Saturday, November 29, 2008

Heaven, the graveyard, love and ambition in Thatcher's England (The Graveyard Book, A Matter of Life & Death, My Beautiful Laundrette)

I'm still emerging from a haze of butter fat and imagining that I am unlikely to eat any poultry again for the rest of 2008. Too much was had by all this thanksgiving, but everyone seemed to have a good time of it as the festivities went on for eight hours. It's probably my fear for the state of my arteries that has me reading Neil Gaiman's new young person's novel, The Graveyard Book. As usual, Gaiman has created a dark universe. In it a mysterious man in black, name of Jack, tries to murder an entire family for an as yet unknown reason. But the toddler escapes to the graveyard where the spirits decide to adopt and raise him. I have gotten barely a chapter in, but the characters are richly imagined and the book starts with the crack of a killer opening sentence.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
Hmmm, turn the page or no? It creates a fun contrast to A. S. Byatt's Possession on which I'm taking my time and have nothing new in particular to report.

We also watched a couple of movies this weekend. A Matter of Life and Death made in 1946, was written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It features David Niven, Raymond Massey and Kim Hunter, and tells a marvelous story about a fighter pilot who manages to escape death on jumping from his plane without a parachute. This turns out to be an "error," but he is granted a trial by jury in heaven in which he can fight for his life. It's a charming and well written piece and seems to unwittingly be the part of some theme for me this weekend!

My Beautiful Laundrette written by Hanif Kureshi and directed by Stephen Frears came out in 1985 and was then a startling film. It is in some ways an innocent mess - awkwardly edited, produced on a shoestring, stiffly written and delivered - but is ambitious in the range of societal themes it tackles and its intentions shine through nonetheless. It takes on the racial tension between lower class whites and Pakistani immigrants in Thatcher's England. Critical of all - the poor hoodlums on-the-dole who taunt and attack the ambitious immigrants, the ostentatious, equally bigotted Pakistanis slumlords. Kureshi and Frears also made Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and then Kureshi made London Kills Me with himself directing. This trio of movies are all scathingly observant critiques of racial and class-based tensions in England through the 1980s and 1990s and make an interesting trio to watch. But although My Beautiful Laundrette is the roughest, in some ways it is the most, well, beautiful. Omar, the clueless child of Pakistani immigrants, eschews university and wanders London with nothing to show but ambition and a lovely smile. His mother has died and his father, once a brilliant journalist, gives up on life, pickling himself in vodka and longing for the old country. The papa is played with love and intelligence by Roshan Seth. Omar's uncle is an avaricious businessman, who gives the boy a chance to run a delapidated laundrette and prove himself a worthy heir to the family business empire. Omar pairs up with his childhood friend, Johnny, played by a young Daniel Day Lewis, and the fun begins. The film has no plattitudes to offer. No one group or one character is the good guy and the other the bad guy. This film reaches to tell a complex story about greed, class, race, and love. I remember well the first time I saw the film because it was the first gay story I ever saw that was not about AIDS and not about sex, but instead about two boys who lived complicated lives in the context of family, community, and personal ambition, and also happened to love each other. Gordon Warnicke, who plays Omar, is not done any favors by the green filmmaking. I've never actually seen him do anything else to learn whether he is any good as an actor. But Daniel Day Lewis is quietly charismatic - acting on, in, and around the lines. Always alive. It is striking to see this film along with another film with the young Daniel Day Lewis that came out at exactly the same time - Merchant-Ivory's A Room With A View, the adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel, in which he played the priggish Cecil. Truly a brilliant film. I first saw the two films in the same week, and Day Lewis is so completely different in them I didn't even know it was the same actor. Watching the two back-to-back makes for a starkly contrasting pair of films.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I have some interesting new reads on the horizon:

Irishman Barry McCrea has written a literary coming-of-age novel set at Trinity College in contemporary cosmopolitan Dublin called The First Verse. A gay student is lured into a cult like world of obsessive literary mysticism, as an escape from the workaday world "of strange games and secret systems," as he and his friends discover who they are and what kind of life they would like to create for themselves. The writing seems fluid and elegant and the plot very engaging. An enticing recommendation from Eve's Alexandria.

I have tended to be more a fan of Neil Gaiman's books for younger readers than his books for adults despite his prodigious imagination. I enjoyed Coraline way more than Neverwhere, which I couldn't even finish. So when Dewey went on enthusiastically about The Graveyard Book, I decided I'd give it a try. I always like to read at least one YA adventure over the winter break and a child raised by the spirits of a graveyard sounds just the thing.

I heard about The Scientific Life - about the practice of contemporary science and from whence it came - at Books, Inq. Here is an in-depth interview with the author, Steven Shapin, from University of Chicago Press's website which will give you a much richer idea of this book's contents. Even the book jacket quotes are dense paragraphs in small print. No sound bites here. The journey from philosophy to research to entrepreneurship.

I don't remember where I read about it, but Travis Holland's The Archivists's Story is a fictionalized story about the last days of Isaac Babel, the author of Red Cavalry, which I am reading right now. Babel is in Stalin's Lubyanka prison, soon to have his final writing 'purged' by archivist Pavel Dubrov. I don't how much of this story is true. I do know that many of the stories in Red Cavalry were published in magazines when they were written in the 1920s, but there may be other writings, or perhaps this author imagines that there may have been but we will never get to read them. But this is historical fiction set in Stalin's Russia and I'm a Russian history geek, even though I have been neglecting that interest lately. So I thought I would give it a go.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dream states (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

A. S. Byatt is brilliant at creating dream states. Her novel Possession, is set in the halls of academia, Victorian literature to be specific. A scholar finds the draft of a letter between poet Randolph Ash, the subject of his graduate dissertation, and Christabel LaMotte, a poet and writer of fairy tales, which suggests that the two writers knew each other. A fact previously unknown. The poems and diaries are re-read looking for confirmation of this new fact. The feminist scholars who owned LaMotte as a recluse and lesbian become ruffled. The Ash men who envisioned their poet a stick-in-the-mud raise their scholarly eyebrows.

