Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year's reckoning...

I have completed Saul Bellow's novella The Actual which brings this year in at 70 books.

21 written by women and 49 by men
60 written in English and 10 in other languages
A scant 4 were non-fiction and the rest fiction

My thoughts on The Actual will follow tomorrow, right now I've got to get the food ready for our guests! Happy New Year. I hope you ring (or have rung) it in with gusto.

Lies, both historical and domestic (Books - The Archivist's Story by Travis Holland)

Pavel, a literature teacher in Stalinist Russia, loses his job after assisting a student to denounce a fellow member of the faculty, and gets himself hired as the archivist at Lubyanka, where those accused of crimes against the state were often imprisoned. Many of those thought of as a threat to Stalin and his killing machine were writers. Pavel finds himself asked to interogate one of his favorites, Isaac Babel.
Pavel says, "I've been asked - ordered - to clear up a discrepancy in your file. It's just a formality."

"What sort of discrepancy?"

"A manuscript my supervisor happened upon while reviewing your file. A story. Quite a remarkable story. There's no record of it in the evidence manifest, which means it can't be officially attributed to anyone, yourself included. Which means, officially speaking" - Pavel shrugs uncomfortably - "it doesn't exist. As I said, it's just a formality. If you could perhaps take a look, tell me if you recognize it. Can you read without your glasses?

Obviously Pavel is not a man born to carrying out interrogations. During the course of the meeting, Babel and Pavel find out they have something in common besides their love for a good story.
"I promised her we would see each other again," Babel says. "Will they let her visit me, do you think?"

"I don't know."

"I wouldn't want my last words to her to be a lie."

"Of course not." Come with me, Pasha. Please. To which Pavel had replied: I will see you soon. His last words to Elena. The memory is enough to drive Pavel from his chair - he cannot face Babel. At the bureau he sets down his tea glass, then thinks, I wish I had gotten on that train.

As if picking up on this, Babel asks, "How did your wife die?"

"She was on her way to Yalta. The train derailed."

"An accident."

"The police suspect it may have been sabotage. Something laid across the tracks." Pavel must gather himself before continuing. "From what I was told, she was thrown from the carriage when it broke apart." A pumpkin, Pavel thinks: The image has stayed with him all these long terrible months, the line of wrecked carriages split innocently open like pumpkins on the snow. It is easier to envision this than to confront the images Pavel has repeatedly driven from his mind. Elena spilled out in the filed; Elena in the back of a truck, wrapped in a sheet; Elena at the mouth of the crematorium, the tray beneath her trembling on it castersa s the morgue attendant pushed her into the fire.

"I can't imagine people intentionally doing that, " he says. "Can you?"

Babel stares bleakly down into his glass. "You've read my stores," he says finally, looking up at Pavel. "Your colleagues, when they came to arrest me at my dacha, they dragged my wife along. Did you know that? They made her knock on the door. In case I resisted. Can you imagine how she must have felt, to have to do that?" An edge of bitterness has crept into Babel's voice." You are not the only one who has lost his wife."

Pavel turns away. A sob rises in his throat and is out before he can stifle it. For a moment he is overcome with a desire to sweep the samovar onto the floor, to knock his empty tea glass and the tin flying - the temptation is so strong Pavel must clutch his hands together, forcing them down.

"They shouldn't have taken your glasses," he says quietly.

The result of this meeting is that Pavel finds the story in the archives and sneaks it out of Lubyanka. Woven into Travis Holland's The Archivist's Story this story are many additional plot threads - Pavel's mother is suffering from health problems, the question of his wife's remains, an elderly neighbor and her pet pug, a former teaching colleague - all more or less domestic issues - through which we experience how individual lives in Stalinist Russia were impacted by the politics. The central action of the novel comes down to the question of what kind of man Pavel is. Is the the kind who will return Babel's story to the archives and save his skin, or the kind of man who will keep it for himself and perhaps others to read for its beauty?

Pavel becomes paranoid, resembling another great Russian literary criminal, Raskolnikov. He greatly fears being found out and is repeatedly interrogated himself by a superior officer in scenes that Travis Holland has written with great intensity and well imagined details. That is what largely characterizes this brief exciting novel - good attention to detail, some scenes suffused with great tension, and others dealing with simple human loss, experienced by most human beings. This is all set on the eve of the second world war, and the question of whether Germany would break the pact it formed with Russia and invade Poland. Holland has used these historical events in such a way that the promises and lies on a domestic level are mirrored by the promises and lies on a national level and, somehow, when Germany finally does attack Poland (something I know to have happened as an historic fact), it seemed surprising as it must have at the time to many Russians. Travis Holland's prose is straightforward, and his sense of history skillfully integrated with an involving plot. An excellent novel for my penultimate read of the year.

If I can manage to finish Saul Bellow's The Actual by midnight, that will bring me to 70 books for the year. It's a short book, but we have a lot of party prep to do, so I had better get cracking.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A year's worth of openings...

This also from Matt. A nostalgic look back at the past year's posts via the first lines of my first post of each month. I sometimes add a few more lines for context:

Eleven humans and one dog rang in 2008 at our house (sans the ball on tv).

About 100 pages in to The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley I realized that I am now reading two books about adulterous relationships (Heat and Dust being the other). Hmmm. I'm sure Dr. Freud would have something to say about that.

Imani's first annual Outmoded Authors Challenge wrapped up yesterday. I challenged myself to read six books by four authors. Unfortunately, I never got to two of them. (This seems to be the story of 2008's challenge reading for me!)

In Divisadero the writing is not like writing, it's more like being led down a path blindfolded and you are willing to be led.

The process of adding years to our lives and coming to points where our years of experience outweigh our years of possibility. Hopefully we feel like some of that experience has made us wiser and yet not so wise that we can never be surprised. The disappointment or contentment we feel with life seems caught up in the balancing act of those two components. We take our measure of them in the little things of life like being able to garden, doing our shopping independently, feeling needed. That seems to be the subject of the first section of Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection of stories - Unaccustomed Earth.

Displacement. The other-worldliness of picking up your family by the roots and transplanting them somewhere else because over-proud religious or national factions have decided that they no longer wish to live with the inconveniences of others. Sasa Stanisic reveals the hypocrisy of the adults who teach children that they should share, the religions that teach children they should love thy neighbor, and who then make life impossible for each other because it is too much damn work for them to understand others not exactly like them. It seems to me that his fantastical novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is not fantastical because the writer thinks it will be interesting but rather because it is the form that best expresses the fantasmogorical nature of being a refugee, of trying to adopt a new country, a new language, of missing the food traditional to your homeland, of wondering whether those you left behind are still alive.

I found myself irritated by an article in today's Science Times by Benedict Carey about a neuroscientific imaging technique called diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) that we are sure to be hearing more about. It was the first Science Times article I have seen to mention this relatively new, hot lab toy so I wish it had been more thorough.

