Sunday, September 28, 2008

Best of 2008 in advance

Dewey is going to cull a list of best books published in 2008 from her geeky compadres, so here is my contribution and I encourage you to create a list too and post your link at Dewey's place so she can count your vote! I link to each of my posts on these novels on my side bar, in case you're interested.

Life Class - Pat Barker
Unacustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
Netherland - Joseph O'Neill
The House on Fortune Street - Margot Livesey
Breath - Tim Winton
The Lazarus Project - Aleksandar Hemon

...and if you are willing to count English Language editions:

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Sasa Stanisic (trans. Anthea Bell)

On the loss of time & on knowing when to stop (Books - Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson & Side Effects by Adam Phillips)

Preparing to do a quick get-away in the Berkshires this wet, wet weekend. It was a mistake to try to do laundry yesterday, everything is still damp, but I was down to my last rags and patches. Anyhoo, a couple of days off from classes means that I didn't have to do as much school reading yesterday and got to dip into a few other things. But while I'll have you here, is anyone else having the problem of Mozilla Firefox crashing when they try to compose or edit a post on Blogger? It just started with me although, as you can see, Internet Explorer works just fine. Any advice? I have posted to the Blogger Help Group.

I have made a fair bit of progress in Jeanette Winterson's jaunt into fantasy for young readers, too bad the writing hasn't also made progress. Winterson is very into physics, according to Sheila, who I would trust on such matters. And she tries to get some into Tanglewreck every chance she gets. The trouble is, it is not very well integrated.

The River Thames at Limehouse bows away from the City. The river glitters darkly. The river reflects the starless London sky. The river flows on to the sea. The river flows in one direction, but Time does not. Time's river carries our spent days out to sea and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours. Time's flow is not even, and there are snags underwater, hesitations in Time where the clock sticks. A minute on Earth is not the same length as a minute on Jupiter. A minute on Earth is sometimes a different length all by itself.

The paragraph starts out nicely enough, but it all seems an excuse for a physics lesson with no attempt at integration into the plot, just the omniscient authorial voice descending to give us a lovely little lecture on time - thanks for that Jeanette. This all seems to be driven by a theme emerging in the novel:

'It is strange, but the machine age and the computer age both promised to give mere mortals more time in their lives, but less time is what it seems we have. We are using up Time too fast, just as we are using up all the other resources of the Earth...'

This seems to be the driving force behind the plot which, despite how artlessly its components fit together, is still fun enough to keep me reading. In this case, the notion is least spoken by the character Abel Darkwater - one of the book's villains - a man who desires to possess all time. He apparently also has a nemesis name, Regalia Mason who, we learn

...had an office in part of New York City called Tribeca. She was so high up that the clouds sometimes snowed outside her window while lower buildings were still in sunshine.

In her vast white office she gave orders to people who had never seen her. People knew her name and they were afraid of her, but only a very few knew what she looked like.

She was beautiful.

And cold.
Brrrr. Honestly, just because some of the readers of this novel are supposed to be kids, does that really mean it requires this infantile style of delivery? Looking at the diction, I would say the book was written for a child of six. But looking at the mini-lectures on the fabric of time, I would say perhaps eleven or twelve. It's a shame to watch a talented writer end up being so misguided. At six I certainly wasn't reading string theory, but at twelve I read Agatha Christie, James Herriot, Bram Stoker, Josephine Tey, and Arthur Conan Doyle quite comfortably. I am sticking with Tanglewreck, however, as I am counting on the plot delivering something that is at least entertaining.

I have also read the next piece in psychoanalyst/essayist Adam Phillips's
Side Effects about knowing when to stop. A theme he explores from the point of view of relationships in general and the therapist/patient relationship specifically. adapt Valery's famous remark about completing a poem - that an analysis is never finished, it is only abandoned. And in this, despite suggestions to the contrary, the so-called analytic relationship is like, or at least similar to, every other so-called relationship. The language of completion is unsuitable for what goes on between people. It is possible to know that one no longer sees someone, no longer has sex with someone; it is less possible to know whether one no longer thinks of someone. Indeed, one of the things psychoanalysis reveals is just how haunted we are, in spite of ourselves, by other selves, by bits and pieces of others. It is impossible, though, to know when or whether a relationship has ended. Or what it is for a relationship to end, rather than change.

Phillips enjoys using art as metaphor for understanding the process of analysis and the role of both therapist and patient in it.

...they are both, in different ways and in quite diferent contexts, telling us that there is something valuable, from a psychoanalytic point of view, in not being impressively coherent, something about not being wholly plausible, or, in a conventional sense, intelligible, that psychoanalysis might ignore to its cost... Of course, the ideas that we should be suspicious of intelligibility is itself paradoxical. As an aesthetic principle, it
is perhaps best captured in the poet John Ashbery's remakr that 'the worse your art is the easier it is to talk aobut.' This might translate as: 'The more defensive you are the more plausible you will seem to yourself (and other people).'

One of Phillips strengths as a writer about psychoanalytic process is that he finds metaphors for describing aspects of theory which would otherwise remain undefinable abstractions. He offers much less in the way of case study than, say, Oliver Sacks does in writing about his discipline. Phillips is writing about ideas, not about patients, and his examples can be quite erudite (John Ashbery), but this doesn't seem to cost him a readership. This could render his books interesting only to specialists, but judging from his sales and his paperback editions, he seems to have found his niche. I am impressed by his prose, although it is, at times, repetitive. He is a champion of his process. I will leave you with this.

Knowing when to stop means feeling cured; knowing about people in a cured state, so to speak. But what of the afterlife of relationships, which is as real in its own way as is the life of relationships? And yet, as everyone knows who likes the sound of psychoanalysis, it is not solely or simply a problem-solving exercise. For some people, the relationship can end when the presenting problem has been solved. It is a kind of common sense that if you go to a psychoanalyst with claustrophobia, your involvement with the analyst will finish either when you are no longer claustrophobic or when you have finally given up hope of ever being changed by this kind of therapy. But you may also find, given a psychoanalytic opportunity, that whether or not you get symptom relief, you may want to go on; you may even come to believe that symptom relief may not be the be-all and end-all of the process. Not suffering matters, but not living as well as you can may matter more, and that is likely to involve suffering.

I will write next hopefully from in front of the fireplace in the Massachusetts hills.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Recording the revolution (Books - Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel)

For some reason, I have been starting and finishing book after book while ignoring Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, which I had begun early this summer after Sasa Stanisic mentioned it as an influence at his NYC reading of his novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Last night after several hours of studying and an episode of Rome, it seemed like just the thing.

The burned-out town - broken columns and the hooks of evil old women's fingers dug into the earth - seemed to me raised into the air, comfortable and unreal like a dream. The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength. The damp mold of the ruins blossomed like a marble bench on the opera stage. And I waited with anxious soul for Romeo to descend from the clouds, a satin Romeo singing of love, while backstage a dejected electrician waits with his fingers on the button to turn off the moon.

Blue roads flowed past me like rivulets of milk trickling from many breasts. On my way back, I had been dreading running into Sidorov, with whom I shared my room,, and who at night brought his hairy paw of dejection down upon me. That night, luckily, harrowed by the milk of the moon, Sidorov did not say a single word to me. I found him writing, surrounded by books. On the table a hunchbacked candle was smoking - the sinister bonfire of dreamers...