Here I am reading another novel where the author gets a chance for literary role play. I seem to have read two other's in succession. Tobias Woolf's Old School and The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. The second even had the Victorian era as its setting! Perhaps this is not a coincidence. Any poems, letters, diaries or stories by either of the two poets in Possession are Byatt's creation. She is really a marvelous mimic while simultaneously being a good writer, and here she writes about good writing besides:
...But poets don't want homes - do they? - they are not creatures of hearths and firedogs, but of heaths and ranging hounds. Now tell me - do you supposed what I just wrote is the truth or a lie? You know, all poetry may be a cry of generalized love, for this, or that, or the universe - which must be loved in its particularity, not its generality, but for its universal life in every minute particular. I have always supposed it to be a cry of unsatisfied love - my dear - and so it may be indeed - for satisfaction may surfeit it and so it may die. I know many poets who write only when in an exalted state of mind which to compare to being in love, when they do not simply state, that they are in love, that they seek love - for this fresh damsel, or that lively young woman - in order to find a fresh metaphor, or a new bright vision of things in themselves. And to tell you the truth, I have always believed I cd diagnose this state of being in love, which they regard as most particular, as inspired by item, one pair of black eyes or indifferent blue, item, one graceful attitude of body or mind, item, one female history of some twenty-two years from, she we say 1821-1844 - I have always believed this in love to be something of the most abstract masking itself under the particular forms of both lover and beloved. And Poet, who assumes and informs both. I wd have told you - no, I do tell you - friendship is rarer, more idiosyncratic, more individual and in every way more durable than this Love.

Without this excitement they cannot have their Lyric Verse, and so they get it by any convenient means - and with absolute sincerity - but the Poems are not for the young lady, the young lady is for the Poems.

Fantastic stuff. Byatt, of course, writes the poems as well. Just a bit of one here.
Deep in the silence of drowned Is
Beneath the wavering precipice
The church-spire in the thickened green
Points to the trembling surface sheen
From which descends a glossy cone
A mirror-spire that mocks its own.
Between these two the mackerel sails
As did the swallow in the vales
Of summer air, and he too sees
His mirrored self amongst the trees
That hang to meet themselves, for here
All things are doubled, and the clear
Thick element is doubled too...

As I am reading the novel and come to a stanza or two of verse, I am sometimes compelled to want to skip it and get back to the business of the plot, but everything Byatt puts in our path is necessary. This poem, for example, read by our young scholar, after having been given it by Maud Bailey. He (and by extension we) read the poem's three stanzas and just a page later drive home in the car with Maud Bailey. We, the modern reader, read of a contemporary (fictional) scholar reading a Victorian poet, whose subject is a mythical Breton city in ancient Pagan times. So each reader in their time is transported to an earlier one, and if each writer (in fact all Byatt) have done their job, that sense of transportation will be enveloping and complete.
She drove through the park, much of which had been planted by that earlier Sir George who had married Christabel's sister Sophie, and had had a passion for trees, trees for all parts of the distant earth, Persian plum, Turkey oak, Himalayan pine, Caucasian walnut and the Judas tree. He had had his generation's expansive sense of time - he had inherited hundred-year-old oaks and beeches and had planted spreads of woodland, rides and coppices he would never see. Huge rugged trunks came silently past the little green car in the encroaching dark, rearing themselves suddenly monstrous in the changing white beam of the headlight. There was a kind of cracking of cold in the woods all round, a tightening of texture, a clamping together that Maud had experienced in her own warm limbs as she went out into the courtyard and cold ran into her constricted throat and pulled tight something she thought of poetically as the heartstrings.
I just love that passage because the world of the poetry is still lingering in this reader's mind from a page earlier, just as that same poetic world is occupying Maud's mind as she drives her car home. That is why a ride home circa 1990 in a car requires such elegant verbiage. I love how a phrase evoking an earlier style of writing "rearing themselves suddenly monstrous" combines with "in the changing white beam of the headlight" It's just like a dream, using what is presently in mind to create an altered state. Writers role play isn't just a way for Byatt to display her talent. She is creating the twin universes of her novel and wants to encourage a parallel state of mind for her reader with regard not just to their contemporaries, but to the relationship between those contemporary scholars and the writers who have become the driving purpose of their lives' work.

Dream states. She creates others but perhaps I'll save them for another day.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eating a novel (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

When the two women in Roland's life, Val - the girlfriend more of habit than of passion - and Maud Bailey - a colleague in literary scholarship at a women's study program in Lincolnshire - prepare him dinner, you know who they are and where he stands with each of them.
When he got home that evening he could smell that Val was in a mood. The basement was full of the sharp warmth of frying onions, which meant she was cooking something complicated. When she was not in a mood, when she was apathetic, she opened tins of boiled eggs, or at most dressed an avocado. When she was either very cheerful or very angry, she cooked...

Val put before him grilled marinated lamb, ratatouille and hot Greek bread. He said, "Shall I get a bottle of wine?" and Val said, disagreeably and truthfully, "You should have thought of that some time back; it'll all go cold." They ate at a card-table, which they unfolded and folded again, after.
Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, awith an emphasis on animals and insubordination.
The first meal is middle class, domestic, heavily seasoned, labored-over. The second is whipped together with some thought but not too much preparation, is lighter, composed of simple piquant flavors - fish, crisp apples, the bite of a blue cheese - and doesn't permit a pause in the conversation, which is about each scholar's interest in a poet named Christabel LaMotte. Each meal is redolent with pertinent character detail, but also forwards the plot, and A. S. Byatt dispatches them in a few rich, choice sentences. Possession, which I am re-reading for the first time since it was published around 1990, is full of writing which shows, hints, and evokes rather than simply tells. She relishes the job of letting the details of the character's everyday living and the writing of the poets they study expose the story little by little. Relishes it like good food.

I must admit, if an author dare to write about food, I pay attention. I don't necessarily mean write in great detail of exquisite meals as did A. J. Liebling or M. F. K. Fisher, whose writing I love since I love good food. But I mean including the sensoral details of quotidian existence and including them as the story. As a way to tell the story of who someone is, how they lived on their way to meet somebody and do they deeds that form the plot of our story. Surely they washed, dressed, travelled from point to point in the course of this story - and surely, if they are still living after a few days, they ate. I love when storytelling is skilled and rich enough to weave its cloth of life instead of considering plot a departure from it, occassionally dipping in to describe something since, as a writer, they know they must to earn our belief. This is what good French film does with such skill, and is why I like it so much. People brush their teeth, have to actually park their damned cars in a spot not conveniently sitting in front of the building they will enter for the next plot point, and they eat. If an author dares to write about food with any detail then I pay attention because a) they have to really do the work of imagining themselves in exquisite and intimate detail into the life of someone to know what they'd have in the house, buy at the market, enjoy eating themselves, or think of preparing for someone else; b) they have to take the risk of having a sensory experience for us which could, rather than deepening our involvement in the story, take us right out of it if we find their experience too different from our's or wrong in our estimation for the character's. It's like writing about listening to music. It can be merely descriptive and boring, or we can have a reaction like 'the Libera Me in Verdi's Requiem isn't... fill in your adjective here.' Or c) because I enjoy the smells, tastes and textures of food and wine enough that the writing of it serves as a barometer. If I want to eat, it's good.