One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness.
I just love this excerpt. The way Brik, the writer in Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project, is surprised into a realization about himself through this little domestic detail. Strong emotion bubbles through this book of alternating plots - the Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who is accidentally shot to death in a moment of panic in the Chicago Police Chief's house in 1908 and is then branded a dangerous anarchist to get the Chief and his family off the hook - and the contemporary writer in Chicago, a Bosnian immigrant, who goes in search of Averbach's story - returning all the way to Lazarus's and his own roots in Eastern Europe.

Appropriately enough, my entire day off yesterday was spent very laboriously - setting up my sleek new laptop. Just a little over 4 pounds and very slim, it required nearly five hours on the phone both with technical support of both the computer and my wireless router -we're a multi-laptop household with one internet hook up and a dislike of wires going every which way - and I'm still not finished figuring out Vista, and the new restrictions Microsoft has put on managing your email. I still have a few hours to go adding all of the technical programs I need for the lab. What price beauty?

I was sad to learn from Mark Sarvas that poet, critic (and tender curmudgeon laureate) Hayden Carruth died this week. Here is the Times obituary and here is my Inflorescence post, which includes a bio, a portrait of him done for the University of Chicago Magazine, and several of his poems including an excerpt from Dearest M, an elegy Carruth wrote for his daughter, and the marvelous Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, as a remembrance.

Tobias Wolff's Old School is a literature lover's dream. I am about three-quarters of the way through this wonderful novel after only a single sitting. It is set at a fancy boys' prep school in 1960, right after the election of JFK. It is narrated retrospectively from the point of view of a former scholarship student and aspiring writer.

I am enjoying the multiple layers of A. S. Byatt's ventriloquism act in Possession. As author not only of a contemporary romance between two scholars, but also of a 19th century epistolary one between the two poets studied by those writers, Byatt then gives herself the additional burden (or fun) of having one of those poets write about a third poet - Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That would be a writer writing about a writer, writing about a writer.

Mr. Shakespeare - a meme

Got this from Matt.

What was your first introduction to William Shakespeare? Was it love or hate?
I watched the Zefirelli film of Romeo and Juliet and the Prokofiev ballet pretty early in my childhood and really enjoyed them. I believe the first full play that I had to read for school was either Macbeth or Julius Casesar. I think the first play I saw live was Twelfth Night. I remember having a fairly hard time with the language but feeling like understanding them was like being a member of a secret society. It was neither love nor hate. I could see how much the plays meant to the adult's in my life and I wanted to be a member of the club. I also remember Francie, the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, being read a page of the bible or of Shakespeare each night, and as I admired her I remember thinking that that was a good idea to do myself.

Which Shakespeare plays have you been required to read?
I think in the course of my schooling I have had to read them all, and many of the sonnets besides. There was a certain point where I switched from needing to have them assigned for a literary or acting class to actually wanting to read them. I now frequently re-read the plays, especially Hamlet and Winter's Tale.

Do you think Shakespeare is important? Do you feel you are a “better” person for having read the bard?
The scope of human experience that he writes of in his plays and the broadness of his appeal - the reach his work has few parallels. I don't think reading any text, great or small, secular or religious, makes you a better person. Your deeds do that. But the range of humanity one is exposed to in Shakespeare and the beauty of many of his works can certainly help broaden one's mind and help give one more insight into oneself and others. When my father died, it was Hamlet that I turned to

Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
Hamlet, A Winter's Tale, and Measure for Measure. Lear is pretty wonderful too.

How do you feel about contemporary takes on Shakespeare? Adaptations of Shakespeare’s works with a more modern feel? (For example, the new line of Manga Shakespeare graphic novels, or novels like Something Rotten, Something Wicked, Enter Three Witches, Ophelia, etc.) Do you have a favorite you’d recommend?
I love adaptations, they don't replace the plays, but over time for anyone who is going to read them, I think they will only increase the notion that the plays have something to do with our lives. I saw a great adaption by my favorite clown troop - 500 Clowns - of Macbeth that knocked the socks off the play. It was molto fun. There are lots of good operatic versions of the plays - Verdi's Otello is pretty terrific.

What’s your favorite movie version of a Shakespeare play?
Kenneth Branaugh's Much Ado with the most lovely Emma Thompson.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Chronicles of our formation (Books & film - Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch & Seven Up)

Had a lovely holiday with the Ragazzo's parents and then made our way back across Pennsylvania over two days, stopping to visit with friends. In that time I finished Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene. For those of you wondering what exactly the Holocene is, as I did, it is the name for the geological era spanning from the Ice Age through the times in which humans created their civilizations. So we are still in it. Frisch's book is an unusual and humane piece of modernist fiction. It chronicles a few days in the life of Geiser, an elderly man living on his own in the mountains in Switzerland. As landslides threaten the safety of his home, so too is his autonomy threatened by the encroaching challenges of age. He is a researcher by nature, and he collects knowledge to build a fortress of security, as though by the assembly of facts he will protect himself from danger. The text in the book alternates between sparse third person narrative and bits of text collected by Geiser - encyclopedia entries, excerpts from books on geology, and notes he has taken. It is fascinating how these scraps of text, each apparently modest in themselves, assemble to form an intimate narrative of man under siege. I don't want to say more specifically what unfolds, as, if the novels holds any pleasure for the reader, it is in the unpretentious surprise delivered by its simple events.

Also to enjoy under the category of simple pleasures, if you have not yet taken in Michael Apted's sociological documentaries of children in Britain starting with Seven Up, when they were seven years old in 1964 and checking in with them every seven years through (so far) 49 Up, filmed in 2005, then I highly recommend them. The series begins by treating the children like real human beings, asking them questions about class, love, education, and politics. They are charming, funny, touching, remarkable documents of real people that are an object lesson in the influence of both nature and nurture on how human beings create themselves. Most painfully apparent to me in watching the first two films was the deep roots of class differences. Gorgeous pieces of work.

I have begun, and am hoping to finish The Archivist's Story by Travis Holland before the year is out. The novel is about a literature teacher turned prison archivist in Stalinist Russia who must investigate an unauthorized piece of writing by a writer he very much admires - Isaac Babel. It has begun with a lot of promise.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Unwriting (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

I have finished my re-read of Possession by A. S. Byatt. It has been so long since the first time I read it that I was almost reading for plot all over again, but I think I was able to read for structure and the pleasures of her writing with more skill this time through. To add one observation to my previous posts, I admired not only what Byatt created by writing in multiple voices and multiple forms, but also what she created via omission. Evidence for a relationship between poets Randolph Ash and Cristabel LaMotte accumulated throughout the book through letters, diaries, and poems of its Victorian era characters, and that could have amounted to nothing but a writing exercise, but Byatt's creation of Ellen, Randolph Ash's wife, grounded the story in the details and the emotions of everyday life. Ellen adds a sadness and a beauty to the book and toward its end, Byatt creates a scene in which Ellen writes a letter in her head which she never sends. Of course Byatt writes that scene so that we read it, thus writing the unwritten thoughts and feelings of this character. By extension, her unwritten words go unread, but meanwhile the involved reader creates 'what ifs' that enrich the novel through possibility. We live not only in the actuality of the ways things turn out but also momentarily in the possible alternatives. We can wish for them or dread them just as Ellen did, but finally we have to come down to earth, and live out only one of them. I really loved this un-writing, if you will, which felt not like a technique Byatt applied, it rather flowed naturally from the details that I had come to know as Ellen's character, and it leant this scene a most life-like sad sweetness.

