Friday, August 31, 2007

Hopeful Monster - Nicholas Mosley, underappreciated novelist

Here is a portrait from the journal Prospect of a complex and challenging novelist - one of my favorites - Nicholas Mosely. His Hopeful Monsters makes my top 10 list without a doubt.
Mosley's style sets him well outside the solidly realist mainstream of the English novel. Writers such as Beryl Bainbridge, Alan Hollinghurst and (latterly) Ian McEwan see themselves almost as historians or sociologists, taking pains to get every period detail, every nuance of class and culture, right. The results are deathly in their exactitude. Mosley has no interest in such verisimilitude. "The only reality one can hope to get is of a separate order, the order of storytelling," he wrote as a young man to his friend Hugo Charteris, "and to try to get any other is a mixing-up of two worlds, like the hope that by getting a portrait 'accurate' enough it will suddenly come to life and speak, which it won't."

Hat tip: 3 Quarks Daily (natch)

And here are a series of interviews with Mosely about his writing.

An Inflorescence - A flowering of poetry every Friday (Marianne Moore)

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

The magnificent Marianne Moore was born in 1887 in Missouri, living many of her early years in New York City, during which she wrote poems, and edited Dial. She lived for many years caring for her mother, a point that she and fellow New York artist Joseph Cornell corresponded about, as they had it in common. For the remaining years of her life, until 1972, she lived in Pennsylvania. Moore's Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollingen Prize. She was an afficianado of boxing and baseball and, in 1955, served as a consultant to the Ford Corporation in naming a new car. Her submissions, including Intelligent Whale, Andante con Moto, Mongoose Civique, and my personal favorite - Utopian Turtletop - were all rejected in favor of Edsel. Not that any of her names would have helped that ill-fated vehicle, but I would say her true skill lay elsewhere - it is a good thing she had a day job.

Her writing often incorporated quotes from other sources into the text, her use of language was condensed and idiosyncratic - offering a variety of associations within a single image. In his 1925 essay, William Carlos Williams wrote of her capturing the vastness of the particular: "So that in looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great events." She loved to write, among other things, about animals, publishing a verse translation of Fables de la Fontaine. To choose only a few of her poems is difficult, so feel free to choose your own by getting her Complete Poems which has footnotes of her sources, if that sort of thing interests you.

Although the first three lines of Poetry are usually all that is printed as the "definitive" version:
I, too,dislike it./Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one dis-/covers in/it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I learned from Paul Muldoon's passionate, breathless lectures The End of the Poem, that a longer version is published. It's lines are so long that I can't fit it here, but I recommend it. Here are some others.

The Fish

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices -
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink -
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice -
all the physical features of

cident - lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.


Uplifted, and waved till immobilized
wistaria-like, the opposing opposed
mouse-gray twined proboscises' trunk formed by two
trunks, rights itself to a spiraled inter-nosed

deadlock of dyke-enforced massiveness. It's a
knock-down drag-out fight that asks no quarter? Just
a pastime, as when the trunk rains on itself
the pool it siphoned up; or when - since each must

provide his forty-pound bough dinner - he broke
the leafy branches. These templars of the Tooth,
these matched intensities, take master care of
master tools. One, sleeping with the calm of youth,

at full length in the half-dry sun-flecked stream-bed,
rests his hunting-horn-curled trunk on shallowed stone.
The sloping hollow of the sleeper's body
cradles the gently breathing eminence's prone

mahout, asleep like a lifeless six-foot
frog, so feather ligh the elephant's stiff
ear's unconscious of the crossed feet's weight. And the
defenseless human thing sleeps as sound as if

incised with hard wrinkles, embossed with wide ears,
invincible tusked, made safe by magic hairs!
As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at
much unease. But magic's masterpiece is theirs -

Houdini's serenity quelling his fears.
Elephant-ear-witnesses-to-be of hymns
and glorias, these ministrants all gray or
gray with white on legs or trunk, are a pilgrims'

pattern of revery not reverence - a
religious procession without any priests,
the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed
play. Blessed by Buddha's Tooth, the obedient beasts

themselves as toothed temples blessing the street, see
the white elephant carry the cushion that
carries the casket that carries the Tooth.
Amenable to what, matched with him, are gnat

trustees, he does not step on them as the white-
canopied blue-cushioned Tooth is augustly
and slowly returned to the shrine. Though white is
the color of worship and of mourning, he

is not here to worship and he is too wise
to mourn - a life prisoner but reconciled.
With trunk tucked up compactly - the elephant's
sign of defeat - he resisted, but is the child

of reason now. His straight trunk seems to say: when
what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.
As loss could not ever alter Socrates'
tranquility, equanimity's contrived

by the elephant. With the Socrates of
animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose
tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures
his gravity. His held-up fore-leg for use

as a stair, to be climbed or descended with
the aid of his ear, expounds the brotherhood
of creature to man the encroacher, by the
small word with the dot, meaning know - the verb bud.

