Monday, April 28, 2008

It's how you play the game (Chess Story by Stefan Zweig)

Unlike some of the victims of the Nazis, Stefan Zweig and his wife escaped Austria in 1938, going first to London and then to Brazil where they later committed committed suicide, having experienced one of the ultimate betrayals - that of the culture they loved, a culture many considered the paragon of intellectual, emotional and artistic progressiveness at the dawn of the twentieth century. This was in fact the fate of my own great-grandfather. He committed suicide, never leaving Germany. Having served his country in the First World War and loving so deeply the spirit of all things German - exemplified by its thinkers, its artists like Goethe and Beethoven -once Germany killed what made those things symbols of the greatness of the human spirit, he no longer had anything to live for. The ultimate victim of the Nazis was Germany itself which, in trying to rid itself of what it considered not 'purely' German, actually robbed itself of the very qualities that made that Germaness great.

Stefan Zweig's novella Chess Story (recommended by both John Self and Verbivore) considers the relationship of two men to the game of chess. One a lawyer, a Dr. B. from Vienna, whose family's practice served the clergy and the family of the monarchy. When Hitler marched in Vienna, he is arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in isolation for months in the effort to extract money or information that the Nazis could use against threats to their power.

Locking each of us into a total vacuum, a room hermetically sealed off from the outside world, instead of beating us or exposing us to cold - this was meant to create an internal pressure that would finally force our lips open. At first glance the room assigned to me did not seem at all uncomfortable. It had a door, a bed, a chair, a washbasin, a barred window. But the door stayed locked day and night, no book, no newspaper, no sheet of paper or pencil was permitted to be on the table, the window faced a firewall; complete nothingness surrounded me both physically and psychologically... I never saw a human face, never heard a human voice; my eyes, my ears, all my senses received not the slightest stimulation from morning till night, from night till morning, all the time you were hopelessly alone with yourself, with your body, and with these four or five mute objects, table, bed, window, washbasin; you live like a diver in a diving bell in the black sea of this silence, for that matter like a diver who has guessed that the cable to the outside world has snapped and that he will never be hauled out of the silent deep.

What saves Dr. B. after months in this state? One day while he is waiting for his next interrogation:

I went on waiting and waiting and stared at the door, wondering when it would finally open and what the inquisitors might ask this time, though I knew that what they asked would be quite different from anything I was preparing for. Yet in spite of everything the agony of this waiting and standing was at the same time a relief, a pleasure, because this room was at least different from mine, somewhat larger and with two windows instead of one, without the bed and without the washbasin and without that particular crack in the windowsill that I had looked at a million times. The door was painted a different color, there was a different chair against the wall and to the left of it a file cabinet with files and a coatrack with hangers on which three or four damp military coats were hanging, the coats of my tormentors. So I had something fresh, something different to look at with my ravenous eyes, something new at last, and they clutched avidly at every detail. I examined every crease in those coats, I noticed for example a raindrop hanging from one of the wet collars, and, as ridiculous as it may sound to you, I waited with absurd excitement to see whether this drop would eventually run off along the crease, or whether it would defy gravity and keep clinging - yes, I stared and stared at that drop breathlessly for minutes on end as though my life depended on it. Then, when it had finally rolled off, I counted th buttons on the coats over again, eight on one, eight on another, ten on the third, and compared the lapels once more; my voracious eyes touched, caressed, embraced all these ridiculous, trivial details with a hunger I am unable to describe. And suddenly my gaze was riveted on something. I had discovered a slight bulge in the side pocket of one of the coats. I moved closer and thought I knew from the rectangular shape of the bulge what was in this slightly swollen pocket: a book! My knees began to shake: BOOK!
It is a book of chess games of the masters, and in his remaining months of confinement, Dr. B's sanity hangs on having his mind, his soul engaged by some source of stimulation.

The other man, Czentovic, is an ignorant young orphan, raised by a rural pastor, who masters the game of chess at 15 by watching others play and:
At seventeen he had already won a dozen prizes, at eighteen the Hungarian Championship, and at twenty he was champion of the world. The most audacious grandmasters, every one of them infinitely superior to him in intellectual gifts, imagination, and daring, fell to his cold and inexorable logic as Napoleon to the ponderous Kutuzov or Hannibal to Fabius Cunctator (who, according to Livy's report, displayed similar conspicuous traits of phlegm and imbecility in childhood). Thus it happened that the illustrious gallery of chess champions, including among their number the most varied types of superior intellect - philosopher, mathematicians, people whose natural talents were computational, imaginative, often creative - was for the first time invaded by a total outsider to the intellectual world, a dull, taciturn peasant lad, from whom even the craftiest newspaper men were never able to coax a single word of any journalistic value...

...Like all headstrong types, Czentovic had not sense of the ridiculous; ever since his triumph in the world tournament, he considered himself the most important man in the world, and the awareness that he had beaten all these clever, intellectual, brilliant speakers and writers on their own ground, and above all the evident fact that he made more money than they did, transformed his original lack of self-confidence into a cold pride that for the most part he did not trouble to hide.
Embodied in Zweig's brief masterpiece we have Germany as the exemplar of intellectual, moral and creative life lost to Germany as a mindless machine run by an idiot savant, lacking all spirit or compassion. The first betrayed by the second at the cost of millions of lives and the deadening of humanity in, some would say, not just Germany, but the entire world as it was touched by the devastation left behind in the wake of the War.

Zweig also succeeds in creating a tremendous amount of suspense in this volume of scarcely 90 pages. I felt remiss in not having read Zweig before now and found this an inventive story. I am looking forward to reading more of the few works he left behind.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday hodgepodge

I don't know what possessed me, but I decided to make salmon last night, actually I do know - it was Jake's plea for recipes for graduate and medical school students. He had numerous responders, including myself, offering their supposedly inexpensive and quick recipes that are nutritious and produce lots of leftovers. When considering last night's dinner, I had started with the idea of chicken and asparagus but after looking through my cookbooks The Ragazzo and I settled on prosciutto wrapped salmon, which sounds fancy but it could not be easier. It was accompanied by lentils with chopped spinach and herbs with yogurt dribbled on top. It even looked good on the plate! It was one of Jamie Oliver's recipes which I find are almost alway easy to make and really tasty. I first discovered the Naked Chef - while sick w/ a flu in a hotel in London and stuck in front of the television. Here's the recipe my only variations - I had pretty hefty fillets and cooked them for 20 minutes not 10. They were perfect. I also cheated and used canned lentils. I have Jamie's The Naked Chef Takes Off which has quite a few recipes I go to again and again. He also has a new book Cook with Jamie that I paged through while waiting for someone at Williams Sonoma that looks like a really good cooking primer. I'm a fan.

On a stomach happily filled with salmon and lentils I finished Russell Banks The Reserve. My enthusiasm for the solidity of his writing and my criticism for the plotting of this novel stand. My suspicions for how the novel would end were mostly confirmed. Banks may not have wished me to be surprised though. In the italicized passages that are flash forwards interspersed with the plot-proper set in 1936, at least one character dies. I won't say who or how, but what that did for the remainder of the 1936 events was cast a completely different light on them. It is like getting terribly caught up in one of life's daily drama's at work or at home - something that feels terribly important - and then suddenly hurricane Katrina strikes or a childhood friend gets a terrible illness and you're left thinking - what was I making all that fuss about? There is a sudden switch in the focus of the novel from a 1930s film intrigue and romance to questions of ethics - of right and wrong. They come a little late if you ask me, but I appreciated them coming at all. They gave me a respect for one of the characters that I hadn't previously felt.