For my other thoughts about Possession take a look here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Next up: Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Duality: Science & art, mechanics & intuition, men & women (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

Greetings of the season to all! I hope it is merry or happy or humbuggy, and whether you do trees, eight candles, or simply think its peculiar that everyone can talk about nothing but holidays this time of year, whether you're seeing lots of family or having some quiet, whether you're around snow or beaches, I hope you've had it just the way you like it. We haven't opened our presents at The Ragazzo's parents yet, but so far The Raggazzo hit a home run by giving me Bookeywookey business cards!

I'm Back on the Possession bandwagon, I'm glad to say, even if the cause was the fact that the guests in the hotel room next to our's had the television blaring at 3:00 am. I only have about 50 pages to go and I am taken by the multiple levels of satisfaction to be had - the intellectual mystery, the two romances - one in the past the other in the present - the literary ventriloquism (Byatt writes as the two Victorian writers Randolph Ash and Cristabel LaMotte in both poetry and epistolary prose, a young aspiring Breton author, Ash's wife Ellen, LaMotte's friend and housemate Blanche, and several of contemporary scholars who study each of these people.) One of the novels greatest pleasures is the variations on the theme that Byatt has composed on the inequities faced by women - in romance (past and present), in arts, and in scholarship. Late in the novel, poet Christabel LaMotte takes refuge with her cousin's family in Brittany. Her young cousin is an aspiring writer and in LaMotte finally finds both a role model and an honest reader. The excerpts from her journal to which the reader is privy seamlessly integrate the genesis of the young writer's art and the uncovering of the mystery that sits at the plot's center. The scene in Brittany is set during the Black Months, a time for traditional storytelling around the fire. Byatt puts fine versions of folk tales into the mouths of her characters that form an interesting meeting of the oral and the written traditions:
I can't write down Gode's way of telling things. My father has from time to time encouraged her to tell him tales which he has tried to take down verbatim, keeping the rhythms of her speech, adding nothing and taking nothing away. But the life goes out of her words on the page, no matter how faithful he is. He said once to me, after such an experiment, that he saw now why the ancient Druids believed that the spoken words was the breath of life and that writing was a form of death.
I thought those interesting, perhaps even risky, words to put into a book about writers and writing. As though Byatt were purposely calling our attention to the potential of the writer's words to fail to convince, even as she hopes to convince us of the verrisimilitude of her multiple universes. Or perhaps she is reminding us that what we are reading is, too, a tale and that written words cannot possibly do justice to the actual events.

Byatt takes on her theme of women and where they possess and are denied power as well as another theme - the scientific and rational world versus the world of art, impression, and affect (these are both interestingly embodied in Ash who is both a scientist and a poet) - in verse as well as prose. Here's an excerpt I particularly liked:
Know you not that we Women have no Power
In the cold world of objects Reason rules,
Where all is measured and mechanical?
There we are chattels, baubles, property,
Flowers pent in vases with our roots sliced off,
To shine a day and perish. But you see,
Here in this secret room, all curtained round
With Vaguest softness, all dimly lit
With flickerings and twinklings, where all shapes
Are indistinct, all sounds ambiguous,
Here we have Power, here the Irrational,
The Intuition of the Unseen Powers
Speaks to our women's nerves, galvanic threads
Which gather up, interpret and transmit
The unseen Powers and their hidden Will.
This is our negative world, where the Unseen,
Unheard, Impalpable, and Unconfined
Speak to and through us - it is we who hear,
Our natures that receive their thrilling force.
Come into this reversed world, Geraldine,
Where power flows upwards, as in the glass ball,
Where left is right, and clocks go widdershins,
And women sit enthroned and wear the robes,
The wreaths of scented roses and the crowns,
The jewels in our hair, the sardonyx,
The moonstones and the rubies and the pearls,
The royal stones, where we are priestesses
And powerful Queens, and all swims with our Will.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Narratives nested within narratives (Books - The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant)

When are we 'looking out for number one' (as the saying goes) and when are we simply being selfish? This is the tenuous border explored in Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. Vivien Kovacs is the daughter of Jewish parents who fled Budapest for London just prior World War II. Her parents' experiences have made them guarded people, nervous of authority, happier to not be noticed, and over-protective of their only child. Her father harbors a deep hatred of his only and much wealthier brother, Sandor, because Sandor earned his money in morally questionable ways. What I enjoyed most about this book is how complex the characters were and yet how unsensational and straightforward the story telling. Similarly to Paper Towns, which I posted on yesterday evening, Sandor exists as a character in other peoples' narratives. He exists is something that happens to them. Life conspires to deal Vivien a tragic blow, and in its aftermath,she feels she must understand who she is. She knows nothing of her parent's past, as they have always been tight-lipped about anything that happened prior to their arrival in London. Her uncle has always figured as a monster, a character so evil that no one talks about him. He becomes a missing piece in her understanding of herself, and she sets out to learn his story.

Grant has two narratives nested one inside the other, Uncle Sandor's and that of Vivien herself, and by extension, her parents. These multifaceted characters embody the ways that contradictions can live side by side in a single individual. Character and theme are inseparably intertwined in this story. Along with Grant's exploration of morality, is a second question of surface appearances. The great love of Sandor's life is Eunice - memorably drawn by Grant. Eunice is of West Indian heritage, has dark skin, and is the owner of a dress shop. Sandor himself is portrayed by Grant as a physically ugly man. Sandor, Vivien's parents and Eunice, all embody various legacies of the excuses people give to hate each other - some are hated for what they are thought to have done, some for who they are inside, and others simply for what they look like on the surface. The book's later chapters occur in 1977 during the rise of the skin heads in England, when the book's central characters once again face the terror of overt persecution. While the narrative and its details accumulate apace, Grants's writing is unhysterical. I felt she really earned her climactic scene - set in the midst of both the political tension and the personal tensions that she has patiently set up. It has some real white-knuckled moments of suspense in it. This is humane and well-fashioned story telling - a most worthwhile read. Here is my other post about The Clothes on Their Backs.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stop the presses! An additional best YA read of 2008 (Books - Paper Towns by John Green)

I was only joking about needing to overturn my best reads of 2008, good thing I didn't promise to eat my hat. I won't overturn my YA selection, but I will add another title to it. Several months ago, our dear, late fellow book blogger, Dewey, posted about Paper Towns by John Green. I put it on my library reserve requests and promptly forgot about it. With finals done, I picked it up yesterday and read it in a couple of sittings today while getting ready to leave for Ohio. It is written with a nerdy teenage audience in mind, but it works just fine for recovering or lapsed members of the community. What a terrific, deep, smart, laugh-out-loud book. It's a joy.