These knowers "arouse the feeling that they are
allied to man" and can change roles with their trustees.
Hardship makes the solider; then teachableness
makes him the philosopher - as Socrates,

prudently testing the suspicious thing, knew
the wisest is he who's not sure that he knows.
Who rides on a tiger can never dismount;
asleep on an elephant, that is repose.


Am I a fanatic? The opposite.
And where would I like to be?
Sitting under Plato's olive tree
or propped against its thick old trunk

away from controversy
or anyone choleric.

If you would see stones set right, unthreatened
by mortar (masons say "mud"),
square and smooth, let them rise as they should,
Ben Jonson said, or he implied.

In "Discoveries" he then said,
"Stand for truth. It's enough."

Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to know you've been reading too much about Stalin

This morning, while at a bus stop I don't wait at very often, I noticed a sign for Autocraft Driving School, which I read as Autocrat Driving School for at least five minutes, trying to imagine where the name came from - are they that strict? And perhaps you be sentenced to an auto-da-fe if you don't parallel park properly? I'm nearly finished with Children of the Arbat now, and good thing too given the fact that I'm seeing despots everywhere. That and the phenomenal amount of reading on neuron morphology that I have to do!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Creating a life of the heart when there is none. (Film - Notes on a Scandal)

Judi Dench's character, Barbara Covett, is what might kindly be referred to in old fashioned parlance as a spinster. She is the sad product of someone terrified of risking intimacy, and cloaks her longing in idealized friendship. She creates a harsh and chilly narrative in obsessive journals to keep herself the cool observer of her love object, rather than risking the terror of passion. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba Hart, the young art teacher, as an aimless bohemian - someone who never really got it together professionally, but has ended up surrounded by a life with enough daily chaos that she's always occupied. Life happens to her and she seems to not have enough strength or good sense to resist when sexual attraction arises between her and a 15 year old student. The film establishes differences in character in lovely simple ways, there's a great scene in which Hart invites Covett to dinner at her house, after which she, her older husband and her children put on some music and dance around the living room. Covett sits stiffly on the sofa, smoking, unable to join. I believed her body no longer could move as the others did, so hard had she become. Yet Judi Dench allows you to see the pain and loneliness that drive her actions rather that just playing the manipulative harridan. This is not the mustache twirling antics of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (great though that is), this is a subtler more human creation.

Understatement is at the heart of what makes Notes on a Scandal a terrific film. Desperate loneliness, manipulation, and sexual longing would all seem to provide ample excuses for teeth gnashing - but the writer, actors, and director seemed to be able to keep it in check until it really rises unbidden, the result being a more terrifying film because it is about 'us,' and not 'them.' This is a major motion picture, with star power behind it, but it never smells like one.

Actually both characters, despite their superficial differences, share immense passion that is expressed in ways society does not tolerate. Both are also possessed of creative drive. Interestingly, Hart, the artist, never produces art - her energies are too dispersed, but Covett must be highly imaginative - not only in producing volumes of elaborate journals, but she creates relationships with others that never really exist. It a sort of desperate act of self preservation - she becomes an artist of fantasies, engineering a life for her heart when there really isn't one. Dench allows you to see this with painful clarity. Great performance. Terrific film.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hearts and Minds (Mikhalkov's Anna and Children of the Arbat)

For all I read of the history and psychology behind the growth of Stalin's Russia in Children of the Arbat, that state was created one soul at a time.
At first, Nina used to say that Sasha's arrest had been an absurd accident, but then new nuances began to creep into her conversation: there was the difficult internal and international situation, the sharpening of the class struggle, the activities of anti-Party groupings, and as never before particular precision and clarity of one's position was required, whereas unfortunately Sasha sometimes put his own understanding of events above the point of view of the collective. In a word, she hinted that Sasha's arrest had some foundation.

