at odds. I think that I detect an homage to Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, perhaps?  As a thriller writer, Lambert knows how to create narrative tension by not answering all the reader's questions.  As a poet, he holds back from explaining everything the reader wants to know, so that we insert our imaginations into the text.  In Lambert's fantasy writing, the world is familiar and yet never quite what one expects (the sun rises in the West, for example) and the clues are subtle.  It feels a very Lambertian reading experience that in paying close attention, this reader felt that he had teased out special details hidden just for him, felt rewarded, even accomplished, at the conclusion of The Children's Home.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Alexander Humboldt's broadreaching influence on modern science (Books - The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf)

Andrea Wulf's biography The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) shares the irrepresable energy of her subject. Wulf convincingly contends that the German-born explorer, adventurer, scientist, and author (1769 - 1859) was the creator of our modern understanding of the natural world. His interests extended from volcanoes to plant-life, to climate, to the cosmos and his influence can be seen in the way we comprehend nature as something not to be ruled, but as something that human beings exist within - something complex and "alive." Humboldt is an ideal subject for reconsideration in a modern scientific biography.  Wulf paints a picture of Humboldt as a contemporary outsider, offering strong support that he was gay.  He warned in the 19th century of the impact humans could exert on climate. Finally, his expertise of the natural world was preserved in dozens of volumes that were appreciated as much as repositories of factual information as they were for their poetry. This passion helped father the contemporary environmental movement, influencing naturalists Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir.  It can arguably be appreciated in our own era's melding of the arts and sciences in an effort to broaden understanding of our small place but potentially devastating impact in a very large and complex system.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bloomsbury myth-busting of the highest order (Books - Virginia Woolf: A Portrait by Viviane Forrester)

Viviane Forrester's Virginia Woolf: A Portrait (Columbia University Press, 2013), in 2013  is less strictly a biography than it is a literary myth-buster.  If you are a fan of all things Bloomsbury, and I am an enthusiastic one, you are likely to be fascinated by new primary source material about Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Duckworths.  She uses this, a close reading of long-published letters, diaries and fiction, and a fresh frame-of-reference to reinterpret the famous relationships of Virginia Woolf to her father, husband, sister, and her own psyche. Her writing style is familiar and conversational, like a good literature professor leading a high-level seminar to share an original understanding of work she has reconsidered deeply.  I don't know what it would be like to read this work without having a thorough grounding in Woolf's work, Leonard Woolf's diaries, and the famous Quentin Bell biography of  Virginia Woolf, but I imagine it would be pointless. However, if you are an aficionado, the literary archeology is excellent, the writing accessible and clean, and the conclusions startling.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The science of autism is a story of real people (Books - In a Different Key by John Donvan & Caren Zucker)

Ruth had stopped doubting herself the morning she saw Joe do a jigsaw puzzle upside down.  For some time, she had been nagged by a feeling that he was not like her other children in some crucial way.  Six months earlier, Joe had stopped speaking, even though, up to that point, he had seemed to be developing normally...

And then there were these puzzles.  He was working on one just then, a map of the United States whose parts were sprawled, like him, all over the kitchen floor and through the doorway into the living room.  He was getting it done: New Hampshire met Maine, and New Mexico snapped in next to Arizona.  But he was getting it done fast, almost too fast, Ruth felt, for a two-year-old.  On a hunch, she knelt down to Joe's level and pulled the map apart, scattering the pieces. She also, deliberately, turned each piece upside down, so that only the gray-brown backing was showing.  Then she watched what Joe did with them

He seemed not even to notice.  Pausing only for a moment, Joe peered into the pile of pieces, then reached for two of them.  They were a match.  He immediately snapped them together, backside-up, between his knees on the floor.  It was his new starting point.  From there he kept going, building, in lifeless monochrome, out of fifty pieces, a picture of nothing. 

What John Donvan's and Caren Zucker's In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Crown Publishers, 2016) is especially good at, is conveying a picture of autism historically, scientifically, and socially, by telling the stories of the people involved.  One in 68 children have a diagnosis, so it's hard to live in today's America without hearing about autism.  Understood as a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, it is diagnosed based on impairments in communication, especially social relatedness, and a restricted repertoire of activity and interests. The dysfunctions it results in manifest themselves in different persons as impaired eye contact, failure to develop peer relationships, an absence of or delay in developing communicative speech, an inability to conceive of other people's mental states or emotions, lack of spontaneous imaginative play, inflexible adherence to routines which are disruptive to daily functioning, and persistent preoccupation with part of objects rather than their conventional uses, symptoms which must be present prior to three years-of-age to be diagnostically relevant and which often are noticed suddenly, after a period of apparently typical development.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Unexpected World of Cage Fighting and What It has to Do With Us (Books - Beast by Doug Merlino)

I am as guilty of it as the next person - reading for comfort.  Either we read about worlds with which we are familiar or, and I think worse, to confirm what we believe we already know. I say 'what we believe we know' because that's the risk - isn't it? That we might learn something new, or that we might change our minds, and sometimes that comes in unexpected packages. I read Doug Merlin's Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) because Doug is a friend and, frankly, would never have read it if left to my own reading habits. I'm glad that I did.
Jeff Monson was, as usual, running late.  He was trying to get his two-year-old daughter, Willow, to eat.

"Here comes the plane, Willow," he said in a singsong voice, holding out a spoon to the girl, who was sitting in her high chair. "Are you ready for the plane?"

Willow threw back her head, covered in red curly hair, laughed, and refused.

