Saturday, May 31, 2008

Perspective (Theater - Sunday in the Park with George)

Who else but Stephen Sondheim would write an entire act of a musical in which nothing happens except an artist attempts to see and paint a picture. But that artist is pointellist Georges Seurat and that picture is Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and the musical is Sunday in the Park with George and so much happens in it. The work is in some ways a grand undertaking - it is about the artist's vision and the artist's role, it is about creative process, the prices and rewards of obsession, it about the perseverance necessary to go against the grain, it is about the acts that give life value. It is a grand undertaking presented but presented in an intimate rather than opulent production - if it's big Broadway you're after you will not find it here. The actors playing Georges (Daniel Evans) and Dot, his model (Jenna Russell) give honest and nuanced performances. Their singing voices are not flashily beautiful. The unit set is spare and functions as a blank canvas, imagine that, on which the show's settings can be painted (or projected in this case). The orchestra has only a handful of musicians in it. I appreciated how the characters other than Georges and Dot operated in a usual sort of Broadway idiom - the scale of their performances is a bit larger, they operate more as types - so that every time the actions returns to Georges or Dot, the lens seems to zoom in and we are in a room with them. The production uses theatrical form to talk about artistic form and I found that apt. In the first act, as I mentioned, we witness Georges Seurat painting his famous Sunday in the Park..., in the second, it is 100 years later in the gallery in which the painting hangs. A contemporary artist, also named George, makes an homage to his artistic predecessor involving his grandmother (Dot's daughter, perhaps the child of Seurat) and tries to figure out what his work is all about. He tries to find the courage to create what he wants instead of what he thinks others want of him. At some level we all play out this struggle of our individual wants against current of what others expect and demand of us. In that way this show is very universal. The music makes use of an appropriately narrow palette, I've always thought it referenced French classical music. I love the way this Sondheim work sets text to music, it is relentlessly speech-like. It has a very - talked-on-the-note sound to it. The one now well-known song, Putting it Together, immortalized by Barbara Streisand's Broadway Album is, to my ear, the one trite bit of music in the piece. This production did not convince me otherwise. But I love Dot's two songs - Sunday in the Park with George, in which she complains of the inconveniences and indignities of posing for the famous artist, and Everybody Loves Louis - as she tries to justify to herself leaving a famous artist for a well-loved baker. George's Finishing the Hat is a beautiful anthem to his obsessiveness, his determination to see, to recreate what he sees in a way that the viewer of the painting (even 100 years later) becomes complicit in creating with him. Seurat made use of the optical science of his day, that observed that two colors just overlapping can have the appearance of a third and different color when seen from a distance, and this gave birth to pointillism. If you look at the "black" hat, the "white" sail or the "green" leaves in Seurat's paintings, you see that they are each really composed of multiple colors. One can stand up close to the paintings and observe the composition of the colors as the forms fragment - like looking through a rain spattered window - or one can stand further away and that distance allows us to see whole forms with illusions of single colors that our eyes create. The paintings use not the perspective of the classical painters trying to render architecturally faithful reproductions of scenes on their canvases, but make one aware of how perspective is a tool that can help us see different elements of the world depending on where we stand. Sondheim's musical also uses perspective with two acts spaced 100 years apart, one in which a ridiculed maverick messed up any opportunity for a career by not painting what was expected of him and ended up alone by not living as he was expected, another in which that famous painter - his value now understood - attracts the donations of millionaires, the serious criticism of cogniscienti, and the appreciation of ordinary art lovers too, as a new generation of artist struggles with this battle of personal vision and the pressures of public opinion. The finale of both acts I and II are company numbers in which the spare melodic palette of the other songs, and the exchanged lines usually of solo voices blossom into a rousing chorus dense with harmonies and the previously white stage is saturated in the colors or the painting as each George creates his Sunday - they let you feel the ultimate satisfaction of creating a work and they are very movingly composed and staged.

It's a pity that MOMA's exhibit of Seurat's drawings is not still up. But if you will be in New York City before the end of June, get some tickets for Sunday in the Park with Georges and then spend a day at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan and take a look at some of Seurat's drawings and paintings and see if you see them as you looked at works of art before.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ironic closness (Books - How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

I have been enjoying the singular voice of Aleksandar, the young narrator of Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone all along, but when his family emigrates to Germany because of the racial unrest and military take over of Yugoslavia, the book seems to really hit its stride. At this point the book's chapters slip almost unnoticed into letters - Alkesandar writes to his beloved Asija. They are observant of the hypocricies noticed by a child, new enthusiasms, longing, and intense anger.

Dear Asija,
If my Grandpa Slavko were still alive, I'd ask him what we ought to be most ashamed of now.

I'm writing to you because I couldn't find you, I was ashamed of the earth itself for carrying the tanks that came to meet us on the road to Belgrade. My father hooted at every tank, every jeep and every truck. If you don't hoot, they stop you.

They did stop us at the Serbian border. A soldier with a crooked nose asked if we had any weapons in the car. Father said: yes, gasoline and matches. The two of them laughed and we were allowed to drive on. I didn't see what was so funny about that, and my mother said: I'm the weapon they're looking for. I asked: why are we driving into the enemy's arms? and then I had to promise not to ask any more questions for the next ten years.

I love the observations in this next one and the young writer's love of letters.
Yesterday we got a permit to be in Germany. We waited at the letter K for three hours, in a big office with a hundred doors. The people waiting spoke our language, which we're not supposed to call Serbo-Croat anymore. They gathered around the ashtrays and left slush on the floor and the marks of the soles of their shoes on the walls. Mrs. Foß was looking after us Ks. She smiled wearily, had little dimples, and a pink brooch that had bitten into the collar of her pink blouse. A mouse called Diddl grinned out at us from postcards all over the K room. Mrs. Foß was the friendliest, most patient person in the world; she smiled like her mouse and gave my mother a handkerchief. We couldn't say much but we didn't have to, Mrs. Foß knew what to do with us. We got our passports stamped because Mrs. Foß agreed to having us here. ß is my favorite letter of the alphabet now and a very good invention, because it has two letter s's in it.


Dear Asija,
I know from Granny Katarina that you got away to Sarajevo last winter. She gave me this address too. She couldn't tell me whether you got my first two letters, she said hardly any post was arriving, and no parcels, but letters were disappearing without a trace as well.


That breaks my heart. This on the experience of adopting a new language.

Yesterday I was playing the city-country-river game with Philipp, Sebastian and Susanne, and I didn't come in last with Duisburg, Denmark, Drina, daylily, dentist and Dalmatian. I'm not sure how to explain a daylily to you, and yesterday for the first time I couldn't remember a Bosnian word, the word for a birch tree, I had to look it up: "breza." There are birch trees in a park here called the Kruppwald. All Essen is really on huge garaged, you have to be grateful to the weeds between the paving stones for growing at all.

Birth trees and daylilies and water milfoil and gentian and the Ruhr. I'm noticing everything, Asija. I'm collecting words in my new language. Collecting helps to make up for the hard answers and sad thoughts I have when I think of Visegrad.

And when he finally receives a response, the anger pent up from the hardships of life in Sarajevo spill out

...Basketball referees are the last thing anyone needs around here, no one plays anything anymore, the gym is crammed full of people, I don't know if they're prisoners or refugees. I hate the soldiers. I hate the People's Army. I hate the White Eagles. I hate the Green Berets. I hate death. I'm reading, Aleksandar. I like to read. Death is a German champion and a Bosnian outright world champion. I hate the bridge. I hate the shots in the night and the bodies in the river, and I hate the way you don't hear the water when a body hits it, I hate being so far away from everything, from strength and from courage; I hate myself for hiding out up at our old school, and I hate my eyes because they can't see exactly who's being pushed into the deep water and shot there, or maybe even shot while falling...

