Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing for grown-ups (Books - The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble)

I have never read any of the work of Margaret Drabble, author of 13 novels and 2 biographies, editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, as well as being known for her personal connections as the sister of novelist A. S. Byatt and the wife of biographer Michael Holroyd. There is a wonderful portrait from the New York Times of Drablle and her husband here. Perhaps I am stalling since I have only read about 60 pages into The Peppered Moth and it really does take its time in revealing all the plot's secrets. So far, Dr. Hawthorn, geneticist, has come to Breaseborough in Yorkshire to address the town's people. They seem to have been part of a study he has done on their ancestry. Bessie Bawtry is one of those people and to tell that story, Drabble returns to Bessie's childhood.

The structure of DNA had not been discovered when Bessie Bawtry crouched under the table and brooded upon flight and murder. Genes were not then the fashion, as they are now. The Oedipus complex, in contrast, was already much discussed, in Vienna, in Paris, in London, if not yet in the South Yorkshire coal belt. (The son of a Midlands coal miner was even then writing about the Oedipus complex, but his works would not reach Bessie Bawtry for some years.) Both parent-murder and genes, however, had been around for a very long time, awaiting formal recognition. The revolutionary discoveries of molecular biology and digital electronics would, in a matter of decades, brings Dr. Hawsthorn to his Start Button, as he waited to impress the wonders of genes and genealogy upon his patient audience. Bessiet Bawtry could not forsee this future, or this past. But under the table her infant molecules yearned and jostled and desired. Or so we may, retrospectively, fancifully, suppose. Something had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her station, beyond her class. Will Dr Hawthorn diagnose and analyse the very gene that provoked her to attempt mutation? And will she succeed in her escape? To answer those questions we must try to rediscover that long-ago infant in her vanished world.

And so, the book slips back and forth, in and out, of Bessie's old age, childhood, teenage years, trying to make some sense of how our makeup, in the biographical as well as the genetic sense, makes us who we become. I cannot tell whether the genetics is going to be used literally or more as a literary device (since desiring to advance beyond your class would in no literal sense be contained in a single gene), but as genetics has entered the zeitgeist and at least a cursory knowledge of genes as the seeds of ancestry is possessed by most anyone with a high school education, they have also done double-duty as a metaphor, much as Freud's theories once did for theater and literature thirty yearas earlier (as Drabble points out).

Two of my favorite novels (The Gold Bug Variations and Hopeful Monsters) speak much to the influence of genes and genetic mutation upon the progress of individuals and their civilization and that is, no doubt, where this book is heading as the peppered moth of Drabble's title is often used as evidence of Darwin's natural selection played out in nature. So I am hopeful. I am enjoying two things in particular so far in Drabble's writing. One is her no-nonsense sentences.
Mrs. Bawtry, if asked, would have said that she loved her daughters. But she would not have expected the question, nor would she have liked it, and indeed in all her life it was never to be put to her.
The second is the way she slips this narrative in and out of times past and present, I was going to say 'furtively,' but actually that is not true. Her writing is the opposite of furtive. It puts everything out in the open. If Drabble is going to move the action from one period of time to another, her narrator says that is what she is doing and then she does it, much the way George Eliot uses narrative. She directs your attention where she wants it to go and makes no bones about jumping six years, from Bessie's childhood bout with the flu of 1918 to her high school years while referencing Dr Hawthorn in the novel's present time frame, upon whose slide presentation, we all wait with bated breath. In other words, Drabble writes for grown-ups. No magic tricks, no cuteness, and so far that is just fine with me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Romance, a haircut, and a little heaven... (Books - The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick)

As we approach the last 3 weeks of the semester, I'm not sure how I am going to keep up here. I'll do my best. I managed to finish Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers. Following her being elected mayor of New York with the help of her golem (see my earlier posts here and here), we see Ruth P. paired off, visited by a cousin from Moscow, and, finally, in paradise. One of the great pleasures of this book is the whimsical voice of its narrator:
Stop. Stop, stop! Puttermesser's biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much. A symbol is allowed, but not a whole scene: do not accommodate too obsequiously to Puttermesser's romance. Having not much imagination, she is literal with what she has.
But invent she does! And Puttermesser does find romance, at least for a time - it's ok to tell you this as the chapter heading brazenly announces the fact. What I especially love about Puttermesser Paired is that the then well-into-middle-age Miss P, being by that time a confirmed bachelor in love with narrative, models her budding romance with one Rupert Rabeeno on the relationships between George Eliot and her husband (during their romance they read five biographies to each other aloud), and then later her husband's nephew, who is many years her junior. The difference in age between Rupert and herself is a source of great consternation for Ruth. Observe this quirky little scene Cynthia Ozick masterfully develops combining a haircut, an inner monologue and Ruth watching herself in the mirror:
After supper he cut her hair. The wisps fell from her nape and forehead, all over her shoulders and the floor. She watched in the mirror as he snipped,e vening out the sides: it struck her that she was not yet a hag. Tiny hyphens of hair-cuttings fuzzed her neck; he blew them down inside her blouse and over her back. Her mouth in the mirror was content. Her toungue slipped out like a shining lizard. He never thought of her as too old. Nothing grotesque lay between them. She believed that now.
Sensuality expressed in a haircut - this book is full of surprises like this perfect little moment involving thoughts, sight (not only we seeing Ruth, but Ruth seeing herself), sound (the scissors), and touch (the hair cuttings on her neck and then his breath).

The biggest surprise, shock really, is the final chapter Puttermesser in Paradise which appropriately has a very different tone from the rest. Short, sharp, a little ugly in some ways yet very beautifully imagined. It is best experienced following the rest of the book, so I'll leave off here with my strong recommendation that you read it for its fantastical narrative voice, its smart, lonely and touching heroine, or any other pleasures you might find in it.

Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth is up next. I've never read anything of her's before.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Holding a mirror up to nature...

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Question suggested by Barbara H: My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it. It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

Symbol - Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention,or, as a psychologist might use it - An object or image that an individual unconsciously uses to represent repressed thoughts, feelings, or impulses.