If any of you care to recommend to me the Russell Banks I should read - I'd be intrigued to hear. I've had one vote for Cloudsplitter. He is the New York State Novelist after all, so I would like to read some more of his work.

I'm choosing between David Lodge's Thinks..., Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and Stefan Zweig's Chess Story for my next book, but now, despite the fact that you think it may be Sunday, I have to head off to the lab and work.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Crazy debutante alert (Books - The Reserve and others)

Sometimes crazy characters are endlessly fascinating - their psychology creates the kind of unpredictability that makes a story exciting - other times you just want to slap them. Vanessa Cole in Russell Banks The Reserve is the second kind. In fact, it's not only Vanessa but also Jordan Groves, the painter who is entangled with her, Alicia his wife, and Hubert St. Germain who is entangled with Alicia - they all seem bent on mindless self-destruction in a way that just makes me want to throw up my hands for the lot of them. It's as though their little corner of upstate New York has been struck with a case of mass hysteria. I'm still admiring Banks' wordsmithery but his plotting has turned obvious. I'm about 100 pages from the end now and the plot proper and the mysterious italicized passages that I mentioned in my last post are beginning to come together in a way that feels rather melodramatic. **Spoiler Alert** While I joked about it, Vanessa Cole's mental health is actually rather important to the plot, it is rather an important element to her character too - one that I didn't necessarily suspect from my initial meeting with her **Spoiler over,** yet Banks, rather than let us discover this fact slowly, not being sure, as one might in meeting Vanessa several times, he dumps her back story on us unceremoniously in a twenty page chunk of narrative explanation that I found disappointing for being reportorial and unintegrated with the rest of the story. I'm still holding out hope for the rest of the story, with any luck I might finish it today, but I am no longer confident of where Banks is taking me.

That being said, I've heard people sing rhapsodies about Banks writing before now. So when I was trolling around my favorite bookstores with a friend on Thursday, I ended up, among many books, getting The Darling, an earlier novel of his set in the U.S. and Liberia. It focuses on Banks' interest in many previous books - the politics of race. I ended up with many other treasures to boot! William Trevor's Fools of Fortune, Stefan Zweig's Chess Story, Cormac McCarthy's Crossing, a biography of Walter Benjamin, and Proust and the Squid about the neuroscience of reading. But I wasn't done - no - on Friday I finally found some books that I had had trouble locating for a while. There is a trilogy by Wolfgang Koeppen that I learned about in Marcel Reich-Ranicki's memoir (itself a fascinating book)- a German novelist - including Pigeons in the Grass, Hothouse, and Death in Rome which examines the post war Germany through the lives of four characters who each symbolize an element of German culture. Along with them, I ordered the John Woods translation of Magic Mountain. I had an old used paperback edition that is falling to pieces now, and I have heard that this translation is much better.

Friday, April 25, 2008

To be not alone (Film: The Double Life of Veronique)

The Double Life of Veronique is one of those films that makes me feel, hear, see, taste everthing I come into contact with more intensely for a while after I see it. By Polish/French director Krysztof Kieslowski (who made Red, White, and Blue) it is a dreamy fairy tale of two women, doubles of each other, one living in France, the other in Poland. They're not really aware of each other and yet in their innermost thoughts they sense the other's presence. It is about the pain of being truly alone, and also knowing what it is like not to be alone. There is a wonderful romantic story line in which Veronique falls in love with a puppeteer who creates a tragic and beautiful puppet show at the school where she teaches. I love the musical theme which figures importantly in this film. After I first saw it, it ran through my head for days and days. It is visual poetry, shot with a lovely softness and with inventive use of camera angels to add to the dream-like quality Kieslowski goes for to suggest the link between the two women's lives without explaining it. The greatest strength of this film is how it takes a mysterious experience and renders it whole on film without ruining its mystery. It is one of my favorite films.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Does the destruction of libraries herald the death of a society?

Is this not a tragedy? The ruins of an abandoned Russian library, the full series of pictures is here at English Russia.

Hat tip: Hang Fire Books

Spring reading

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Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?

Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

When skin starts showing and heads start snapping around on the street and puppies are straining at their leashes to sniff at each other and the soft ice cream truck is chiming its sickly little ditty, it's spring time in New York - a restless time - and my reading habits probably do shift. Lately at the beginning of spring I tend to want some YA fantasy. That may be due to the fact that the end of the term is at hand and I'm trying to run away from papers and exams. I definitely start picking up some travel books to plan our summer trip. Sicily this year! No gardening books here - no garden! But we are looking for a guide to NYC flora and fauna. We run into dozens of birds, trees, and flowers on our walks in the park, but aside from the hawk we saw last week, some blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, and robins, and the familiar forsythia, tulips, and daffodils, we can't identify most of them. The other thing I know I'll be reading in spring are study notes. In fact, I had better start preparing some. But my preference for novels stays constant and it can be paperback or hardcover, large or small, size doesn't matter. I stocked up on a few just last week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From A to Z

Who can resist a book list? Not I. I got it from Random Jottings... who got it from Stuck in a Book.

An A-Z of favorites:

A is for Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy
B is for Pat Barker - The Regeneration Trilogy (Emily & Charlotte Bronte are close seconds)
C is for Ethan Canin - For Kings and Planets and it has to be for Chekhov too
D is for Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment
E is for George Eliot - Middlemarch
F is for F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby and it also has to be for E. M. Forster too - Howards End
G is for Doris Grumbach - pretty much everything, a precious observer
H is for Herman Hesse - Narcissus and Goldmund, The Glass Bead Game
I is for Henrik Ibsen - A Doll's House
J is for James Joyce - The Dubliners
K is for Tony Kushner - Angels in America Parts I & II
L is for Sinclair Lewis - Arrowsmith
M is for Iris Murdoch - anything! The Black Prince is a good start. But you won't go wrong with Toni Morrison - Sula or Ian McEwen - Atonement or Nicholas Mosely Hopeful Monsters either.
N is for Pablo Neruda - anything! The Love Sonnets are breathtaking
O is for Clifford Odets - Awake and Sing! The Country Girl or his diaries (awesome) or Frank O'Hara's poems
P is for Richard Powers - The Goldbug Variations (need you ask?)
Q is for Hm... I'm stumped, actually
R is for Ray Robinson - Electricity
S is for J. D. Salinger, May Sarton, Wallace Stegner, and ok William Shakespeare
T is for Tolstoy (I like the fact that the Russian writers only require last names) - Anna Karenina
U is for Barry Unsworth - Morality Play
V is for Tarjei Vesaas - The Ice Palace
W is for Virginia Woolf - The Waves
X marks the spot but I can't think of an author
Y is for A. B. Yehoshuah - Mr. Mani
Z is for Stefan Zweig whom I haven't read yet but intend to!