Babel's collected stories of life in Russia during the period immediately following the Bolshevik coup in 1917, were published in magazines in the 1920s. This period of intense disarray and bloodshed is depicted in such richly imagined and dramatic prose that the horror of its events are made readable by their sheer beauty and sometimes their hilarity. In this vignette, Italian Sun, the writer's roommate, wounded and no longer able to fight for one of the many factions vying for power, writes his girlfriend about his insane plans to murder the royal family of Italy.

Save me, Victoria! governmental wisdom is driving me insane, boredom is inebriating me. If you won't help me I will die like a dog without a five-year plan! And who wants a worker to die unplanned? Surely not you, Victoria, my bride who will never be my wife...

What is impartial journalism? People only cry for journlism to be impartial when it doesn't reconfirm their ideology. Otherwise the complaint is never heard. This is political writing I can eat in big mouthfuls, and give me a chunk of bread so I can mop up the gravy. His colorful, dreamlike palette reminds me of Chagall sometimes, but without the childlike wonder. I find his powers of observation sharper than that, his humor could shave a Cossak's beard.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A unicorn in a donkey suit (Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson)

Jeanette Winterson's Tanglewreck, a fantasy for young readers, is not only a departure in genre - Winterson has written sophisticated fiction for adults for the last two decades - it is also a departure in writing style. Winterson's adult writing has always been more interested in the trip than in the destination, or as Bruce Bawer's New York Times review of Gut Symmetries put it,
At a time when many publishers expect literary novels to have the relentless forward motion of an Indiana Jones movie, Ms. Winterson refuses to shift into narrative drive; eschewing the Interstate, she favors the bumpy, meandering byways of interior landscapes. At every turn, furthermore, her fresh, vivid way of putting things stops one dead in admiration. ''In 1959,'' Alice recalls, her successful father ''was in the fullness of his present,'' having seen that the key to success was to ''pan the living clay that you are and find gold in it.''

Tanglewreck prefers a more straightforward idiom. Modern-day London is apparently being struck by phenomena called time tornadoes, in which evidence of times past are momentarily glimpsed - a woolly mammoth walks the streets, Roman chariots gallop on the surface of the Thames - and then any person or thing in its path is swallowed up, never to be heard from again. Take this description:
Then, from downstream, there was a sudden terrible crack, like the sky breaking.

I guess if we are going to make a so-called rip in time, let's be done with it. Or this:
Abel Darkwater knew that all time is always present, but buried layer by layer under what people call Now. Today lies on top of yesterday, and yesterday lies on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers.

Ok then, all time exists right now but the other dimensions are buried just beneath the surface, or something like that. I'm not complaining exactly. Winterson is laying out the rules of her new and troubled world with clarity. I must say I do know where I am. But she is doing the job with a dispatch I did not expect. I'm so used to working for my supper when I read her books.

There is the obligatory hero or heroine on the verge of adolescence - in this case our heroine is Silver, 11 years old, parentless, and relegated to shoveling coals in the basement for her evil Aunt, Mrs. Rokabye. So far, I cannot get a grip on who Silver is, aside from the protoype Harry/Lyra with whom the young reader is supposed to identify. What I am enjoying is Winterson's villains. She has painted these characters and their badness in broad strokes.

Abel Darkwater was never late - unless he intended to be; and his watch was nevber wrong - unless he wanted it to be.

Some people are alwas short of time, but Abel Darkwater had all the time in the world - well, nearly all of it - and it was the nearly that was the problem, and the reason why he had come to Tanglewreck.

Or Mrs. Rokabye,

Mrs. Rokabye has a pet rabbit called Bigamist, on account of his habits. The house if full of small-scale Bigamists, so that wherever you go, there's a pair of yellow eyes watching you, and a black nose twitching, and an ear cocked at your business, and a scut just hiding under a chair as you come into a room. They're all her spies, but Bigamists is the worst. He tells her everything I do.

Evil rabbits - that is definitely a touch I like.

Mrs Rokabye was standing at the low kitchen door, smiling. It was a horrible sight; the corners of her mouth were drawn up towards her eyebrows, and her eyebrows were pulled up towards the hairnet she always wore in the house. She had been practising smiling all morning, but it was not nearly for long enough...

I was hoping by page fifty to have a better idea who Silver is, not merely the function she fulfills and the circumstances in which she has been placed, but I guess I will have to be patient for a bit longer. What I will say is that midterms are two weeks away (already) and I need a comfort read alongside Middlemarch and my neuroscience stuff and this would seem to be it. Anyway, I promised Sheila I would read it. It does move along at a clip and I am enjoying the plot set-up, I am just disoriented by difference from Winterson's adult writing. Perhaps it's appropriate to a younger reader, although one might say it is pandering. I was looking forward to see how her interests as a writer would be adapted for a younger reader and they seem to have been merely abandoned. I feel like I came to see a unicorn, but whoever was showing the creature got afraid we'd be freaked out and dressed it in a donkey suit.

And as the fall progresses:

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Tanglewreck (in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (
started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles
(in progress)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Neuroscience of Reward

The thrill is gone? Blame your brain, says a little blurb by Eric Nagourney in today's Science Times. A study by Dr. Karen Faith Berman and colleagues in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compared brain scans of people in their 20s and their 60s while playing a slot-machine-like-game on a computer in two conditions - one when they anticipated winning money and the second in which they actually won. In the anticipation condition, the people in their 20s showed three brain areas associated with reward activated and it sounds like dopamine levels were also elevated, whereas the people in their 60s showed increased activity in only one of those three reward areas and produced less dopamine. Now I became curious about the methods and although the PNAS would not let me read the article without paying a fee, I could read the abstract. There I learned that two measures were employed - a special kind of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan that sounds like it can stain for dopamine - getting a measure of its production in the midbrain, and fMRI which measures comparitive increases in metabolism of oxygen (a measure said to be associated with increased "activation") in prefrontal areas. In the younger people increased dopamine production was positively correlated with activity in the prefrontal areas which in other studies have been activated in conditions associated with "reward." However, the older group (whom the abstract indicated were healthy) showed a negative correlation, which the Times indicates means that less dopamine produced less reward, although a negative correlation would mean that more dopamine produced less reward. I can't tell without reading the article which is the case, but suffice it to say that the association between dopamine and reward was different for the older group. I also cannot tell from the abstract if the two levels of dopamine levels produced by each group were compared outright, i.e. the younger people produced more than the older, or if each group had a baseline level of dopamine measured and if the difference in production was compared to that baseline in the 'anticipation of reward' condition. My biggest question had to do with the experimental conditions themselves. Are the experimenters sure that the money acted as an equally rewarding influence on both groups? And most importantly are they sure that a randomly selected group of people in their sixties would respond with the same 'reward' to a computer game as people in their twenties? Anecdotally, I could report a very different relationship between computers and people in their 20s versus people in their 60s. Just wondering.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Journey from perfect child to flawed grown-up (Books - In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal)

How much can we do for other people? Is it possible to make their lives better? Can money accomplish that? Can words? What if their actions show us that they don't want the same things that we do, what then? Does our kindness make their lives better than their autonomy? Or is that just a form of arrogance? Certainly Alex, the narrator of Daphne Beal's novel In The Land of No Right Angles makes her third trip to Asia, this one to India rather than Nepal, with the idea that she can make her Napalese friend Maya's life better. But she ends up with rather different ideas than those she arrived with. What I like about Beal's story is the way Alex, the Midwestern colllege-graduate photographer, comes of age - in her social awareness, in her sexuality, in her spirit. She arrives a perfect child and leaves a flawed grown up ready to begin some kind of life. But I won't tell you how - that is the enjoyment of reading Beal's book.