John Green's voice for Quentin, his narrator, is part worry-wart, part grammarian, part romantic, self-centered teenager. On the one hand the language is familiar and accessible:
I was so pathetically easy to forget about Chuck, to talk about prom even though I didn't give a shit about prom. Such was life that morning: nothing really mattered that much, not the good things and not the bad ones. We were in the business of mutual amusement, and we were reasonably prosperous.
I spent the next three hours in classrooms, trying not to look at the clocks above various blackboards, and then looking at the clocks, and then being amazed that only a few minutes had passed since I last looked at the clock. I'd had nearly four years of experience looking at these clocks, but their sluggishness never ceased to surprise. If I am ever told that I have one day to live, I will head straight for the hallowed halls of Winter Park High School, where a day has been known to last a thousand years.
both my parent are therapists, which means that I am really goddamned well adjusted.
dead-on about adolescent nerds:
Ben's voice rose with excitement. "You were with Margo Roth Spiegelman last night? At THREE A.M.?" I nodded. "Alone?" I nodded. "Oh my God, if you hooked up with her, you have to tell me every single thing that happened. You have to write me a term paper on the look and feel of Margo Roth Spiegelman's breasts. Thirty pages minimum!"

"I want you to do a photo-realistic pencil drawing, " Radar said.

"A sculpture would also be acceptable," Ben added.

Radar half raised his hand. I dutifully called on him. "Yes, I was wondering if it would be possible for you to write a sestina about Margo Roth Spiegelman's breasts? You six words are : pink, round, firmness, succulent, supple, and pillowy."

"Personally," Ben said, "I think at least one of the words should be buhbuhbuhbuh."
and beautiful:
Margo, as always, biked standing up, her arms locked as she leaned above the handlebars, her purple sneakers a circuitous blur. It was a steam-hot day in March. The sky was clear, but the air tasted acidic, like it might storm later.

Margo is really what the story revolves around. She is that magic someone who exists as a character for everyone around her, even though she is a living, breathing person. In this coming of age story, a young person must learn that other people exist as something other than as a character in his own story. Green creates real contemporary teenage characters, but he gets well beyond ABC Family cardboard cutouts and make real people of the expected types - arty iconoclast, bully, nerd, spoiled princess - his psychological insights are deep but not embarrassing. He puts real words in his characters' mouths - they swear and have real recognizable teenage urges, but not in a gratuitous way. The final 90 pages are a tension-filled road trip that also had me laughing so hard that I was glad I was reading the book at home. Green created a literal mystery plot that houses a more metaphysical mystery, the mystery of our identity. I really love how he made use of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass as both a clue to solving the mystery and a meditation on the notion of becoming someone else. Finally I so enjoyed the numerous ways Green makes use of the notion of a paper town, I won't ruin it for you by writing about it. Read this book. It is a delight.

Best fiction reads of 2008

I have come to the hardest category in my personal best reads of 2008 - full-length fiction. I have read nearly 50 novels, not counting my other fiction categories. Considering that I am in a PhD program in a non-book-related field, I'll call that pretty decent. I guess it's one of the advantages of not having television. I'll only list the contenders. For a complete list of my 2008 reads, see my side bar:

The Go-Between - Hartley
Electricity - Robinson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Jackson
Fools of Fortune - Trevor
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Stanisic
Netherland - O'Neill
The Changeling - Jenkins
White Noise - DeLillo
Breath - Winton
Eclipse - Banville
Cal - MacLaverty
Old School - Wolff

That's a fair proportion of books I thought were really strong in one way or another. As I mentioned, I will divide the full-length fiction category into two smaller ones. Books from the past year (or two) and fiction older than that.

As for fiction not written in the past year, I would have a hard time chosing between Bernard MacLaverty's Cal, Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Don DeLillo's White Noise. Cal falls into the category of a great novel. It is a deep love story, set amidst passionate political blood letting in Ireland. Beautiful and important writing. DeLillo's White Noise is a different kind of animal - of a more show-offy brilliance, heavy on irony.Amazing for its prescience and its thoughts on a culture oversaturated by information that, no matter how plentiful, still does not fill the ultimate void of death. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a perfect little book. A contemporary fairy tale, a macabre tale of horror, a parable about intolerance, judging others. All three of these books share a theme of the lengths people will go to in the name of love, particularly when they are afraid. As I started out saying, I would have a hard time choosing. The nice thing is I don't have to. No envelope, no televised ceremony, no check here. I laud them all, and I'll even throw in a special mention for the elegant and lean loveliness of Fools of Fortune.

In the new fiction category, although Netherland and Breath were both terrific, my favorite was How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic. It is prolifically imaginative meta-fiction that skirts being merely gimmicky. The subject matter is serious but its is warmly tender and richly fantasmagorical. A wonderful novel. I'm looking forward to his next.

Of course, this could all be overturned by some great read I have in the next week. I just finished The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant. I plan to post on it later today While it was very good, so far I'm not expecting any upsets.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Best short fiction reads of 2008

Today, I look back at the shorter fiction I read in 2008. I am going to include what I consider novellas as well as short story collections.

So Long, See You Tomorrow - Maxwell
Chess Story - Zweig
Unaccustomed Earth - Lahiri
Lost Paradise - Noteboom
The Dead Fish Museum - D'Ambrosio

I almost though I was going to include and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, A Private Affair, and Cal too, but when I looked back, they were all nearly 200 pages or more. That would have even made the choice more difficult. How to chose between Stefan Zweig's humane and psychologically acute 90-page tale of suspense and William Maxwell's crispt, elegant American tragedy? This one is tough, but I think I am going to go with Zweig. It is an entwined accomplishment of the heart and the head and I am probably biased by elements of my own family's history. I also want to make a special mention of Charles D'Ambrosio's collection of lean, poetic, and idiosyncratic stories. Really marvelous.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best young-adult fiction & fantasy/sci-fi reads of 2008

To continue my personal best reads of 2008, I'll move on to the young-adult and sci-fi/fantasy categories. I do enjoy the occasional book written (or marketed) with mostly the younger reader in mind. Although I'm not as avid a fan as some grown-up readers I know. Or perhaps this year I simply wasn't as nostalgic, as I didn't read very many. The Book Thief is the only title that doesn't also double in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category:

The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
Tanglewreck - Jeanette Winterson
The Book Thief - Mark Zusak
Lirael & Abhorsen both from the Abhorsen Trilogy - Garth Nix

And my favorite in the YA category is The Book Thief a compulsively readable and imaginative book about the humanizing power of narrative set in a little town on the road to the Dachau concentration camp during World War II.

