Saturday, September 29, 2007

A not so silly and bookish meme

Welcome to meme central. Kimbooktu’s Bookish Meme is making the rounds and studying has pickled my brain so an offer saying “here, write about this...” is very helpful right now. Sniff, sniff. Found it over at A Work in Progress.

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?

I own more paperbacks because they’re cheaper and easier to carry around, but if I had my druthers it would be hardcover. I figure if I really like reading an author, they should get paid for it. Hardcovers make a nicer library. They are more attractive and durable objects. They’re easier to prop on knees, the paper is of nicer quality, usually the layout of print on page is more spacious, they’re a more special object, and lastly, when you put them on top of a nice pile of books on the side table, nightstand, floor, on top of the shelf (like I never do) the front cover doesn’t curl up – I hate that!

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it…unfortunately there already is a bookeywookey, but not in my country and its spelled differently in Dutch, so I might ask their permission to honor them by adopting the name. It suits me. It would have comfy armchairs , it's staff would actually read, and it would be vacuumed.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is… I’m not very good with “favorites,” “most overestimated,” or other superlatives I take them too seriously thinking, ‘is this really my all time favorite?’ But this one makes me smile:

As I was saying we were all living comfortably together and there had been in my mind no active desire or thought of change. The disturbance of the routine of our lives by the fire followed by the coming of Gertrude Stein’s older brother and his wife made the difference.

Mrs. Stein brought with her three little Matisse paintings, the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. I made her acquaintance at this time of general upset and she showed them to me, she also told me many stories of her life in Paris. Gradually I told my father that perhaps I would leave San Francisco. He was not disturbed by this, after all there was at that time a great deal of going and coming and there were many friends of mine going. Within a year I also had gone and I had come to Paris. There I went to see Mrs. Stein who had in the meantime returned to Paris, and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there way any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have me many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

What I love most about this, the end of the opening chapter of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is that it is written by Gertrude Stein herself. This book is the combination of ludicrous arrogance and great humor.

4. The author (alive or diseased) I would love to have lunch with would be …. Anton Chekhov, if he covers his mouth when he coughs. I’d love to meet Herman Hesse too, and I think I’d get the better lunch at his house.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be… I think I’ll have to be clichéd and say the complete works of Shakespeare – so much variety, between the plays and the sonnets they cover the whole of life, it seems. And I could memorize the plays one by one, playing all the parts if rescue seemed to be taking a long time.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… when implanted in my little brain helped me read faster and retain more. I never feel like I can read enough.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…. adventure. It makes me think of being cozy in bed with my mother’s old copy of Little Women or Little Men, my uncle’s old copy of Sherlock Holmes before he gave me my own, or a library copy of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, Hans Brinker, Silas Marner, The Yearling, or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and having all the time in the world.

A big warehouse near Boston where I had a job during undergraduate school. My alma mater runs a huge used book sale, both on campus and in cities throughout the U.S. to raise money and students were hired at hourly wages to organize, price, and pack up the books for the sale. It kept me in pocket money and occasionally a title caught my eye and I ended up buying it myself.

Lovely outdoor stalls and tables, whether on Washington Square in New York, on the banks of the Seine, or at the Friday morning book market in Amsterdam on the Spui, where I can always find a nice old Penguin edition of Iris Murdoch I haven't read for a couple of Euro.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…. Didn’t I just answer this in another meme? Joseph Knecht in The Glass Bead Game. That’s because, in addition to his admirable qualities, I desperately want to play that game!

9. The most overestimated book of all times is…. Confederacy of Dunces or possibly Everything is Illuminated.

10. I hate it when a book…. fails to take me in. A book can be new or old, trash or classic, tried and true in its form or its story or wildly original. All I ask is that it offers me a universe with integrity, one that seems to exist, language I never question, and that it extends a hand somehow and takes me into it. That’s what I want from a book – transportation.

Join in the fun if you haven't done this one yet - how about you, Anne-Marie?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Our furry, winged and finned friends

Animal Meme

Wouldn't you do absolutely ANYTHING for him? I found this meme on one of the science blogs I read - Pondering Pikaia. The Ragazzo and I desperately want a dog but neither our apartment building nor our lives will admit one right now, so it appealed to my puppy-envy. I’ve adapted it slightly for us literary types.

An interesting animal I had:
The only pets I have ever actually owned were two gerbils – frisby and scooter - not very interesting, I know. But in the realm of stuffed creatures, we have an elephant and a pink pig that oinks three times.

An interesting animal I ate:
I’ve eaten ostrich and bison (grilled), goat (sauteed with cilantro), and sea urchin (as sushi) and I confess, I liked them all.

An interesting animal you’ve seen in the Museum, library, or its natural habitat:
I remember being about 7 years old and going over to my friend Larry’s house. His father was a physicist and had a beautiful library of science books including some beautiful old research volumes on natural history. We had a ritual where he would look up unusual animals and we would act them out – dress up like them, move like them, make sounds like them. I remember remarkably clearly his reading about a bird with a large tail (a colorful blanket tucked into the back of my pants) that ran backwards. I don’t remember its sound, but I remember running backwards in a circle for quite a while in the kind of hysteria kids can get into. Does anyone know what bird this could be? I’ve tried looking it up with no luck.

An interesting thing I did with or to an animal
Oh dear, what a question. The most interesting story that I’ve done to an animal, unfortunately, was kill it. I was in charge of tending to the snails in a parisitology lab many moons ago. One day I had to anesthetize a few but I killed them outright because no one had taught me to use the lab’s digital scale to measure and I put in one decimal place too much (10x too much) anesthetic. Ooops. That limited my interest in escargot for several years.

And a question I am adding for the bookish among us – a favorite literary animal (that can be a literary character or a whole piece about an animal)
Virginia Woolf’s Flush – the story of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. It’s delightful fun. I also remember enjoying Paul Auster’s Timbuktu quite a lot. I’ve read neither of them recently enough to say anything more meaningful.

I won’t tag but please join in if you’d find it fun.

The Gardens of NYC

Speaking of inflorescences (my regular Friday poetry post, in case you're unfamiliar) today's New York Daily Photo has a piece about New York City's little and little-known gardens. They are one of the pleasures of our concrete jungle. If you're ever visiting, for Pete's sake don't only walk around Times Square and eat expensive corned beef sandwiches - there is much beauty in New York - and some of it is even free.

An Inflorescense (A Flowering of Poetry Every Friday - (Hayden Carruth - curmudgeon laureate)

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.

Inveterate wordsmith and drinker Hayden Carruth was born in 1921 in Connecticut U.S.A. He lived most of his adult life in Vermont, teaching and writing something like thirty books of poetry and criticism. His poems can observe the hardships of rural life, ruminate on his skepticism, or express his politics. He is capable of an as effusive an elegy as anyone but I feel like he's celebrating that place or that life "as it was" - no romantic he. He is a self described "pessimist and grump." His poems are unsentimental, the forms are simple and have jazz influence, his diction plain, his tone curmudgeonly, you can hear the gravel of drink and the lilt of New England in his voice. Here is a frank portrait of him done for the University of Chicago Magazine. A little excerpt:

Writes Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell, “More than in the case of any other poet, Carruth responds to Whitman’s words: ‘I was the man, I suffer’d, I was there.’”

For Carruth struggle has been the stuff of life and poetry. “If you’ve got any courage and any sense of responsibility, you’ll do what you have to do,” he observes. “I don’t give myself any extraordinary credit for that. But the difficulties were there and the difficulties made my poetry better. I’m convinced of that.”