Monson wore shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that stretched to cover his muscled frame.  His head, which rose out of a triangular based of trapezius muscle, was bald.  FIGHT was tattooed on the left side of his neck, directly above an exhortation to DESTROY AUTHORITY.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Coming of age in the footlights (Books - The Little Shadows - by Marina Endicott)

Award-winning Canadian novelist Marina Endicott is not widely known in the U.S., but she deserves to be. Her The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada, 2011) is an entertaining, coming-of-age saga of three sisters, Aurora, Clover, and Bella, working for their supper on the vaudeville circuit circa 1912 with their widowed mother.  Aside from simply being a good story, there were three things I particularly enjoyed about The Little Shadows.

This is a coming-of-age story about women rather than men, which is still a literary rarity.  When it begins, the emphasis is on the sisters' act, how they function as one, as their survival depends upon its success.  But as they mature, they become individuals as artists and women.  The joy of the plot is tracing the development of their characters and how their talents shape them to be the women they become.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A tale of coming together while coming apart (Books - Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy)

In Sleeping on Jupiter (2015, Hachette India) Anuradha Roy creates a tale of convergences.  An Indian girl, Nomi, is orphaned when her parents are slaughtered in war. She is given refuge in an ashram, where she is sexually abused by the guru, after which she is adopted by a European woman and raised in Scandanavia.  As a young woman she returns to India, to Jarmuli, the seaside town where the Ashram was located.  Three older women, good friends, go on a long-planned trip to the same seaside town -  a well-earned but final fun weekend, as one of them is becoming infirm.  They make a pilgrimage to Jarmuli's famous temple. At the same time, one of the older women's sons has also made his way to Jarmuli for work, following the break-up of his marriage.  And a young man tries to earn enough money to escape from under the abusive thumb of his uncle by working as a temple guide. These characters come to Jarmuli, some from darkness in their past, some with present woes.  Their meeting is meant to have a redemptive ring to it, but Roy's beautiful lyrical prose doesn't seem to raise the convergence above coincidence.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Life is more than what we know (Books - In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman)

A well-to-do Londoner, his marriage and his job as an investment banker in ruins as the economy collapses in 2008, receives a visit.  Zafar, whom he knew in college, is of Bangladeshi birth, an orphan, a mathematical prodigy, an Oxford graduate, and a human rights lawyer. Agitated, traveling only with a backpack, Zafar arrives at our narrator's home and tells the remarkable story of how he came to be as he is now - a tale of contemporary Asian politics, English colonialism, and the Incompleteness Theorem of mathematician Kurt Godel.

In In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014) story- telling itself is an important part of the story. Both who we are and how we're known, it explains, are narrative constructions.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Man Who Wouldn't Be Known (Books - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara)

Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) has been written about widely and short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.  As I started it on the recommendation of my local bookseller this past summer, I had heard very little of the hooplah.  I believed I was reading a typical modern tale of  four friends who went to college together, chronicling their coming of age, their successes, failures and jealousies in relationships and work. But A Little Life defies this genre. The friends are an architect, an actor, an artist, and their friend Jude, around whom they and this story revolve. Jude is a man of great beauty, although he is never physically described by the author.  He is brilliant and creative, although he makes his very ample living as an attorney.  Yet with all of the accoutrements of success, Jude cannot allow himself be loved, so severely is he traumatized by abuse he suffered as a child.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Revolution in thought and practice (Books - The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow)

Erasmus Darwin, 18th Century physician, writer, grandfather of the more famous Charles, and one of the eponymous lunar men of Jenny Uglow's book, wrote in the later years of his life:
Credulitas. Credulity.  Life is short, opportunities of knowing rare; our senses are fallacious, our reasonings uncertain; man therefore struggles with perpetual error from cradle to the coffin.  He is necessitated to correct experiment by analogy, and analogy by experiment...
If you live life with an ounce of curiosity in you, you likely recognize the longing Darwin so pithily expressed . If you, like Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Boulton inventors of the steam engine, Josiah Wedgwood potter and chemist, Joseph Priestley religious radical and the discoverer of oxygen, or any of the other principal characters in Uglow's The Lunar Men (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), live to pursue your curiosities, then this is your creed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Two memoirists of passion (Books - Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow & On the Move by Oliver Sacks)

In the last several months I read the memoirs of two fascinating, beloved, gay, British-born public figures.  One was published recently, the other 15 years ago.  One works in one of my areas of expertise - the arts - and the other in the other - the science of the brain.  The authors were actor Simon Callow and Dr. Oliver Sacks.  Their books are Love is Where it Falls (Penguin Books, 2000) and On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015).  Their books are forthright and generous, the authors deeply giving of themselves, and they are crack writers.  Knowing them now, as I do, it is fitting that these copies are signed.

She had, she said, been walking down Piccadilly, musing on the fact that it was Moliere's birthday and that not a single actor in England would know, much less care.  Musing on this sad reality, it had suddenly struck her that, yes, there was an actor in England who would know and care: me.  And so she had gone into Fortnum's and ordered the wine and had it sent to me, to celebrate, with my actor friends, the great playwright's birthday.  
So begins an unlikely romance between a fierce, 70-year old theatrical literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, and 30-year-old actor Simon Callow.  I find myself wanting less to write about the merits of this book than to quote from it.  These two live passionately and are attracted to each other so relentlessly, because their taste in art is not so much an aesthetic about life's decor as a deeply held principle about the way to live it.
We must feel, that is everything. We must feel as a brute beast, filled with nerves, feels, and knows that it has felt, and knows that each feeling shakes it like an earthquake. 
I do so passionately believe that the only meaning of life is life, that to live is the deepest obligation we have, and that to help other people live is the greatest achievement. It's in that light that I see acting, and that alone.