This chapter of outpouring is the strongest bit of writing in the novel so far. And the section I am just up to seems to be a novel within a novel. If you're someone who usually rolls your eyes at the devices of meta fiction, in this case I do not find them gimmicky- the multiple forms feel completely natural in the telling of this story. I have never been a refugee, but this novel gets me inside the experience from a child's point of view. This story uses humor to great effect, it gets me closer to the experience rather than distancing me. I find the reading experience very immersing. A beautiful book.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Writing like the wind (Books - The Crossing by Corman McCarthy)

When I'm not reading it, my thought is that it is too intense and I want to avoid it, but as soon as I pick up Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing it sucks me into its maelstrom again. It is mezmerising in the same sort of the way as a car crash, you just cannot help looking.

Boyd dug out the pocketbook and unsnapped it and took out the coin and Billy gave it to the old man and the old man took it with grace and dignity and removed his hat and put it on again and they shook hands all around and the old many pocketed the coin and turned and walked out across the little blighted zocalo and disappeared up the street without looking back. When he was gone the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es una fantasma, he said.
Si, si. Claro.
Como? Porque el viejo esta loco es como.

Billy stood looking at the map. No es correcto? he said.

The man threw up his hands. He said what they beheld was but a decoration. He said that anyway it was not so much a question of a correct map but of any map at all. He said that in that country were fires and earthquakes and floods and that one needed to know the country itself and not simply the landmarks therein. Besides, he said, when had that old man last journeyed to those mountains? Or journeyed anywhere at all? His map was after all not really so much a map as a picture of a voyage. And what voyage was that? And when?

Un dibujo de unviaje, he said. Un viaje pasado, un viaje antiguo.

He threw up one hand in dismissal. As if no more could be said. Billy looked at the other three men on the bench. They watched with a certain brightness of eye so that he wondered if he were being made a fool of. But the one seated at the right leaned forward and tapped the ash from his cigarette and addressed the man standing and said that as far as that went there were certainly other dangers to a journey than losing one's way. He said that plans were one thing and journeys another. He said it was a mistake to discount the good will inherent in the old man's desire to guide them for it too must be taken into account and would in itself lend strength and resolution to them in their journey.

The man who was standing weighed these words and then erased them in the air before him with a slow fanning motion of his forefinger. He said that the jovenes could hardly be expected to apportion credence in the matter of the map. He said that in any case a bad map was worse than no map at all for it engendered in the traveler a false confidence and might easily cause him to set aside those instincts which would otherwise guide him if he would but place himself in their care. He said that to follow a false map was to invite disaster. He gesture at the sketching in the dirt. As if to invite them to behold its futility. The second man on the bench nodded his agreement in this and said that the map in question was a folly and that the dogs in the street would piss upon it. But man on the right only smiled and said that for the matter the dogs would piss upon their graves as well and how was this an argument?
The Crossing is full of these mini stories within the greater story. In the greater story, Billy, a young man, tracks a she-wolf , but once he has trapped her he ends up saving her life and trying to bring it back to the mountains from which it had come, over the Mexican border from Arizona. In that journey, he assumes responsibility for another living thing and grows up. The experiences he meets along the way are the cruel and violent saga that are this story - in that way the book has an almost Dickensian feel - in that it is composed of the successive stories that occur to this young person on his journey. But its setting could not be more distinct from Dickens. It is a western composed of deliberate detail upon detail - you feel the sun on your neck and hear the creak of the leather of your saddle. McCarthy is telling the tale of the formation of an individualist spirit, and in that way this book feels very much an American story.

Sometimes the narrative voice adopts this biblical-epic-voiceover quality:

After many a youthful wandering this man appeared at last in the capital and there he worked for some years. He was a bearer of messages. He carried a satchel of leather and canvas secured with a lock. He had no way to know what the messages said nor had he any curiosity concerning them...

I don't know how he pulls it off, but I never crack a smile. It reminds me of when I would direct opera in a big opera house, once we got into the theater for technical rehearsals I sat at a table with the design team out in the house while the cast was on stage. There was such a distance between us, that they gave me this microphone which would broadcast my voice so that it could be heard in the orchestra pit and on stage if I wanted to adjust something or tell everyone where we were going to pick up after a pause. They called it the "god-mike." It's like these narrative segments are spoken on the god-mike. But these stories seem to come at just the right time. The writing is so self assured and inevitable. The voice has the certainty of the wind - powerful, elemental, and you cannot question it - it is pointless to say 'it shouldn't be windy now.' You cannot argue with the wind.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Archivist is Born (Books - Walter Benjamin by Esther Leslie)

In 1912 Benjamin began to travel in earnest. A trip to Italy at Whitsun, with two friends, was a 'Bildungsreise,' the sentimental journey undertaken by a good bourgeouis son at the beginning of his studies. The friends travelled to Lucerne, St Gotthard, Milan, Verona, Vicenza and Venice. Benjamin wrote to his friend Herbert Blumenthal that the holiday proper would take place only once back in Freiburg, once it was written up. The resulting journal was written in June or July 1912. The journey was in the retrospection, the writing up of experience.

And so an archivist is born. My first thought in reading that passage was 'how sad to never experience anything in the moment.' There he is with friends in beautiful places and he doesn't feel as though he has had his holiday until he can record and change it. But it made me reflect on my research with people on the autistic spectrum - many of us (on and off the spectrum) have difficulty taking in the amount of information that comes at us in real time time from our environment and we find ways either to slow down the rate at which is comes in or the amount that is coming in. In a sense, Benjamin appears to be filtering information so that he can experience it.

The remainder of the chapter on his youth focuses on his relationship to his Judaism. This is German in the late 19th century until 1916. Many of Germany's Jews were highly secularized, unlike those living in Eastern European shtetels, they were 'Germans first.' Benjamin mused in a letter written in 1912
that he and others do indeed possess a 'two-sidedness,' the Jewish and the German side
Benjamin did not advocate for a territorial brand of Zionism, but rather for a cultural one, a preserving of "Jewish culture in the face of assimilation through an organization of Jewish intellectual life, " as Leslie puts it. I found his wrestling with this idea interesting as it seemed to embody in an individual the dichotomy that was later exploited and taken to such a fanatical extreme in German. Later the philosopher Martin Buber invited the college-age Benjamin to write for Der Jude, a German-Jewish journal, which Benjamin declined because he did not approve of employing writing for political ends. He asserts that:

the genuine relationship between word and effective actions was attainable only in the expression of the ineffable. Language's interest lay not in the communication of content, but rather in the disclosure of magical effects, in its mystery...

Benjamin pondered the role of writing and critique. He informed Blumenthal at the end of 1916 that true criticism was like a chemical element that affected something only in the sense that it revealed, through disassembling, its inner nature. It did not destroy or go against its object. The suprachemical element that affects intellectual things in such a way is light. In the midst of war, Benjamin and friends were stranded deep in the darkest of nights. Once he had tried to fight the night using words. He realized that to vanquish night it was necessary to let light flood in. But light did not appear in language. Language could not illuminate. Criticism illuminated. Benjamin defined criticism as the differentiation of the genuine from the non-genuine, and again this was not the commission of language, except perhaps in humour.

