Saturday, January 31, 2009

Development of one kind or another (Books - Theories of Development, Brain Architecture, The Seance)

We've been displaced by some work we're having done on our apartment, sleeping and showering at mother-of-bookeywookey. In addition, class reading has descended with a mighty fist, so I have not had a lot of time for fun reading lately.

I continue to make my way through William Crain's Theories of Development, which although work-related, is enjoyable to read. It's a good overview of the major theorists of what is called psychological development, although that usually covers only infancy through early adulthood. A few of them, like Erik Erikson, did include later adulthood in his stages of development. Until rather recently it was thought that the brain finished developing when we reach around 21 years old and becomes much less adaptable. It was also thought that brain cells did not die. Modern neuroscience has informed us otherwise that the brain is changeable throughout the life span, so if our structure doesn't stop changing then neither does the behavior that results from it. This book is a very good summary of the major theories of development from Freud and Piaget to Skinner and Chomsky. I'm reading a version from 1992 which is not contemporary by a long shot as far as the neuroscience is concerned, but Crain approaches his subject more from a psycho-social point of view than a physiological one. He summarizes the experimental work of Piaget in considerable detail. As I have only read about Piaget's theories and never read his work directly, I am enjoying the many examples of the experimental observation that went into the development of his stages.

Another detail I found interesting was the critique of education reforms in light of Piagetian theory. Crain writes about both the Cold War era race to educate American children to catch up to the math and science skills of their Russian counterparts with the advent of "New Math." It asked children who have not yet developed the capacity for abstract or hypothetical thinking to employ those abilities in the way it taught those subjects. Having been the victim of New Math for two years, I can attest to how frustrating I found it. A similar race developed with Japan in the 1980's which did not succeed in boosting the quality of science and technology education of our young children but rather made parents anxious about their children starting their education early enough. This resulted in forcing learning processes on young children that are not natural to their level of development and their associating learning with stress. I wonder what future research will tell us about the disaster called 'No Child Left Behind.'

Another side of development is covered in Larry W. Swanson's Brain Architecture, which actually is class reading, but is far from as dry as its title. His interest is anatomy, as the title suggests, but his perspective is how the structures of nervous systems added 'improvements' as creatures evolved in response to their environments.



Constance, our heroine, in John Harwood's new book The Seance, in her efforts to cure her mother of paralyzing melancholia by convincing her that she has seen her long-dead daughter, visits many mediums. At one she encounters Vernon Raphael from the Society for Psychical Research, who debunks fraudulent mediums.
"...Frankly, Mr. Raphael, if I could find a medium who could convince her that Alma is safe in Heaven, I would want her to have that comfort. And so I wondered - whether there is anyone you could recommend."

"My business, Miss Langton" - he sounded more amused than indignant - "is to expose frauds, not to recommend them."

"It is all very well for you, Mr. Raphael, who are clever and confident and at home in the world, but for those like my mother, who are simply crushed by the weight of grief, why deprive them of the comfort a seance can bring?"

"Because it is false comfort."

"That is a harsh doctrine, Mr. Raphael; a man's creed, if I may say so. Have you never lied, or keep silent, to spare the feelings of another? If you had lost a brother, let us say, and your own mother had been prostrated by grief, would you sternly insist - as my father did - that she take no comfort in seances?"
I am finding Constance Langton a persistent and resourceful heroine. I am enjoying watching her development (to stay on a theme) into a formidable young woman.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Medium or just a girl who needs to be loved? (Books - The Seance by John Harwood)

I was just beginning to get bored with The Locked Room. I opened the book last night and had to backtrack a full ten pages until I read something I remembered - bad sign, but luckily, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sent me a copy of The Seance, a book by John Harwood that is about to be released. It's a good old Victorian ghost story. Set in London, of course, it features Constance, who is a little girl when her younger sister dies from scarlatina. Her mother goes into a serious and lengthy depression and her father is already distant so Constance is raised by a nurse. There is a lovely section in the book's opening section in which a very young Constance walks by a Foundling Hospital and gets it fixed in her head that she must be a foundling.
I could not understand it, but nevertheless the suspicion took root and grew. It explained why Mama had loved Alma so much more than me, and why I was never any comfort to her, and even why, as I sometimes guiltily suspected, I did not love her as much as I ought to.
It is one of those things the human mind does - try to find the sense of what happens to us, even when there is none. Harwood imagines Constance's isolation from a child's point of view. It is an essential part of the plot's set-up. One day, when Constance is in her teens, her father abruptly leaves and Constance must care for her mother. She fakes a trance in which she speaks to her mother in her long-dead sister's voice and this is the first thing in a decade to wake her mother from her catatonia. So Constance begins to research seances and visits a medium for advice.
"I know it was wrong to deceive her," I said, "but Mama has been so unhappy for so long, and if only she could be certain that Alma is safe in Heaven, I think she might recover."

"You musn't reproach yourself, my dear. For all you know, it was your sister's spirit moving you to speak; you might have the true gift and not know it yet."
And that is, among other things, the question I expect this ghost story will explore. So far, Harwood has created a suitably sepia-toned atmosphere with the chill just beginning to creep in.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How do two people write a mystery? (Books - The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo)

Classes have started and let me just say, not with a whimper. So my pleasure reading is likely to slow down a bit. Hopefully I'll be able to average 5 books a month. I don't know why that's so important, I thinkn it's a quality of life meter for me, or something. Anyhoo, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are my current fiction choice. The Swedish husband-and-wife team created a much admired series of mysteries in the 1960s and 70s with detective Martin Beck. The Locked Room, which I am about half way through, is a real puzzle. A man is discovered shot to death in a room that is completely locked and without a weapon. This is a dark little book, written in straight forward, almost grim prose:
Martin Beck felt his first working day was at an end. Tomorrow he'd go and have a look at this locked room himself. What was he to do tonight? Eat something, anything, and then sit leafing through books he knew he ought to read. Lie alone in his bed and wait for sleep. Feel shut in.

In his own locked room.
The mystery is set in an era that follows a nationalization of the Swedish police force in the mid-1960s. They are critical of Sweden's social system, of the new force's leaving tens-of-thousands of crimes unsolved and particularly of the arming of Sweden's police.
All of a sudden, situations that formerly could have been cleared up by a single man equipped with a lead pencil and a pinch of common sense required a busload of patrolmen equipped with automatics and bullet-proof vests.

The long-term result, however, was something no one had quite foressen. Violence breeds not only antipathy and hatred but also insecurity and fear...
Let's just say that Sjowall and Wahloo give you their moralizing straight-up, no chaser.

What I want to know is how two people write a mystery. Did they alternate chapters or what? It has that feeling - pockets of reportorial context, sections of swift-moving plot, and some tremendously awkward dialogue in this translation by Paul Britten Austin. Does an inept cop with the name of Bulldozer really say:
So do you maintain you haven't met Malmstrom and mohren or even heard from them in the last six months?
But I am going to try to stick it out. The puzzle has me intrigued and I want to see whether the authors' moral stance on the Swedish police is just a pet peeve that made its way into the novel because they couldn't help themselves or because it contributes to the story.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Science and Headlines

Given our new president's promise to make science a mainstay of his administration, I thought an article tucked away on page 3 of today's Science Times was in the right spirit, even if it did sport a misleading headline - Another Potential Benefit of Cutting Calories: Better Memory. The headline just gets away with not being an outright fib with the word 'potential.' What the article is actually about is two studies - one with adults 50-72 whose reduction in portion-size reduced calories consumed by 30%. A second group increased consumption of unsaturated fat by 20% without changing overall consumption of calories. A third eats just the way they always did. The result was an improvement in remembering lists of words for the first group. So far so good. A second study tested 20-50 year-olds who cut calories and found no change in memory, although their tests were less rigorous.