Another pleasure is its exotic setting and Beal is an adept hand at creating a sense of place.

...I booked a ten-dollar room at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel, which turned out to have its own kind of charm - a garden cafe, big skeleton keys for the door, and my own pigeonhole at the front desk with a Kathmandu Post waiting for me every morning. The other guests were older than the bakcpacking crowd - thirty-something American couples adopting Nepali kids, artists, and people working there for a few months. I was completely unbeholden to anyone in Neapl for the first time, and suddenly I felt like I could see the city for what it was. I still loved the low rough-and-tumble skyline composed of leaning buildings and temples, whose shapes reminded me of elaborate, winged haridos. I loved the dinging-bleating-rumbling of the streets, the buzzing of the scooters swerving around the rickshaws swerving around the coes. Monkeys visited the flat rooftop outside my window daily, and the street boys in Thamel with their cheeky grins implored, "TigerBalmmadam? TigerBalm? Verygood-verynice-goodpriceforyoumadam!" I lied being justled and stared at and spoken to, compared to the slamon-swimming-upstream sensation of living in New York. but at the same time, something seemed changed and deeply wrong since I'd first spent time there. Before, when people said, ke garne, or "what to do?" it sounded philosophical and good natured. Now it sounded bitter and helpless..

Or her characterization of Bombay's red-light district:

All along the wide street for as far as I could see, women, girls, and transvestites stood in open doorways of crumbling four-and five-story buildings with sagging shutters and barred windows. Wearing grimy, once-bright saries and salwar kameezes and painted-on makepu that melted down their faces in the wet heat...The youngest of them couldn't have been more than thriteen or fourteen, and some of the youngest were Nepali. These girls in particular looked dead to me, with thei caked-on makeup and spidery lashes. Boys and men sauntered down the sidewalk, arm in arm or holding hands, as they did here, and the girls made kissing noises or clicked their tongues as they passed. But there was not even a trace of the seedy glamour that the old Times Square or any other red-light area I knew about (real or cinematic) possessed...

One of the things I enjoyed learning about Napli culture had to do with an idea akin to 'soul,' mon, it is called. It becomes particularly alive in hearing Maya speak of it:

"Does he have a girlfiend?"

"Probably. I don't know."

"If he does," she said, "he'll ruin her the way he does everyone, spoil her mon." That favorite word of hers, of ours. And bigrinchha, "spoil," was the same word used with meat or produce, as if your mon were a bruised mango or a hunk of rancid goat meat. "It's like he has a disease of the mon. You know, I didn't sweat before I met him, and now a stink comes off me."

Finally, this book, although the concerns of its plot were largely domestic - a triangle of friendship and mutual responsibility - one could read it as reaching beyond individuals to how whole cultures relate. It is a story of someone trying to grow up, not by graduating, getting a job and getting married, that is, hitting pre-fab milestones thoughtlessly because that is what she saw on TV. But by trying to learn how others live in and see the world, taking the risk of involving herself in a way of living nothing like her own. Getting herself a little dirty. Forming a view of the world she is going to live in by doing more than reading Newsweek or watching the Discovery channel. I felt like this book, not just its narrator, was forming a view of the world that is about learning compassion for others but also respect. Finally whether country or individual, there are times we may feel free or filled with rightiousness, or even kindness, but we are all contained by boundaries of one sort or another and part of growing up is learning where those are and respecting them.

Here are my other thoughts on reading this book 1, 2, 3.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Reviews as News, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and an appreciation (Books, books, books)

I managed to catch up on three weeks of Times Book Reviews and still get a good deal of my school reading done, take a walk in the park, cook buckwheat pasta with tomatoes onions mushrooms and broth, and watch an episode of Rome - a productive Saturday for feeling so completely lacking in energy as I did. And we drank cups and cups and cups of tea. To no avail. I felt as floppy as Raggedy Andy.

The Books Reviews, read in sequence, are like a little snapshot of our zeitgeist. Just say Käse. Really they are more news than the news. Take the two weeks bookending September 11 - what was the theme? The new Paul Auster, the new Philip Roth, the new Francine Prose - they all deal with death. I'm a fan of Paul Auster so I'm likely to read his new Man in the Dark despite the lukewarm reception it has gotten everywhere including in this review by Tom LeClair. What did he expect writing about an unfulfilled book critic with terrible insomnia! I love to read about Philip Roth; I love hearing interviews with him about his writing, but I have yet to make it through a single of his books. Maybe it's a generational thing. I have heard those who do admire him say that his latest, Indignation, is not the book to start on. Maybe that means I'll like it. In his gushing encomium on the front page of this week's Book Review David Gates cannot stop himself from telling the book's secret. Although, the way he described the book, I had guessed it before he gave me a chance to debark. So if you are at all interested in reading this book, don't read this review until after you have read the book. Of her twelve novels and host of other books I have only read Blue Angel by Francine Prose. I thought it wicked and well crafted but haven't yet tried another. Any recommendations from fans of her work? Leah Hager Cohen's assessment of Goldengrove, Prose's latest, is unenthusiastic at best. As a writer, how do you like up to a name like Prose? It does make me want to read Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child though, which figures prominently in the novel:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Again, the theme seems to be aging and death - as with Auster and Roth - but this time addressed to a child who can not yet know of her loss consciously, but feels it just the same. The poems brilliance is, I think, that this rich juxtaposition of innocence and the perspective that comes with self awareness is packed into fifteen lines cloaked in the lilt of rhyming couplets. It gives the verse an almost wry smile, while the eyes of its 'I' are filled with tears. As if that 'I' could be speaking those words to the child and because of the lovely sounds made by the lines she would feel comforted, despite their content.

Speaking of the price of self awareness, today's Times has an appreciation of recently deceased author David Foster Wallace, by A. O. Scott that is really, well, appreciative, and quite beautiful.

Finally two other books that stood out in these weeks of reviews other than the three biggies were Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey, The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. Fortey, who works for London's museum, catalogues the contents of its back rooms, pickling his description with anecdotes about its former employees and its store of ephemera. And the other book I was drawn to was The Time of Their Lives, Al Silverman's portrait of The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors. Bruce Jay Friedman writes an amusing and informative review that despite any criticisms still leaves me wanting to read 500 pages of anecdotal nostalgia about my favorite topic - books! There is a world of fresh print out there for us to covet (in the inimitable style of our trusty Dewey) so I am getting off my duff and reading some of it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Odds and ends (Books - In the Land of No Right Angles & Film - Dream with the Fishes)

This is one of those meandering weekend posts. First let me say, I am not going to allow the fact that a neuron has capacitance, that is the ability to store charge, cramp my style today. It cramped most of my style yesterday and that was not at all pleasant.

Dream with the Fishes is a film made in 1997 that I remember seeing several times when it was first released. David Arquette is the most familiar face in it. It's written and directed by Finn Taylor. I really liked this film a decade ago and so it had been on my Amazon wish list and I ended up getting it for christmas. For some reason I didn't get around to watching it until now. I think I was afraid I wouldn't like it as much any more. Although I found some of the writing and acting a bit obvious now, it remains a really good and even touching story. A man terrified of risk lives as a voyeur and can't stand himself anymore, so he decides to end his life. He meets a man who, let's just say, has every reason to take what risks he can. The film is the story of their unlikely friendship. It's well worth a watch and has a great soundtrack.