Writing you can stand on (Books - The Reserve by Russell Banks)

After a day of writing a paper about alpha-2 adrenergic receptor agonists and monoamine oxidase inhibitors I was really glad to fall into bed with Russell Banks' new novel The Reserve. At its core are a willful debutante, Vanessa, and a stubborn artist/political idealist, Jordan Groves. Groves lands his plane on the lake outside Vanessa's father's home in Upstate New York and takes her flying on the same night that her father dies of a heart attack. The story of these two people is interspersed with short italicized chapters set in Europe full of border crossings and forged passports. The book is said to be a thriller which I have to take on faith. In the 75 pages I've read it hasn't felt like one to me. What Banks seems to do in those pages is built two very strong characters from the toes up. Often he describes what he does and what she thinks. It feels a very 30s film idiom - the man of quick action, the woman who is strong because she watches everything and is very active too, but circumspect, social mores don't expect her to be aggressive.
Vanessa followed the two men, but kept a few feet behind them, silent and watching and listening, like a reluctantly roused predator, operating more on instinct than need. She liked the artist's hard concentration, how he stood before each painting and literally stared at it for long minutes, as if it were alive and moving and changing shape and color before his eyes; and she liked that he offered no comment, no praise, compliment, or critique; just looked and looked and said nothing and moved on to the next, until he had seen them all, then returned to three or four of the landscapes for a second long looks.

Banks really takes his time so that you can feel the time Jordan takes to look at those pictures and the time Vanessa spent watching him do so. His style is very...what, solid, you could say manly if you want to stay in the 1930s idiom. Lots of 'ands' and semicolons, as though he chopped his sentences out of wood. When he describes a thing he is damn-well going to describe it.

Now Vanessa could hear the airplane clearly and steadily. Though she could not see it, she knew it was coming in from the north, flying low, tracing the Tamarack River to the First Lake and one to its headwaters here at the Second. Suddenly the airplane appeared in the northern sky just above a line of black silhouetted spruce trees. It was rising in the distance over the water quickly, its gleaming belly exposed to the waning sun, as if the pilot had decided to take in the view of the entire lake and surrounding mountains and the darkening sky, when she heard the engine cut back. The airplane - a pale gray biplane with scarlet trim and two open cockpits, a goggled, hatless pilot in the forward cockpit, the other empty - slowed there, seeming almost to pause in flight and hover, when it banked to the west, heading toward the mountain wall that plunged straight into the glittering water.

It was a seaplane with two large pontoons, and she thought she was watching a man about to crash his airplane deliberately against the thousand-foot vertical slab of gray granite, and she forgot her cold thoughts and grew almost excited, for she had never seen anyone kill himself and realized that in some small way she'd always wanted to and was surprised by it. The pilot seemed about to smash the airplane against the rock face of the mountain, when, less than a hundred yards from it, he banked hard to the left, dipped the wings back to horizontal, cut the engine speed nearly to stopping, and swiftly descended toward the water. The airplane touched down at the far side of the lake, broke the surface, and slid into the water, unfolding high fans of silver spray behind the pontoons. Vanessa was relieved, of course, but felt a flicker of disappointment too.

I knew I liked that passage when I first read it, but I hadn't realized how much until I just typed it. Writing hewn of wood. It's deliberate, structural - like it is built and fastened with bolts - and when it's done you can stand on it. But a thriller? This writing takes too much time. It creates no cheap thrill. I'm not breathlessly turning pages, I'm hunkering down in a deep leather club chair with my scotch, the ice clinking, and reading that passage again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mistakes, music, language, and individuality

It's Tuesday and you know what that means.... the Science Times. A few articles caught my eye today, one by Karren Barrow about a man who lost his ability to speak following a stroke (aphasia) and was able to learn to speak again with the help of melodic intonation therapy. This therapy seems to take advantage of the fact that certain aspects of singing, especially the melodic part, are typically accomplished by the right hemisphere of the brain while most language functions are housed on the left, where this patient experienced damage from the stroke. It's almost as if the right hemisphere is dragging the left along. It seems to be particularly helpful with speech spontaneity.

There is a little blurb by Henry Fountain that describes a study by Tom Eichele, a Norwegian researcher, and his colleagues that images the brain prior to making errors to learn what is different from when we perform well. There were two things I appreciated about this article. One was a few simple words in the writing which did not use the typical language of popular science with regard to fMRI.

** a little lecture about fMRI follows, which you are welcome to skip**
Usually authors describe the brain "lighting up" and make a direct link between the brain's relative use of oxygen in some parts of the brain as compared to others and its activation. The basis of this type of fMRI (there are several but this is a pretty common one), is that the 'f,' standing for functional, gives us a picture of a brain in action. It does this by measuring which regions of the brain are metabolizing the most oxygen at a certain moment in time, and describes those as the regions which are most active. Not an unreasonable assumption. The fMRI is a giant magnet, sensitive to the oxygen level of hemoglobin - the chemical in our blood which carries oxygen. That chemical is more strongly magnetic in its deoxygenated state than when it is bound to oxygen. That difference is what the magnet senses, and tiny regions measuring only a millimeter by a millimeter can be coded as to their relative blood oxygen levels. There has to be an adjustment for the time lag that exists between the metabolism of the oxygen and the blood oxygen level which is not directly measured, rather the fMRI is sensing the by-product that remains once the oxygen is used up. This is one of the many complications inherent in designing a meaningful fMRI experiment. There is in addition some disagreement as to exactly what physiological state is being reflected by the difference in oxygenation level. Most fMRI literature suggests that blood oxygen level is directly analogous to 'activation' of brain regions but what does that mean? The firing of a nerve cell or many cells within that 1mm volume (known as a voxel)? Neurons can be excitatory or inhibitory. Are those neurons all excitatory? Doesn't an inhibitory neuron firing also use up energy? Are we seeing a net measure of activation? My point is that fMRI is a complex measure. What a given series of brain images suggest should be described thoughtfully as the brain is not actually 'lighting up' at all. This article chooses to do that by carefully describing fMRI as a 'measure of oxygenation' and I appreciated that. Whew long tangent.
**Lecture ends here**

The other thing I liked about this article was the science itself. This experiment makes use of a fairly controversial idea - the so-called default mode region - which is a network of brain regions that are more relatively active when a person is relaxed and "at rest." Don't get me started with the scientific and philosophical problems of measuring rest. I won't go there today. This study suggest that those regions become more activated just prior to an error. As problematic as the whole default-mode idea can be, I enjoy the scientific sense behind the idea that a brain preparing to rest rather than to perform an activity would perform it less well. It almost sounds liking going to sleep at the wheel!

I also really enjoyed the article by Christine Kenneally on the impact of language on thought. One of my main research interests is top-down impact on perception - how an individual brain's experiences mold perception. This article about is written in a thorough format and offers a reading list on language and thought that many of you might enjoy.

Finally, Carl Zimmer writes interestingly and amusingly on diversity at the bacterial level. With the simplicity of a bacterial life form, you wouldn't expect much possibility of individuation, but research on the E. Coli belies that expectation.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Spring has sprung!

Out for a walk today...the park in walking distance from our apartment is in full bloom!

The fantasy is over... (Books - Abhorsen by Garth Nix)

The fantastical struggle against evil in Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy came to an exciting conclusion in the ultimate volume. Nix does a good job with satisfying coming of age fiction as I mentioned in the last post. In this book I was aware how, through the trilogy he had created an enveloping mythology for his alternate world that includes not just your usual run-of-the-mill forces of darkness but a creation-story, an afterlife, and a variety of races or tribes which, in the conclusion he whips into a raucous conclusion. My post on Lirael is here and Sabriel here. And the end of this fantasy means I'm supposed to return to my homework, boo-hoo.