Symbolism - 1: the art or practice of using symbols esp. by investing things with a symbolic meaning or by expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations: as a: artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing or suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states.

I would say to your husband, dear h-o-b (husband-of-Barbara), good fiction old and new is full of people, places and events that represent intangible and otherwise immaterial truths or states. A fiction, by telling a story that didn't happen anywhere but in someone's imagination, or (in some cases) referencing events and people that happened differently in life, fashions stand-ins (symbols) for those characters, those happenings. In the alluring act of creation, those stand-ins will often take on a life of their own and do things or say things that never happened in the "true" events that may have been the starting point of the fiction. Language and literature, by their very nature, are rife with symbolism. That is not to say that every work of literature has the kind of intentional programmatic set of characters and events standing for another set of characters and events, as in, say, James Joyce's Ulysses, but the act of holding a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare described art's purpose, is an act of symbolism. Furthermore, frustrating or not, if you had any good teachers who loved literature, they may not so much have been trying to get you to find the one-and-only hidden message that existed in the books you read like the dime in the black eyed peas or the prize in the cracker jacks, they were probably trying to get you to learn to invest in the experience of reading and get beyond either the superficial events of the story or the correct interpretation for getting an 'A' on your paper and instead allow the events and characters to stir up what associations and resemblances resonate for you given your experience of the world. That's part of the fun of being the audience of a piece of theatre, a painting, a book. Whatever the intention the creator of that work had, the experience of its audience is going to be full of the meanings and truths of their own lives. Hamlet is a story of a Danish Prince, it's also a story of adolescence, it's also a story of grief. Someone non-Danish and not born into a royal family can, if they appreciate the play at all, appreciate his indecision, his mourning his father, or some other aspect of the play. That is because Hamlet becomes a stand-in for us either individually or perhaps collectively, the play could be appreciated thinking of Hamlet as a nation that is responding to an attack. That is not to say that Shakespeare sat there thinking all these thoughts and filling his play with them and then disguising them so you had to look for them. But the experience of reading it can reveal them by the intersection of your mind and his work. A mystery story, while it can be a relaxing pasttime, can still have characters or events that evoke for us memories or experiences of our current life. A character can reminds us of someone we know. The murder can make us pause to think of the value of life, or the scene of the crime can conjure up a picture of a familiar house. The suspense of the events can raise our heartbeat. That is all accomplished by ink on a page. Remember this is a fiction. These specific things never happened. Our heart rate speeds up because of the investment we have in this unreality and the source of that is somewhere in our own lives. The fictional events stand for real ones, at least for the moment of our experiencing them. That is symbolism. But of course, there are other pleasures to appreciate in art - the technique of the painter for depicting light, or that writer for combining words in such a way that you were successfully transported to an unfamiliar place. Those can be satisfying reasons to appreciate a work of art too. I hope that, if you don't enjoy reading, that it's not because your experience of learning about it made you feel excluded from the world of books, as though you didn't have the talent to be a "good" reader. In my opinion, if you can find some pleasure in a book, that's good enough.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Puttermesser for Mayor! (Books - The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick)

I have to be at the lab at 8 am today, so I don't have time for any lengthy thoughts, but in the section of Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers entitled Puttermesser and Xanthippe, Ruth Puttermesser, disgraced city employee of The Department of Receipts and Disbursements, creates a golem out of the soil of her potted plants who gets her elected mayor. And this, naturally, puts her into a great tizzy about appointing commissioners. No, really. You will have to trust me that, as you get caught up in the rhapsody of Ozick's prose, this will all make perfect sense.
The new Mayor intends to recruit noble psyches and visionary hearts. She is searching for the antithesis of Turtelman and Marmel. For instance: she yearns after Wallace Stevens - insurance executive of probity during office hours, enrapture poet at dusk. How she would like to put Walt Whitman himself in charge of the Bureau of Summary Sessions, and have Shelley take over the Water Resource Development - Shelley whose principle it is that poets are the legislators of mankind! William Blake in the Fire Department. George Eliot doing Social Services. Emily Bronte over at Police, Jane Austen in Bridges and Tunnels, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe sharing Health. Herman Melville overseeing the Office of Single Room Occupancy Housing...
What a riff. I think that one of the most deliciously fantastical sequences I have read in a long time. If you would care to dream along with Mayor Ruth Puttermesser, which writer - no, I'll open it up, which artist, writer, composer.... - would you appoint and to what position? My other post about the wonderful The Puttermesser Papers is here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Magical Realism Meets the Department of Receipts and Disbursements (Books - The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick)

With a name like Puttermesser, a girl from the Bronx is likely to be a little...different. Ruth leaves a blue-blood law firm to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements of the City of New York.
The successive heads of this department were called Commissioners. They were all political appointees - scavengers after spoils. Puttermesser herself was not quite a civil servant and not quite not a civil servant - one of those amphibious creatures hanging between base contempt and bare decency; but she soon felt the ignominy of belonging to that mean swarm of City employees rooted bleakly in cells inside the honeycomb of the Municipal Building. It was a monstrous place, gray everywhere, abundantly tunneled, with multitutdes of corridors and stairs and shafts, a kind of swollen doom through which the bickering of small-voiced officials whinnied. At the same time there were always curious farm sounds - in the summer the steady cricket of the air-conditioning, in the winter the gnash and croak of old radiators...

Puttermesser will always be an employee in the Municipal Building. She will always behold Brooklyn Bridge through its windows; also sunsets of high glory, bringing her religious pangs. She will not marry. Perhaps she will undertake a long-term affair with Vogel, the Deputy in charge of the Treasury, perhaps not.