I want to eat.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama, the opera!

Hilarious - I try to steer clear of politics here but I think this is good fun no matter where your's are, especially if you're an opera fan. From Mr. Eugenides blog - Obama! the opera.

Tell me your story...

Regular readers already know that I am obsessed with people's personal narratives and the value of their telling. There is a great organization called Story Corps which has booths all over the United States where you can go to interview a friend or loved one and elicit their stories. You get to keep the recording and a copy is also archived with the Library of Congress. They also have various special initiatives when they focus on getting stories of particular groups like the Griot community, or gathering the stories of people who are losing their memory. A National Day of Listening has been declared on November 28, the day after the American Thanksgiving (and so a day off for most Americans, except me). They have declared this as a day to get the story of someone you love or admire. As this is typically a day off from work and around family, it would be a good opportunity to get a story from a family member or loved one, but friends and mentors would be fair game too. You can do this at home, or at a local community center. They provide the details. I'd like to extend that invitation to you. You can conduct the interview in person, you can sound or video record it. You could also do a long-distance interview in writing. The Story Corps website offers instructions if you want some help getting started. I suppose you could even post about the experience on your blog if you wanted to. Showing interest in others by listening is an act of healthy curiosity, of respect, of love. It is of great value both to you and to them. So next Friday, get someone you're curious about to tell you a story.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Noir gumshoe in 1970s Los Angeles and other odds and ends (Film - The Long Goodbye)

We are edging toward the final weeks of the semester, and may I just say one word - cuh-ray-zee - so we will all be lucky if this is coherent.

Made a stop at normblog after learning about him from exlibris who was profiled there recently. He has an impressive selection of blogger profiles which I much enjoyed. I love to eavesdrop on other people's lives a phrase which always makes me think of the opening sequence of the film of Ordinary People , the first film directed by Robert Redford. Have you seen it? The camera comes down a street, passing by houses in an average American suburban neighborhood, peering suddenly into the window of one and then moving magically through that window into the house? Wonderful sequence.

Speaking of movies, we had Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould out from the library this week and watched it a few nights ago. Altman is a structured but improvisatory genius, a style after my own directorial heart, so I have always loved his approach to film making. This film makes barely a nod to 1930s noir, despite the fact that it might be fair to say that the Bogart/Howard Hawk's film of The Big Sleep, another Raymond Chandler novel with detective Phillip Marlowe, fairly defined it. This gumshoe is stuck in 1970s Los Angeles, definitely a man out-of-place, as Chandler's Marlowe is. That is the thing I like about this movie. It is faithful to the themes of the book and the experience of the characters but not slavish or imitative of the iconic film that preceded it. Though there is no noir to be seen, this man's world is black as can be. He drives his friend Terry Lennox to the Mexican border and is then hounded by the police for aiding Lennox in escaping prosecution for the murder of his wife, and is hounded by a crime syndicate loony who is sure Marlowe has the substantial sum of money owed him by Lennox. In the meantime he is hired by the wife of a famous writer to find her disappeared, desperate, alcoholic husband played with brio by Sterling Hayden a fine contrast to Elliott Gould's Marlowe, who he understatedly plays as a decent guy, wise-cracker, with no delusions about himself. Altman gets this incredible grimy sense of verismo in this film. The camera work and the personal interplay, feels totally accidental and utterly real. It most evokes for me Joan Didion's bleak novels, also set in 1970s California. Altman also has a lot of fun with the theme music - a song by John Williams and Johnny Mercer that is played in ten different guises - by a local Mexican orchestra, twinkled on the piano by a bar tender, played on the car radio as a popular song of the day... a fun conceit. If you're not familiar with this film, it's worth a look.

And last, but certainly not least, I have begun a re-read of A. S. Byatt's Possession, yes Sheila, I know it is one of your favorites. I am barely fifty pages in and am taken with her observant, whimsical eye for character and the elegance of her prose. Perhaps after The Meaning of Night I wanted to continue in the fictionalized scholarly vein. Also, as the pressures of papers and finals bear down, I want a quality of writing good enough and a world compelling enough to absorb me completely.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Strong feelings make strong writing

btt button

Suggested by JM:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review. Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don’t like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

This question dovetails nicely with last week's question about buying versus borrowing books. As I said, I value books and the people who create them. This blog should be fair evidence of that fact. But I have been a theatre artist for years and once you have made your work and put it out there for the world to look at, guess what? You do not control how your audience will receive it, what they will think or feel about it. That's up to them. Everyone has an opinion and I know that it is not nice to hear negative ones, but you will. If you're an artist and the thing that motivates you is other people's approval of you, I hope you have a lot of money for a good therapist. You're not five years old anymore. Mommy might have put every scribble you ever drew up on the refrigerator, but I'm not your mommy.

This is my blog. Mine. If I think something and feel like writing it here I will. You may imagine me as your marketing tool but that is not my function. My space. Not yours. Frankly, part of the issue, though, is bloggers. There are bookey folk out there who blog because they want free books and some of them act more like a marketing vehicle than like serious readers whose opinion is worth reading. I get a lot of requests for my blog to become a marketing vehicle for books. I reply to a very small number of them and almost always to professional publicists and not to writers themselves. I ask clearly for their expectations and I tell them clearly that this is my blog and I will only accept their book if they accept that I will write whatever I want. I will not check it with them. I will not temper my opinion. My blog. Mine. Sometimes the issue is just naivetee. I can often tell from an email I receive just how green a writer is (at least I imagaine I can) and I generally won't go near their books. I know it's hard to make something and then hear negative things about it. Early on most artists have not yet learned how to buffet themselves from the onslaught of opinions, or how to ignore them, or how to redirect their attention usefully. Someday, perhaps I will give them therapy. Right now I don't want a part in the understandably big feelings that are tied up with getting their book out. But honestly bloggers - you don't have to accept every book that is thrown your way. You can actually chose which books you accept and be clear in your email about the terms on which you accept them. Mine are simple. I don't tell you what to write in your book, you don't tell me what to write on my blog. What's confusing about that? I don't have to post disclaimers of any kind because my blog is not a request machine for review copies, happy as I am to receive them. My blog is a place where I try to write about themes I see in what I read and, more occasionally, what I see in the theater, what I learn about in the scientific world, or some general phenomenon in our culture. I usually am trying to think seriously (posts on World Toilet Day aside) and critically about the quality of what I see and to be part of the greater discussion that is the blogosphere. I'm part of a larger dialogue. I try to be clear about the bases of my opionions and I assume if my posts aren't what you're looking for that you won't read me. I hope if they are what interests you, that you will read them and even more, that you will comment and have a direct dialogue with me about it.