I read some additional sci-fi/fantasy reads not specifically for younger readers:
Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for His Pillow, and Brilliance of the Moon which together comprise the Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, which had been a trilogy but has lately become a quartet. I haven't gotten to the fourth book yet.
Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said -
Philip K. Dick

In the sci-fi/fantasy category I call my favorite the entire Tales of the Otori trilogy. The books were satisfying on numerous levels -
romance, adventure, history, fantasy, and battle. The first book dealt with the theme of the outsider, one that always appeals to me. The final one asked many questions about personal and collective responsibility - especially as it relates to violence - whether isolated or as acts of war.

Coming up short fiction, and best fiction which I am thinking about splitting into at least two categories - books published in the last year or so and fiction written before that.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best non-fiction reads of 2008

Finals over. Just the papers now, and only one of them is due before break, Monday in fact. The other I'll deal with after the new year. So now, onto the lists.

It's time for the best reads of 2008. I think I'll drag this out over multiple posts and start with non-fiction. This is a no-brainer, having read so little non-fiction that wasn't for school this year. Hands down, my best 2008 non-fiction read of the year is Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a recommendation of ever reliable Sheila. The link will send you to my multi-part reflection on this melange of history, psychology, politics and travel writing. It was, sadly, the only book of 8 that I completed for the Russian Reading Challenge, pathetic slob that I am. Maybe I can remedy that before the end of 2008?... er, um... probably not. Another by Kapuschinski, probably The Soccer War, will be on the docket for 2009.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book me

btt button

Do you give books as gifts?

To everyone or only to select people?

How do you feel about receiving books as gifts?

Yes, but not exclusively. Yes, but not always. I love it, unless I don't like the book.

There are two kinds of gift giving. With one kind you give someone what you know they want because you ask them - 'is there anything special you want for your birthday... chanukah... christmas...whatever?' That's sort of parental gift giving (in-laws included, or in my case in-not-laws) . It's safe. It either comes from fear of disappointing someone, or a life-long habit of giving your children what they want. So on the one hand, it's really generous. The receiver gets exactly what they want, but they don't get a surprise, nor do they get one of the important by-products of the other kind of gift. I'll explain in a minute. Giving what you know the recipient wants is safe and generous, but it's unimaginative. Going to someone's Amazon gift list is a second cousin of this approach, there's an added surprise of which of the many things you want you will receive. Gift cards is another relative of this approach - the recipient can get themselves whatever they want whenever they want it, and these days, the buyer doesn't even have to get their lazy ass to the actual store. I saw cards for Barnes and Noble, Loews, Macy's, Starbucks, and who knows what else, all spinning on a rack at Staples, which is a mere block from my house. Granted, it's awfully convenient to shop this way, given how busy life can get.

The second kind of gift means the giver has to imagine what the recipient might like. Now this is Rorschach-like test of the giver, the giver puts themselves into the gift (there's that important by-product I was talking of earlier) because at the end of the day they only have their own taste, their own intellect, or the courage of their convictions, that this gift will be meaningful, useful, or appreciated. You are also giving the gift of reflection. You are telling the receiver what you think of them with your choice. That is an act of boldness, a risk taken for the person, which is itself a gift. (That, or you are one of those gift-givers who gives something you think will be good for the recipient. Yuck, is all I have to say to that! That's like inviting someone to dinner and feeding them a vitamin.) Another relative of this kind of gift is making someone something. With any type 2 gift, you have thoughtfulness and the element of surprise, but the recipient could already have one or, worse yet, have never wanted that hideous duck-shaped lint brush to begin with.

I do frequently give books as gifts because, let's face it, I like books. The receiver knows they are getting something that I, think is valuable and desirable. And when I do, I give a book I think the recipient would enjoy or find meaningful. If a child doesn't like to read, I might still consider giving what I think is a really great book in the hopes that they will. But I won't give a adult who I know to be a non-reader a book. That's just obnoxious. When I meet and get to know a person, one of the ways I characterize them is by what they read (if they are an avid reader). I know I am someone's friend when I know what they have read. And then I sift through my great reading experiences and think - of those, what would this person like? I am really asking how can I take a great experience that I had alone and share it with someone. And I cannot think of a better gift than that. Or sometimes I haven't read the book and I am asking them to have the experience for me by proxy. If someone reads I won't buy a book every time. Sometimes some music, a tin of tea, or those funky martini chillers just seem the right thing. But usually I will buy a book. For one thing, I can go to a bookstore, preferably a real, old-fashioned one with a door on the front and books on shelves. Although on-line ones with free shipping really rock with my graduate student's schedule. It also means I can avoid the hated task of waiting on line at the post office.

As for receiving books as gifts, I love them, except when I don't. That's the risk the giver takes. But I appreciate them no matter what. The real fun is getting a book I don't already have, that I never asked for (or even better, that I have never heard of) and loving it! I read On Beauty after receiving it as a gift from a friend. I got A Night at the Opera - which is a guide to opera plots, singers, and such, but written as a spoof. It's a hoot, and not only did I not know it. I would never have thought to buy it for myself. I have also received the book-equivalent of the duck-shaped lint brush. But not every gift has to be wildly imaginative. I love getting a gift card for a book store. I'm thrilled when someone takes a title off my wish list. Really. It's a gift. Bring it on - I love getting stuff. My birthday was just last week and I don't mind late gifts, but we already have a duck shaped lint brush, thanks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Picking out the detail that sings (Books - The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant)

I had begun Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances this weekend, but am finding that it's not doing it for me. I'm chalking that up to finals-time finickiness. When I have this much to do and this little time for reading, I want a very particular kind of reading experience. I want a story, told unselfconsciously about people who I care for; it can have plenty of depth, but I don't want tricky, I don't want peculiar, and I don't want complex. So far, Atmospheric Disturbances has struck me as highly intelligent but quirky, and its tone has kept me from engaging with the characters. And if I read one more book about someone with Capgras syndrome, I'm going to scream. I'll give the book one more try after finals.

That being the case, I picked up The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant, which Man Booker shortlisted this past year. It had just arrived in a box with gifts for other people (but I felt no need to pay for shipping and so topped off my order with a book for myself. Oh alright, two books). So as I was saying, I started The Clothes on Their Backs with my eyes bleary from a full day of studying and writing a last-minute abstract to submit to a conference, and I don't know whether I'm happy or sad to have begun it. It is so good I wound up not just reading for ten minutes and drifting off, but being reawakened by the clarity of the characters Grant has created and captivated by the easy flow of her unfussy prose.
This morning, for the first time in many years, I passed the shop on Seymour Street. I saw the melancholy sign in the window which announced that it was closing down and through the glass the rails on which the clothes hung, half abandoned, as if the dresses and coats, blouses and sweaters had fled in the night, vanished down the street, flapping their empty arms.
The tone is set in two simple sentences. The story will look back and there will be much sadness in it. Such a clear image, those clothes have created for me, and I haven't yet met a single character. Grant does this with each person and place that we meet - she walks around in its details, picking out a few choice bits that end up singing out - like the really great voice in a big chorus.
Our flat was rented, for a pittance. The bowler-hatted ladies of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service found it for my parents when they arrived in England in 1938 as young refugees from Budapest. There is a photograph of them turning the key in the front door, their smiles like wooden postboxes. Safely on the other side, they bolted it, and tried to come out as little as possible. They had brought with them a single piece of furninshing: an ivory Chinaman with an ebony fishing rod which was a wedding present from my mother's aunt. For the Coronation of the Queen they bought a television which they coddled with their constant anxious attention, worryin that if they left it off too long it would refuse to turn back on, for sets in those days needed 'warming up,' and supposed it got too cold? Would it die altogether, out of spite for their neglect?
It was at 'smiles like wooden postboxes,' that I myself smiled, though not particularly like a postbox, and settled in for a good read. More to come.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On tulip mania, big egos, and an opportunity for building a more balanced sense of well being