The difficulty with Puttermesser is that she is loyal to certain environments.
She would rather study Hebrew grammar and read Plato in bed than have a roll in the hay with her paramour. Ruth Puttermesser is driven by scholastic achievement, the value of knowledge, and the beauty and power of language. In fact, she uses three Hebrew letters (and a little potting soil) to fashion herself a Golem - part surrogate daughter, part servant - who asks to be named Xanthippe.
"I want to be Xanthippe," the thing wrote. "I know everything you know. I am made of earth but also I am made out of your mind. Now watch me walk."
Golems are funny creatures of Jewish folk mythology, think Frankenstein only in a shtetl. Made of dirt and filled with life by a Kabbalistic incantation, in one case involving the three Hebrew letters for truth: aleph, mem, and tav - they are bound to do their creator's bidding - but usually do it a bit too literally and end of wreaking havoc on the world and then have to be dismantled - unenlivened. Which is accomplished by removing the letter aleph, leaving only mem and tav - spelling met, which means dead. Pretty clever huh? In any event, I won't ruin for you how Ozick combines this creature of 13th century mythology with her dreamscape of New York's municipal bureaucracy.

Ozick's prose is, itself, pretty incantory and deadly clever. Nearly every sentence conjures up irrepressible life and you don't really know where it is going to go either. She expects a fair bit of her reader. At one point she describes her heroine:
She disdained assertiveness. Her voice was like Cordelia's. At home, in bed, she went on dreaming and reading. She retained a romantic view of the British Civil Service in its heyday: the Cambridge Apostles carrying the probities of G. E. Moore to the far corners of the world, Leonard Woolf doing justice in Ceylon, the shy young Forster in India. Integrity. Uprightness.
In those four sentences she references Shakespeare and half of Bloomsbury. But don't get the impression that this makes The Puttermesser Papers heavy going. On the contrary, Cynthia Ozick's language is bouyant, swift-moving, and hilarious. I can't believe I have put off reading one of her novels for so long. Thank you, Mark Sarvas, for raving about the riches of this book - I'm loving it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

History as theater as history... (Theater - Mary Stuart)

Broadway is sporting a new production of Mary Stuart. It's a new version of Shiller's classic play by Peter Oswald directed by Phyllida Lloyd and imported from London's Donmar Warehouse. I'm always glad when Broadway takes on a good play with a good team, it's too bad this production ends up being such a mixed bag. On the good side, the new version of the text is full-blooded, contemporary and accessible and except for what it takes on thematically (see below) does not draw much attention to itself. The two lead actresses are a dynamic pair, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer are available to their circumstances, think on their feet, know how to use language but don't kid themselves that the play ends with the words they say. They both give effective and alive performances. Janet McTeer is particularly able to bring her character both a sense of grandeur and of the colloquial. I enjoyed Brian Murray a lot too, he plays the Earl of Shrewsbury with an obsequious, self-effacing exterior but a solid core, and he never pushes for effect. John Benjamin Hickey has his moments as well, but wears his English accent awkwardly and it seems to keep him from ever fully relishing the duplicitous realities of the Earl of Leicester's character. In fact, I found this production burdened often by theatrical cliche and generality, it felt very much like an opera production - long on general concept and short on human detail - and I would lay the responsibility for that at the doorstep of director Phillida Lloyd. The text and production saw much contemporary relevance in this famous story of Queen Elizabeth I of England and her insecure sense of her hold on the throne due to her rivalrous cousin Mary Stuart who is a Catholic and who flees Scotland after a coup there. She is imprisoned by Elizabeth and thus becomes a figure around which the papists and others who wished to depose Elizabeth rally. Lloyd and Oswald's Mary Stuart clearly references our own recent history and America and Britain's choice to always value security over displomacy or mercy. It is no accident, I think, that the actor Nicholas Woodeson playing Lord Burleigh, who engineers Queen Elizabeth's insecurity and strongly favors the beheading of Mary Stuart, looks so much like Dick Cheney. The production does not strain hard at all for this parallel and I found it resonant without being heavy-handed. Beyond this bold stroke of concept, I found the production lacking in subtlety of human interaction between the characters and their circumstances. It is unfortunate, for instance, that the long scene that opens the play featuring the usually able Maria Tucci as Mary Stuart's nurse and Michael Countryman as her jailer, is such a welter of stage cliches. This is one of the many details that makes this play feel like an opera. It's an "oh, you know" performance. Oh, you know, she's the old nurse. You know what old nurses are like. Just waggle your voice and your chin and look generally addled know, old... and you'll be fine. If the director tried for anything more than that I would be shocked, given how good a caliber of actor she has. Hanna as played by Tucci feels like the mezzo nurse in a tired opera production, everyone always ignores those poor mezzos and focuses on the star Soprano - say Emelia to Desdemona in Otello or Alisa to Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. It would be nice if someone told the actors in the opening scene that they didn't have to scream the lines of the play to be heard. If they would just focus on doing something real - listening to each other, really folding that damn blanket, we might be drawn in. Now everyone coughs and rustles their programs and suffers through the exposition until the star enters. We perk up when Janet McTeer enters not merely because she played Nora so well on Broadway a few years ago, but because she speaks in what sounds like a normal voice and actually inhabits the details of her circumstances. The same problem existed in the performance of Chandler Williams as Mortimer, such a flurry of classical theater convention swirls around his generalities of young rashness - the way he throws his body about - I really don't know what he is doing or saying. But I in no way think or feel that this man is moved to eventual suicide by his new found religion or the imprisoned queen who embodies his faith. Although there are many moments to enjoy in this production, I thought that, with the exceptions already mentioned, this was lazy work, not on the part of the actors, if anything many of them work too hard, but on the part of the director. It seemed content to simply rely on its stars and its strong concept and cartoon-in the rest. I expected better.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Creating a life that convinces (Books - An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay)