If you are a writer and want me to write about (market) your book, you may not be receiving money for the copy but it is not without cost for me. I am giving you hours of my time in reading it and in writing about your work. I am not getting paid for that time as a reviewer would, In addition I am giving you free real estate on the world wide web. Your name, your book's title, its themes can be googled by someone and more posts can show up because I wrote about it. Hopefully you have taken the trouble to read me and have not blindly bought some list of literary bloggers and sent a mass email to everyone on earth. And if I'm not for you I hope you won't request me to write about your book. If you are doing a mass-market approach and trying to drum up as much buzz as possible, then know that negative opinions are buzz too. My advice is - don't read your reviews. Let other people do that. You will have a lot of strong feelings around putting a book out into the world. Strong feelings are good fuel for making art. You're a writer - why not write something from them?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Honour not the malice of thine enemy so much as to say thy misery comes from him (Books - The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox)

I have finished Michael Cox's Victorian thriller The Meaning of Night in one final tense, tearing-through-the-pages sitting. Even with all the mysteries revealed as I started the final 200 pages, Cox still has some surprises to throw our way. As they were uncovered I literally winced with agony for our poor anti-hero. My jaw was clenched. I should have gone to sleep but I just had to know how it would all turn out. In addition to a great mystery, there are some wonderful libraries filled with old books, there is a good love story, the sense of period style is masterful but doesn't feel like an exhibit or a joke, it has integrity.

I won't spoil any plot details by telling you that there is a scene of childhood memory toward the end of the novel in which our hero remembers being a child and another child taunting him by stealing and destroying his favorite book. It is an agony to read. I wanted revenge on his behalf. Finally, I think that was Cox's larger point - creating
a meaningful story about the cost of having an enemy. The desire for revenge can rule one's life - and the very act that proports to assuage one's anger may only stoke the fire. Or as Cox's book is fond of quoting Donne:
Honour not the malice of thine enemy so much, as to say, thy misery comes from him...
This is a vastly entertaining read, thanks Katherine. Here are my other posts on The Meaning of Night 1, 2, 3.


I love this. Today is World Toilet Day. No... really. And it's sponsored by the World Toilet Organization, pay attention to those initials...WTO? There are some great jokes about the world economy in here just waiting to get out. The only way this is not a laughing matter is if you don't have one, a toilet that is, not a joke.

Hat tip: Morning Edition, National Public Radio

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is laughter the best medicine?

When is it ok to laugh? I remember everyone asking this question right after 9/11. When would it be ok for the late-night television joke-writers go back to work? In today's Science Times a psychiatry resident writes thoughtfully about the use of humor with patients.
If this were a friend or colleague, I would laugh easily. But this is a patient I barely know. He has bipolar disorder, a previous suicide attempt and a history of bizarre, impulsive behavior. In the context, his joke just feels inappropriate and overly familiar...I quickly glance around to take stock of the room. The nursing assistant laughs and the anesthesiologist grins broadly. The attending psychiatrist remains stone-faced and says, "Clearly he's improving."
"Laughter is always the best medicine" may be a familiar cliche, but that does not necessarily transfer into advice one can take into the trenches in every case. As a future clinician I always find these personal narratives about patient care fascinating. Maybe Dr. Brody should just play this for all his patients.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blood lines and books (Books - The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox)

**SORT-OF PLOT SPOILER** There is probably someone out there with a good explanation for this: why do so many Victorian era stories hinge on lineage - cradle switches, people who are not who we think they are, and the like? I wonder if it's to do with Darwin or if it preceded his writing? Does anyone have a theory? Lineage certainly plays a key role in the plot of The Meaning of Night.
I had taken the decision to abandon my given name of Glyver, except of course with respect to those few, like Le Grice and Tom Grexby, who already knew me. It was not mine by birth but was a kind of alias, imposed on me, without my knowledge or consent by others. What loyalty did I owe the name of Glyver? None. Captain Glyver was not my father. Why, then, should I bear his name? I was who I was, whatever I chose to call myself; and so, until I could redeem my rightful name and title, I would put on whatever pseudonym suite my present purposes. My whole life would be a disguise, a daily change of dress and character. I would inhabit a costumed world, entering now as one character, now as another, as circumstance demanded. I would be Incognitus. Unknown.
The actor's fantasy! Do you know that when Dustin Hoffman was working on the film Tootsie (if you haven't seen it - see it. It is so much fun) he actually went out to lunch with someone - I think it may have been Sidney Pollack - to try out his female character and see if he he would be recognized? This idea of name, of blood, as identity is in one way an extension of the institution of class. One was born into ones class and traversing those blood lines was tricky business. This is an English story, born of a country with a royal family and a parliament, containing a House of Lords. So certainly pedigree takes some precedence in a different way than it would in a country founded on Whitman's creed of the individual:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself...

But in Michael Cox's wonderful story it is lineage that drives our narrator's sens of identity and it is reclaiming what he believes to be his lineage that gives him and the plot of this book its sense of purpose.

Another pleasure of this novel, is that our narrator and at least two other characters, are obsessed with books and in particular collecting rare books. One key twist in the plot has already hinged on a rare book. Another important character has a collection of rare antique erotic books. A third lives at Evenwood - the estate of the lineage in question - which houses a private library of immense size and value. Cox's descriptions of the library take up whole chapters and are a delight to this bibliophile. I am buried deep in the plot of this book now and it has me by the scruff of the neck.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A chinese box of a revenge novel, with footnotes (Books - The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox)

Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night is one of those books that invites comparisons. Maybe that's because it delights in playing with form, in this case the 19th century English saga of love, intrigue, and revenge. From the pages and pages of review quotes, critics also seemed to think so - Trollope, the Brontes, Wilikie Collins, Charles Dickens - I'll add two more to that list - Donna Tartt and Dostoyevski. Dostoyevski, and in particular, Crime and Punishment, because if this is a story of anything, it is a story of obsession. Our author is so dedicated to avenging the wrongs done him by his mortal enemy, that the first pages are devoted to an act of senseless murder that is a rehearsal for the eventual real one. The anonymous author's identity, we discover, is buried beneath layers of obfuscation aided by Cox's Chinese box structure for this book. As I wrote in my last post, the story is couched as an anonymous confession, written in the 1850s but discovered in 1948. It features a 'copy' of the original title page, an 'introduction' by an academic authority on Victoriana, and the story is liberally footnoted. The revenge our author seeks is against an old school chum who is, in the present day of the manuscript, a famous writer. This gives Cox the additional pleasure of providing some of the backstory of the relationship between our narrator and his erstwhile friend in the form of a memoir written by this friend. So while the first part of the book is by our narrator about the friend, we now peel back a layer and are offered a chapter about our narrator written by the friend. Supposedly. If we trust our narrator's sanity, and at this point I am beginning to doubt it. As our narrator says:
The boundaries of this world are forever shifting - from day to night, joy to sorrow, love to hate, and from life itself to death; and who can say at what moment we may suddenly cross over the border, from one state of existence to another, like heat applied to some flammable substance? I have been given my own ever-changing margins, across which I move, continually and hungrily, like a migrating animal. Now civilized, now untamed; now responsive to decency and human concern, now viciously attuned to the darkest of desires.
That is a pretty fair description of our narrator's state of mind, and our's if Cox is getting his way with us. His game is creating a delicious puzzle of read. Take this paragraph immediately following the manuscript by said writer/enemy/friend and future victim:
A touching account, is it not? And I am naturally sensible of the encomia that he has seen fit to bestow on me. We were friends for a time: I acknowledge it. But he come the litterateur too much - seeing significance where none existed, making much of nothing, dramatizing the mundane: the usual faults of the professional scribbler. This is memory scrubbed and dressed up for public consumption. Worse, he exaggerates our intimacy, and his claims on the matter of our respective intellectual characters are also false, for I was the careful scholar, he the gifted dabbler.

This playful little game is the aspect of the book that reminds me of Donna Tartt, that and the fact that it is keeping me up nights. This is the first book I have read in a while which creates in me that need to read just one more page, and then just the next chapter, and then next. I am nearly 200 pages in now, and more than 100 of them I read last night. The night before an exam on synaptic modulation by second messengers. What was I thinking?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I am large, I contain multitudes...

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I’ve asked, in the past, about whether you more often buy your books, or get them from libraries. What I want to know today, is, WHY BUY? Even if you are a die-hard fan of the public library system, I’m betting you have at least ONE permanent resident of your bookshelves in your house. I’m betting that no real book-lover can go through life without owning at least one book. So … why that one? What made you buy the books that you actually own, even though your usual preference is to borrow and return them? If you usually buy your books, tell me why. Why buy instead of borrow? Why shell out your hard-earned dollars for something you could get for free?

Why buy? A timely question as we approach the holidays during a recession - says the cynic in me. But I do buy. I love the library, but I love the bookstore more. I grew up using the library. I still use it for DVDs of films, for purely recreational reading, like most mysteries or thrillers. I recently read Christine Falls by Benjamin Black aka John Banville. That book came from the library. I don't read all that many mysteries and I don't tend to value most of them for their writing as I do other genres (although that was an exception). I'm just munching on them like snacks; I don't go to them for nourishment. I am planning to try a few novels of John Updike's that were mentioned in a recent review. Some of his earlier books are no longer in print and when I have tried to read his work before - buying a second-hand copy once in a shop - I didn't care for it and ended up re-selling that book. So in trying Updike on for size, I am going to use the library. But if I end up liking what I read, I will more likely buy future Updike novels.

I buy books because I value books and by extension the people who create them. I worked as a theatre artist for 23 years, (and may yet have some more blood in me). I always resented people simply expecting free tickets - do they expect free appointments at the dentist or free groceries? What I do as an artist (even the fun stuff) is serious, deeply considered, full of purpose and at times sacrifice, as is any other worthy pursuit. If my culture values it they should pay for it. That is how we show what we value in the American marketocracy. I love books. I prize what they contain as well as how that is fashioned in both a word-follow-word way and in terms of greater structure, voice, point-of-view. I marvel not just at the talent (whatever that is) that goes into their making, but also at the scholarship, the industry, the persistence, the ingenuity, the pieces of self that go into writing a good one. The people who do that work should be paid for it. So should those whose industry supports the producing and dissseminating of books.

I am curious about the world and am an information junkie. I want the information that most intersects with my interests at hand. I am particularly partial to people and their narratives, so I love fiction, drama, and biography. If I have enjoyed a book and gotten something from it, I want it around me. Partly that is so that I can refer to it again. Some books I might go to again for information, others for comfort, sustenance or inspiration. When I directed theatre and opera I needed Anton Chekhov, Clifford Odets, and Horton Foote around me. When I acted and taught I needed the books of the great acting teachers. I needed the biographies of the great composers, directors and actors whose stories could give me something to aspire to, remind me of what was possible, or what is valuable. They are my context. My history. If I do theatre, I build upon the foundations they laid. But also, I want the simple pleasure of their company. Each book contains a whole world in it. I can look at their spines and smile or sigh as I partake of that world again by reference as I pass.

The variety of my interests and they way I apply my intellect to them is a driving force behind my personality, for better or for worse. In that way my home library is also identity constructing. The books around me are part of the narrative of who I am. They house me, they add certain colors and textures materially to my environment, they lend me support, comfort, and provide the information that my work requires that I have at hand, but if they are my context, they also project that context to anyone who sees them. My house if full of shelves and those shelves are full of books because I am full of what they contain. That is who I am. 'I am large, I contain multitudes.' So said Walt Whitman, and so say the books that surround me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell - guru or parasite? & Is the notion of genes just a lot of baggage?

Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) has a new book - Outliers - about what makes a superstar - genes? happenstance? 99% perspiration? Some think he is a pop-psych guru, he thinks he's just a parasite, according to a New York Magazine profile by Jason Zengerle.

Hat tip: Books, Inq.

And speaking of genes, what an awful segue, today's Science Times devotes itself to the subject.

Article on RNA interference - proteins are supposed to be the foundation of what happens in our body. Many proteins are the switch for whether a gene facilitating a certain process is "turned on" or "turned off." Our RNA provides a template for the construction of proteins. This process would not try to destroy proteins once their made but instead would inhibit their formation altogether.

Carl Zimmer writes informatively on The Rest of the Genome, which includes a good primer on terminology you might see tossed around in reading about the latest genetic news in the popular press - genome, chromosome, intron. The article addresses the fact that although the decoding of the genome was announced in 2000, that covered only the parts that carry the information for encoding proteins, leaving nearly 99% of gene as terra incognita. Now what?