So what's to like? That is science. Do two studies, get two conflicting results. Every study done does not instantly lead to advice that makes a succinct headline or a product you can market. I really like the fact that the article reported about the process in the context of what would be big news if it turns out to be correct. However, two conflicting results means the story is that more work is necessary. In science, if you want to know about the influence of one thing on another, you have to come up with a way to isolating that factor from all the other things that could also affect the result, it's known as a control. I wish science in popular news venues would write a little more about the controls. For instance, in the first study mentioned, it would be useful to know the experimenters controlled for the effect of age and exercise, which are both known to effect memory. I like the fact that the reporter, Pam Belluck, mentioned one hypothesis held by the first lab that did not work out. Great! Searching for the answer to a mystery is a great story. If people were pitched a little more about process, they might develop greater understanding and less fear about the subject. Flashes of great insight is not the whole story. Maybe editors can take a cue from our new president and report a little more on the science. How about: Two Studies Create a Debate About The Effect of Diet on Memory. I know. It's not sexy. It won't sell papers.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

From whence come ideas? (Books - The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson)

The second chapter of Steven Johnson's excellent new book, The Invention of Air, focuses on Joseph Priestly's contributions to the discovery of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and the exchange of those two gases. Our ecosystem has evolved so that metabolic processes in plants and humans interact - each one producing as a by-product of their energy needs the gas the other requires. As always with Johnson, the story isn't just what happened but why - why then, and why by Priestley? The story of much scientific progress is a history of measurement.
...when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often energy, because the new found accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight.

The discovery of 'airs' or gases at that time rests on the fact that if you heat certain substances, they lose a very small amount of its weight because they release something (a gas) into the air. The fact of this weight change was only measurable on a very sensitive scale, as the weight lost is relatively small. But the fact of this weight change was the evidence of the existence of this gas, which is not visible to the eye.

As to why Priestley, Johnson tries to dispell the myth of scientific eureka moments and to put in its place the notion of long development:
What's interesting about Priestley is not that he had a hunch, but rather that he had the intelligence and the leisure time to let that hunch lurk in the background for theirty years, growing and evolving and connecting with each new milestone in Priestley's career. We know that epiphanies are a myth of popular science, that ideas don't just fall out of the sky, or leap out of our subconscious. But we don't yet recognize how slow in developing most good ideas are, how they often need to remain dormant as intuitive hunches for decades before they flower. Chance favors the prepared mind, and Priestely had been preparing for thirty years. We talk about great ideas using the language of flashes and instant reveleation, but most great ideas happen on the scale of generations, not seconds.
This becomes another moment for a disquisition by Johnson on the spreading of ideas through networks, which is a veritable obsession with him. He sees them everywhere but I am sure that he would argue, that's because they are everywhere, and I would be inclined to agree with him. He continues to develop the idea he introduced in the first chapter about the coffee houses of the era being much like the internet of the present - a forum for connection. But in this chapter he talks about the connection of the inventor to the network of ideas and associations that are peculiarly his:
...the inventor networks with his own past selves, his or her ability to keep old ideas association alive in the mind. If great ideas usually arrive in fragments, a partial cluster of neurons, then part of the secret to having great ideas lies in creating a working environment where those fragments are nurtured and sustained over time.
Networking with your own past selves - as though each of our thoughts and experiences begin as separate skeins that reach back in time, but are finally woven together into cloth. I thought too how those would not be only intellectual skeins, but also purely sensoral ones (things we see, hear, or smell over time), as well as elements of emotion and personality. Lovely thought, Mr. Johnson. It seems similar to what you have done in this book - weaving what might be seen as wildly divergent strands into whole cloth both useful and beautiful.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two parts of one whole (Books - I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass)

I have finished I See You Everywhere, which I wrote about here. I don't want to say much more about it so as not to ruin your own reading of it, except to say that I found it a warm and nourishing read. The chapters of alternating point of view serve the story well, adding some surprises that wouldn't have been accomplished by a conventional narrative. I found myself invested in the two sisters - two parts of the same whole, really, and consequently as I read the book, I could find different parts of myself in each of them. I wonder if creating these two characters was the same for the writer, that is to say, were they each in some way her? The last section creates an epilogue, letting a greater amount of time elapse before revisiting one of the two narrators. Staying with my theme of philosophy for today (see my other post), this section muses more broadly on life's pleasures and hurts, and particularly on the use of creating art in the context of loss. This epilogue had the feeling of pulling back the camera, after numerous scenes filmed in close-up. It had a more distant feeling, but appropriately so. It did not leave me cold as epilogues often do. It succeeded in concluding the but not by rushing through fifty years to tie every last plot point up with a bow.

Glass's writing is fluid and elegant, but also contemporary. I'll leave you with a paragraph:
When Ray came into my life, he was just that: a shaft of sunlight invading a murky room. I had been married for too long to a genteel but oblivious man whose still waters hid many things but not, after all, an undertow of passion. At first, the decorum and calm in my marriage had been such a relief that I thought, So this is it. But then I met Ray, and I knew, thought it made me sadder than I had every been, This is it. He called me Miss Fever, Miss Open Flame, Miss Hundred and Ten in the Shade - and, once, Miss Bases Loaded Tying Run on Third No outs. One day our illicit gymnastics left his handprints in the new gray carpet of my office; that night, I locked the door so the cleaning lady couldn't remove them. Next morning, when I walked in and saw again the image of his hands, ghostly as petroglyphs, I began to shake. I locked the door for another hour. I was certain that my life as lived (so cautiously) was over.

The original developmental psychologists (Books: Theories of Development by William Crain)

I always think of philosophers creating theories about fully formed adults, their ideas and the societies they create. That is how I remember learning about John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau in college; but William Crain's book Theories of Development reminds us that they were really the original developmental psychologists. Locke thought the human being started out as a tabula rasa, becoming socialized by acquiring knowledge and skills through observation of associations, repetition, imitation and having behaviors reinforced with rewards or discouraged with punishment.


Rousseau felt that although children began life without any knowledge, Nature endowed each child with a particular way of thinking and feeling.

Nature is like a hidden tutor who prompts the child to develop different capacities at different stages of growth.

Rousseau sets out four developmental stages, what a child was capable of acquiring during each one and how. They're reminiscent of Piaget's or Erikson's stages (they are traditionally the ones I think of as developmental psychologists). Both Locke and Rousseau offered their theories of educating children to become "successful" adults. Locke seeing this success defined by the adult's ability to control individual desires - to seek the approval of society so that one might serve it. Whereas Rousseau saw people as driven by primitive urges, fighting being crushed by society. He felt that a successful education permitted the adult to develop independent ideas and morals so as to stand up to society rather than conform to it. We're still playing out this debate today. If any of you are fans of Lost, you will recognize it as one of the themes of the show, hence a character named John Locke.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The yin and the yang of it...