Web finds

I discovered artist Jacob Whibley while trolling around this morning. I particularly like his collages (left).

Hat tip: scout holiday

This really cracked me up - courtesy of raincoaster.

Of Books and Bicycles muses on her summer reading plans to get her through the end of the semester. I'm planning on The Pickwick Papers for my annual Dickens novel, Middlemarch, and Revolution on my Mind for the Russian Reading Challenge, which has sadly ended up on the back burner lately.

Scott Pack rants on the Times Top 50 Crime Writers (list freaks - go forth and be outraged). Have you noticed that whenever someone draws up a literary list it provokes nothing but rants and raves? I include myself in this. I've yet to read someone post a list and say something like, 'The Guardian posted this great list of the top 50 books to read before you drop and it's brilliant - I wouldn't change a thing.' Scott makes his case for adding John Connolly, which made me think that I've read nothing of his besides The Book of Lost Things. It may be time to remedy that - any suggestions?

Curious Expeditions who I can always count on for, well... curiousities, taught me about Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux, 19th century French anatomist and his paper mache and resin anatomical models, one of which is tucked into the back of an antique shop called Obscura. You know where I'm going this week. That's one of his brains above.

How blind children learn the verb "see" - at the Cognition and Language Lab.

That ought to keep you busy. Happy Sunday.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

In which I have a day off... (Books, books, books)

I began our week-long spring break from class (but not from lab) yesterday with a day-off. I really needed one. It was a gorgeous summer-like day in NYC yesterday, everything is blooming. I had a Japanese lunch, went to the stationary store (read grown-up toy store), the library, 3 Lives Booksellers (my favorite New York independent bookstore of the variety selling new books, see picture to the left), took a walk in the park with my mother and had bloody Marys on the patio of the cafe beneath the cherry blossoms, ordered dinner in with The Ragazzo, and was in bed reading before 10.

My library find was Thinks... by David Lodge. I've read Lodge's book on writing The Practice of Writing but, oddly enough, I've never read his fiction. The jacket descriptions are too hyperbolic to repeat here, but from my little dip in while making my selection between this and Cynthia Ozick at the library, it looks like a satiric take on yet another aging male academic who can't keep his hands off women he is not married to, along with some literate stuff on - you know, the usual - love and consciousness. Let's hope it's better than I make it sound here.

There were way too many choices to make at 3 Lives, I confined myself to two - The new Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth, which I'm really looking forward to. Her stories are filled with such insight and don't feel formulaic. I also decided on Russell Banks The Reserve on a complete whim. I saw the film adaption of The Sweet Hereafter but have never read anything of his. This is set on the eve of World War II and involves a manipulative socialite her relationship with an artist... you know trying to summarize any book before you've read it is simply pointless. I'll let you know what I think it's about after I've read it.

I tore my way through about half of Abhorsen, the third book in Garth Nix's trilogy by the same name. This enjoyable YA fantasy continues the story of Lirael - the seer from the second volume - and Sameth the prince of the realm - in their efforts to overthrow darkness and, you know, save humanity. I can take or leave the magic, what I like about Nix in general, but this volume in particular, is seeing these teenagers who were both outcasts in their own ways, learn who they are both in terms of their strengths and their limits and come to own themselves. Nix manages to do this with the minimum of preaching assisted by a magical dog and a bitterly sarcastic cat who add a dose of irony whenever things get too serious.

Friday, April 18, 2008

CD Cover Meme

A totally nifty meme courtesy of {feuilleton} and the perfect thing for a Friday at 2:28 am. Build your own CD cover!

The first article title on the page is the name of your band.

The last four words of the very last quote is the title of your album.

The third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4: Combine all three elements in your photo editing software.

5: Share

Here's mine, a mark of prudence, by the hot young newcomers (disambiguation):

If you think it would be fun to do your own, consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eat where Tennessee Williams Ate (Books - Novel Destinations)

Novel Destinations, published by National Geographic , who were nice enough to send me a copy, calls itself a guide to literary landmarks. It is, but writers Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon really seems to have fashioned a volume caught between being a coffee table book and a travel guide that isn't quite either. It's not so much the content that is the problem as the format. It is a hardcover edition, which makes for a solid and attractive volume on the one hand, but more clunky than I would want to take on a trip. However, it is smallish and sports only small black and white photographs if what you were hoping for was a National Geographic coffee table book. It does offer lots of ideas of travel destinations for a book nerd -which is its strength. However, the organization of the book does not make it very practical. The first section offers travels ideas divided by literary genre, which is cumbersome as far a travel guide is concerned. George Bernard Shaw's Home in Britain is followed by Ibsen's in Norway and then O'Neill's in the U.S. For a while this section features writers' homes but then suddenly veers off and tells you where Tennessee Williams ate. Then a new section begins with destinations connected only to poets, featuring Yeat's favorite wooded paths and Carl Sandburg's farm within two pages of each other. It's fun to thumb through, but isn't much practical help for the traveler. I would appreciate a book organized either by destination or writer so the next section was more helpful. Divided by individual writer, you can follow F. Scott Fitzgerlad from his home and the site of his marriage to Zelda to Paris (but no destination mentioned), an inn in Asheville, North Carolina, and to a restaurant they dined at in St. Paul de Vence. Now, I have no problem with being given an excuse to return to St. Paul de Vence, but the collection of destinations in this section, while satisfying some literary curiosity, is a bit of a hodgepodge. Literary festivals are included in another section, walking tours connected to writers in another. Yet another is devoted to places to stay in a section more typical of a travel guide. It does have contact information but its outlook is strictly literary - don't look for price ranges or reviews on the comfort of the beds. The last section offers destinations arranged by writer, with a more comprehensive way you might spend a visit. For example, Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama gives you sites in the town connected to her writing or her life, places to stay and to eat, a production of To Kill A Mockingbird, a writer's symposium in the area, directions on how to get there. This section is the most successful one if you wish to use this book as a reader looking to actually guide your travels. I would have enjoyed it more if the entire book had been organized this way. Otherwise, this volume is more of a curio for book nerds - not without its enjoyments - good, perhaps, as a gift for that reader in your life to whom you don't want to give one more bookstore card.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Our house is a very very very fine house..." (Books - Rough Music)

Sylvia was at their usual corner table. She had none of his wife's inhibitions about entering a pub on her own. She gave him a little wave as he entered. He smiled at her on his way to the bar and pointed at her gin glass but she covered it with a small hand to show that she was all right for the moment. Joining her, he marveled afresh at how very neat she was. White hair, discreetly assisted so that one could tell she had once been a blonde, curled neatly about small ears. Her pink blouse was creaseless. Her thin legs were tucked neatly away into the recess beneath her settle. The only untidy touch was her jewelry, of which she wore a profusion, but even then she favored gold over gems; the glitter combined with the sharply pressed outlines of her clothes to lend her appearance a hint of the military. They did not kiss.

"How are you doing?" he began instead, their customary greeting.

Sylvia spoke lightly, raising her glass. "If Teresa hand't arrived when she did, I think I'd have pushed him under a bus."

"Not good then."