The financial crisis is evidently taking its toll in a place one might not have thought to look - the egos of men who work in finance - or so says an article in today's Science Times by psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman. And yes, it appears to be disproportionately the men rather than the women who are reacting with anxiety and loss of self-esteem, at least in Dr. Friedman's practice. As I read I thought, this is one of those times when a loss of self-esteem might not be inappropriate. I am one of those people who feel there should be some connection between the quality of one's behavior and the level of esteem at which one holds oneself. Dr. Friedman's article is thoughtful about this delicate balance. The most puzzling thing about the article for me was they way the word 'mastery' (as in attaining a high level in a skill or art) and master of the universe as in, well, some kind of god, were used almost interchangeably. If one attains a level of expertise in something, to feel one has lost it is painful. However, to allow the acquisition of a reasonable combination of skill and luck in anything - finance, golf, writing papers - to fill you with the sense that you run the universe would seem to be a failure to form a picture of the world based in reality. A crisis of confidence feels lousy, but if through it you build a more real perception of the world and yourself in it, that would strike me as a real opportunity for two people engaged in a mental health interaction - one who is serving the function of improving the mental health of others when possible, and the other engaged in an interaction that will hopefully lead to greater self knowledge and a more balanced sense of well being.

Dr. Friedman also brings up the neurotransmitter dopamine, and its key role in the reward circuitry of the human brain. He theorizes
for many of them, the previously expanding market gave them a sense of power along with something as strong as a drug: thrill.
He made me think anew about this crisis. One theories of drug addiction these days is that there may be a subset of people who live in a perpetual state of "unrewardedness" because they lack one of the receptor subtypes for dopamine (D2). They may end up becomming addicts to self-correct this natural void within. How many of those who worked in investment firms did so not because they enjoy a thrill but because they need one? When I read about past economic booms and their subsequent busts - e.g. tulip mania - a period in seventeenth century Holland during which the price of tulip bulbs soared to exceed the annual salaries of the average skilled worker by many times - the people involved appeared to participate in a kind of mass madness. When we have enough distance from the delusion that perpetuated our recent greed and the crisis of confidence that popped the bubble, perhaps it will strike us that this period was no different. Building reality checks both for individuals who need a thrill and for institutions who need profit might be desirable if they cannot help pursuing them. It further might be useful for us all, if their pursuit perpetuates a delusional sense of power, since we all seem to end up sharing in the delusion... or so Dr. Friedman's article made me reflect.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On continual intoxication (Books and other stuff - The First Verse by Barry McCrea, Slings & Arrows, and a little Baudelaire)

Barry McCrea's The First Verse delivers a suspense-filled punch. I read the final 200 pages in a single sitting. For my earlier posts on necessary plot details, go here and here. McCrea really drummed up not just a feeling of sympathy with Niall, his central character, but one of identification. I really cared about our young hero, despite the lies he tells and the people he hurts as he is drawn into a web of synchronicities. The strange world of texts into which he is subsumed starts as a search for identity as experienced by a young gay man after he first leaves home. But I didn't read this as a 'gay' novel per se. I saw it more as anyone's search for a whole to be a part of, as told from an experience of otherness. That sense of exile is by no means the soul purview of someone who is gay. Most people feel unmoured and alone at some point in their lives. Sometimes its in matters of identity - sexual or otherwise - but many people struggle to find a meaninful synthesis of the parts of themselves and it is on that point that I expect most readers will be able to identify with Niall.

This book reminded me a bit of another book I enjoyed this year - Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont. In that novel, a man enters an altered state in which the number thirteen plays a prominent role. It has a really fun plot and functions as a parable about the role of engagement with others and control in a mentally healthy life. In The First Verse, similarly, a man is led into a maze of coincidences but this time through text rather than numbers. He lives then too in an altered but parallel universe:
As I looked at the fragile pair, Ciara and Patrick, a whole human life seemed to be passing me by Time still turned away on a reliably rotating axes, but I had jumped off, and I stood watching it revolve from a distance, distant and unreal and above all silent, just as when we were children, Ciara, Patrick and I used to see the big wheel at the centre of Funderland amusement park in Ballsbridge. Their timed world drifted across to me like faraway fairground music, indeed, heavy with nostalgia, but, compared to the life I now had, repulsive and banal.
It is as though, through playing with these texts, that Niall is able to unravel the narrative thread that is his life. Where once he had a sweater that held its shape and that could be useful to warm him, he now simply has a tangle of yarn. There is also a theme of mental wholeness here, but it is more subtly interwoven with the story than in Thirteen.

The First Verse made an interesting companion piece to Slings and Arrows the Canadian television series about theatre folk that The Ragazzo and I watched for the first time last night. We don't have television, so we only see programs that make it to DVD and come to the NY Public Library. I've been told by several friends how wonderful this program is and how much I will like it because it's about the theater, but my usual reaction to something like this (or Waiting for Guffman) is 'that's not funny; that's my life!' Through the first episode of Slings and Arrows I was constantly cringing with recognition. But the writing is so good and the conceit so clever that I found myself won over. The parallel between the novel and the program is about how we use narrative to give form and credence to our lives. In Slings and Arrows, there's a marvelous flashback scene to communicate backstory, in which three young artists - the actor playing Hamlet, his girlfriend and the actress playing Ophelia, and the director of a production so intense and marvelous that early during the run, the actor playing Hamlet goes completely crazy and never acts again. The scene is late that night, following the first night party. The three go drunkenly carousing through the streets of their small city feeling the spell of electrical power that can be cast by living the fullest moments of one's life through creating huge feeling and thought (one's own feeling and thought) but in the context of crafted text, music and effects specifically designed to drive an audience to catharsis and to do that in public. It is a weird and wonderful thing (let me tell you) sexy and alluring, on the one hand, but ultimately it can be destructive. It can be hard to feel that the rest of life lives up to those moments. The scene in the first episode captures that but exactly. But even though the actors feel seized by that power, and Niall feels seized by the power of the texts he plays with, the whole spell begins with an act of will. It's paradoxical, we cannot demand that the experience come, but we conspire (and can practice so as to do so skillfully) with the ingredients that finally produce it. Some people gain this skill and feel it is the only way to live - nothing else is worthwhile. The French poet Charles Baudelaire was certainly of that opinion:

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

But just as we can gain the power to create this atomic explosion of intensity, we can lose it. It is an unstable foundation on which to hang all one's existence - exciting, momentarily satisfying - but unsustainable. The First Verse and Slings and Arrows share this theme and involve the audience in a taste of that intoxication. Slings and Arrows does so with much more irony, I'm looking forward to continuing to watch it. The First Verse is more naive and more intimate - Niall is so young, which on the one hand makes him an unfortunate victim, but on the other gives the reader hope that he can escape and reconnect with the world around him. I won't tell you whether he does, but I found the journey McCrea sent him on both involving and rewarding.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

20 Favorite Actresses Redux

In the great footsteps of fearless friend Sheila, I will amend my 20 favorite actresses (of this time) meme, to include my favorite performances of their's (of this time).