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Since “Inspiration” is the theme this week … what is your reading inspired by?

You. That's a little glib, I know, but the dialogue that is the world wide web gives me lots of ideas for reading and it keeps me energized because my reading happens in the context of someone other than me. Writing about my reading pushes me to read better, more closely, and to form opinions as I read, not just let it wash over me. But the flip-side is equally true, my other inspiration is simply my whim. Reading is a totally self-centered realm (in the best sense). I get to be curious about what ever I want and to satisfy that curiosity by following my nose. I read what I want, when I want, and I depend on no one to do it. Except the writer and the library or bookshop. And that's the yin and the yang of it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Not what you think... (Books - I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass)

I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass comes by its title in a hilarious scene set in a hospital. There are two sisters. Clem, the younger and more reckless one, gets into a serious accident and winds up in the hospital. Louisa the older one, more concerned with living responsibly, more desirous of life's conventional joys gets the news of Clem's accident from their mother. It is Clem's voice narrating Louisa's story:
Louisa's smart, smarter than me in the report-card sense, but whenever she's nervous, she babbles. Today, day two of my renewed consciousness, she's worse than ever, as if she's burning off extra fuel. I guess she's just glad I'm alive, and if I weren't so drugged up, I hope I'd be touched. "So I get home," she's saying. "Hugh's already asleep, I've had too much wine, and what do I find on the machine but one of Mom's classic soliloquies. Something like 'Clem's been in a serious accident, honey, I'm not at home because I'm here with her and your father's back and forth because there's a hurricane off Bermuda - Ethan or Efram, I think; your father says it's a bad sign that here we are not even August and already up to E. C and D passed us by, but B was a very close call. Great for the roses, though. You can't speak to her, I'm afraid, but call this number, I'm giving you this number, just a second, hang on, it's here in my purse. Is it as hot down there as it is up here? Yes, here it is, right, so call and say you love her. Will you do that, please? She can't talk, but have them leave her a message, I'll call you later,'"

Louisa stops pacing. So of course I have no idea where 'here' is or who 'they' are, but I call the number, I'm frantic, and this woman answers, 'I see you?' as if I'm expected to answer, 'Aha, but I see you, too!' Like a game of some kind. All I can say is 'You see me? How?' and she laughs. 'That's a new one,' she says. 'This is intensive care,' and I freak out. I can't believe she's laughing."

"That's cute," I say. "Like, ICU in my dream. ICU on the Johnny Carson show. ICU everwhere."

"More like, ICU every time all hell breaks loose. For both of us."
And that sums up this lovely book perfectly both in its form and its content. It is a series of chapters, each separated by three years, that track the lives of the two sisters. Glass writes each chapter alternately in Clem's voice and then Louisa's. Many of the chapters, like this one, have a stand-alone, short story quality to them. I believe that is the form that they first existed in. In each one it is apparent not just how completely different the two sisters are as people, but how much they depend on each other to define themselves. Glass has made the sister's voices and points of view distinct, but my one quibble with the book as a novel is that I sometimes find the tone of the chapters too various to hang together. But then I find myself justifying that in the changes in Clem and Louisa's circumstances, their age, their relationships, the settings, and the fact that time elapses between each chapter that we don't witness first hand and regardless, they are a pleasure to read.

The scene I excerpted is also emblematic of this book because what you get at first hearing is not really not what is being said. You might think you're reading another little monologue in the voice of the risk averse sister, and you are. But what you are really reading is a small part of complex novel that is an even smaller part of each of these sisters' lives, we only see the parts when they are thrust together "every time all hell breaks loose," as Clem says, It is told through accumulation, through repetition and variation until you finally realize you are reading something you didn't expect, 'I.C.U.' and not 'I see you.' Although both are equally true. I'm not quite finished with it, but three quarters of the way through Glass has created a warm and touching book whose characters feel deeply real and that lets its pleasures emerge quietly out of character study.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's in the air... (Books - The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson)

After six hours writing a paper yesterday about a brain structure called the superior temporal sulcus, you might not think I'd be much in the mood for reading about science, but actually I felt primed to read Steven Johnson's latest, so skilled is he at making a narrative flow of scientific ideas and the era in which they gain acceptance. His new book The Invention of Air exemplifies this. Here he tells the story of Joseph Priestly, who started his life of scholarship by writing a book of English grammar, next studying electricity, learning many of the basics from another polymath, Benjamin Franklin. Priestly wrote a 700-page book on the electricity which became the seminal text on the subject for the next century. Priestly was involved in the discovery of ten 'airs,' we would call them gases, including oxygen, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, for which he discovered the ingenious use of carbonating water, influencing the taste of future generations in ways he could hardly have imagined. But Johnson's life is hardly a conventional biography. What Priestly's life becomes a platform for in Johnson's book is a discussion of the emanation and dissemination of ideas. Johnson marvels not simply at the fact that Priestly, after discussing electricity in a London coffee house with Benjamin Franklin, conducts experiments in his kitchen and writes a lengthy and influential book on the subject, but rather at the character of the book. Scientific writing until that time was in the form of a philosophical argument and proof and if Newton's Principia is the prime example, it was written in Latin. Priestly, although fluent in seven languages, wrote his book in English in the form of a narrative:
But his History was as much a breakthrough for its form as for its content. He had invented a whole new way of imagining science; instead of a unified, Newtonian pronouncement, Priestley recast natural philosophy as a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment, with each new innovation building on the last. In his prologue to the History, he contrasts his method favorably with the existing genres of civil history and natural history: the epic stories of kings and wars and famines, or the meticulous inventories of nature - insects, rocks formations, flowers - that had become commonplace over the preceding century. There were great lessons and pleausres to be found in those other forms of writing, Priestley argued, but they lacked the definitive movement toward clarity and understanding that could be found in his own philosophical history...
The story of scientific narrative is one of two themes Johnson mines in his opening chapter. The second is the notion of innovative streaks, both on the individual and societal level. Why do a few people seem to have a disproportionate share of the big ideas, Johnson asks, and why does the popularization of those ideas seem to occur in bursts. This is a discussion Johnson covers ably in fifteen pages of easy and even amusing narrative. He puts the theories of Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which imagnes a small center of change, starting in the lab with the scientist and radiating outward, alongside the notion of the ecosystem:
Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways, but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a "long zoom" science, on that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains how solar energy collides with the Earth's atmosphere.
This interconnected network model is a favorite of Johnson's - how ideas move for the cellular networks of the human brain to cultural systems like the economy, to massive forces like energy. This notion, contrary to Kuhn's, sees large pattern of changes occurring when large simultaneous cultural forces align or, you could say, when the notion is 'in the air.' Johnson, with a nod to Tom Standage's book A History of the World in Six Glasses, half-jokingly credits the emergence of the coffee house culture with the birth The Age of Enlightenment. Starbucks, take note.