The Ragazzo and I also got the DVDs of the first year of BBC television's Rome from the New York Public Library and watched the first two episodes over a tray of salami, cheese, salmon pate, salad, crusty bread and red wine. It is a well written dramatization of historical events in around the first century BCE. These episodes were wonderfully directed by Michael Apted. He and his team manage to introduce character and plot lines, create the feel of the bustle of an ancient city, and battle grounds, and give a very thorough sense of period while the behavior still has the haphazzard, accidental feeling of verissimilitude (I love that word) that we expect from contemporary film and television. The only odd touch is the theme music, which is so reminiscent of the title music for Carnivale that it made me smirk. There are loads of wonderful actors like James Purefoy, Lindsay Duncan and Ciaran Hinds to enjoy. It was filmed largely in Rome and at some points they had five acres of backlot and six sounstages in action at the famous Cinecitta studios.

And I'm close to finishing In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal. The college educated Alex returns to Nepal for a second and third time, ostensibly to photograph, but perhaps really to try to capture something of who she was when in the grip of innocence (as I did when watching the film Dream With The Fishes again), or to assuage her guilt for what has happened to the young girl, Maya, whom she brought from the country to the big city at the behest of her guru friend Will. It's later sections are full of you-can't-go-home-again insights that are, I expect, part of Alex's coming of age, as this is a coming of age novel. I feel a melancholy atmosphere descend in the book's home stretch, but I still have 50 pages to go so I will hold off until I have read it completely.

And, really, any day will be instantly better if you try La Tur, a cheese from Italy made from sheep's cow's and goat's milk, all blended into this incredibly light spreadable mild cheese. Yum. Great on whole grain toast. I had it with a glass of black cherry juice mixed with bubbly water.

Lots of studying to get started on now. Hope it is as nice where you are as it is here. We're finally heading towards autumn in NYC.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Changing leaves, hot cider, and neuroanatomy

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Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

This kid has headed back to school, that's for sure, and you can bet it has changed my reading habits. This summer was a time of luxurious indulgence. I could read whatever I wanted and as much as I wanted - more than 25 books from June through August. That meant lots of fiction including Netherland, the new Margot Livesey, the new Tim Winton, the new Charles Baxter, reading Man Booker winners Rose Tremain and Allan Hollinghurst, Sasa Stanisic's wonderful How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, re-reading some Chiam Potok and Don Delillo, discovering the fiction of Bernard MacLaverty and Robin Jenkins, as well as some books on how the brain reads. See my side bar for links to all those posts. Now classes have begun. It's not that I am reading any less, au contraire, but suddenly my on-going reads fester - Daphne Beal's new novel is taking me a couple of weeks to read, Middlemarch is likely to take me until the end of the year, and books I want to read on neuroscience take a back seat to my assignments. This is the reading you never hear me talk about. Books with titles such as: From Molecules to Networks: An Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience or Principles of Neuroscience - this is one of the classics in the field. Neuroanatomy Through Clinical Cases, or on the psychier side of my classes Diagnostic Psychological Testing or Development of the Rorschach Technique. That and loads of articles every week. This weekend was taken up by The Contribution of Psychoanalytic Theory to Psychological Testing, Interaction of Dynamic and Reality Factors in the Diagnostic Testing Interview, The Development of Cortical Multisensory Integration, and Action-Based Body Maps in the Spinal Cord Emerge from a Transitory Floating Organization. Forget images of hot spiced cider, soft comforting sweaters, and walks in the russet leaves and think: twice as much coffee, a new knapsack, and purple patches beneath my eyes. Am I in the mood for different books than I was over the summer? No, not particularly, but they won't help me pass my test on Friday or get my research into the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. And you?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Midwestern Reserve Meets Karma (Books - In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal)

It is the contrast between cultures rather than the plotting per se that is keeping me interested in the triangle that forms the center of Daphne Beal's novel In the Land of No Right Angles. Alex, a young Midwestern photographer, Will, a sybaritic guru, and Maya a rural Nepalese innocent end up living together in Kathmandu. They have three ways of seeing, three ways of loving, three ways of expressing themselves. The setting throws these differences into further relief. On a walk to the market, Alex and Maya see posters with photos of political protesters who were brutally beaten, many of them killed. One of the victims was Maya's brother and Maya breaks down in the middle of the street:

People didn't have these open, emotional displays in Nepal. There was no weeping or shouting, nothing the least bit melodramatic or Mediterranean, but the equanimity here wasn't the same as the Midwestern forbearance that I grew up with either. It was simply as if people experiences, good and bad, dropped like stones into a deep well. I think it had to do with a strong sense of karma and with the inevitability of things. Here, if your child died, that fact did not orbit your head or become your identity the way in would at home, yet it remained deeply a part of you.

Beal's writing has become less spare as the novel has progressed. The tone has become less reportorial, more contemplative. A little less than 100 pages into the book, we are privy to some backstory - a relationship Alex had with a filmmaker in the United States - that writing, in contrast to most of the rest of the book, is personal and tinged with strong emotions. I don't know whether the shift is the writer's or the narrator's - perhaps both. It places her emotional reserve up to the point in context and this reader wonders if the unusual setting and circumstances won't be the catalyst for Alex to gain access to this more passionate side of her nature.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Progress notes

And, if I may indulge myself in a little update on the fall TBR list...

Jude the Obscure
(in progress)
Among the Russians
Proust and the Squid

Red Cavalry (in progress)
The Solitudes (
started, don't know if I'll get through it)
Rhythms of the Brain
Neuroscience of Cognitive Development
(in progress)
The Dead Fish Museum
In the Land of No Right Angles
(in progress)

Finished Charles D'Ambrosio's very strong collection of stories The Dead Fish Museum. My thoughts on the final story will have to wait for some time in the not-too-distant future. But see my thoughts on the others here, here, here, and here.

Pain and numbers

Today's Science Times has two pieces related to the neuroscience that I found interesting. One by Kate Murphy on how sensations in one part of the body can cause pain in another - so-called referred pain. Researchers see two kinds - one that is caused by the transfer of signals to adjacent nerves that overlap as they come together at the spinal column. The second type does not see such an overlap, here the referred sites seem to be concurrent with acupuncture meridians or the phenomenon of trigger points, a notion anathema to many doctors who practice 'Western' medicine.

Natalie Angier writes about the ability of the mind to approximate numbers versus the ability we cultivate to take the symbols for the abstract concept of quantity (numbers) and manipulate them (compute). Researchers are investigating both whether there is an actual link between these systems - anatomically or whether suceess in one arena can predict success in the other - and also whether those approximating skills can be usefully applied to teaching computation.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bukowskian revelry (Books - The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio)

I continue to be impressed by the battered little worlds Charles D'Ambroiso conjures up in his short story collection The Dead Fish Museum.

We angled our heads back and opened our mouths like fledgling birds. Smoke gave the cool air a faintly burned flavor, an aftertaste of ash. A single flake lit on my wife's eyelash, a stellar crystal, cold and intricate. I blew a warm breath over her face, melting the snow.

I felt like I knew so much about the relationship between these two people at the end of this, the opening paragraph of Up North, and yet D'Ambrosio had written nothing explicit. In it the odd balance of this relationship between a husband and wife unfolds as we learn of the woman's rape, and see her husband try to function in the machismo-driven world of the womans' father, brother and cronies. It is a grotesque meeting of bravado, of promiscuity, and of a wish for intimacy.