Oliver Sacks has written so humanely and observantly of his patients' lives (for instance here and here), and so openly of his peculiar fascinations, that this memoir, and this is the third of his books that might be classified as such, was a welcome departure.  Here, finally, Sacks scrutinized as deeply and wrote as openly about his own life - particularly his inner life. This was welcome not only in knowing more about so great a man and storyteller, but also because one read it in the context of his impending death (about which he wrote so beautifully here and here) and because one could feel in the narrative drive this desire to share it all before it was too late.

Early in Sacks's writing career, the great poet W. H. Auden said to Sacks
You're going to have to go beyond the clinical... Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.
This is really where Sacks's writing succeeds so magnificently in combining what is true with what feels true in a story. I cherish his writing and hope to celebrate his life in a live program in the coming year.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Impressions of Napoli and Ferrara (Books - Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante & How to Be Both by Ali Smith)

A number of years ago, I switched from writing reading-to-reading impressions, posted as I read, to fully composed reviews after having finished a book.  I recently began a new job running a cultural center in NYC, so, although I have been reading, I haven't had the brain space to write full fledged reviews.  I'm going to try doing some capsule reviews as well as doing more of the the impressions while reading model for a while and see how that goes. I hope some of you will be along for the journey. 

Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan quartet, composed of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and, The Story of the Lost Child, is a stunning portrait of the friendship between two women and particularly how the life of a great friend can become subsumed in one's own.  It is a literary page-turner and arriving at the end of some 1,700 pages I experienced how masterfully structured it was. Ferrante's narrator is herself a writer and the quartet, especially the final volume, reflects on the process and consequences of writing.  She manages to be smartly self-aware without becoming overly explanatory.  Her mastery of craft is made plain to me when I think of the broad cast of some 40 characters with whom I had become familiar.  The scene writing, as in the wedding reception that closes the first volume, brings the huge cast into spectacularly vivid focus, even while creating a tone that feels so of its period (late 50s/early 60s) that my mind's eye sees it in the Technicolor palate.  I cannot recommend these enough.

I feared that Ali Smith's How to be Both might become twee because of its concept, but I should have known better. Smith has constructed a pair of interrelated tales, one set in renaissance Italy based on the life of fresco painter Francesco del Cossa and the other set in modern day Britain concerning a daughter mourning the death of her mother, an activist. The plots are cleverly referential of one another but don't yield their secrets easily.  The concept, such as it is: these stories can be read with either as the first.  In the order I read them (15th century first) the narrative keeps the reader working to understand what Smith's narrator sees.  Without giving away too much, she/he sees aspects of the other narrative. In fact, each story's art making protagonist has a window into the other, and the effect for the reader is something like an infinity mirror. Smith's literary time travel is a puzzle of sorts, offering some intellectual smiles and even thrills at hearing the 'click' as a detail falls into place. I am a rabid fan of Smith's Artful and her themes of identity, loss, and the uses of art are visited here again but in a different guise.  Smith loves to play with form, and to let you know it.  If Artful was an argument (a narrative about the composition of a lecture on art), How to be Both is a more traditional immersive narrative experience, but one that plays with the tension between then and now, between life and death, between art and audience, and between visual and narrative form. You know those 'which writer would you invite to lunch questions?'  Ali Smith would be one of my guests.

Still to come, capsules  of Simon Callows' Love is Where it Falls, Olver Sacks's On the Move, and Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life and while-I-read impressions of Hiding in Plain Sight and Lunar Men.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

David Grossman on his Writing Process

If you have loved David Grossman's fiction, as I have (see here on To the End of the Land), then you will appreciate this 2007 Paris Review interview with him on Arabs and Israelis, his writing process, and his life.
 In recent years, I feel I’m less and less influenced by writers. I do not see this as a good sign, by the way. I want to be influenced by writers. I think it is a sign of being open...
...the books that really matter, the books that I cannot imagine my life without having written, are the more demanding ones, like The Book of Intimate Grammar, Be My Knife, See Under: Love, and the book I’m writing now. I may occasionally like to write an entertaining book, but I take literature seriously. You’re dealing with explosives. You can change a reader’s life, and you can change—you should change, I think—your own life.

Usually a lighter book will serve as a kind of recovery for me. I devastate myself when I write a certain kind of book—there is a process of dismantling my personality. All my defense mechanisms, everything settled and functioning, all the things concealed in life break into pieces, because I need to go to the place within me that is cracked, that is fragile, that is not taken for granted. I come out of these books devastated. I don’t complain, of course. This is how books should be written. But my way to recover from this sense of total solitude is to write books that will bring me into close contact with other people. I wrote The Zigzag Kid because I had to recover from The Book of Intimate Grammar and Sleeping on a Wire.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Past inhabits present in the lives of 3 families (Books - The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; A Legacy by Sybille Bedford; & Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz)

Three family sagas are the subject of this post.  What I like about this form is the intertwining of the characters' narratives with a sense of place and time.  When it works well, I experience both the familiarity of people wanting, thinking and behaving, and the distance of an unfamiliar time and which gradually lessens, becoming more and more like my own. Sybille Bedford's A Legacy (Counterpoint, 1956, 1999) set in late 19th and early 20th century Germany, Naguib Mahfouz's  Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1956, 1990) set in early 20th century Cairo, and Angela Flournoy's accomplished debut The Turner House, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) set in past and present day Detroit.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Two formative men of the American Theatre (Books - A Life by Elia Kazan & Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr)