I had looked at both Johnson's book and another - Julia Glass's novel I See You Everywhere on the same evening in a bookstore a couple of weeks back. Both are new and in nicely designed hardcover editions, with attractive jackets. Both are of a size agreeable to hold in ones hand, but it was the end of the semester and I was hardly likely to start them immediately, so I ordered them on line. Having first admired them, and then waited for them, and then placed them on the to-be-read-sooner-rather-than-later pile I had enjoyed anticipating them, particularly Glass's novel whose opening pages had a warm, comforting feeling to them. I found myself almost loath to begin I See You Everywhere so much had I enjoyed my anticipation of it. But start I did and now having written about Steven Johnson writing about Priestley writing about science, I have a little writing about science I should do myself. So I will force you to anticipate my thoughts on Julia Glass's new novel until later.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A mystery inside a mystery (Books - The Private Patient by P. D. James)

On subway trips to and from the library to work on a paper, and warm in bed on a frigid New York night (and part of the morning), I finished P. D. James's latest The Private Patient. I cannot say much more about it than I did in my other post, that is the way with mysteries, but as the early signs indicated the past did figure importantly. After detective Adam Dalgliesh gathers everyone in the house part, the plot took over from James's careful development of character and the rhythm of the writing accelerated. While there were surprises in how things turned out, it wasn't one of those flashy endings. The mystery was a multi-layered affair. The solution to this crime unfolded quietly and then there were, shall we say, mysteries packed inside the mysteries. What I like James best for is her deeply thought out characters and how she writes about what goes on inside of them...

He sometimes wondered what it would be like to find that secret door said to be open to the lightest touch, and to feel this burden of guilt and indecision fall from his shoulders. But he knew that one dimension of human experience was closed to him as was music to the tone deaf.

...and how they appear to others.

Mogworthy, an incongruous Cerberus, had changed into a shiny blue suit and striped tie, which gave him the look of an ancient undertaker, and stood beside her, back to the fire, the only one on his feet. He turned to glare at Dalgliesh as they entered; the glare seemed to Benton more minatory than aggressive.

I love the fact that she gets not one but two mythological references into two sentences. The Private Patient satisfied me in the ways that the traditional British mystery always does, particularly one crafted by P. D. James.

There are two books waiting for me at the library but it is six degrees, or something like that, outside and I may not want to make the walk. I also have a section of my paper to write today, so I don't know what I will end up reading next.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Chaos bursts through careful control (Books - The Private Patient by P. D. James)

I'm about one-third of the way into P.D. James's latest and she writes with the confidence of someone who has earned her place as the reigning master of the intellectual English mystery. Her descriptions do not walk so much as process down tree-lined avenues. There is a deliberateness, a thoroughness to her writing that, in The Private Patient, is accompanied by retrospection. Legacy, memory, age, whether of house, city, or a character, is the preoccupying theme of this book.
The lease was long and renewable; she would have liked to buy the house, but knew that it would never be for sale. But the fact that she couldn't hope to call it entirely her own didn't distress her. Most of it dated back to the seventeenth century. Many generations had lived in it, been born and died there, leaving behind nothing but their names on browning and archaic leases, and she was content to be in their company.

[...]

The City which lay below was a charnel house built on multi-layered bones centuries older than those which lay beneath the cities of Hamburg or Dresden. Was this knowledge part of the mystery it held for her, a mystery felt most strongly on a bell-chimed Sunday on her solitary exploration of its hidden alleys and squares? Time had fascinated her from childhood, its apparent power to move at different speeds, the dissolution it wrought on minds and bodies, her sense that each moment, all moments past and those to come, were fused into an illusory present which with every breath became the unalterable, indestructible past.
And then, the set-up:
It was now eight-thirty and she was in her bathroom. Turning off the shower, she moved, towel-wrapped, to the mirror over the washbasin. She put out her hand and smoothed it over the steam-smeared glass and watched her face appear, pale and anonymous as a smudged painting. It was months since she had deliberately touched the scar. How, slowly and delicately, she ran a fingertip down its length, feeling the silver shininess at its heart, the hard bumpy outline of its edge. Placing her left hand over her cheek, she tried to imagine the stranger who, in a few weeks' time, would look into the same mirror and see a doppelganger of herself, but one incomplete, unmarked, perhaps with only a thin white line to show where this puckered crevice had run. Gazing at the image, which seemed no more than a faint palimpsest of her former self, she began slowly and deliberately to demolish her carefully constructed defences and let the turbulent past, first like a swelling stream and then a river in spate, break through unresisted and take possession of her mind.
All of James's books invest in a thorough set-up with lots of insight into character, which I love, but I find this one particularly unhurried. No pressure here except to get the job done - to introduce each character in turn and each plot-line with equal care and the tone proper to their circumstances. Some are to be essential to solving the mystery, others are, no doubt, destined to become red herrings, but to stint on any of them would be to give away which is which. James spends 100 pages making us acquainted with the investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn, the renowned plastic-surgeon George Chandler-Powell, hired to remove Rhoda's own legacy - a scar she has had since childhood. James spends a chapter on each member of the staff of Chandler-Powell's private clinic, housed in his historic manor in Dorset.

I don't think it is merely coincidental that P.D. James as an older writer is writing about time, about age, but I also don't think it is a merely a preoccupation with self. The past is, I'm sure, going to be essential to solving the mystery. In the same way, I don't thing that the fact that the writing here is methodical is a quirk of James's style through which we have to suffer to get to the good stuff. It is a deliberate voice chosen to express the way that Chandler-Powell and Rhoda Gradwyn are methodical. Both are characters who have come out of chaos in their pasts and have reacted to it by putting a good amount of control into their lives. The routine of their work, their weekly schedule, the food they eat and when they eat it, each of these aspects of their lives is highly controlled and has an old-fashioned rhythm to it. So it is a surprise when, following the surgery, Rhoda suddenly sees a ghostly figure around her bed making ritual gestures just prior to murdering her (this is not a spoiler, we know she will die from the first sentence of the book). I really like this touch for two reasons - this otherworldly figure clad in white could be a nurse, surgeon, or someone who has taken surgical scrubs, mask, and gloves from the premises and who is seen through Rhoda's post-anesthetic haze - it could also be something otherworldly bursting through the protective veneer of these controlled lives just at the moment of the crime. As though it reaches through, perhaps from the past? I don't know yet. But the book's tone changes with the crime - as lives change as the result of a murder - and with the introduction of detective Adam Dalgleish and his team comes a more modern-day percussive, chaotic rhythm. Murder cuts into Gradwyn's world and keeps her new face an eternal mystery.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers... (Books - Twilight & Moonbeam Alley by Stefan Zweig)

The pair of short stories Twilight & Moonbeam Alley, both by Stefan Zweig, collected in a single petite edition by Pushkin Press, both concern people whose very existence depends on others. We all depend on other people to one extent or another, even if we try hard not to. The two subjects of Zweig's twin character studies could not be more different from each other. The focus of Twilight is Madame de Prie, a member of the court of French king Louis XV. She offends the king with a bold political move and is banished to her country estate at Courbepine, she assumes, for a short while. It turns out to last must longer than she expected and while she considered herself a self-sufficient and powerful woman she discovers otherwise in her exile.
But as soon as he left she felt as if the weight of the silence were descending on her twice as heavily as before, as if she alone had to hold up the high ceiling, she alone must keep back the advancing darkness. She had never known how much a single human being can mean to another, because she had never been lonely before. She had never thought more of other people than of air, and one does not feel the air, but now that solitude was choking her, only now did she realise how much she needed them, recognising how much they meant to her even when they deceived and told lies, how she herself drew everything from their presence, their easy manners, their confidence and cheerfulness. She had been immersed for decades in the tide of society, never knowing that it nourished and bore her up, but now, stranded like a fish on the beach of solitude, she flinched in despair and convulsive pain...
**MAJOR SPOILER ALERT**
Madame de Prie first tries to do what she is used to - manipulate friends in high places, take a young lover in order to feel more powerful than someone else, and finally beg those in power to reinstate her. None of these succeed in changing her circumstances, so she changes her attitude, accomplishing this by planning her own death. ** SPOILER FINISHED**

What is unusual about this story is its tone, which feels for all the world like a fairy tale, dark though it may be. There is a magical, dark-and-stormy-night mood to this piece which is a parable about valuing others more than ones position or wealth. The story is also nearly prophetic in light of Zweig's own experience of and response to forced exile from his native Austria by the Nazis.