The Scheme of Things is the story of two down-and-out scam artists and is an oddly tender and even sweet little tale. The title story is in a bleak, Bukowskian vein. A man gets out of prison and finds project carpentry work on a pornographic film. The stunning writing and the grimy, disturbed mileu make for an odd marriage.

Behind a thick sheet of acrylic, the desk clerk's face rushed up at him; it spread and blurred, white and without features, but never seemed to reach the surface. Ramage leaned forward and looked through a circle in the slab of glass, cut like a hole in ice. On the counter was a dinner plate with chicken bones and a few grains of rice hardening in brown gravy, and next to the plate was the splayed and broken spine of a romance. The clerk had been working over the chicken, cracking the bones and sucking the marrow. Her hair was tin and her teeth were leaning gray ruins in her lipless mouth. Her blue eyes were milky and vague, the pupils tiny beads of black. Ramage could not imagine a youth for her - it was as if she'd been born fully ruined...

God that's good.

The penultimate tale, Blessing, is like many in this book, one of a person finding themselves in a duo of some kind - a marriage, a friendship, a father-son relationship - but I mean in this case - really finding themselves. These stories seem to be acts of discovery that come upon the characters in the midst of the mess of daily living. I guess one could say they are insights. And in that way they are, I suppose, moments of brightness, or at least of clarity, though that doesn't mean that they necessarily look very 'nice.' But that is, I feel, the value of the experience of reading them - that and the sheer beauty of D'Ambrosio's language - it is revelry.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Books that...

This from Verbivore, our 'man' in the Alps.

A book you have read more than once

I read Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince more than once. Once for the pure joy of reading it, the second time to prepare for an audition for a theatrical adaptation that, so far, hasn't taken place. At least not in New York. I've read Franny and Zooey countless times. I've read Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves multiple times and Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund and Chiam Potok's My Name is Asher Lev.

A book you are currently reading

As you can tell from the pictures on my side bar, that would be books, plural. As in too many. Middlemarch, The Dead Fish Museum, In the Land of No Right Angles, and Cognitive Development are the ones that are seriously in progress. Oh, and Side Effects, which is not up there. I got hijacked by C.J.'s short story challenge which is how The Dead Fish Museum came about. I knew the author of In the Land of No Right Angles in a past life and I just couldn't resist reading it. I have really got to get back to the other two. I'm missing Middlemarch, but I have only been able to sit down to read some fiction after 11pm and I would have to be able to stay awake through a whole chapter to warrant opening it.

A book you would want on a desert island

I'm pretty consistent on ye olde desert island question - the complete works of Shakespeare. That may be cheating as one book, but it is a common single volume and it has variety enough to last a lifetime, if that would be what I spend on this island. For writing of quality of interest for its form as well as its sheer range of human content, Shakespeare cannot be beat. If forced to pick a volume with only one work in it, maybe
Hopeful Monsters because it's about so many things I don't know if I could get bored with it.

A book that made you laugh

Woody Allen's Side Effects - funny, it's the same title as the Adam Phillips book I'm reading now. I guess one is a book by a psychiatrist writing about neurotics and the other is a book by a neurotic writing about psychiatrists. What made me laugh in Allen's book is an essay about the invention of the Heimlich maneuver by inducing choking in rats. I haven't yet had a laugh at Adam Phillips book. It is largely about Freud and mental illness so I don't expect that will change.

A book that made you angry

Being and Nothingness. I had to read this book for a class in existentialism in my final year of undergraduate school. My god, is it infuriating. I threw it against the wall of my room.

A book that made you cry

Nicholas Nickleby.,
The death of Smike. Every time. The end of Tony Morrison's Sula, read in an ice cream store in Pittsburgh.

A really intense book

, see above. Crime and Punishment would be right up there. At Swim Two Boys was fairly intense - great novel and I never see anybody mention it any more. The Goldbug Variations is an amazing experience - such range, such intellectual energy, such passion - a scientific puzzle, a mystery and a love story all wrapped up into one.

A book you wish had never been written

There may have been books I wish I had never read, I'm not sure there are books I wish were never written. Well, that's not true. Some of the utter crap, like books telling people not to read Harry Potter because he practices magic from the devil. Books that teach people that some people are good, that others are not, and that there is a formula you can follow to be good. Any book that encourages anyone to evangelize.

A book you would recommend to almost anyone

For Kings and Planets
by Ethan Canin, although many people I have recommended it to didn't like it as much as I did. I think Canin is essential contemporary writing and think this one the best of his novel-length works. Charles Baxter's Shadow Play. My Name is Asher Lev - great, great story and I think everyone should experience reading Chiam Potok. Tim Winton's Cloud Street - without a doubt. Great moving story, beautiful inventive language. Truly a great reading experience.

A book that changed your life

Them's big words. I'm going to contradict every rant I have ever had about self help books and mention one I read, liked, and used - Coming Out to Parents. It's full of practical and compassionate advice and it is not as narrow as it sounds. It is about 'coming out' to anyone about anything. But that one literally changed my life. My Name is Asher Lev was my bible of the outsider experience. It was a book that gave me courage to be what I wanted and not what others wanted me to be. Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters was the book I read in my adolescence that introduced me not merely to the wonders of science and to experimenting in the lab in particular, but also to the idea of relentlessly pursuing your curiosity about anything and having that be worthwhile. Great book for young readers. The Vakhtangov School of Stage Art by Nikolai Gorchakov. A book that taught me there was another director who thought about theater the way I did. Brilliant book about the great student of Stanislavski who ended up founding a satellite studio of Stanislavski's own at the Moscow Art Theatre, directing several brilliant projects, and dying at around age 40. And The Music Theatre of Walter Felsenstein by Peter Paul Fuchs - a book that taught me there was another director who thought about opera the way I did. Anecdotes about the marvelous head of the Director of the Komische Oper in East Berlin from the late 1940s until the 1970s.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Coming of age in Kathmandu. (Books - In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal)

What I am enjoying most about Daphne Beal's debut novel In the Land of No Right Angles is the setting. A young American woman, freshly graduated from college, decides to take photographs in Nepal and trek around this little known mountainous haven for the spiritually hungry. Before she leaves on a trek, her friend Will gives her an assignment:

"It'll take you an hour out of your way. Two, tops," he said as we looked out at the low slung, ancient city twinkling before us.

"Sure," I said. Two hours was nothing when you were talking about a two-and-a-half-week trek. Besides, the errand sounded interesting. He wanted me to find a girl he'd met the year before and give her a message. As it was, the purpose of my solo trek was not only to take pictures, but to say good-bye to the people in a remote, hardscrabble village called Jankat where I'd lived for a month in the winter, and it all seemed a little melancholy. I was pleased to add a more cheerful mission.
Of course it turns out to be more than two hours, or there wouldn't be a story. And it begins to rain and our heroine from Des Moines wonders to herself, if this wasn't one of Will's exercises for spiritual growth. She finally finds the house and the girl, or at least a girl who says it is she but there is reason to doubt it as she is desperate to escape her druken mother and violent father. And so the drama begins. The book is very much like the travel experience, in which the activities of the day - moving from site A to site B, buying fruit, finding a post office - necessitate learning about a new culture. Beal (who I know as she worked on a project of mine in Milwaukee in 1988) is adept at creating the kind of tension that keeps a reader interested but along the way one can learn about the traiditional dress of women in Nepal, the class-based rules of drinking alcohol, and that a gentle rain is called sim-simi in Nepali - like little beans. Her writing is straight forward, contemporary, and relaxed without being exactly breezy. It reminds me of Hemmingway in its lack of frou-frou, its getting-the-job-done-ness. I am looking forward to really getting into it a bit this weekend, between articles on multisensory processing and psychological testing. Got to keep this bare of frou-frou as well, I have a test this afternoon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Art for comfort and perspective