She drank then laughed bitterly. "Funny, isn't it? Good used to mean a sunny holiday, a comfortable retirement or, what was it you called it that time? The tenuous possibility of very cautious sex. Now it's what? A smile that might be meant for you or might just be wind. A morning when he hasn't pulled his nappy off in the night. A day when he's calm, even nice. I tell you, I used to want him to be aware so badly. I wanted him to recognize who he was. Now I want his brain to hurry up and fry itself. When that look comes into his eyes and I know he's aware and he's like 'what's happening to me?' I can't stand it." She drank again, lit a cigarette, hand shaking slightly with need as she inhaled. "Listen to me," she said and restored neatness with a smile. "I'm fine, John, I'm, fine. How are you?"

"Fine," he said, smiling. "I'm fine and Frances is fine too. I mean relatively. A bit forgetful. A bit...But compared to what Steve's going through..."

"I know," she said quietly, adding words that were both reassurance and threat. "Early days yet, John. Early days."

Given the way they had found each other and the clandestine manner of their meetings, they ought to be having an affair. In a woman's sense, he supposed, in an emotional sense, they already were. Certainly Frances would be as wounded and jealous if she knew of the depth of their shared confidences as if he had set Sylvia up in a love-nest.

It was a relief when the narrative voice in Patrick Gale's Rough Music expanded beyond the cuteness with which this novel opened. The predictability of the confession to a psychiatrist in the opening chapter as a causeway to memory irritated me, as did the primness of Will/Julian the protagonist, but these choices and every other that Gale made tied neatly in to his well-structured plot. He is very good with the way members of a family protect one another. It's done in the name of love but often it's really to protect oneself the discomfort of facing change. There are infidelities, misunderstandings, there is Alzheimer's disease, there is the crude American branch of the family interacting with the prudish English branch of the family - the American trying to free the British, the British trying to restrain the American. There doesn't seem to be anyone's head who Gale fails to get inside convincingly - whether that character is old or young, male or female, gay or straight. The experience of the book felt revealing - like looking through a relative's private diary or love letters. I felt not only like I knew these characters intimately but as though I understood something about people better in general. There were time the plotting felt studded with a few too many coincidences, but I grew interested in Will/Julian and his family, who like most families were more complicated than they first appeared, and found myself wanting to know they ended up as they were. Rough Music offers surprises and insight wrapped in an easy-going contemporary narrative style . I'm glad to have discovered Patrick Gale.

This post as well as this one constitute my thoughts on Rough Music.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

This is your character...this is your character on antidepressants

Most of my patients, who are adults, developed their psychiatric problems after they had a pretty clear idea of who they were as individuals. During treatment, most of them could tell me whether they were back to their normal baseline.

Julie could certainly remember what depression felt like, but she could not recall feeling well except during her long treatment of antidepressant medications. And since she had not grown up before getting depressed, she could not gauge the hypothetical effects of antidepressants on her emotional and psychological development.

Dr. Richard A. Friedman has written for today's Science Times about a generation who has built their character and their knowledge of themselves while always on psychotropic medication. We would not think twice if Julie grew up with congenital high blood pressure, that was untreatable through diet and exercise, about medicating her. I think it unlikely that she or anyone would say what a loss it was that she didn't know her heart without that medication if it was protecting her internal organs from irreparable damage. With the brain, however, with the psyche, questions of self arise. We see the self as arising from the brain. However, a medication that slows the heart, regulates the diameter of the blood vessels or otherwise controls blood pressure would control our entire body's rhythm, with it our ability to be aroused in the general sense of the word, and no doubt our character would be affected by that too. I am being provocative with this example but using most medication requires serious risk assessment and there certainly there are risks when it comes to the different classes of antidepressants. Would you feel more latitude to not medicate someone in the case of garden-variety upper middle class neurosis or average teenage angst that you would with serious suicidal depression? I would say I would and yet how confident could I be that I can tell the difference? The use of psychotropic medication and understanding the usual short and long term risks of any medication is already a serious one, but adding this component of a drug being a component of ones formative experience complicates the issue. That is treated thoughtfully in today's article.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The pleasure of the unexpected (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)

As I expected, Michael Ondaatje did not neatly gift wrap the two stories in Divisadero and give me the meaning of their overlap like a present at the end. One world in 1970s California contains the story of two sisters who become estranged from each other, their father, and their surrogate brother, Coop. The other, set in turn of the century Southwestern France, concerns the life of the writer Lucien Segura. Anna, one of the two sisters, who leaves her family one shocking violent day and never returns, takes refuge in the writing of Segura. In the book these two worlds exist side by side without Ondaatje ruining the mysterious spell that the story of Segura cast. The origin of the stories for which Segura became most famous slowly unfold and through that we gain insight into how stories can strengthen, how they soothe, how they can help one to construct identity, how we can live in them and through them - but we don't get explanations. This created for me an experience filled with mystery and beauty. I also find as a reader of many books that even in very satisfying reads I frequently know what lurks around the next corner. Not with this one. It was not constructed for suspense per se but it was constantly unexpected.

The rest of my posts on Divisadero are here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Understated hysteria (Film - Bright Young Things)

The struggle to keep the champagne bubbling when it's gone flat is the action filling Evelyn Waugh's 1930 satire of the British upper classes Vile Bodies. Stephen Fry's film adaptation, Bright Young Things released in 2003 captures the feel of one, long, desperate party swirling between the world wars. The shooting of wild party that opens the film is breathlessly manic. Jim Broadbent, Stockard Channing, Peter O'Toole, Simon Callow, Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer, James Mcavoy, Imelda Stuanton, and Fenella Woolgar are some of the beautifully cast actors who maintain an understated hysteria, if you can imagine understated hysteria. I remembered loving this film when it came out, that's why I've ended up owning it. But I hadn't actually watched it all the way through since I'd bought it, so I hadn't remembered how acid-perfect it is. How desperately these poor characters want to forget that there's a world outside their party! A gossip columnist who is a member of the peerage who would kill himself for being caught sneaking in to a party he was not invited to. A drugged socialite who ends up driving a race car off the track, crashing it, and ending up in a lunatic asylum where her friends throw her a cocktail party. A penniless young man who wins a thousand pounds to marry his love, allows a very drunk major to bet it on a horse... well you really have to see it for yourself. The love that this director and his artists have for these characters is what impresses me about the film the most. It would be so easy to show us in capital letters how vile these people are - how silly, how louche, how fey - but no. Instead they love them to death and you come to feel deeply for the people hiding behind these frail facades. Fenella Woolgar is beautifully ridiculous but never unbelievable as the lunatic in the race car. Jame McAvoy (just in Atonement) is the Earl- gossip columnist. He gives a high strung and stunningly vulnerable performance. Stephen Campbell Moore, whose worked I've already gushed about in The History Boys, plays Adam Fenwick-Symes, a character of more bubbly insouciance here. Even in an outgoing role, he acts with a quiet specificity, full of honest human details. His character, Fenwick-Symes' book on the upper classes is impounded by customs when he returns to Britain at the film's opening, he returns to his hotel and his landlady greets him with his unpaid bill. He wins a thousand pounds only to lose it five minutes later, and yet he dons his tuxedo, dances a tango by himself in his girlfriend's apartment, and together they go to a party with their fellow bright young things as they fiendishly try to escape what they say they dread the most - boredom, convention. The Waugh book actually pre-dates World War II by several years, but the film makes that party into the race car that finally must be driven smack into the wall of the Second World War to come to a stop. This would be depressingly sad in any other hands but in Waugh's and Fry's it is somehow wicked, hilarious, and brilliant. Raveworthy.