The change has to happen in the minds and hearts of the people who make up the State. This reminded me of one of the most amazing films I've ever seen, Anna, by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov. Mikhalkov is a great Russian actor and director - his film Burnt by the Sun, was an international success and deservedly so - a gorgeous film. But Anna is really something extraordinary, it documents his daughter Anna's life from ages 6 to 18 alongside Russian history in the same years (late 70s - through early 90s). In it he asks her the same few questions each year, basic questions: "What do you love?" "What do you fear?" And through that we watch the world change. What is more amazing still about this film is that when Mikhalkov began making it, the Soviet government controlled the use of all film, keeping strict record, day after day, of the number of meters of used so that no unauthorized film could be shot. Mikhalkov and his collaborator Sergei Miroshnichenko had surreptitiously collected film bits over the years and used these little saved up scraps to shoot the film. He only worked with one other person on the film so as not to endanger anyone in the making of the film.

Other posts on Children of the Arbat 1, 2, 3.

First Day!

Why does the first day of school always feel like, well, the first day of school? I have my pink pearl, I have my psychedelic pencil case, only the textbook titles have changed.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Faces I Love Too

My dear friend Sheila is presenting part IV of her series of faces she loves, started by Dennis. I hope they will consider imitation the sincerest form of flattery.

and there are so many more!

New Feats in Origami ! A 30 foot long paper boat sails down the Elbe

No, really.

Hat tip: Gizmodovia Scout Holiday.

Secrecy and Power - Who will resist and who will serve? (Books - Children of the Arbat III)

While I couldn't find any images of original editions of Children of the Arbat, this is the original samizdat (see a definition here) of Czech writer Vaclav Havel's Letters to Olga. Havel wrote, largely for the theater, as well as leading a campaign to save a subversive literary magazine Tvar. In 1965 the StB tried to recruit Havel as an informant but his refusal led to his continual observation throughout the communist regime. In 1979 he was arrested for anti-state activities and imprisoned for months without a trial. He was imprisoned four times but remained no less subversive a voice. After the devision of Czechoslovakia, he became the first president of the Czech Republic. I give this very short summary of his political life to ask - what makes one person subversive and the other submissive?

One of the plot lines that I'm enjoying right now in Children of the Arbat is about Yuri Sharok, the son of factory workers, whose aim is to become a lawyer for the factory where he worked as a young man. He is among a group of students in school whose popular leader, Sasha, is expelled for anti-state activities and sentenced to three years in Siberia. He had been a rival to the popular Sasha. Following school, he is approached by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police who were the force behind the political repression, running the Gulags, as well as conducting espionage in other countries, including the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
Why had they picked him? He was an average student, he never got the best grades. And his social work was average, he only did what he was told. Average people had their uses, too, evidently...

Sharok had been created for this job, he was right for it, not open-hearted Maxim Kostin, or that spineless intellectual Vadim Marasevich, or that overconfident Sasah Pankratov. Nobody would be able to wriggle out from Sharok's grasp, or manage to justify tghemselves. He would not believe in anyone's sincerity - it was impossible to believe sincerely in this whole business, and anyone who claimed they did was lying...

He's be safe there, nobody would be able to touch him. He'd by one of those who could reach everyone else.

In this part of Rybakov's story, we observe the evolution of his choice - the birth of cruelty. Another one of those instances where it is easy to say "I would never...," but would we? I would like to think I would not. But would I lie in jail like Havel? Endanger my friends and family? My livelihood? My life?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Full Frontal Bindings Absolutely Free

This is the Real Gabinete Portuguese Dei Leitura Rio De Jeneiro. All is can say is yum. This is among the many pictures you can pant over at Hot Library Smut from the book Libraries by Candida Hyyfer. Don't worry. I won't send you spam.

...and thanks to Scout Holiday for this image. Pretty gorgeous too -- huh?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Family Adrift II (Books - The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright)

I've finished Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness and have not changed my opinion since writing about the earlier part of the book - it's strongest point is the utterly convincing creation by the author of a family in crisis. It is equal parts intrigue and philosophy. The characters' psychology are plumbed and several of them are pushed to confront serious questions about responsibility and love for others - real moral questions - but philosophy is woven into a compelling plot in such a fashion that I never had the feeling that 'oh, I am reading the philosophical part of the book, and when will the plot resume.'