Natalie Angier's shorter article is my favorite of the three. She explores the more philosophical side of the subject. If genes don't account for every cell in the body - what does?
Scientists are also learning that many of the gene-free regions of our DNA are far more loquacious than previously believed, far more willing to express themselves in ways that have nothing to do with protein manufacture.
Historian of science, Evelyn Fox Keller says that the language of genes is a holdover from chemistry and physics:
The language is historical baggage...It comes from the expectation that if we could find the fundamental units that make stuff happen, if we could find the atoms of biology, then we would understand the process.

But the notion of the gene as the atom of biology is very mistaken...DNA does not come equipped with genes. It comes with sequences that are acted on in certain ways by cells.
Most of our understanding of science likes to reference common structures. Atomic structure is like the solar system, crystal structure is like tinker toys, and we love to anthropomorphise the mechanisms of pretty much everything in the body. Neurons are said to "talk." The brain's processes are described to resemble thinking. RNA is said to "read" sequences of amino acids encoding proteins. This article says that if we try to reduce a gene to something we already know, we may never understand its complexities.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Disturbing the universe (Opera - Dr. Atomic by John Adams & Peter Sellars)

American composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars have created an unlikely hybrid in Doctor Atomic - an abstract documentary opera on the creation of the atomic bomb. A documentary because it is based on actual occurrences and people. Abstract because while it focuses on the days approaching the testing of the bomb at Los Alamos, it is less a linear story than a collage. It uses projection and sculpture, going back and forth from the daily activities at Los Alamos to the interior monologues of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading physicist on the project, and his wife Kitty, and includes two poems - one a sonnet of John Donne's and the other Muriel Rukeyser's Easter Eve 1945. These varied components hang together on a score strongly consistent in temperament and sonority. Opening each of the two acts act is a recorded soundscape evoking the period and atmosphere of those days - bits of radio, sounds of machinery, jeeps driving around the dessert, the thunder storms that plagued the testing schedule. But this gives way to Adams orchestral music, which is brash, solid, evocative and intense. Modern textures mix with beautiful lyrical lines. You know what century you are in and you can feel the disturbance in the universe that is the theme of this work.

The Manhattan Project led to the development of a bomb that worked via the fission of the uranium atom, splitting it into small parts to cause the release of tremendous amounts of energy. Some also call it the birth of “Big Science.” The destructive force of the bomb was meant to be unparalleled, but once unleashed it would literally mean that humans could destroy everything. J. Robert Oppenheim, may have been a leader of the project, but he was also a voice of conscience. Quoting the Bhavagad Gita he wrote “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Once accomplished, this disturbance in the physical structure of the universe would leave the world a less stable place. While our increased knowledge would facilitate victory in war, it precipitated a world with political and humane problems never before contemplated. Dr. Atomic is a meditation on disturbance at these multiple levels and is beautiful in its sensitive expression of conscience and appropriately unsettling.

The production, directed intelligently by Penny Woolcock, is strong on story-telling. She is master for using people and things on stage to make our progress from event to event clear. There is none of the Met's typical sloppiness and nineteenth century stage clich├ęs of people getting up on boxes to sing solo lines. Stage action was human and necessary. However Ms. Woolcock was less adept in her ability to develop the vertical line of the piece - the point in soliloquoy or aria when time’s literal progress stops and the inner workings of a person’s mind or soul unfolds before us. Here is where theatre engages in a little “quantum physics” of its own, defeating the typical laws and time and space, travelling in a way that memory and imagination allows. In these equally important moments of Dr. Atomic Ms. Woolcock seemed to have left the performers to their own devices. They became unrooted, and frozen in general attitude. It was a shame because the score and libretto in Kitty's Oppenheimer's scene in Act II were crazily inventive and an opportunity for complex internal conflict expressed with challenging music. An Act I scene meant to develop the Oppenheimers relationship, and the only time we see them together, was strangely disconnected and made unimaginative use of a silly choreographed dance rather than having these troubled human creatures connect to their love, or their pain in its absence, their feelings of inadequacy, or their feelings about anything at all. A more thoughtful development of the character of Pasqualita - the Oppenheimers’ housekeeper - might have helped sustain our interest in her long aria that opened Act II. The production seemed to want to use her as a spiritual symbol of the indiginous culture of New Mexico and perhaps stand for the parts of Los Alamos history that were more respectful of nature, but between desultory staging and textual references to vishnu and the trinity, I couldn't figure out what was intended.

Otherwise the production was strongly satisfying. Its physical elements were creative, functional, and a pleasure to look at. The Met chorus was used as an effective narrator and their performance was uncharacteristically precise and energetic. The role of J. Robert Oppenheimer is written with wide ranging emotional and musical tessitura. Gerald Finley's performance was human and involving, and his singing sumptuous. This was particularly apparent in the aria that closed Act I, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, chosen because it inspired Oppenheimer to name the bomb test site Trinity. It was the highlight of Dr. Atomic’s lyrical side. The writing of this opera was effective in not burying the story either in the development of technology, or in sentimentality for our lost innocence. The structure of the piece, building to the Trinity test, drummed up tension in the final ten minutes that really made my heart pound. As a whole the opera was thoughtful about human responsibility in the face of our ever increasing knowledge and movingly resonant, even topically so, but not preachy.

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,' and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet, dearely'I love you,' and would be loved faine,
but am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thought and language, revenge and alienation (Books - Thought and Language & The Meaning of Night)

Lev Vygotsky was an influential psychological theorist who worked from the 1920s - 1930s in Russia. I know of him only as the mentor of the great neuropsychologist A. R. Luria who wrote the amazing story The Mind of a Mnemonist. This week my advisor loaned me one of Vygotsky's books, Thought and Language, hmm I wonder why I would be interested in that. I've just been reading the introduction by Alex Kozulin which, although it is written pedantically and with an excess of jargon, is the only biography of this fascinating man I know of. Sadly, he worked only 10 years before dying, not in one of Stalin's gulag's - that was my first guess - but of tuberculosis.
A student of literature, philosophy, and esthetics, Vygotsky plunged into psychology at the age of twenty-eight, and died of tuberculosis ten years later. A prodigal reader, he felt equally at home with commentaries on Shakespeare's tragedies, the philosophy of Hegel, and clinical studies of the mentally retarded. A profound theoretician, he was also a man of practise who founded and directed a number of research laboratories, including the first Russian Institute for the Study of Handicapped Children. As Stephen Toulmin so aptly remarked, Vygotsky carried an aura of almost Mozartian giftedness. And yet he lived in times that were hardly favorable to Mozarts.