I'll include some earlier poems and some from his more recent Doctor Jazz - which feels to me like a departure - including a section called The Afterlife, a section on Basho the Japanese poet - the first poem is from that set - I think it is wickedly funny, another set he calls Faxes, and an impressive elegy to his daughter, whom he has outlived. I adore the poem Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.


Had you air, Basho?
I mean enough to climb those
mountains? Or did you

stop every ten steps,
leaning on your staff and gasping
like a fish ashore?

The Way of the Coventicle of the Trees

Just yesterday afternoon I heard a man
Say he lived in a house with no windows
The door of which was locked on the outside.
This was at a party in New York, New York.
A deep Oriental type, I said to myself,
One of them indescribable Tebootans who
Habitate on Quaker Heights and drink
Mulled kvass first thing every morning
With their vitamins. An asshole. And
Haven't I more years than he? Haven't
I spent them looking out the window
At the trees? Oh the various trees.
They have looked back at me with their
Homely American faces: the hemlocks
And white birches of one of my transient
Homes, the catalpas and honey locusts
Of another, the sweet gum and bay and
Coffee trees, the hop hornbeam and the
Spindle tree, the dogwood, the great.
Horse chestnut, the overdressed pawpaw
Who is the gamin of that dominion.
Then, behind them, the forest, the sodality.
What pizzazz in their theorizing! How fat
The sentimentibilities of their hosannas!
I have looked at them out the window
So intently and persistently that always
My who-I-am has gone out among them
Where the fluttering ideas beckon. Yes,
We've been best friends these sixty-nine
Years, standing around this hot stove
Of a world, hawking, phewing, guffawing,
My dear ones, who will remember me
For a long, long time when I'm gone.

Words in a Certain Appropriate Mode

It is not music, though one has tried music.
It is not nature, though one has tried
The rose, the bluebird, and the bear.
It is not death, though one has often died.

None of these things is there.

In the everywhere that is nowhere
Neither the inside nor the outside
Neither east nor west nor down nor up
Where the loving smile vanishes, vanishes
In the evanescence from a coffee cup
Where the song crumbles in monotone
Neither harmonious nor inharmonious
Where one is neither alone
Nor not alone, where cognition seeps
Jactatively away like the falling tide
If there were a tide, and what is left
Is nothing, or is the everything that keeps
Its undifferentiated unreality, all
Being neither given nor bereft
Where there is neither breath nor air
The place without locality, the locality
With neither extension nor intention
But there in the weightless fall
Between all opposites to the ground
That is not a ground, surrounding
All unities, without grief, without care
Without leaf or star or water or stone
Without light, without sound
anywhere, anywhere. . .

Emergency Haying

Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue, behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat,

my arms strung
awkwardly along the hayrack, cruciform.
Almost 500 bales we've put up

this afternoon, Marshall and I.
And of course I think of another who hung
like this on another cross. My hands are torn

by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance. The acid in my throat
is only hayseed. Yet exhaustion and the way

my body hangs from twisted shoulders, suspended
on two points of pain in the rising
monoxide, recall that greater suffering.

Well, I change grip and the image
fades. It's been an unlucky summer. Heavy rains
brought on the grass tremendously, a monster crop,

but wet, always wet. Haying was long delayed.
Now is our last chance to bring in
the winter's feed, and Marshall needs help.

We mow, rake, bale, and draw the bales
to the barn, these late, half-green,
improperly cured bales; some weight 150 pounds

or more, yet must be lugged by the twine
across the field, tossed on the load, and then
at the barn unloaded on the conveyor

and distributed in the loft. I help-
I, the desk-servant, word-worker-
and hold up my end pretty well too; but God,

the close of day, how I fall down then. My hands
are sore, they flinch when I light my pipe.
I think of those who have done slave labor,

less able and less well prepared than I.
Rose Marie in the rye fields of Saxony,
her father in the camps of Moldavia

and the Crimea, all clerks and housekeepers
herded to the gaunt fields of torture. Hands
too bloodied cannot bear

even the touch of air, even
the touch of love. I have a friend
whose grandmother cut cane with a machete

and cut and cut, until one day
she snicked her hand off and took it
and threw it grandly at the sky. Now

in September our New England mountains
under a clear sky for which we're thankful at last
begin to glow, maples, beeches, birches

in their first color. I look
beyond our famous hayfields to our famous hills,
to the notch where the sunset is beginning,

then in the other direction, eastward,
where a full new-risen moon like a pale
medallion hangs in a lavender cloud

beyond the barn. My eyes
sting with sweat and loveliness. And who
is the Christ now, who

if not I? It must be so. My strength
is legion. And I stand up high
on the wagon tongue in my whole bones to say

woe to you, watch out
you sons of bitches who would drive men and women
to the fields where they can only die.

Because I Am
in mem. Sidney Bechet, 1897-1959

Because I am a memorious old man
I've been asked to write about you, Papa Sidney,
Improvising in standard meter on a well-known
Motif, as you did all those nights in Paris
And the World. I remember once in Chicago
On the Near North where you were playing with
A white band, how you became disgusted
And got up and sat in front next to the bandstand
And ordered four ponies of brandy; and then
You drank them one by one, and threw the empty
Glasses at the trumpet-player. Everyone laughed,
Of course, but you were dead serious - sitting there
With your fuzzy white head, in your rumpled navy
Serge. When you lifted that brass soprano to your
Lips and blew, you were superb, the best of all,
The first and best, an Iliad to my ears.
And always your proper creole name was mis-
Pronounced. Now you are lost in the bad shoadows
Of time past; you are a dark man in the darkness,
Who knew us all in music. Out of the future
I hear ten thousand saxophones mumbling
In your riffs and textures, Papa Sidney. And when
I stand up trembling in darkness to recite
I see sparkling glass ponies come sailing at me
Out of the reaches of the impermeable night.

I don't think I can resist giving you some of Dearest M - . It's a sixteen-page elegy Carruth wrote for his daughter. Here's just a little bit:

Martha did her painting in private. We rarely
saw her at work.
If by chance we did, she would stand pointedly
in front of her easel, shielding the canvas
from our view. Similarly, she did not talk
about her painting, perhpas because she was
self-taught and didn't know the words -
but that's nonsense.
She was as language-driven as her father,
she had plenty of words. Bujt process was
something she did not wish to discuss.
Her paintings
were neither representational nor abstract.
She painted what she saw, supplying color and contrast
from the deepest recesses of her imagination,
as when one dreams
of what one has seen just before falling asleep.
An outdoor table and umbrella
by the sea with a white sailboat in the distance
and the shadow of the umbrella falling just so,
steeply pitched across the astonishing pineapple
and the bottle of wine.
Can a father recover his daughter in a painting?
Or in an orange-and-umber blouse he gave her
ten years ago?
Well, sometimes the heart in its excess enacts
such pageantry. But it is hollow, hollow.