Each character's point of view is unique, well imagined, and beautifully described:
Sophie sees London, she has to admit it, in a peculiar way: certain areas have certain colours. She sees Chelsea and the whole of the area between the river and Harrods as a dense maroon. Of Course she goes there from time to time, but mostly she prefers the thinned-out green colours of places like Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Camden, Soho and Brixton. Then there are other areas that she hardly knows, like Battersea, Finchley and Waterloo. These are mustard yellow. She tries to avoid Hammersmith, where she was at school; it has no colour. It is like the unexplained clear liquid you find cohabiting with your blood. Walton Street, with its excessive polish, its flower boxes, expensive curtain and tassel shops, its expressive door knockers on white front doors, its general air of self-congratulation, is deep in maroon territory.

She's headed that way. Once you cross into a maroon area you are in a world of confident voices and expensive accessories. And chaps...

I enjoyed the following character's physical description very much, not simply for its detail but because rather than being handed it by the narrator, one character gives it to another in a totally convincing way:
I am looking at her now and hits is what I have to report: Ana is beautiful, in a Latin way.; Her hair is almost indecently thick. It glows: it seems to have taken electric energy from the universe. Her eyebrows are solid perhaps she should thin them, and her eyes are enormous. I am looking closely at them to see if she has enhanced the effect, but alas no, she does have VERY BIG GREENY-GREY EYES. Her lips are ribbed, like those extra-sensation condoms - they are camellia pink today - and her cheekbones are high. The most extraordinary thing about her is the sort of noble, forward-thrusting look of her forehead. It's quite odd once you notice. She definitely has some Indian blood. Perhaps she's Inca....

An extravagant description of an extravagant character given convincingly in the voice of another character we have come to know.

The depiction of family dynamic was perfect. Here's a scene when Mum comes to stay with her youngest daughter, Sophie, in her funky apartment in London. Sophie has just quit her job in television advertising and taken out her nose ring. Mum is worried that she has a drug problem:
She had slept on the sofa, with Mum in her bed, and they were happy and contented, like children in a tree house, congratulating themselves: Mum said that it was such fun. She had brought her white nighties, with the minute roses embroidered around the neck, and her rosewater, which she used to cleanse her face. Sophie slept in a T-shirt that read Xfm, given to her by a boyfriend who had been a DJ.

'Oh Sophie,' she called through the very thin wall.

'Yes, Mum.'

'There may be a job for you this summer at the Blue Banana. Phoebe Talbot, her family takes that big hyouse, Sheepfold, the one with the tennis court, is working there. She's going to talk to the owner.'

'I'll think about it.'

'Only if you want her to. I thought it might help, for a bit.'

'In what way, Mum?'

'If you want a break from London.'

'Mum, I don't think we are all going to settle in Cornwall, if that's what you are hoping.'

'No, but if you - '

'No, Mum. It's not going to happen.'

'Goodnight, darling.'


'Sophie, you don't mind me asking Phoebe, do you? She's a sweet girl. Nothing's fixed.'

'No, Mum, it was like good of you to think of me.'

'I just thought it would give you an extra option. It's just an idea.'


Her mother has no way of hiding her thought processes.

I love that scene because it manages to get inside the heads of both characters but from the point of view of just one of them.

My quibble with time shifts earlier in my reading vanished after the third one. It's not that they were difficult to follow, rather that the first one landed with a explicative clunk. They became part of the landscape, as did the shifts in point of view as we moved to a new chapter. Those shifts from character to character gave this novel its poignancy. For all the love people can have for each other, we cannot live inside each other's heads. It is a struggle to connect deeply with others and there is an obstacle to completely fulfilling that connection. Cartwright found a way to make a story about this struggle moving, thoughtful and entertaining.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Loudest Voice

There is a certain place where dumb-waiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.
I've seen a meme going around asking for favorite first lines. That's mine. It's from Grace Paley's story The Loudest Voice about a young Jewish girl being cast in the school Christmas play because of her irrepressible voice. It's from Paley's The Little Disturbances of Man - her first collection of stories - energetic, humorous, and true. Paley died on Wednesday at 84. Donald Barthelme had called her early "a wonderful writer and troublemaker..." as Paley was know as much for being an activist as a writer. At least with all her wonderful stories, we'll never be able to quiet Grace Paley. Here is the Times obituary and Bookslut offers many more links to all things Paley.