The accompanying piece, Moonbeam Alley, concerns an encounter had by a German traveler on his way home by ship, with a woman and a man, both of whom he encounters in a seedy bar in an alley near the docks.
I liked such alleyways in foreign towns, places that are a disreputable market-place for all the passions, a secret accumulation of temptations for the sailors who, after many lonely days on strange and dangerous seas, come here for just one night to fulfill all their many sensuous dreams within an hour. These little side-streets have to lurk somewhere in the poorer part of any big city, lying low, because they say so boldly and importunately things that are hidden beneath a hundred disguises in the brightly lit buildings with their shining window panes and distinguished denizens. Enticing music wafts from small rooms here, garish cinematograph posters promise unimaginable splendours, small square lanterns hang under gateways, winding in very clear invitation, ussuing an intimate greeting, and naked flesh glimpsed through a door left ajar shimmers under gilded fripperies. ..But all this is hidden in modestly muted yet tell-tale fashion behind shutters lowered for the look of the thing, it all goes on behind closed doors, and that apparent seclusion is intriguing, is twice as seductive because it is both hidden and accessible. Such streets are the same in Hamburg and Colombo and Havana, similar in all seaports, just as the wide and luxurious avenues resemble each other, for the upper side and underside of life share the same form. These shady streets are the last fantastic remnants of a sensually unregulated world where instinct still has free rein, brutal and unbridled; they are a dark wood of passions, a thicket full of the animal kingdom, exciting visitors with what they reveal and enticing them with what they hide. One can weave them into dreams.
This story, although it sets the atmosphere beautifully, almost lost me, because it appeared to do nothing else for some time. But once our narrator meets the central character, things get interesting. The story is built around a central psychological surprise that I won't disclose as it is the whole story. The set-piece of this story is a brilliant ten-page monologue about obsession of one person for another that has me sold on this story as perfect for adaptation to a one-man drama. As a director, I used to read constantly with an eye to what story might adapt well to drama, but I haven't been drawn to that characteristic in a story in some time. The translation by Anthea Bell, as with her work on Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repaired the Gramophone, feels fluid, natural and stylistically right for the period. I'm going to get cracking on this idea so you had better no steal it. In the meantime, I'm grateful to John Self for recommending these wonderful stories and to Dovegrey for seconding that emotion. I third it, and get them in this elegant little edition, it's a pleasure to read.

May I have the envelope please...

I was going to post on Stefan Zweig's Twilight but then Matt gave me this nifty recognition a couple of days ago and it's taken me this long to figure it out. Thank you, Matt. I'm honored to be honored. It's the Premio Dardos or Darts Award which, well I'll let them say it.

This award acknowledges the values that every blogger shows in his or her effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day. The rules to follow are:

1) Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link.

2) Pass the award to 15 (actually 10) other blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

So there you have it. I most gratefully follow rule #1 by accepting this award and posting it, but as for rule #2 I say - rules, schmools, I'm doing this my own way - and passing it on to just a few blogs, even if someone has honored them already. Please hold your applause until the end of the presentation.

Although Cornflower Books is a fairly new place, Cornflower is an old hand at bringing us her observation on books, cakes, and other various and sundry. A visit to her place is like being invited to someone's comfy kitchen for tea and a chat. I found out about A. S. Byatt's upcoming book at her house and so, Cornflower, I honor you.

Notes of an Anesthesioboist is exactly what it says. Our fearless, reed-sucking goddess of sleep shares her thoughts on her work, her reading, cooking, family life. A thoughtful, nourishing place to visit and for that I honor her.

C.B. and his faithful friend Dakota get a lot of books in. That is, C. B. reads 'em and Dakota eats 'em. The trick is to see which one gets to them first. C.B. is an energetic reader, an involved member of his community, and I find his author interviews a particularly good reason to visit and to give him this honor. The name of the blog is Ready When You Are, C. B.

I always enjoy seeing what author Sarah Salway will offer next in the way of writing prompts, following her visits to writer's workshops and artists colonies, and especially her exploits with shopping trolleys, and so I honor Sarah's Writing Journal.

The Mookse and the Gripes is the place to go when you want to dive head-first into an in-depth reading of meaty literature like the poetry of Walcott or Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. I have gotten more than a couple of good recommendations here so, Mookse, please accept this honor with my thanks.

Last, but certainly not least, I choose to honor my dear friend and fellow-blogger Sheila for her passionate writing on her reading, her film going, her favorite actors, and her friends and family (she is a prolific memoirist at the moment) at The Sheila Variations. For being a consistently fun, provocative, and raucus read, Sheila, I honor you.

And now, please give a hearty roar of approval to these bloggers by checking out their sites if you haven't already.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What fools these mortals be...

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
- William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Whatever your brilliant idea is, Shakespeare thought of it first. John Tierney writes in today's Science Times about the neuroscientist Larry Young and his theory of love. Prairie voles tend, unlike most mammals to mate monogomously.
When a female prairie vole’s brain is artificially infused with oxytocin, a hormone that produces some of the same neural rewards as nicotine and cocaine, she’ll quickly become attached to the nearest male. A related hormone, vasopressin, creates urges for bonding and nesting when it is injected in male voles (or naturally activated by sex).
Oxytocin, produced during childbirth and nursing, is the same chemical that stimulates bonding between mother and child. So motherly love is, neurochemically, the prototype of adult love. I am sure Dr. Freud, wherever he is, has just lit up a celebratory cigar.

Researchers are now playing around with manipulating oxytocin levels in humans and discussing its use in everything from encouraging more typical social relations in people with autism to marriage counseling. But researchers are noticing, as Shakespeare did, that problems might arise if the wrong partner is targeted. They are also playing around with the idea of a vaccine that inhibits mating and nesting impulses. So the first drug could make you fall in love with an ass and the second might keep you from acting like one yourself. And Shakespeare thought of that one too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Good witches and bad (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I wrote a couple of posts back that the witchcraft in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick was like the harnessing of the forces of nature gone mad. Having now finished it, I hadn't really known how right I was. By the forces of nature I don't mean the moon and the tides but rather the forces inside of us - lust, jealousy, greed. The witches' powers are enriched by their being single, which to Updike means in a state of implicit need. Alexandra, Sukie and Jane all crave the company of Darryl Van Horne, the new single man in town. Deep down the three women are just as nice, and just as duplicitous, racist, and narrow-minded as the rest of the people in Eastwick, the small town that is the setting of this novel. They crave the same things - companionship, sex, fulfilling work, a sense of agency. These three women are nearly just like everyone else, except that they practice rituals that subserve these inner forces for use in malevolent acts against others. Updike has sets up a story in which the witches are our heroines, although he is far from simplistic about good and evil. One way he does this is by creating a marvelous foil for our witches in the character of Felicia Gabriel. Felicia has given her life to improving every aspect of her town that she can. She does this the old fashioned way, by writing letters to the editor, chairing committees, and the like. She puts every ounce of energy she has toward observing and correcting the wrongs she sees around her. The trouble is, she sees them absolutely everywhere, and while one could say she is a force only for good, she has in truth become an enraged, bitter witch herself. She sees no good in anything she hasn't fixed, and has become a prude and a pedant. She eventually also becomes one of the witches victims and her demise is as horrible as it is hilarious. This book sends-up suburbia, leaving no character unchastised - neither the rich nor their servants, the drug addict in the parking lot nor the minister, and neither the good witches nor the bad.