The apple tree is gone. Eurydice has gone back
to hell, weeping and grim, betrayed. The night
is Pluto's cave. I've turned on all the lights
in this little house on the hill, my defiance
of metaphysical reality and the Niagara-Mohawk
Power Corporation. Idly, as so often, I am
staring at my watch, the numbers clicking away,
hours, minutes, seconds, but time is the most
unrealizable quantity. How long has Eurydice
been gone - a moment or always? And now
suddenly the lights go off. Something somewhere
is broken. The autumn wind has blown down
a tree across the lines. Where did I put that candle
I used to have? Somewhere a glitch is glitching, yet
this is a familiar place, I can move in the dark.
Martha was dead for two minutes, then two hours,
then ten, and will it become a day, two days, with her
not here? Impossible. I cannot think it.
Yet the lighted numbers on my watch keep turning,
ticking and turning. The numbered pages of my books
smolder on my shelves, surrounding me. Alas my dear,
alas. Time and number are a metaphysical reality
after all.

Scrambled Eggs And Whiskey

Scrambled eggs and whiskey
in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren't we fine tonight?
When Hank set up that limping
treble roll behind me
my horn just growled and I
thought my heart would burst.
And Brad M. pressing with the
soft stick and Joe-Anne
singing low. Here we are now
in the White Tower, leaning
on one another, too tired
to go home. But don't say a word,
don't tell a soul, they wouldn't
understand, they couldn't, never
in a million years, how fine,
how magnificent we were
in that old club tonight.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Why blog? (a meme)

Got this at Dewey's (not her real name, but one of my regular reads just the same).

1. Do you promote your blog? Yeah I ping a bunch of places through blogflux when I think of it, but I don't go crazy. Mostly I just write, visit others, and make long obnoxious comments and hope that'll do the trick.

2. How often do you check hits? I check once or twice a day when I'm near a computer but I'm not obsessesive.

3. Do you stick to one topic? No, it's not in my personality, speaking of personality have you tried this cheese? And that reminds me of this book about cheese.

4. Who knows that you have a blog? Everyone I know.

5. How many blogs do you read? There are about 40 I try to at least look at every day, and then there are those I end up at through unplanned clicking.

6. Are you a fast reader? Yes, but never fast enough Not as fast as superfastreader - that's for sure.

7. Do you customise your blog or do anything technical? I just play around with the Html in an amateurish kind of way, but I don't have the time or the knowledge to do anything fancy.

8. Do you blog anonymously? I use my own first name but I don't use anyone else's unless they're already public to the blogging community. My family and friends are all referred to obliquely or with a nickname.

9. To what extent do you censor yourself? Not too much. I don't go out of my way to be nasty or incendiary because one of my chief reasons for blogging is connecting with others, and there are certain topics I have decided to steer clear of on my blog, but I don't think sharing an opinion is valuable if it's not really your own opinion, but your filtering of that opinion after worrying about what everyone or someone else will think. My other chief reason for blogging is to write and I don't think writing has value - either as a process for the writer or as an experience for the reader - if it is not flowing from your impulse center. At least that's the writing I like to read and so that is the writing I try to do. Especially as I think of blogging as a quick and dirty format. There are plenty of media where more formality is appropriate, but here I'm just laying it quickly out on the line for others to connect with if they will. I don't imagine for a minute that everyone will like me or what I have to say. I guess those that do will stick around and the rest won't.

10. The best thing about blogging? Writing every day and connecting with others (not always similar others) around ideas - not geographical location, not "office" politics, not shared past - but what we read and what we think. My circle has not only become bigger, it's become more broad - I know people from more varied backgrounds, place, and ages than before, and I know them by what they think - not what they look like or where they live.

Most mornings what I'm going to write gets me out of bed with energy. I read more attentively because somewhere in my head I'm thinking about what I might write. And I have way more varied and numerous ideas for what to read next that I ever had before (thanks!).

The Roaring Twenties (Great Gatsby)

If you're a fan, and I am, Sheila had a marvelous post on The Great Gatsby yesterday. And the link she places in the comments section, a Guardian piece about Fitzgerald, is devastating - well worth the read!

...and just in case you're in the mood to charleston at the Capitol...

Resisting one temptation only to give in to several others

Even though there are three books on my current pile, four on my outmoded authors challenge list, and over two dozen on the TBR pile, I couldn't help myself. On Sunday, I read about Petropolis a recent first novel by Anya Ulinich in an interview of the author by Kevin Kinsella over at Maud Newton's. It defied me to leave and not want to pick up a copy of the book. And, well..., it appealed to my Russian obsession, and I guess I was weak to the power of suggestion and, well, I ended up trolling my favorite book websites in search of it. When the dirty deed was done an hour later, I had jumped between Books-a-Million, Alibris, Powell's, and the library coming away with:

Notice, no Petropolis. I could justify the Pinker as a school-related purchase but Life and Fate? I certainly seemed to have Russia on the brain. I also tried to get A Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, but it's not to be released here in the U.S. until November, and I tried but failed to find a copy of Nicola Barker's Darkmans, after reading the Dovegreyreader's encomium. But I read about Petropolis a little more, and it was like going to the refrigerator for a piece of chocolate cake. I opened the door to look at it and other dishes seemed more my fare. So much for not being able to walk away without a copy - my original reason for this mad shopping spree. Has anyone read it? Will I regret it? And what did you walk away with on your last impulse book purchase?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Nature of Enemies (Books - The Welsh Girl)

I'm continuing to read The Welsh Girl and want to write about one theme I'm enjoying. I've mentioned that a small Welsh village becomes the sight of a German POW camp following the D-day invasion, so the war is still on. The German soldiers spend a lot of time fighting boredom in a fenced in yard behind their barracks. The boys of the village come to watch them in fascination, sometimes taunting them, later tentatively playing. Eventually they tire and leave but the youngest of the group, Jim, is an evacuee who is temporarily housed in Wales. He feels very much the outsider and continues to visit, befriending Karsten, the prisoner through whose eyes we experience the story of the Germans. Eventually he accepts a gift from him. Then a telegram arrives of a friend gone missing and presumed dead and Jim's new friend becomes his enemy.

Esther, the title character, also secretly watches the prisoners. The Germans are her enemy. She has never known anyone German, but through the stories of their deeds in the newsreels, papers, Winston Churchill, etc... they have become her personal enemy, as often happens in a war. Yet she watches Karsten, admiring his warmth to Jim and his attractiveness, and becomes jealous of their relationship. At the point I've reached in the book I can see the potential for her falling in love with him.

This reminded me of Jonah's post at The Frontal Cortex a few days ago - about a Bosnian couple who, tired of their marriage, spent hours in computer chat rooms with newly found loves complaining of their horrible spouses. They decide to go on a date with their new paramours and end up meeting each other. The kicker is - rather than realize that they do still actually find each other desirable, now they're divorcing each other because they feel the other has been unfaithful.

Jonah rightly chalks up their behavior to something psychologists call fundamental attribution error - in which one person (call him the viewer) attributes another person's behavior (call him the actor) to their disposition, their character, rather than seeing that behavior in the context of its situation. But it is really the viewer's disposition, not the actor's that is to blame. It is making the behavior more meaningful than the context. That is probably because it is the easier job. As the viewer, we are stuck at first having to use the actor's behavior - it is visible - whereas the situation is a subjective experience that is only completely available from within the experience of the actor. That is where imagination becomes vital, useful - it is the tool that allows us to get inside the experience of another. Sure we can laugh at the idiotic Bosnian couple, but while we carry around our own context with us wherever we go (much of it unconsciously) it is much harder to consider the context of others, and we can't know for sure we are right without getting to know them. Creating an enemy really depends upon fundamental attribution error to an extent, and that "error" is not an anomaly, it is very much a part of human nature, leading me to think that it will be a long time on the evolutionary scale before either the generals or the marriage counselors are out of business.