A young woman coming of age in the Western world in the 1950s was expected to marry and make the home her job, if she were the type that couldn't marry, then perhaps she might become someone's secretary, a nurse, or a teacher, but a career as a serious painter would have been thought impractical at best and at worst pathological. Francesca Kay writes a fictional biography of one such crazy-woman, Jennet Mallow, in her first novel An Equal Stillness. By extension, it seems to me, she honors her artistic ancestors- the women, indeed all the artists of whatever sex who preceded her in the determination to create serious work and had the talent to do so.
In the realisation of her children's utter dependence, and her own concomitant and wholly adult obligation, was the crux of Jennet's problem. Freedom from personal obligation was in the world's eyes vital to an artist who intended to achieve the highest, the most transcendental of ideals in their work. It was that freedom which David Heaton had conferred upon himself. A freedom which was essentially childish by nature but without the drawbacks of a child's powerlessness. David could never be entirely adult if her were to succeed as an artist. So was this the stark choice Jennet faced: responsibility to the people she had brought into the world or truth to her vocation?
I'm not so sure that this isn't a romantic myth concocted by those who imagine the practice of art as a quasi-religious vocation. It brings pleasure to us, they reason, it allows us to taste of the transcendent and therefore they imagine that the life of the artist must be one of indulgent pleasure and his or her activities the daily seduction of some sort of transcendent haze. The work of an artist is, well, work like any other. This romantic claptrap is a lovely grass-is-always greener myth for those who associate art with their own escape, and it is a convenient myth for those who pursue art to run from the world, but very often, the valuable work is done amidst life's inconveniences and this novel says so, or better still, shows you that this is so.
Perhaps it may seem strange that 1952, which was in many ways the most testing year of Jennet's life, should mark the onset of her time as a serious, committed painter. She never explained it. Precedent would have suggested she do no painting; now, with three young children and one of them unwell, she might have been completely daunted. On the contrary, Jennet worked that year with fierce determination.
I appreciate this novel as much for telling these truths about life as an artist as for anything else about it. Francesca Kay's voice for this novel has a flow-y, at times distant, and elevated tone. There is a touch of Virginia Woolf or Jeanette Winterson about it. You feel the craft of her sentences:
So the house and lands were sold at no profit, and Lorna, fatherless and brotherless, adrift and mourning, met Richard Mallow at a Chrismas party and decided that as a door marked exit he would do.
Months of backstory are compressed into three scant lines. This is the sentence as a work of art. There were times in the first fifty pages of this book that I wearied a little of all that inventiveness. But as Jennet grew more interesting, the writing lost that self consciousness. I admired how Kay expressed the way an artist's materials, tools, and methods become the very way they apprehend their experience of the world. Take this passage about Jennet's relationship with a plasterer she hires for a project:
Together Roddy and Jennet mixed the lime with sand and marble dust to make a mortar, in proportions that varied with each coat. One volume of lime putty to three of coarse sand for the scratch coat, finer sand for the brown coat, one part of the finest sand with a little marble dust for the painting surface... She admired the sure way in which he worked, his minimal use of enegy, his reliability, his patience. He taught her how to apply the plaster by herself, as she would have to do in the final stages of the work, and the clean wet sandy scent of it would always be connected in her mind with gladness and with him.
That is a marvelous evocation of how the artistic language of a project one works on, the mundane techniques, the people, and the emotions of the time in which it was made become all bound up as one. Future meetings with any one of those ingredients immediately release all the rest and that become a source of richness not just for projects you later create, but for your experience of any part of life.

And one of the inherent challenges that Kay has given herself in writing of the life of a great painter is writing about great painting.
A woman, life-size, full-length, dressed in a white shift, her arms pinioned against her sides and her face terror-stricken behind the carapace of salt that is her prison. In the story Lot's wife turns into salt itself, but Jennet has a different version, showing the live woman trapped as if the salt had crusted instantly around her and would soon corrode her flesh. Although the expression of feat on the woman's face is unmistakable, her features and her body are glazed over by the salt so that she looks like a ghost of someone seen through water...
It struck me in reading this paragraph what a great project Kay gave herself. Many people think creativity is about the ultimate freedom but I don't find. either from being an artist or from teaching it, that that is the case. Total freedom is terror, creating usually comes best for me from the right balance of freedom and limits. Good limits are tremendously useful and here Kay has given herself the limit of telling this part of the life story of Jennet Mallow, artist, not as a narrative string of events, but rather as a static image, one made from the conscious technique and the unconscious urges of this artist who we have come to know. And further, as a writer, must render this in words. When these passages work best, as this one did for me, it creates a tremendously layered reading experience. It actually forwards the plot because much of the story of any artist is what they made. But it also deepens the experience in that we know something about how Jennet felt about her life, probably more even than she did herself at the time, by seeing what she made out of it. This is this book's strongest suit - evoking the life-work dyad that is the life of Jennet Mallow - and remember this is a fictional life, but one that ultimately convinces us and that moves us and that is its great achievement.

I will be interested to read whatever Francesca Kay writes next. Thanks, Cornflower Books, for the recommendation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Idle fantasies...

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Yesterday, April 15th, was Tax Day here in the U.S., which means lots of lucky people will get refunds of over-paid taxes. Whether you’re one of them or not, what would you spend an unexpected windfall on? Say … $50? How about $500? (And, this is a reading meme, so by rights the answer should be book-related, but hey, feel free to go wild and splurge on anything you like.)

Let's see, with $50 I might get another novel by William Trevor, after reading the beautifully written Fools of Fortune last year, and I would finally find The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning which is the follow up to her The Balkan Trilogy, which I read for the Outmoded Authors Challenge in 2007-8. The Balkan Trilogy was the inspiration for the BBC series Fortunes of War and I really tore through those 900 pages - I loved it! And after Dovegrey's review, I would find copies of Charles Lambert's Little Monsters and The Scent of Cinnamon. I don't think $50 would get me any further than that. $500 unfortunately wouldn't even buy a ticket to London so that I could track down those last three books myself, but I will pretend that it will. Or, no, I would use my huge refund to go to the Hay Festival - I have always wanted to go. This year I would have the choice of Granada or Wales! And there I would buy armloads of books which would include the above, a biography of Patricia Highsmith, Marghanita Laski's The Victorian Chaise-Longue, Molly Fox's Birthday, Clifford Odet's play The Big Knife, and I would attend the theatre and the opera in Wales before heading home. And now that I have indulged that little fantasy, it's time to get ready to go to the lab and work on a paper.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Les Nuits d'Ete...

This is a week of intense writing as I have 3 projects due for school, so it was lovely to be able to dash downtown yesterday evening to my old stomping ground and see a concert featuring one of my former students at Alice Tully Hall. I don't generally review the work of people I know, so I'll just offer an appreciation - Sasha's Cooke's debut New York concert with orchestra singing Les Nuits d'Ete was uncommonly self-possessed. She brought something distinctly personal to Berlioz's setting of Theophile Gautier's poems - singing them with great warmth. Really lovely stuff. Here's one, just for fun - Dites, la jeune belle...