The life stories of two American Theatre makers monopolized my reading back in January: Elia Kazan: A Life, film and theatre director Kazan's hefty, probing memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) and Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W.W. Norton & Co. 2014), John Lahr's deftly paced, thoroughly researched, deeply perceptive biography of the great playwright. Two men could not have had a greater influence on the structure and build of action, the feeling of innocence and epiphany, the rhapsodic music of text, the themes of individuality and of sex that were the coming-of-age of the American theatre and film in the 1930s - 1970s, than Williams and Kazan.  Two men could not have been more superficially different - Kazan was the son of Greek immigrants, born in Turkey, a scrappy fighter, and relentless womanizer, Williams a grandson of an American preacher, delicate, gay, a virgin until twenty-six years of age - but fundamentally they were remarkably similar. Aside from their obvious love of theatre, both seemed dissatisfied with the restrictions of their world, were driven to create theatre to give veiled expression to a deep sense of personal failure, both felt outsiders and compulsively pursued relief in work or, failing that, one from drink and the other from sex. John Lahr's quotes a letter from Williams to Kazan:

Friday, March 20, 2015

3-D tour through brain space for Brain Awareness Week

I talked to curious students about the Brain at BiobBase yesterday and took a really amazing tour through a 3-D brain in a, really.  Check out my Brain Awareness Week blog by clicking here and scrolling down.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Improvisation in the Sciences - improvisations on a panel discussion for Brain Awareness Week 2015)

This originally appeared here but I now post it below.

When I heard that the opening event of Brain Awareness Week this year was on the theme of improvisation and involved arts and science, I knew that I wanted to be the one to report on it.  I decided to do this blog as an improvisation; that is what follows.

Improvisation 1

I am riding the subway on my way to Improvisation in the Sciences at Columbia. It’s the first event of Brain Awareness Week and involves musicians and scientists. Given the theme, and since I am both an artist and neuroscientist, I decided to improvise this blog, a little experiment. I’m feeling a bit nervous, like I’m performing myself. Before I left my apartment, I sat down to play a sonata on the piano, I thought it would get me in the mood but I was interrupted by a phone call letting me know that the subways were delayed. I ran out of the house. Having stopped the sonata in the middle, the strains are repeating unresolved in my mind’s ear. I am anticipating music on the program, but it probably won’t be this kind of music.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Whimsy in the face of chaos as Russian history repeats itself (Books & Opera - The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov, There Once Lived a Mother.... by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitri Shotakovch)

Today, as more than 50,000 Russians march to honor Boris Y. Nemtsov, the Putin critic who was assassinated a few days ago, it seems timely to consider some of the art made in the context of Soviet and Russian regimes, which may be different for the name they give their ruler but seem alike in their repression of opposing views.  While Putin is stripping off his shirt and getting into bed with the oligarchs, politically repressing homosexuals, and annexing Crimea as the Empress Catherine the Great did before him, I read The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, written by Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian living in Paris in the late 1940s, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's There Once Live a Mother Who Loved her Children, Until They Moved Back In, three novellas about Soviet Life written between 1988 and 2002, and I saw the 1934 Shotakovich opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera.

These three works plumb life's extremities, attempting the creation of some kind of meaning in the face of the suffering endured by the artist.  So we can thank repressive regimes for that literary construct we call the Russian soul.  Each of these works express deep longing for something better. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Brief flashes of memory creating the beauty of what has passed anew (Books - With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert)

I have written enthusiastically of Charles Lambert's novels Little Monsters, Any Human Faceand  The View from the TowerHis new creation With a Zero at Its Heart (The Friday Project, 2014) is excitingly fresh.  Although it reflects qualities I have observed in his other work - the driving energy, the concentration on sensory experience in everyday life, and the cleanliness of prose - it refines them into something uniquely and lovingly felt.  Lambert divides his narrator's life experiences into iconic categories like money, travel, language, danger, correspondence, work, waiting, death, books - 24 in all - dipping into 10 episodes per category.  The episodes span early childhood to late-middle-age.  Each is a 120-word prose snapshot, bracingly terse but warm with remembering.  They evoke the prose poems of Frank O'Hara in their colloquialism, but with less smart-assed whimsy, and this seems not entirely without intention, as O'Hara is referred to in the section on waiting.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Screwball comedy in 1980s New York (Books - Missing Reels by Farran Smith Nehme)

Last weekend, thanks to my friend Sheila, I attended a screening of a The Awful Truth, a 1937 screwball comedy about a married couple who argue, plan to divorce, but just can't seem to leave each other alone because they can't stand seeing the other with anybody else. With Cary Grant,Irene Dunne, (and Asta, the dog from the Thin Man films), it was shown at The Museum of the Moving Image, a spot well worth visiting if you are in NYC.  This is the film that some critics say, made Cary Grant a superstar, and it's not hard to see why.  It is dead clever and full of good belly laughs.

It was introduced by film writer Farran Smith Nehme on the release of her novel Missing Reels (Overlook Press, 2014), thank you, Overlook, for my copy.  One could almost call the event reverse product placement.  Rather than the film including the book, the book mentions The Awful Truth (and sooooo many other vintage films) in its pages, and occasioned this screening.  But really, the film could not be better advertisement for Smith Nehme's entertaining novel which is part mystery, part romance, part love letter to vintage films, and a genuinely good time.  The time? 1980s. The place? New York City, but this is a NYC without cell phones, without Disney in Times Square, a NYC that had payphones and vintage movie houses.  I used to go to them all - The Regency, Carnegie Hall Cinema, St. Mark's Cinema, The Thalia - and see not just one classic film, but usually a double feature!  Aaah, those were the days.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Political Dramas in One New York Weekend (Theatre - The Death of Klinghoffer & Sticks and Bones)

Some question the relevance of live theatrical performance in the age of Tivo and live streaming, but you wouldn't if you had seen two productions we attended, one off-Broadway and the other at the Metropolitan Opera.  The New Group's production of David Rabe's 1971 Sticks and Bones is a still-fresh indictment of American hypocrisy, while the 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams and Alice Goodman, although an over-literal production fails to ignite the material, is still resonant, especially in its having been mounted against the fear (unfounded) that its content would be incendiary fodder for anti-Semites.