The Welsh Girl is proving a satisfying read. It's story is not merely domestic, it is subtly provocative on a philosophical and even a political level. I won't say too much more about the book as I finish it up so as not to completely spoil it for those of you who are planning to read it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Remembering through reading

This originally from SMS Book Reviews I found it at Book Haven - thanks Nyssaneala!

Book Memories...

20 Years Ago:
Hmmm, living in Milwaukee, running a theater company..October - season beginning...How am I supposed to remember what I was reading, probably books around whatever play I was doing. Jim Cartwrights Road opened in October. I wasn't in it, but wanted to be. I was preparing to direct Eric Overmyer's On the Road in November - a great play. Juicy language, very funny. I was probably reading diaries of female travelers from the late 19th century.

10 Years Ago:
That's a bit easier, I can look it up. 9/24/97 - had a committee meeting where I was teaching. Taught in the afternoon. I was reading composor Erik Korngold and conductor Fritz Reiner's biographies, I had just bought Come Back to Sorrento (Dawn Powell) and The Blue Flower (Penelope Fitzgerald) so they were on the TBR pile. Boy did I see a lot of movies! Nothing like a little leisure time.

5 Years Ago:
9/24/02 worked at a theater in New York, teaching, and preparing to rehearse a new operatic version of Tell Tale Heart. My last book order had included The Shape of a Pocket (essays of John Berger), Seeing in the Dark (by Timothy Ferris about astronomy), The Book of Illusions (by Paul Auster), and You are Not a Stranger Here (a collection of short stories by Adam Haslett).

3 Years ago:
9/24/04 still teaching, still at the theater, my most recent book purchases were The Glass Palace, which I've yet to finish, Cloud Atlas which I really enjoyed, and Strong Motion an early novel of Jonathan Franzen's that I had ordered since I had just finished The Corrections.

Last Year:
I had recently left the theater to go to school. Recent book purchases included The Future of the Brain, The Emperor's Children, Psychophysiology, Music and Memory, Foundations of Language and The is Your Brain on Music. If I remember correctly I was reading mainly on the brain and music last fall.

This Month:
This month, as you can see from my side bar, I am struggling to get through The Welsh Girl, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

3 Favorite Reading Locations:
My bed, public transport, cafes.

3 Reading habits:
I read every night before I fall asleep
I make one, two, or three lines next to paragraphs to prioritize my spececial interest
I write in the margins (I used to be much worse about this) arguing with or vehemently agreeing with the author.

3 Things that distract me:
I assume you mean while reading...

The sound of the television or something on Youtube coming from the other side of the bed or living room
my own thoughts about the book

3 Characters I’d love to be:
For a long while, I fantasized being the protagonist in Maugham's The Razor's Edge and now I can't remember his name (funny)
Joseph Knecht (The Glass Bead Game).

3 Characters I despise:
Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop)
Michael Moran (Amongst Women)
Lady Marchmain (Brideshead Revisited, despise may be a little strong

3 Favorite Book Beverages:
Red wine
Red wine

3 Favorite bookmarks:
I reuse favorite bookmarks from bookshops based on their track record for my enjoying the last books they were in - a superstition. Two are from Three Lives & Co. and Three Geese in Flight in Kingston NY.
A business card from a restaurant I ate at in Stockholm called Bistro Ruby

3 Dead Writers I’d love to meet:
Virginia Woolf
Herman Hesse
Iris Murdoch
I'd add Dostoevsky, but he'd have wanted to borrow money

3 Alive Writers I’d love to meet:(wouldn't that be Living writers?)
I would say J. D. Salinger, but I understand he's not all that friendly
Richard Powers
Rohintin Mistry
Pat Barker

Join in the fun if you wish - I found it an enjoyable stroll down memory lane.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

All tricks and no magic (film - The Illusionist)

After a day of following charged ions in and out of neurons, I thought I would sit down and watch a different kind of hocus pocus. We borrowed the film The Illusionist from the library. Based on a short story of Steven Millhauser Eisenheim the Illusionist. It featured a promising team - Paul Giamatti, Ed Norton, Rufus Sewell, composer Phillip Glass - alas, it was all trickery and no magic.

Set in fin de last siecle Vienna, a poor boy loves a woman of royal blood. Their friendship cannot be, he travels the world and becomes an illusionist, she the intended of the heir to the throne. He comes back to town to perform tricks, like making the crowned Prince's sword stick in the ground, and the prince does not like that very much - or are they tricks? I won't entirely ruin the plot for you as it is quite good and in case, after this you are still tempted to see the film.

I could have forgiven the film its obviousness if they hadn't done two things - one was to make the setting and period ridiculously dear - you know, people speaking in foreign accents when they are in their home country - why?!? It was interesting watching how the British actors handled accents versus the Americans. Somehow, Sewell was freed by his mask to let something loose akin to character, while it absolutely muzzled Paul Giamatti. Norton was somewhere in between. But when it came to the life beneath the lines, Giamatti and Norton both had an underground fire blazing (sometimes with the flame a little to high), but Sewell (who I've liked in plenty of other films) was reduced to shouting to be dramatic. They also insisted on shooting the whole thing in sepia tones - I know, I know it was supposed to be a long time ago - but could someone please tell me in what year the earth blossomed into technicolor? Because I've never read about it in the history books and you would think someone would have noticed. They had another reason for this choice I won't discuss because it's a spoiler.

The second even bigger gaffe, in my estimation, was an over use of camera tricks - slow-mo shots, moody framing, and especially to try to create the magician's illusions with film. In other words, we see the ghosts materialize, etc... The whole point of this story is to wonder. That people were convinced of his powers is the point, not that he could actually perform illusions. Sometimes, the computer manipulation of the digital image was simply obvious - oops, there goes the illusion. Other times the effect resembled a hologram - we're all used to them from science fiction films now and they carry much different connotations than do the ghostly spectres to an audience of, say, 1899. Oops - no illusion. Showing me the illusions meant not creating them for me. If I had experienced their effect on others - had hints of what he was doing so that I could imagine the rest (as the viewer contributes to the illusion they see), the film would have been much more convincing. Fewer camera tricks and subtler character development would have drawn a little more magic from this film.

Expressed in language and about language (books - The Welsh Girl II)

I'm continuing to enjoy how The Welsh Girl's author, Peter Ho Davies, uses language to fashion his story, not just to relate it by description, or to evoke it with form - but language is itself a player in the story. The Welsh locals and the English - like the officers at the local POW camp, have a continual power struggle - they identify friend or enemy through language and accent, they can hide things from each other through language, they have notions of class that are tied to how they speak. Esther, the Welsh Girl of the title and the character through whom we experience the English/Welsh side of the story, was educated to speak beautiful English - a feature that makes her unusual among her compatriots. There is a parallel struggle between the German prisoners and their captors (here, the English/Welsh barrier dissolves and there is sudden national unity). Most of the soldiers do not speak English, but Karsten does and it is through his eyes we experience the part of the story told from the point of view of the Germans. Karsten and Esther form these dual voices - English and therefore understandable to the English reader, but something of an outsider to their own set.

There's a lovely scene in which Karsten knows he will soon be able to send a post card home to his mother, so he struggles to write something that will inform her but not worry her and will still reflect his situation honestly.
As a boy, one of his jobs around the pension had been to carry the guests' mail to the post office. He liked to practice his reading skills with the cards, trying to recognize the town and the landscape, which he took for granted, in the exuberant descriptions. Glorious weather. Spectacular views, Charing locals. He wondered if he would see his world this way if he was at leisure...