Say, young beauty,
Where do you wish to go?
The sail swells itself,
The breeze will blow.
The oar is made of ivory,
The flag is of silk,
The helm is of fine gold;
I have for ballast an orange,
For a sail, the wing of an angel,
For a deck boy, a seraph.

Say, young beauty,
Where do you wish to go?
The sail swells itself,
The breeze will blow.

Is it to the Baltic?
To the Pacific Ocean?
To the island of Java?
Or is it well to Norway,
To gather the flower of the snow,
Or the flower of Angsoka?
Say, young beauty,
Where do you wish to go?
Lead me, says the beauty,
To the faithful shore
Where one loves always!
This shore, my darling,
We hardly know at all
In the land of Love.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What cannot be bought on the black market... (Books - Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski)

Marghanita Laski writes poignantly and observantly of post-World War II France - the setting of her Little Boy Lost. This will make most sense if you go here and read my first post about this book so that you know all about the child that Hilary and his love, Lisa, had in France, her subsequent death, and the disappearance of that child. Hilary is a poet, a literate intellectual who had one love - Lisa - but now that she is dead, he holds human contact at arms length and prefers to experience the pleasure of sources less likely to wound - a well furnished home, good books, French coffee, French food, French wine. France was the source of everything Hilary held in high regard:
...where these ruins now stood, the people who were part of the nation he regarded as the most civilised in the world had led full satisfactory lives, eating with informed pleasure, arguing with informed logic, strolling up and down in the warm summer evenings, sitting at cafes and watching the promenade pass by. Here houswives had made their purchases with that unconcious pleasure and pride that comes from the competent practice of a craft, prodding the cabbages to see what sort of hearts they'd made, testing each length of cloth, pulling the glove leather this way and that, purchasing by their own skill from shopkeepers who respected this wuality in their customers.
Post-war France is a tragedy. Only two bus lines run in Paris. Coffee is ersatz, meat is scarce but anything can be had on the black market. It has also become a nation of those who collaborated and those who resisted, making for tense suspicions among neighbors. It has become a nation of those who can or are willing to pay for what they enjoy, and those who will suffer their bad lot together until they can rebuild what they had. This ravaged France is the perfect backdrop for this story. Pierre locates a child he believes might be Hilary and Lisa's in an orphanage in a small town in Northern France. Hilary gets angry at Pierre's support of deGaulle, whom Hilary considers a fascist, and so breaks with Pierre, going to the town on his own. He stays in the only hotel standing, run by collaborationists. He orders expensive, black-market meals so that he may enjoy a semblance of the France he was used to. And he meets a young, delicate, sensitive child called Jean each evening at five o'clock and takes him for walks and raspberry sodas, trying in this time to look for some evidence of whether Jean could be his son. Post war France is a place out of which one can still squeeze fine delicacies if one is willing to pay, or one can live in the midst of its broken streets and drink its terrible chicory and suffer with others out of love, rebuilding it slowly. This is precisely the conflict that Hilary faces - will he buy what he needs, holding the world at a safe distance? Or will he give up his selfish pleasures and take a sensitive little boy into his life? Hilary seem intolerant by nature - an intellectual's luxury. Can he love again? Somehow Marghanita Laski makes of a stuffy prig a sensitive hero and of this single question she has fashioned a nail-biter of a book. I stayed up two hours past my bed time finishing it the other night. I have already waxed on about the quality of Laski's writing in my first post. Go read this book, it has everything - love, history, tough moral questions suspense, and observant, lean writing - what a wonderful find, and to think, I was initially drawn to it for the cover!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A triumph of self-reliance or a damn shame? (Film - Into the Wild)

I have not read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild but The Ragazzo and I watched Sean Penn's film adaptation of it last night. The lure of escape after college can be pretty strong. For some, that is escape into the world of working adults from which they have been, until this point, barred. For others, they have developed their own ideas and their own values and they have given time enough to their parents' or their town's or their religion's way of doing things. They have done everything asked of them and they now know what they need to know and are going to go it on their own. Christopher McCandless was one of the second type. He defies what he sees as his parents' over- materialistic and insensitive way of life. He gives his money away to charity, tears up his IDs and credit cards, changes his name to Alex Supertramp, and sets out with his Thoreau and Tolstoy and a backpack full of intense innocence to live unencumbered, eventually in the wilds of Alaska.

I enjoyed the film's leisurely pace. It was evocative of the escape from the workaday world. Emile Hirsch gave a convincingly open and earnest performance and I very much enjoyed the work of Hal Holbrook and, as always, I loved Catherine Keener. When the dialogue actually seemed to be written, I thought it was fine and certainly the voiceovers taken from Christopher's favorite writers were lovely. The director, Sean Penn, and his actors seemed to have created several of the scenes, especially those with Vince Vaughan, through improvisatory acting exercises. Rather than adding to their sense of freedom and reality, it at times gave them a clumsy and indulgent feel. I suddenly was a Meisnerian acting class in Hollywood or New York rather than breaking free as seemed more appropriate to the film's theme. This is just some informed guessing from using improvisation as a director and teacher for a long time myself, but I could be wrong. Perhaps all the scenes were created the same way, but those scenes stuck out as largely unbelievable. But all in all I thought is was dramatically well structured and paced and nicely photographed. I liked the interleaving of Christopher/Alex's time camping out in an abandoned bus in Alaska with the rest of his travels through the United States. I understand from what I have read that Penn placed more emphasis on the dysfunction of Christopher's family life and breaking away from the betrayal of his parents than did the book. Without being able to compare it to the book, this seemed to serve the drama of the film well. SPOILER ALERT! The most difficult aspect of the story for me (appropriately so) was the dichotomy between the central character's attraction to escape from violence and materialism and his extreme enactment of it, which was notable for an insistence that he could do it all alone. Largely this came from his innocence and from his experience of his parents and their world which left him with the feeling, perhaps, that love between people wasn't important, or wasn't possible. In any event, it left him adamantly cut off from others, even as they tried to connect with him on his travels. He could be incredibly resourceful and certainly had a fine mind and a desire to interact with others kindly, but in his insistence to go it alone he seemed to me merely a stupid, innocent boy. Ultimately he learns that he needs others, while reading Tolstoy, alone, as he dies in the abandoned bus in Alaska. In some ways this is the story of a stupid, headstrong boy who thinks he knows everything and is sadly mistaken. In others it is the romantic tale of someone who proves tremendous self-reliance and strength and a realization of his dream, even if he dies doing it. But is that heroic? Either way the story is a tragedy. Was it Christopher's "right" to go off and die a strong but independent 24-year-old man? Had his community, family, school given him everything he needed and now he is on his own to live the consequences of his actions? (We don't seem to think that corporations should have to live with the consequences of their actions). Or should someone have seen this smart, insistent, almost slippery charmer for the wounded boy he was, and examined his long-insistence on isolation from others as a possible sign of mental illness? Should he have been given a shake and a brisk slap? A kind hand or lots of therapy to introduce him to the value of human relationships along side his admirable self-reliance. The excerpt that he tore from the Robinson Jeffers poems Wise Men in their Bad Hours lets us know what he felt:

Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened or troubled
And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.
What do you think? Is his story a triumph or is it a damn shame that such a smart, strong, sensitive man had to die because he learned certain lessons later than others?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Monogamous reader, dirty two-timer, or philanderer?

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Some people read one book at a time. Some people have a number of them on the go at any given time, perhaps a reading in bed book, a breakfast table book, a bathroom book, and so on, which leads me to…

  1. Are you currently reading more than one book?
  2. If so, how many books are you currently reading?
  3. Is this normal for you?
  4. Where do you keep your current reads?
As a kid I read many books simultaneously. I also read certain books over and over because I loved being inside their world, but read other new ones at the same time. I was greedy to read as much as I could. After college I became a more monogamous reader. As an actor and director I wanted to immerse myself in the world of the character completely and not get distracted. It was an all or nothing affair. Lately, I have begun to read multiple books again, as you can see from my side bar. Yes, I confess, I'm a philanderer. Seven are officially on at the moment, although the one on the top - Little Boy Lost - I finished last night (terrific, I'll write about it soon). Middlemarch is an ongoing project that I'll probably finish by the summer, because I simply enjoy reading it that way. The book on Japan I was sent by a publicist and I dip into it every now and then, the two books on development I was reading for school unassigned, but I have so much official reading for school now that I will not finish them until after exams. Treasure Island I started on a whim because Verbivore mentioned Robert Louis Stevenson and it was staring at me from the shelf. And the Isaac Babel stories was recommended by the author Sasa Stanisic. I love the stories, but they are too intense to read all at one go. Lately this is typical for me. Often one of the books on the current list becomes a wishful thinking read and eventually falls off. There is a certain kind of book I really want to read all in one go, usually contemporary fiction and usually something under 300 pages - like Little Boy Lost. Once I started it I couldn't stop and I think I knew that it would be that kind as I bought it. Some books you open and you read and others take you by the neck. This was one of the second kind. My current reads all live by my bed, but on the tops of various piles, otherwise some of them get buried and I forget to read them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rituals...(Books - Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser & Total Constant Order by Crissa-Jean Chappell)

Little Passover fact: In order for matzah (the unleavened bread eaten by Jews at Passover) to be considered kosher for Passover, it must be fully baked within 18 minutes of coming into contact with water. This is because, according to the Talmud, the leavening process begins after that point. I mention this not merely in the spirit of the holiday, but because I have been thinking about ritual, having read a couple of books about pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder in preparation for a class presentation and have learned that one person's meaningful ritual is another person's compulsion. OCD can afflict children or adults and consists of recurrent thoughts or impulses that don't arise in a proportionate way from real-life problems and generally cause a great deal of anxiety. The person then tries to suppress these thoughts with ritualistic behavior. For example a person can become excessively worried about infection and wash their hands until they bleed. Other rituals can include counting, touching objects in a certain order, or praying. The diagnostic manual is specific about the clinician's responsibility to interpret the behavior in the context of that patient's cultural norms.

Having been home with a nasty little fluish thing, I read two books for young adult readers about OCD - Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser and Total Constant Order by Crissa-Jean Chappell. Kissing Doorknobs is the more overtly explanatory of the two, but it is still a good story. Tara, the young heroine, is a believably written young character, and this book handles the experience of having symptoms without knowing what is wrong with you very sensitively. I appreciated how it explored Tara's experience of her illness in the different contexts of her life: friends, school, and family. I felt like the book strained a little to include every possible symptom, every possible misdiagnosis, and the most popular forms of therapy used to treat OCD (Exposure and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) but on the other hand, if it is your goal to have any young reader who might have this illness but not know it recognize themselves, then this book gives them a good chance of being able to say "that's me!" What I enjoyed most about Total Constant Order was how imaginative and well written it was. While Fin does have OCD and that is the subject of the story, I found it wore that mission less on its sleeve. It told a story about a young girl whose parents recently moved from Vermont to Florida, and if that weren't enough displacement, they then got divorced. So there is a lot of uncertainty in Fin's world to propel her anxiety and her propensity to cope with those feelings with ritual behaviors (incidentally her doctor chooses talk therapy and medication). Even if Fin didn't have a diagnosis, she definitely is having the outsider experience. She is befriended by another outsider, a young man named Thayer and their friendship was the highlight of this book. Chappell is really able to evoke the magic of finding someone at that age who "gets" you when you believe no one will. It's a delightful read. Both these books would help a young person who is experiencing some of the symptoms of OCD gain some insight into themselves and destigmatize seeking help.