Evidently he wrote a book in 1925 called The Psychology of Art, as it is about my two intertwined fields and was written our of life in Russia in the 1920s, I have got to get my hands on a copy. Kozulin observes, and I may paraphrase:
Vygotsky never believed that psychological inquiry should be considered as a goal in itself. For him, culture and consciousness constituted the actual subject of inquiry, while psychology remained a conceptual tool, important but hardly universal.

Vygotsky was primarily interested in the development of language in its relation to thought. Language and speech occupy a special place in his s psychological system because they play a double role. On the one hand, they are a psychological tool that helps to form other mental functions; on the other hand, they are one of these functions, which means that they develop in the context of one's culture.

Vygotsky observed that preconceptual, and even mythological thinking not only is characteristic of children and the mentally ill, but also forms the basis of the everyday, normal reasoning of adults.
I need another book to read, as my mother would say, like a hole in the head, but I am finding it fascinating and can comfort myself that it is school related even while I am really just reading it to enjoy myself.

I also began The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox yesterday evening. I needed an entertaining and cozy read and Middlemarch was not going to do it. The hyperbole that grace the cover of this 2-inch-thick paperback compare Cox to Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and the Brontes. Cox is a scholar, writer, and editor of literary Victoriana and burst onto the scene with this fictional work of his own a couple of years ago. It skillfully evokes his period of expertise while not falling prey to becomming an exhibit. It is little wonder so many readers have raved about The Meaning of Night if the first fifty pages are any indication.

Take the opening:

After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.

It had been surprisingly - almost laughably - easy.

And then a short while later:
For you must understand that I am not a murderer by nature, only by temporary design and necessity - a justified sinner. There was no need to repeat this experimental act of killing I proved what I had set out to prove: the capacity of my will to carry out such a deed. The blameless red-haired stranger had fulfilled his purpose, and I was ready for what now lay ahead.
The budding psychologist in me says, 'yeah, right.' And so Cox establishes the driving force of this mock-Victorian epic of revenge. What I am enjoying most are the rituals Cox has created to seduce you into the world of his tale. The story is couched as an anonymous confession, written in the 1850s but discovered in 1948. It features a 'copy' of the original title page, an 'introduction' by an academic authority on Victoriana, and the story itself is liberally footnoted. While this might break the stream of one's reading to offer contextual information on the one hand, these footnotes, whether truthful or invented, are themselves part of the fictional universe. Its a theatrical framing device - like Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect. Hard core Brechtians might claim otherwise, but I have always found that attention to the artifice is useful in drawing an audience more deeply into the universe of the fiction because, if even the interruptions are part of it, one's belief becomes more imperterbable. It is the opposite of asking the audience to suspend one's disbelief - it rather invites one's belief. "Here is a manuscript," says the author. "Here are the circumstances under which it was discovered. I am the man who found it." This is all fiction. And then, as you read, up pops the frame - "Don't forget that this is a story," say the footnotes, but in the meantime the fact that this is a novel by a contemporary writer named Michael Cox has been buried three layers beneath the artifice of the frame. It is a device I have enjoyed using in my theater and opera productions because it doesn't take the audience's faith in the fictional world for granted and also because if the creator is imaginative, these devices are fun for the audience. This reader is certainly enjoying the way Cox has invited him into the world of The Meaning of Night at any rate.

The Ragazzo and I are off to the Met this afteroon. Doctor Atomic is by contemporary American composer John Adams and is about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atom bomb. I've been looking forward to this one.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Living as variously as possible (An Inflorescence - Mark Doty & Frank O'Hara, poets)

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.

This Friday sees an abbreviated version of my occasional poetry series An Inflorescence (see my side bar), today featuring contemporary New York poet Mark Doty whose own site I found in a round about way via Books, Inq. a new favorite place.

He has Frank O'Hara's gravestone, pictured on his website, which was reason enough for me to linger

"Grace to be born and live
as variously as possible"

Indeed. I am a rabid O'Hara fan, as you may know - 1, 2, 3, - I have read some of Doty's poems before, but only noticed today in Signal, which he posts in full on his site, how evocative he is of O'Hara. Not in form, Doty is more formal, as in 'adhering to form' as opposed to 'featuring repressed subject matter,' and I like that in a poem. Look at the orderly vertical column of paired lines in Signal.

LOST COCKATIEL, cried the sign, hand-lettered,
taped to the side of a building: last seen on 16th

between Fifth and Sixth, gray body, orange cheek patches,
yellow head. Name: Omar. Somebody's dear, I guess,

though how do you lose a cockatiel on 16th Street?
Flown from a ledge into the sky he's eyed

As with O'Hara, he takes modern colloquial trademarks and plays with them by formalizing them as poetry. Here the abbreviated language one would find in a sign becomes the quick, blunt rhythm of New York City. He "letters" the poem, with caps and italics, as the sign would be lettered - a sort-of meta poetry. His diction is colloquial as is O'Hara's, using phrases like "Not likely" or conjunctions like "everybody's." This poem has two other O'Hara-esque features - one is a sense of humor, though with its own Doty-ish character, being less breathless, more refined, than O'Hara. Here is an excerpt of O'Hara's Steps:
...where's Lana Turner
she's out eating
and Garbo's backstage at the Met
everyone's taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and park's full of dancers with their tights and shoes in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we're all winning
we're alive

A little crazy, it sounds like he just ran up a flight of stairs and he's bursting to tell you what he saw, and yet it is soooo good.

The other wonderfully O'Haran thing Doty does in a way totally his own is create accidentalish quality to the language that makes me feel as though he wrote it there on the street on a tiny scrap of paper so he wouldn't forget it. This casualness is belied by both the poem's form, as well as the thoughtful journey it takes (on the subway, actually) but it is one of the features that marks the poem of its time and place - my time, my city - in a way that I adore in O'Hara and and now in Mark Doty's work too. The poem is inherently readable and there is pleasure in appreciating its surface qualities. Yet, if you do a little work, it reveals more - complexities of structure, word play, urban images, artistic references... all sorts of fun. Dive in if you're game. Here's the whole poem.

Happy Friday. I'm off to an exam on neurotransmitters.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bookish Gifts

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What, if any, memorable or special book have you ever gotten as a present? Birthday or otherwise. What made it so notable? The person who gave it? The book itself? The “gift aura?