Lois Smith - That's a hard one. I really loved her in The Trip to Bountiful live on stage, I also have a fond memory of the first stage role I ever saw her in - a one act comedy called Bite the Hand by Ara Watson in which she played a World War II era whore with a heart.
Judy Garland - Judgment at Nuremberg
Vivien Leigh - hands down A Ship of Fools
Diane Wiest - that's a toughie, I loved her in Hannah and her Sisters but there is a special place in my heart for her stage performance in Harold Pinter's A Kind of Alaska, she was other-worldly
Julie Walters - gorgeous in The Wedding Gift, a sleeper also w/ Jim Broadbent - great flick!
Imelda Staunton - Vera Drake
Jennifer Jason Leigh - Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
Vanessa Redgrave - Howard's End, she seems to float on air
Isabelle Huppert - Medea live on stage, which I saw televised in France
Kim Stanley - as Masha in the flawed but gorgeous Three Sisters directed by Lee Strasberg
Ellen Burstyn - Resurrection
Ingrid Bergman - Notorious
Emma Thompson - Carrington (that was hard, The Winter Guest is great too, and she is hilariously over the top in Peter's Friends)
Maggie Smith - The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn (and I'll take her in A Room with a View any day)
Betty Buckley (as I said in the first post - her 5 minute cameo in Another Woman)
Jeanne Morreau - Jules et Jim - it's essential
Geraldine Page - The Trip to Bountiful
La Streep - Angels in America, Postcards from the Edge, Kramer vs. Kramer
Geena Rowlands - Opening Night
Juliet Stevenson - Truly, Madly, Deeply

Friday, December 12, 2008

Coincidence or prognostication? (Books - The First Verse by Barry McCrea)

Barry McCrea's The First Verse is an alluring and literate page-turner. It is Niall's first year at Trinity in more or less modern-day Dublin. He is a verbose, book-smart naif trying to figure out just who he is. He lives a duplicitous life, not yet able to come out of the closet, even to his friends. Like most young people leaving their home for the first time, he is trying on his future possible selves like they are clothes on a rack, trying to understand exactly what life could hold for him. All the strangeness starts one night during what seems to be a party game. Guests ask a question, take the nearest book, open it randomly, choose a passage, and look in it for the answer. The trouble is, the books' answers are dead on, and as it gets later and there are only two players left, it is clear that they don't treat this as a game, but rather as some sort of tool for divination. Niall is a young man hungry for some answers and he stands on the brink of getting sucked into a world of mysterious synchronicities and apparent power:
As I felt my hand falling over the bookspines I already knew that over this hung worlds. Two mutually exclusive universes were in the balance, teetering over the tiny gap in the space-time continuum which was my choice. As I went back to the beginning of the rows of books and touched each title as I ran my finger along, I knew that the passage I chose would be either ambiguous and a confirmation of what Fionnuala was saying, a triumph for Ian, for all those people, for all those adolescent dreads of emptiness to follow; or else it would be something else, the opposite, unimaginable. I wished so deeply for it to work, a choice between a past I knew stretching drearily on out into an eternal, colourless future, and the possibility of fullness and newness and things I didn't know. I could feel the inevitability of the dull and the mundane creeping in, the ridiculousness of anything except that the world was as Fionnuala said, and these two were just arrogant and unfriendly thrity-year-olds who took their party games extremely seriously and were irritated by our undergraduate enthusiasms and fears. I tried to push that out of my mind as I stopped at a thick book, but my heart was already falling. I flicked through Ulysses and the probability waves all came crashing down around each other and collapsed into a singularity...
The coincidences begin to pile up and Niall wants to know what this ritual is really all about, but his new friends become mysterious and evasive. McCrea is acute in his depiction of the psychological complexities of a young man moving from adolescence to adult-hood, but he's not pat. That personal Bildungsroman is mirrored by another, this one of the city of literature - Dublin. McCrea can also write thriller-like scenes that have me tearing the pages, I'm trying to turn them so fast, but the book constantly eschews what is obvious. The First Verse is an enticing mix of the supenseful supernatural and the literary that has this reader in its thrall. Think of the addictiveness of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, only the reach of the story's themes is broader and the writing style more elegant.

I am already somehow half-way through this novel, although I can only afford before-bedtime reading in this final week of the semester. I am thinking that I may not write too much more about it, because it is very plot-driven and I don't want to ruin it for those of you who want to read it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

They reign supreme... (20 Greatest actresses meme)

I could not resist this meme: My 20 greatest actresses of all time. Which I prefer to call my 20 favorite actresses of all time today. Thanks, Sheila.

And they are: Lois Smith, Judy Garland, Vivien Leigh, Diane Wiest, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Vanessa Redgrave, Isabelle Huppert, Kim Stanley, Ellen Burstyn, Ingrid Bergman, Emma Thompson & Maggie Smith (2 for the price of one!), Betty Buckley (would have to be on this list for her 5 minute cameo in Another Woman alone), Jeanne Morreau, Geraldine Page, La Streep, Geena Rowlands, and Juliet Stevenson

(It killed me to leave out Cherry Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Hannah Schygula, Anne Bancroft, Kate Hepburn, Lili Taylor - but what could I do?)

Care to join in the fun?

Ladies and gentlemen...Hart Crane

- And Bees of Paradise

I had come all the way here from the sea,
Yet met the wave again between your arms
Where cliff and citadel - all verily
Dissolved within a sky of beacon forms -

Sea gardens lifted rainbow-wise through eyes
I found.

Yes, tall, inseparably our days
Pass sunward. We have walked the kindled skies
Inexorable and girded with your praise,

By the dove filled, and bees of Paradise.