Karsten's struggle to write a satisfying line in the POW camp takes hours. When he finally produces one sentence he can live with he is exhausted...
Schiller starts to saunter on, down the alley of tents, but turns back, fishes in his tunic pocket. "Almost forgot. They were issuing these outside the mess." He hold out a bright square of paper, and after a second Karsten takes it. It's a Red Cross postcard.

He watched Schiller amble off, then turns the card over in his hands. It's already preprinted with a curt message:

Dear __________:
This is to inform you that I am a prisoner of the British/American/Soviet forces.
My health is poor/fair/good.
Sincerely/Love, __________________

He's furious at these words, thrust in his mouth like a gag. But then, he realizes, he's hardly been able to think of much more to say for himself despite his agonizing. He's reminded again of those postcards of his mothers' guests - delightful, lovely, charming - their repetitious, interchangeable sentiments, and he's suddenly relieved by the anonymity of the card before him, the impersonality.

This is a struggle not only expressed in language but its subject is language. Often when writers write about writing it bugs me. But Karsten and Esther's relationships to language are well developed and become tools to further the story in Davies' deft hands, rather than to detract from it. I enjoyed how Karsten's relationship to these same words could, in the space of seconds move from prison to freedom. It makes me think of what I wrote about the actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo in the my other post this morning on the film Zodiac. Gyllenhaal would be freed by a printed postcard - his acting can be open when it is empty of choice but it is never quite original. Ruffalo 's seems all choice - even if it was printed for him, the way he wrote in the spaces and circled his choices would be original and would communicate more than was printed.

I hope to have enough reading time in between my studying to finish this lovely book this weekend.

A Good Old Fashioned Mystery, Charles Ives, and Mark Ruffalo (film - Zodiac)

Went it came out, Zodiac was hyped as a bang-em-up, bloody, serial killer movie and was further criticized for a lackluster performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, but we borrowed it from the library and I didn't have that reaction at all. It's a good, old-fashioned thriller mystery - a puzzle to be solved - with good suspense, interesting characters, and a real idiosyncratic soundtrack. That's a big plus with me, I find as the opening credits roll, that most feature film soundtracks sound so obviously imitative that I want to walk out of the film. I know that if that's the music they chose, the film is likely to be built on cliche. But this was really original, some of it jazzy, and some of it quoting Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, for good reason.

Jake Gyllenhaal was playing a uncharismatic character, so his performance seemed spot on. It seems to me he's often stretched in the wrong way when he's cast as edgy or unusual, but when he's playing white-bread ordinary he's relaxed and open, willing to do whatever is asked - he just doesn't bring much individuality to it. To be honest, I can't tell if he has any depth. Zodiac also features Robert Downey Jr. who turns in a fun performance as a quirky, boozy reporter (surprise, surprise). He's such a good actor, I hope people will think to cast him as something other than a drug addict. But the performance to see this film for is Mark Ruffalo's. In fact, there is no film I've seen him in where he isn't the reason to see it. He's always a whole, complicated person really behaving - when he's woken up out of bed by a phone call, he's not just squinting his eyes, it seems as though he's really been asleep. When he eats half his partner's BLT, he takes off the tomato. He just does whatever he does - it's all individual - no one else would do it that way. At the same time, that's never the point, he's creating a character and if that character requires a certain behavior then he's really behaving. And you can see the thought driving that behavior, and the emotion bubbling below the thought that not even he knows is there. A real actor. If you haven't yet seen him in You Can Count on Me, I can't recommend it enough. He's beautiful in it, so is Laura Linney. But back to Zodiac, it's good, satisfying mystery and suspense that will keep you guessing. Get the popcorn.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Excerpt of the Day (Books - The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies)

It's D-day in a small Welsh town soon to be the sight of a POW camp.
The broadcast ends and the noise builds again in the pub. It's not quite a cheer - the speech has been sternly cautious - but there's a sense of excitement kept just in check and a kind of relief, as if a long-held breath can finally be released. All spring the whispered talk has been about an invasion, and now it's here, D-day, the beginning of the end. The suspected secret the whole country has silently shared for months can be talked about openly at last. Everyone is smiling at the soldiers and calling congratulations, even the locals clustered behind the public bar. Constable Parry, the blowhard, goes so far as to mention the huge floating harbors glimpsed off the coast to the south ("Now we know what they was for"), raising a glass, clinking it sloppily with one of the sappers, who winks back ("No pulling the wool over your eyes, ossifer"). And the constable, egged on, launches into the rumor about Hess being held in Wales. Esther steps up on the crate once more and turns the radio dial through the catarrhal interference until it picks up faint dance music, Joe Loss and His Orpheans, from the Savoy in London. She hears something like applause and, looking round, sees with delight that it's literally a clapping of backs.

There's a rush for the bar again. People want to buy the men drinks. They're only sappers - road menders and ditch diggers, according to her father - but they're in uniform, and who knows when they could be going "over there." Suddenly, and without doing a thing, they're heroes, indistinguishable in their uniforms from all the other fighting men. And they believe it, too. Esther can see it in Colin's face, the glow of it. She stares at him and it's as if she's seeing him for the first time; he's so glossily handsome, like the lobby card of a film star.

Davies does not stint on description. He lets the reader know who the players really are, what the place looks and sounds like. I love that in the first of the two paragraphs he does not only say that there was excitement, he evokes it with a tumble of information: the bar's noise level, D-day, the locals, Rudolph Hess, a dance orchestra, and the sound of backs slapped in congratulation. He doesn't only describe how many people are in the pub all talking at once - his sentences echo the press - Constable Parry, the harbors, the glasses clinking, the beer sloshing, two bits of dialogue in parentheses - the second where you can really hear the joshing tone of pub talk when spirits are high - all packed in one sentence like the pub's drinkers.

I'm almost half way through the novel and I admire how Davies takes the time to place you somewhere specific and to let you know enough about who is there so that you can feel the meeting of character and environment - not just move from plot point to plot point. The point of view alternates between the denizens of this Welsh village and the German soldiers who end up in the POW camp after D-day. I don't want to tell you much more so as not to ruin the story.

Tea of the Day

Blood Orange Oolong from the T Emporium. Peachy, floral green oolong mixed with the peel of blood oranges. Mmmmm, I'm going to be flying today. Although this is actually a picture of Black Blood Orange Tea made with black tea.

Picture of the day

Margaret Bourke-White's portrait of the Chrysler Building - is there any building that better exemplifies the romance of New York?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An Inflorescence (A Flowering of Poetry Every Friday - Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold)

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.

Matthew Arnold was born in Laleham, England in 1822. While probably more well known for his literary criticism than his poetry, Arnold wrote Dover Beach (1867), which has rightly become a much praised poem of the Victorian era and is referenced in works such as Farenheit 451 and Ian McEwan's Saturday. American composer Samuel Barber set Dover Beach for Baritone and String Quartett - that's well worth a listen if you like the poem . The linked recording is the original and the other Barber pieces on it are marvelous as well. If you've never heard Summer of Knoxville 1915, it's Barber's setting of excerpts from James Agee's Death in the Family and it's gorgeous.