I wonder what he does suggest to communicate political ideas if not language, telepathy? I'm a few chapters into Esther Leslie's biography of Walter Benjamin and find it frequently takes this high-flown tone . I look at a passage like this and my first inclination is to laugh at the thoughts as both beautiful and naive, but the book leaves me wondering whether this was an adolescent flight of fancy, or the formation of Benjamin's life-long outlook on the function of writing. I could use a little perspective here, but Leslie doesn't step back from her subject. I find that the fanciful tone of this book makes me forget whether it is the author's voice I am reading or Benjamin's.

From his own remembered childhood Benjamin extrapolated that a child's senses are receptive, as a child's world is new. The child receives the world so fully that the world forms the child. The world imprints itself, just as bodies do on the chemistry of photographs. The child is embedded in the materiality of its world...

The language has a quasi-biblical fanciness to it that bugs me. Clearly Leslie is taken with her subject. She seems to find intellectual points in common with Benjamin (another of her books is entitled Art and the Chemical Industry) but the writing feels lacking in straightforwardness, reverent, and uncritical. However the subject is interesting and she is well informed and passionate about it so I will push on.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mindfulness without a mantra

Benedict Carey has an article in today's Science Times about mindfulness meditation. It is a bit like a secularized version of zen buddhist meditation that involves the wrangling of ones attention, not so much to change the present as to observe and exist with it, I'd almost say along side it. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the technique to allopathic medicine about twenty years ago and many hospitals and clinics have since adopted it either to deal with the stress of illness in general or particularly in managing chronic pain, for which it appears to be useful according to a few studies. I have found it useful in coping with anxiety and with physical pain.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lost its compass (Film - The Golden Compass)

I loved Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - such complex and imaginative books. Stars abound in this obviously expensive Harry Potter wannabe (wants to be the film, that is). The script is hollow and tries to cram way to much material into too brief a format. There is no time for the rich development of ideas that distinguish the novels. The most basic elements of the fantasy world necessary are dispensed with in voice over narration as efficiently as they can be. With the exception of Lyra, the young heroine of the book, whose rashness and anger is captured decently by Dakota Fanning Blue Richards (thanks, Eva), it seems like no gesture is even made toward developing Pullman's characters, they're not even archetypes, just stick figures. The only one able to pull it out of somewhere is Derek Jacobi. His two brief scenes were singular for the imagination he brought them. Nicole Kidman was particularly lifeless and phoney. Although The Others showed her to marvelous effect, I've never seen anything else from her I would characterize as a good performance. Here she seems loath to so much as admit this woman can breathe. Her work is wooden and shallow, she can't even pull off the fun blockbuster affects of her cohorts - you know, all the rich rumbling voice work and dark looks from under heavy brows. Her perfume commercials have more character development. Peeeuuuww, what a stinker - and to be adapted from such great books!

With love but without certainty (Fools of Fortune by William Trevor)

What this beautifully written novel leaves me with more than anything else is the notion that, despite the dramas that life deals us all, and that constitute the tragedies that make up most of our lives - children out of wedlock, madness, broken hearts, family members who drown their sorrows in alcohol, deaths we feel come to soon, loved ones who will never take the risk to be really happy, who have committed crimes, regrets - life persists. Babies are born, teachers educate children, bar keepers keep their bars, priests bless, trees flower and bare fruit annually, jam is made, diaries are kept, letters are written, we get older.

Trevor's writing is elegantly descriptive and yet without fuss. Take this little excerpt in which we meet Mrs. Gibb-Bachelor, who runs a finishing school for English girls in Lausanne, Switzerland.

'...The regime is not arduous, but we do like an early start to the day and all conversation with Mademoiselle Florence is of course conducted in French. Thank you, Marianne.'

I rose and in turn thanked Mrs Gibb-Bachelor.

'The other girl from our school...' Mrs Gibb-Bachelor poked through papers on her desk.

'Agnes Brontenby.'

'Ah, Agnes Brontenby. Of couse. Agnes is quite delightful. We have as well, this autumn, Mavis and Cynthia.' Mrs. Gibb-Bachelor paused. 'Are you quite healthy, Marianne?'

'Yes, I believe so.'

'You're a wee little creature, but you mustn't let that worry you, you know. Any disadvantage is better than gawkiness.'

I said I had become used to my diminutive size, but Mrs Gibb-Bachelor appeared not to hear me and continued with her theme.

'It doesn't mean you are unhealthy, Marianne. Your teeth look sound, eh? Well, that is excellent. Your mother will probably have told you that artificial teeth have ill-bread connotations.'

'I don't think my mother did, actually.'

'Ah, well.' Mrs Gibb-Bachelor paused again. Her head slipped a little to one side. 'In our Swiss home we do not ignore manners of the past. You understand, Marianne?'

'Yes, Mrs Gibb-Bachelor.'

'Excellent. You will share with Mavis. She suffers a little from rashes, but I do not believe the trouble is in the least way infections. Your time here will be happy, Marianne. No girl has ever been unhappy in our home.'

'So the professor said.'

Don't you know just EXACTLY who she is? Trevor is like Dickens in this skill. Few sentences need pass before you learn just who you're dealing with. 'Your time here WILL be happy, Marianne' Seems more a command than a wish for the future, doesn't it? The world of this novel is one in which many of the characters seem confident in the way life is supposed to turn out - an assumption that always strikes me as the primary ingredient for tragedy, for those who must live by assumptions. There are those characters in this novel who live by other means and perhaps they lives less ordinarily but I don't think they live less well - in fact they may well weather the blows life deals them more hardily and with more insight than those who faithfully wear their blinders and tow the line. While this novel's characters experience their share of hardships I feel like their lives are ultimately richer ones, they come out the winners among their friends and neighbors who require certainty to have lead a life they can judge as pleasing or successful. More's the pity.

To give away more of the plot would deprive you of the pleasure of reading how this novel's events unfold. I hope you will read it and experience it for yourself. This post and this one are my other thoughts on William Trevor's gorgeous Fools of Fortune.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The mysteries of adulthood through the eyes of a child (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

Greetings from Marion, OH, as good a setting as any to continuing to enjoy Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Aleksandar attends the funeral of his grandfather, a party member during Tito's Communist government in Yugoslavia. It's his intention to revive his granfather with magic at some opportune moment during the funeral:

The speeches begin, the speeches go on and on, the speeches are never going to end, and I don't want to interrupt anyone making a speech with my magic spells, that would be rude. I'm sweating. The sun is blazing down; cicadas are chirping. Uncle Bora mops the sweat off his face with a pale blue handkerchief. I mop my forehead with my sleeve. Once I secretly watched a funeral where there weren't any long, boring speeches, just a short incomprehensible one. A bearded man wearing a woman's dress sang and waved a golden ball about on the end of a chain. Smoke was coming out of the ball, and death smelled of green tea. Later I found out that the man was a priest. We don't have priests - the people who make speeches at our funerals are sixty years old with badges on their breast pockets. No one tells any jokes. They all praise Grandpa, often saying exactly the same thing, as if they'd been copying from each other. They sound like women praising the virtues of a cake. As the dead can't hear anymore when they're in the ground, the last thing they hear up here ought to make them feel good. But correct as my grandpa was, he would always put anyone who tried sweet-talking him right. No, Comrade Poljo, he would say, I have not been busy reforming our country every single day, last Friday I did nothing at all to lower the rate of inflation, I slept in late on Saturday instead of going ahead to implement the plan in our regional collectives, and on Sunday's I go walking with my grandson the magician.

I love the irony Stanisic finds in juxtaposing the child's wish to revive his grandpa with a magic wand - with the adults own magical ceremonies - whether in religion or party politics - they are equally mysterious to Aleksandar. Stanisic's vision of childhood is fantastical and at times funny but very real - not cute.