We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Opening salvo (Books - The First Verse by Barry McCrea)

I have barely had time to dip into Barry McCrea's debut novel The First Verse, a recommendation of Eve's Alexandria, but the opening salvo has my interest piqued. In it, a young, contemporary man from Dublin is drawn into a mysterious literary cult in his first year as a student at Trinity.
An unremarkable swottishness and a cheap, almost corrupt knack for exams had got me easily through secondary school at the Jesuit Gonzaga College, and covered me with the scalps and headdresses of local competitions. And then in my last year of those mediocre gifts, in combination with a modest flair for foreign languages, had brought something more exciting my way. It took the form of a new Trinity College scholarship, only two in Ireland, the Beckett Foundation Fellowship, to study French and English literature. It entitled me to "Commons" - dinner in the huge Dining Hall every evening at six - and, more importantly, to roms (which means a room) in Trinity, a fact which enabled me to move out and leave, after nineteen years, the draughty Victorian house of my parents and of my childhood, atop the sad swell of the sea at Dun Laoghaire.
And if his knack for exams is cheap, could one perhaps call his knack for words rich? Our narrator tell us not soon after:
I would have been more aware of this as a rite of passage, the extreme unction of my childhood, setting off into the city to seek my fortune, but my mind had room only for Ian O'Neill.
The plot already has me in its grip, but not a paragraph is left unfestooned with deft metaphor or filigreed adverb - 'extreme unction of my childhood,' 'cannibalistic fervour.' I don't have a feeling yet for whether I think the tone belongs to the writer or the character, but I find it a little cocky. That may turn out to be appropriate, or to be worth it. If the man can write, why hide his light under a bushel?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mirror images across the century (Books - Possession by A. S. Byatt)

This will no doubt be a little rambling as I am writing a final paper, and this is priming the writing pump - but I cannot resist, being deep in the epistolary romance that forms the centerpiece of A. S. Byatt's Possession. The two 19th century poets woo each other with the sharpness of their minds and the music of their pens:
I find I am at ease with other imagined minds - bringing to life, restoring in some sense to vitality, the whole vanished men of other times, hair, teeth, fingernails, porringer, bench, wineskin, church, temple, synagogue and the incessant weaving labour of the marvellous brain inside the skull - making its patterns, its most particular sense of what it sees and learns and believes. It seem important that these other lives of mine should span many centuries and as many places as my limited imagination can touch. For all I am is a nineteenth-century gentleman plumb in the midst of smoky London - and what is peculiar to him is to know just how much stretches away from his vanishing pin-point of observation - before and around and after - whilst all the time he is what he is, with his whiskered visage and his shelves full of Plato and Feuerbach, St. Augustine and John Stuart Mill.
That, by the way, is a love letter.

I am also watching how Byatt creates a two couples of women who mirror each other across 100 years of separation. Val lives with Roland, the recent graduate of a contemporary scholar of poet Randolph Henry Ash. Val is also possessed of an English degree but she takes secretarial work to support the two of them. At this point in the story has become almost literally crazy with disappointment and boredom. While Ash writes important lyric poems and spends time as an amateur marine biologist learning about the world that will give him inspiration, his wife Ellen, like Val, stays in the hot London summer working - supervising cleaning of curtains and chandeliers, firing pregnant serving girls, and suffering from migraine - so that the house can be ready for her husband to create in upon his return.

The other couple are the poet Christabel LaMotte who, throughout the love letters fights to retain her independence:
The precious - letters - are too much and too little - and above all and first, I should say, compromising.

What a cold sad word. It is His word - the World's word - and her word too, that prude, his Wife. But it entails freedom.

I will expatiate - on freedom and injustice.

The injustice is - that I require my freedom - from you - who respect it so fully. that was a noble saying of yours about freedom - how can I turn from...

I will put in Evidence a brief History. A History of little nameless unremembered acts. Of this our Bethany cottage - which was named for a reason. Now to you and in your marvellous Poem - Bethany is the Place where the master called his dead friend to resurrection beforetimes and particularly.

But to us Females, it was a place wherein we niether served nor were served - poor Martha was cumbered with much serving - and was sharp with her sister Mary who sat at His Feet and heard His Word and chose the one thing needful. Now I believe rather, with George Herbert, that "Who sweeps a room as for They laws - Makes that and the action fine." We formed a Project - my dear Companion and myself - to make ourselves a Bethany were the work of all kinds was carried on in the Spirit of Love and His laws. We met, you are to know, at one of Mr. Rusin's marvellous lectures on the dignity of handicraft and individual work. We were Two - who wished to live the Life of the Mind - to make good things. We saw after thought that if we put together the pittances we possessed - and could come by by giving drawing lessons - or by selling Wonder Tales or even Poems - we might make ourselves a life in which drudgery was Artful - was sacred as Mr. Ruskin believes is possible - and it was shared, for no Master...we were to renounce. Not the lives that then encompassed us - cramped Daughterly devotion to a wordly mother - nor the genteel Slavery of governessing - those were no loss - those were gleefully fled and opposition stunachly met. But we were to renounce the outside World - and the usual Female Hopes (and with them the usual Female Fears) in exchange for - dare I say Art...
I wish as I read the letters for the satisfying snap of the the two lovers flying together after being held apart for months by convention, propriety and lengthy sentences. And yet, simultaneously, I hope that they never will. LaMotte is a poet in her own right whose hard won freedom is in itself a creation. She deserves to keep it. Her twin in the present is the scholar Maud Bailey who, though successful, works in a somewhat isolated realm of all women scholars making careers of studying women's literature or the wives of literate men.

Bailey is covertly researching the relationship of poets Ash and LaMotte. At one point she wishes to confirm some information in the diaries of Ash's wife Ellen. She goes to see Beatrice Nest, the scholar devoted to her papers.
"Was it important?" asked the grey voice, with no indication of whether the "importance" was scholarly, passionate or cosmic.

"I don't know. It might change our views of - of his work, I supposed a bit."
"What do you want of me?"

"A Xerox of those two letters. If it can be done, a copy of the Journal, between those dates. Not to tell Professor Cropper. Or Professor Blackadder. Yet. We discovered this ourselves - "

Beatrice Nest seemed to think for a longish time, her face propped in her hands.
"This - what you're so excited about - it won't- it won't expose her to ridicule - or - misapprehension? I've become very concerned that she shouldn't be - exposed is the best word I suppose - exposed."
I found this moment so, well, - exposed. Here is someone who has devoted her life to knowledge of one arcane subject who would gladly repress others' knowledge of her to protect her character. The woman is long dead. It's pathetic, really - and so perfect. I can imagine Beatrice Nest so clearly. This book is remarkable. Part romance, part literary ventriloquism act, part detective story, part social criticism of the roles to which women are relagated in the patriarchal machine, and part send up of academia - both the aspect of it that is all hallowed halls and the part that is more like cut-throat industry. The pairing of contemporary and historical figures adorned with the accoutrements of meta fiction - is now a well worn fictional form - but it is hard to not make the structure into mere conceit. This novel's structure is rock solid, but it is structure, that is, it lies beneath. Byatt is subtle with it, driving the story with character, with plot, and with great writing, not by exposing the cleverness of its underpinnings. Another book I have always felt does that successfully is Richard Powers' novel The Gold Bug Variations. Interestingly they came out at around the same time. It might be interesting to ponder what that is all about. Maybe in some future post.