The other pleasure this novel offers is the writing and whether Updike is exercising his "good witch" or his bad, he attains simultaneously erudition, comedy, and majesty. Take these two descriptions of the witches, one early in the novel reveling in Sukie's beauty and the other later, basking in the demise of Jane, they exemplify using talents, this case Updike's writing talents, in the service of the light and the dark:
Sukie was the most recently divorced and the youngest of the three. She was a slender redhead, her hair down her back in a sheaf tirmmed straight across and her long arms laden with these freckles the cedar color of pencil shavings. She wore copper bracelets and a pentagram on a cheap thin chain around her throat. What Alexandra, with her heavily Hellenic, twice-cleft fatrues, loved about Sukie's looks was the cheerful simian thrust: Sukie's big teeth pushed her profile below the brief nose out in a curve, a protrusion especially of her upper lip, which was longer and more complex in shape than her lower, with a plumpness on either wide of the center that made even her silences seem puckish, as if she were tasting amusement all the time.

and

"Isn't this cozy!" Jane Smart cried, coming in late, wearing almost nothing: plastic sandals and a gingham mini with the shoulder straps tied at the back of the neck so as not to mar her tan. She turned a smooth mocha color, but the aged skin under her eyes remained crepey and white and her left leg showed a livid ripple of varicose vein, a little train of half-submerged bumgs, like those murky photographs with which people try to demonstrate the existence of the Loch Ness monster. Still, Jane was vital, a thick-skinned sun hag in her element.

A lusty, energized, potent, and, at times, uncomfortable novel, but the writing is always an alluring pleasure. My other posts on it are here, here and here.

Next up: Stefan Zweig's Twilight and Moonbeam Alley put out in a beautiful compact edition by Pushkin Press on paper so yummy I could eat it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The sentence as a one act play (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I'm going to post on just one sentence today. You can do that with John Updike. Such rich and resonant writing. He writes sentences that are like one act plays.








They all heard her car, a pale gray Corvair convertible with front-wheel drive and her ex-husband's vanity plate ROUGE still on the back, start up and spin out and crackle away down the drive.
Four characters comprise the dramatis personae - three people hearing the car and one driving it (I guess there are five characters if you count the ex-husband). There is not just a car - but a specific model - filling out our understanding of our driver's class, her taste, her self-image. They all hear her car. They do this together, as if it stops whatever action they were engaged in. And not only can they hear it, we can hear it too because Updike chooses such specific verbs. He doesn't tell us that the car merely drove away, or drove quickly, or that it tore down the driveway (somewhat cliched). The gray Corvair convertible starts up, spins out and crackles down the drive. I don't want to spout such nonsense as "great writing is all in the verbs," but precise verbs go a long word towards placing the reader somewhere specific. Three sounds occur because of our driver's circumstances, of which we know something if we have read the preceeding sentences, but even without doing so one can form a specific impression - mine is one of haste, and possibly daredevil carelessness but there could be some anger in there too. The reader too hears three sounds. Driving away can sound like hundreds of things but the crackling of a sports car's wheels on a driveway is much more precise, it permits the reader to hear something close to what the writer imagines, rather than to simply guess at the sounds or interpolate their own generic car driving away noise. With the additional knowledge of the car, its driver, and her audience of listeners one sentence becomes a mini-drama complete with actions, relationships, scenery, props, and sound effects.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The celebration of people for who they are (Books - American Gods by Neil Gaiman)

The final 100 pages of Neil Gaiman's American Gods didn't mine any new territory but, having stuck with it, the novel delivered in the end. Shadow, the lead character in American Gods is a memorable creation and Gaiman has a rich imagination, especially given the fact that, he gave himself nearly all of Eastern and Western civilizations deities as characters. My earlier reservations about the novel stand (you can read those posts here and here) and I still don't really know why the several interludes were necessary, but American Gods was an intricately plotted and entertaining saga. Gaiman makes a point of peopling his American epic with people of many races, a choice that felt natural and appropriate. And this is the second story of Gaiman's I have read that includes gay characters, where sexuality is an aspect of their characterization but it has little to do with sex. If Gaiman seems to have a broader theme running through all of his work (that I know so far) it is the growth of people toward who they are and the celebration of that once they get there.

Nature gone awry (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I am continuing to enjoy John Updike's sumptuous sentences and comic riff on suburbia in The Witches of Eastwick. In this section the three witches, Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane, assemble for their weekly get-together as Alexandra muses privately on her fear of cancer.
The platter was coarse tan earthenware gouged and glazed with the semblance of a crab. Cancer. Alexandrea feared it, and saw its emblem everywhere in nature - in clusters of blueberries in the neglected places by rocks and bogs, in the grapes ripening on the saggin rotten arbor outside her kitchen windows, in the ants bringing up conical granular hills in the cracks in her asphalt driveway, in all blind and irresistible multiplications.

"Your usual?"

[...]

"I guess it's still tonic time," Alexandra decided, for the coolness that had come in with the thunderstorm some days ago had stayed. "How's your vidka supply?" Someone once told her that not only was vodka less fattening but it irritated the lining of your stomach less than gin. Irritation, psychic as well as physical, was the source of cancer. Those get it who leave themselves open to the idea of it; all it takes is one single cell gone crazy. Nature is always waiting, watching for you to lose faith so she can insert her fatal stitch.

I enjoyed this section on a number of levels. Updike captures that sort of obsessional neurotic fear one can get caught in from time to time, where one see the object of one's fear everywhere. It is itself a sort of cancer, the growth of a seed of knowledge gone amok. Then there is Updike's making literature of science. Although it is a little less absolute that Alexandra's understanding would have it, cancer is thought to occur when the programming that governs the balance of cell replication and cell death goes awry. Finally though, what I like most about this passage, is that the witches in relation to the sedate Rhode Island town they inhabit are themselves forces of nature gone crazy. That is what witchcraft is about, the harnessing of nature's powers to achieve some end (it doesn't have to be nefarious). I am experiencing Updike's novel as a comic take on the way suburbia has tamed the forces of nature in us all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Did you hear the one about Medea? (Books - American Gods by Neil Gaiman)

I have about 100 pages left in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, but this will probably be my final post on it. Gaiman has created a world in which modern notions of commerce, technology, and media are personified as modern-day gods who wage war on the gods of old - the pre-judeo-christian deities. Shadow, a mild, bookish, ex-con, ends up as bodyguard/chauffeur/errand boy for a latter-day version of Odin, one of the Norse pantheon.