An Inflorescence - A flowering of poetry every Friday (Contemporary Irish Poets - Ciaran O'Driscoll)

and now.....drum roll please....the official start of a regular Friday series of poetry (or perhaps it will be an irregular series, who knows?). The vote was unanimous (all two of us). It will be called An Inflorescence which is the title of a poem by Timothy Donnelly, whose Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit I included as one of my four choices in the Summer Poetry Challenge. Feel free to send requests in the comments for favorite poets if you are so inclined.

In-flo-res-cence - from the Latin inflorescere - to begin to blossom. 1. the producing of blossoms; flowering; 2. the arrangement of flowers on a stem or axis; 3. a flower cluster on a common axis; 4. flowers collectively; 5. a solitary flower, regarded as a reduced cluster.

Today, an Irish poet. I was going to present several, but I might as well spread out the riches over the weeks (and have more time to read). What is it about that small green island that produces so many men and women obsessed with the crafting of words? Here's the Irish Literary Revival site, devoted to works by living Irish writers. It has access to all sorts of good stuff by contemporary writers (hat tip: From Boston to Berlin). Through it I discovered Ciaran O'Driscoll from Limerick, and his collection Gog and Magog from which I bring you the following two. I love the way the first poem has me enter the park as the protagonist did, climbing over the wall ungracefully, and how we don't see the poplar until after the fact, when he looks it up in a book. The second is at once a still life, a poem and a tryst. I love the unexpected combinations like lemon ghost and tightening rain.

The Uncompleted Park

Someone who dumped a mattress over the wall
provided me with a soft landing
in what a gate crested with flourishes
of iron penmanship, its middle dangling
a heavy chain and lock
like well-hung genitals, defined as park
and my eye defined as uncompleted.

Saplings were trained to posts
by wire in shoes of a rubber hose,
but paving stones were told apart by moss.
There was no seat, sculpture or fountain yet,
only a wild grass tame enough to let
the wild carrot's occasional crown and stalk
stand out and indicate the depth of space.

Between the entrance and the bank
of the old railway, I collected leaves
to take home and identify in a book,
and now I know it was the wind
switching a popular from green to silver
brought to my notice the uncompleted park
on the city's penny-pinched long finger.


There's a lemon ghost
of sunlight in my trails
of cloud, today I am
the suave eye-cheater
with yellows greens and browns

so finely modulated
you came for pleasure. I
am pliable, collapsing
neatly on to your bookish
frame of reference,

the eye nevertheless
is drawn into my depths
from small cromwellian fields
and scattered ice-age boulders.
Even as rain tightens

Over my curved rim
I am beckoning you
to endless bog. My charm
is at odds with all known
technologies of survival,

your feet on the tarred lane
talking you back from the edge
of fabled treachery.
Listen to the wind now,
my howling inwardness.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A family adrift (Books: The Promise of Happiness - Justin Cartwright)

I'm about a third of the way through Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness and so far this novel is delivering successfully on its title. This is just the kind of contemporary domestic novel that I enjoy. Daphne and Charles Judd - a couple retired from London now living in Cornwall - and two of their children await the release of the third child and sibling, Juliet, from prison. She was the one, it seemed, most destined for success - a Masters degree from the prestigious Courtald, a job in a New York art gallery. The Judd's are one of those families that was supposed to have gotten it right in a steady, middle class way - secure, stable employment for the parents, good university education for the children, reasonable good health - they were fulfilling the promise and so should get the reward. But then Dad's company is taken over and rather than settle for early retirement he fights and loses, and the chosen daughter goes to jail for a crime she actually did commit (this happens before the story starts) and suddenly the promises that were secured, like little boats to a jetty, become unmoored, each drifting separately out into the water.

Cartwright gets it right inside as well as out - what its like inside his characters' heads- particularly Charles - is observed in great depth and detail, and in graceful language that isn't too decorative. There is a wonderful early scene - an argument between husband and wife when first she ruins a recipe from a cookbook and then he goes for fish and chip take away and fails to bring back two pieces:
"I definitely ordered two. Definitely. Six pounds and eighty pence."

He reaches into his pocket to inspect the change, but he can't find it.

"You have it. I"ll have a sandwich," she says.

"No, you have it. I'm not hungry, I ate a lot of nuts. I'll just have the chips."

"We'll divide it and I will get a few tomatoes."

"You have it."

"Look, I'll just cut it in half like this. It's a big one."

"I don't fucking well want it."