btt button Today is the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know that not all of you who read are in the U.S., but still, it’s vital that none of us who are decent people forget the scope of disaster that a few, evil people can cause–anywhere in the world. It’s not about religion, it’s not about politics, it’s about the acknowledgment that humans should try to work together, not tear each other apart, even when they disagree. So, feeling my way to a question here … Terrorists aren’t just movie villains any more. Do real-world catastrophes such as 9/11 (and the bombs in Madrid, and the ones in London, and the war in Darfur, and … really, all the human-driven, mass loss-of-life events) affect what you choose to read? Personally, I used to enjoy reading Tom Clancy, but haven’t been able to stomach his fight-terrorist kinds of books since. And, does the reality of that kind of heartless, vicious attack–which happen on smaller scales ALL the time–change the way you feel about villains in the books you read? Are they scarier? Or more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter in the face of the things you see on the news?

Terrorists were never just movie villains and 9/11 was not the first attack on the innocent, but it was indeed a horror, and for some the first of its kind to occur near home. The cold organization of this franchise group of terrorist cells (I'm not putting the name on my blog. I don't want to forever be visited by crazies) whipped into hysteria by religious fervor and masterminded by someone who made murderous use of our penchant to divide the world into 'uses and thems' chills my blood. The attack undermined us by placing us in a state of fear and anger. Not only were the terrorists manipulated, we were too. I find that sad and I struggle against it. I am sad too for all the people who lost someone they loved. It still sends a jolt through me to see that big hole in my city's skyline. So how can it not affect what I read?

I was teaching acting for opera performance a few days after the attacks, when classes resumed, I asked my class - 'so, what is it like to be a performing artist today?' The responses were so various - those for whom singing finally found meaning, another said she started smoking and couldn't stand what she did. We ended up building a performance of poems and songs about the experience of daily life in New York following 9/11 which was presented a few months later and again on the first anniversary of the event. We ended up using language and music to express those many experiences the event provoked for us, more than just fear, rage, and sadness - awareness of our own racism, a desire to celebrate our city, and a desire to hide away in comfort. Each experience found its poet or composer. So a lot of my reading in those weeks following the decision to make the piece was poetry - Mary Oliver, Frank O'Hara, W. H. Auden, Shakespeare. Poets are good for that kind of thing. There is something about the non-literalness of the language - it's the polar opposite of reporting and I was sick of reporting. Explanations coming out of the heat of the moment are rarely nuanced, and usually wrong, so I steered clear of explanations.

I wasn't big on spy novels or terrorist plot thrillers before so it didn't change my habits too much in that department. And I still enjoy thrillers in the movies - as long as they don't get too close to the actual events, then I find myself rolling my eyes. Something about being literal seems, in light of the actual events, to fall short when someone tries to make it into a movie. I found I had a hard time watching the first episode of Lost with the plane crash. I found myself not wanting to read anything political whatsoever. I read fiction. I see, looking at my diary, that I bought The Corrections - I remember reading that. I read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and some Arturo Perez-Reverte and Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. I also went to the theater, movies, and opera a lot - I saw the operas Wozzeck and The Return of Ullysses, a theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet and Strinberg's The Dance of Death. Hmmmm, a lot of cheerful stuff. I did see the movie Zoolander and the latest Harry Potter movie and Amelie too. I vividly remember seeing a show of Giacomett's sculpture at MOMA. I remember it because of how the skinny drippy figures frozen in an abstract landscape seemed to me like bodies in the city frozen in time and that image became important for me in creating the visual language of the song and poetry piece which we entitled Spring Will Come Again. I went to the arts alternatively for comfort and perspective, it seems.

I find since that I hate political writing or reporting, I like lots of historical persepctive, a bare description of events and -basta. I'll draw my own conclusions, thanks. And I loathe the concocting of symbols for recent events. It's manipulative and takes advantage of our need for explanations when we are not ready to make them. It's fake. I'll take my symbols in the arts where they belong. I want complexity and nuance in my understanding of behavioral motivation and I've read for that more than ever since 9/11. I notice I also read Stella Adler's book on acting around then. She's a good for teaching the work it takes to understand people and their relationships to events in all their complexity.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

An opera of The Fly, Woody Allen does Puccini, Hepburn Spits, and Twyla Scratches

Another 24 hours and I may actually be able to read something - have a class presentation today. In the meantime, what do you get when you cross a Hollywood horror film with twelve-tone music? It's an opera of The Fly. The baritone gets buck naked, the soprano lets her breasts be fondled and Antony Tommasini in the Times has his underwear completely in-a-knot. Only in L.A. The production has its own website. No... really. And if that's not enough, the L. A. Opera has also hired Woody Allen to direct Puccini's only comic opera - Gianni Schicchi. I'm not kidding. Allen describes it as "funny compared to Tosca, not funny compared to Duck Soup." He continues, "I'm not the greatest choice in the world for this, but I'm doing my best, and hopefully nobody will get hurt." I hope we can say the same of The Fly, as an actor walks on the ceiling. Apparently the days of Monserrat Caballe - the generously proportioned Spanish soprano - choosing to walk off the stage "like Queen Victoria" at the end of Tosca rather than jump from the parapet, as written, are over.

If that wasn't enough of the movies, Sheila has a wonderful post about Garson Kanin's memoir of Hepburn and Tracy. Fabulous story about Hepburn's last day working on Suddenly Last Summer. And Sarah S. is eating up Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit - I liked it too - and if you read it, you may have an idea about how to have a more creative day than mine. Or at least you will know how to scratch.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Shimmery, refractory, disconnectedness (Books - The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio)

Sreenwriter the next story in Charles D'Ambrosio's volume of stories The Dead Fish Museum is a seriously bleak little tale.

How was I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private? My first suicidal ideations occured to me when I was ten, eleven, twelve, something like that...

With an opening like that... In this story, a bipolar screenwriter meets a depressed dancer who has a tendency to burn herself and, despite whatever the diagnostic manual says they are, they spend some time as human beings trying to reach each other. This story is beautiful for its humanity, people, even serious sick ones, are more than their diagnoses. This story is built on an idea, offered as an image:

"Here's my idea for your next screenplay," she said. "Sirens are going everywhere. People are weeping. It doesn't really matter where you are, it's all black. You can't open your eyes anyway."

"What are you saying?"

"And there's a donkey marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean. A volcano is erupting on the island and rivers of hot lava are flowing toward the donkey. In addition, all around the small island is a ring of fire. What would you do?"

I considered the possibilities. "I don't know."

Smiling, she said, "The donkey doesn't know, either."

The next time I think my life is bad, I think I'm going to remember that image. I found that this story had a couple of gorgeous images, and some fabulous writing, but was ultimately too desultory for my taste. Granted that may reflect the narrator's state of mind, but it didn't move of-a-piece to or from its notion. There were so many disconnected jumps and starts that I found my interest waning, only to be brought back by some incredible sentence like:
Everywhere I went, he went, creeping along a few sedate paces back in soft-soled shoes, a shadow that gave off a disturbing susurrus like the maddening sibilance settling dust must make to the ears of ants.