Someday, when I'm as old as my great-grandpa Nikola, I will have set sail in a ship, I'll have met a liar and left him an honest man, I'll have persuaded a donkey to go the way I want, and I'll have sung like Great-Grandpa, with a voice as powerful as a mountain range, a ship, the habit of honest and a donkey all rolled in together.

Admirable wish as any for a fruitful adulthood. When I grow up I hope I might do the same.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Reading Frenzy - (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic)

Aleksandar Krsmanovic is a young boy living in Tito's Yugoslavia whose unique view gives voice to the political events that finally propel his family to emigrate to Germany.

I'm looking forward to seeing Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny again. Ever since I can remember they haven't smelled very sweet, and their average age is about a hundred and fifty. All the same, they're the least dead and the most alive of the whole family if you leave out Auntie Typhoon, who doesn't count - she's more of a natural catastrophe than a human being and she had a propeller in her backside. So Uncle Bora sometimes says, kissing his natural catastrophe's back.

It is Sasa Stanisic who gives voice to Aleksandar. He is a 30-year-old Bosnia-Herzagovina born writer now living in Germany and How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is his first novel. His voice lays the sepia patina of well-worn urban-bougeoisie over the bright colors of childhood - its the way the film Amelie looks, if you are familiar with it. Memory tints all the colors slightly brown and odd shots makes someone's ear look bigger than the rest of their face and then the lens swings and focuses on the air vent in the wall. He describes the day his grandfather died in the opening pages of the book.

I noticed that Granny's china dog on the TV set had fallen over and the plate with fish bones left from supper was still standing on the crochet tablecloth. I could hear every word the neighbors said as they bustled about, I heard it all in spite of Granny's whimpering and howling. She tugged at Grandpa's legs and Grandpa slid forward off the sofa. I hid in the corner behind the TV. But a thousand TVs couldn't have hidden Granny's distorted face from me, or Grandpa falling off the sofa all twisted sideways, or the thought that I'd never seen my grandparents look uglier.

I'd have liked to have put my hand on Granny's shaking back - her blouse would have been wet with sweat - and I'd have liked to say: Granny, don't! It will be all right. After all, Grandpa's a Party member, and the Party agrees with the Statutes of the Communist League, it's just that I can't find my magic wand at the moment. It's going to be all right again, Granny.

But her grief-stricken madness silenced me. The louder she cried: leave me alone! flailing around, the less courageous I felt in my hiding place. The more the neighbors turned away from Grandpa and went to Granny instead, trying to console someone obviously inconsolable, as if they were selling her something she didn't need, the more frantically she defended herself. As more and more tears covered her cheeks, her mouth, her lamentation, her chin, like oil coating a pan...

The curling sentences and the quirky humor are a stark contrast to Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing, which I'm also reading now. I've been greedy for some real reading time and with exams over and a weekend with The Ragazzo's family near Columbus, Ohio, I may actually get some.

A visit to Three Lives Booksellers yesterday afternoon turned up more treasures than I actually bought. Three of them - The Lazarus Project an historical novel about the murder of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant in Chicago in the early twentieth century by Aleksandar Hemon, A Curious Earth by Gerard Woodward about the rekindling of love in a lonely widower, and Ian Buruma's insightful political examination of the murder of the provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Dutch Islamic extremist called Murder in Amsterdam and how it has challenged the limits of the famously Dutch political progressiveness- are going on my library list.

I did go home with How the Solder Repairs the Gramophone as well as The Last Chinese Chef, a novel by Nicole Mones the author of Lost in Translation. It is billed as a foodie-mystery-love story. And Margot Livesey's new novel The House on Fortune Street. I really enjoyed her The Missing World, with its neuropsychological theme, and after hearing an interview with Livesey on this new novel, I found myself tempted. As if I'm a hard sell!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The breathless exhuberance that is Frank O'Hara (An Inflorescence but not on Friday)

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.

Helen Vendler's recent review in The New Republic of Frank O'Hara: Selected Poems introduces me to some I had never read before.

The exuberance of this one is like the breathless laughter provoked by playing as a child.


Yippee! she is shooting in the harbor! he is jumping
up to the maelstrom! she is leaning over the giant's
cart of tears which like a lava cone let fall to fly
from the cross-eyed tantrum-tousled ninth grader's
splayed fist is freezing on the cement! he is throwing
up his arms in heavenly desperation, spacious Y of his
tumultuous love-nerves flailing like a poinsettia in
its own nailish storm against the glass door of the
cumulus which is withholding her from these divine
pastures she has filled with the flesh of men as stones!
O fatal eagerness!

O boy, their childhood was like so many oatmeal cookies.
I need you, you need me, yum, yum. Anon it became suddenly

like someone always losing something and never knowing what.
Always so. They were so fond of eating bread and butter and
sugar, they were slobs, the mice used to lick the floorboards
after they went to bed, rolling their light tails against
the rattling marbles of granulations. Vivo! the dextrose
those children consumed, lavished, smoked, in their knobbly
candy bars. Such pimples! such hardons! such moody loves.
And thus they grew like giggling fir trees.

Even in his dark moments, O'Hara can't resist word play which, in this case, does double duty as philosophical play on the subject and object interplay between the lover and the loved.

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Books and Films

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Suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

Books and films are both not limited to telling stories, there are some of each medium that are distinctly non-narrative and mean to be, but both can. Certainly these media, though I prize both, are not interchangeable; either I want one or I want the other.
Movies are externalized, someone has had to chose what Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End looked liked and has eliminated all other possible choices with the appearance and behavior of a single actor. Yet at the same time, I find most films a more passive experience - usually I am asked to sit back and let it happen. Reading is private, interior - I create it as I go. I may sit still to do both, but reading requires me to act, movies do the acting for me.

That is not to say that film is not involving, I can get quite caught up. Cary Grant replaces a bottle in the wine cellar during the party scene in Notorious, the suspense Hitchcock creates as he replaces the bottle on the shelf and on the other end of the shelf another bottle is misplaced and seems to take forever to fall was so engrossing the first time that I saw it in the theater I actually got half out of my seat to try to prevent the bottle from crashing to the ground.

Reading asks that I interplay my own ideas and experiences internally with that of the narrative as I read - sometimes as an intellectual discussion other times as more of a day dream, sometimes it is directly of the world of the book but other times it is my personal fantasy interacting with that of the book - whereas film generally is showing me the one and only story I am supposed to pay attention to. I don't think a film director is hoping that I will day dream during the film, if I am caught up it should be in the film's world exclusively.

I find films more agitating. Usually I cannot watch a film and go to sleep. I write about it first, or talk about it, or I read a book. I habitually read and fall or go to sleep after reading. I think the difference between a book and a film is often most visible when a film adapts a book. My single requirement is that the adaptation has something to add. If the book has already done it well, and the new medium does not actually create something that stands on its own as a film - why bother? I don't need a film so that when the book is assigned in a class and I haven't bothered to read it I can get the movie the night before the exam. Take Midnight Cowboy - one of my favorite films ever. It's a great adaptation. You can taste the grit
and I felt like somehow film brought out the atmosphere even more palpably than the book, while the book excelled at the characters and their relationship with each other more satisfyingly. I love adaptations that dare to take their original form to the next place - like Clueless - which sets Austen's Emma in a 1990s Hollywood high school. It's a mediocre movie if appreciated simply for its teeny-bopper angst and scenes in the mall, but when layered with the knowledge of the book it adapts it's really kind of brilliant. But they can fail too - take the Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke and Ann Bancroft - oh dear. "Faithful" adaptations can fail miserably as well. Take the film of E. M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread, I should say - take it, please! It tries desperately to tread in Merchant and Ivory's footsteps and ends up as a bad imitation. Whereas A Room With A View seems gets the closest of any film I know of transferring a book to the screen. It is perfect. I have to watch that film once a year. I don't know whether I like Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett (a chaperone) or the magnificent Denholm Elliott as Mr. Emerson (an English tourist) better. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala make a powerful and beautiful work of art that stands on its own, capturing the characters and tone of the narrative perfectly and perhaps even one-upping it as far as the experience of the settings are concerned.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Writing that doesn't hold your damn hand (The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy)

He was very cold. He waited. It was very still. He could see by his breath how the wind lay and he watched his breath appear and vanish and appear and vanish constantly before him in the cold and he waited a long time. Then he saw them coming. Loping and twisting. Dancing. Tunneling their noses in the snow. Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again.