He gets up from the table and catches high thigh and hobbles towards the living room, which in daylight has a view all the way down to the bay, and he turns on the television. She sits looking at the fish. She's divided it quite neatly. The batter is strangely crisp and bubbly and there is a large gap between it and the fish. The flesh is grey, with an indigo stain where the skin has been removed. Now she can't eat, as though all fish, even this unreformed, solid cod, are reproaching her. She begins to cry. She knows that Charles will appear soon and she tries to stop herself.

"I'm sorry, darling," he says from the doorway. "I'm a silly old cunt. Let's just picnic on what we've got. All right? I'm a little tight too. The dome chappie insisted on buying me a large Jack Daniels, which is from Tennessee."

He sits down; the fish is fine, and with the chips and a few small, cold, hard tomatoes, more than enough. But they have both failed in their own fashion, in the fish department.

He captures the details in things, like the fish batter and hard tomatoes, that, when people fail to connect with each other, suddenly become surrounded by utter emptiness. He also weaves together a most convincing family dynamic - switching between each of the family members - and yet not seeming to assume one perspective more fairly than another. While in prison, Juliet reflects on the relationship between her father, Charles, and brother, Charlie:
She saw now what her father had been getting at. She saws that he had feared the decay of beauty, the loss of innocence and the death of hope. He was saying you are born innocent and the whole fucking thing begins to go wrong immediately. Children are born not into desert - she had read - but into a living world. But Dad feared the living world. He was very sensitive to its injuries.

For instance, when Charlie's hair, still thick, began to thin at a young age, Dad suffered. His own hair, still thick, reproached him, so he had it cut short to remove any impression that he gloried in its flourishes. Only she knows why he cut his hair one day.

There are ways in which unusual circumstances seem to detach people from all sense of former security - everything is questioned - Cartwright captures that type of crisis beautifully. The narrator's voice is flowing and assured - contemporary, with a wit than shines through from time to time that reminds you that "this is the narrator's voice." Only the novel's time shifts feel a bit clunky to me, otherwise it is graceful and observant - satisfying reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Contraband! (Books, Books, Books)

I guess I know I have to buckle down next week because I went on a rampage today. Now exhausted and dripping with sweat, I lie in a heap, panting, crumpled, but happy - the new stash has been trundled home. The titles are Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn (recommended by Imani), Outsider in Amsterdam by Jan willem van de Wetering (a library find) The Art of Detection by Laurie King(recommended by Kate), and two finds after browsing around the St. Marks Book Shop for an hour The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright and Claire Messud's The Last Life (after enjoying The Emperor's Children so much). That will put me in the mood to read Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications, and Issues.
Even though I'm still finishing up Children of the Arbat, I've dipped into the Cartwright and it's lovely so far.

Reading David Leavitt

The fabulous The Elegant Variation is featuring David Leavitt, a writer I admire, and his new book The Indian Clerk for the entire week. There are excerpts from the book, an interview, and today he guest hosts - writing on writers familiar to me and not: Penelope Fitzgerald, Joanna Scott, and Jane Gardam, I had not heard of the last two before. I especially liked the post "On Reading Books in the Cities in Which They are Set." I've read A Moveable Feast in Paris, all of Salinger and Potok, and The Emperor's Children in New York, and listened to Anne of Green Gables on tape while driving around Prince Edward Island.

And you?

These are a few of my......(another silly me-me)

This has made the rounds. I got it from Charlotte's Web.

What Were You Doing 10 years ago?

I haven't the faintest idea - living in NYC and getting ready for another year of teaching, most likely.....Actually, I was curious and so I looked it up. I didn't keep a diary but I did have my engagement calendar, on August 22, 1997 I was directing the opera Carmen in San Francisco.

Five Snacks You Enjoy:





Cold leftover pasta and sauce

Five Songs You Know All the Lyrics to:

Soliloquy from Carousel

every song from Jacques Brel is ...

My Body is Walking in Space from Hair

Der Erlkonig - Goethe/Schubert

The Count's aria from Marriage of Figaro

Five Things You Would Do If You Were a Millionaire

pay off the ragazzo's student loan

buy a country house

fund two favorite causes well

visit many places - Turkey, Argentina, Russia, Australia

invest the rest

Five Bad Habits

Blogging when I should be studying

checking my traffic meter when I should be studying

not doing things I think I don't feel like doing even though I end up liking once I do them - like going to a party or doing yoga

getting angry at inanimate objects that aren't cooperative

living in the future when the present will do

Five Things You Like Doing:

making tea


choosing and drinking wine

choosing and reading books

rehearsing or seeing great theater

Five Things You Would Never Wear Again:

plastic sandals

a woolen face mask

bell bottoms

a quiana shirt (it's a synthetic from the 70s, you had to be there)

a 'fro (I don't have enough hair anymore)

Five Favourite Toys:

my piano

my laptop

cool notebooks (the paper kind)

my extremely tiny planner/address book - it's 4" x 5" and YES, it's paper too

purple pens

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The science of magic of science of magic of...