I've heard some describe the poem as dealing with faith and others see sexual themes. My reading is much more straightfoward - while there is beauty apparent in the world, it cannot give us ultimate relief from pain and loneliness. In experiencing the mystery, uncertainty and violence of our reality there are many things we cannot ever know so, the poet pleads, let us at least be loving toward each other. It's a great poem. I think I'll let it stand alone. For those of you wanting a richer analysis, Paul Muldoon in The End of the Poem devotes an entire chapter to Dover Beach.

In coming weeks I'm thinking about Stevie Smith and Denise Lervetov - any other ideas?

Dover Beach
The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -- on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Around the Web - (TED, tea, the flowing hair of Steven Pinker and other odds and ends)

Since I spent the whole day data crunching and the rest of it studying, there isn't going to be much in the way of literary rhapsodizing here today, but here are some tidbits from the rest of the blogosphere.

Nell Freudenberger reviewed David Leavitt's new book The Indian Clerk for The New York Times. It is an historical novel about the friendship between Cambridge mathematician, G. H. Hardy, and Indian mathematical genius S. Ramanujan. Freudenberger gives much useful context about Cambridge, Leavitt's writing, World War I, and the themes, both mathematical and sexual, dealt with in the book. This book is at the top of my TBR pile when my brain has the space.

The New York Sun reviews The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker's new book:
Do words really represent things in the world or are they markers of ideas inside our brains? Is there a language of thought itself, or do different languages embrace and shape the world in different ways? Such questions have been asked afresh in recent years, not only by philosophers and linguists, but also by cognitive scientists and evolutionary biologists seeking the origins of human sensibility. Among the most prolific and most public of the current generation of inquirers into human understanding is the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

An active member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, Pinker is a deft writer, so this is destined to make it to my TBR pile somtime before 2010.

Hat tip for above: 3 quarks daily.

New York Daily Photo has a magnificent shot of Mr. Moon and a multilegged creature who showed up at the Kitchen Highline Block Party. Do you know the origins of this character, he asks?

Some wonderfully mysterious images and snatches of text here, as always.

TED, no not me but Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a conference of the world's leading thinkers according to, well... TED, I guess. It has included speakers like physicist Barry Greene, naturalist Jane Goodall, all fields are represented -the arts, sciences, international relations. They assemble once a year and give 18 minute talks in order to spread their ideas. They now offer many high quality videos of those talks that you can view here. Steven Pinker has two and I found one by psychologist Barry Schwartz on the relationship between freedom and choice which is rather hyperbolic. They are even rated by categories such as: most discussed, funniest, and most beautiful - seems they feel we need a lot of help around choosing ideas.

Hat tip: PsyBlog

Finally, today's Dining In section in the Times has a graduate level course in tea - including brewing timings, pots to use, etc... If you are a tea freak like me, check it out. I love tea - learning about it, making it, drinking it. My old favorite is Sencha Premier - a deep green tea that is a cross between a sweet, vegetal flavor mixed with a taste I can only describe as sucking on stainless steel - you just have to try it. I've heard that the Japanese consider green tea a vegetable but that may just be one of those cultural myths like the fact that Eskimo's have 40 words for snow (they don't). My current tea obsession is Snow Dragon - twisted silver leaves that look like little unicorn horns, it's a white tea that brews up sweet and not too wimpy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Atheism and science thoughtfuly debated

Jake over at Pure Pedantry has been having a lively give and take on Why Pairing Science and Aetheism is Highbrow and today's follow-up post is an attempt to further clarify his position. It is a debate worthy of your reading time and exemplary of the existence of critical thinking at its best on the net.

What is this ugly little meme?

Found this over at Sheila's and it pissed me off (it, not you, Sheila):

1. Is your second toe longer than your first?

No, it's about equal.

2. Do you have a favorite type of pen?
A purple Papermate felt tip, hands down.

3. Look at your planner for March 14, what are you doing?
My planner ends in December. Puhlease, let me get through the week!

4. What color are your toenails usually?
I go au naturel.

5. What was the last thing you highlighted?
Probably the last thing I acted in - an adaptation of Winesburg Ohio. I don't highlight my school books, I have this silly little prioritizing system involving one, two or three lines next to any paragraph of interest.

6. What color are your bedroom curtains?
I have blinds, not curtains.

7. What color are the seats in your car?
I don't own a car.

8. Have you ever had a black and white cat?
I'm allergic to cats, that would be - no.

9. What is the last thing you put a stamp on?
The maintenance bill for my apartment.

10. Do you know anyone who lives in Wyoming?
No, I know someone whose mom grew up there.

11. Why did you withdraw cash from the ATM the last time?
To buy produce.

12. Whose is the last baby that you held?
The Ragzzo's brother's.

13. Unlucky #?
Don't have one.

14. Do you like Cinnamon toothpaste?

15. What kind of car were you driving 2 years ago?
I don't own a car, I borrow my mom's occasionally and it's a Taurus.

16. Pick one: Miami Hurricanes or Florida Gators?

17. Last time you went to Six Flags?
Never, only been to Disneyland and that was back in 1985.

18. Do you have any wallpaper in your house?
Under the paint on my bathroom walls, but it's coming off if we can ever figure out what color we're doing the bathroom - we're thinking midnight blue dyed limestone plaster. The tiles are 1939 deco pink -any thoughts?

19. Closest thing to you that is yellow?
The tea towel hanging by the kitchen sink.

20. Last person to give you a business card?
The deco antique shop in Beacon we visited last Friday.

21. Who is the last person you wrote a check to?
My Ragazzo.

22. Closest framed picture to you?
A crazy blue photo taken by my friend Tony, a photographer, of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

23. Last time you had someone cook for you?
Do restaurants count? If so, that would have been Friday at a BBQ place in Beacon, otherwise The Ragzzo made veal tacos a couple of weeks ago, usually I cook.

24. Have you ever applied for welfare?

25. How many emails do you have?
Accounts or actual pieces of mail? If accounts, could be 3, could be 5, could be none of your business.

26. Last time you received flowers?
I have no idea.

27. Do you think the sanctity of marriage is meant for only a man & woman?
What are you - nuts? The SANCTITY of marriage? WHO THE HELL WROTE THIS THING? Sanctity is not a word that has a place in our law. If marriage is to be respected as a legal institution, it's because the two people who signed the contract keep the contract. I hope it's out of love just because that's a nice fairy tale, but that would be their business and I certainly don't care what sex they are. Seeing that most marriages do not stay together I would ask - WHAT SANCTITY? And if the government is giving out 150 benefits to men and women who make that contract they damn well better treat couples of the same sex - LIKE MINE IN CASE YOU'RE WONDERING - equally. But they don't and that is insulting and demeaning. Our constitution (Happy Birthday constitution) guarantees us equal protection and we're not getting it. As a religious rite, I don't really care what marriage does - that's the business of whatever sect is marrying the people who wish to have a religious ceremony. But I am continually surprised that religious people, including those whose faith teaches that god is love, would ally themselves with so unloving a position, would wish to have fewer symbols of love and commitment in the world, and would set themselves up as some sort of police force - determining whose love is acceptable to it and whose is not. How dare every one of you.

28. Do you play air guitar?
No, knee piano.

29. Has anyone ever proposed to you?
See # 27, if they did it wouldn't matter, I couldn't marry them. The law of this country seems to be written by people who are so insecure in their personal religious beliefs that they believe those feelings should dictate our laws. It's a shame people who claim to live in a country governed by laws and not men (and women) should so pervert that intention that they must govern us by their personal religious beliefs instead.