Holy cow: soft-soled, disturbing susurrus, sibilance, settling dust must, and then dust with must, and also sedate, shadow, disturbing, dust... Being inside that sentence with the noise of its sibilances, rhymes, and alliterations must be a little like being mad!

Here's another of those images, as incendiary as the other:

Her voice had no affect and its deadness sat me right back down on the bench. She turned away and flicked the wheel of the lighter, cupping the cigarette out of the wind. A paper plate rolled as if chased, around and around the patio, like a child's game without the child. A white moth fell like a flower petal from the sky, dropped through a link in the fence, and came to light on my hand. The cooling night wind raised gooseflesh on my arms, and a could of smoke ripped into the air. The girl's down was smoldering. A leading edge of orange flame was chewing up the hem. I rose from my seat to tell the ballerina she was on fire. The moth flew from my hand, a gust fanned the flames, there was a flash, and the girl ignited, lighting up like a paper lantern. She was cloaked in fire. The heat moved in waves across my face, and I had to squint against the brightness. The ballerina spread her arms and levitated, sur les pointes, leaving the patio as her legs, ass, and back emerged phoenix-like out of this paper chrysalis rising up until finally the gown sloughed from her shoulders and sailed away, a tattered black ghost ascending in a column of smoke and ash, and she lowered back down, naked and white, standing there, pretty much unfazed, in first position.

My god, what writing - even better the third time than it was the first and second. I guess that's the beauty with short stories. This particular story would not hang together as a novel, at least not one I would read. But I was happy to immerse myself in its shimmering, refractory disconnectedness for a half hour and have the kind of experience I would not be likely to have any other place but in this idiosyncratic and loving collection of stories.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Unconscious and other side efffects of that asshole, Freud (Books - Side Effect by Adam Phillips)

Side Effects is a book I have ended up reading completely by accident, which is very appropriate given its thesis. I'll get to that in a moment. Its author, Adam Phillips is an English psychoanalyst and essayist who reflects on the tenor of his age through narrative - the individual narrative of his patients, and the more public narrative of literature - and, in the case of this book, the very existence of those tools: literature and psychoanalysis, and what their existence has to say about how we live. My god is his writing erudite. Energetic prose that is precise and instructive and that bubbles like white water:

Both the patient and the analyst are the recipients of these side effects, of all the things said and implied and unintended and alluded to as the patient speaks as freely as he is able, and begins to understand the ingenuities of the censorship he imposes on himself. Free association, what is said by the way, what is said as aside from the matter in hand, what is said 'off topic', is where the action of meaning and feeling is. In this picture digression is secular revelations, keeping to the subject is the best way we have of keeping off the subject, of speaking up without speaking out... Psychoanalysis as a form of therapy works by attending to the patient's side effects, what falls out of his pockets once he starts speaking... Undergoing psychohanalytic treatment, entering into what the French psychoanalyst Lacan called 'the psychoanalytic opportunity', is, rather like reading a powerful work of literarture, a leap into the relative dark. No one can ever know beforehand the effect it will, or indeed won't have (reading Goethe - perhpas unsurprisingly despite George Steiner's famous astonishment - didn't make the Nazis kinder).

What fantastic writing. I was listening to a radio interview with some contemporary spiritual guru and self-help author on NPR one weekend and the writer Adam Phillips was mentioned somehow in passing, but I took the speakers to mean Arthur Philips, whose novel Angelica I had just borrowed from the library. I happened to be ordering books on line at that very moment and so I entered the name I had heard and Adam Phillips books of essays came up. Talk about unintended side effects! Oh fortuitous accident. Since I am obsessed with the metaphor of character in literature and theater as a stand-in for the phenomenon of self, and I'm also pretty much smitten with the omnipotence of narrative in our lives - whether as stream of thought, as therapeutic tool, or as the medium of the books I so treasure - this book is really doing it for me.

Let me make clear that though the author is a psychoanalyst and observes that process and its attendant phenomenon, and although Harper Perennial has kindly classified the book in the genre of psychology it is NOT a self-help book. I hate self help books. I would never write about one here (hint, hint authors and publicists who send me emails). He is an observer. He is a writer. He is not dispensing advice. John Banville compares him to Emerson (on the book's cover, natch), and I believe he does the same for himself if I remember correctly what I read after midnight this morning. What I am marvelling at right now is his ability to find coherent language for what the process of psychoanalysis really is.

In actuality psychoanalysis is everything that is said about it, and not merely the preseve of its critics and devotees. It is only ever going to be as useful as anybody finds it to be. And any individual, or indeed any culture, that wholeheartedly endorsed it - that treated it as a myth rather than a fiction, as a religion rather than a set of tools, as a consolation rather than an affront - would not really have recognized what it was. Psychoanalysis asks us to reconsider the unacceptable, in ourselves and in others; in our personal and cultural histories, in our desires and thoughts and feelings and beliefs. And at the same time it asks us to wonder why we should want to do this; whether it can get us the lives we would rather live. And it has to acknowledge that asking oneself such questions - which can be done only in conversation with others - is not, and nver has been, high on most people's lists of pleasures. And there could be no self-evident reason why it should be. As a form of moral enquiry psychoanalysis asks what, if any, alternative there are to scapegoating; and what our lives would be like if there were.

That last sentence is pellucid without being glib, gorgeous. His first chapter is adapted from a lecture he gave on Freud. I am so tired of the demonization of Freud - though I'm not surprised by it. He's read by most people in early 20th century translation from German (certainly by me). His writings are read as advice rather than as observations of his self and others, written in a very narrow cultural context. People read a specific cultural observation as self-help and then criticize the writer for being inacurrate, mysoginist and a tyrannical. Well ok, he was all those things, but good readers understand metaphor when they read it in literature and his fantastic powers of observation apply themselves readily to other contexts and, moreover, usefully if they can be read for what they are - literature - and interpreted. His reflections on desire, sexuality, jealousy, and fear made use of the icons available to him - like Oediupus and Electra - they are useful if you want to look for symbols to embody cultural patterns of behavior seen over and over. I wonder who he would use now? Madonna? Clinton? The reaction to him is not surprising, given how arrogantly his narratives read and that his subject matter was about the very things people would rather bury. What a culture of certainty was that man's world in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and how his writing relfects that! He's intollerable. But the man's ideas pervade our culture and our language - ego, drive, unconscious. Tell me with a straight face that sex (and other hungers), death, fear, and ambition are not major cultural drivers in individualistic Western society. Tell me that most of us don't go through periods of wanting what we don't have. The guy invented the unconscious for chrissakes, a notion that pervades our very idea of ourselves. A notion that fills our films, novels, and television programs, even though people eat, pray, exercise and take pills to try and forget it. Are you going to throw the lightbulb out because you find out that Edison was an asshole?

The unconscious, which is Freud's word for the desire of childhood, and the history of its formation - a desire so enduring, so prodigal in its ingenuity, and so extravagent in its claims - is the stumbling-block that is Freud's most wonderful invention. The act alone of describing that which is at once irresistible and that one most resists - whether or not 'it' exists - is a great folly, an act of linguistic heroism. but is is in Freud's desire to describe how what he calls the unconscious works - both its provencnace and its wayward logic - that his special claim on us makes itself felt. Our desire, Freud suggests, is always a work in progress, unfinishing and unfinishes; and so is Freud's lifelong account of the unconcscious.
His notion was a work in progress, says Phillips, as is our own notion of our own unconscious desires, if we choose to think we have them and then to explore them. Side Effects as a whole covers more ground than Uncle Siggie. That is just one twenty-page essay. Phillips is looking at psychoanalysis and literature through a much broader lens and so far shows himself to be a marvelous interpreter, an astute observer our of culture, and a crack writer. I can see that I am really heading into some juicy territory and am relishing it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Keeping up with the Joneses

btt button

Suggested by JM:

I was looking through books yesterday at the shops and saw all the Twilight books, which I know basically nothing about. What I do know is that I’m beginning to feel like I’m the *only* person who knows nothing about them.