Happy Passover, if you're celebrating.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The ingredients of drama (Books - Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski)

Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost accomplishes a its magic with simple means. Her writing is unfancy, like walking in good shoes. She observes the words and actions of people and the context of their situation, and then puts one word after the other on the page in order to describe it. That is not to underestimate Laski's skill, it is because she does each of these things completely, and because she understands the ingredients of drama well, and because she has something of value to say that she has produced a book that is such a pleasure to read. Perhaps still sounds simpleminded. Take these sentences:
Then, while the coffee was slowly filtering through the Cona, Mrs. Wainwright had the happy idea of bringing out the old snapshot album. 'This was the first photograph we ever had of you,' she said. 'You were just three weeks old,' and the memory of the total love she could give him in infancy enveloped them both in pleasing nostalgia. 'Here's a nice one of your father just before we got married,' she said, and there was the old doctor miraculously recognisable in the eager young man leaning against the sundial, unprescient of the death that would leave his wife and son locked in their bitter incessant strife.

One word after the other of simple detail, first of some of the physical context - this is wartime England, but there is coffee in this house. It does not appear miraculously in cups so that we might get on with the plot, it is filtered in a Cona. Then, as it filters, the idea to act, and the actors relationship to that action - it's intention - and the dialogue that occurs while that action takes place and then - wham. There is everything in that few sentences so much backstory of Hilary, the central character, who is not acting but rather is acted upon. Whatever Laski chooses to describe, she does completely. And this thoroughness is not reserved for domestic detail. When Pierre, a member of the French underground, arrives at Hilary's childhood home on Christmas, it is to tell him that his wife died at the hands of the Gestapo in occupied France and that, Jeanne, Pierre's fiancee took the baby but was herself killed. He risks his life in coming to England to pledge to help Hilary find the child after the war. The most interesting pages in the chapter, are Pierre's description of Jeanne changing overnight from a politically active member of the Resistance to one who prefers to do her duty by raising her friend's baby until he can be returned to his father.
"...All that seems to be certain is that we should each do good where it is near to us, where we can see the end of it, and then we know that something positive has been done." Then she nodded at the room where the baby was and said, "That's why the thing that seems to me most important now is to keep Lisa's baby safe and give him back to his father. If I can do that, I know that I have done something that is actively, positively right."
And although Pierre disagrees with her politically, he feels he must honor her memory by carrying out her wish and finding the lost baby with Hilary once the war is over. So the ground has been carefully laid by someone who understands what makes a drama. The main characters are motivated by the highest passions, and the setting will be post-war France, torn politically and domestically (as we see in Pierre and Jeanne) as some of its inhabitants were violently resistant, some passively, and others collaborated with the Germans. And those actors in that setting will carry out the action of the novel - the search for the child. I have just arrived in post-war France as that action begins. Great reading.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Clever contrivance of an evening (Books - Obedience by Will Lavender and Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski)

Will Lavender's Obedience turned out to offer some surprises. Without giving anything away, a few undergraduates take a logic class in which the teacher has set up the hypothetical disappearance of a girl who, if the class cannot discover her whereabouts, will be murdered by a certain date. The opening chapters featured lackluster writing - too much telling and not enough showing:
His real name was Dennis Flaherty, but on campus he was jokingly called Dennis the Menace, which was irony in the highest degree: Dennis would not menace anyone even if he deserved it...The answer was charm. Dennis had it in spades. He could talk himself out of of any lie, any malfeasance, and yet the same skill allowed him to talk himself into situations as well.
This self-conscious, over-familiar voice-over approach at the start really took my interest too much for granted - 'irony?' Huh? In addition, the students were meant to use logic to solve the mystery but they never really learned anything at all - it just seemed as though their teacher baldly manipulated them. Sending the students clues by email, inviting them to parties where they are handed cryptic notes. There was way too much implausible contrivance in the plotting at the story's start. I cannot think of any school in our security-happy, accountability-hysterical world that would allow these events to happen on a college campus. However, the mystery pulls the students in and with only two weeks left to term, they find themselves believing that nearly everyone around them is in on the plot. As one of the three main young characters says to herself at one point, "everything means something." At the same point, I discovered that I was trying to solve the mystery myself. If you know of the infamous psychologist Stanley Milgram, who figures prominently in the plot, at least part of the mystery will be obvious however, that still leaves you trying to figure out who is doing what to whom and for what reason, and that kept me reading with interest until the end. Obedience ends up being a complex and clever little mystery and even if it doesn't quite cast the commanding spell that The Secret History did, it was certainly a good evening's entertainment.

I have now also begun Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost. The writing is lovely - straightforward, instantly placing me somewhere and at some particular time. Only 30 pages in, I am completely swept up in Hilary's search for his lost son. I am looking forward to reading this one.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Red rooms, red poems, read books....

A fabulous New York night yesterday with my fabumanic old friend Shiela. After four hours of neurosicence, I headed down to the East Village to bar KGB, Soviet themed, as it sounds. Old Russian posters on the red, red walls, Baltika beer served in large bottles, and what looked suspiciously like a painting of my favorite film director - Nikita Mikhailkov - (if you haven't seen Anna or Burnt by the Sun, put them on your list!). Anyhoo, we were there for not for the fabulous red wine, nor for the fabulous red atmosphere, but for a reading by Red Hen Press authors which included Ernest Hilbert reading from his accessible and thoughtful Sixty Sonnets, and Timothy Green reading, among other things, his breathless American Fractal, which I loved. There was also a short story from Greg Sanders's Motel Girl about a woman and a bear she rescues from a Moscow circus (appropriately enough) that was touching and memorable. Tapas,more wine, and much conversation followed - a great evening. Thanks Sheila! (You can see pictures over at her place).

This week has also brought some new reads. From the library come Kissing Doorknobs and Total Constant Order, both YA novels about obsessive compulsive disorder, on which I'm doing a presentation for school. I also received The Lunar Men in the mail. It is by Jenny Uglow and concerns the Lunar Society, a group of experimenters and creative thinkers who met regularly in late 18th Century England. It included James Watt - the inventor of the steam engine, Erasmus Darwin - poet and inventor, and Joseph Priestley - scientist and political and religious radical who I just learned about in Steven Johnson's book The Invention of Air. In fact, it is from that book that I learned about this one, which will probably end up on the summer reading list given what I have to do before the semester is over.