There were seven of them and they passed within twenty feet of where he lay. He could see their almond eyes in the moonlight. He could hear their breath. He could feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air. They bunched and nuzzled and licked one another. Then they stopped. They stood with their ears cocked. Some with one forefoot raised to their chest. They were looking for him. He did not breathe. They did not breathe. They stood. Then they turned and quietly trotted on. When he got back to the house Boyd was awake but he didn't tell him where he'd been nor what he'd seen. He never told anybody.

Cormac McCarthy's writing is so precise and so packed with detail that in thinking about what I was going to write about this passage, I was sure I had read about that crunching and squeaking sound that the snow makes when it's really cold out. I had heard it in reading that scene and I realized that at the point when the wolf held its forefoot raised I had scarcely breathed because I didn't want the wolves to hear me. McCarthy does not give you a list, he gives you one or two items very thoroughly. Patiently - leaving some space for you. His writing in The Crossing involves not just the senses he enlivens with his words, it fills my whole being with the sense of what it is like to be there so that I am not having the scene imagined for me, I am imagining it with his help and create details with my own senses. He's not holding my damn hand, is what I'm saying.

The cabin when they opened it was dark and musty and had about it a waxy smell like freshkilled meat. Their father stood in the door a moment and then entered. In the front room was an old sofa, a bed, a desk. They went through the kitchen and then on through to the mudroom at the back of the house. There in the dusty light from the one small window on shelves of roughsawed pine stood a collection of fruitjars and bottles with ground glass stoppers and old apothecary jars all bearing antique octagon labels edged in red upon which in Echols' neat script were listed contents and dates. In the jars dark liquids. Dried viscera. Liver, gall, kidneys. The inward parts of the beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more. Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his clan and kin and rout them from their house. A god insatiable whom no ceding could appease nor any measure of blood. The jars stood webbed in dust and the light among them made of the little room with its chemic glass a strange basilica dedicated to a practice as soon to be extinct among the trades of men as the beast to whom it owed its being. Their father took down one of the jars and turned it in his hand and set it back again precisely in its round track of dust...

I am standing right there. Those octagonal labels with the red border hang in my mind for minutes after. The waxy smell puts me with one foot in that cellar in their lives and the other in my own memory of an old fashioned butcher shop with sawdust on the floor, rolls of white wax paper, and bloody meat in fat hands - because that is my source for that smell which sears my nostrils like coldness.

I didn't think I would be able to read anything with all my studying for finals, but the first forty pages of this novel whipped by last night before I knew it. My final final is this afternoon and I'm taking this book along for the long commute back afterwards. Soon, very soon, I intend to do some serious reading!

Seranading brain and body

David Dobbs's article in Today's Science Times speaks of Dr. Conrad Claudius, a surgical resident, whose research on music and healing suggests that music's effects could result from a combination of increased production of pituitary growth hormone combined with a drop in stress hormones, although not every one agrees.

And Sara Reistad-Long reports on research that older brains may broaden their focus of attention:

"It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing," said Shelly H. Carvard..."It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind."

For example, in studies where subject are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sleep, memory and dreams about kidneys

I took Curious Expedition's advice several few weeks ago and went to Obscura, an antique shop in my fair city, to see the antique anatomical model they have lurking in a glass case in the back of the shop. Fun, but as usual with antique shops I never actually find what I think I came into the shop for. My friend and I, I shall call him The Quiet One for the sake of anonymity, found an antique dream symbol encyclopedia which had all sorts of useful information in it such as that if you dream about your abdomen it portends news about your house, or some such nonsense. In any case, I woke up this morning having had a dream about my kidney (one of them) and I wished I had bought the book. Maybe if you dream about your kidney it means you will do well on your Cognitive Neuroscience Final and you can stop studying. OK, maybe not.

Yes, it is finals time. I have one Tuesday and one on Wednesday, hence the dearth of posts on my reading. Reading? What reading. I'm studying 12 hours a day and when I finally get into bed with a book I fall asleep. And then I thought, why I could kills two birds with one stone, I'll write some little neuroscientific tidbits for those of you curious about such things. For example, those of us interested in studying the elusive phenomenon of attention have all sorts of little complications on our hands - besides the fact that no one can exactly say what it is, but we all know it when we see it.

When does attention happen in the brain? There has been a battle raging around the field for years as to whether attention happens early or late (we're talking in miliseconds here folks, that's thousandths of a second). As with most questions about attention, the answer is - it depends. It depends on whether the difficulty of your task is high or low, it depends on whether the response required of you is complementary to is distracting from the behavior you have used to perceive your environment, and it depends on whether you have done it before. Think about how much attention it required to learn to walk down a flight of stairs and think now about not only how little attention it requires but really how distracting it is to think about walking down stairs as you walk down them. But we can actually measure the fact that the brain is paying attention even before it is perceiving. For example, if a cue prepares you for the fact that you will receive information in either visual rather than auditory form, you can see with an fMRI that the brain appears to give more activation to the regions that process visual as opposed to auditory information prior to that information even appearing. There is nothing to see yet but the brain is readying itself to see rather than to hear (Hopfinger et al, 2000).

Other questions attention researchers ask are - when attention selects something what does it select? Is there attention to areas of space? Is there attention to objects within that space? Are those two phenomena or one? And when the brain pays attention does, as Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen say, accentuate the positive or eliminate the negative? Once again, we can see instances in which it does both. If a monkey focuses the center of his vision on an object, we can measure individual brain cells firing faster that correspond to that area in space he perceives, and in the presence of a distracting object to ignore, we can measure cells corresponding to the area ignored as not only not firing, but actively suppressing their rate of firing.

We have also been reading about the role of sleep in memory, which is dangerously tempting for finals time. I am sure I will do much better on my exams if I could only take little naps between articles. The stages 2, 3 and 4 of Sleep are very active in the consolidation of memories, which is a process that takes what we have learned and makes it less resistant to interference without additional practice. Walker and Stickgold's 2004 article is a pretty comprehensive review of the research. They trace a path through the many studies done in humans and animals, on declarative memory (requiring our awareness) and non-declarative memory.

1. Working with animals on procedural memory - learning a physical task - you can actually observe the patterns of activation seen in the brain during training played out again during REM sleep. Upon waking the amount of improvement is strongly correlated with the amount of reactivation seen.

2. Brain patterns seen in slow-wave sleep seem to rapidly play out that same activity and the waves seen in REM sleep can actually be shown to facilitate physical changes in the hippocampus - a part of the brain important in consolidating memories. This is strengthened by the fact that if you inhibit protein synthesis (which is necessary for those physical changes to take place) you inhibit the learning improvement ordinarily seen on the following day.

3. A genes associated with learning-promoting environments is seen "turned on" during REM sleep, and stimulation of regions of the hippocampus associated with making the physical changes that are our memories also turns on this same gene.