First the opera.  It is based on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinians.  The American, British and Jewish passengers are taken hostage, and a wheelchair-bound Jewish man is murdered.  The ship's captain, rather than reporting the killing and trading lives for demands, reports to the authorities that nothing has occurred, forestalling escalation and letting the hijackers go free. It's a tactical decision, not a referendum on the value of a man's life.  One could say that the captain chose not to value Klinghoffer's life more than that of any other passenger.  As played by Paulo Szot, it was not a choice the captain took lightly.  Of course, that doesn't make it any more tolerable for Klinghoffer's loved ones.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

Distinguishing between data & interpretation in popular science can help the public learn to think about the evidence (Books - The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin)

Nowadays, the outcome of every scientific study is expected to be instantly useable by the public.  News media demands ready-made dietary and medical advice, politicians and business people demand data to shore up the opinions they already hold, many funders want only outcomes that will translate to curing disease now.  As nice as it would be to cure on demand, that would be as likely as making a hits of every Broadway tryout.  Scientific "hits" are the product of fortuitous accident and incremental accumulation of knowledge, which usually includes more rejected possibilities than confirmed ones.

Pop-neuroscience satisfies this expectation with books falling somewhere between science and self-help.  Daniel J. Levitin's The Organized Mind (Dutton, 2014) creatively hews to this formula. I thank Dutton, a Penguin imprint, for my copy.  Of course the popularity of science, is not all bad.  It is wonderful to have the ear of non-scientists and encouraging that interest requires that the public enter the discussion somewhere.  But books that realistically convey how experimental outcomes find their way into the fund of general knowledge are in short supply.  The wider the dissemination of half-baked knowledge, the more discerning the eager-to-consume non-scientist must become.  In this age in which everything from raw experimental data and top notch interpretation to crackpot appropriation of small study outcomes and outright lies are easily available on line, and look superficially the same, the scientist has a responsibility to help the public develop a critical eye.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giving beauty and form to the inexplicable (Books - The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) is a stunner of a novel.  The Man Booker committee seems to have thought so too, having awarded it this year's prize.  It concerns a man, a doctor, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, a father, a husband, an adulterer - all the same man - one Dorrigo Evans.  Although he is all of these things, Dorrigo Evans is irrevocably shaped by his time as a prisoner of war, suffering abuse and deprivation at the hands of his Japanese captors as he and his fellow prisoners were brutally driven to build the Thai-Burma Railway.  As an officer, he is expected to assume leadership of the prisoners. In this role and as a physician, he feels compelled to save as many men as he can from illness and violent punishment.  His humanity is tested as the circumstances offer only choices among cruelties, warping any possibility of compassion.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An addiction to betrayal (Books - A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre)

Two middle-aged spies are sitting in an apartment in the Christian Quarter, sipping tea and lying courteously to each other, as evening approaches.  They are English - so English that the habit of politeness that binds them together and keeps them apart never falters for a moment.  The sounds of the street waft up through the open window, car horns and horses' hooves mingling with the clink of china and the murmured voices.  A microphone, cunningly concealed beneath the sofa, picks up the conversation and passes it along a wire, through a small hole in the wainscoting, and into the next room, where a third man sits hunched over a turning tape recorder, straining to make out the words through Bakelite headphones.

The two men are old friends,  They have known each other for nearly thirty years.  But they are bitter foes now, combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict.
So begins Ben Macintyre's atmospheric, brisk paced A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and The Great Betrayal (Crown, 2014).  You can read this book as fascinating political history, or as a thriller that just happens to be true, but I read it as a book about character.  Kim Philby and his close friend Nicholas Elliott went to English public school together, Cambridge together, and went into intelligence in MI6 together following World War II.  Elliott became a company man who climbed the ranks of British intelligence, while Philby infiltrated himself deeper and deeper into the circles of power.  He stints included several years in Washington D.C. at the height of the Cold War.  At that time he managed to befriend CIA Counterintelligence head James Angleton, a man known for paranoiac secrecy.  All the while he communicated everything he knew about British and American plans to Russian intelligence.  Philby made a hash of key British and American maneuvers for decades.  He did it without a computer, zip line, disguise, or walkie-talkie watch, and for years few people thought to give him a second look. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

When even magic is not enough (Books - The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman)

If you liked Lev Grossman's first two books in the Magicians Trilogy- The Magicians  and The Magician King - you should love the conclusion: The Magician's Land ( Viking, 2014).  Grossman appropriates the YA fantasy form to create a series that is not about glib fixes to the experience of being an outsider. If first volume was about power and love, and the second about belonging and purpose, the third is about loss, what one accepts versus what one fights for, and the possibility or impossibility of rebirth.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A son and historian's attempt to understand the world of his father (Books - Year Zero by Ian Buruma)

Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945 (The Penguin Press, 2013), as is clear from its title, is a history written from the perspective that the legacy of World War II was so uniquely pervasive that it reset the clock.  The immediate post-war political,cultural, and moral spheres may be said to have been newly created out of the devastation of  that experience.  If you lived on earth in the 1940s, you were on one side of the moral battle or the other, and you were unlikely by its end to have been untouched by death as a result of it, as I have written before here.  I was drawn to this book because, aside from what I know of the quality of Buruma's storytelling, this book was said to use the story of Buruma's father, a Dutchman imprisoned by the Nazis in Berlin, and his subsequent journey home through a ravaged Europe, as a touchstone, and I am drawn to the use of personal narrative as a device which can turn intellectual interest into experiential engagement.  Buruma does write about his father as an inciting reason for his seeking understanding about this period in history in the prologue, setting the stage for a literary driving force like that in Greek tragedy, as Buruma himself recognizes:
The story of postwar 1945 is in some ways a very old one.  The ancient Greeks knew well the destructive force of the human thirst for revenge, and their tragedians dramatized ways in which blood feuds might be overcome by the rule of law; trials instead of vendetta.  And history, in the East no less that the West, is littered with dreams of starting afresh, of treating the ruins of war as an open building site of societies based on new ideas, which were often not as new as people thought.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two short comedies on knowing oneself and being known by others (Books - The Uncommon Reader & The Laying on of Hands by Alan Bennett)

When Virginia Woolf collected her essays on the uses of reading (the Elizabethans, Montaigne, Austen, etc) in a volume she called The Common Reader in 1925, she commenced
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.  "...I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours."  It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man's approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole - a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing...

Woolf's unassuming introduction to her essays is something of a pretense. Woolf as a woman of her time and of certain means, was meant to occupy herself with her appearance and her household.  She did not attend Cambridge like her brother, but her father's library permitted her to educate herself liberally, and her tongue is fully planted in her cheek in calling her opinions common while, at the same time publishing them. Remember that even in the hallucinations produced by Woolf's mental illness, the birds spoke in Greek.  Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader (Picador, 2007) continues the joke by imagining it's way into the experience of another reader possessed of no ordinary library, whose standing might be described as anything but humble, and whose life is among the least private of any person's on earth.  Yet for all that, she has acquired a habit, perhaps out of professional obligation, of not be too interested in any one thing more than another.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bringing order out of chaos in Wisconsin by way of the Soviet gulag (Books - The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer)

Stuart Rojstaczer is a funny guy.  A joke-telling, Jewish, geophysicist/applied mathematician from Milwaukee, Wisoconsin who has written a debut novel about a Jewish meteorologist of hurricanes from Madison, Wisconsin. Sasha Karnakovitch is mourning his mother, Rachela, a brilliant Russian-Polish mathematician who may have solved one of the great, problems in mathematics, the Navier-Stokes problem, whose solution is worth $1 million. Wait, I'm not done.  The very top mathematicians in the world descend upon the home in Madison to which Rachela emigrated after fleeing  the Soviets, for her shiva, not to mourn and remember her as is usual in the seven-day ritual, but to get into the house so that they may find out if she solved the problem and, if not, perhaps find enough in her notes, to solve it themselves. The Mathematician's Shiva (Penguin, 2014) takes on mathematical concepts, narratives in multiple time periods, death, Jewish culture, broken marriages, and the Soviet gulag and, despite being a first novel, manages levity, charm, and a humanly engaging story. I'm grateful to Penguin for my copy.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Longing for a world both near and far (Books - The Emigrants by W.S. Sebald)

The force of the praise for W.G. Sebald from  the likes of Susan Sontag, A.S. Byatt, Richard Eder, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TLS and elsewhere, make it pretty near impossible to come to his work unswayedI felt less like I dove into a new narrative world with anticipation in reading Sebald's The Emigrants (New Directions, 1997, Trans. Michael Hulse) and more like I had been invited to an exhibit of fine porcelain at a small museum.  I mustn't run, I mustn't touch, but I may walk through the hallowed rooms, look, and breathlessly admire. Whatever the use of literary criticism, or even book jacket blurbs, I don't imagine that that was the intention of these writers.  Whatever I came to like about The Emigrants on my own, was come to slowly, after I was able to drop the obligation I felt to search for evidence of his genius yet, it was worth the effort.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hating often, easily, and beautifully (Books - Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill)

Jenny Offill has written an unusual novel in Dept. of  Speculation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) and I thank John Self for making me aware of it.  Angular, full of sarcastic wit and bitter rage, its 177 pages are composed of short, Neruda like paragraphs that are enigmatic on their own, but that one tears through at break neck pace.  In fact, I challenge you not to read this compact, forceful book in one sitting.  It would be impossible.  You would lose the satisfaction of figuring out whether the accumulation of Offill's short lyrical bursts will give up the goods and yield a plot in the classic, recognizable sense of the word, or whether you will be left sifting through the bits to figure out what happened to her characters, named The Wife and husband.
My plan was to never get married.  I was going to be an art monster instead.  Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.  Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella.  Vera licked his stamps for him. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Only through time time is conquered (Books - Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden, an Irish fiction writer, is one of my favorite authors writing today.  Her work is elegantly structured, economical, her characters drawn with precision and warmth, and her stories often capture an ordinary person confronting the unordinary.  She subtly explores the discomfort that results and creates for the reader the impression that these surprises are what makes a life worth living.  In no book does that seem truer than in her latest: Time Present and Time Past (Europa Editions, 2014). 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Today's brilliance is brought to you by the letter "S" - a meme

I couldn't resist playing along with a meme I saw at Danielle's and Stefanie's blogs.  Danielle gave me my algorithmically generated (and therefore not completely random) letter of the alphabet, and I am charged with telling you my favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter, as well as telling you that I will happily generate a letter for you if you would like to play along.  Just leave a request in the comments.