30. Do you take anything in your coffee?
No, although your questions make me so angry, I could use a shot of whiskey in my tea.

31. Do you have any Willow Tree figurines?
What the hell is that? If it's anything like a Hummel - that would be NO.

32. What is/was your high school's rival mascot?
My high school's rival was Stuyvesant, but that was over the Westinghouse science research awards, not football. If either of us had a mascot, it was probably a laboratory rat.

33. Last person you spoke to from high school?
Amy, she lives in my neighborhood.

34. Last time you used hand sanitizer?
At the lab on Saturday, before running a subject in our study.

35. Would you like to learn to play the drums?
I did, and played percussion in my high school orchestra for two years.

36. What color are the blinds in your living room?
Wood, I believe the finish might be called Cherry, you know how good we are at interior decorating, which must be the reason we can't get married.

38. Last thing you read in the newspaper?
I read the Arts Section in the Sunday New York Times, but none of it stuck.

39. What was the last pageant you attended?
Are you kidding? Pageant?

40. What is the last place you bought pizza from?
The local joint, I know their number but not their name. I won't do name brand pizza.

41. Have you ever worn a crown?
I was a king in a play at camp when I was about five, tin foil and cardboard, made by Mom.

42. What is the last thing you stapled?
The recording form for my experiment.

43. Did you ever drink clear Pepsi?

I don't drink soda.

44. Are you ticklish?

45. Last time you saw fireworks?
The year before last at Thunder Over Louisville for the opening of the Derby.

46. Last time you had a Krispy Kreme doughnut?
I tried one when they first came to New York - they do nothing for me.

47. Who is the last person that left you a message & you actually returned it?
The census bureau.

48. Last time you parked under a carport?
In Santa Fe in 1999 in the house they gave me when I was working there. It had a carport.

49. Do you have a black dog?

50 . Have you had your mid life crisis yet?
I'm pretty sure I did. At least, I sure hope so because if that wasn't it, it won't be pretty when it comes.

51. Are you an aunt or uncle?
Yup, four times over, five if they'd d fucking let me get married. But they would rather children had less structure and security and were surrounded by less love if they determine that love to be the wrong kind.

52. Who has the prettiest eyes that you know of?
The Ragzzo, of course.

53. What kind of soap or body wash do you use?
Dove, no scent - I have very sensitive skin - you know how sensitive we are.

54. Do you remember Ugly Kid Joe?

55. Do you have a little black dress?
No - even though I'm gay. Can I get married now?

A meditation on guilt and insecurity in the guise of thriller (Film - Caché)

Michael Haneke's film Caché with Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, released in 2005, is the latest film in our effort to catch up with movies we missed by borrowing them from the library. As I've mentioned before, I love French film - in fact I really love the place the arts are given in French culture. Their writing, film, music, even their television is considered a serious way to express the ideas running through their culture. A movie is a way to have a dialogue, not merely a commodity produced to make money, win admiration, or decorate our leisure time (although they make some candy films too). The quality of the artistry and the ideas expressed by it are both endlessly discussed in respected magazines and television talk shows. It's a culture I feel I really fit into better than my own, in some ways. I love the language, the wine and the food and the value the enjoyment of simple sustenance has in their culture, and I cannot get enough of Paris. Anyway... I'm a fan, so part of my response to French films is probably living out a 2-hour fantasy of being in France.

I had not watched this film when it came out because I assumed it would be a more commercial venture, given the casting, I'm such a snob. But that was not so. The casting of two of France's super-stars does not compromise the film in any way, they turn in committed, relaxed, and multi-layered performances. I also enjoyed the fact that Binoche, known not only for her acting but also for her physical beauty, is middle aged now and the film revels in her current beauty as a forty-something actress as opposed to casting someone younger or trying to disguise who she has become. The lens adores her and she remains as open as ever, never hiding. The film's setting is the upper middle class life of a Parisian couple George and Anne - book critic and publisher - so I have everything to keep me happy - books and Paris! The couple begin receiving several-hour-long videos of their house, focused on their front door, taken with a hidden camera. Later those videos venture further afield and include George's childhood home. They are never able to see the photographer and the feeling of being watched increasingly invades their sense of safety for themselves and their son, Peirrot. I don't want to say any more about the film's plot because the film is driven by the tension is slowly stirs up - some of it insidiously and some of it suddenly and shockingly. I admired that this film worked not only on the level of a creepy thriller - some people are in danger and as the viewer I seem to share in this danger - but it also worked on a philosophical, exploring the ideas of culpability and political insecurity. It was a study of how the assumptions that ground individuals or political entities can be disturbed and what kind of behavior can result given our impulses to defend. But here we don't know the face of the attacker for sure, so what to attack is in question. There is another theme of guilt on a personal or a national level, but I will ruin the experience of this film by discussing it too much, I recommend seeing it when you're in the mood for a thoughtful film dressed like a thriller.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Factory town turned Modern Art Destination - Dia: Beacon

I didn't read two continuous sentences all day yesterday - even though I did some studying for the GREs - but there is no reading to report on. The Ragazzo and I did, however, take a drive up to Beacon, New York - a little over an hour north of our fair city - to visit friends and to see Dia Art Foundations upstate home for its collection of art from the 1960s - present.

Beacon was a forgotten, working-class hamlet among a sea of estates, historical sites, and country clubs with views of the Hudson River (except for its appearance in Nobody's Fool the 1994 film with Paul Newman) until Dia decided to open a companion gallery to its location in Chelsea to house its collection. They converted a 300,000 square foot box-printing factory, right on the Hudson River line's railroad tracks, into an immense museum for modern art. While not everything we saw was to my taste - the current exhibit of Sol LeWitt's drawings, for example, did absolutely nothing for me - four exhibits really stood out.

A show of Agnes Martin's work, a painter characterized as a minimalist because almost all her works feature pale horizontal stripes, although I learned from an interesting film about her that she considers herself an abstract expressionist because she sees those forms as a medium for feelings (although NOT for ideas, she insists).
I want to draw a certain response,” Agnes Martin stated in an interview in 1966. “Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature–an experience of simple joy…the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.

The film, With My Back to the World played as a double feature with a film about a completely contrasting contemporary artist - Kiki Smith - at the Film Forum earlier this year. I love films about artists' process, especially when we get to see their work spaces. Here's a link to them both.

Fred Sandback created constructions of colored string that span floor to ceiling and create an illusion of planes of rectangular and triangular shapes - it's probably hard to see them in this image, but you can see the gorgeous exhibition galleries:

Dia is the perfect home for two artists in their collection - Richard Serra's massive curved two-inch-thick slabs of rusted steel - standing inside the space - create these shapes like nuclear plant smoke stacks or the hull of a ship, when inside them they are like a metallic maze:

Lastly, an entire room of Andy Warhol's paintings built on the shape of shadows. The room does for his work what collecting Rothko or Monet's Water Lillies in one place does - it surrounds you with a certain esthetic and allows you to appreciate it on its own terms. I really enjoyed this room:

Their bookstore allowed me a chance to do what I like to do best, browse through and acquire books! But I still managed to not string together two sentences buy finding a book of cartoon drawings 100% Evil, silly fun.

The town of Beacon is not frilly and gentrified as neighboring Rheinbeck, or even sedate and upper-middle class as Garrison - which is a plus as far as I'm concerned. It has a Main Street lined with craft and antique shops, galleries, and a handful of restaurants, but it has some seedy stretches as well. Beacon is an easy day trip and was a welcome change. And now it may be Saturday for the rest of you, but I have to go to work.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An Inflorescence (A flowering of poetry every Friday - Dylan Thomas - effusive and dark troubador)

Inflorescence - 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.