"Now you see it, now you don't," says the magician, and that's because a) attention is a finite resource; b) cognitive processes will always take short-cuts when they can and; c) the brain will impose order on a set of stimuli when it can - finding patterns among objects that are alike, completing incomplete shapes, making figures out of empty space. These talents can be quite useful, for example we will perceive these shapes:

as rectangular. Why? Only the leftmost is, but we know they represent the same thing, a door, and we know a door is rectangular so... This is known as subjective constancy or perceptual constancy and it is an unconscious process that allows us to hear vowel sounds as the same, even with different voices and different regional accents, perceive colors as the same in changing light, understand that that tiny building that is in the distance, rather than a toy building that is close by...except when we're being tricked - illusions take advantage of this propensity our brain has for constancy and today's Science Times has a marvelous article on a group of neuroscientists attending a conference on consciousness in Las Vegas and being tricked by skilled magicians, just as we all would be - these are automatic processes. Another instance of the brain preferring a narrative about reality to what is actually going on, so don't blame me for getting lost in a book - my brain made me do it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I don't get it! Important addition to reader's questionnaire

Nina at destinations one-upped the reading questionnaire posted below. She answered and added:

What's one book that everyone raves about and you, despite your best efforts, just didn't get?

Oh, there's more than one! All of Tolkein, honestly I've tried, and will keep trying, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, and finally A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole - DO NOT GET IT and it's Liev Schreiber's favorite. What the deal, Liev? Enlighten me.

Playing Stalin - Giving history a face (Books - Children of the Arbat)

As I continue to read Anatoli Rybakov's Children of the Arbat, it strikes me the ways in which the book gives a face to the Soviet Union under Stalin. It tries to get at the character of Stalin, but not just by looking at famous moments in history. Rybakov looks at the little details. As Budyagin anticipates a meeting with Stalin he has tried to get for over a year, Rybakov characterizes the difficulty of dealing with Stalin, the man like this:
In exile, Stalin had once refused to talk to a comrade who'd teased him for sleeping in his socks. Small of stature and puny, he had appeared especially vulnerable in Siberia. He was always cold, so he slept in his socks. Stalin owned a multicolored, quilted silk blanket, and that, too, became the butt of jokes, which Stalin took as proof of his own inability to adapt and as a sign of weakness. Eventually they stopped laughing at him. The realized it was impossible to quarrel with Stalin, as he was incapable of reconciliation.

It's one thing to know that the man had a mustache, or how he assumed the leadership of the party from Lenin, or that in 1934 he believed it was France, England and Japan that Russia needed to fear, not Germany. It's another to know that Stalin's inflexibility extended from the contrary opinion of a once valued advisor about the threat Germany could pose to Russia, to the insecurity he felt about having to wear socks to bed. Or that, on a shopping excursion to replace a lost scarf, Stalin takes a long time because he didn't want a wool that would scratch his neck. He buys the softest and most expensive scarf. Rybakov is collecting for us the kind of details you would want if you were to act the role of Stalin in a play.

The whole portrait of the time is rife with these kind of everyday details. Another important storyline is that of a Komsomol or a student cell of the Communist Party, one of them. Sasha, is first expelled from school and then imprisoned following the publication of a newspaper deemed disloyal. His mother slowly learns from friends and neighbors what kind of foods should be in the packages she sends to her son in prison, or how to interpret the phone call she will receive from the prison officials as to understand whether he will perform forced labor in the North or the South of the country and therefore whether he needs boots and a heavy coat.

A simple detail I particularly enjoyed was that one evening some of Sasha's recently graduated colleagues from school get tickets for a production at the Vakhtangov theater - a tidbitthat was exciting for me to read because I studied everything I could find on this short lived genius of Russian theater - once a pupil of Stanislavsky - from pieces of his production books, to moment-by-moment descriptions of his rehearsal processes. Here is a picture of his legendary production of Turandot.