Their article makes a pretty strong argument for the role of sleep in memory by bringing together a large body of research.

In my other class - Neurochemistry/psychopharmacology - what I have found most interesting to learn about is how drugs teach us about disease. Illnesses of the brain are necessarily illnesses of the mind and the body. It is often very difficult to learn about the mechanisms behind them because you have to be very inventive to not simply test people who are already ill. If you test people with a disorder it is hard to know whether you are observing causes of a disease or manifestations of it, or of the medications prescribed to treat it. Much can be learned sometimes through drugs that successfully treat those illnesses. Depression has been one such case. Whether we're looking at Major Depressive Disorder, cyclothymia, reactive depression, or post-partum depression the same medications tend to be effective in treating them for most people. As diverse as these conditions might appear, it seems as though the underlying mechanisms are similar. The actions of some of the major classes of anti-depressants - tricyclics and SSRIs - have been the basis of a lot of research that has unraveled some of the physiological mechanisms in common behind the depressive disorders. As anyone familiar with these meds knows, their anti-depressive actions tend to take two-four weeks to kick in. So these cleverly designed studies looked not just at what happened in the body when someone took at SSRI, which as with any drug is many things, but the time course of these changes. There are literally observable structural changes that distinguish a depressed brain from a treated one. It's fascinating stuff that I'll save for another day.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fanatatical Archivist (Books - Walter Benjamin by Esther Leslie)

The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin) by R. B. Kitaj

Reader, literary critic, translator of Proust, Baudelaire, and Balzac, philosopher, radio broadcaster, and fanatical archivist - Walter Benjamin - kept notebooks as the home for his thoughts, Esther Leslie tells us in her fascinating critical biography Walter Benjamin:

When he was without a notebook his thoughts were 'homeless.' Seven of his notebooks and three notepads still remain. These are crammed with drafts of articles and letters, ideas, diagrams, quotations to be used as epigraphs, bibliographies and diary entries, and often every single centimeter of their pages is covered with tiny handwriting. These books were portable. With them he could indulge his inclination to write on the move, in cafes across Europe. He fostered a cult around his notebooks, relishing in particular those with thin and translucent leaves and supple vellum covers. They survive for, once complete, they were placed with friends, with the request 'please store the manuscript carefully,' and the proviso that they could be recalled at any time by the author.

He is probably best known, if he is known at all, for his unfinished Arcades Project, a massive collection of writings that is an aesthetic appreciation of the street culture of Paris - named for the little glass-covered passages that continue the streets indoors and that were the haunts of Paris's famous flaneurs.

From what little I have known of him, I have always thought of Walter Benjamin as the literary equivalent of artist Joseph Cornell - another stroller through cities, observer of urban life, and fanatical archivist. They both preserved the unusual connections they observed between phenomena.
Benjamin organized his own archive of materials meticulously. Files, folders, envelopes, boxes, and cases harboured correspondence, manuscripts by acquaintances, private and business affairs, memoirs, diaries, photographs, postcards, drawings, and notes, index cards, inventories, a list of books read since his school days and a list of his publications, as well as copies of his writings, in various drafts and replete with further amendments or curious markings to indicate associations and cross references. He archived scraps of paper, sketches of essays jotted on the back of library book return reminders, diagrams in the form of compass roses and co-ordinate planes that plotted ideas in relation to each other. Even the most ephemeral objects found a place in his archive, evoking an idea from one of the poets who most fascinated him, Charles Baudelaire, who observed the twinning in modernity of the fugitive and eternal, the transitory and the immutable.

It makes one wonder what his life would have been like in the age of the internet.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, Artistic Experimenter

"Being right all the time can stop the momentum of a very interesting idea."

“Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics... That was the struggle, and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”

Mr. Rauschenberg, who knew that not everybody found it easy to grasp the open-endedness of his work, once described to the writer Calvin Tomkins an encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to “Monogram” (1955-59) and “Bed” in his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, one of the events that secured Mr. Rauschenberg’s reputation: “To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly.

“So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”

Robert Rauschenberg, the influential artistic experimenter, died on Monday at 82 years old. Above some excerpts from The New York Times obituary and here's the Washington Post and The Guardian. You can feel the creative energy, the possibilities he saw in the materials around him still bouncing off those canvases. The prince of the unexpected.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sarah Salway's Top Ten

Mark Thwaite (a favorite blogger) in his Editor's Column at The Book Depository (as opposed to ReadySteadyBlog, his other haunt, presents Sarah Salway's (a current favorite author) top ten books. I'm a sucker for book lists of artists I admire so here it is. And if you haven't read her Tell Me Everything I recommend it most highly. I rave about it on the side bar and at great length here.

London Underground (The Water Room by Christopher Fowler)

I am glad I have stuck with Christopher Fowler's The Water Room, the second in the Bryant & May series of mysteries because, my initial reservations notwithstanding, it's gotten much more interesting. There is a link between the suspicious death of an elderly Indian woman in a residential neighborhood, an expert in London's underground waterways, and some shady dealings in Egyptology that felt rather coincidental when it was introduced, but 150 pages later I seem to be able to ignore that. And I have gotten used to the televisiony tone that this book takes. The initial book in the series was mostly set in World War II London, so the tone was much different and I felt Fowler established a sense of that time very convincingly. There are two things I am particularly enjoying in this book. One is the hay Fowler makes of how different Bryant is from your average cop and how different Bryant and May's Peculiar Crimes Unit is from your average MET department:
Land hastily moved on down the corridor. Amidst the newly purchased equipment in the unit's crime lab, he found Kershaw and Banbury tinkering with an oven tray full of wet sand and a toy truck. 'What on earth are you two up to?' he asked.

'Giles is explaining the physical dynamics of accidental death,' Banbury explained, not at all clearly. 'My territory, reall, but Giles got there first.'

'So this is your doing.'

'Mr. Bryant gave me the idea. It's all right, I've got a job number for it.'

'Why am I not surprised?' Land asked the wall as he passed on. At least Bimsley seemed to be doing something useful, scanning reams of figures on his computer, but Meera Mangeshkar was lying on the floor. She scrambled to her feet as Land entered. 'Sorry, sir, spot of yoga - put my back out last night.'

'On your own time or in the course of duty?'

'Duty, sir. Apprehending a suspicious character.'

'You booked him?'

'No, sir. Vanished into thin air. Literally. Quite impossible, I know, almost as if he flew away, but there you are.'

They're all mad, thought Land. This is Bryant's doing. He tainted them with his lunacy. John's marginally more rational. I'll appeal to his common sense. He headed for the detectives' room...

Land stood in the doorway, fuming. Bryant had decorated the area around his desk exactly as it had been before the fire. Statuettes of Gog and Magog, voodoo dolls, his beloved Tibetan skull, books with reeking singed covers rescued from the conflagration, some odoriferous plants that lay tangled in an earthenware pot - tannis root, probably, marijuana, certainly - an ancient Dansette record player scratching and popping its way through Mendelssohn's 'Elijah', papers and newspaper clippings everywhere, a half-eaten egg-and-beetroot sandwich dripping on to a stack of uncased computer disks.
The other is the important role the underground waterways of London are playing in the plot of this mystery. While the link was clear from the get go, the extraordinary amount of arcana heaped on the reader was making me feel damp. But the sense of a nearly invisible world racing beneath the everyday visible one has become an essential part of this mystery and I now find myself looking forward to the next tidbit I am going to pick up on the submerged rivers which also figured prominently in The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson's fascinating book about the 1854 cholera outbreak in London (I wrote about it here). I am making a quick jaunt to London in about a month and wish I had enough time to take a walking tour about this underground network of water (if one exists). I used to think I was going to visit this urban center of theaters which also had a funny bridge and a quaint royal family - now I feel like I'm going to the swamp and should look out for alligators!