Born in 1914 to an English father and a Welsh mother, Dylan Thomas wrote effusive lyric poems with diction like a wild and stormy sea - just try this on in your mouth:
Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;

His poems were introspective and yet sang loudly of water and of death, they were full of religious imagery and passages like biblical scripture, yet they were not exactly religious. He's as well known for his many poems like
Do not go gentle into that good night as he is for Under Milkwood, a radio play, and a volume of short stories Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Thomas married Caitlin McNamarra; they had three children and a were reputed to have a passionate but tempestuous marriage. He had a beautiful speaking voice and did many readings for the BBC as well as conducting reading tours. A wild bohemian and a prodigious drinker, it was on one of these tours in New York City that Thomas died in 1953 after collapsing at The White Horse Tavern, a victim of his drinking. His last words were reported to have been "After 39 years, this is all I've done."

More on his life and work here, here, and here. And, importantly, here is his workspace:

And now, some of his poems.

Deaths and Entrances

On almost the incendiary eve
Of several near deaths,
When one at the great least of your best loved
And always known must leave
Lions and fires of his flying breath,
Of your immortal friends
Who'd raise the organs of the counted dust
To shoot and sing your praise,
One who called deepest down shall hold his peace
That cannot sink or cease
Endlessly to his wound
In many married London's estranging grief.

On almost the incendiary eve
When at your lips and keys,
Locking, unlocking, the murdered strangers weave,
One who is most unknown,
Your polestar neighbour, sun of another street,
Will dive up to his tears.
He'll bathe his raining blood in the male sea
Who strode for your own dead
And wind his globe out of your water thread
And load the throats of shells
With every cry since light
Flashed first across his thunderclapping eyes.

On almost the incendiary eve
Of deaths and entrances,
When near and strange wounded on London's waves
Have sought your single grave,
One enemy, of many, who knows well
Your heart is luminous
In the watched dark, quivereing through locks and caves,
Will pull the thunderbolts
To shut the sun, plunge, mount your darkened keys
And sear just riders back,
Until that one loved least
Looms the last Samson of your zodiac.

In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercise in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their driefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

The Hunchback in The Park
The hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark

Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water for the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.

Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound

Past lake and rockery
Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
Through the loud zoo of the willow groves
Dodging the park keeper
With his stick that picked up leaves.

And the old dog sleeper
Alone between nurses and swans
While the boys among willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors

Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault
Straight as a young elm
Straight and tall from his crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the locks and chains

All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lak
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
Had followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.

Where Once the Waters of Your Face
Where once the waters of your face
Spun to my screws, your dry ghost blows,
The dead turns up its eye;
Where once the mermen through your ice
Pushed up their hair, the dry wind steers
Through salt and root and roe.

Where once your green knots sank their splice
Into the tided cord, there goes
The green unraveller,
His scissors oiled, his knife hung loose
To cut the channels at their source
And lay the wet fruits low.

Invisible, your clocking tides
Break on the lovebeds of the weeds;
The weed of love's left dry;
There round about your stones the shades
Of children go who, from their voids,
Cry to the dolphined sea.

Dry as a tomb, your coloured lids
Shall not be latched while magic glides
Sage on the earth and sky;
There shall be corals in your beds,
There shall be serpents in your tides,
Till all our sea-faiths die.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks" -or everything I know about neuroscience and the law I learned from West Side Story

Lotus reads and I have had an exchange in her comments and mine since I wrote on Capgras syndrome and she on alexia - my how neuroscience is in the news! She brought up the case of comedian Tony Rosato (links here and here) who defended the charges of harrassment against his ex-wife and their child with his diagnosis of Capgras. That made me think of a New York Times Sunday Magazine article from a few months back - The Brain on the Stand, in which Jeffrey Rosen discusses how neuroscience and the law are becoming more and more frequently intertwined.
Herbert Weinstein, a 65-year-old ad executive who was charged with strangling his wife, Barbara, to death and then, in an effort to make the murder look like a suicide, throwing her body out the window of their 12th-floor apartment on East 72nd street in Manhattan. Before the trial began, Weinstein's laywer suggested that his client should not be held responsible for his actions because of a mental defect - namely, an abnormal cyst nestled in his arachnoid membrane, which surrounds the brain like a spider web.

The implications of the claim were considerable, American law holds people criminally responsible unless they act under duress (with a gun pointed at the head, for example) or if they suffer from a serious defect in rationality - like not being able to tell right from wrong. But if you suffer from such a serious defect, the law generally doesn't care why - whether it's an unhappy childhood or an arachnoid cyst or both. To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn't functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. But should judges and juries really be in the business of defining the normal or properly working brain?

Insanity pleas have been around for a long time, in fact, 19th century French law allowed a crime passionel, a sudden jealous rage, as a valid defense for the charge of murder. But it seems we are now having courts judge not only whether someone's state of mind made them do it - which our legal system has long asked juries or judges to decide as it is an unanswerable question, as certainty resides only with the accused (and sometimes not even they could say) - but questions around science itself, i.e. could a cyst make him do it. Does a delusional syndrome, a cyst, or a truly rotten childhood make someone act? Can they truly not help it? If a cyst is responsible is the person with the cyst not responsible? Does the cyst eliminate free will altogether? Just some of it? Just at certain times?
the trouble is he's crazy, the trouble is he drinks, the trouble is he's lazy, the trouble is he stinks...

...gee Officer Krupke, it's just our bringin' up-kee...

And is a jury of our peers really qualified to say - especially in a climate in which people are poorly educated enough to legislate the teaching of "intelligent design" in a science class (I'm not discussing its legitimacy, mind you, just its place in a science class), when people believe that their thoughts can be "read" by the electrodes placed on the surface of their scalps or even worse, when they fear that we could plant thoughts into their brains by such a devise (They can't). Now don't get me wrong, I know that the branch of science I'm getting into is highly technical and difficult to understand and that our knowledge of science has been muddied by access to a lot of really cool science fiction - but that's my point. And, frankly, neuroscience is a burgeoning field- and those working in it would be the first to tell you how much we DO NOT understand, So, while I'm troubled by the fact that courts are being asked to decide upon someone's future by interpreting their will, I guess in some ways we are all equally ignorant when it comes to someone else's intent and therefore the courts have to decide, because laboratories cannot. I hope those decisions will be made with a more and more solid understanding of the science of the brain but that that will be coupled with a reasonable modesty about what we don't know.

However, I'm even more troubled when courts are being asked to decide what must be determined by scientific process - like whether childhood vaccines cause autism, see my post on Cedillo v. Department of Health and Human Services. Granted we can't even agree on what autism actually is, but the most recent scientific evidence has clearly pointed us away from that explanation with well designed studies. Scientific causality needs to be determined with double-blind studies, as a result of rigorous and repeated hypothesis testing in laboratories, so that belief about outcome (known as experimenter bias) is reduced as much as possible. Having nothing but the belief be the determining factor is a grave error, it demonstrates a sad lack of understanding about how conclusions regarding causality in science are reached. Courts cannot and should not carry out this work.

Anyway... lots to think about. And in my ramblings I discovered The Project on Law and Mind Sciences for those of you wanting to think further about culpability, cysts, and our bringing up-kee.