A favorite book beginning with 's' is Sonya Hartnett's SurrenderShe is a lyrical, imaginative, and thematically serious Australian author who, although she writes books for young people, assumes them to be mature and intelligent readers. Surrender is a suspenseful, veiled, poetic tale related by two first-person narrators - an angel and a demon.

I think I'll go with May Sarton, poet, diarist, and novelist. This underappreciated American writer has long been a favorite of mine. I wrote about her 1955 Faithful are the Wounds for the 2007 Outmoded Author's Challenge.

The second of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs - 'September.'  Sung here by Renee Fleming.

Michel Gondry's fantasmagorical low-tech The Science of Sleep in which Gael Garcia Bernal is delightful.

If you are an asparagus fan, as I am, you will certainly never want to be without your spargel schรคler.  This highly specific kitchen utensil, mine was made in Germany, so I call it by its German name.  It is specifically designed to trim and peel asparagus.  If you manage not to overcook them, they come out perfectly every time.

Care to play along?  Leave me a comment and I'll give you a letter.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Grabbing the arts-science zeitgeist by the short and curlies (Books - Orfeo by Richard Powers)

In Richard Powers's most recent novel, Orfeo (Norton, 2014), a contemporary composer, Peter Els, performs experiments with the DNA of bacteria in a his lab at home - his hobby - using what he learns about the coding as the basis for his musical compositions.  The police come across his lab by accident and suspect him of bio-terrorism and Homeland Security turns an experimental composer whose career has been largely irrelevant to his field, into a world renowned fugitive from the law.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On reading Herzog with and without assumptions (Books - Herzog by Saul Bellow)

There are books one has read, or believes one has, but they are read too soon or too late and so carry no weight. No emotional frame in which to fit them exists...During a recent conversation about life after a long marriage, in what at a stretch may still be called middle age, a friend said of my unanchored state, “Yeah, Herzog.” I was sure I had read the novel, I had my Saul Bellow season long ago, but his comment lodged in my mind. A few days later, on a whim, I bought “Herzog”
So wrote Roger Cohen in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Hezog at 50, on his reread of Saul Bellow's novel. Odd thing, my book club had just opted for Herzog (Avon Books, 1976), and I was in the middle of it.  Must be something in the New York water.  Cohen experienced the novel as apropos to his own life, full of resonance.  On the contrary, although I truly admired the writing, I experienced the story as dated, not in the sense of being irrelevant, but in being of another time.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A meta-thriller for our self-reflective age (Books - The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (2014) is the American fiction debut of 28-year-old Swiss writer Joel Dicker.  Published by Penguin, who furnished my copy, it is a thriller, originally written in French.  After becoming the phenom of the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, it was translated into 68 different languages, ok maybe not 68, but probably everyone working for the U.N. could have read it, and after selling 2 million copies who knows, perhaps they have.

In The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair Marcus, a young author, is facing writer's block in trying to produce a second novel for a fast approaching deadline, after a wildly successful debut.  He goes to the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire to visit Harry Quebert, his college mentor, who is accused of the murder of a teenage girl after her body is discovered in his back yard, the original manuscript of Quebert's most successful novel buried with her. Marcus, determined to clear Quebert's name, sets about investigating the 33-year-old crime and generally making a pest of himself.  As he uncovers old secrets, he finds in them the subject for his second book.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Exposing the lie of consistency (Books - The View from the Tower by Charles Lambert)

A cursory look at Charles Lambert's Any Human Face or his new The View from the Tower and you might believe that he writes thrillers set in Rome which, rather than playing with the history and the grandeur of that stage set of a city, expose its seamier side. But the thriller, in Lambert's case, seems more a container for a story in which the main character's action becomes, through the arrival of a crisis, to uncover something that changes everything they thought that they knew.  Lambert's books are about how we face the unexpected.  Now, any good mystery does deal with the unexpected, but the difference here is that Lambert is not just willing to deal with the uncomfortable feelings this evokes in the protagonist, I would go so far as to say, that he courts and exposes those uncomfortable feelings, that they are the point of his novels and that the thriller is a form he appropriates, perhaps so that his novels about being uncomfortable might be widely read?  Perhaps simply because discomfort stems from the unknown.  Perhaps I should ask him!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Wet your whistle over a little science...

I'm a big fan of grass roots projects that advance the public understanding of science. Large scale and television infotainment are great for the numbers of people they reach, but there is nothing like one person meeting with another in a small relaxed setting for engaging and sometimes even changing minds.  A group of scientists began a venture in England called Pint of Science, where scientists meet a bunch of interested thirsty folks in a pub and give a talk aimed towards a general listener about their work - over a pint, of course.  That venture has crossed the pond.  Talks over libations will be held in pubs in 5 different cities across the U.S. - New York, Chicago, Tampa, Philadelphia, and San Diego. Topics range from environmental science genetics, and particle physics, to stem cells, antibiotics, and neuroscience.  Have them wet your whistle at Pint of Science U.S.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fragmented genius became the conscience of 20th century physics (Books - Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk)

I have finally finished Ray Monk's behemoth of a biography Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Doubleday, 2012).  It's strength is its comprehensiveness.  There doesn't seem to be a thought Oppenheimer had, or an event surrounding him, that Monk does not cover in depth.  The man and his times (1904 - 1967) are fascinating for the advances that occurred in the field of physics, Oppenheimer's leadership of the construction of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, his subsequent leadership of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and for the stripping of Oppenheimer's security clearance by Senator McCarthy's infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.  However, as I mentioned in my initial thoughts a few weeks back, I found Monk's biography lacking in coherence and narrative drive. It's ironic, given the book's subtitle, that it seemed to have no center.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading to live (Books - An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine)