Three skeletons, three closets (Books - The Last Life, Divisadero and Rough Music)

Reading The Last Life, Divisadero, and Rough Music simultaneously is like living Tolsoy's opening line from Anna Karenina that says that "...every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. " The spectre of a past event haunts each of the families in these three novels, and drives each author to jump back and forth between multiple time frames to tell their story. However, their characters, their settings, and their tones could not be more different.

I could not decide whether my grandfather was sentimental or heartless. I could not determine whose version was true. I could picture the romantic Jacques in Paris, and Jacques the righteous Catholic and father protecting his family, and I could even see the little boy, careless, frolicking in the streets of Blida: but I could not connect these images into a single person, into my grandfather. And by the same token, a short month later, I couldn't tell what I felt in the days following the shooting. Must I hate him - his was a vicious crime of rage and indifference, the surest sign of a cold heart - or must I love and pity him, a broken and sick man whose soul had been momentarily gripped by self-destructive madness?

One of the things I like about Claire Messud's The Last Life is that it uses its story not just to evoke the interlocking complexities of memory and family, but in it we watch a young girl learn that people and events are not black and white. We live through her pain and confusion as the loyalties of her friends shift against her. We, no doubt, live through her own changing perspectives as she ages, since the narrator of this story is an older version of that young girl. As I read that paragraph I though of the way the dark event with which this family lives could be an an analogue for world events, for ideas, and for how valuable it is to learn to think critically, not just to judge by feeling, or by popular opinion. Messud's tone is like a bicycle ride down a path in summer - not a lot of cushion between the rider and the road, you feel all the bumps, sometimes the ride requires some effort on your part - it is straightforward.

Seven minutes after I escaped from my father at the truck stop near San Jose, this person formerly known as Anna climbed into the passenger seat of a vehicle going south. We drove all night, a shy black man in his commercial refrigeration truck giving a lift to someone he thought was a French girl. (I did not wish to talk or explain anything.) We stopped now and then for food, though I barely ate, my stomach hurting from fear. We sat in roadside diners and I watched him eat guacamole and chiles rellenos, while the weather stations on every truck-stop television screen reported the freak ice storm invading northern California...

The tone of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero could not be more different than Messud's. If her's is a bicycle, this is like a ride on a donkey - it is steep, rocky terrain, you need the animal to go where you're going, but the pace is ambling and the progress not at all in a straight line. Sometimes you're just going where the animal wants you to go - quotes from John Muir and memories of reading Victor Hugo pepper this narrative of a family ripped asunder. It very much focuses on how individual identities of two sisters were shaped by a single moment of love and violence. It also contrasts a 'then' and a 'now.,' Who these people were and who have they become in light of that one moment. This narrative is more organic, its narrative seems to have less of a didactic point to it than Messud's. It is not a long book, but it does take its time, I am curious how or whether Ondaatje will tie things up. I suspect he may not. As I mentioned before, this book has a very wet, Virginia Woolfy feel about it.

"Shouldn't we start with my childhood?" he said. "Isn't that the usual thing?"

"If you like."

"I warn you. I wasn't abused. I wasn't neglected. I love my parents and I loved by childhood. It was very, very happy."

"Tell me about it."

Yeah, right, my reader's radar said, and that's why there's a book about it. Obviously the tone of Patrick Gale's Rough Music couldn't be more different than the previous two. It is chirpy and contemporary. It too jumps between a troubling past event shrouded in mystery and the present where it's consequences live, in this case unknown to our narrator. His journey doesn't start with insight, but no doubt it will end there. To continue on my vehicular metaphor binge, this book is a car ride... well no, maybe a train. It modern and goes places fast. People you don't know come into your compartment from time to time. There are chimes and little announcements about where you will arrive next so you know where you're going. I do always feel like I know where we are going next. It appears there may be a pair of family skeletons in this closet, one in each time period. The book hasn't yet said so explicitly, but that is where it is setting up to go. I'm afraid I'm finding the voice in this novel twee - not Will's voice, he's the central character, for whom I find that voice believable - but the narrator's voice, which is not effectively distinguished from Will's in a way that irritates me. There may be a point to that and I am finding the plot interesting enough to keep turning the pages. I will give this writer, who has been praised by a good number of literate bloggers of good taste like Mark Johnson at Fifth Estate, some more time. It could be that the bombshell I suspect Gale is winding up to drop is too obvious to me and not that big a deal. On the other hand, I could be guessing wrong. If I'm right, the fact that it's not a big deal to me is hardly the point. The novel is about the Pagett family in Britain, not about me and they have the right, as Tolstoy says, to be unhappy in their own way.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Get me going and....

btt button

  • Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
  • Turn to page 123.
  • What is the first sentence on the page?
  • The last sentence on the page?
  • Now . . . connect them together….
    (And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)
When I picked up what was literally the nearest book - an excellent one called Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, this Seurat was on page 123:

My office, which is in the kitchen, has mostly textbooks and cookbooks. So I walked into the bedroom and grabbed the first book I saw, there is a little pile conveniently by the door, of book I have not yet read. The lucky winner was Iris Murdoch's Bruno's Dream:

'I hope so. I can't imagine how I will ever get them to leave without me,' Gemma said. Six little lights bobbed above the horizon. They have said I'm the one. I really don't know why it's me. I keep telling them that I just make hats.

Rob had been concerned about his friend for some time. Gemma was looking at the supposed bobbing lights now, although Rob didn't think he saw anything that couldn't simply be an airplane. She twisted a strand of her bob that hung by her eyes, framing the curve of her cherub's face. She was flushed. Her eyes squinted a little with worry. 'What, do they look like?'

Gemma smiled. 'They're like tails but with a lot of structure. No that's not right. They're like an octopus tentacle, but upright. They're s-shaped. They hover.'


'Bluish gray.' And there are a series of round thingies in the tentacle that open and close like an old camera shutter. And when they say something, well not say exactly, but when they communicate,' her speech was racing now, 'they come close to you and sort of hum, but you know exactly what they're saying!'

'Baby,' Rob crooned.

'Why me?' I'm not representative.'

'What's wrong with you?'

'I'm not married...or even sexually active. Don't they want a reproducing member of our species?'

'They may not. I wouldn't'

'I'm damaged goods,' she whined with feeling.

Rob found himself thinking that he could not disagree. Since her brother's death five months earlier, Gemma had retreated into her basement workshop with her feathers, silk flowers and scraps of felt and produced marvel after haberdashery marvel but had stopped speaking to her family, saw no friends except for himself. She seemed to survive on tea and sesame covered cookies, which he brought her from her favorite Italian bakery in The Village. 'Well, you haven't been yourself.'

'I'm in mourning. I can't stand life without him.'

'Neither can I , baby. Neither can I.'

Gemma felt embarrassed now. Her brother had been Rob's one true love.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Disinhibition does not equal creativity - (Neuroscience and a little too much imagination)

A rare neurological disease that unleashes creativity is how Sandra Blakeslee's article in today's Science Times pitches FTD, frontotemporal dementia.

"We used to think dementias his the brain diffusely," Dr. Miller said. "Nothing was anatomically specific. That is wrong. We now realize that when specific, domonant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger."