Odin, here named Wednesday, stiffs a waitress in order to have some money to carry out his pre- war preparations.
"This isn't necessary," said Shadow. "I said I get the idea. You could do this to anyone, couldn't you? Tell me bad things about them."

"Of course," agreed Wednesday. "They all do the same things. They may think their sins are original, but for the most part they are petty and repetitive."

"An that makes it okay for you to steal ten bucks from her?"

Wednesday paid the taxi and the two men walked into the airport, wandered up to their gate. Boarding had not yet begun. Wednesday said, "What the hell else can I do? They don't sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don't send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn't that fair?"
In what I am assuming was the climax scene, although I could be surprised, the warring parties meet at a motel that is in the exact center of America for a purpose I won't divulge. One of the modern-day gods trying to win Shadow over to their side is Media.
"Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn't she the one who killed her children?"

"Different woman," said Mr. Nancy. "Same deal."
Neil Gaiman is a funny guy. He finds lots of opportunities for clever humor admidst his premise of a war for governance over the American soul. He manages to turn his many spiritual/cultural notions into page-turning fiction. His creative fantasy is prolific and well-meaning, but the whole things never rises above mildly entertaining for me. And I am still waiting for the thirty-page tangent about a serving girl from Cornwall and the various graphic sex scenes that popped up through the narrative to weave themselves into the vast cloth that is American Gods. I am sure they are going to figure soon, in what feels like the book's denouement, but 500 pages seems a long time to wait for it. So far, my favorite book of Gaiman's is still Coraline.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Air had to be invented? (New Acquisitions Department)

Two new acquisitions! The other day, with a few minutes to spare before meeting a friend for dinner, I ducked into a handy Barnes & Noble just to see what was out. I tend not to make impulse purchases, especially at chain bookstores, although I will do so at independents and I will shop at the mega stores on-line because of the price advantage. I saw that Steven Johnson's new book is finally out. I've been looking forward to it since learning he had a new one in the works on his blog a few months ago. I really enjoyed his Mind Wide Open and The Ghost Map which I wrote about here extensively. The Invention of Air is about inventor/theologian Joseph Priestly whose discovery of oxygen was part of a larger discovery of the notion of the ecosystem in general. Mirroring this scientific narrative is an historical one looking at the emergence of unitarianism at the time of America's formation. These twin narratives bring together one of Johnson's favorite themes, how new ideas emerge through networks. Sounds enticing.

The other is Julia Glass's recent novel I See You Everywhere. I enjoyed her Three Junes when that first came out but, for some reason, was not interested by her second book enough to read it. This one was sitting out on the new fiction table and I picked it up to read a few sentences. I was taken instantly by the narrative voice, and that is always a good sign. The narrator is a self-described loner (but not a sociopath, she warns us) and spends the evening of her 25th birthday glazing porcelain and listening to Ella Fitzgerald. She is one of two sisters, and it is their relationship that forms the centerpiece of this novel.

Meanwhile, vacation is clearly over as I spent all day yesterday working on various home and school projects (we're having the bathroom redone and The Ragazzo was stripping the old paint and wallpaper off the walls this weekend. What a mess). All that by way of saying, the reading is likely to slow down a bit. I have managed to get through a good deal more of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which, in 450 pages, has managed to come together a bit (see my first post). I'll post on that anon but right now, it's off to the dentist.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A writer who takes the trouble (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

Only 3 days into the year and I have already started a book not on my list! Actually, I had reserved John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick at the library in October after having read Sam Tanenhaus's excellent review of the recently released sequel in the New York Times Book Review and forgotten all about it. I figured if I were going to read The Widows of Eastwick, I should read the predecessor first. I also hadn't had much luck getting through a novel of Updike's. I had tried both The Centaur and Couples and found them dated, though I have yet to give any of the Rabbit novels a try. Fifty pages into The Witches of Eastwick all that has changed. I am enthusiastically admiring Updike's observations of 1980s suburbia - as rich as they are hilarious. But most of all it is his descriptions I marvel at - whether of people or of places - they unfold specific detail, by specific detail, in seemingly effortless sentences that move steadily, nobly, like a royal procession or a great river.
Coal pulled her on, past a heap of barnacled square-cut rocks that had been part of a jetty built when this beach was the toy of rich men and not an overused public playground. The rocks were a black-freckled pale granite and one of the largest held a bolted bracket rusted by the years to the fragility of a Giacometti.
That description expects something of the reader. Updike's spare use of commas makes one slow down to feel the rhythm of the sentence. They build detail upon detail in multiple realms at once. In the first sentence, we see the rocks as barnacles but the in the context of both the town's geography and its sociology. In the second we learn of the rock's specific identity and then, in addition, this rock's unique detail of a bolted bracket whose shape we can clearly see in our mind's eye, if we are well-versed in modern sculpture.

This train of paragraphs in which Alexandra, one of the three witches, takes her dog Coal for a walk on the beach, also does service as a lengthy description of Alexandra herself.
Alexandra wore her hair in a single thick braid down her back; sometimes she pinned the braid up like a kind of spine to the back of her head. Her hair had never been a true clarion Viking blond but of a muddy pallor now further dirtied by gray. Most of the gray hair had sprouted in front; the nape was still as finespun as those of the girls that lay here basking. The smooth young legs she walked past were caramel in color, with white fuzz, and aligned as if in solidarity...

Coal plunged on, snorting, imagining some scent, some dissolving animal vein within the kelpy scent of the oceanside. The beach population thinned. A young couple lay intertwined in a space they had hollowed in the pocked sand; the boy murmured into the base of the girl's throat as if into a microphone. An overmuscled male trio, their long hair flinging as they grunted and lunged, were playing Frisbee, and only when Alexandra purposefully let the powerful black Labrador pull her through this game's wide triangle did they halt their insolent tossing and yelping. She thought she heard the word "hag" or "bag" at her back after she had passed through, but it might have been an acoustic trick, a mistaken syllable of sea-slap. She was drawing near to where a wall of eroded concrete topped by a helix of rusted barbed wire marked the end of public beach; still there were knots of youth and seekers of youth and she did not feel free to set loose poor Coal, though he repeatedly gagged at the restraint of his collar. His desire to run burned the rope in her hand. The sea seemed unnaturally still - tranced, marked by milky streaks far out, where a single small launch buzzed on the sounding board of its level surface. On Alexandra's other side, nearer to hand, beach pea and wooly hudsonia crept down from the dunes; the beach narrowed here and became intimate, as you could see from the nests of cans and bottles and burnt driftwood and the bits of shattered Styrofoam cooler and the condoms like small dried jellyfish corpses.
What a couple of paragraphs. I am going to march through my reading of them. We begin by learning just a little about what Alexandra looks like (we have learned more before this point) but Updike cannot do that without making a comparison, as I see it, it is Alexandra's own comparison of herself to the sea of youth in which she is awash. We can feel in that description her yearn to be sexual but her awareness of her own middle-aged status, her lack of physicality as she resents the boys' "insolent" game of Frisbee and then feel the slap of the insult on her back. "Hag," a nasty slap if she is already feeling her age, although the word does double-duty as a synonym for witch. Updike cannot resist adding Alexandra's notion that she could have mistook the sound of the surf for a word with an "a" vowel in it. A highly unlikely mistake, adding both humor from the third-person narrator, and awareness of a slightly desperate optimism from the interior perspective of Alexandra that this narration affords the reader. I love the mixture of the sexual and the inanimate that repeats itself again and again - the boy murmuring into the girls throat like a microphone, the rusted barbed wire and youth, the condoms and the stryrofoam. Finally, I love to death the fact that the plants growing on the beach are given their names - beach pea and wooly hudsonia. It is the mark of a writer who takes the trouble to see and to write precisely so that what we read can feel effortless. That or it indicates he can name them on sight as handily as he can a Giacometti. If the reader cares to do a little research, then he can see along with the writer, the patterned, eucalyptus-green leaves of the beach pea, and immerse himself further in the world of the story rather than skim across the surface of the narrative with the general knowledge that there is some sort of plant there. I also like the fact that this detail can flow from the twin perspectives of the narration, both from the third-person omniscient narrator who knows everything we need to be told, and Alexandra's interior perspective. It struck me as I read that sentence that, as a witch, she might know the names of the local flora.