Despite being almost broke and trying to save money, I almost bought the expensive book (Australian book prices are often completely nutty) just because I felt the need to be ‘up’ on what everyone else was reading.

Have you ever felt pressured to read something because ‘everyone else’ was reading it? Have you ever given in and read the book(s) in question or do you resist? If you are a reviewer, etc, do you feel it’s your duty to keep up on current trends?

Maybe I'm a snob. Probably. But I have the reverse reaction - if everyone else is reading it, I'm sure I will never like it. There are a few people's opinions that I trust and when they say - you have to read this - then I do. So when I saw everyone and I mean everyone was reading Audrey Nifnegger's The Time Traveller's Wife - those little girls legs with the knee socks and Mary Jane's were on every lap on the subway - I thought why bother? It can't be good - it's popular. But when, about two years, later, an avid reading friend couldn't believe I hadn't read it (because - hadn't everyone?) and had gone on and on about how great it was, then I picked it up. I don't care if everyone else does it, has it, or has read it (I haven't owned a television since 1988), that doesn't make it good. In fact, if something is too popular it's likely mediocre because appealing to common taste brings everything down to what is most average and safe. This is probably some kind of defense mechanism left over from being "different" from the mainstream through my whole childhood, but now I feel it makes me much less susceptible to commonly held opinion, more resistant to hype or advertising. It makes me encounter each experience critically and listen closely to decide whether it's a thing I want, an opinion that represents me, a book I would enjoy reading, a product I really need to buy. What does pressure me into reading a book, and this is usually with "great" books - i.e. Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses... is greed. Greed for knowledge. When select critical readers I know (like Sheila) have read something and have found value in it - basically I think a great book gives you a new way to see the world - then I get greedy for that information. I am a greedy pig for knowledge. And not all these readers have taste that I think of as a perfect match for mine. I'd say Sheila and I have a great many things in common, but we have some real differences too and our life experiences are in no way spitting images of each other. But that is precisely why I value her suggestions. I would never have read Ryszard Kapuscinski, for example, if it weren't for her! I have to keep up with certain minds but not with the Joneses.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Vastly differing approaches to the vanities of two men (Books - The Dead Fish Museum & Middlemarch)

I wrote yesterday about the contrasting experiences of reading Charles D'Ambrosio's contemplative, urban stories and George Eliot's sprawling 'Study of Provincial Life.' Last night after studying I read a little in each. D'Ambriosio's story Drummond & Son concerns a father who owns a typewriter repair shop and his schizophrenic son.

Hardly anybody used typewriters these days, but with the epochal change in clientele brought on by computers Drummond's business shifted in small ways and remained profitably intact. He had a steady stream of customers, some loyally held over from the old days, some new. Drummond was a good mechanic, and word spread among an amerging breed of hobbyist. Collectors came to him from around the city, mostly men, often retired, fussy and strange, a little contrary, who liked the smell of solvents and enjoyed talking shop and seemed to believe an unwritten life was stubbornly buried away in the dusty machines they brought in for restoration. His business had become more sociable as a growing tribe of holdouts banded together. He now kept a coffee urn and a stack of Styrofoam cups next to the register, for customers who liked to hang out. There were pockets of people who warily refused the future or the promise of whatever it was computers were offering and stuck by their typewriters. Some of them were secretaries who filled out forms, and others were writers, a sudden surge of them from all over Seattle. There were professors and poets and young women with colored hair who wrote for the local weeklies. There were aging lefties who made carbons of their correspondence or owned mimeographs and hand cranked the ink drums and dittoed urgent newsletters that smelled of freshly laundered cotton for their dwindling coteries. Now and then, too, customers walked in off the street, a trickle of curious shoppers who simply wanted to touch the machines, tapping the keys and slapping back the carriage when the bell rang out, leaving a couple of sentences behind.

Drummond had worked at the shop with his own father and now, with his son's illness and the disappearance of his wife, he brings his son to the shop. However, with his son bursting into disconnected monologues about umbrellas as sculpture and dropping to his knees to pray in the middle of crowded streets, he is unlikely to become the "& Son" part of this generation of the business. Drummond, like his customers, is a holdout because of love. He, too, is refusing the future. His is a clumsy and somewhat desperate love, but it is love just the same. D'Ambrosio renders this entire little universe with sweet precision in about 20 pages. A beautiful and sad story.

In about half that number of pages, Eliot delivers to us, the history of Lydgate, the young physician who comes to Middlemarch hoping to made an important discovery in the field of anatomy. But first she begins with an observation on the path of the ambitious:

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till on day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions...Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures.
Here is the path of all vanity, she seems to say, and the paragraph could be merely devastating - the death of life's dreams. But then at the end, she comes in with a little barb, making both herself as writer and us as reader complicit in the failure of their ambition through our ordinariness. Brilliant! Lydgate, it seems, has a plan to avoid such a failure:

Does it seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer? Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who "Broke the barriers of the heavens" - did he not once play a provincial church-organ, and give music-lessons to stumbling pianists? Each of those Shining Ones had to walk the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame: each of them had his little local personal history sprinkled with small temptations and sordid cares, which made the retarding friction of his course towards final companionship with the immortals. Lydgate was not blind to the dangers of such friction, but he had plenty of confidence in his resolution to avoid it as far as possible: being seven-and-twenty, he felt himself experienced. And he was not going to have his vanities provoked by contact with the showy worldly successes of the capital, but to live among people who could hold no rivalry with that pursuit of a great idea which was to be a twin object with the assiduous practice of his profession. There was fascination in the hope that the two purposes would illuminate each other: the careful observation and inference which was his daily work, the use of the lens to further his judgement in special cases, would further his thought as an instrument of larger inquiry. Was not this the typical pre-eminence of his profession? He would be a good Middlemarch doctor, and by that very means keep himself in the track of far-reaching investigation.

One of the things I enjoyed about reading these two excerpts about struggling men side by side is that D'Ambrosio gives us only the barest essentials about Drummond's circumstances, a short paragraph about his business, a scant sentence about his departed wife, mostly we watch his behavior in the shop and on the streets of Seattle with his son. Eliot not only gives a detailed narrative about Lydgate's history, analyzing his reasons for his behavior (which we have not seen, but rather heard about), she gives us this behavior in the context of "the multitude of middle-aged men" and of "great originators." Yet both render whole characters before us, bringing them to fuller life, both build whole recognizable universes in which these men live, both elicited emotions from me, the D'Ambrosio is a more first-person sort of experience, let us say empathetic, whereas the Eliot is a more third-person type of experience, I feel sympathetic although I do have to crack a smile with her knowing quip at the end, that excludes me, the reader, from being as vain as Lydgate by classing me as a conformist and already a failure. I can't over how meanly clever that is. I have really enjoyed noticing on this last reading how similarly astute each writer is in their vastly different approach to the simple vanities of two men.