Four immediately flew to mind. For my graduation from college, one of my housemates (still a close friend) gave me a second-hand, two volume set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. They are a large format, hardcover 1943 edition, illustrated, with the text in two columns on the page, pictured above. Lovely books, very substantial, curl-up-by-the-fire editions. One of my other housemates gave me my Riverside complete Shakespeare, which I still treasure. The third was Sheila's gift to me of Chris van Allsberg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I loooove this book. It is in a large, children's book format and consists of black and white drawings which are of identifiable things - people, objects, a ship, etc... - but their content is provocatively ambiguous. On the facing page is a single sentence, adding mystery rather than clarity. They are wonderful to read before going to sleep - great dream fodder - but my main use of them has been for various structured improvisation exercises with my acting students over the years. I have traveled everywhere with this book. It's dust jacket is now, well, dust, and the binding is all torn up. A well-loved favorite. Finally, one of the first presents The Ragazzo gave me was a soft-cover copy of Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Flander's Panel, which I think I had already owned but hadn't read. So now, of course, I have two copies. His early mysteries are great fun.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

America makes good on its promissory note

As regular readers know, I don't do politics here, but I will do a little history followed by a little psychology. Our economy may be in the pits but Dr. Martin Luther King's promissory note may have finally been honored with the election of Barak Obama. The bank of justice is not bankrupt. From I have a dream... to this in forty-five years. The reason I think it bodes well for my country is not because Democrats have defeated Republicans, but because Americans showed that they can adapt as the world becomes different. I don't think anyone should wait that long for equal treatment under the law, especially here, but history is probably not on my schedule. We did not change easily, nor did we change quickly but we did adapt and change - that is one of the chief indicators of psychological health. It gives me hope of other changes to come. "We cannot turn back."

Here is Dr. King's 1963 speech, how does it read to you today?

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Curiosity did not kill this cat." - Studs Terkel

We voted at 6:45 this morning and there were lines already. People are passionate about voting in a way I can't remember seeing since McGovern vs. Nixon in 1972. Turned on the radio on returning and there were not just the expected exit polls, but also exit stories - people speaking of what was happening at their polling place or who they voted for. It seemed a fitting tribute for Studs Terkel who died just a few days ago at 96 years of age. Terkel was a Chicago radio broadcaster and the Pulitzer Prize winning oral historian of America. He collected the stories not just of the illustrious, but of the common man (or woman), starting with his book Working in 1974. It told the stories of America's workers, how they ended up with the job they had and what their working life was like, or really more than that - how it felt to do the work they did. It was later turned into a decent but somewhat pedestrian musical. I tried to find a link to a song or two on YouTube, but it was all tinny-sounding home videos of high school productions. Terkel collected stories on many themes of American life throughout the century - the Depression, the so-called American dream, World War II, race, faith, and aging. I think of his work as the inspiration for Story Corps, the booths that have popped up around America, where folks can tell friends or family their story, preserve and archive it. He made the collecting of the stories of ordinary people a serious pursuit. I see narrative as central to the human condition in more than one way. For one thing, it is the way that the bunch of cells called our 'brain' makes up that construct we call our 'mind.' I am a devotee of the value of the narrative for building and mainting a healthy self as well as for sharing the essence of one's self with others, which is the ways bonds are forged between people in families, friendships, and society at-large. Studs was a monument to the value of having simple curiosity in other people. A most admirable and respectable trait. As he put it, "curiosity did not kill this cat."

I link to Studs's own site above on his name, it has a bio and radio clips, as well as summaries of his books. Here are obits from The Guardian, BBC, The Chicago Tribune, and The Times.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Worldly readers...

I got one of those little map thingies (see side bar). I thought it would be fun to see where you all came from (it was). It looks like I have a little work to do on Greenland, The Congo, and Kamchatka.


A wonderful, painful remembrance of David Foster Wallace - his struggles with writing, with meaning something, and with depression - from Rolling Stone by David Lipsky.

Hat tip: Judith Fitzgerald at Books, Inq.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Remembering electric sheep (Books - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick)

Following my re-read of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said just a few weeks ago, I decided to give another of Philip K. Dick's books a second look and began Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep before going to sleep. If the man could do nothing else, he can sure come up with a title. This 1968 sci-fi thriller is set in what is now the not so distant future, 2021. Post apocalyptic earth is littered with fallout and houses only the portion of the human race that has not emigrated to other planets. In addition, there is a race of androids and our hero, Rick, has been hired to "retire" some of them.

Two features of Dick's imagined future stand out to me - Rick and his wife each have something called a Mood Organ, on which one can dial-up to regulate ones hormones and neurotransmitters to produce a specific mood either on-order, or one can pre-program a schedule.
"I'll dial what's on my schedule for today." Examining the schedule for January 3, 2021, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. "If I dial by schedule" he said warily, "Will you agree to also?" He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.

"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression," Iran said.

"What? Why did you schedule that?" It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. "I didn't even know you could set it for that," he said gloomily.

"I was sitting here one afternoon," Iran said, "and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big new item he's about to break and then that awful commercial came one, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound...At that moment," Iran said, "When I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn't feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful the we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting - do you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect.' So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair." Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. "So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who's smart has emigrated, don't you think?"
Mental illness was on of Dick's obsessions as a writer. As I mentioned in my review of Flow My Tears... Dick may be imagining the future, but his real subject is his own present. Mood altering drugs were less sophisticated in the 1960s but no less available. There were accepted varieties for one class - Valium, alcohol, nicotine, barbiturates - and a different sort for those outside the mainstream - marijuana, LSD, etc... And complete control of one's every mood seemed not such a stretch, for a future 50 years hence. Indeed, today we can and do control mood and consciousness with drugs ever more subtly. In some ways this is much to our advantage - better anesthetics, better drugs for schizophrenia and depression. And in others there are still those of us who are harboring fantasies of being cured of all feeling and any difference we have from others.

The second feature of Dick's imagined 2021 I was struck by was his version of keeping up with the Joneses. It consists not of coveting thy neighbor's car or television but instead, their animals. In his imagined world, people aspired to own animals - people of means owning the larger farm animals and letting them graze on the roofs of their skyscrapers. Those who could not afford a horse or sheep, could either settle for ordering a mouse or a cricket, or they could purchase android animals (hence the 'electric sheep' of the title).

This novel was adapted for the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. This is my second reading of the novel and I saw the film as well, but right now I am not remembering very many specifics of the plot, although I have some vague hints. Perhaps we could work on those drugs for memory...