The article goes on to describe variants of the disease, some affecting speech, and other personality. None of them end prettily. It draws our attention to two cases in particular, the composer Maurice Ravel and a former scientist turned painter named Anne Adams. Both of them became attracted to structures of extreme repetitiveness. The well known Bolero's theme is highly structured and perseverative and the article describes similarly ordered paintings by Anne Adams. The thing that gets my goat about the article is that it speaks of the disease as "allowing torrents of creativity" or "developing artistic abilities," but that is a ridiculous interpretation if one goes by the abstract of the case study written by Dr. Bruce Miller and colleagues in the 2007 issue of the journal Brain. (I have not read the article yet). The abstract speaks of a single person - as this is a case study - who developed "an intense drive to produce visual art." Both Ravel and Adams appear to have possessed their artistic talents prior to the disease. It appears that Anne Adams' case released in her a desire to paint but one cannot conclude from this that she developed talent. If she had enjoyed baking, the disease might have resulted in a torrent of muffins. There is nothing new about lesions to the frontal lobes resulting in disinhibition - lack of the ability to control oneself. Classically people speak out inappropriately, for example they swear more. It is curious but beautiful that her disinhibition took on an aesthetic form. It is fine to muse on these rare diseases, that are no doubt much more remarkable and fascinating from a distance than they are when you are related to one of the rare cases. Her brain was becoming disordered and with it, perhaps, her world. I think it interesting to ponder whether she was attracted to images of structured repetitiveness in order to put her world back together again, but it makes me queasy when diseases are romanticized. Too big a leap was made in how this article characterizes FTD and it seems a bit flip to sell disinhibition as creativity for the sake of a headline.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The algebra of betrayal (Books - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith)

Each class had concluded with a short quiz to make sure all the information had been absorbed.

Who loves you most? Correct answer: Stalin.
Who do you love most? correct answer: see above
(wrong answers to be logged).
What should you never do? Correct answer:
play on the railway tracks.

Raisa could only presume that the reason behind this latest edict was that the Party was worried about population levels.

As a rule her classes were tiring, perhaps more so than other subjects. Whereas there was no expectation that students should clap at the completion of every mathematical equation there was an expectation that every pronouncement she made regarding Generalissimo Stalin, the state of the Soviet Union or the prospects for worldwide revolution be me with applause.

Raisa is the wife of Leo, the central character in Child 44 - a State Security Officer turned detective. Tom Rob Smith describes her trying not to learn the names of her students so that she could not relate to them as individuals, as if knowing someone's name made it possible to denounce them. It is impressive how much description of the experience of day-to-day life in Stalinist Russia pervades this novel. I loved the page devoted to the Moscow metro system - which one could enter through a pillared marble hall capped with domes of frosted glass - but the theme that hangs over the novel like a smell is betrayal. Betrayal of love, betrayal of the state, betrayal of oneself and the complicated algebra one must go through if one is to have any sort of conscience and act in this world.

The problem with becoming powerless, as you are now, is that people start telling you the truth. You're not used to it, you've lived in a world protected by the fear you inspire. But if we're going to stay together, let's cut the deluded romanticism. Circumstance is the glue between us. I have you. You have me. We don't have very much else. And if we're going to stay together, from now on I tell you the truth, no comfortable lies - we're equal as we have never been equal before. You can take if or I can wait for the next train.

I won't tell you which character says these words or under what circumstances, but suffice it to say that the balance of power is constantly shifting in this thoughtful historical thriller and this is not only an important element for the plot but also for Smith's evocation of life in Stalinist Russia. Unfortunately it is very hard to write about this book without giving away the plot, and that would ruin it for you. So although I am 100 or so pages from the end, I am going to leave off here with my recommendation. Whether you read it for its page-turning plot, its characterizations, or how it captures history it is convincing, surprising, and involving.

My other posts on this book are here and here.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Connections are not simple (Books - Hopeful Monsters)

Sheila has a great post on Hopeful Monsters by Nicolas Mosley. A masterpiece of connectionist historical, scientific, fiction that we both treasure for its breadth and its vision, however complex.
It's one of my top 10.

Brotherly Dysfunction (Film - The Brothers Grimm & The Darjeeling Limited)

Coincidentally, the two films we borrowed from the library this week were about brotherly love and dysfunction - Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. I'm a huge Terry Gilliam fan, Brazil is a masterpiece and one of my favorite films ever. He is possessed of the most prodigious imagination and the visual worlds of his films are usually breathtakingly original but this film lacked all subtlety. The writing, casting and acting of the non-star roles were all flat and obvious. Somehow every shot appeared to be a cliche - not a story archetype, I get the difference. Despite the scary forest and the steam punk devices that peppered the visual universe of the film, it ended up feeling like a spoof of a commercial period film. It was as if, in order to be a film about the origin of fairy tales, it needed to be stereotyped and unconvincing. But that seems to me a case against the worth of these tales, which is clearly not Gilliam's experience of them if you look at the cues his films constantly take from this realm. Pan's Labyrinth was a much superior film in imagining the source of tales because it took seriously their origin. This film seems to think we are incapable of recognizing the value of these tales without the important bits of the story being italicized. The story telling was like talking to someone on the phone who is sure they have a bad connection when they don't - CAN YOU HEAR ME?. Yes, already. I understand that the brothers Weinstein who produced the film may have had something to do with its insulting dumbing down. The viewing experience is saved only by performances of Matt Damon and the late Heath Ledger. Matt Damon plays the wheeler-dealer older brother who manages to convince villages to hire his brother and himself out as Napoleonic ghost busters. Ledger is the young brother with his head in the clouds. They travel the towns until they find a village haunted by a demon, a witch, a troll and while Damon's broth sets up a fake exorcism and collects the cash, Ledger's writes down the legend, that is until they meet the real thing. They are both perfectly silly yet convincing, Damon enjoying being smarmy and Ledger hapless and romantic.The film's opening scene shows the younger brother returning to their poor childhood home having taken beans at the market in exchange for a cow instead of money, hmmm, where have I heard that one before.

Speaking of awful openings, The Darjeeling Limited really had me worried. One is meant to view a short film with Jason Schwartzman, who plays one of the three brothers, in a hotel room in Paris. I'm not sure what one gains by watching this bad imitation of a French art film. He affects a stony-faced unexpressive flatness while dressed in a nice suit listening to the most annoying music I have ever heard. The music is played twenty more times during the film proper and did not improve with successive listenings. I had a bad feeling which was, gratefully, not played out. The film, about three brothers who were deserted by their mother early in the childhood and are now in morning for their father, meet in India for a spiritual journey. The film totally gets dysfunction in the family, particularly around loss, and yet somehow is funny while doing so. The brothers are each going through a rough patch - and each has their trademark way of dealing with the challenge. The more the pressure piles on, the more intensely they become themselves. The casting is wonderful, the humor is dark, the acting is understated and on the mark, and the use of music (with the exception of that one song) is inventive. The Ragazzo didn't like this one as much as The Life Aquatic but I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Literature is a mountain...