I have a whole additional rant on how I read what the witches stand for in this suburban Rhode Island beach town, but I'm going to save that for another post.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Well-imagined gods and shadows (Books - American Gods - by Neil Gaiman)

One quarter of the way through Neil Gaiman's American Gods and I can't say, like the queen, that I'm not amused, but I am finding the whole thing a bit unsatisfying. Shadow survives three years in prison imagining the joy awaiting him when he returns to his wife and the job he will work at with his best friend. But he is released two days early, being told that both his wife and best friend were killed in a car crash. He is then pursued by a mysterious man in a white suit who wants to employ him. It seems no matter what lengths Shadow goes to to avoid him, the man keeps popping up and Shadow finally feels he must say yes.

Apparently his employer and his cronies are gods of a non-judeo-christian variety (Odin, Frau Holle) but Shadow is too dull or too logical to realize it for over 150 pages. I am enjoying Gaiman's sense of humor, his collection of antiquated gods whose importance never took hold in America, are self-important and hungry for some realm in which they can wield their power - they remind me of a few boards of directors I've been around (I've been around some great ones too). Despite their various powers, Gaiman humanizes the gods with amusing flaws. When he and Wednesay (his empoyer) stay overnight with several cronies in Chicago, one of his hostesses can, it seems, harness the power of the moon but she can't cook worth a damn. The best scene so far has been a meeting of these old gods, accessed by riding the largest carousel in the world, housed beneath Frank Lloyd Wright's House on the Rock. Gaiman uses this to begin to reveal to Shadow who he is among. They travel "in the minds" of one of the gods, and Shadow is then capable of seeing each of the deities in their many guises simultaneously.
He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast's mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.
I love the freeness of Gaiman's fantasy and its specificity. I love that the gods would exist in multiple forms at the same time in a way that the human mind could not see. This is all revealed to Shadow following an elaborate description of the carousel, the result being that I heard the calliope and barrell organ music that grinds from an old carousel as this scene took place - it created a marvelous old-carnival atmosphere that was just perfect. However, 160 pages in although I know that Shadow works for Wednesday, and although I know that Wednesday and his godly band are being threatened by another as yet nameless group, I really don't know anything else. Several chapters have been interspersed with this story that have included wildly graphic sex that showed up in the story for no reason I could fathom and the story of Essie Tregowan, the daughter of a Cornish cook who ends up in America. I trust these are all going to fit together in a way that will make me gasp with recognition but right now I am finding the whole effect is disjointed and I'm getting a little impatient for a story that hangs together.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sending up Chicago's Gold Coast (Books - The Actual by Saul Bellow)

Backtracking to some brief thoughts on my last read of 2008, Saul Bellow's novella The Actual. I found it a fluid, mischievous set of intertwining character studies at the center of which is Harry Trellman, a Chicago businessman - an eternal outsider with a talent for assessing character.
It's easy enough to see what people think they're doing. Nor is what they really are up to hard for common sense to make out. The usual repertories of strategems, deceits, personality rackets, ringing the changes on criminal cunning, are hardly worth examining.
Bellow maintains this chatty, appropriately cumbersome, smart-boy-up-from-the-streets voice for Harry throughout the book's 100 pages. The plots concerns Harry's 40-year high school crush on Amy Wustrin who, in the book's present time frame has divorced Harry's best friend. She is an interior decorated for the ultra wealthy. The story has some marvelous send-ups of the whimsical upper crust of Chicago society. In the most memorable scene in the story, a social climber who has spent several years in jail for trying to have her wealthy husband knocked off, pours tea onto Amy Wustrin's lap in order to manoeuvre her into the bathroom and pursuade her to inflate her estimate of her apartment's furniture. It is simultaneously hilarious, tense, and embarrassing. I found the book swift-moving, entertaining, skillfully set up, and well written, but I can't say I had the impression I was reading a gushworthy masterpiece. I am not going to ruin the story the way the book cover does, but I wasn't surprised where it led and found that rather than making the piece profound, it rendered it into a one-joke wonder. Still, it's worth a read, and I may search out some complete reviews by critics who thought it particularly good to see if I can learn something. So far, I am a bigger fan of Bellow's longer works.

Best laid plans

btt button

So … any Reading Resolutions? Say, specific books you plan to read? A plan to read more ____? Anything at all?

Name me at least ONE thing you’re looking forward to reading this year!


I don't have any structured resolutions. My pleasure reading is a forum where I allow myself to follow my impulse. I didn't do all that well with reading challenges last year. I signed up for The Russian Reading Challenge - that was an absolute disaster, and it's not because I don't like Russian literature or books about Russia, I do. The Chunkster Challenge wasn't so bad but only because I kept adding to the list every book I finished that was more than 450 pages. I did fairly well on The Man Booker Challenge, only one title remains - I did not manage to read Darkmans. The only challenge I completed was C. B.'s Short Story challenge, which was spur of the moment and only lasted one month. I even managed to win a prize! I could make a resolution that I am not going to do any book challenges this year, but I'm sure I'll get tempted and break that one too.

That being said, I have a scrumptious stack teetering by my bed and a wonderful fantasy that I am going to read them all in 2009. Ha, ha, the joke's on me. I've already begun Middlemarch and I intend to finish it before the spring. I also began Neil Gaiman's American Gods this morning at about 2:30 when I finally got into bed. I've been told by several trusted sources that this is the Gaiman novel to try. I liked Coraline, and I had mixed but generally positive reactions to The Graveyard Book, but I could not for the life of me get into Neverwhere. One of the review blurbs on my copy said that I was sure to like American Gods "if you have enjoyed John Crowley's Little Big." I didn't enjoy Little Big at all, but I'm going to give this one a shot and if I make it, I am told I should read Anansi Boys after that. Some other books on the stack I'm excited about:
The Scientific Life - Steven Shapin
Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
Twilight - Stefan Zweig
Beware of Pity - Stefan Zweig
The Chateau - William Maxwell
The Imposter - Damon Galgut
Self-Organization in Biological Systems - Camazine, et al.
Freedom & Neurobiology - Richard Searle
Travels with Herodotus - Ryszard Kapuscinski
Collected Stories - Tennessee Williams

...and yourself?