If you love books, have perhaps wished to live in the world of the books you read, as I have, Aaliya Saleh, the 72-year-old protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, 2013) will be utterly recognizable to you.  Rabih Alameddine's straightforward prose illuminates the paradox of an intelligent Lebanese woman who is acutely self aware but whose sarcasm cushions her from knowing herself deeply. 
First, you should know this about me: I have but one mirror in my home, a smudged one at that.  I'm a conscientious cleaner, you might even say compulsive - the sink is immaculately white, its bronze faucets sparkle - but I rarely remember to wipe the mirror clean.  I don't think we need to consult Freud or one of his many minions to know that there's an issue here. 
Aaliya celebrates language and narrative, she is deeply steeped in the Western canon of literature, quoting Spinoza and Heiddeger, Pessoa, Dostoyevski and Tolstoi, Sebald and Zizek, but she has replaced human intimacy with relationships to the characters and text in her beloved books.  She is relationally crippled.
I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word.  Literature is my sandbox.  In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time.  It is the world outside the box that gives me trouble.  I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books. Transmuting this sandy metaphor, if literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass - an hourglass that drains grain by grain.  Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
It is not accidental that the key metaphors here is childlike.  Aaliya, for all her literary sophisticatedness (she translates the books she loves most into Arabic) really hasn't grown up. Alameddine, a gay writer who has roots in the Middle East but was educated in the West and spends part of his time in San Francisco, renders the experience in narrative form of a modern Arab woman who is both literate and unmarried. I found this juxtaposition effective in another translation - making what I assumed was a foreign perspective to me immediate and recognizable.

His narrative functions on multiple levels.  One is an appreciation of writing from the pleasure of the printed symbol to his infusing his observations of person and place with literary references.  Beirut street cleaners are "the Sisyphuses of our age."  In describing the death of her ex-husband, who was impotent in life but priapic at his death, Aaliya quips
In death Eros triumphed, while in life Thanatos had. My husband was a Freudian dyslexic. 
There is not a little literary background it is helpful to have to keep up with Alameddine's humor.  Another level on which the narrative functions is the history of Aaliya's relationships from distant and disconnected to present and accepting of closeness.  Yet another is a story of the dependence of several different characters on fictions, whether this means works of literature, or made up versions of other people's experiences.  Alamedddine's novel is rich, variegated, human, and surprising, and full of reading recommendations.  If I made a list of every worked referenced by Aaliya that I haven't read, it could keep me busy for a couple of years. A delightful and full reading experience.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A delayed account of bookeywookey's New York cultural wanderings (Books - The View from the Tower, Robert Oppenheimer, Night in Shanghai) (Film - Les Petits Mouchoirs) (Art - Gaugin, Sonnabend, and Jasper Johns)

I have gotten hopelessly behind with a regular accounting of my reading this year, never mind the theatre, films, operas, and exhibits that make up my New York life.  Take this week.  I finished the new Charles Lambert thriller The View from the Tower which I heartily enjoyed (I'll link the post when I write it).  I dipped again into Ray Monk's Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, a biography of the influential physicist which I have had going since late last year.  While Monk makes the case for an interesting life full of internal conflict, his rendering is too comprehensive.  You lose the forest for the trees, the forest in this case, being the narrative throughline.  I'm disappointed by biographies that seem to be nothing more than repositories for the totality of an author's research plopped on the page in chronological order, rather than the crafting of a narrative which has an opinion about that life.  To be fair, Monk has a strong point of view about Oppenheimer's judaism which, he asserts was repressed and the source of tremendous interior conflict,however, that opinion fails to cull his narrative.

I started and gave up on Night in Shanghai (thank you Henry Holt for this copy) which was promising for its setting in 1930s Shanghai and the way the author Nicole Mones created atmosphere, but I couldn't for the life of me keep track of the characters.  The unfamiliar language impeded my remembering who was who and my lack of historical knowledge added to my difficulty remembering which side of the nationalist versus communist struggle they were on, so I couldn't follow what motivated the plot and, unfortunately, I lost the thread.  The sense of place was successfully pervasive and the writing entertaining, so don't let my faulty memory discourage you.

I went to the Antiquarian Book Fair yesterday, which, given the average price of the items displayed there was more of an antique book museum for me.  I came across a novel by Tennessee Williams I had never heard of called Moise and the World of Reason and would have bought the beautiful first edition if I had had $295 to spare.

I then wandered down to MOMA where I saw a very interesting exhibit of Gauguin's prints, how they interacted with his painting, a show whose theme was the gallerist Ileana Sonnabend and the works she brought to public attention at her Paris and New York galleries.  I have to say I found this more interesting for its history than likeable for the work in it.  I also saw a small exhibit of Jasper John's latest works: Regrets, based on a photograph of Lucien Freud.  Small, tightly curated shows are always my preference.  I didn't merely enjoy the work for itself, I appreciated how the prints and paintings on grew from the original photograph, which is also on display. This is a show that's about creative process more than anything, and how the act of an artist doing something as a result of their experience of some source, becomes the seed of new work. Wonderful show.

Finally, I made my chilly, rainy way home, poured a glass of red wine, got under a blanket and watched Guillaume Canet's 2010 Les Petits Mouchoirs; the English title is Little Whie Lies. This is a French Big Chill, complete with a tight ensemble cast of solid actors, great music choices, and a somewhat sentimental story of a group of middle aged friends minus one.  The love and pathos of old friendships is beautifully captured by the cast in that undemonstrative way that French films are so good at, where people seem like people because they are free to feel but not getting off on showing you that they can.  Be prepared to use at least one mouchoir if you're at all moved during films.