btt button

  • When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
  • Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?
When I think of literature in that way I think of something high and untouchable- certainly not Shakepeare or Dickens who are two of the most accessible, inventive, funny, alive storytellers there ever were. Literature must drone on, it must live in heavy, musty tomes, I must feel when I read it that I could really only understand it if I were dead. James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans or Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor come to mind. Oh yes, it would be nice if the writer had a Sir or Lady before his or her name, although he would likely be a man. He or she would need a properly dusty gravitas. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain would also qualify if it weren't so damn good. Nothing I've ever been able to actually read would qualify as literature. It's literature before I have read it (Ulysses is for me now), but it becomes a great book if I finish it. That, or it's a book I should read, until I can't get through it, and then it becomes literature. A mountain, that's a great definition of literature - it should feel more like a mountain than a book. You can't get around it, you could never carry it with you, and you can't just take a nice walk on it - you need special shoes and grappling hooks.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Do we perceive the truth with our senses? (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)

When we appraise our environment as we venture into some new territory, our eyes and ears provide us the advantage of doing so from some distance, whereas taste, smell, and touch require us to be closer. The level of detail which smell provides us is so fine grained we actually analyze minute amounts of chemical compounds in the environment, rather than noticing how much light bounces off something, assessing shape, its size. But the level of detail available to us comes at the cost of risk. Our encounters with what surrounds us are mixed with information from past encounters, as we evaluate not just the information we get from frequencies of light, but their value to us - good or bad - which allow us to make decisions about future actions? Do I run or do I approach. Is there food here or will I turn out to be that food? Somehow that entire process was captured by these passages in Michael Ondaatje's latest book Divisadero.

Anna carried the map with her as she walked. Since the day she had met the four hunters, she wore jeans instead of a skirt and shaved ten minutes off the ninety-minute walk. But where she was now, alongside the gorse hedges, the path was uneven, broken with stones, and she needed to slow down. Juniper grabbed her feet as she left the path, throwing up its smell. Sunlight fell through the trees and she paused to look up at the splintered beauty, she heard music.

What she heard was a woman singing. If she had thought there were men there, she would not have walked toward the sound. But this was tempting. A woman's voice, a tune that seemed to have no scaffolding, almost too caual to be good, although the voice was clear, waterlike. Anna stood where she was a moment longer. She saw a sparrow leaping from branch to branch, clumsily, hardly adept. She strolled towards the clearing, stopping once or twice, trying to interpret the tune.

She came into the open field, where there was a woman, and also a man, sitting in a straight-backed chair, accompanying her on what looked to be a guitar. They didn't see her at first, but they must have sensed something - a sudden quietness in the trees above her, perhaps - for the woman turned and, when she saw Anna, stopped singing and strode away, leaving the man alone in the open field...

Anna's advance across space brings her closer for a more detailed look as her advance across time allows her to absorb and integrate more details and relate them to her past experience. Sometimes a distant and brief relationship is all we allow ourselves, if our memory tells us that the risk of getting closer would be too great. But sometimes that distance forces us to make mistakes and never taking that risk we don't merely miss the pleasures of new encounters, we never find out we were wrong and so continue to use only the crude information we are able to collect at a distance to make decisions about value of what awaits us and whether it is worth the risk. That is the origin of 'once burned, twice shy.' It is the origin of our prejudices.

The reason I seem to be making such snail-like progress through this book is because two pages like these seem to include a whole world and I end up stopping several times and musing on wherever the narrative takes me. So did Anna's history give her an accurate sense of what lay a few paces in front of her or didn't it?

...The man with the guitar had turned his head to look at her. Feeling she needed to make a gesture to avoid being rude, Anna moved forward to say something, and he watched the uneven grass she crossed as she approached him.

Hello. I'm sorry.

As if she had some here and interrupted him to htell him she was sorry!

One thing, she felt completely safe. It was not the obvious fact that he was holding a guitar and not a weapon, it was his look, as though he had been just taken from refuge, and she was now insisting him back to earth. While she walked those last few yards towards him, she realized she must have also heard his playing when she entered the clearing, a subliminal hum and strum, a rhythm and a melody - which was why the woman had needed none in her song. The woman was accompanying him. So now it was as if everything she had heard was being replayed in her memory, recalled differently. He had been the one drawing her into the clearing.

As she gets nearer she not only uses the more detailed information she can now see, she replays her memory in light of her new information and rewrites it, reinterprets it. Is her new interpretation more correct? Not necessarily, but she does have more information than she had before and adjusts her narrative. Yet getting closer so that she could use her sense of smell might lead her to review her appraisal. More time with it could lead her to change it yet again. When is it done? When do we trust that we know something or someone? More time could lead him to new experiences which could change him and if she noticed those changes, because she was seeing collecting her visual information from the details that surround her and not with her memory of him, she might see that change and reinterpret her narrative of him yet again. The interaction of our senses, our memory and how they inform our interpretations and our behavior is captured in such livid detail in these pages. It's a real reading pleasure.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Intimate and precise - if Virginia Woolf had been a man (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)

In Divisadero the writing is not like writing, it's more like being led down a path blindfolded and you are willing to be led. It is desultory or even disordered, jumping from time to time or from first person narrator to omniscient, but it is the disorder of a dream - you look up and wonder how you walked out of your kitchen and into the old theater, but you accept that you did it.

Now and then our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you were able to catch him in that no-man's-land between tiredness and sleep, when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him on the old covered sofa, and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness - to much sun perhaps, or too hard a day's work.

Claire would also be there sometimes, if she did not want to be left out, or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep. As if inhaling the flesh of an adult was a sin and also a glory, a right in any case. To do such a thing during daylight would have been unthinkable, he'd have pushed us aside. He was not a modern parent, he had been raised with a few male rules, and he no longer had a wife to qualify of compromise his beliefs. So you had to catch him in that twilight state, when he had ceded control on the tartan sofa, his girls enclosed, one in each of his arms. I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signalled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-rive by a rope to some other place. And then I too would sleep, descending into the layer that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think.

I know who he's like - Virginia Woolf. If Virginia Woolf had been entirely herself but a man, she would have written like this. A little leaf rides down the stream quickly and in a straight line for a while, then spinning desperately in an eddy, then sitting in a pool created by a big stone, and then swept out into the current again. But always the leaf. The writing is all flow - precise but dreamy, full of the simple actions of human beings rendered in bright detail, intimate and somehow also cool.

Everything about gold was in opposition to Coop's life on our farm. It must still have felt to him that he came from nowhere, the horror of his parents' murder never spoken of by us. He had been handed the habits and duties that came with farm life, so by now he could ride up to our grandfather's cabin on the ridge with his eyes closed, knowing by the sound of the breeze in a tree exactly where he was and what direction he faced, as if he was within safe architecture. Our land had been cleared of stones and boulders, the wood planks on our kitchen table were wiped clean as a page, the fence gates chained and unchained, chained and unchained. But gold was euphoria and chance to Coop, an illogical discipline, a tall story that included a murder or mistaken identity or a love affair. He hitchhiked two hours northwest onto the Colfax-Iowas Hill road and watched the men with crevassing tools working in the north fork of the Russian River. He was seventeen years old when he impetuously hired himself out for a pittance and the chance of a bonus to man the Anaconda suction hoses. He came home at the end of the week with a twisted back. He remained wordless in front of us, these two girls, his curious listeners, as to where he had been. Wherever he had gone, we could see, he had been somehow altered, been part of a dangerous thing.

And I loved this last passage both as a reflection, an outlook, but also as a key to how he is using language in this book.

Everything is biographical, Lucian Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.