I also picked up and started Will Lavender's Obedience, which is another college campus thriller in the vein of Donna Tartt's The Secret History or Barry McCrea's The First Verse. It concerns a logic class offered as a thought experiment in, well, obedience. Given the frequent mentions of Stanley Milgram, famous for social psychology experiments testing people's willingness to listen to authority, I have a feeling I know where this one is going. I would not describe the writing as long on subtlety, but I bought it for the plot, which does really keep things moving. I also bought a copy of Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers. I have only read the occasional short story of Ozick's in The New Yorker. I have never actually read a novel and thought it was high time. Mark Sarvas thinks she's the cats meow, so what more can you ask? And a lovely Persephone Classics edition of Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski also caught my eye. I had never heard of Laski or any of her novels, written in the 1950s. I have only sampled a couple of pages, but the story of a lost child in post-war France and the taut writing really have my interest piqued. And finally An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, a recommendation of Cornflower Books', and I Haven't Dreamed of Flying for a While by Taichi Yamada, which writer Junot Diaz talked about in a radio interview, are also on their way. An embarrassment of riches.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

National Library Week is upon us...

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Suggested by Barbara:

I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?

I grew up being taken to the library weekly for storybook hour and then later going myself to the local library, my school library, and also the bookmobile, which had the added mystique of being both an outfitted vehicle and a library. There was a long period during which I relied much more on bookstores, particularly when I lived in Chicago - although the new main library that opened when I lived there was gorgeous (that's the top picture on the left). I did use that fairly regularly. When I was working at Lincoln Center I used the Library for the Performing Arts constantly. They also have a couple of nice gallery spaces, performing spaces, and listening stations for recorded music and plays as well as viewing facilities for the dance and theatre collections. Nowadays, my local branch libraries are not very well kept up. They have surly, beleaguered staff, and they seem to double as homeless shelters. Others are very nice - the Jefferson Market branch in Greenwich Village is a beautiful building (second picture down on the left). Now I tend to do my browsing for books and films on the library website and request them to be sent to a convenient branch. I receive an email when they have arrived and I go and pick them up. I do love sleek modern libraries, but the most important thing is that they are welcoming, take care of their books, and are decently lit. Although I have visited libraries in other cities with comfy chairs, I have yet to find a New York library that I would call comfortable. The nicest furniture tends to be at the computer stations (what does that tell you?). London's brand new British Library (third picture down on the left) is pretty striking.

I used to go to my favorite bookstores weekly. Now I go whenever I'm near them, although I will occasionally make a trip specifically to go to a bookstore, or its cafe, and just work there for an afternoon. I love bookstores and if I am visiting another town will seek out a non-chain bookstore to browse in (and maybe pick something up too) . I will even go to bookstores in countries where I can't read the language. It gives me a feeling for what the place's inhabitants are thinking about.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Computers vs. Brains, round 3

An excellent essay from the New York Times about why computers might never outperform the human brain.

... a brain’s success is not measured by its ability to process information in precisely repeatable ways. Instead, it has evolved to guide behaviors that allow us to survive and reproduce, which often requires fast responses to complex situations. As a result, we constantly make approximations and find “good-enough” solutions. This leads to mistakes and biases. We think that when two events occur at the same time, one must have caused the other. We make inaccurate snap judgments such as racial prejudice. We fail to plan rationally for the future, as explored in the field of neuroeconomics.

Still, engineers could learn a thing or two from brain strategies. For example, even the most advanced computers have difficulty telling a dog from a cat, something that can be done at a glance by a toddler — or a cat.

Check out the whole piece - linked above.

George Eliot's camera technique (Books - Middlemarch)

Sorry the pickings have been a little sparse here, I've been gobbled up by the great maw that is grad school. I finally had a little time late last night to dip back into the internecine, small town politics, and unexpressed hearts of Middlemarch. As our heroine, Dorothea, is thrown together more and more with Will Ladislaw, her husband's wayward cousin who has fallen in love with her, she displays how ignorant she is of her own heart yet in so many other ways she is the most grown-up female character in a 19th century novel I have ever met.
"Oh, my life is very simple," said Dorothea, her lips curling with an exquisite smile, which irradiated her melancholy. "I am always at Lowick."

"That is a dreadful imprisonment," said Will, impetuously.

"No, don't think that," said Dorothea. "I have no longings."

He did not speak, but she replied to some change in his expression. "I mean, for myself. Except that I should like not to have so much more than my share without doing anything for others. But I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me."

"What is that? said Will, rather jealous of the belief.

"That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what ti is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil - widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

"That is a beautiful mysticism - it is a - "

"Please not to call it by any name," said Dorothea, putting out her hands entreatingly. "You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it..."

I love that Eliot reveals the fact that Dorothea responds to a change in Will's expression and yet doesn't describe the change. It is as though her camera were on Dorothea rather than Will and, for that moment, that you see he has changed by seeing her change so that a) it doesn't interrupt the flow of our moment with Dorothea and our temporary assumption of her inner life with some feeling or other of our own and b) we must imagine that expression ourselves through Dorothea's behavior. It's a very filmic technique, very sophisticated. It is not as if we are deprived of his expression for want of Eliot's descriptive powers, lord knows I have 800 pages here to prove it. Take this one:
When Mrs. Causabon was announced he started up as from an electric shock, and felt a tingling at his finger ends. Any one observing him would have seen a change in his complexion, in the adjustment of his facial muscles, in the vividness of his glance, which might have made them imagine that every molecule in his body had passed the message of a magic touch. And so it had. For effective magic is transcendent nature; and who shall measure the subtlety of those touches which convery the quality of soul as well as body, and make a man's passion for one woman differ form his passion for another as joy in the morning light over valley and river and white mountain-top differs from joy among Chinese lanterns and glass panels?

Interesting that her choice of descriptors is so purposefully technical rather than emotional: we have electric shocks, molecule, and the "adjustment of facial muscles," conveying the depth of his being moved but letting the reader begin the journey ourselves and then adding to it the "magic," the "transcendence" and the "passion." Eliot really knows how to involved her reader by making them do a little work and I like that!