For those of you familiar with London, which is your "don't miss" bookstore(s)?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Drowning (Books - The Water Room by Christopher Fowler)

Bryant was taking tea with two of the workmen who had set up a primus stove in the hall to make their own refreshments. 'Ah, so what's the score with your cuckold? he asked. The carpenters looked at May with fresh interest. They clearly enjoyed chatting with Bryant, and had settled in so comfortably that May suspected they were hoping to drag out the work until Christmas.

'I do wish you wouldn't call him that,' snapped May, uncomfortable at having to discuss his private affairs in front of strangers. Such openness never bothered Bryant, who always behaved as if there was no one else in the room.

'I'm sorry, the situation intrigues me, that's all. You know how unlucky I've been in my own romantic affairs.'

'Oh, come one, it hasn't been all that bad. There was that girl in 1968.'

'Exactly. The only person in London who didn't have sex in 1968 was my Uncle Walter, and that was because he was in an iron lung. The trouble is, I've spent too much time on my own. I suspect I've started to behave abnormally.'

'Not at all. You've always been horrible to people.'

'That's very hurtful,' Bryant complained, attempting an emphatic response. 'Do you have any idea how alone you can feel when you think differently from everyone else?'

What Christopher Fowler is very good at is creating detailed characters. Bryant and May, the two detectives who run the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London, are beginning to get up there in years. Fowler handles with imagination and humor how their age and Bryant's trademark eccentricity will play out to give his mysteries the interest of real human beings, and the obstacles as well of the advantages of being 'different.' But why do I get the idea with this novel that Fowler is making a play for a television series? A large swathe of the first part of this novel is spent catching us up on who Bryant and May are, which I guess is to be appreciated if you have not read the excellent Full Dark House, the first Bryant and May mystery, but I have. Learning who these people are through their behavior worked through the first book and it would probably work in this one too, but Fowler seems a little less secure that those who didn't read the first book are going to have all the necessary information. The events of that mystery result in the renovation of the office of the PCU and much of the books opening 100 pages are also spent describing the inconveniences of the office renovations. I do appreciate having things fleshed out, but the amount of human interest and scenery in The Water Room has almost made the crime feel like an inconvenient detail, it's like an episode of ER when the characters romantic affairs take over and I'm wishing for a nice gurney to come in and someone to yell out a few critical stats and say 'clear!' On page 127 there is a party in the murder victim's neighborhood (it is a murder mystery after all) where I felt like the action of the mystery finally got going. The underground rivers and streams of London also figure prominently in the plot of this mystery and we're certainly getting a good deal of information on what is probably a very interesting bit of history and geography of London, but I feel like the number of jobs Fowler has given himself to do before he can cut to the chase is overwhelming the mystery, which is what I came for. Fowler is a handy and entertaining writer so I'm going to give this book a bit more time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Meme

This from Sheila, whose answers are probably much more fun than mine!

1.ONE OF YOUR SCARS, HOW DID YOU GET IT? Won a relay race in first grade (for the milk carton), fell over the finish line landed on both knees, then both elbows, then my face. The only lasting scars are on my knees.

2. WHAT IS ON THE WALLS IN YOUR ROOM? In my bedroom - a print of various flying machine designs from a 19th Century French magazine, a poster of the David Hockney Parade from the Metropolitan Opera, several paintings by my cousin Sylvia, a linolium print by her friend Casper, and a few other paintings.

3. DO YOU KNOW WHAT TIME YOU WERE BORN? I think it was 11:10 am but the time did not make a huge impression on me at the time.

4. WHAT DO YOU WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING RIGHT NOW? Right now? A glass of wine, which is easily solved. Excuse me while I do so.

5. WHAT DO YOU MISS? Acting.

6. WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRIZED POSSESSION? My most valuable possession, I guess, is my piano but prized - would probably be memorabilia of family, friends and the things I've created - so photos, things I have written and that were written to me, and the production books of my productions.



9. WHAT’S YOUR WORST FEAR? Getting horribly, painfully ill and having things stuck down my throat .

10. WHAT KIND OF HAIR COLOR DO YOU LIKE ON THE OPPOSITE SEX? If you're asking about the hair color of the sex I'm attracted to, then you did not phrase this question in a way that is meaningful for me. If you mean to ask about my preference of hair color for the "opposite sex" in my case, female, it doesn't really matter to me. But the same would be true for guys.

11. WHAT ABOUT EYE COLOR? See above.


13. FAVORITE PIZZA TOPPING? I like it best plain - cheesy and well done crust - but onions, olives or pepperoni would all be ok. Do you deliver?

14. IF YOU COULD EAT ANYTHING RIGHT NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE? Some tortellini and a nice light tomato sauce would go down well right now.


16. HAVE YOU EVER EATEN A GOLDFISH? If you don't mean the Pepperidge Farm kind then - no. Although I have sushi all the time, so raw fish is not a big deal for me if the water is clean and they've been kept fresh.



19. FAVORITE CLOTHING BRAND? Outlet mall, hear me roar. The brand is immaterial.

20. WHAT KIND OF CAR DO YOU WANT? I hate driving and don't want a car at all. But if you want to give me the equivalent amount in cash I wouldn't say no.

21. WOULD YOU FALL IN LOVE KNOWING THAT THE PERSON IS LEAVING? If I'm falling in love, would I have a choice? Since when has anything practical mattered when you're falling in love.


23. YOUR WEAKNESSES? Olives, cheese and the combination of dark chocolate and marzipan have been known to make me eat compulsively, Campbell Scott has made me swoon, Mahler's Fifth and Jeff Buckley singing Halleluiah make me cry - will that do?

24. MET ANYONE FAMOUS? Lots - I worked in theater and opera for over twenty years. I'll give you one - Geraldine Page not only an influential talent for me but also warm and gracious.

25. FIRST JOB? Magician (birthday parties and the occasional nursing home). If you would like to begin your work life with humility this is the way to do it.

26. EVER DONE A PRANK CALL? Not one I can remember.

27. DO YOU THINK EVERYONE OUT THERE HAS A SOUL MATE? Are you one of those people who is going to tell me that everything happens for a reason? Yawn.


29. HAVE YOU EVER HAD SURGERY? Twice - sinus.

30. WHAT DO YOU GET COMPLIMENTED ABOUT MOST? Looking younger than I am, my teaching talent, and my extraordinary modesty.

31. WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY? It's too far away, ask me later.

32. HOW MANY KIDS DO YOU WANT? None, I see kids at my work and don't need to take any home.


34. WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST TURN OFF WITH THE OPPOSITE SEX? Again, if you are asking me about the sex I'm attracted to, you've not asked me the question you intend to. But the answer is equivocation.

35. WHAT IS ONE THING YOU MISS ABOUT GRADE SCHOOL? Playing imaginary games in the school yard during lunch.

36. WHAT KIND OF SHAMPOO DO YOU USE? I don't know. Something with a lot of natural junk in it that doesn't have a conditioner because they make me break out.

37. DO YOU LIKE YOUR HANDWRITING? It's crap. I hate writing anything by hand. I'm a lefty and it's very inconvenient with a lot of pens you get smudges all over the outside of your hand.

38. ANY BAD HABITS? God, yes.


40. IF YOU WERE ANOTHER PERSON, WOULD YOU BE FRIENDS WITH YOU? It would depend who I was, wouldn't it?

41. DO YOU AGREE WITH FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS? My agreement is unimportant and so is your's. But my opinion is that two consenting adults can make any kind of relationship they damn-well please and it's nobody's damn business.

42. HOW DO YOU RELEASE ANGER? By scowling, yelling, and screaming, it's usually taken out on inanimate objects and not people.

43. WHAT’S YOUR MAIN GOAL IN LIFE? I'm in grad school in my forties. I am not that focused that I have just one main goal.

44. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE TOY AS A CHILD? Pooh (that's the bear, I was not throwing feces at the walls).


46. WERE YOU A FAN OF BARNEY AS A LITTLE KID? Barney? I'm pre-Sesame Street.

47. MASHED POTATOES OR MACARONI AND CHEESE? Blech. How old are you, five?


49. DO YOU HAVE A COMPUTER IN YOUR ROOM? Which room is that? I have a lap top, it goes where I go.

50. PLANS FOR TONIGHT? Dinner, getting the place cleaned up for Mother's Day. Mom is coming for brunch tomorrow.


52. WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO? The Ragazzo tinkling on the piano and singing.

53. LAST THING YOU DRANK? Glass of wine.


55. DO YOU HAVE A LOW SELF ESTEEM OR A HIGH SELF ESTEEM? Depends on the day and the arena. I consider emphasis on self esteem misplaced. I do aspire do deserving the esteem of others and hope that will sometimes include myself.

56. WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING? Fools of Fortune by William Trevor.

Play along if you have a spare hour.

Signifying Something (Theatre - The Sound and the Fury)

In April Seventh 1928 - the first part of the psychedelic-poetic masterpiece that is The Sound and the Fury - Faulkner (you know you're important in literature when they drop your first name) evokes that day in the life of the Compson family and their servants as experienced through Benjy, their mentally retarded son. It is Benjy's thirty-third birthday and he is cared for by a teenage servant, Luster. He experiences the world around him as a series of sensory impressions which evoke memories, particularly of his sister, Caddy, but the world of past and present are indistinguishable for him. He sits in a chair, for example, catching his shirt on a nail and that reminds him of another moment in which he got caught on the same nail and instantly he is there in the sensory experiences of that previous moment. In a large way the book chronicles the dissolution of this family - the mother's hypochondria, the father's alcoholism, the sister's promiscuity, the brother's suicide (and some might say by extension the dissolution of a certain way of life for America's Southern gentry). Elevator Repair Service, the 17-year-old experimental theater ensemble that adapted this first part of of novel, has evoked this continual journeying to the past as a kind of longing. It's not uncommon for someone whose present circumstances are less than pleasant to become nostalgic. It is as if Benjy is in a perpetual loop of nostalgia, which makes his character function symbolically as the spirit of a more innocent South now gone. Theatrically he functions as our tripwire into a place where time will not stand still. His psychedelic-synesthetic experience of all times as one renders people as smells, objects as texture, and the tumult of his less than perfect home circumstances as a raucous repetitive dance for which this wildly inventive company find a physical life on stage that is appropriate to the novel and theatrically enveloping, even hypnotic. Multiple actors plays the same roles irrespective of their ages, sexes, or skin color. The set is a meticulously detailed dining and living room section of the house in which they create all the other spaces theatrically - a tree is created by piling up furniture, an armchair becomes a horse and buggy. They read directly from the novel on stage, taking turns as narrators, but also playing their own narrators as they play the characters. I believe they actually adapt every word of this section of the novel, including 'Caddy said.' Evidently they did the same with their marathon adaptation of The Great Gatsby - performing in that case the entire novel - I am absolutely dying to see this production called Gatz. For some reason I cannot understand, the rights were not given for a New York production. With every word, of April Seventh 1928 they are constrained to a 2 hour and 45 minute evening which ends up feeling just a little long. There are just two things I wished they would have done with this fantastic adaptation - their theatrical story telling is so inventive but they use up all their tricks in the first act, leaving the physical life of Act II without any surprises. I wished they had saved us one surprise. There is a moment in Act II in which Benjy is, I believe, taken off to a hospital. A white-figure appears and whisks him out through the door and following him Dilsey, the family's cook, sadly shakes her head and returns to the kitchen. It was extremely subtle and beautiful moment - but I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing, so quickly did it go by. It occurred perhaps 20 minutes before the end - what was going on there? Was that Benjy's medical castration? It passed in a flash but seemed important thematically. It seemed to herald a change, an ending which could have been evoked visually to effect an ending to the play. The one element of the adaptation that didn't quite work for me was the fact that the novel revolves around the men's relationship to Caddy while the play, adapting only one section, revolves around Benjy. I think it's smart to center the play around Benjy's but the words of the chapter's ending center around Caddy. Visually when Benjy's was whisked out the door, I felt the evening had ended and then the rest of the act felt long. That said, I hate it when people respond to something I've made on stage by telling me what I should have done differently. Do your own version, I want to say. The best response would probably be Faulkner's own description about the creative process that produced The Sound and the Fury (from the supplemental information on the New York Theater Workshop's website) :

... I wrote that same story four times. None of them were right, but I had anguished so much that I could not throw any of it away and start over, so I printed [the novel] in the four sections. That was not a deliberate tour de force at all, the book just grew that way. That I was still trying to tell one story which moved me very much and each time I failed,but I had put so much anguish into it that I couldn't throw it away,like the mother that had four bad children, that she would have been better off if they all had been eliminated, but she couldn't relinquish any of them. And that's the reason I have the most tenderness for that book, because it failed four times.

I guess that means that ERS should get at least four chances. There probably isn't going to be an adaptation of this famously complicated novel that is likely to get much better than this one. In its totality I found this was an affecting and involving evening of theater, full of invention, with a mesmerizing, multi-layered sound scape that I have to single out as one of the most effective contributions to the evening. It was designed by Matt Tierney. The production hosted by New York Theatre Workshop, one of my favorite off-Broadway companies, has been extended until June 1. If you're in the area I highly recommend it and the link to the theater can lead you to tickets. ERS also tours both around the US and Europe so you may be able to catch them some time at a theater closer to home.

...Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

In reference to...

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  • Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library
Do I? I have an entire shelf in my office, behind me right now, devoted to dictionaries, writing reference and process books, my thesaurus, a quotation book, as well as my New York City guides like Manhattan Block by Block and Not for Tourists Guide to New York City. I have my French/English, Hebrew/English, Russian/English, German/English, Italian/English dictionaries as well as my 501 French Verbs. I have my trusty Webster's which I still prefer to using an on-line dictionary. I am not a very good speller so I turn to it several times a week and it makes me smile. I'm not sure why, probably because it is so familiar. I have my classic Strunk and White The Elements of Style, yellowed with age and the more recent The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon - a more humorous take on a guide to grammar. I also have numerous writing process books which comfort me to have close at hand - Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House (which I supposed is really more lit crit) are some of my favorites. I have saved my favorite reference for last - a wonderful dictionary recommended by Mrs. Sahl. Mrs. Sahl was a retired school teacher from Boston who tutored me for the SAT and in any class in which I was having a bit of trouble in my last two years of high school. She was big on recommending books - I remember reading Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair with her. But her finest recommendation was The Dictionary of Foreign Terms in the English Language by David Carroll. I used to feel that if a Latin phrase appeared in a book I was reading that the italics simply meant 'keep going, you're not meant to understand this.' No longer. Now I could look up ex post facto, jus regium and not only Latin phrases - Schadenfreude, from the German, and Juggernauth from Hindi are there too. It includes terminology used in law, music, and science as well as colloquial expression that might be quoted in books or erudite conversation, or common words from other languages that have made it into English. It cost me only $4.95 at the time and was well worth it.